A much delayed article. A year late, to be precise. There are some things in life that happen out of the blue. Like this brilliant (professional) life starting trip. I got to work with two of the most accomplished and inspiring editors I know. Read on to find out about Zanzibar and my 30 day trip to the island in early 2011.
As a photographer, I had decided that Africa was a place I’d visit only when I felt completely prepared. It’s an overwhelming continent, something I’m sure everybody knows already. More so for a photographer I can report. Thing is, with its grave prospects for downright dumbfounding photography (for the viewer and photographer alike), the continent of Africa had intimidated me for quite some time. I had hence decided within my head that I would venture into that part of the world only when I, as a photographer, was better ready.
All that changed in an instant when I received my confirmation email from Mambo Magazine. Mambo was a travel/culture online magazine based in Zanzibar, Tanzania. Yet again, my life had managed to trump my game plan but I wasn’t complaining! I was to spend a month on the Island of Zanzibar, interning as a photographer and writer. I took off.
When you first reach the Island of Zanzibar, you may feel like this is not the quintessential African destination but rest assured. Zanzibar is as African as Africa gets. There is wildlife, there is culture and there is the experience of a lifetime.
Zanzibar lies about 35 miles off the coast of Dar-es-Salaam, a part of Tanzania in east central Africa. I took a 20 minute flight to Zanzibar from Dar-es-Salaam. One can also opt for the ferry which takes about 2 hours to get you there. Both options invite you into this grove of uniqueness with absolutely stunning vistas. Whether you look at it from the air or while racing across the Indian ocean, this archipelago is a treat for the senses.
Once on land I found that life here is laid back. Nobody here is in a hurry, ‘Pole pole’ as they say, slowly slowly. People here are friendly and are completely at ease with tourists. Tourism being the main industry in Zanzibar, the main town known as Stone Town revolves around the traveller.
In Stone Town one notices how life here is like any other tourist town but with a slight twist. Zanzibar is home to many different ethnicities, right from Indians to people from the Middle East and of course the African Swahili. The various cultures and people here coexist in a beautiful mixture that is bound to catch your attention and keep you enthralled. As you walk through the maze of narrow streets and lanes that is Stone Town, you will see small shops on both sides of your path selling local art and souvenirs. One can find scintillating paintings of the forests and the Masai and even abstract which are capable of capturing the attention of the most discerning connoisseur.
For the food loving kind, the by-lanes of Stone Town offer authentic Swahili street food in addition to the retro barbeque and grilled preparations of sea food and meats. Make your way to Forhodani park and you will be treated to tens of vendors selling grilled sea food such as fish, shrimp and octopus right off the grill!
A dish called ‘Urojo’ is a local delicacy, it is a savoury soup and is very healthy and filling – perfect for the weight-watchers. Kassava chips are a popular local munch. If you’re a little fussy, almost every cuisine in the world can be found here, right from the best pizza and pasta from Italy to lassi and tava biryani from India. If you’re feeling lavish, head to the Serena Inn, a Stone Town five star, for a pint of Kilimanjaro. Overlooking the ocean, this little escapade will refresh you at any time of the day.
A pint of Kili
Stone town is also home to a lot of beach cafes, such as the Livingstone. It sits right next to the ferry terminal and hence is always surrounded by interesting happenings, the staff of the Livingstone will also make sure that your time at the resto-bar is worthwhile and that you leave with a stomach full of grub and a spring in your step.
The Livingstone Cafe
The Swahili culture is a very unique one indeed. The women here wear colourful attires and although shy at first, they won’t mind if you ask before taking a picture. Even the clothes worn by the locals have interesting angles to them. The ‘Kanga’, a type of head gear worn by the local women has interesting quotes printed on them which have a hidden meaning. Women communicate amongst themselves and with their husbands and friends using these Kangas, without speaking a single word!
Vibrance in cloth
Zanzibar is the birth place of Swahili. The language is not too tough to grasp for the average traveller, basic Swahili is easy to pick up. ‘Jambo’ a word which means hello, ‘asante’ which means thank you and for Indians, ‘Pilli Pilli’ which stands for chilli is enough to get you through your vacation in paradise here. Even if you’re not a language person, the cheerful spirit and energetic charm of the locals will coax you into learning a few words. Don’t be surprised if you hear people using some Hindi words, for instance the word ‘bas’ stands for enough, just like in Hindi.
