Archive for the ‘Travel’ Category

Musings in a new city

Posted: September 7, 2017 in India, Travel, USA

It’s just been a month since I arrived in the US, Chicago to be more specific. Having lived and studied in different cities in India, I thought that it was going to be fairly easy getting used to a new place, but my experiences in the past one month have made me realise how wrong I was.

Everything is different here, right from shopping for groceries to using the public transport, some easier than it was back in India and some difficult. For instance, grocery shopping here is a big pain, for the simple reason that there are at the very least a dozen choices for a single product, so much so that even deciding on the kind of milk that you want to buy is a challenge! There are at least 5  brands, each with 4 different percentages of fat content and then choosing between organic or regular milk! Phew, that’s a lot to decide upon. And, you cannot buy milk in quantities less than 0.5 gallons (that’s ~ 1.9 litres) :O . Perhaps these choices exist in the Indian market too and I just remained blissfully ignorant!

Despite being confused and surrounded by everything new, I still felt a certain degree of comfort in a new place as a result of having met some wonderful people who made life easier. For instance, I met an elderly couple during an outing organised for international students to the Botanical gardens. They were there as participating guests and volunteers for the same event. They took the effort to strike a conversation with me and I learned that they loved travelling to India! They have already been to India (southern India, in particular) twice and are planning another trip later this year. During the short conversation, I was invited to their house for a High Tea. Subsequently, when I went to their home on a weekend, I found that they remembered that I was a vegetarian and went to the extent of ensuring that all the food that they prepared was vegetarian. Without realising it, I spent 3 hours in their company talking about Indian and US politics, spirituality, British films and theatre, novels and so much more.

During the past month, I also met students from various countries across the world – China, Korea, Indonesia, France, Gambia, our very own Pakistan and Bangladesh and many more. Apart from meeting people from such diverse backgrounds and exchanging cultural ideas, talking to them about some of the daily issues was a much-needed reassurance that many others were facing the same challenges, confusion and the excitement that I was.

I realised that for all the inadequacies that we Indians perceive in our country, it is impossible for us to live in a new country without the thought of India coming up in our heads every now and then. This was evident in the tiny packets of happiness associated with day to day activities such as talking in Hindi to a fellow Indian, going to the Indian grocery shop and buying a jar of Bournvita or even getting together in a small group to cook Indian food and play Antakshari!

One month here, in Chicago, went by quicker than I imagined and all this time, I wasn’t even doing anything closely related to academics! I can only imagine how time is going to fly once classes start and my research gets underway. I hope to keep the blog updated regularly with new experiences, travel diaries and much more.




PS : Yes, the photo of the Chicago river that you see was clicked by me!  😉



This post is a first in a series that I plan to write on some holiday destinations in India. These places fall into various categories viz – a-viz,  hill stations, beaches, leisure and even pilgrimage!

10- 15 years ago, holidays meant going to cousins’ or grandparents’ place. However, with the changing socio-economic trends in the country, travelling and vacation are becoming an integral part of a middle-class Indian family. There’s no doubt that travelling opens you to different cultures and people. Every single trip has impressed upon me something valuable. I visited all of the destinations that will be covered in this series with my parents during my school and college days. I am always excited about family holidays – right from deciding the place and planning the trip to visiting the place and re-visiting it through the photographs! Even though it has been quite some time since we visited these places, most of the memories are still fresh in my head. Along with providing an account of the trip, this series is also intended to pen down my thoughts and record my memories of the places. So do check out this space regularly.

This post is about one of the most popular tourist destinations in India –  Manali. Manali is thronged by tourists every year and in my opinion, is a better holiday destination compared to its more famous cousin – Shimla. Manali is a perfect place for the novice adventure enthusiast – meaning those who wish to taste adventure sports but do not have a first-hand experience. The best way to reach Manali is by road from Chandigarh, or one could also choose to visit Manali after spending a day in Shimla (The drive takes about 7-8 hours approximately). The second half of the drive is picturesque with the Beas river flowing alongside the road. There are a number of river rafting agencies en route. However, rafting is more thrilling and enjoyable close to the Kullu valley where the gradient is steeper and rapids are more frequent. I would strongly recommend  a 10km or higher length for rafting. As the raft twists and turns in the rapids and cold water hits your face, you feel energised and refreshed . The route from Kullu to Manali takes about an hour and will pass very quickly especially if you have just finished the river-rafting and are still sinking in the experience.  Do stop  for some time in Kullu to explore the shawl factories. If you leave  Chandigarh/Shimla in the morning after breakfast, you can expect to be in Manali around 5 pm. The rest of the day can be devoted to exploring in the vicinity of the resort/hotel.  One could also consider visiting the Hadimba temple. It is nestled in the midst of Cedar trees. The queue outside the temple can get a little lengthy during holidays and vacations. A stroll on the mall road among the shops for woollen clothes and wooden crafts is also a nice experience.


