Saturday, June 29, 2013

Travel Essay Contest -- Entry 20

I Must Be Off! is having its first annual Travel Essay Contest. Each entry will appear at first without byline or bio. These will be added at the end of the contest. As you enjoy these travel essays from around the world, please feel free to comment; but if you offer criticism, remember to be positive. These writers are my guests.


Enchanting Bali
by Sreelakshmi Gururaja

At daybreak in Bali, the bleary-eyed sleepy tourist scrambling to get some breakfast could very well step on or over the “offerings”. Ubiquitous, the “offerings” are placed at doorways and entrances of homes, restaurants, hotels, commercial establishments, shops, street corners and sometimes in small altars on the wayside. On the other hand, to the observant tourist these “offerings” are at first intriguing and then become an object of their curiosity.

The practice of making “offerings” is an essential feature in the daily life of the Balinese. The daily “offerings” are simple, relatively small, fit into the palm of a hand and are prepared and placed mostly by women. They are usually colorful with eye-catching flowers, fruits, vegetables, assortment of food items, coins, sweets, candy, cigarettes even, all of which are assembled on a quaint handcrafted small tray, the waft and weave pattern deftly created from palm leaf, bamboo, and banana stem. While each “offering” is unique, there is a pattern in the aesthetic array and its arrangement on the trays. The reverence of the slim batik sarong-clad women in making the “offering”, with heads bowed and hands folded, is unmistakably devout. The ceremony itself is serenely simple with gentle hand gestures directing the incense fumes towards the statue or object accompanied by graceful body movements that have been handed down and followed over generations. When I asked the young woman placing an “offering” at the hotel desk about the practice, she quietly informed me that the purpose is for thanksgiving, to appease the spirits and seek blessings.

The beaches, natural wonders, the lush green forests, waterfalls and mountains lure the tourists to Bali as do equally the temples, the culture, music, art and handicrafts. The unique structures of the temples aesthetically combine black lava stone bricks, the orange-red clay bricks and treated wood, bamboo and fibres to create the layered black pagoda roofs and ornamental engraved doorways. Driving past them, the visitors stop to take a better look and of course, click pictures non-stop on their digital cameras. The clusters of smaller shrines, we are told, usually belong to a family or families, and every village has its own temple compound built over the years, each generation adding another layer of shrines. While it was apparent that the temples follow a universal architectural design, the size and grandeur seemed to indicate the position, wealth and importance of the village.

To the Balinese, nine temples are considered very sacred and each has its own special characteristics – geographic location, significance of the Hindu God it represents, and historical importance. The mother temple of Besakih temple, situated on the south slope of the volcano, Mount Agung, is over 1000 years old and considered the most sacred as it represents Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva. After climbing what seemed to be hundred steps hewn out of black volcanic rock, we reached the first vast courtyard , then we climbed another set of steps , a little less than before and then another. What is remarkable is the maintenance of the impeccably clean surroundings and the greenery.

 There are several ‘mantapas” or shrines in each courtyard. Unlike Hindu shrines in India, the shrines have cloth wrapped around them but are bereft of idols or statues. The colour and pattern of the cloth denotes the deity the shrine represents. The explanation given by the guide is that the idols are brought out ceremoniously by the priests once a year and installed in the shrines for worship. At other times, prayers are offered to the shrines for what they represent in a way implying the omnipresence of the deities, and emphasizing spirituality over ritual.

At the temple we witnessed a procession of men and women mourners carrying elaborate baskets of “offerings” on their heads. We were told that it was a family in mourning and the ceremony pertained to   blessing of the ashes after cremation. Clothed in white and holding the holy white umbrellas, they silently approached the priests seated on the raised platforms and placed the “offerings”. Observing from a distance, we got a glimpse of an actual religious ceremony without being intrusive.

The following day we visited the picturesque Tanah Lot temple. From afar, the temple seems almost celestial, perched on a rock in the middle of the sea. Literally, Tanah Lot means "Land in the Middle of the Sea” and it is truly so. It is definitely a ‘must see’ place. The tall pagoda temple and some smaller pagoda shrines atop the ragged rocks, few green trees jutting out and the white waves at high tide hitting the sides with roaring sound and splash made it a spectacular sight. Built in the fifteenth century to guard Bali from the sea, the awe inspiring temple is believed to be guarded by poisonous snakes living under it. Preservation and restoration work in recent times has rescued the temple from the ravages of erosion. The high tide did not allow us to climb or go too close but the temple is accessible at low tide.  We were told that the best time to visit Tanah Lot is at sunset especially for avid photographers. Even at high noon, it was memorable, etched in one’s memory forever.

Bali has in its own genre of dance and music. Operas with masked performers and graceful Balinese dance perform to the melodious notes of the gamelan on stories derived from the Hindu epics of Ramayana and Mahabharata. Similarly, handicrafts such as the intricate woodcarvings, wall plaques, wooden masks and batik paintings are usually based on well known heroes and episodes of these epics. On the other hand, scenic water colour paintings capture the green rice paddy fields, the lakes and mountains in the background, flora and fauna of Ubud and are favoured for their soothing blue and green colours. But what made Bali enchanting to me was its preserved uniqueness, the serene blending of tradition, faith and ritual in its modern present, its closeness to nature and bountiful natural beauty. 


