Weekend Getaways From Atlanta

Khabar. Dec 2021 cover story.

During the holidays this winter, many people may not be ready for long distance travel. But short-distance trips are different. There are few hassles, and you don’t have to spend much for a good time with family and friends. These six fun destinations are not far from Atlanta, and they all have a lot to offer for both day trippers and overnighters.

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In March 2020, the world’s borders shut down and the travel industry came to a standstill. All domestic and international trips, conferences and events were indefinitely canceled. I had just ticked off an item on my bucket list—a trip to Antarctica, which had been my 7th continent to travel to—and was about to reach my goal of visiting 100 countries. But as months went by, traveling outside the country started to look less probable.

That’s when I turned to explore more of the South, both for personal and professional reasons. Like many of us who were cooped up at home during the pandemic, I was having restless feet. My husband and I ventured on day trips around Atlanta, gradually exploring farther and staying overnight. This is when I rediscovered Georgia, Tennessee and the Carolinas—beyond the big cities and touristy destinations.

As we surveyed more, we saw common trends emerging in some of the smaller, previously unknown towns. More Americans were escaping big cities, seeking open spaces, leaner crowds, and friendlier communities. Families were choosing to work and attend virtual school out of their vacation homes, and thus emerged a new wave of entrepreneurs. What were once sleepy desolate towns now had renovated boutique hotels and restaurants helmed by award-winning chefs, and fun festivals to entertain all ages.

If you are seeking a relaxing time, an exciting road trip, or a new place to share with friends and family, these close-to-home destinations are worth a visit.

Chattanooga, Tennessee

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My first trip after businesses reopened, in May 2020, was to Chattanooga on the border of Georgia and Tennessee. I had already seen the well-known attractions— Ruby Falls and Tennessee Aquarium. This time, I wanted to keep the social distance and be outdoors. We stayed at a cozy bed-and-breakfast overlooking the city, called the RiverView Inn, and drove to Lookout Mountain, the highest point in the area, to breathe fresh air.

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The entrance fee to Rock City’s famous geological gardens had been reduced and advance reservations meant that we could walk through the narrow rock formations and suspended bridges without having to rub shoulders with other tourists. It was also refreshing to have the scenic viewpoints all to ourselves— we could freely look across seven states and take as many photos as we wanted with waterfall backdrops without feeling that we were blocking space. The animated characters, along with sound and lights, at the Fairyland Caverns and Mother Goose Village located at Rock City are sure to please little ones, though I was equally excited to relive the storybooks I had read as a child. Rock City’s Enchanted Garden of Lights is put up until January 2nd every year when it features a winter wonderland with one of the world’s tallest Christmas trees, twinkling lights and holiday shopping.

Downtown Chattanooga had also changed since my last visit there. The opento- pedestrians Walnut Street Bridge and waterfront areas were scattered with street artists, live musicians and food trucks to entertain joggers, bikers and walkers. Now surrounding the historic hotel, The Chattanooga Choo Choo, are a number of new bars and restaurants with outdoor seating.

Though there’s a marathon, concert, market or festival taking place practically every weekend, there’s a Holiday Market during the first three weekends in December. At the Chattanooga Convention Center, you will find over 200 local vendors selling unique holiday gifts, crafts and food.

Macon, Georgia

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I had driven past Macon on I-75 South, generally heading to the beaches of Georgia and Florida. But this time around, I made a pitstop to learn about Macon.

Downtown Macon once was one of the most important cities in the South, established by famous artists, socialites and politicians. There are over 6,000 historic buildings across 15 historic districts, each telling a story about ghosts, music, people and culture. A walking tour with Rock Candy Tours oriented me to the first African American-owned Douglass Theatre, Broadway musicals at The Grand Opera House, and the tunes of Macon Symphony Orchestra— all of which are still operational. CocerStory_13_12_21.jpg

Though I wasn’t exposed to Southern rock and soul music before, I enjoyed learning about famous bands such as The Allman Brothers Band, Otis Redding and Little Richard, who all recorded their albums in Macon. Funded by Mercer University, the newly renovated Capricorn Records highlights Macon’s music history and memorabilia in a modern multi-use space.

Another must-see landmark in Macon is the Tubman Museum, the largest museum dedicated to African American history, art and culture in the Southeast, named after the American Civil War activist Harriet Tubman.

The best time to visit Macon is in March, during the annual International Cherry Blossom Festival. Over 350,000 blooming pink and white flowering Yoshino cherry trees make you feel like you traveled to Tokyo. There are also lots of performances, galas and family-friendly events during this time, attracting hundreds of thousands of visitors.

Aiken, South Carolina

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Named the best small town in America by Southern Living magazine, Aiken is an elegant destination known for its arts, sporting facilities, nature and equine pursuits. The once “winter colony” of the active and restless privileged Northerners now attracts authors, artists, retirees and horse lovers from all over the country. Even the ruler of the Emirate of Dubai had his horses trained here. Plan your visit to see the spring steeplechase in March, derby matches in May, Christmas crafts markets in November, and Festival of Trees held through the month of December.

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Spring is the best time to bike through one of America’s largest urban oak forests, Hitchcock Woods, and stroll through the scenic Hopeland Gardens. Stay and dine at the historic Willcox Hotel, where the esteemed guest list includes Winston Churchill and Harold Vanderbilt. I, for one, was fully enchanted by the lovely streets lined with magnolia and oak trees, the romantic alleys, and the leisurely pace.

Americus, Georgia

Rarely do you expect to dine next to billionaires and past presidents while on vacation, but in Americus you never know who is sitting around the corner. Former U.S. president Jimmy Carter lives a few miles down the road (in Plains, Georgia) and is often seen dining at Rosemary and Thyme Restaurant, located at the 125-yearold Victorian-style Best Western Plus Windsor Hotel in downtown Americus. The opulent hotel has changed hands several times and undergone millions of dollars in renovations, establishing itself as an iconic model for a downtown that’s being slowly restored.

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The owners, Sharad Patel and his family, have hosted the Carters too. After reopening, Patel named his best oval suite after the most famous local resident—the Carter suite. He has added the Indianspiced cilantro grouper to the menu and will happily create spicy dishes (his signature is lamb) upon request.

Nearby in Plains, you can visit Jimmy Carter Boyhood Farm, his former campaign headquarters, and Plains High School. In the evening, watch The Nutcracker ballet at the Rylander Theatre, or simply “porch” with a glass of 13th Colony Southern Bourbon at Floyd’s Pub overlooking Lamar Street. The Windsor often hosts New Year’s eve gala dinners, overnight holiday packages, and murder-mystery dinner theaters.

For a fun ride, board the 1949 vintage cars on the historic SAM Shortline Railroad. This exciting journey stops at Archery, Plains, Americus, Leslie, Georgia Veterans State Park and Cordele. Holiday-themed trains include onboard gifts, hot chocolate and cookies with Santa.


Greenville, South Carolina

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Greenville has lately become one of the fastest growing cities in the South. Having heard highly of the celebrated multi-day food and music festival event, I attended Euphoria Greenville only in its 16th year in September 2021. The annual festival gave me an opportunity to taste a variety of locally made foods and drinks and to meet a number of recently transplanted residents. The small town has attracted big name chefs and creative folks to open New American and eclectic dining establishments, and now there are well over 1000 to choose from! If you’re craving flavors of home during your visit, there are vegetarian, North and South Indian options at Saffron, Handi, India Palace, Swad, and Persis Biryani Indian Grill. Recent accolades for Greenville include “#1 Under-the-Radar Southern Food Destination” by Zagat, the “Next Big Food City of the South” by Esquire, and one of “The South’s Tastiest Towns” by Southern Living.

The revitalized downtown Greenville looks like a miniature version of a walkable big city, with urban parks, boutiques and a variety of restaurants. The Fall Park on the Reedy, with its bridge and waterfall, is small yet scenic. While strolling along the three blocks of Main Street during a weekend, you will come across families (complete with four-legged members) shopping at the morning farmers market, admiring over 100 public art displays, and listening to live music at one of the outdoor venues.

There are a number of branded hotels in downtown Greenville, including The Westin Poinsett, AC Hotel by Marriott, Hyatt Regency. But if you want to experience a Tuscanstyle getaway amidst mountains and vineyards, head to Hotel Domestique in neighboring Travelers Rest. A perfect place to stay, there’s also a 22-mile-long Prisma Health Swamp Rabbit Trail nearby that has won awards for its biking paths.

Cashiers, North Carolina

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One of the most scenic drives of my life happened to be just two hours north of Atlanta! The windy roads on Highways 64 and 107—via Highlands, Cashiers and Sylva— took me through the beautiful Appalachian Mountains, dense forests, striking waterfalls, and along trout-rich Nantahala River. In October- November, the 5,000 feet high western North Carolina mountains are covered in hues of red, orange, yellow and green, making it an ideal place to go “leaf peeping.” My favorite way to enjoy the fall colors was via an easy hiking trail on Whiteside Mountain, though there are plenty of golfing, biking, fishing and boating options as well.

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From the Rhodes Big View Overlook, on a clear sunny evening, I got to see a rare natural phenomenon that takes place only during two weeks in a year (in spring and fall) when the sun’s shadows cast on Cashier Valley create interesting animal shapes—turtle, mouse, dog and, eventually, a “Shadow of the Bear.”

With easy access to Lake Glenville, Gorges State Park and Panthertown Valley (called Yosemite of the East), the mountain town of Cashiers is designed for outdoor enthusiasts. But there are lovely renovated hotels—High Hampton Resort, Hotel Cashiers, The Wells Hotel Cashiers—that make for warm and luxurious basecamps.

Grab a print copy of Khabar Magazine or read it online here.

Hotels in the Time of Covid

Khabar Magazine. Nov 2020.

The hotel industry, like restaurants, has been battered during the pandemic. How are South Asian-owned hotels dealing with the crisis? What changes have they made to reassure guests and employees? As travel slowly picks up, what’s the new normal going to be like at your next stay in a hotel?

Like most people, I started this new year with a list of resolutions and aspirations. One of them was to visit my hundredth country and all seven continents. For the past several years, I have been traveling internationally at least once or twice a month, crisscrossing the globe, and was scheduled to enter the travel centurion club by mid-2020. I traveled to Antarctica and Europe in the first couple of months of the year, but by mid-March, the future of travel started to look uncertain. Countries were closing borders, visas were getting suspended, and conferences and festivals started cancelling.

As with everyone in the travel industry, my life too has been greatly impacted by the pandemic. The stay-at-home order left me grounded for over two months, and virtual travel was just not satisfying, personally and professionally.

As soon as Georgia reopened businesses, I took my first overnight trip to Lookout Mountain, a small hilltop destination located at the border of Georgia and Tennessee. Staying at a hotel, with a looming infectious virus, was daunting at first. I debated whether it was safer to continue to stay at home or to go out and support the economy. Cabin fever had left me restless and after considerable research, I decided to venture out. What I learned was that the hospitality industry had quickly set new standards in cleanliness after consulting with CDC and other organizations.