You get the full tourist experience in Stone Town but if you want to see the real thing, head out. I recommend renting an SUV and taking a drive across the island. That way one gets a chance to really gain a feel for Zanzibar. But, even that is a tad touristy if you ask me.
For the hard-core traveller who really wants to discover this place inside out, I suggest you hop onto a ‘Dalla-Dalla’ or a local bus and hang on! These are small Toyota trucks modified to carry a monumental number of passengers. It’ is the perfect way to break the ice between you and the experience. These trucks/busses are the lifeline of the island. Make sure you loose your inhibitions before hopping on though!
Do the Dala Dala!
Being the biker I am I took a six day motorcycle ride across the island and its various beaches/villages. A motorcycle ride according to me is the best way to experience the openness and beauty of Zanzibar. The exhilaration of riding along the smooth roads which mostly run parallel to the coast and feeling the cool ocean breeze is incomparable to any other pleasure. Every spot on the island has a completely different feel. I spent a month here and still can’t wait to get back. Read more about my motorbike ride here: The Magical Motorcycle Tour.
Bikin’ it in Africa!
The villages are a complete contrast to the town. Hardly any shops, empty roads and the sounds of the Ocean. Stay on the east coast for a couple of days and experience the beautiful sunrises over the calm waters of the Indian Ocean.
Sunrises here leave one speechless.
Party? Make your way to Kendwa – it’s the party king of Zanzibar. A great place to chill out and meet fellow travellers. On the west coast, you will be treated to amazing sunsets every evening. Rest assured, you’ll have a story to tell from here!
Distances are short here, if you’re in a car. In a couple of hours one can cross the entire island from North to South. The roads are good too but once you’re in a village, be prepared to ride through some sandy patches. It is all great fun though.
Road to nirvana! Wink!
Zanzibar also has great wildlife. The Jozani national park in the centre of the island is home to the African Red and Black Colobus monkeys. If you are lucky, you might even catch a glimpse of the native Blue Monkey. The guides of the park will take you through the forest foliage and past huge centuries old Baobab trees. They will help you track down the whereabouts of these playful tree dwellers.
The Red Colobus and Blue Monkeys.
If you have the guts, head to the Zala Park. Zala is a reptile sanctuary managed by two inspiring locals who have dedicated their lives to conserving wildlife on the island. The park is home to some of the most dangerous snakes in the world like the Green Mamba and the Cobra. Who knows, you might even get to hold one.
Zala Reptile Park!
Dolphin tours are also very popular with the tourists here but there is a catch. The excessive tours operated here, some say, are leading to the detriment of the dolphin population. I steered clear of this option to be honest. If you’re lucky, sitting on one of the pristine beaches of this wonder island, you might just get to see the dolphins playing out in the ocean.
The southern shore
Take the sea safari on the east coast though. That will give you a guided insight into the daily life of the people living in the coastal regions and will take you close to the culture of the real Swahili Zanzibaris. See how the local women make a living by farming seaweed and making rope from coconut fiber. It’s quite the learning curve!
When you want more, take some Swahili cooking lessons. Learn what they eat, how they cook and help do it. Enjoy a cosy meal with one of the local families, right in their home. Take in the cheerful hospitality while you drink coconut water and talk to the family. On this island, even a month is less time!
Be it for the honeymooners, backpackers or even adventure freaks, with its myriad avenues when it comes to that extra ordinary travel experience, Zanzibar will see you bowled over. Whether you are looking for a week away in a foreign land or even planning to take your family along for a different kind of trip, my suggestion is, head to Zanzibar and let the Swahili vibe take over.
For me, Zanzibar was an eye opener. Mambo and I did a photography workshop on the last day of my trip. It was the first time I was going to be teaching! The workshop was a roaring success! House full!
Cameras love Zanzibar!
In more ways than one this trip managed to force open my mind and instill in me the confidence needed for the coming year and it’s travel. Africa does that to you. Do visit, it’ll do you a world of good.
To see more pictures from Zanzibar – Click here.
Top ten photographs from my trip to Zanzibar – The Zanzibar Post.
An in-depth Island experience: The Magical Motorcycle Tour.