Sreelakshmi Gururaja lives in Bangalore, India and worked for UNICEF for more than twenty years. Upon her retirment in 2005, she returned to her hobbies of reading and writing. She is presently writing a book on her childhood for her grandchildren and extended family.


Thursday, June 27, 2013

Travel Essay Contest -- Entry 19

I Must Be Off! is having its first annual Travel Essay Contest. Each entry will appear at first without byline or bio. These will be added at the end of the contest. As you enjoy these travel essays from around the world, please feel free to comment; but if you offer criticism, remember to be positive. These writers are my guests.


Pearl of the Atlantic

by Chris Nedahl

Sitting at the Esplanada O Vermelhinho, the Royal Caribbean’s Independence of the Seas glides into her berth. Within half an hour the cruisers are strolling along the promenade to the haunting sound of traditional Indian music. Mal Kay-Andes Music, a band of six Ecuadorians, has played here since forming in 1973. Partake of a meal, delicious ice-cream or just have a coffee and ingest the atmosphere of this idyllic island, Madeira. The pearl of the Atlantic, or the floating garden, is sub-tropical and its temperate climate is a haven, all year round, for travellers.

Madeira offers lazy days basking in the sunshine - tours to all points on the island - local bus rides or walks along the famous levadas. Those new to walking can chose an easy, guided route, or one of moderate difficulty, along these mini-canals which once carried rainwater from the north of the island to irrigate the dryer south. Not for the feint-hearted are the longer, more hazardous treks. All offer insight into the magnificent flora and fauna but the seasoned walker is rewarded with hidden gems – and Madeira has many.
A leisurely stroll from one of the hotels in the resort takes you to the centre of Funchal and the port. A modern, cosmopolitan city, it displays its heritage with pride. Buy from one of the many embroidery shops, a souvenir or a whole set of table linen. On the trip to town, see ladies sitting on the walls, crocheting table mats and coasters. Outside ‘Bordal’, one of the oldest outlets of hand-embroidered linen, you are tempted inside by an elderly lady working with skill and speed. Have your credit card at the ready because embroidery, made in the old way, can cost you six thousand Euros for one tablecloth.
Once in the heart, visit the Mercado dos Lavradores - Funchal’s indoor market. An array of colourful produce greets you and stall holders tempt you to taste their exotic fruits or varied wines. Beware of being given more in your bag than you asked for as tourists can get charged more than locals.

Be certain to view the fish market. If you have enjoyed the delicious, white estapada fish at your hotel’s restaurant, you might be surprised, or shocked, at seeing it fresh from the sea.

The walk along the promenade toward the fortress takes you to the old town. Much has been done to revitalise this area. The buildings are old, but restaurants are modern and offer a wide selection of food. The owners politely encourage you to dine, or just take coffee, and you will undoubtedly leave with a collection of business cards and a ‘tomorrow perhaps’.

A fascinating and quirky addition to this part of Funchal is the artistry. Every old front door - whether or not the building is inhabited - has been painted or collaged by local artists. Some depict the modern while others reflect the history - the multitude of things which make this island unique.

There are more than enough places to visit and sights to see without leaving the confines of the city. Art galleries and museums abound, ancient and new, paintings, sculptures, fishing, farming, handcrafting – all are at your disposal.

Madeira has a wonderful cultural heritage. Attend a concert at the English Church at Rue do Quebra Costas, an orchestral event or a piano concerto.

This year, 2013, the Orchestra Mandolin celebrated its hundredth anniversary and what tremendous performances it continues to give the public.

In the Rue Antonio Susi Almeida have a coffee at Apolo or stay longer and take lunch, watching the colourful world of Madeira going about its day. Afterwards visit the Cathedral of Funchal, immediately to the left. It was built in 1500 by the master stone mason, Gil Enes and the master carpenter, Pero Annes. The style is ‘Manuelino’ or late Gothic and houses one of the best Sacred Art collections in existence.

If you have never visited Madeira, consider being there on New Year’s Eve.

It seems the whole of the island descends on Funchal for the delights of the night. By eleven o’clock, the harbour front is heaving with excited people. Madeirenses and tourists, adults and children, pile onto the piers and fill the grassy verges, separating the town from the sea. The night would not be the same without the vendors of cheap ‘champagne’. Their trolleys are everywhere you look and you are kindly provided with plastic cups to enjoy your purchase.

The park of Santa Catarina overlooks the harbour and has its share of onlookers. Once the pyrotechnic feat begins, it surrounds you. It is a magnificent display warranting mention - more than once - in the Guinness Book of World Records.

Once the celebrations begin, however, it is obvious not every inhabitant is good-naturedly jostling for a prime view of the night sky. All over the mountainside, dotted communities are partying too, as a patchwork of colour erupts.  The cruise ships that arrived early are berthed while others are just outside the harbour, on the open sea. From their decks, the view is unhindered.

The clock strikes the New Year in, the revellers cheer, horns sound and the heavens spark and shimmer, flicker and flash, welcoming another year. 