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At the River View Inn in Chattanooga, I had to wear a mask when entering the reception area, where  a plexiglass divider separated me from the attendant. There were arrows on the sidewalks, and signage throughout the property, reminding guests to keep six feet distance from each other and to wear masks in public areas. The rooms had been sanitized and inn capacity was capped to about 60 percent. Sit-down breakfast service was suspended and replaced with fruit and granola bars to take away in the morning. The new experience was a bit strange, but it felt good to get away from the usual routine of cooking meals every day and attending back-to-back Zoom calls.

Since May, I have stayed at a number of bed-and-breakfasts inns, boutique hotels, and resorts around the U.S. All of them seem to be cleaner than ever, holding heightened standards to ensure safety of guests and employees. In Duck, a beach town on the Outer Banks in North Carolina, Sanderling Resort enforced touchless check-in and check-out with online forms and keys handed out in parking lots. A reassuring note hung on the door knob stating that no one had entered my room since it was sanitized. Remote controls and door knobs had been wiped down. Enough towels and toiletries were left in the room for the duration of my stay to avoid interaction with housekeepers. Other places, like the Marble Distillery Hotel in Colorado, did not utilize keys at all. They simply emailed me a door code to enter my room. I never had to speak to a staff member during my two-night stay. And at Home in The Tropics B&B in St. Thomas, a QR code guided me to neighborhood attractions and restaurants, instead of maps and brochures.

The impact of Covid-19 on the travel industry has been surmountable, despite the heavy blow. Hotels in particular have had to adjust their businesses overnight. Approximately 40-50 percent of the hotels in the United States are owned by South Asians, according to the Asian American Hotel Owners Association (AAHOA), a trade association that represents hotel owners. Hotels are categorized by ownership (chain, single owner), target markets (airport, extended stay, resorts), and by level of service and number of rooms.

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Budget and value or economy hotels such as Motel 6, Comfort Inn, and Americas Best have the lowest room rates and offer good value for money. Mid-range and business hotels such as Marriott and Holiday Inns cater to families, business travelers, and affluent travelers. Brands such as Mandarin Oriental, Langham, and Ritz-Carlton fall into the category of Luxury Hotels. Generally, Asian Americans dominate the motel ownership in small towns.

 Adapting to new standards

Because hotels are termed as an essential business, they did not close during the lockdown, yet maintained operations even without any guests.

Navid Kapadi, a partner at Atlanta-based Peach State Hospitality, owns three Choice Hotels franchises located near Atlanta airport. The mid-grade hotel brand caters to leisure travelers who are on road trips through the Southeast and are looking for a night to break their journey. When the shutdown was announced, he panicked. “It was very concerning as we didn’t know what to expect. We had never expected anything like this and didn’t have any guidance on how to deal with it. All of a sudden, cancellations started pouring in.

The first week was extremely tough!” says Kapadi who has been in the hotel business for about five years. His staff immediately sprang into action, partnering with Eco Lab to make sure all their cleaning products were up to date, deeply sanitizing every room, and cleaning the facilities more often. They rearranged the lobby to allow for social distancing, spaced breakfast tables six feet apart, installed plexiglass barriers and sanitizing stations, and put up signs stating only two people could enter the elevator at a time. Further, they implemented daily temperature checks and retrained all their employees.

Not all hotel segments experienced the same level of concern. “Our properties play in the monthly and weekly, long-term, affordable housing segment. Our occupancy has actually gone up during this time. During recession, people are looking for housing where rents are lower and utilities are included,” says Ali Jamal, author of the upcoming book Can-Do Real Estate and CEO of Stablegold Hospitality, which owns and operates seven locations in the Atlanta metro area and two in North Dakota. Jamal claims his top-line revenues during the crisis have been better than he had expected.

Like everyone else in the industry, Jamal did not know how much of an impact Covid-19 would have on the economy and the hotel business. But there’s always a segment of the population that depends on affordable housing, in a flexible format that hotels offer. This has led to a steady and consistent business for him, as well as for other hoteliers in this space. Still, Jamal felt the economic challenge of his customer base and worked with each one of them to offer discounted rates up to 50 percent and flexible payment options to ensure they had a roof over their heads.

Managing financial crisis

New safety measures are now required to reinforce confidence, but put a strain on the hotel’s resources even as revenues dwindle. “We have had to cut back expenses on planned upgrades and other investments, and redo our budgets for the next year,” says Kapadi. Not serving breakfast has reduced costs but hardly enough to offset the added expenses, while occupancy still remains low.

Sam Patel, who owns a Travelodge in Forsyth County, Georgia, and a Red Roof Inn in Richmond Hill, Georgia, also saw considerable impact on his business, but decided to take advantage of the Small Business Administration Economy Injury Disaster Loan (EIDL) and Paycheck Protection Program (PPP). “It allowed us to retain our staff, pay our mortgage, and keep operations going,” he says. Being a smaller hotel, Patel was able to reduce operation costs in the interim. He shrank employee hours, scaled back on ground maintenance, and turned off the lights and refrigerators in unused rooms to save on utilities. Patel also consulted with other hoteliers in the area and concluded, “We are sustaining with the help of government loans but are uncertain about the future. Perhaps we would need another stimulus package, or many of us will need to shut down permanently.”

Prioritizing people

Another major issue that hoteliers are facing during the pandemic is having enough staff return to work. Employees face the same health risks as the customers do, if not more. Being on the frontline of cleaning rooms after each customer, they have more chances of being exposed to the virus. Kapadi adds, “We still have a lot of work, but it’s been challenging, getting staff to return to work. Many of them prefer to receive unemployment, and are afraid for their health.”

Meanwhile, Jamal has not only been able to avoid furloughs, but has hired additional staff to meet demand at his extended stay properties. He also gave out full bonuses to all his managers regardless of their hitting targets.

The new normal

Travel has slowly resumed and many people are resorting to road trips and choosing destinations close to home. “This time of the year, we are typically at 80-100 percent capacity, but now we are at 40-45 percent,” says Kapadi, who has seen increased traffic on the highways in the past few weeks. He can’t predict when his business will return to normal, but is hoping to see more guidelines for the hotel industry.
Patel feels more skeptical. “Though road traffic has increased, people are choosing to skip staying overnight in Georgia, due to our recent spike in cases.” He believes that the state has earned a bad reputation for the way it is handling the virus, which is resulting in guests driving further to stay in neighboring Tennessee and South Carolina.

Across the nation, as vacationers book accommodations, they are not just price sensitive anymore. They are asking questions about what the hotels are doing to ensure health and safety. Hotels need to assure clients that their room is perfect. Each one is expected to observe the new norms that may include touchless check-ins, temperature checks of guests and employees, health screening, reduced room capacities, and extended cleaning procedures. Staff and guests are required to wear masks and limit interactions. Housekeeping, happy hours, and buffet breakfast have also been put on hold.

An uncertain future

There is much uncertainty in the travel space right now, and usual business travel is not likely to return for many months. Lack of a vaccine, increasing unemployment, and fluctuating virus cases are not good news for hoteliers. They believe that big chains that have larger operating costs are more exposed and are going to continue to face challenges, while smaller economy hotels may be able to sustain themselves longer. Major hotel operators Hilton Worldwide Holdings Inc., Hyatt Hotels Corp., and Marriott International Inc. have already laid off thousands of employees and have not seen a major uptick in bookings.

Dos and don’ts for your next hotel stay

If you decide to stay at a hotel during these times, make sure to check the city/state travel website to get latest updates on travel restrictions and safety measures. Call the hotel or check their website to see what procedures they have in place and how prepared their staff is. Ask basic questions about cleaning, social distancing, wearing masks, etc.

If you see something that you are not comfortable with, make sure to point it out to the manager so they can rectify it. Also, carry your own PPE (personal protection equipment) such as masks, hand sanitizers, and disinfecting wipes with you when you travel. It is a good idea to wipe down high-touch surfaces such as remote controls, air-conditioning switches, and door handles yourself. Lastly, don’t expect the same level of services and amenities as before. Many hotels have closed access to pools, spas and gyms, and are limiting room service, turndown service, late checkouts, or sit-down breakfasts. They too are anxious and worried while trying to survive, not knowing how bad it can get.

~ Written for and published by Khabar Magazine. All rights reserved. Pick up a copy of the November 2020 issue to read more.

Restaurateurs Deal with the New Normal

Khabar Magazine. June 2020.

The relentless march of Covid-19—and our measures to contain it—have ravaged the restaurant industry. From reinventing themselves and staying relevant to protecting customers, employee interests, and managing their suddenly shaky finances, here’s a look at how some eateries in the Atlanta area are coping with the effects of the pandemic.

The impact of the novel coronavirus on the restaurant industry has been devastating. When diners canceled reservations and events indefinitely, turning to their home kitchens, restaurateurs struggled to acclimatize to the unpredictable environment. In March, as shelter-in-place orders were issued all over the U.S., restaurant sales plummeted, and many Atlanta area restaurants were forced to take immediate action. While most places closed their dining rooms and switched to a take-out only model, some feared for their staff and decided to halt operations.

Giving back to the community

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Restaurants wasted no time in helping the community in the best ways they could. From giving employees cash advances and free meals, to donating food to low income families and first responders, many South Asian restaurants in the Atlanta area participated in initiatives for charitable contribution. The Walia Hospitality Group—composed of Masti, Café Bombay, Ashiana, and Signature Ballroom—sent meals to hospitals, police, and fire departments. They also participated in a Free Meals food drive in partnership with Global Mall, offering 1000 free meals a day for nine days, to those in need.“We are struggling as well, but we are blessed to have the logistics and something to give back. We wanted to give a sense of hope to people who need it the most,”  says Ricky Walia, the group’s chief operating officer.

Managing a financial crisis

Executive Chef and Chief Chaiwalla Meherwan Irani continued to offer takeout for two weeks, before closing all his restaurants, which include Chai Pani and Botiwalla in Atlanta, as well as MG Road and Buxton Hall Barbeque in Asheville. “We had to figure out how to make the new model safe for our staff, as well as our guests. So, we took a month off to set up the kitchen for social distancing and do takeout safely.”

Irani’s number one priority was his employees. Instead of laying them off, he furloughed everybody, so they could still keep their health benefits through the employer. It also allowed the staff to save the benefits they accrued, such as paid time off, vacation days, etc. “We have always had an emergency fund for our restaurant group, in order to help our staff in financial emergencies, where they don’t have credit card or other resources,” says Irani. Chai Pani’s staff quickly organized an auction fundraiser in early April, extending personalized experiences, such as dinner for ten cooked by Chef Daniel Peach at a private home, photography lessons, cocktail and bartending lessons, and much more. Around $20,000 was generated through the fundraiser and distributed to employees to help pay bills between the time they were furloughed and unemployment payments started coming in, which takes about a month.

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The Small Business Administration received a record number of applicantions for Economy Injury Disaster Loan (EIDL) and Paycheck Protection Program (PPP). Archna Malhotra Becker, the force behind Bhojanic restaurant, catering, and food truck for 23 years, applied for government aid right away, and was approved. However, she decided not to use the grant as it was too complicated. “The rules don’t make sense for restaurants!” she claims. “The PPP loans require you to bring back 75 percent of the workforce and use the funding within eight weeks. How can I hire 75 percent of my employees and still keep them six feet apart? Some restaurants only have 6-foot hoods, making it impossible to distance the cooking line,” she adds. Additionally, Becker found the program required owners to do a lot of paperwork, and there were heavy penalties for making mistakes.

