Thursday, 28 July 2011

Green Valley, Amboli and The Leela Kempinski, Goa

Almost all the women I know, love the idea of trips away from home, especially to break the monotony of running the house-hold. It is lovely not to worry about planning and cooking meals, cleaning the house and especially getting up in the morning with a subtle subconscious worry whether the maid will turn-up or not. Even though we know that the fun will last for only a few days, these breaks are very essential for our sanity.

My latest rule in life is 'Never let go of any opportunity to take a trip – even if it means repeating the destination.' In fact holidays to repeat destinations allow me to laze out completely: getting the sightseeing neatly out of the picture. But when one lazy Sunday morning in April, my husband Avijit announced that he had booked the train tickets to Goa for a six night break, I got thinking. Six days by the beach might be too much. I looked at his face, I saw an expression of triumph for having booked the tickets well before the kids' vacations had started. I decided to keep quiet at that time. Goa is Aviji't favourite destination and the rest of the family (me and our two kids) loves it too. It is one repeat destination I do not really mind, but six nights opened the possibility of including an additional place, somewhere close-by. After surfing the net for a few days, I came across this small hill station by the name of Amboli. It is in south Maharashtra. Situated 690 metres above the sea level, it is the last hill station before the coastal highlands of Goa.The more I read about Amboli, the more I began to get charmed by the place. After a few discussions, the decision to include this place in the trip was made and the hotel booking done for 2 days in Amboli and 4 days in Goa. The place boasted of 130 species of birds . Though I have not really been an avid bird-watcher, I have had sporadic spurts of interest in these small yet smart creatures of God – their sounds, their colors and the way they confidently flap their wings and soar high in the skies. Looking at the pictures on the net, the interest revived once again – more strongly this time. I thought of going equipped with a professional binoculars. Only problem, the idea came just two days before we had to leave for the vacation. It is easy to buy a laptop at the last minute, it is even possible to order a refrigerator and request to get it delivered in a day – but binoculars? None of the shops in the fancy malls in Gurgaon seemed to keep and sell this object. I gave up hope but fortunately Avijit came across Space Arcades on the net. This is a pat of a research based organization, which aims to provide astronomy in India. You can get a site of all the dealers of astronomical instruments in India. The Gurgaon dealer is Leo Toys in Mega Mall. The owner promised to deliver it in couple of days after getting the order. Of these two days, one was Sunday and his dealer in Delhi was closed on that day. Anyway, we decided to take a chance and ordered a Celestron 8x40 model. The owner of the shop went out of the way and arranged it for us at 8 pm in the evening and we were to leave early next morning. In retrospect I thought it was a much faster purchase than it would have been if it was a freely available object and I would have then hopped from shop to shop comparing the features and the prices.

Space Arcade (for purchasing all kinds of astronomical products)

Travelling by train is a very relaxing experience and these days I have started to relish it. The train trip from Delhi to Goa is interesting. I like the way scenery changes from rocky mountains in Rajasthan to a complete green look as we approach the Konkan region. There are streams and rivers on the way. There are bridges and tunnels. I like to look at the little stations on the way – each with a character of its own. By now, I have realized that if there is a right way to learn geography – it is to travel by train and visit the places. It would be a good idea to keep a handy atlas and a railway time-table. When I was a child, I had hard time remembering the names of the five rivers in Punjab or the location of the Cauvery river. It was all to be memorized from the text books. That was a rather boring way to learn something which is actually so live and interesting. It took me so many years to realize that you got to see it to remember it. If I have seen a river once, I associate with it and do not forget it easily. Seeing, knowing and discovering is the way to go, not memorizing from a book. 

For going to Amboli, we got down at Sawantwadi Road, the last stop the Trivandrum Rajdhani Express makes before entering the state of Goa . It is another of those cute little stations, three platforms and hardly a soul in sight. From outside the station, we hired an auto-rickshaw to go to Amboli. The driver settled for Rs 500. I have travelled in Delhi autos a number of times but never paid such a high amount. The first part of the ride was to reach the Sawantwadi city from the station.We stopped to pick a few mangoes and jamuns. Unlike Gurgaon, they sell mangoes by dozens and not by weight. The next part of the journey was the climb to the hills. That is when I realized how different this auto ride was from the Delhi autos and how the guy truly deserved the money. The views on the way were very pleasant. The advantage with the slow auto-ride was that the kids did not get motion-sickness. I sampled a few jamuns on the way -- they were lovely.