Chris Nedahl is published in four anthologies and online. She is a member of Writers
Abroad and continues to hone her skills and become more computer savvy with the
help of fellow writers. She enjoys writing short stories and, infrequently, poetry. She is
working at editing a long written novel.


Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Travel Essay Contest -- Entry 18

I Must Be Off! is having its first annual Travel Essay Contest. Each entry will appear at first without byline or bio. These will be added at the end of the contest. As you enjoy these travel essays from around the world, please feel free to comment; but if you offer criticism, remember to be positive. These writers are my guests.


My First Travel Outside The Greater Accra Region of Ghana
by Prince Fiadzigbe

I reside in the Greater Accra Region of Ghana, a country in West Africa. Ghana is bordered by the Ivory Coast, Burkina Faso, Togo and the Gulf of Guinea, to the west, north, east and south respectively. Ghana is one of the largest cocoa producers in the world and home to Lake Volta, the largest artificial lake in the world by surface area.

The Greater Accra Region is the smallest of Ghana's 10 administrative regions in terms of area and the second most populated region, after the Ashanti Region in terms of population. It harbors the seat of government in the capital city of Accra.

My first travel outside the Greater Accra Region of Ghana came when I secured admission into the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology in Kumasi, the capital of the Ashanti Region after my Senior Secondary school education as was the custom within the educational sector here. No Senior Secondary school graduate would want to miss out on the chance of university education as this opportunity afforded the individual prestige and commanded a certain respect.

I was a day student in Secondary school. I was often bored seeing the same people over and over again.

Going to the university was a big chance for me to get boredom away, get to meet people from the length and breadth of Ghana and also mingle.

I set two days aside for visiting family and friends telling them about my university admission and ask that they bid me farewell. They realized I was leaving for months away and so blew my mind.

I got food items and supplies from these people. I kept on smiling and thanking them. I needed all those food items, clothing and shoes they gave. Did I say some of my family relations travelled from the other parts of the country to come and donate? Oh well, Uncles and Aunties came with Nieces and Nephews, Grandpa came with Grandma too! I had a big family.

I still remember the pack of ground Cassava I received from an old woman I was fond of. Small though to her, I fed on it all through my first semester.

I packed on the final day. I had earlier in the day ironed the clothes I was taking along. It was tiring. I slept that night in eager expectation of the break of dawn. I was asleep yet wide awake. My phone’s alarm went off at 4:15 am. My dad and I hurriedly prepared. We got ready in time and caught a taxi too. As if we had booked the driver the night before, although it was not so, he pulled over the second we got to the roadside. We got in and within half an hour, we reached the bus terminal. My dad went to get the ticket as I joined a queue.

When he brought the ticket and gave it to me, my eyes were filled with tears as fond memories of what lovable family I was leaving behind came into my mind. He asked how I felt. I told him I did not want to go. We embraced.

“My regards to Mum and everyone," I told him. We parted and I entered the bus.
Inside the bus was chilling. It got full early.

It was a busy Monday morning with its characteristic traffic jam. Everybody was going to work and those that could only afford a walk to a car did so briskly. We spent close to an hour in traffic!

Leaving Accra with its beautiful sights and sounds was an experience for me. The sky had fluffy white clouds gathered together which made way when the sun appeared. We passed through overpasses and interchanges, used roads that were under construction and also at times showed up on tarred roads.

It was a long journey for me. I had not sat in a bus for five hours continuously before. There were sceneries and the big towns had vendors displaying their merchandises. I bought a loaf of bread.

Halfway through, we had a rest stop. I got down and stretched my legs, took a stroll and returned. We continued the journey and there was no stopping till we got to our destination. I slept in the bus. I was tired. I pulled my seat backward and lay feeling cozy and undisturbed. It was an enjoyable sleep with the bus’s air-conditioner blowing on my head. I woke up when I wanted to pee not noticing it was nearing nightfall. The driver stopped by a convenient place so I did this. Immediately I got down, others also got down to do the same. What a scene it was.

As we finally continued the journey, I stayed awake all through. I saw post offices, banks, market centers and schools in the towns and districts we passed through. I noticed particularly, how well planned these places were compared to Accra.

Now, I really wanted to be in Kumasi. There were forests and greeneries all over giving the places we passed through a fresh natural smell. At a point, most of the people in the bus started placing calls and eagerness was written all over their faces. I got anxious and when I asked a guy he told me we were almost at our destination. My excitement quickly heightened.

Within the next thirty minutes or so, people started getting down at various bus stops. The bus came screeching as we got to the very last bus stop. Outside, there were men waiting on us to get our luggage as their taxis were parked close by.

I got down, went to identify my luggage and took a taxi. Funny enough, we argued over the fare till I got to the hall of residence where I will be staying through my first semester.
All in all, coming to the school was worth it and getting to meet other people made this experience even more thrilling.


Prince Fiadzigbe, a 21-year-old BSc, is an agriculture student of the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology in the heart of the Ashanti Region in Ghana. He is from a family of five. His hobbies are surfing the internet and studying. He does research during his leisure time.