Murugesan Perumal, the owner of Chennai Express, reopened his locations in Alpharetta and Norcross after roughly two months, on April 27. Though all shopping malls in Georgia were closed as per the mandate, Global Mall—where one of his restaurants is located—remained open as a community center. Perumal applied for the PPP loan but it was not enough to meet the expense of rehiring his employees and paying thousands of dollars in rent. “The numbers don’t add up. It is a one-time payout that is less than my one month’s rent. What am I to do while the situation persists?” he asks.

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Meanwhile, Walia still awaits payments for his loans that were approved weeks ago.

Innovating in times of need

While restaurants are operating at a fraction of capacity, they are looking at other revenue sources. Bhojanic already offers prepacked ready-to-serve meals through the online grocer, Subziwalla. Bhojanic is now offering pickup at its catering kitchen location on Lambert Drive, and drops off pre-ordered meals at different neighborhoods around Atlanta on different days of the week.

Since home cooking started trending mid-March, Irani has seen a threefold increase in sales of his Spicewalla Brand that sells herbs, rubs, and spice blends. Chai Pani also created new packaging, labeling, and branding for their prepared heat-and-serve meal options, marketed as Chai Pani Take Home. These curries, lassis, and chutneys are already available online and will soon be at brick and mortar grocery stores around Atlanta. Also, they are launching a virtual grocery store where patrons will be able to order staples such as milk, eggs, rice, and lentils, along with dinner.

Technology has allowed the world to stay more interconnected than before, and because of that we have been able to unite, connect, and handle this pandemic in a way we wouldn’t have been able to before. Another initiative Irani started is free cooking demonstrations on Instagram Live, called Chai Time. “It helps keep the brand alive, keeps me in the kitchen, and interact with the audience. It’s not just entertainment, it’s human connection!” he adds. Viewers can watch Irani via Instagram Live @MeherwanIrani every Wednesday and Saturday at 4 p.m.

Reopening for dine-in

On April 23, Georgia Governor Brian Kemp issued an executive order for ‘Reviving a Healthy Georgia’ with a rollout plan to reopen sectors of the state’s economy in response to Covid-19. Beginning at midnight on April 27, restaurants and dining services could reopen if they chose to, but needed to mitigate the exposure of Covid-19 to their customers and workforce. A list of precautions and guidance was given out to restaurants that included food safety, cleaning and sanitizing, employee health, and social distancing.

However, most restaurant owners found the reopening to be announced “too early” as the numbers of positive cases were still rising. The staff did not feel comfortable returning to work. Many older and vulnerable employees would prefer to receive unemployment benefits rather than put their health at risk for very little money.

Breakdowns in restaurant supply-chain prevented restaurants from being fully operational. Bhojanic’s Becker pointed out that she could not source basic supplies like toilet paper, sanitizing wipes, bleach, gloves, bags, and thermometers. Many of the products come from China and demand has exceeded supply. Her other concern is that the guidelines don’t make practical sense. It is not possible to keep social distancing in the kitchen while offering a full menu, or to serve diners from 6 ft. away. Reducing dine-in capacity means fewer tips for servers and higher overhead costs for the restaurants. As it is, breaking even in the restaurant business is hard.

Other restaurants decided to wait for a few weeks, and open for Mother’s Day weekend following the revised safety precautions. At Chennai Express and Masti, employees are wearing gloves and masks. There are hand sanitizers and napkins placed at every table, and plexiglass barriers between the staff and customers. More stringent health etiquettes are being enforced and staff temperatures are being monitored. No more than ten people are allowed per 500 sq. ft. of space and each family has to sit at least six feet apart. Party sizes are restricted to six people.

Even with all these measures in place, the biggest issue is that customers don’t feel comfortable going out. As long as there’s a health risk, the majority of people are not going to feel secure sitting at a restaurant, no matter how far apart the tables are.

Indian weddings take a big hit

Some Indian restaurants have another adversity to deal with as the majority of their business comes from catering. Even during the best of circumstances, restaurants have lean profit margins. Perumal emphasizes that most of his business comes from catering to weddings, parties, and large events. His two restaurants only work as the face of the company, attracting diners to learn about the South Indian vegetarian food he offers, before booking big orders.

“Starting March 9th, all my events started getting cancelled, including the 2020 Masters, weddings, music tours, festivals, parties, and corporate events,” says Becker. Walia’s Ashiana and Signature Ballroom, which are mainly event venues, have been closed since mid-March as well.

It is unlikely that big weddings, corporate gatherings, or social events will make a comeback any time this year. If at all, party sizes would be reduced and social distancing measures will cast an abnormal vibe. Walia mentioned that the Atlanta History Center (where he was scheduled to cater a wedding for 300 people) is now allowed to have 120 people in banquet style setting, with four people per table, to be served family-style. The staff would be required to wear gloves and masks, perhaps even the guests too. The iconic Indian weddings with their lavish buffets may become a thing of the past.

The future of dining out

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Irani is hopeful for the future. He thinks there’s only so much home cooking one can do. “Eating out is a big part of our culture, but people don’t eat out just because they want the food. They enjoy the experience of being in a restaurant, in the company of their friends, and getting pampered with good service,” he says. At some point, he feels, when people figure out that it’s safe for them to go out, they will go back to restaurants. They will return to places that comfort them, take care of them, and make them feel safe. He is committed to staying open as a take-out restaurant for as long as it takes, even if it is six months or a year from now.

Chai Pani restaurants are reopening a week at a time starting mid-May, offering takeout only. They have converted the dining room for preparing food and packing to-go orders. Except the staff, no one will be allowed inside the building. Orders have to be placed online and paid for contactless, either online or through a swipe pad located outside the restaurant, to avoid interaction. They have also marked parking spots with numbers, and spaced out pickup lines.

Becker will continue to offer take-home meals prepared in her catering kitchen, which is well spaced out, safe for employees, and well sanitized. “I don’t want to put my own family, my employees, and customers at risk by opening for dine-in,” she confirms, looking at a long-term business strategy that could last a few years. She doesn’t plan to reopen Bhojanic until there is testing, contact tracing, medicine, or immunization.

Issues with takeout and delivery

While takeout and delivery have become mainstream sources of income, they are not enough to sustain most restaurants. Ninety percent of people order food through third party companies, such as Uber Eats, Grub Hub, Postmates, or DoorDash. According to its website, Uber Eats charges restaurants a 30 percent fee for delivery and 15 percent fee per order for pick-up, unless a restaurant negotiates a different rate. “The margins are way too thin. We were spending 30-35 percent more in food cost, and not making any profits,” says Walia. He continues to stay open to support his staff, as the majority of them live paycheck to paycheck. Restaurants recommend customers order directly through the restaurant websites or by calling, so that businesses are able to keep more of their profits.

Perumal wants to keep his restaurants open for takeout but continues to struggle with managing the books. “Once I account for employee salaries, rent, utilities, food cost, third-party fees, etc., I can’t even make takeout profitable,” he says. He has hired only one employee per location to take phone orders, cook, pack, and serve. “It is the only way I can help the staff and the mall survive. But if there’s no business, I will close permanently,” he adds.

~ Written for and published by Khabar Magazine. All rights reserved.

New Zealand: Adventures in Middle Earth

Khabar Magazine. Feb 2020.

Australia and New Zealand were in the news recently for the wrong reasons: raging fires and an active volcano. Despite these tragedies, the Antipodes have much to offer today. New Zealand, seemingly remote, has attractions ranging from spectacular, selfie-friendly scenery to vibrant cities, adventure sports, and a happily laid-back ethos. The multicultural nation is home to a growing Indian community and sports desi restaurants in every city.

My first visit to New Zealand in 2007 was under grave circumstances. A close family member had passed, and I was summoned for the funeral. Like many Indians, my uncle and aunt had immigrated from north India to Hamilton (the country’s fourth most populous city) in search of better opportunities. As new immigrants, they received subsidized education, medical, housing, and many other benefits that helped them establish their lives.

Though the moment was somber, I met many of my family’s South Asian friends and relatives who were living in different parts of the country. Each person shared similar opinions of their life in this remote country. They loved driving through fragrant, wildflower lined highways, scarce traffic, and pure, clean air. Work-life balance was great, and salaries much higher than those back home. They could also afford to live in nice homes, purchase cars, and give their kids a good education.

Indian New Zealanders or “Indo-Kiwis” are the fastest growing ethnic group in New Zealand. Most of them are of Punjabi or Gujarati descent, followed by speakers of Fiji Hindi. One of the main attractions for immigrants is high paying jobs, especially ones that require manual labor, as the country has more sheep and cows than people. Farmers can earn as much as six figures and are not considered “blue collar” workers.

A NEW PERSPECTIVE
Over a decade later, my husband and I finally had the opportunity to explore New Zealand in depth on a two-week tour curated by Aroha Luxury Travel Company. Prior to my arrival, German-Kiwi tour operator Veronika Vermeulen spoke with me on the phone to discuss my interests and customized a package to the North and South Islands. Having worked with international customers for over twenty years, she had deep knowledge of different ethnic groups and their preferences for diets, budgets, accommodations, and even appetite for adventure.

We escaped the mainstream attractions and got on a road trip starting in Auckland, and made our way through rolling hills, sheep farms, isolated beaches, pristine coves, and luxurious private lodges.

NORTH ISLAND
Auckland is the largest city in New Zealand and a good starting point to explore the North Island. In recent years, Auckland has transformed into a multicultural destination with award-winning restaurants, bars, and clubs.

The best way to orient yourself to the city is from the sky. Take a scenic seaplane ride over the Hauraki Gulf, Auckland Harbor, Rangitoto crater, and Motutapu, to see how most locals live within a few minutes of beaches, vineyards, and hiking trails.

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Shredded Morel Mushroom Curry is just one of the delights at Sidart, rated as one of New Zealand’s top restaurants for the past three years.

I was surprised to find an Indian restaurant at practically every corner, even in some of the smaller towns. Named one of the best restaurants in the country for the past three years, Sidart is a cozy Indianinspired restaurant using fresh and sustainable New Zealand produce. Chef and owner, Sid Sahrawat attended culinary school in Chennai, traveled around the world, and opened three acclaimed restaurants in Auckland. The five-course Discovery Menu, which included modern and flavorful treats like Prawn Balchao Tart, Fried Macadamia Crusted Fish, and Shredded Morel Mushroom Curry, was one of my most memorable meals of the year.

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(Right) Looking at glow-worms, not the stars! The author and her husband at Waitomo Caves, a notable attraction.

One of the major attractions near Auckland is the Waitomo Caves, a network of underground limestone formations that are home to thousands of glow-worms. There are options for rafting, zip-lining, or hiking through the dark caves to see these magical creatures up close, lighting up the dark caves like brilliant stars in the night sky.

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(Left) A rousing traditional welcome from the Maoris, New Zealand’s indigenous people.