It took us an hour or so to reach our destination, and we checked into the MTDC Green Valley Resort. Amboli is a cute little hill-station which has not been commercialized much. The flip side is that it does not boast of many great places to stay. No five star hotels here. I was a bit skeptical of what we were getting into. The check in was smooth though I would not classify it as a warm welcome. The rooms had a tired look – the furniture was faded and worn-out. But the location of the hotel was great. When we booked the hotel, we were not sure of the weather and the temperature of Amboli, so we had booked an A/C room. Soon we realized that the A/c was not needed. But the deluxe room was bigger and better than the standard rooms with an additional window facing the forest. The lawns of the hotel were nicely maintained and the benches simply invited one to sit down, relax, and maybe read a book. All the rooms were on the ground floor and that gave the place a resort-like look. The kids had a great time going in and out of the room, or just running around in the lawns. In the evening, we walked up to the sunset point for some pleasant views.

Next morning we woke up to find the place filled with mist, which was a bit unexpected in the month of May. We waited for the mist to clear up. At around 8 am, we went for a walk in the forest behind the hotel. I was desperate to put my binoculars to use and get started with bird-watching. Unfortunately we could not spot too many birds. The hotel guard told us that we need to be there at 5 am. We were warned not to go too deep into the forest alone as there are wild bisons there. Sitting inside the lawns of the hotel, I spotted magpie robins and red-whiskered bulbuls. Lazing around in the lawns, my attention was diverted to a commotion in the hotel – new fancy mattresses were being brought in. Were they going for that much-deserved change-over of the furnishings? Not true. One of the staff guys told me the furniture and new mattresses were being brought for a VIP who was expected to come in the evening. Who could it be? Apparently, it was Mr Sharad Pawar! During the day, I watched many new items of furniture being brought in to replace the old ones. A few times I peeped inside the allocated rooms to see them getting a change-over. All the furniture – the mattresses, sofa and chairs were changed, however they could not do much about the chipped tiles on the floor. 

Many of the staying options in Amboli seemed to be of the B&B kind, so having the restaurant in the hotel was a blessing. The food was very reasonably priced but none of the meals we had there, can be called delicious or sumptuous in any way. I took a look at a couple of other hotels close-by. I was specifically interested in checking the Whistling Woods, which was at a short walking distance from our hotel. The place is cute but much smaller in comparison.There wasn't much space for children to run around. Moreover they do not have any restaurant. Another hotel in vicinity was the Shiv Malhar hotel. From the outward appearance, our hotel looked much better. In the evening, we took an auto to see the source of the Hiranyakeshi river. Again, very pleasant views on the way. We even spotted some rare birds here, but sadly I was not carrying my binoculars and the reference book. The thought of where a river originates from was intriguing. It was interesting to see the river originate from inside a cave.There is a small temple of Hiranyakeshi devi at this place. I thought the origin of river must be associated with Shiva and did observe a shiv-ling in the temple. Later I learned that Hiranyakeshi Devi is really the Goddess Parvati. When we returned to the hotel, it appeared like a completely different place. There was a big crowd there, many policemen on duty, press-reporters and other important people. The place was lined with cars and even an ambulance was parked outside. A separate buffet had been arranged for the VIP and their team and the area was cordoned off. Here, I must say a word for the hotel staff – in spite of their busy and hectic schedule that evening, they tried their best to accommodate our orders although with a little delay but with a smile on their faces.

Origin of Hiranayakeshi River
We checked out from the hotel next morning around 11 am and hired a taxi to go to Goa. We took a brief stop at the Mahadevgarh view point to take a look at the magnificent 360 degree views. 

Amboli is normally known to be a monsoon destination. It gets a large amount of rainfall and is known for its beautiful waterfalls. Before the rains, however, the waterfalls currently had no water, or had just a trickle. Nevertheless, for somebody coming from a place like Gurgaon, the place has its own sweet charm. I was glad to have visited this quaint little hill station.