Swahili cooking: Click here to read.
The Sea Safari: What lies beneath.
Travel article in the Pune Mirror on Zanzibar by Nipun Srivastava: Click here to read.
For any further information regarding travel/cuisine/entertainment/safety in Zanzibar, contact: www.Mambomagazine.com
Part 4 of Rooh – E – Rajasthan.
To read part 3 – Click here.
To read part 2 – Click here.
To read part 1 – Click here.
Too many thoughts spoil the broth.
My arrival at Ajmer was a little unsettling. The approach road towards Ajmer once one turns off the highway was really not a road. It was a proper sand trail where cars and trucks crawling at a snail’s pace were kicking up walls of dust. And I thought I had left the sand behind! Controlling the motorcycle on this track, where the sand was half a foot deep and with everyone on the trail looking at me was not easy. I had no choice but to ride behind these vehicles and breathe occasionally. If I said it was hot that morning, I’d be lying, it was scorching!
Ridin’ to the Aravallis!
I had more than a few preconceived notions about Ajmer. I had heard a lot about this city. Everyone told me not to miss the Dargah Sharif and the Annasagar Lake. Also, the holy town of Pushkar was just a breath away. Even the Pushkar fair was well under way as I reached Ajmer. Ajmer was also my mother’s birthplace. I was hoping this city would stimulate and motivate me after my time in Jodhpur.
In Ajmer, I was staying with relatives. People who I knew, people who I liked. People, who liked me. These were people who appreciated what I was doing and even commended me on my resolve to go it alone. Reassuring to say the least, this praise coming from the people who I know and now thank.
The city of Ajmer lies off the National Highway 8, some 140 kilometers before Jaipur, one of the longest and smoothest stretches of road India and Rajasthan have to offer. I reached Ajmer fairly early; the desert heat here was more intense compared to any other city or town I had been to yet. At 11 in the morning, to my central Indian soul, it felt like it was afternoon in peak summer. All my water was over as I entered the city. I reached the city center and restocked when my uncle came to pick me up, he showed me the way to their home which would be my base for the next few days.
After my dismount from the bike, a refreshing bath and a nap later, I head out onto the streets of this of this city, which is really a town if you know what I mean. The roads here are a mix of broad and narrow, Ajmer was designed to fit the description of a ‘sleepy’ town. Near the railway station, it’s a snail’s rally at any time of the day. Head to the lake though and it’s mostly a breeze driving or riding on the road alongside the famous Annasagar lake.
When it comes to food, there is really only one place you need to head to. Forget about non-vegetarian grub, just head to the ‘Gol Piyau’ and treat yourself to some amazing north Indian chaat. ‘Chaat’ is the Indian answer to all your non meal time cravings. One plate of aaloo tikki (a kind of potato cutlet) is enough to keep you going for a while. Even the samosa chaat which they serve with a mixture of spices and a curry called ‘kadhi’ is divine. Mind you, all this only if you can battle the crowd and get to the counter!
Grub and grubbers at the Gol Piyau, Ajmer.
Here in Ajmer, I could not stop myself from trying out the ‘pani puri’ on a road side pushcart. It is a quintessentially Indian personality trait!
These little pockets of punch are really what the doctor ordered, if you’re the kind who likes to take a little risk with your tummy. Spicy, tangy and wholesome pockets of fried pastry, stuffed with savoury potato mash and spiced water. If the spice is too much for your palate, ask for the sweet version, close your eyes and chomp. It is brilliant, take my word for it.
I spent my evening chit-chatting with relatives, basically relaxing and getting in early. I was still confused, how I should go about exploring the two cities of Ajmer and Pushkar was a blur even now.
Day two in Ajmer.
The holy town of Pushkar was just 12 kilometres away from down town Ajmer. The Pushkar fair had started just a couple of days before my arrival and there was no way I was going to miss it.
On this day, I woke up to the clicks of my cameras taking a time-lapse of the sunrise over the Aravalli ranges. Early mornings in Ajmer are chilly to say the least, quiet and peaceful too. During the night, amidst falling in and out of sleep, I had decided that I will head to Pushkar and take a look around. Everyone raves about this place for abundant reasons and hence my curiosity coupled with excitement got the better of me.