We drove further inland to Lake Rotorua, known for bubbling mud pools, shooting geysers, and natural hot springs, as well as a large concentration of Maori people. The Maori are the indigenous people of New Zealand who came from Polynesia in the 1300s. Today, they make up 17 percent of New Zealand’s population. At the lake, I was welcomed by people wearing feathered headbands and animal skins. They sang and danced on ancestral Mokoia Island, bestowing a powhiri or official Maori welcome.

New Zealand’s cuisine is based on British, Mediterranean, and Pacific styles of cooking, though driven by local and seasonal ingredients. Fish and chips, meat pies, roast lamb, smoked fish, fresh salads, hokey pokey (honeycomb candy), and pavlova (meringue and fruit dessert) are some of the most popular dishes. Driving through the countryside, we would often stop at gas stations or highway restaurants for lunch. Even takeaway counters offered Indo-fusion dishes such as chana masala pies and chili chicken patties. Staying at private lodges meant meals were especially prepared for us and the chefs would get our dietary preferences prior to arrival. They catered to vegetarian, vegan, gluten-free, and lactose-free diets, using homegrown herbs and vegetables. “We also take our clients to the supermarkets, so they can cook at the hotel apartments if they want to,” says Vermeulen about her South Asian clients.

SOUTH ISLAND
For decades, the turquoise lakes of Otago, the magnificent landscapes of Lake Wakatipu, and the clock tower of Christchurch have attracted Bollywood films. Kaho Naa Pyaar HaiI Hate Luv Storys, and Players are some Hindi films that have helped raise the profile of New Zealand as a travel destination.

South Island is home to New Zealand’s highest mountain range, the Southern Alps, which offers filming opportunities at relatively low elevations and quick access to the peaks.

Snowy mountains, alpine lakes, longest glaciers, and evergreen forests make Queenstown an idyllic location for honeymooners, nature lovers, and adrenaline seekers. This hip town is known as the adventure capital of the world and offers a myriad of activities that can push you to your limits, including jet boating, bungee jumping, rock climbing, canyoning, abseiling (rappelling down a rock face), paragliding (jumping from a plane or cliff to glide under a fabric sail), heli-biking (taking a helicopter up and biking down a mountain), skiing, and snowboarding.

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(Left) A field of lupins near Lake Tekapo, which is a big draw for Indian filmmakers.

One of the most magnificent sights to me was a field of blooming lupin flowers against the backdrop of the milky, turquoise-colored Lake Tekapo, and-snow covered Mount Cook towering behind. Part of a UNESCO Dark Sky Reserve, this region of Canterbury is also a good spot for stargazing. At Mount Cook Lakeside Retreat, my host family offered a rare opportunity to see Saturn, Jupiter, the moon, and constellations from their 6” refractory telescope from a wine cellar observatory.

New Zealand wines have gained international accolades, and vineyard tours are a huge attraction for wine lovers from around the world. Marlborough is the country’s largest wine region, with exquisite Pinot Noirs to intense Chardonnays, while Central Otago is the world’s southernmost commercial wine growing region.

Around here, you can also sail around the Marlborough Sounds’ 1,000 miles of coastline, bays, beaches, and native forests, fishing for green-lipped mussels, oysters, salmon, whitebait, abalone, and crayfish. The area is abundant with wildlife, from penguins and rare King Shags to dolphins and fur seals.

New Zealand is a bucket list destination for many travelers. Even though it’s a small country and a long way to get to, it offers a variety of experiences. Whether you enjoy nature, adventure, food, wine, or culture, there is something for everyone.

TIPS FOR TRAVELING TO NEW ZEALAND

Don’t bargain

The Kiwis are very friendly people and pride themselves in paying high wages to quality guides and tour operators, and bargaining will cause angry reactions. You don’t need to pay tips, but accept that there’s a set price for goods and services.

Be punctual
One of the things that South Asians struggle with, according to Vermeulen, is leaving on time for tours and activities. Even if you have booked and paid for a tour, they won’t wait for you if you arrive late.

Get away from the crowds
Recently, overcrowding at tourist locations has become a huge problem, leading to long lines, congested trails, and frustrating photos. To enjoy nature in all its glory, book private tours with smaller companies that offer similar experiences.

Account for weather disruptions
The South Island is especially susceptible to high winds and frequent rain, which can cause interruption of helicopter and boat tours. Be prepared for not everything going according to plan and if time permits, stay for a few extra days.

PRECAUTIONS RECOMMENDED
New Zealand offers stunning scenery, from forests and glaciers to beaches and waterfalls. Being in the Pacific Ring of Fire, it has a high frequency of volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, and tsunamis. A recent eruption on White Island killed 21 people, including Pratap “Paul” Singh Chouhan and his wife Mayuari “Mary” Singh from Atlanta. Though most adventures are organized safely with ample warnings and weather tracking, natural forces are unpredictable and travelers must check multiple sources for any advisories or closures, before embarking on tours to certain at-risk areas.

~ Written for and printed by Khabar Magazine. All rights reserved.

Trending Bollywood Locations: A Journey

Khabar Magazine. Oct 2019.

Song-and-dance routines are a beloved, signature feature of Bollywood films—but often, the glamorous foreign settings are just as important. Although the locations are only the background, moviegoers can gain much awareness about the country, its landscapes, architecture, culture, and attractions. The spectacular visuals could be a starting point, even a guide, for your next vacation.

As I walk on one of the highest hanging bridges in the world, making my way to get a good view of the surrounding glaciers, a cold gust hits my face. Even though I’m wearing a warm base layer and a down jacket, my body goes numb from the icy crisp of this summer morning. I think about the dozens of movies I have watched, in which a young damsel dressed in a pink chiffon sari dances with delight, singing love songs against the backdrop of these very glaciers!

I tug my wool hat down for more warmth.

Switzerland

For decades, we have marveled at Bollywood’s shots of famous landmarks, scenic locations, and unreal circumstances. Switzerland was one of the first international locations favored by Bollywood starting in the 1960s, and remains so to this day. The small country offers a diverse assortment of landscapes—from tranquil alpine lakes and rolling green hillsides, to snow covered mountain peaks and passes.

Indians are Switzerland’s fourth-largest tourist group from Asia; they account for around 85,000 overnight stays in Interlaken, an area known for its emerald-colored lakes, alpine meadows, and dense forests. Much of the credit goes to the late filmmaker, Yash Chopra. From the Alpenrausch Lake in the movie Chandni, the snow covered Alps in Darr, to Bern and Fribourg in Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge, audiences have been charmed by their favorite movie scenes, making Switzerland their preferred honeymoon destination.

In 2016, a statue of Yash Chopra was installed in the gardens of the Casino Kursaal in Interlaken. Fans of the filmmaker are often seen striking a pose with the statue.

In 2017, Switzerland Tourism appointed Bollywood star Ranveer Singh (seen in the recent hit Simmba) as the country’s travel ambassador, launching a series of branded videos showcasing his favorite locations and adventures around the country. The country has repositioned itself for millennial travelers craving unique experiences, says Ritu Sharma, deputy director of Switzerland Tourism.

I have to agree. My first trip to Switzerland in 2005 was largely influenced by what I had seen on the big screen. I visited the usual destinations: Zurich, Geneva, Interlaken. But on my recent trip as a seasoned traveler skipping big cities and touristy highlights, I wanted to experience the small towns and festivals of Switzerland. I attended the Fête des Vignerons in Vevey, a rare winemakers festival that takes place only every 20 years, and roamed the charming villages of St. Gallen, an area known to have textile trade relationships with India since before the Second World War.

Montreux, a beautiful city on Lake Geneva, is where I learned about the famous band, Queen, and one of the largest jazz festivals in the world. Then I traveled by the Golden Pass Line through the UNESCO World Heritage vineyards of Lavaux and the Jura mountains, to the Bernese Alps. It was my own version of the ‘Ranveer on Tour’ train that Ranveer inaugurated in honor of his contribution to the increasing popularity of Switzerland as a preferred destination for Indian tourists.

Austria

Tourism Boards understand the impact of Bollywood and work closely with local production studios to offer grants to films. Cine Tirol, a joint initiative by the State of Tirol and the Tirol Tourism Board, has promoted over 86 Indian film productions in the Austrian Alps. A Cine Tirol promoter, with knowledge of Tirolean locations, is established in Mumbai to be in direct contact with leading producers and directors across India. Beautiful sets, excellent infrastructure, and financial incentives attract Hindi and regional movie productions to Austria.

Tirol, also known as the Capital of the Alps, is a picturesque area known for the imperial architecture of Innsbruck and its Old Town Center, visually depicted in the recent release, Tiger Zinda Hai. The movie was filmed in alpine Praxmar and in Kühtai, the historic city center of Innsbruck, as well as in the Imperial Court Palace of Innsbruck.

Apart from the mountains surrounding Innsbruck, the main attractions in this region are the Golden Roof; the medieval historic quarter; Schloss Ambras—a Renaissance castle with its Chamber of Art and Curiosities; the Court Church with a Renaissance cenotaph—tomb of Emperor Maximilian I; the Bergisel ski jump designed by star architect Zaha Hadid; and the Swarovski Crystal Worlds (where the “Enni Soni” ​song in the movie Saaho was filmed).

Karin Seiler-Lall, Managing Director of Innsbruck Tourism, says that Bollywood films and TV productions play a key role in influencing the holiday decisions of many vacationers from India and its diaspora, with a visit to the film locations being a central motive for choosing a holiday in the Innsbruck region. According to Cine Tirol, overnight stays from the subcontinent increased by over 700% between 1998 and 2014.

During my recent visit to this winter wonderland also known as Tirollywood, I notice busloads of tourists from South Asia crafting their Instagram memories under the Crystal Cloud in the garden at Swarovski Crystal Worlds and shopping for souvenirs at the largest Swarovski shop in the world. Stops on the tour also include thermal spas at the Aqua Dome hotel, and the nearby Stubai Glacier, the largest glacier ski resort in the country.

Malta

The movie Bharat traces the history of post-independence India against the backdrop of the turquoise blue waters, ancient walled cities, and limestone fortresses of Malta. This small island country in the Mediterranean Sea, south of Sicily and north of Tripoli (in Algeria), has been recently gaining popularity with South Asian travelers, even though it has seen its share of stardom for decades. Malta was the location for Charas (1976) and Samraat (1982), both starring Dharmendra and Hema Malini, as well as recent blockbusters, Thugs of Hindostan starring Aamir Khan and Amitabh Bachchan, and Bharat with Salman Khan and Katrina Kaif.

Malta’s palm-tree fringed landscape, dotted with picturesque hilltop towns, peaceful seaports, and old fishing villages, looks much like the other various locations where the film Bharat was shot, including Abu Dhabi, Spain, Punjab, and Delhi. As I rode in a traditional fishing boat across Malta’s Grand Harbor, I could visualize dramatic scenes from the movies coming alive over Fort Ricasoli and the nearby Malta Film Studios.

Valletta, a UNESCO World Heritage site and the capital city of Malta, is one of the most popular attractions in the country, packed with museums, cathedrals, gardens, and cafes, where 500 years of history unfolds. Nearby, the islands of Comino and Gozo offer secluded beaches, blue lagoons, and dramatic cliff formations.