The taxi ride on the twisty roads down from Amboli made the kids motion-sick and we were relieved to reach Sawantwadi. There were a few shops selling cashews and other specialty products.The driver advised us to pick the stuff from here as it is cheaper than Goa. In addition to the cashew nuts, they also sold interesting products like cashew ladoos and cashew bars. Then we proceeded to buy the the wooden toys which this place is famous for. There selection available was tremendous. We have been to Lakkad bazaar in Shimla and seen this kind of stuff, but the variety this place offered was huge. I must confess that being a grown-up has not taken away the fascination for toys from my heart and I end up having as much fun and blast going through the various choices as my kids do. There were wooden toy-houses, fish, crocodile, cars, trucks, tops, kitchen sets and many many more. When the kids were done with their shopping, we resumed the next part of the journey. This part was free of twists and we all had a comfortable time. The ride on the national highway was a scenic and relaxing drive. Apart from the usual coconut trees, there were plenty of mango trees.

We reached Panjim in an hour and a half but our destination in Goa was the hotel Leela beyond Margao, which took us another hour and a half. We got a warm welcome with garlands and coconut water. The kids loved it – there were big smiles on their faces. The indulgence in pampering had already begun. We have stayed in the Leela 10 years ago and the place has not changed much, though at this time there was some construction and renovation work in progress. My daughter who has been spoiled by her dad loves to enjoy luxurious stays in vacations. (To be honest, who doesn't? But once in a while it is a good idea to stay in government accommodations too – more often than not, they have the best locations to boast of.) We had booked a Conservatory Premiere room. I found it big, spacious, luxurious and very classy. Perhaps, it was the contrast with the Amboli hotel, which made us all appreciate and love the luxury even more. The room was divided into two areas – a bedroom and a sitting room. There was a wooden sliding door between the two. The sitting room overlooked a 'lagoon' through a glass wall, into which was set a large sliding window which could be opened. (OK, the actual structure was a bit more complicated, but this is as good a description as any.)

For a moment, I had a fleeting thought 'How unfair. Wouldn't I rather have had it facing the sea? This lagoon is after all, an artificial water body'. But I decided to take it in good stride. Little did I know at that moment, that in the next couple of days, I was going to fall in love with this very artificial body of water. I took a chair, sat down, and looked at the lagoon. I saw many water birds – they were black in colour and looked like ducks but had long slender necks. I checked with Avijit. 'Oh, snake birds', he said. I quickly checked in my reference book – they are indeed called darters or snake birds. It is very interesting to see them swim with that long neck in water which does appear like a snake inside. But it is even more remarkable to watch them sitting on a branch with their wings completely spread out. They can stay almost still like that for a long time – waiting for the wings to dry. It appeared as if they had decided to strike a pose for someone to click a picture. When we went for a stroll to the beach, I saw a board put up by the hotel listing the birds we were likely to spot there. For the rest of our stay, I spent a large part of my trip with my binoculars hanging around my neck.

Snake Birds
Day 2 – I got up at 7:30 am and went for an early morning walk. I spotted magpie robins, white eyebrowed wagtails, cattle egrets and red-whiskered bulbuls. Slowly I was learning to identify birds. The bulbul we see in Gurgaon is the red-vented bulbul. The red-whiskered bulbul is far more handsome in looks, with the bright red whiskers on its face and a distinctive black crest on its head. Slowly I was learning to point the differences between apparently similar looking birds. The male white eyebrowed wagtail and the male oriental magpie robin were both black and white in colour. But the wagtail had a white patch over the eye which looked like a white eyebrow while the head of the magpie robin was completely black. At times, I was able to get very close to the birds, almost looking into their eyes. Were the birds in that environment less afraid of the humans? I wondered. Unfortunately I was not equipped with a proper camera. That would be the next item in my shopping list now. With a little time I realized that the bird-watching walks were not really necessary to spot birds: I could simply sit in the room and look out over the lagoon and the trees on the island. Within no time, I spotted a common kingfisher, a white throated kingfisher, several pied kingfishers, a few red wattled lapwings and a couple of brahminy kites. Over a period of time, I have come to think that the most common colours of birds are green, brown and black. This must be to help them camouflage with the environment. But one colour I love to see in a bird is the colour blue. That is why the kingfishers grabbed all my attention. Not to forget their long attractive bills which they put to use for catching fish. Take the case of common kingfisher, I bet if it was brown or black – it would not have looked so beautiful. It is a sparrow-sized bird with blue upper-parts, orange under-parts and a long bill. The white throated kingfisher is larger than the common kingfisher. It has a bright blue back, wings and tail. The head, shoulders and lower belly are chestnut coloured. The throat and breast are white. That is why it is also called white-breasted kingfisher. The most handsome of the lot was the stork-billed kingfisher. It is rather large, about a foot in length and with a great combination of colours. It has a green back, blue wings and tail and grey head. Its underparts and neck are light yellow. The bill is bright red, very big and attractive. Its legs are red in colour. The call is unique, repetitive and can be heard from a distance. Of all the birds I saw in Goa, this was the one I really fell in love with.