Monday, June 24, 2013

Travel Essay Contest -- Entry 17

I Must Be Off! is having its first annual Travel Essay Contest. Each entry will appear at first without byline or bio. These will be added at the end of the contest. As you enjoy these travel essays from around the world, please feel free to comment; but if you offer criticism, remember to be positive. These writers are my guests.

Highlights of Lycia
by Jack Scott

Ancient Lycia is a mountainous coastal region of south-western Turkey, often described as the Turquoise Coast. The epitaph is justly applied as it is one of the most unspoilt areas on the Anatolian tourist trail, featuring sparking blue-green waters, long sandy beaches, high cliffs littered with rock tombs and hills smothered in pine forests. The small resort of Kaş sits at its heart and is a great base to explore the embarrassment of riches that are liberally scattered across the countryside. Hire a car and explore the must-sees.

Kaş and Kalkan
Kaş is a sparkling Bohemian jewel, surrounded by a pristine hinterland that has been mercifully spared the worst excesses of mass development due to the wilting two hour drive from the nearest international airport. The town has a laid-back, laissez-faire vibe with a good selection of restaurants and hotels to suit every budget and taste. Kaş’ twee smaller sister, Kalkan, is a few miles west along the hairpin coastal road and appeals to a wrinkly, wealthier crowd.

Fethiye is a vibrant and fast-growing resort with the largest expat community on the Aegean. Its appeal attracts Brits in particular. About 7,000 have made their home in the town and the conurbation of boxy resorts that flank the resort. Fethiye is a town in transition, regularly receiving an off-season nip and tuck. Fethiye’s small museum is worth a visit if only to see a stele (stone slab) discovered in Letoon and dating from 358 BC. The stele helped decipher the Lycian language as it is inscribed in Lycian, Greek and Aramaic. Carved into a cliff on the south side of the resort is the Tomb of Amyntas. Rock tombs are ten a penny in this part of Asia Minor. The Lycians were fond of interring their dead relatives halfway up a precipice. What makes the Tomb of Amyntas different is that it’s the size of a small temple.

14 kilometres south of Fethiye is the iridescent lagoon of Ölüdeniz (literally Dead Sea because of its calm waters). The beach at the head of the lagoon is one of the most photographed in the world and the image on a thousand and one posters. The downside to being a poster girl is that the beach is nose to nipple during the heat of the season.

Kayaköy is a picturesque tumble down and deserted former Greek settlement and the largest ghost village in Anatolia. The village was abandoned after the innocent-sounding ‘population exchange’ that occurred in 1923 following the Greco-Turkish War. The trade in souls was a curious and unique episode in modern history in that it was mutually agreed by both Greek and Turkish Governments.  1.5 million Greeks from Anatolia and 500,000 Turks from Greece were forcibly expelled from their centuries-old communities and ‘repatriated’ to their so-called homelands.

Patara is home to two unique attractions – a stunning 18-kilometre secluded stretch of soft white sand and the ruins of ancient Patara, once the main seaport of ancient Lycia. Meander through the sprawling ruins which, until recently, were partially covered by dunes, then bathe in the shallow waters of the bay. A word of warning. Patara is used by rare loggerhead turtles to lay their eggs. As a protected site, little development is permitted and there’s next to no shade. It’s best avoided in middle of the day when the sun is at its strongest. And don’t step on the eggs.

Letoon and Xanthos
Taken together, the cult sanctuary of Letoon and the city of Xanthos, the former capital of Lycia, constitute a UNESCO World Heritage site. The delicate and partially reconstructed ruins of Letoon, once dedicated to the Goddess Leto and her twins, Artemis and Apollo, are hidden inconspicuously among some fields. Nearby, Xanthos tumbles over a hill top and awes with its scale and picture postcard aspect.

Built on five terraces high above a fertile plain, Arycanda was a leading city of old Lycia. The ruins are impressive and largely intact as the abandoned city’s high isolation prevented the dressed stones from being plundered in later periods. Unlike more famous sites like Ephesus, Arycanda isn’t overrun by coach tours so the chances are you’ll have it all to yourself. The city’s position, perilously perched on the side of a lush mountain provides a spectacular vista and a happy snapper’s delight.

The tumbledown and overgrown city of Olympos is located in a valley leading to a broad shingle beach near the present-day village of Çıralı and is the centrepiece of the Olympos Coastal National Park. The area is a back-packer’s paradise and popular for trekking and adventure sports.

Saklikent Gorge
Saklikent Gorge
This 18-kilometre gorge is hundreds of feet deep, transports vast quantities of crystal-clear snow melt from the Taurus Mountains every year and is virtually invisible until you get inside. Traverse the wooden walkways to get to the mouth of the gorge, wade knee-deep through freezing open waters and ascend the four kilometres that are walkable. Wear sensible shoes you don’t mind getting wet, be prepared for bruises as you will slip and don’t visit before April or you’ll likely drown.

If you’ve not been totally ruined out, take a trip to pretty Phaselis, yet another Lycian city. A 24-metre-wide ancient street runs through the middle of town lined with Roman-period ruins. Phaselis is a city of three pretty harbours, a perfect place for a dip in the warm waters and a picnic under the shade of a pine tree.