In December 2018, Malta hosted the first ever Malta India Film Festival backed by the Ministry for Tourism, and invited filmmakers from all over the world who have either Maltese or Indian elements in their films to build a creative bridge encouraging art, culture, and entertainment involving the two countries. Twenty-six films, including Indian pictures shot in Malta and local productions were screened, while Bollywood actors and producers walked the red carpet during the three-day event in Valletta. Thugs of Hindostan, a $20 million production partly shot in Malta, opened the festival, followed by Raazi and Sanju.

Though many scenes are overshadowed by glamorous dance numbers, Bollywood can offer much awareness about a country, its landscapes, architecture, culture, and attractions. Let the visuals guide you through your next vacation as you watch on screen and then visit in person.

~ Published in the Oct 2019 print issue of Khabar Magazine.

What is Your Travel Style?

Khabar Magazine. May 2019.

As I checked into a charming Italian villa converted into a boutique hotel, nestled on top of a hill on the Amalfi Coast, I wondered how I would spend two summer days in this romantic location by myself. I stood on the purple-bougainvillea-wrapped white balcony of my room, with a glass of champagne in my hand, staring at the blue waters and rocky beaches of Positano, feeling at peace with myself. In that moment, I really didn’t want to talk to anyone or go anywhere. I just stayed at the hotel—reading, writing, eating, and soaking in the views for the rest of my trip.

Travel teaches you that being alone doesn’t make you “lonely” and you can enjoy your own company, as much as the company of others.

Until my late twenties, I had never been on a vacation without my parents or my spouse. One day I told my husband that I would be going to Dubai to visit my sister-in-law, and he was shocked. I had not even traveled to India by myself until that point.

The reason I started traveling without my family was mainly because of conflicting schedules. I wanted to travel more, but my husband’s corporate job only allotted a couple of weeks of vacation a year. I had a strong desire to see the world, a flexible schedule, and the resources to make it a reality.

Since then, I have traveled solo and also with friends, apprentices, and groups—to parts of the world I didn’t even know existed. On lone adventures, I hiked through the forests of Japan, slept in yurts in the Gobi Desert, and listened to lions roar from a camp in the Masai Mara.

On the other hand, I have also slept in a house with two dozen volunteer travelers in Morocco, and sailed in the Galapagos on a private yacht with 20 colleagues, who soon became friends.

When people ask me if they should take a trip alone or with a group, to book a package tour or go with the flow, my response is usually, “It depends!”

Depending on the destination, duration, budget, and your personality, you may prefer one travel style over the other. I personally feel all of them can be rewarding as long as you set expectations beforehand and have a flexible attitude.

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(Left) Samar Misra, the solo traveler.

Samar Misra, a graduate student at Alabama A&M University, frequently travels alone. His last trip spanned over two months, taking him to UAE, India, Nepal, Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, and Singapore. “It allows me more flexibility and freedom to travel alone. I am not chained to certain activities that my family and friends may like,” he says. On his last trip to Rishikesh, Misra, on an impulse, decided to join a group of extreme adventurers and jump off a rock into the river (with a life jacket on), something his family would not have done or approved of.

Mishra grew up in a household where most family vacations would involve visiting relatives in India and traveling around the country in large organized groups. “There is value in family vacations, too. I have vivid memories of my cousins, uncles, and aunts going to the Taj Mahal. We still reflect on and laugh at incidents from that trip!”

Mishra usually books his trips himself through various websites, apps, and with the assistance of friends. “I have a basic idea of where I am going, and may book some of the flights, but the rest I fill in as I go,” says Mishra. He enjoys wandering around neighborhoods and seeing how the locals live, something he wouldn’t be able to do with a restricted itinerary.

Travel also makes us more resourceful. As a vegan, Mumbai native Lakshmi Jagad prefers to rent a home through AirBnB so she has access to a kitchen. “It is sometimes difficult to find restaurants that cater to us, and we like to keep expenses low, so we cook at least a few meals while traveling,” says Jagad referring to vacations she took to Guatemala, Morocco, Greece, Peru, and Canada, with her husband.

While traveling with a tour group, it is more difficult to exercise dietary constraints, but more travel agents nowadays accommodate dairy free, gluten free, vegan, and vegetarian requests if you let them know ahead of time. “We went to the Isle of Skye in Scotland with a group and booked the trip through a local agency. We told them we are vegan and it wasn’t an issue at all!” Jagad assures.

Tour operators can also help with communicating cultural differences that you may not be able to deal with on your own. “For example, you may go to Vietnam and ask for a vegetarian dish but realize their version of vegetarian includes seafood and eggs,” Mishra adds.

Speaking for myself, when I was traveling through Japan for ten days, staying at ryokans (traditional Japanese inns) in the countryside, it would have been almost impossible to figure out cultural norms on my own. It was only through my tour guide (who spoke fluent Japanese and English), that I discovered you had to take your shoes off before entering the hotel, put on robes called yukata in the correct fashion, bathe in anonsen (community bath house), and follow certain dining etiquettes. Given that no one at the inns spoke a word of English, I wouldn’t have been able to check in to my room or order food without a hired guide.

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Gaurav Bhatia (right) likes to travel alone and connect with locals.

Atlanta-based ESL teacher, Gaurav Bhatia, has discovered another way to travel—he goes alone on self-planned trips where he’s always surrounded by locals. Bhatia communicates with native Spanish speakers he finds through italki.com (a video-chat language platform) to practice his language skills. “I remember the first night I was in Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic, I was treated to a Christmas dinner by my host and her family, and I instantly felt at home,” Bhatia recalls about his last trip.

The language exchange program allows travelers to meet locals, have one-on-one conversations and stay at people’s homes for little to no cost. Bhatia only books his flight and boarding, unless a local host offers a place to stay. Then it’s up to his new friends to show him around their city. These loosely planned vacations allow Bhatia to have chance encounters and deep conversations with strangers, learning about their country, beliefs, and way of life. He has been to Costa Rica, Mexico, Colombia, and Guatemala to visit his language partners and often spends his entire time with them.

When traveling alone, we are often forced to strike up conversations with strangers. I have found myself befriending people at airports, restaurants, hotels, tours, taxis, etc. whom I normally wouldn’t have noticed, had I been busy talking to a companion. It seems people also feel more comfortable talking to you when they see you are alone, and often go out of their way to help you.

While walking through the busy streets of Istanbul without a map or smart phone, I often got lost and asked strangers for direction. To my surprise, most people didn’t just tell me where to go, they would walk me to my destination, chatting along the way. On one such instance, I randomly met a newspaper publisher whom I keep in touch with till date. The next day, I joined my group for a ten-day tour of Turkey and did not experience any such random interactions with strangers, though I also didn’t lose my way again!

Tour companies and operators offer value and convenience for those who don’t want to spend a lot of time shopping for deals and booking each aspect of the trip individually. Although Divya Pahwa, travel agent at New Delhi-based Explorers Travel Boutique, who focuses exclusively on group travel, says, “Many South Asian clients will speak to one or more travel agents first to compare costs and then book directly online themselves.”

Many South Asians are using websites such as AirBnB, MakeMyTrip, Goibibo, and Yatra to book hotel, air, and sightseeing packages.

I knew Russia was not a place I wanted to visit on my own, because of logistics, language barriers, and safety, so I decided to book a group trip that focuses on volunteer vacationing. The company arranged to pick me up from the airport in Moscow and had made reservations for a comfortable stay at an apartment in Yaroslavl with four other women, where we had healthy and delicious home cooked Russian meals. During the day, we would be escorted by an English-speaking guide to meet other women, visit orthodox churches, tour the city, and never had to worry about the planning aspect. On the one evening that the five of us decided to go out for dinner on our own (without the tour company or guide), we struggled to find the right bus and order at the restaurant as the menus were only in Russian and the waitress didn’t speak a word of English!

Some people prefer package tours with a little flexibility. During our 2-week Mediterranean cruise, my husband and I declined all the shore tours offered by the cruise line. Instead, as soon as our megaship docked at the port, we leisurely walked for miles savoring the smells and sights of the city. As a couple with common interests, we decided to skip the long lines to enter historic sites and museums. Instead, we opted to stroll through gardens and markets, taking long afternoon breaks at outdoor cafes, as one does in Europe. Though all our meals were included onboard, we wanted to experience authentic local flavors. We would find a small neighborhood bakery in Marseille serving warm flaky croissants, the best gelato corner in Cinque Terre, and mouthwatering and cheap seafood paella with Spanish wine in Vigo.

In Morocco, I stayed at a house with 20 other travelers from around the world, who had signed up for an organized volunteer vacation. We had a set itinerary, home-cooked meals, and some sightseeing activities included in the package. Yet, they had also provided for free time to the volunteers over the weekend. Talking casually over breakfast, some of us decided to rent a van and travel from Rabat to Merzouga, a small town in the Sahara Desert near the Algerian border, where we camped under the star-studded African desert sky. It was a long exhausting drive into wilderness, not something I would have done alone. But my new companions gave me the confidence which led to one of the most memorable trips of my life!

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(Left) The author and her husband on a road trip in South Africa.

Most recently, we rented a car in South Africa for a 10-day vacation. My husband drove on the left side of the road, along the winding scenic roads of the Western Cape, as I navigated from the passenger seat. It allowed us to plan each day as it came, stopping at different cities, as and when we wished. Though we had a basic outline of what we wanted to see, our plans never worked out the way we thought. We took a detourto visit a wild cat sanctuary which pushed us back 3 hours, met up with a friend at the beach cancelling the rest of the evening, and turned a Sunday brunch into an all-day event at a vineyard.

Whether you are thinking about traveling alone or with family and friends, doing it yourself or hiring a travel agent, there are pros and cons to each. Traveling in a group is more affordable, structured and brings joy in sharing, while traveling solo offers more flexibility, honest interactions, and can be personally empowering. One needs to experience all forms of travel for they teach us something different about ourselves and our interactions with the world.

~ Written for & published by Khabar Magazine May 2019 print edition. All rights reserved.

My Journey through Kashmir, the Misperceived Paradise of India

For Khabar Magazine. November 2018 print issue. 

The “Welcome to Kashmir” sign at the modest Sheikh ul-Alam Airport was draped by posters of a scene from a popular 1981 Bollywood movie, Silsila, where the romantic couple Amitabh Bachchan and Rekha sing a duet at the Indira Gandhi Memorial Tulip Garden of Srinagar (the largest tulip garden in Asia). Having watched countless movies filmed in Kashmir’s snowy mountains, lush valleys, pristine lakes, and flowery gardens, I was excited to discover what’s known as the ‘Switzerland of India.’

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The famous Kashmiri kahwah, a traditional green tea brewed with saffron, and topped with chopped almonds.

My first stop was Fortune Resort Heevan in Srinagar located near the famous Dal Lake. This 39-room family-owned boutique hotel under the Ahad Hotels brand was one of the first hotel chains in the valley. Inside, it looks like a modern Kashmiri cabin made of wood, with floral carpets, walnut carved chairs, and embroidered tapestry. Right away, I am greeted with a cup of hot Kashmiri kahwah, a traditional green tea brewed with saffron, and topped with chopped almonds.