Next morning, after breakfast, you could opt to go to the Solang valley which is the heart of adventure sports in Manali. I would suggest that you take up paragliding. Paragliding for a first-timer is done in tandem with an experienced person. Paragliding agencies in Solang valley offer 3 different types – a short 1 minute in air, medium 3 minutes in air and a long 7-10 minutes of being airborne. It is definitely out of question to opt for the short and the medium ones. They generally involve running down a small slope, gliding a few meters above the ground and touchdown. It lasts for such a short time that you would hardly experience proper gliding. For the longer glide time, one needs to take the ropeway to the top of the hill, from where a short descent on foot leads to a perfect place for take-off. The take-off itself is very exciting as you run down the slope while being simultaneously pulled back by the tandem glider leading to a lifting of the chute. The scenery beneath, the bird-eye view of Manali and the surrounding  villages, the view of a meandering river Beas and the snow clad mountains is breathtaking. Landing is a very crucial part of para-gliding and can be disastrous if done incorrectly (My parents witnessed while waiting for me to land, a couple of landings going wrong ). Fortunately for me, after take-off, my tandem glider told me that wind conditions were not ideal for the landing . We stayed airborne for close to 25 mins thereby prolonging a wonderful experience. Though I am not very enthusiastic about selfie-sticks, I would strongly recommend that you take one with you on the flight. It is quite safe to hold it while gliding and you can take some amazing photos to make your friends jealous ! Another tip which you might find useful if you are an adventure enthusiast – Strike up a conversation with your tandem glider and tell him about your rafting experience and love for adventure. They are generally happy to have an excited customer and will treat you to an extended gliding time and a stunt too if you are lucky. My tandem glider took me on a 360-degree vertical turn around. I could feel the wind piercing through my ears, my heart racing while nose-diving to the ground and the thrill of pulling out of the dive at the last minute. The touchdown is ordinary as long as it is done under the right conditions. You could also opt to do zorbing – this involves being inside a huge ball/zorb that rolls down the hill. Solang valley will take up the entire morning. On the way from Solang valley to Manali, there are also places where you can do zip lining across the river. It is a short activity and will not take up much of your time.  Post lunch in the afternoon, you could head towards Old Manali which is a steep climb for about 20-25 minutes from Manali town. The roads are lined with cafes and bars and attract a lot of foreign tourists who stay there for at least a few months.

The next day can be dedicated to Rohtang pass. Rohtang connects Manali to Leh. It opens to traffic every year in the first or second week of May. It is recommended that you start as early as possible – by 5:30 am. There are a couple of reasons for the same: The traffic, especially during vacations is very heavy and there is often a jam en route Rohtang. What should ideally take 2 hours or lesser may even take more than 4 -5 hours if stuck. Sometimes, the vehicle would have to  be parked a 4-5 km from Rohtang which means the tourists have to walk all the way. Horses are available but are exorbitantly priced. Moreover, it would be ideal to spend time in Rohtang in the morning, when the weather is cold and the snow is fresh and unsoiled. The snow dress tends to get stuffy and uncomfortable as the temperature starts rising during the day. Coming to the things one can do there — obviously skiing! There are several agencies in Manali where along with renting snow dress, instructors for skiing and ski equipment are also available. On discussing the payment and other conditions, they come along with you till Rohtang. In a span of about 2 hours, one can get a reasonable grasp on the sport. Make sure to don the traditional dress of Kullu and get a photo with the snow as the backdrop! It is advisable that you get breakfast packed at your hotel or there are some dhabas en route where you can get good food and Maggi!

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You can plan to start the descent to Manali around 11:30 am  – 12 noon. Given the narrow roads and the heavy traffic, it will take at least 3-4 hours to get back. That evening may be left free for time to be spent at the hotel or to take a leisurely stroll on the streets of Manali.

A Couple of places close to Manali that can be combined with this trip are Manikarn gurudwara and Hampta pass. The gurudwara is a 2-hour drive from Manali and as is always the case, the langar (kadhi and chawal) in the gurudwara is delicious. In addition, there are sulphur hot springs in the premises of the gurudwara. The speciality of these springs is that they are used to boil rice. Many pilgrims often bring rice in a small pouch to test whether the hot water can really cook rice as claimed by people. Hampta pass is a beautiful trek through the Spiti valley. It requires about 2 days and Manali serves as a good starting point for the trek.  From Manali, one could also consider going onward to Dalhousie which has, luckily, retained its charm and has been left unexplored by many traditional tour operators.  In addition, the route from Manali to Dalhousie is very pretty. The Khajjiar plains are vast green meadows about an hour from Dalhousie. It truly holds up to its popular name- Little Swiss of India. A detour en route Dalhousie will take you to Dharamshala. The Dalai Lama monastery and the Dharamshala cricket ground are must visit places.


Hot water spring in Manikarn, rice is being boiled!

This concludes this post on Manali and surrounding areas. Do get in touch for additional information and assistance regarding places to visit in and around Manali.

It has been nearly two months since I came back from a 9-day tour to Israel and Istanbul. It all started when the Nanoplasmonics group at BITS Pilani Hyderabad (that’s what we like to call ourselves :P) got to know about the International Conference on Surface Plasmon Photonics (SPP7)  that was to be held in Jerusalem from 31st May to 5th June 2015. In mid-Septemeber 2014, Prof. Kannan Ramaswamy set us the target of sending an abstract to the conference. The deadline was December 21st, 2014. Though we started sluggishly on the problem, we were constantly motivated by Kannan sir and we had an interesting scientific story with us just in time to send it to the conference. The notifications for selection to the conference was to be announced on February 10th. The D-day came and went. No intimation. One complete week had passed by and yet there was no notification from the organizers. And then on February 17th, 2015, I remember it distinctly… I had entered the mess for dinner.. On one hand I had the plate and was loading food onto it with the other… The mobile rang.. It was Kannan sir’s call…. As soon as I picked it up.. These were the exact words he told me “Sruthi, get ready to go to Israel”… Though I was waiting to hear this for the past two months, these words left me speechless… My first international conference.. We were selected for the poster session. The conference, held once in two years is a congregation of  the biggest people in the field of photonics and plasmonics. The very people whom we had looked up as celebrities in the scientific world would be attending the conference and giving talks.

Between February and April, time flew. Tests came and went, registrations were done, flight tickets booked, accommodation arranged, poster prepared and visas obtained (we did have trouble with that, thanks to Mohana ma’am’s continuous follow up with the embassy, we could get it just in time). As soon as the compres were out of our way and as the departure date came closer, excitement was building up exponentially. (more…)