The Lycian Way
If trekking gets the blood racing then take a stroll along the Lycian Way, Turkey’s first long-distance walk. The stunning 500-kilometre coastal trail from Ölüdeniz to Olympos has featured in ‘Time’ magazine and was selected by the BBC as one of the world’s 30 best walks. The route snakes over the steep coastal cliffs, dips to isolated beaches and meanders through pine forests. It’s a hiker’s wet dream.


Jack Scott is the accidental author of the critically acclaimed ‘Perking the Pansies, Jack and Liam move to Turkey’ –  a bitter-sweet, tragi-comedy recalling the first year of a gay couple in a Muslim land.


Sunday, June 23, 2013

Travel Essay Contest -- Entry 16

I Must Be Off! is having its first annual Travel Essay Contest. Each entry will appear at first without byline or bio. These will be added at the end of the contest. As you enjoy these travel essays from around the world, please feel free to comment; but if you offer criticism, remember to be positive. These writers are my guests.



by Rishita Dey

In an attempt to escape from my hectic life in Mumbai I discovered the smallest hill station of India, Matheran. About 100 km away from the concrete glamour of the bustling city, Matheran is nestled in the lap of Mother Nature, at a height of 800 m above the sea level. This pristine place has a magical recovering effect on any of her visitors. Matheran has been declared as an eco-sensitive region by the Ministry of Environment and Forest, Government of India. In order to preserve its sanctity, vehicles are not allowed here. It is considered as the Health Sanatorium in itself. Everything here has a healing power.
Model Toy Train
Matheran is well connected with both rail and roadways. I easily reached there by taking a local train from Mumbai Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus to Neral. From Neral you have two options; one can either take a shared taxi or get the toy train up the mountain. After reaching here, I experienced my 1st toy train ride. The rhythmic to and fro movement of the train accompanied with the occasional whistle blowing was enough to bring a smile on my face. Turning my face towards the wind and inhaling deeply I realised there was not only less pollution here but there lingered a fresh earthy smell which the cities lack. As the toy train chugged lazily, winding the mountainous track I couldn’t fail to notice the varied shades of green that surrounded the area. The greens varied from deep emerald to the new green of a new leaf, intermittently intersected by the burnt browns of the mountain ranges. Matheran enjoys a much cooler temperature ranging from 32 degree to 16 degree Celsius. It has become a favourite getaway for many urban inhabitants especially during the summers. However the best time to visit remains during the monsoon season when there is a rupture of green abundance and many waterfalls can be seen gushing down the slopes.
The Cliffs of Matheran
Sprawling languidly, Matheran is an abode for trekkers and nature lovers. It provides array of adventure sports for rock climbers. The cliffs of Matheran with incredible steep drops to the plains below, offer a stunning 360 degree panoramic view. Matheran is a place of great escape to find inner peace and sanctuary.
I purchased my permit tickets for entrance at Dasturi Point, as beyond this no vehicles are allowed. From here one can choose to walk up the spiral earthy road or rent a horse or take hand drawn carriages to the Matheran Bazaar. I undoubtedly chose the 1st option. What could be a better way to feel nature at her primal beauty than by being the very part of her? The moment I stepped in it was like I fell into the rabbit hole from Alice in Wonderland. Soon I found myself enveloped in a world beyond the comprehension of us city dwellers.
Here, you will immediately connect with your primitive soul through the constant chirping of the birds, the play of light and shadow filtering through the branches of the tall trees, from the whooping of the numerous monkeys that occupy the area and the non-stop buzzing of the jungle insects. The beauty surrounding me brought an internal awakening in me like never before.
Walking up the road parallel to the toy train track I noticed that Matheran has retained the magnificence of pre-independence British era. Since the time 1850, when it was discovered by Hugh Poyntz Malet, the then district collector of Thane. Very little ravages have been done to it. It has become a haven for those who seek to savour the true beauty of Nature. The cosy cottages still possess the old world charms.
With the help of the local people I soon reached the hub of the hill station which consists of a market yard. It felt as if suddenly I found the heart of the place. There was a vibrancy that enlivened the entire place. The vendors tried selling their wares and offering hotels or horses to go for site seeing. The shops offered varied knick knacks ranging from locally made shoes to leather goods. Soon I found a place at a reasonable rate. One thing that caught my attention was the small makeshift stalls for ice candies. They call them “Gola”. They offered tongue smacking syrupy and brightly coloured icicles, to which I helped myself number of times during my stay.
Exhausted from all the walking I had called it my day. Next day, I woke up early equipped with my camera to have a much awaited adventure. As the curtain of the morning mist unveiled, it revealed the undulating hilltop of the Western Ghats. As far as my eyes could reach I saw waves after waves of evergreen peaks. The abundance of nature so close to a mega city held me dumfounded. Soon I hired a horse and went about the place.
Charlotte Lake
There are many attractions of Matheran. The glistening water of the Charlotte Lake with shady trees all around provides recluse from the balmy sun if you want to relax. The temple of Lord Shiva, Pisharnath Temple at one end of the lake is the best place to meditate. The Honeymoon Point, the Monkey Point and the Echo Point are among the famous points to visit. Though all the points offer the view of the same nature yet if looked carefully you could find the subtle difference in the angle of each one of them
I finally returned contended and relaxed after this short trip.  Matheran, as the name itself means “forest on the forehead” takes us a hundred years back where man still did not belong to the brick, cement and concrete jungle of the current city life. Matheran indeed provides a recluse to all who come to visit her with an open heart and mind.