I could just picture one of the movie scenes where people are wearing warm pashmina shawls, sitting outside in a green lawn with a backdrop of the majestic Zabarwan Mountains, sipping on tea and soaking in the scenery. I was about to replay the scene, in real life.

The capital city of Srinagar has two distinct sections. The more tourist friendly area around Dal Lake is filled with gardens built in the 17th century by Mughal emperors. With rows of neatly planted flowers on terraced lawns, breezy pavilions, and cascading water fountains, the most famous gardens are Chashme Shahi (the royal spring), Nishat Bagh (garden of bliss), Shalimar Bagh (abode of love), and Pari Mahal (angel’s abode). There’s also the hilltop Shankaracharya Mandir dedicated to Lord Shiva, and Hazratbal Mosque, which is said to contain strands of Islamic prophet Muhammad’s hair.

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The early morning floating market, a place where local villagers gather at the lake to sell their produce, and wholesalers from land come to shop.

Most of the gardens overlook the scenic urban Dal Lake. Brightly colored canopied deluxe shikaras (Kashmiri boats) made of deodar (Himalayan cedar) wood can be hired for a relaxing ride. A not-to-be-missed experience is waking up in the early morning to see the floating market, a place where local village dwellers gather at the lake to sell their produce, and wholesalers from land come to shop. My shikara paddler and I drifted through the calm waters of the Dal in complete darkness, feeling the early morning mist turning into a bluish hazy sky. At the crack of dawn, men arrived in their long wooden boats filled with tomatoes, bitter gourd, green beans, eggplants, and long melons. Apparently, the rich nutrient properties of the lake allow for rad (floating gardens), so farmers grow vegetables in the water. Sitting on the very edge of the boat, smoking cigarettes, one shikara guy would come closer to the other and have polite long discussions, possibly negotiating the price of the vegetables or just catching up on daily chatter.

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A woman rows to a grocery store in Dal Lake.

While I did come across hundreds of houseboats on Dal and nearby Nigeen Lake mostly used as floating hotels, it was interesting to see that there was an entire village in the lake where the Kashmiri people lived. Handicrafts, carpet, shawl, jewelry, and grocery shops were all floating in the lake. Women would row their way to get their provisions, just as they would walk to a neighborhood store.

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The famous shikaras, the wooden boats, range from personal vehicles to tourist boats and more.

The Old City of Srinagar is the economic and residential downtown. Here you will find shanty towns, old buildings with intricate wooden balconies, narrow streets lined with shops selling copper utensils, dried fruits, and raw pashmina wool. There is also the largest mosque in Kashmir, Jama Masjid, which was originally built in 1294, and there are cruises along the Jhelum River to witness everyday life without sitting in heavy traffic.

Culinary enthusiasts can discover a variety of restaurants in the Old City serving traditional Kashmiri wazwan, a multicourse meal of meat (mostly lamb, mutton, and chicken) simmered over the wood of fruit trees in nickel-plated copper vessels. Most hotels offer the popular dishes as entrees: seekh kebabs (minced meat skewers), waza chicken (fried chicken in red curry), rogan josh (spicy lamb curry), ghustaba (minced meatballs), dum aloo (sour potatoes curry), and nadru yakhni (lotus stems in yogurt sauce), to name a few.

After breakfast of girda (Kashmiri bread) and noon chai (salty pink tea), I take a road trip to the neighboring hill station of Gulmarg. Winding through the Pir Panjal Range in the western Himalayas, I notice the sudden drop in temperature as we go up to the winter sports capital of India. Hardly anyone lives in Gulmarg, which is mostly an Army base, and there are very few small hotels. What attracts international visitors to come here is the second highest gondola in the world, reaching an attitude of 13,800 feet. There’s also the highest golf course in the world, at 8,690 feet, and one of the first places to open an exclusive golf course for women by the British civil servants.

As I rise above the green pine and fir forests, nomadic mud homes, and shepherd colonies covering Kongdoori Mountain, there is nothing but rocks and clouds at Apharwat Peak. Gulmarg gets an average of 14 meters of snow each year, which makes it an ideal location for a ski school. In the peak of summer, there is still some snow on the ground and tourists from around India are excited to make snow balls for the first time in their lives.

After a break for chai and piping hot vegetable pakoras at the first stage of the ropeway, I descend to Hotel Heevan Retreat in Gulmarg. Though the ski lodge was built only in 2006, its dilapidated condition attests to how infrastructure is limited in this part of the country. As my waiter serves a delicious bowl of chicken biryani topped with boiled eggs, nuts, and coconut flakes, he tells me that the hotels in the area must get special permits to do renovations on the property and are not allowed to bring any raw materials into the valley. Unfortunately, private businesses rely heavily on political agendas.

Meadows full of daisies, forget-me-nots, and buttercups (wildflowers), and a Shiv temple with red roof also remind me of old Hindi movies. “The song ‘Jai Jai Shiv Shankar’ with Rajesh Khanna and Mumtaz was filmed at this very spot,” my driver, Mohammad Shafi, informs me, taking great pride in the natural beauty of the land he calls home.

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Kids sporting local attire at Pari Mahal Gardens.

We move on to Pahalgam, a small tourist town located along the banks of the crystal blue waters of the Lidder River. From my room at Hotel Heevan (meaning ‘heaven’ in Kashmiri), I can hear the screams and laughter of children at the amusement park across the river. Colorful old buses packed with kids and families arrive in surrounding Aru and Betaab Valleys all through the weekend. Families grill kebabs on portable BBQs, sit in circles, and crack jokes, against the backdrop of beautiful Lidder Valley. It looks like a weekend activity anywhere else in the world. You can hear them sing Bollywood songs at the top of their lungs as they ride through the meandering mountain roads past thick pine forests back to their homes. This may be the closest it comes to heaven on Earth.

Whenever I speak to anyone about Kashmir, the first question they ask me is, “Is it safe to go there?” as if I had put myself into a dangerous position by traveling to what was once India’s most popular tourist destination. Honestly, as a solo female traveler, I feel Kashmir was safer than most places in India. I can comfortably walk alone without strangers staring or passing comments. I never feel that I must look out for my belongings. Yes, there are armed militia on the streets practically at every corner, but they never bother anyone and life goes on as usual.

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The author with local students at the Chashme Shahi Gardens.

After speaking to the locals about the situation, I gathered that much of it is “media hyped” and the Kashmiri people prefer to live in harmony despite their religious differences. Every person I encountered—from restaurant doormen, taxi drivers, and waiters, to shop keepers who sold me cashmere shawls and carpets—each of them went above and beyond to welcome me as if I were a family member. They asked me where I was from and how I liked Kashmir, invited me to their homes for kahwah, and even befriended me on Facebook!

Still, tourism to this enchanted area of northern India is at an all-time low. Hotels are practically empty, Kashmiris are leaving the state for jobs elsewhere, and artisans are willing to let go of their products at bargain prices. Managing Director of Ahad Hotels, Mr. Asif Iqbal Burza, states, “The only thing we aim for is for people to come here, experience Kashmir firsthand, and share the true image with their friends. We have been able to survive hardships by offering sincere Kashmiri hospitality, and hope that our guests will act as brand ambassadors to help change perceptions.”

~ Written for Khabar Magazine

Travel: Here’s Why KERALA Continues to Be One of the Top Tourist Destinations of India

For Khabar Magazine print edition. February 2018.

Warm humid air, the smell of roasting curry leaves, voices sounding singsong Malayalam, coconut trees as far as I can see—I had arrived in Kerala, also known as God’s Own Country.

As soon as I landed at Kochi International Airport, I felt like I was no longer in the India I was so familiar with. Being raised in the north (Punjab), I could instantly see a drastic contrast in the environment and attitudes of the people. The two-lane highways in Cochin were lined with colorful shops selling everything from masala tea and banana chips, to 24K gold jewelry. But as thousands of vehicles drove past during rush hour, each gave way to the other in an orderly fashion with barely audible honking, a background sound I had been accustomed to until a few hours ago. In Kerala, traffic, people, nature—all hummed a similar tone of peace and harmony.

Kerala has been named India’s most advanced state (if not in the top two) in many respects. It is the safest, healthiest, most environment-friendly state with some of the best educational and agricultural prospects in the country. With high literacy (over 94%), equal opportunities for women, and very little poverty, Kerala has become the epitome of success for India’s development. It is no wonder that tourists from all over India and abroad who are seeking a calm and ecofriendly retreat head to Kerala.

My first stop in Kerala is Marari Beach, a 2-hour drive from Kochi, where I am greeted at my hotel by smiling staff members dressed in perfectly pleated saris and starched white mundus (a garment wrapped at the waist like a lungi). They offer me cold tender coconut water picked from their own front yard and usher me into a thatched-roof bungalow with a spacious bathroom that has a semi-open roof shower. I feel that I am at a luxurious fishing village, surrounded by nature, but equipped with modern amenities.

Set on 30 acres of beachfront covered with coconut groves, lily ponds, fruit trees, and a large organic farm, I feel instantly relaxed at Marari Beach Resort in Mararikulam. Many people come here for week-long wellness retreats indulging in daily yoga lessons, Ayurveda massages, and customized vegan meals to heal their bodies.

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(Left) A mouthwatering destination for foodies. Seafood Thali.

While listening to melodious tabla and flute played by live performers, I feast on my first Kerala meal of fresh grilled seafood, fragrant meat stews, appam (fermented rice pancakes), and a dozen homemade pickles from vegetables picked at the resort’s organic gardens. Abundant with spices, the cuisine of Kerala includes a wide assortment of vegetarian and non-vegetarian dishes flavored with chilies, mustard seeds, coconut oil, curry leaves, and ghee. Most ingredients are grown locally, if not in people’s own backyard gardens. Even the spices and oils are harvested from neighboring villages, ensuring quality and freshness. The “50 Mile Diet” is a reality here as most meals are cooked with ingredients sourced within 50 miles of the resorts.

The next day, I wake up at the crack of dawn to stroll on a secluded beach, gazing at the power waves of the Arabian Sea, and to practice a few of my asanas with the very flexible resident yogi. Yoga is an essential part of the mind-body restoration and practically all resorts offer free yoga lessons.

After a breakfast of freshly made dosas, it is time to explore the neighboring town of Alleppey, popularly known as “Venice of the East” due to its intricate network of canals.

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(Right) A Hindu temple in Alleppey.

Alleppey—or Alapuzha as it has been renamed—is a great place to see the harmonious religious diversity of Kerala. It is believed that Christianity came to Kerala in the first century. Kerala is now home to the largest population of Christians in India. At Christ the King Church, I see statues of Jesus decorated with money garlands just like you would at a Hindu temple. Just next door, one can hear the Muslim call to prayer. There are a few Hindu and Jain temples around Alleppey that are also worth visiting. Colorful painted wood, stone, and metals are used to create multiple-storeyed pyramid style structures and compound walls.

I walk through the grand entrance (rajagopuram) and go in barefoot to pay my respects to the Gods at the majestic Kidangamparambu Sree Bhuvaneswari Temple. There is a feast, festival, or celebration taking place throughout the year, with processions and offerings at the temples and churches. Common to all religious communities is the harvest festival of Onam, which takes place for 10 days sometime in August-September.