The Lagoon
A few days ago, I was not familiar with these birds and did not know their names. I wonder if the identification was really important! Could I not enjoy them for what they were and not what they were called? But the mind was happy to be occupied exploring the knowledge of their names, their characteristics, calls and so on. Like an excited child, I would often sit struggling to match what I saw to the pictures in the book. I spotted a new green coloured bird with a long beak, sitting on a branch. I passed the binoculars to my daughter to take a look. Immediately she remarked "They are bee-eaters. I saw the picture in the book". I was amazed, she was absolutely correct. Slowly the interest was rubbing on the entire family. My 3.5 year old son also borrowed my binoculars to watch birds. During one of my walks to the 'honeymoon island' in the hotel, I spotted a red flameback woodpecker. This was the first time I saw a woodpecker in wild. I also saw a Greater coucal (crow pheasant) and looked through the binoculars to see its red eyes. 

There was a big frog in the lagoon water under our room. We were amazed to see that it stayed in the same position, looking completely still, for hours.

There were lovely lotus in the lagoons on the way to the restaurant– pink, purple and lovely yellow ones. We were on on one end of the hotel, far away from the restaurants and the pool area. The hotel has battery operated golf carts which came in handy for covering the distance. Coming to the food, this time we had not gone for an all-meals package. Though the food was expensive and the choice limited in the coffee shop, I must say the food was absolutely delicious and satisfying. We especially liked their red Thai curry with prawns. I remember when I was initially introduced to the five star hotels, I was very impressed with the buffet spreads – the variety and the choices would be overwhelming. Gradually I realized I spent more time in trying out the various dishes than in relishing them. Slowly I learned to focus on a few select dishes and tried to savour them. These days, I am much happier ordering a-la-carte, a few select dishes that I am feeling like eating, rather than going by the chef's choice in the buffet. 

Lovely Lotus in the Lagoon
Day 3, I got up very early (5:45 am) for the latest interest of my life – bird watching. A hobby brings out the child out in you – you are eager to get started as soon as you are up. There is a thrill in life. I settled myself in the chair and noticed a large number of ducks in the water. It was still dark. After about 15 minutes - all the ducks began to come out of the water one by one and started flying. For a few minutes, I saw them fly in a group making a 'V' formation. Few rounds of the lagoon and they disappeared. While I was looking at the lagoon to spot our familiar frog, I saw something moving in the water. It was a snake! I quickly woke up Avijit. He has no interest in birds but snakes are a different matter altogether. He quickly got up and stood beside me following the movement of the snake in the water. It was about one feet long. After a minute or so, the snake went into the weeds under the surface again. I spotted another smaller frog. Within a few minutes, Avijit spotted another water snake. As I saw through the binoculars, I saw it take its tongue in and bring it out. Avijit told me this indicated the snake was hungry. Slowly, it moved in the direction of the frog – closer and closer it went, and then suddenly it darted towards the frog, who jumped away in a flash and vanished from the scene. The commotion in the water at that time was something to watch. While I was still recovering from the thrill, we spotted a much bigger snake – about two feet long. We could see the pattern on his body very clearly. Avijit looked up the web on his mobile, and told me it was 'checkered kneelback' – a non venomous variety. 

During the day, we did not see any more snakes. In fact by the time our kids were up, there was no sign of either the ducks or the snakes.

Though I was very excited and thrilled to have seen the snakes from close, I must confess I was afraid too. From that time, I ensured the glass doors overlooking the lagoon were properly closed any time we stepped out. I have a major fear of snakes right from my childhood. Having stayed in Delhi, I have never seen a snake in my surroundings. Practically, I have seen more snakes in my nightmares than in real. In my childhood, my maternal aunt used to tell us scary stories about how in her ancestral home in Gwalior, she would go to the store room to take rice from a sack and would find a snake sitting inside the sack. Having looked at the snakes on that day brought me face-to-face with my childhood fears. At some level, it helped me make a little peace with my fears.