Passion for writing was always there in Rishita Dey. However, lack of time never permitted her to pen down her thoughts the way it should have been. Her dream was to visit exotic places and write about them, but reality took a different turn altogether. She writes from India about the tiniest hill station of the country, Matheran.


Saturday, June 22, 2013

Travel Essay Contest -- Entry 15

I Must Be Off! is having its first annual Travel Essay Contest. Each entry will appear at first without byline or bio. These will be added at the end of the contest. As you enjoy these travel essays from around the world, please feel free to comment; but if you offer criticism, remember to be positive. These writers are my guests.


A Month in the Life of Bangladesh
by Paola Fornari

23 April: Calm before the Storm

Hartal. Strike action, it means, but it’s so much more…

After eight consecutive hartal-free days, the main opposition party has called two days of hartal, demanding that jailed leaders be released on bail. A dozen buses were torched in pre-hartal violence yesterday. We’re lying low in the ‘expat bubble’ again.

24 April: Building Collapses

A nine-storey building housing five garment factories, a bank and a market, collapsed in Savar, just outside Dhaka, this morning. Scores of people have died, and hundreds are injured. Many are still trapped. The opposition called off their hartal to facilitate rescue operations. Just yesterday, cracks appeared in the building and it was evacuated. But, heedless of engineers’ advice, the factory owners threatened not to pay the workers if they didn’t go in.

29 April: Hope Dwindles

Day Six: it would be a miracle if anyone were found alive. Yesterday a fire killed a woman who was close to being rescued. The death toll has reached 398. Large machines are now dismantling the debris. The building owner has been arrested. Garment workers are thronging the streets, refusing to go back to the factories.

But there are some heartwarming stories too. A woman who gave birth under the rubble has survived, with her baby boy.

There is a strange sense of relief that it’s almost over. Soon, the country will be able to grieve. But Savar will remain raw for a long time.

1 May: Sriti

My journalist friend Sriti came to visit today. She has had a tough time, covering Savar. She texted me last week: ‘Is there a God?’ and ‘I am sick with the smell in Death Valley.’

We chatted at length. Her bruised soul will not heal quickly. This evening she sent another message: ‘I am tired, tired and tired. Feel like seeing my mom, niece, nephew, even my lovely river. I need to talk with myself.’

5 May: Dhaka under Siege

I called Sriti. ‘Things are bad,’ she said. ‘No-one knows which way it will turn. I am scared. Everyone is scared.’

Hefajat el Islam, an Islamist party has, according to our Daily Star, ‘…been holding a “Dhaka siege” programme, blocking all the entry points of the capital since Sunday morning to press home their 13-point demand…’ Thousands of activists are holding a rally in the city.

6 May: A Violent Night

The BBC reported that 27 people died when police moved in to disperse protestors late last night. There are rumours that the death toll may be higher.

10 May: Reshma’s Miracle

I have just watched the most agonizing live TV: the rescue of Reshma, a garment worker, 17 days after the Savar building collapse. Trapped in a prayer room in the basement, she had managed to find food and water. Truly incredible. What must have gone through her head for 17 days?

The death toll has leapt to 1043.

11 May: No Place to Call Home

Today I visited a photo exhibition entitled ‘No Place to Call Home’. It showcased the plight of the Rohingyas, who are considered by human rights groups to be ‘the most persecuted people on earth’. One of the photographers, Bangladeshi Saiful Huq Omi, explained how his family had been refugees during the 1971 Liberation War, but had been able to go home afterwards. ‘The Rohingyas have no place to call home,’ he said. ‘They have nowhere to go.’ He finished by asking us not to forget them.

The first photo had me in tears: a man stands on the horizon pointing over wasteland into the distance. ‘My home is two miles in that direction,’ the caption reads, ‘but to me, it is two million miles away.’

15 May: Rain, Rain, Go Away

I went to the Blue Sisters’ slum dispensary today. It was a humbling experience. The fragile newborn baby I’d seen last month, who had lost his mother and was being breastfed by a neighbour, had died.

We walked around the slum. All the kids clustered around us. One little girl had flower petals in her hair. I can’t believe how cheery these people are.

On the way home I stopped by a street kids’ school on the pavement just near my home. ‘Rain, Rain, Go Away,’ the children chanted happily.

But the rain is coming big time, with cyclone Mahasen careering across the Bay of Bengal towards us. I wonder how the slum and street kids will fare. And the Rohingyas, in their refugee camps on the edge of the bay.

May 18: After the Storm

Mahasen spared Bangladesh. Comparatively. A million people were evacuated. Fifty thousand homes were destroyed. But Bangladesh has come a long way in cyclone preparedness, and the damage could have been much worse.