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(Left) Usually there is a clash between commerce and natural beauty, since development cuts into the latter. The lush green landscapes of tea plantations, however, translate to great commerce as well.

I continue my journey, heading inland on a winding road through lush green cardamom hills and terraced tea plantations to the hill station of Thekkady. Many of the tea factories in the area offer tours and tastings, so I stop to pick up packets of green and black teas at wholesale prices. The small town of Thekkady is densely packed with spice shops selling freshly dried cinnamon, nutmeg, cardamom, black pepper, vanilla, and nuts. Nearby, there is a cardamom (elaichi) sorting factory and the largest cardamom auction house in the world. The aromatic seeds were first commercialized by the British who developed plantations, and India is now the biggest producer of cardamom in the world. It is hard not to stock up for the year on high quality spices sold at a fraction of store prices!

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(Right) Spice Village, the author’s lodging in Thekkady.

My lodging in Thekkady is aptly named, Spice Village, and is the oldest mountain village-style resort in the area. Surrounded by hills and backed by forest, the cottages are spaced around spice trees. A naturalist takes me around the property to introduce me to the variety of flora, and the monkeys and birds that hang around the cottages. Keeping true to Kerala’s eco-friendly nature, the resort grows its own food, filters and bottles its own water, composts food waste, harnesses solar energy, and even makes its own paper. Local culture is also intricately tied into the visitor experience. In the evening, guests gather in the community hall to watch live performances of Bharatanatyam and Mohiniyattam before retiring to Woodhouse Bar for a nightcap. The former home of forest ranger Mr. A. W. Woods is converted into a British-style pub with old black and white photos, antiques, and a 150-year-old billiards table.

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(Left) Crossing the river by old-fashioned rafts, to get to the Periyar Tiger Reserve.

We watch an exciting slideshow at the Interpretation Center – Tiger Club located at Spice Village, thrilled at the prospect of encountering tigers and elephants in the wild. Dressed in camouflage, leech-proof socks, and walking boots, I make my way to Periyar Tiger Reserve on a bus, then cross the river on an old-fashioned bamboo raft, and finally set foot into the forest. After a few hours of trekking through the serene sanctuary set in the mountainous Western Ghats, my ranger and I only see some wild dogs, giant squirrels, deer, langur, macaque, and mongoose. “Chances of seeing a tiger are very rare!” he informs me, though evidence of sighting exists in pictures back at the Tiger Club.

One cannot come to Kerala and not experience the backwaters, one of the most popular tourist destinations in India. Kerala backwaters are made up of five lakes and 38 rivers, linked by canals. The backwaters are an important part of Kerala’s infrastructure as they provide water for irrigation, access for transporting rice, and environment for aquatic life. Kumarakom, located on the banks of the Vembanad Lake is my next stop. Many people come here to rent a houseboat or ketuvallam and cruise on the waters for a night, enjoying the cool breeze and eating fresh catch. Watching the architecture and design of the traditional Kerala houseboats is charming as you see these floating homes (equipped with beds and restrooms) make their way through coconut groves, water hyacinth ponds, and rice paddies.

I decide to stay at Coconut Lagoon, a heritage hotel located by India’s longest lake. Accessible only by boat, a water taxi brings me to the reception of the hotel, which is intertwined by lagoons and bridges. Each of the buildings is made of wood salvaged from historic homes from all over Kerala and reassembled on the property. The inside of the room looks like an intricately carved wooden houseboat. With spectacular views of the lake, rice paddies, gardens, and a bird sanctuary, it is hard not to feel completely relaxed.

02_18_Travel_Ayurveda.jpg(Right) Kerala is a popular destination for Ayurvedic massages, and detox and rejuvenation retreats.

If the scenery and organic food is not enough to comfort the senses, two Ayurvedic doctors (known as vaids) are available at the spa to diagnose and treat common ailments. Ayurveda is one of the oldest medicinal practices in the world and widely followed in Kerala. It is believed that the wet temperate climate, abundance of medicinal plants, and an abundance of Ayurveda colleges and researchers make Kerala an ideal place to consistently experience the benefits of Ayurveda. After a brief conversation with my doctor and diagnosis of my vata, pitta, and kapha, I am advised to get a four hands massage to help with my stiff neck and shoulder aches. Using a mixture of essential oils and extracts, two ladies gently rub the liquid in circular motion to release tension and relax my muscles.

To end the day, a local lady known simply as “Amma” pulls in her canoe to serve chai and snacks to the guests staying at the resort. She skillfully ribbons her homemade masala tea from one steel cup to another offering a magical show of sorts that entertains kids and adults. We sit on the green lawn, sipping on hot tea and gaze out at the calm waters. Being in Kerala for a week has slowed me down and infused the sense of tranquility that every vacationer seeks.

~ Written for Khabar Magazine. February 2018.

 

Destination Happiness: Bhutan

Cover Story for Khabar Magazine. May 2016.

Our Druk Air plane makes a slow descent into Paro, maneuvering the aircraft through the deep valleys between tall dry mountains as high as 18,000 feet. Passengers hold their breath as we descend upon the only runway of the country’s sole international airport. I’m a bit on edge—and why not? Until 2009, only nine pilots in the world were certified to land at this challenging airport. Once on ground, my attention is drawn to the airport’s traditional architecture composed of wooden frames and small arched windows, resembling Swiss chalets. Swastikas and phallic paintings adorn some of the homes. Prayer flags flutter on hillsides. I have arrived in the Buddhist nation of Bhutan.

Bhutan is a small Kingdom about half the size of the state of Indiana, located between China, Nepal, and India. It is mostly known for its picturesque mountains and valleys, ancient monasteries, architecturally distinctive fortresses, and peaceful surroundings. While Bhutan was closed off to tourists for many decades, it has recently emerged as a travel destination, attracting visitors from all over the world.

Happiness is serious business

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In the Western world, Bhutan has staked its claim to fame as the “Happy Nation.” That’s not just a smart tagline to attract tourists—happiness is serious business in Bhutan, where the government emphasizes measuring Gross National Happiness (GNH), rather than GDP, to ensure that its citizens are well provided for. Administrative and social policies are based on results of GNH, leading to free education across rural areas, access to healthcare, freedom of political speech, and so forth (reality check—this doesn’t necessarily mean that it is the happiest country in the world. In 2016, the World Happiness Report published by the United Nations ranked Bhutan as the 84th happiest country.).

Paro—land of legend

In winter, there are not many visitors in Paro, which resembles a small hill station in northern India. Paro’s foremost attraction is Taktsang Palphug Monastery or Paro Taktsang (also known as Tiger’s Nest). This 17th century Buddhist sacred site and temple complex is wedged into a tall, forbidding cliffside, and the thought that immediately comes to mind is, “What amazing engineering skills must those ancients have possessed?” Taktsang Palphug is the iconic backdrop of all marketing materials that describe Bhutan. Built in 1692, it is said to be the site where the legendary founder of Tibetan Buddhism, Guru Padmasambhava (aka Guru Rinpoche) flew to on the back of a tigress in the 8th century and meditated for three years, three months, three weeks, and three hours. Guru Rinpoche is revered as the country’s guardian saint who ushered Buddhism into this Land of the Thunder Dragon.

A round trip to the Tiger’s Nest Monastery takes about 4-6 hours of hiking through steep paths. Walking sticks, mules, and guides are available, though I decide to make the climb on my own. The true mark of a pilgrimage is allowing oneself to endure the struggle. Along the way, there are a couple of tea stalls where I stop to relax and enjoy amazing views of the valley full of blue pines and rhododendrons. Once I reach the monastery, it is cold and quiet. I envision centuries of introspection taking place in the prayer rooms through which I wander barefoot.

Dzongs and ancient storytelling

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Back in the city of Paro, I stroll through the main street dotted with a few dozen souvenir shops, cafes, and restaurants. There are prayer wheels, Buddha statues, wood masks, beaded jewelry, and wool shawls, among other things. Most of the souvenirs are made in Nepal or India. The intricately designed Thangka paintings pique my interest. These are handmade Tibetan Buddhist scroll paintings on cotton and silk with applique work that depicts elaborate scenes from the life of the Buddha and various deities. Traditionally, these are used for meditations and religious festivals, and can cost up to a thousand dollars.

Along the river Paro Chhu stands the majestic Paro Rinpung Dzong, a fortress with fourteen shrines and chapels. While the word dzongloosely translates as ‘fortress,’ the structure has evolved into much more than that. Originally, the buildings served as monasteries; from the 17th century, they began to be constructed at remote, yet strategically advantageous points such as mountain spurs from which attacking invaders could be driven away. Thus dzongs became centers both of government as well as monastic living. Over time, national treasures were stored within their premises, as well as written records and weaponry. In famine periods, they functioned as centralized granaries. In modern times, dzongs across Bhutan house district administration offices, and monasteries and serve as centers for staging yearly cultural festivals.

One must follow certain rules when entering the dzongs, designated as formal areas, explains my Bhutanese guide, aptly named Karma. As a government official, he has to wear the national dress for men, called gho, which includes a knee length robe tied with a cloth belt, and a white scarf over his left shoulder. Being a tourist, I can pass in my jeans and sweater, but I cannot help cast admiring glances at Bhutanese women around me, dressed in beautiful kiras, traditional form-fitting, long skirts with silky short jackets and silver brooches.

As we make our way into the dzong, we see both sides of the walls covered by paintings. Each one depicts a story that conveys Buddhist philosophy and teachings. A riveting sight is the floor to ceiling depiction of the Wheel of Life or bhavacakra, a representation of the cyclic existence of living beings resulting from their karma—a central tenet of Buddhism.

Another image that catches my attention is that of an elephant, a monkey, a peacock, and a rabbit standing on each other’s back. Karma explains to me that this is a famous fable of the four friends. The animals used their friendship and cooperation to gather fruit from a tree. During the rest of my visit, I see this image at several shops and hotels.

On a hill above the dzong is a watch-tower, home to the National Museum of Bhutan. Here you can see national costumes, artillery, and Thangka paintings, as well as learn about the local wildlife. According to Bhutanese laws, 60% of the country should be preserved as forests, in order to balance the ecosystem. For a small country, there is plenty of wildlife including snow leopards, Bengal tigers, musk deer, and takin (or goat antelope).

Thimphu—the seat of the kingdom

05_16_CvrStory-Thimphu.jpgAn hour’s drive takes me to Thimphu, the largest city and the capital of Bhutan. Of the country’s 750,000 residents, 100,000 live here. Urban life begins to emerge as I pass by commercial buildings, apartment blocks, colleges, and the national hospital. Streets bustle with locals and tourists as they go about their daily business passing by landmarks such as the Clock Tower Square and the National Post Office. The most notable luxury hotels in Thimpu include Taj Tashi, Le Meridien, and Indian chains, though there are also plenty of midrange options.

The most prominent landmark in Thimphu is the Tashichho Dzong, the largest dzong and the

05_16_CvrStory-Flag-ceremony.jpgcurrent administrative capital. Its whitewashed buildings laden with brick red roofs and golden spires against the lush green valleys make for stunning visuals. Visitors are allowed to tour the premises after office hours and can even see the throne room and the flag lowering ceremony.