During the day, my time was getting split into three water bodies – watching the lagoon, dip in the swimming pool and enjoying the sea. Each one of them was working on refreshing and rejuvenating my soul. And there was also the river Sal. While the beach was pristine clear on the first day, for the next two days it got filled with an oil residue. Apparently a ship had leaked oil into the sea. We even found a dead turtle while walking along the beach. I am not sure if it was related to the oil residue, but it was sad to see such a beautiful environment getting polluted by human errors. 
The Beach

The best part of repeating a destination, as I said earlier, is that you don't have to bother about sightseeing. There was only one place we wanted to repeat in Goa and that was Dona Paula. We took a bus to Madgaon and a taxi from there. In my view, the best way to look at the people or culture of a place is to travel in local transport. I was travelling in a public transport bus after a really long time and had good fun. I love looking at people getting up and down from a bus. I also take pleasure in observing what they are wearing. The first time I came to Goa , I was amused to see an old lady, roughly of the age of my grand-mother, wearing a top and a skirt. My own grandmother never wore anything in her life other than sarees and salwar kameez. At that time, I had secretly taken pleasure in imagining how she would have looked, dressed up in a top and skirt and perhaps a hat too.

Day 4, I woke up while it was still dark. I wanted to check out the ducks. Indeed they were back there happily swimming. As soon as the day light appeared, like a press of a button, the ducks began to come out of the water. Did the first ray of light appear like an alarm for them? I wondered. One by one, they came out and began flying. Few rounds of the lagoon, in the standard 'V' formation and they disappeared somewhere. When I spotted a water snake, I woke up my daughter who was keen to look at a snake. Avijit was up too. We spotted another couple of snakes roughly 1.5 feet in length. This was our last morning there and we had to leave around 9:30 am. When the packing was done, I thought of spending a few more minutes watching the lagoon with a secret desire to add a new bird to my list. Lost in my thoughts I was trying to soak the scenery in my mind, when my eyes suddenly fell on the land below our room where I felt something move. It was a big snake, another ckeckered keelback, but much bigger: about 3.5-4 feet long. This one was not in the water, it was on land directly below our room. I was stunned. The patterns were all clearly visible – more clearly through the binoculars. I was dumbfounded looking at a wild snake from so close. Our excitement and noise level probably scared him and he slipped away from our sight soon.

When we were on our way Amboli, my 3 year old son had spotted a monkey and he asked me 'Why has the monkey come here?" I had told him "He came to say Hello to you". Having seen the big snake on the last day, I felt as if he had decided to show up and say Hello or Bye to us. I took that last walk to the beach that I always do before leaving, it is important for me to say 'Bye' to the sea. In my earlier vacations to the beaches, this has often been a very sad and emotional moment for me – parting from the sea. In addition to the sea, I had developed a love for the lagoons and the wild-life living there. With time, we have figured out a way to handle the sadness of ending a vacation. It is simple! Just start planning for the next one. It does not matter when or whether the vacation plan will materialize or not – it is important to begin dreaming all over again. . The greatest pleasure of a vacation in not in the destination, but in the dreams, the plans, the journey and the way you explore a place.

Last few times we had flown out of Goa, but we had taken the train from here six or seven years ago. When we reached Madgaon station, it looked the same familiar cute self. As the train started, I was still thinking about the lagoons that I had left behind. I thought about the snake birds, the kingfishers, brahminy kites and the other birds who would be sitting on the trees near the lagoon. Next morning the ducks will be back in the lagoon again while it will be dark and will disappear with the daylight. The snakes will be visible only in the early morning hours. When exactly did the ducks come for swimming in the lagoon? Why did they leave at daylight? Where did they go? Why were the snakes visible only in the early morning hours? There were several un-answered questions in my mind. I pondered for a while and smiled. 'Every lagoon has a story to tell – if you care to listen and explore'


  1. and when are we seeing bharatur pictures?

  2. What a nice post about what sounds like the most amazing getaway imaginable! I would loved see that all the images in one personalized photo books. Keep sharing & waiting for your new blogs.
    click here

    thanks a lot for sharing
    red iron oxide


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