 May 20: Visiting Savar Survivors

The Savar death toll has reached 1125.

Yesterday I went to Pongu, a government hospital, with my counsellor friend Sister Gloria, to visit the Savar victims. I’m not sure why: it was something I had to do, but could not face till now. There were fifty people in the ward I visited, and all the relatives wanted to take me to see their injured family member. Not all the patients I saw will survive.

I felt useless, until I saw that by simply holding a hand, stroking a brow, or saying ‘I will pray for you’, I could raise a smile. ‘I can see from your face that you are strong,’ I said to a man who had lost his leg.

But I was less strong.  When we left the ward I collapsed. ‘There is no God!’ I said to Sister Gloria. But I will never forget the smiling woman who said ‘I have lost my left arm, but Allah spared my right. Soon I will be able to work again.’  

This was the toughest but most enriching experience I have had in Bangladesh. We, the fortunate, have a lot to learn from the resilience of Bangladeshis.


Paola Fornari was born on an island in Lake Victoria, and was brought up in Tanzania.  She has lived in a dozen countries over three continents, speaks five and a half languages, and describes herself as an expatriate sine patria.  At present she is living in Bangladesh.


Friday, June 21, 2013

Travel Essay Contest -- Entry 14

I Must Be Off! is having its first annual Travel Essay Contest. Each entry will appear at first without byline or bio. These will be added at the end of the contest. As you enjoy these travel essays from around the world, please feel free to comment; but if you offer criticism, remember to be positive. These writers are my guests.


Rock, Paper, Scissors
by Romi Grossberg

Having just arrived in Phnom Penh Cambodia last night, I have spent most of the day walking the streets aimlessly and wondering how people live here. The city just feels like chaos amplified, coupled with stifling heat. Many describe landing in Phnom Penh like being ‘punched in the face’ and I am starting to understand why.

I know I need to leave my air-conditioned guesthouse and find a place for dinner, so off I head down the hot, dusty street. I find a seat on the outskirts of a corner café that allows for maximum people watching which both satisfies my curiosity and boredom of eating alone. There is another café opposite this one, close enough that I can eavesdrop on their conversations. Two expats discussing work, and a younger couple skimpily dressed, discussing busses and their next destination.

The menu is extensive with both local and international food and I giggle at the spelling of some of its items. I order schnitzel, fries and a coke to make me feel like I am at home, and pick up the local paper ‘The Cambodia Daily’ to try and understand this crazy country I seemed to have landed in. Every minute or so I wipe the sweat from my face with the back of my hand and realize I have no way of releasing the sweat that is building up under the backs of my legs against these cushions that is making me increasingly uncomfortable, as I shift my weight from side to side.

An elderly Cambodian woman approaches me off the street. She is dressed with a traditional sarong looking cloth wrapped around her waste, a dirty, thinning shirt, and a krama (Cambodian checkered cloth) wrapped around her head. She is missing most of her teeth and her skin is dark and weathered, she looks like a beautiful old piece of leather. She holds her wrinkled hand out to me saying a word I don’t understand “nyum, nyum” which I later learn is the word for ‘eat’. I don’t know what to do. Do I give money? Do I say no? How do you say no to an old, thin woman who is hungry? I then remember that I don’t have any change on me, only a $20 American note and whilst pleased the decision has been taken out of my hands, the guilt remains. I smile and shake my head no. She begs a little while longer and then just walks away. I look in to the street and see there are beggars everywhere, from five year-olds to this ancient looking woman I just encountered. They all look sad, with the same vacant look in their eyes. As I am watching a little barefoot girl in tattered clothes being shooed away by the expats next door, I am startled by a young boy that approaches my table. He looks maybe nine years old? With a skinny frame and big puppy dog eyes, he later tells me he is thirteen.

Smiling, with a krama cloth across his shoulder, he swings it around to show me a full plastic basket of books for sale. I instantly admire his initiative and do like the fact that he is trying to sell me something rather than just ask me for money, which selfishly I realize, just makes me feel uncomfortable.

“You know the capital of Cambodia?” he asks me.
Phnom Penh” I answer proudly.
“You know the King of Cambodia?”
Embarrassed, I do not.
“Where are you from, Miss?”
“I know the capital of Australia, it is Melbourne,” he tells me proudly. 

Without wanting to burst his bubble I politely tell him that it is in fact Canberra but many people do think it is Melbourne.  He cuts me off, “G’day mate … put another shrimp on the barbie…”, I smile … “A dingo killed my baby” and I burst out laughing and tell him to sit with me and chat awhile. A Black Eyed Peas song comes on and we both sit in our exhaustion, staring blankly, singing the words together and smiling at each other. This is the first conversation I have had since arriving, and not knowing anyone, I am kind of glad it is with this sweet young boy who makes me laugh.

“You buy book” he says more like a statement than a question and puts his basket on the table for me to see. He has an impressive selection. He knows I have just arrived. It seems he knows everyone here and can pick a ‘newbie’ a mile away. He pulls out ‘First They Killed my Father’, a well-known true story on the Khmer rouge written by, and through the eyes of a young girl who survived. He tells me I must read this, and learn the history of his country. I know he is right. I do want to buy this book and wonder how much it will cost me. It doesn’t take me long to find out as he explains what is going to happen, in his near perfect English.