A recent addition to Thimpu’s attractions is the Buddha Dordenma Statue. It is one of the largest Buddha statues in the world, at a height of 51.5 meters. A winding road leads me to the top of the hill in Kuensel Phordrang nature park, arriving at the feet of the giant bronze Buddha statue. I am dwarfed by its majestic presence. 360-degree views of the city and its surroundings are visible from up here. The Dechencholing Palace, the official residence of the king, can be seen at the northern end of the Thimphu Valley. I climb a few stairs and make my way inside the statue. In the meditation hall, hundreds of monks dressed in saffron colored robes chant in unison, reciting in chhokey, the language of the ancient sacred texts, surrounded by another 125,000 smaller Buddha statues. Their sounds echo in the belly of the giant Buddha.

Punakha—heavenly valleys

My next destination is northeast to Punakha, the former capital of Bhutan. I cross roughly 45 miles in 3 hours, driving through bumpy dirt roads among some of the world’s tallest mountains. Located in the picturesque Punakha–Wangdue valley, Punakha is surrounded by rice terraces, fruit orchards, and two rivers that eventually meet the Brahmaputra River in India. ‘Development’ as we know it hasn’t transformed the town, and visitors come here to awaken to the morning mist, listen to the soft melody of birds chirping, breathe the fresh air blowing from the glacier mountains, and walk amidst the blooming spring flowers….heaven!

There is, of course, the inevitable dzong to visit. Punakha Dzong, also known as Palace of Great Happiness, is perhaps the most beautiful architectural building in the country, constructed in 1638. It also has a lot of historical importance as it was where the first King of Bhutan was crowned in 1907, and where the current king was married in 2011. Patrons must walk over a covered wooden cantilever bridge and feed the fish in the river for good luck, before making their way into the dzong. Inside, a long set of staircases lead me to the two-level courtyard center with a Bodhi tree, which is where all the main religious and communal activities take place. There are a few more courtyards that house the residences of the monks.

Festival of blessings

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Every year, districts across Bhutan hold their own festival known as Tsechu, in order to celebrate

Bhutanese cultural heritage as well as remind people of Buddhist teachings. I attended the Punakha festival for three days in February. The entire village gathers in the courtyard of the Punakha Dzong, dressed in their finest attire, seated under the shade of the Bodhi tree. Dancers wearing masks of religious significance practice for months to portray the teachings of Guru

Padmasambhava. Folk dancers sing and dance traditional Bhutanese songs, while jokers chime in to entertain the crowds. Male monks dressed in colorful long skirts sway to the sounds of rhythmic drum beats. During the last dance of the Punakha Drubchen festival, the monks reenact scenes

05_16_CvrStory-Punakha-Festival-Main.jpgfrom the 17th century battle against the Tibetan army. It is believed that watching the dances blesses the audience and transmits principles of Tantric Buddhism.

A week is sufficient to cover western Bhutan, which includes the cities of Paro, Thimphu, and Punakha. On a longer visit, there is much more to see in terms of architecture, history, and nature. In Central Bhutan, visit Bum-thang Valley and Gangtey to experience the origin of Buddhism and the country’s royal history. Eastern Bhutan may require another week to enjoy the natural beauty of agricultural lands and rainforests and explore the work of local artisans in Mongar, Trashigang, and Trashiyangtse.

Cuisine—simple n’ spicy

05_16_CvrStory-BhutaneseFood.jpgRice and chilies are Bhutan’s staple crops. Bhutanese dishes bear strong culinary influences of neighboring China, India, and Nepal. Although there is a no kill policy, which means no animals in Bhutan can be slaughtered, meat is imported, and chicken, yak, beef, pork, and lamb are important components of Bhutanese diet. Vegetarians can enjoy red rice, lentils, and leafy and root vegetables, stir fried and stewed. Some of the traditional dishes include ema dashi(grilled green chilies with melted cheese) that is also used as a condiment to practically all dishes, thukpa (spicy noodle soup), momo (steamed dumplings stuffed with cheese or meat), phaksha paa (dried pork cooked with chili peppers and vegetables) and butter tea. Most restaurants also serve North Indian and Indo-Chinese dishes that are familiar to visitors from the Indian subcontinent.

Pay up for happiness

05_16_CvrStory-Tigers-Nest.jpgA trip to Bhutan doesn’t come cheap as the government discourages mass tourism in order to preserve the country’s fragile mountain ecology and cultural ethos. To this end, Bhutan limits the number of visitors per year and maintains a “High Value, Low Impact” tourism policy by charging a minimum $250 per person per day in royalty fees. Though this charge is set off against visa fees, accommodation (in basic 3-star hotels), 3 meals daily, guide, car, and sightseeing, Bhutan is not what your average tourist would call a value destination.

Upgrades in 5-star hotels will set you back by an additional $400+ per night above the royalty. Taxes on hotels, restaurants, and purchases amount to another 20%. Indian, Bangladeshi, and Maldivian passport holders have an advantage when traveling to Bhutan, as they are exempt from these requirements, making Bhutan a somewhat more affordabledestination for them. For the rest of the world, the “Happiness Destination” comes at a price, which is well worth it.

Khabar magazine May 2016

~ Appeared in Khabar Magazine in May 2016. 

Vegan and Appetizing?

khabarcover-allthatjazz

Many Americans who see veganism as downright unappetizing may be in for a surprise to learn of the richly flavorful Indian vegan dishes.

Exotic aromas and finger-licking flavor may not be the first associations that come to mind when most people think of vegan food. But forays into Indian cuisine, especially through a cookbook like Anupy Singla’s Vegan Indian Cooking, will have many actually hankering for this healthy diet option.

The momentum towards healthy eating is undeniable and rising. Veganism, where the primary source of food includes fresh fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, beans, and soy products, but no dairy, is on the cutting edge of this momentum. The benefits of such a diet—lower LDL cholesterol levels, lower blood pressure, and lower rates of hypertension and type 2 diabetes—are no longer debatable. Vegans also tend to have a lower body mass index, lower cancer rates, and fewer deaths from ischemic heart disease.

But with an increasing shift towards vegetarianism and veganism, people are also searching for creative options that don’t sacrifice taste. That’s where the spice of Indian cuisine saves the day. Not only does it add oomph to the natural foods, but it also furthers the emphasis on health that is so much a part of veganism. The health benefits of the spices found in South Asian cuisine combine well with the health benefits of vegan foods. Considerable research has been done on the health aspects of turmeric, cumin, and coriander. They act as natural supplements that help with digestion, and prevent swelling, high cholesterol, and cancer.

Author and cooking instructor Singla, whose previous bestseller, The Indian Slow Cooker, was named a Top 10 Cookbook of 2011 by the Atlantic, makes a strong case of eating “real food” in her latest book. She believes that as Indians we need to go back to our roots and show appreciation for our old ways. A fast-paced modern lifestyle has led families to eat fast food and prepackaged products. Even households that cook Indian at home may opt for pre-assembled masala packets that have high salt content and frozen naan made with white flour and preservatives.

Singla’s book has 100 recipes for vegetables, lentils, and breads using alternatives to processed foods and dairy. For example, Singla recommends using grapeseed oil for cooking instead of the usual vegetable oil or ghee we are so familiar with. Grapeseed oil has a high smoking point but is much healthier. Organic tofu is used instead of paneer to make some of the popular Indian dishes, like Matar Paneer. There are instructions to make homemade soy yogurt. If you are allergic to gluten or have celiac disease, you can still eat bread made with chick pea or corn flour following the easy directions. The recipe for dosa, a South Indian favorite, incorporates brown rice, which has fewer calories and more whole grains.

Singla recommends cooking in crock pots or slow cookers, as opposed to pressure cookers. Slow cooking breaks down the essential oils of the spices and enables you to get richer flavors from the dish. If you are wondering if dry lentils can be cooked in a slow cooker, the answer is yes. It takes about 6-10 hours but you can leave them in the crock pot when you go to work and they’re ready just in time for dinner. Cooking in crock pots allows busy moms to still be able to prepare healthy meals without spending too much time on the stove. The book contains several recipes using a slow cooker for delicious dishes such as rasam, lentil stew, and paneer biryani.

A great time-saving tip is writing out a weekly menu for your household and creating shopping lists accordingly. The introduction section of Vegan Indian Cooking talks about how to prepare basic ingredients (such as stock, tofu, spices) ahead of time and organize your spices in a masala box.

While it may not be practical to go vegan 100% of the time, Singla urges us to step back and reassess how we eat. If we cut down on meat and eat more fresh foods, we are likely to feel healthier and more energetic, as well as notice a change in existing health issues. When eating fewer animal products but more fiber, you will feel fuller with less food, which in turn will make you feel better. Our bodies crave nutrition and our minds control what we eat, so we need to take charge and make better choices.

Sucheta Rawal is a business consultant and writer. She blogs about exploring the world and learning about different cultures through food and community service at www.goeatgive.com.

Recipe:
South Indian Crêpes (Dosas) 

YIELD: 3½ CUPS (830 ML) OF BATTER MAKES ABOUT 24 MEDIUM-SIZED DOSAS
Ingredients: 
1 cup (190 g) brown basmati rice, cleaned and washed
¼ cup (48 g) whole black lentils with skin (sabut urad dal), cleaned and washed
2 tablespoons split gram (chana dal)
½ teaspoon fenugreek seeds
1 teaspoon coarse sea salt, divided
1½ cups (356 mL) water
Oil, for pan frying, set aside in a small bowl
½ large onion, peeled and halved (for prepping the pan)

1. In a large bowl, soak the rice in ample water.
2. In a separate bowl, soak the black lentils, split gram, and fenugreek.
3. Add ½ teaspoon salt to each bowl. Place each bowl in a warm area (I like to keep them in a warm oven that’s turned off) with a loose lid and soak overnight.
4. In the morning, drain and reserve the water.
5. Grind the lentils and rice together in a powerful blender, such as a Vitamix. Add up to 1½ cups (356 mL) of water as you go. (You can use the reserved soaking water.)
6. Let the batter sit for 6 to 7 hours in a slightly warm place (again, such as a warm oven that’s been turned off) to ferment slightly.
7. Heat a griddle over medium-high heat. Put 1 teaspoon of oil in the pan and spread it out with a paper towel or dish towel.
8. Once the pan is hot, stick a fork into the uncut, rounded part of the onion. Holding the fork handle, rub the cut half of the onion back and forth across your pan. The combination of heat, onion juices, and oil will help prevent your dosa from sticking. I learned this from a South Indian family friend, Parvati Auntie, and it truly makes all the difference in the world. Keep the onion with the inserted fork handy to use again between dosas.
9. Keep a tiny bowl of oil on the side with a spoon, you’ll use it later.
10. Now, finally on to the cooking! Ladle about ¼ cup (59 mL) of batter into the middle of the hot, prepped pan. With the back of your ladle, slowly make clockwise motions from the middle to the outer edge of the pan until the batter becomes thin and crêpe-like.
11. With a small spoon, pour a thin stream of oil in a circle around the batter.
12. Let the dosa cook until it is slightly browned and pulls away from the pan slightly. Flip and cook the other side. Once it is browned, serve immediately layered with spiced jeera or lemon potatoes, coconut chutney, and a side of sambhar.