“I like you, so this is what we do… this book only $5 for you, but we play for it… rock, paper, scissors. If I win, you give me $5, if you win, you pay only $3. OK? Best of three. Go”.

He wins the first round, and I win the second. He wins the third of course and I start to feel like my second round win was his doing also. A bet is a bet though and I hand over the $5 for my new book whilst teasing him for being a scammer. He is laughing and decides we will now play thumb wrestling but “just for fun” and this skinny little boy beats me. How, I have no idea. He stays and shares my French fries with me before skipping off to find another sucker to beat at rock, paper, scissors. With him gone, I am reminded of the heat.


Having been visiting Asia since the age of twelve, Australian-born, Romi Grossberg feels now quite at home in these chaotic, tropics. She officially moved out to South East Asia in March 2010, and has been working predominantly with ‘street kids’, and enjoying writing as a hobby.


Thursday, June 20, 2013

Travel Essay Contest -- Entry 13

I Must Be Off! is having its first annual Travel Essay Contest. Each entry will appear at first without byline or bio. These will be added at the end of the contest. As you enjoy these travel essays from around the world, please feel free to comment; but if you offer criticism, remember to be positive. These writers are my guests.


A Trip To the Past, Italian Style
by Foster Trecost

I don’t know if I was running away or running to; either way, I was running and I ran to Italy. Topping my list of things to do: find my relatives. I knew the name of their village and had some pictures--my grandfather made the same journey thirty years ago--but that was all I had.

I wanted to learn some Italian, so I enrolled in a language school. After four weeks, I told my teacher I wanted to find my relatives, told her where they were. Her response: laughter. Not just a chuckle, but rolling amusement. She said it would be impossible to find the village on my own. So I asked her to take me.

After a tense pause, she agreed.

We left Friday night and took the main highway south, passed Rome and Mount Vesuvius, but had much further to go. We reached Naples and I began to notice changes in everything. We stopped often for espresso and by three in the morning, I noticed changes in people, too. The world was transforming, language, landscape, vegetation. It seemed the further south we traveled, the further back in time we went.

At four, we left the main highway. “From here we go east.” East into the mountains. “We’ll be there in a few hours.”

Soon after, we realized we’d misjudged the gas needed to complete the journey; we were nearly empty and I panicked. Running out of gas in a prehistoric setting atop a mountain with someone I barely knew…panic was an understatement. “Relax,” she said. And just like that, I did. We pulled into the dark and deserted streets of a tiny mountain village. A single figure walked ahead and we stopped to ask for his help. They spoke a language steeped in dialect and I waited for a translation. “We’ve met an angel,” is all she said.
He walked a short ways and disappeared into an ancient building. Moments later he pulled next to us in a car of his own; we were to follow him. In Italy, gas pumps work much like vending machines. In this way, stations never close. We pulled in and I jumped out to thank him, to insert the money, pump the gas, but was surprised by the expression he gave me; I had offended him. “You are my guests,” he said. “It is my honor and privilege to serve you.” He took the bills, inserted them, and proceeded to pump the gas. I was in a strange land indeed.

We pulled into Pazzano just after sunrise. A bricked square surrounded by a few shops, not much more. Weary, yet driven by adrenalin, I went to the café, ordered an espresso and showed the barman my pictures. “Do you know these people? They are my relatives. I’ve come to meet them.”

He studied the pictures with a blank stare and I knew I’d failed. Then he smiled, put the pictures down, and said, “Yes, of course, I know these people.”

I felt light, and I’m sure I trembled.

“If you follow this road,” he said, “you’ll come to a hotel. I’ll call and they’ll be expecting you. Go there and sleep, come back in the afternoon. Your family will be here.”

We did as he said. Sleep came easy, but didn’t last long. We found a restaurant and ate lunch.

We returned to the café and the barman smiled, pointed to a section filled with anxious looking people, elderly and simple. One of them approached me. “I am Pasquale Treccosti,” he said. I told them my name, and, as if on cue, I was surrounded. I had found them, my family, they were standing all around me.

They led us home where a feast had been prepared. People visited throughout the evening to meet me, many weren’t even family. Wine flowed and food was served and the evening passed much more quickly than I would have liked. When they finally accepted we were staying in a hotel, Pasquale said, “You’ll come for breakfast, yes?” We of course did.

As they walked us to our car the next morning, I said, “You haven’t said much of my grandfather.”

Those who heard looked at each other, and Pasquale spoke. “He was very generous, yes. But we are simple people, quiet. I’ll never forget the day he came with automatic shift car, blowing the horn and giving away coins.”

We said our goodbyes and left. Much of the journey home was silent. I had been changed, and I was processing the changes. For so long, I wondered why my dad, reserved and quiet, wasn’t more like his dad. Now more than ever, I was thankful he wasn’t, and that it was him I had taken after.


Foster Trecost is from New Orleans, but lives in Germany. He writes stories that match his attention span: sometimes they're short and sometimes very short.