The motorcycle ride from Ajmer to Pushkar was an interesting one. It was only 12 kilometers but even in that less a distance one gets the feeling of change. The feeling of being in a city changes to make you feel like you’re in a holy town. And you are! I reached Pushkar late in the morning and spent the entire day just gauging the fair or ‘mela’ as it is known in Hindi. Getting a feel for Pushkar turned out to be easier than expected. The holy town of Pushkar wasn’t all religion religion religion, thankfully. Here and now, during the Pushkar Mela there was a lot more going on.
Let’s go see Pushkar!
In the 8 hours I spent in Pushkar on this day, I could understand two things. The odours here were the real story tellers and that this place was less a cattle fair, more a lens-men (and women) extravaganza. Let’s start with the former.
Not your ordinary fare.
Day 1, Pushkar:
No matter where you hail from, you will find your palate struggling to keep up with the taste of the air here. From temple smells to the mid day warm air at the stadium, you’re in for an experience of sorts. A background of cow/camel/horse dung, a spattering of diesel fumes, some fruits and chai and a garnish of sand makes up the air here. Don’t be surprised if you can smell someone smoking weed here. Well, if you’re surprised, you won’t know its weed. Pushkar is not for the faint hearted traveller.
The stadium is where the action is, mostly. Apart from the perpetual cattle fair, loitering camels, pushcarts, chaiwallahs and the occasional hot air balloon, this place is also a playground for women and men with big lenses. Especially inside the stadium, one can feel the photography. Hundreds of people can be seen attacking subjects in aggressive stances as if they were actually holding them to ransom. Or maybe it’s the other way round, the moment you click a holy man’s photo, don’t be surprised if he asks you for some money. Though the businessman in me did think, if someone started a camera equipment store here in Pushkar, they’d mint money!
Mine is bigger!
If you’re hungry in Pushkar, there are many options, sort of. Let me explain. There are umpteen stalls selling freshly fried samosas and kachauris all through the day. There are also a number of juice stalls and food huts et al. So, where’s the problem? Hygiene – In this holy town, that’s your problem. When I first arrived and finished my recce, I deduced, even my hardened stomach may not be able to take the sheer dust content in that food. The best thing to do when in doubt about food is to eat fruit. Bananas are a saviour in most situations and so I picked up a sixpack and gorged away from hungerville.
To food or not to?
Coming to Pushkar and going back to Ajmer every night wasn’t going to make sense. So, I booked my RTDC hotel room here for the next night and head back to Ajmer. That evening I was in the mood to indulge myself and thought of that as the right opportunity to check out the night life of the city. Well guess what, there isn’t one! After 10 pm, Ajmer seems like it’s a town under curfew. In fact, I was lucky I even got food at that hour! Phew!
Day 2 Pushkar:
On this morning, I woke up before dawn and packed up my stuff. No matter how many times you have done it, getting out of bed that early is always a fight against the urge to go back to sleep. All loaded up, I left from Ajmer at 5am and reached Pushkar at 5:15. Yet again, the same 12 kilometer ride had a profound effect. The chilled morning wind worked well to refresh my head and my spirit. The temperature was really low at that time of the morning which brought home another realisation. The motorcycle. The cold start meant she was sounding even more roughed out than what she actually was. As we climbed down the hill on the way to Pushkar though, her beat became smooth. The calm and quiet of this early morning was only dotted with the sweet sound of my Enfield’s exhaust note.
It was apparent that people here were early risers….or really late sleepers. The roadside stalls had already started making the first of many rounds of tea for the day. Even the cows were being milked by the side of the road and the holy men were making their way to the lake for their morning dip. Dawn had cast itself over Pushkar. The faint blue of the early morning sky melted into the dark of Pushkar streets, the small light bulbs of stalls and shops did their best to punctuate the serenity with their colours, like a small company of soldiers trying to fight the dark till reinforcements arrived in the form of the sun’s light.
Good Morning Pushkar.
The ‘aarti’ or prayer of the morning had begun echoing all over. The kirtan at the Gurudwara could also be heard now. Even the mosque had begun its first reading for the day. I reached the RTDC hotel here and dumped my stuff, took my camera gear and head out. Now, the real reason for me to come this early to Pushkar was the hot air balloon show. Yes. Big balloons filled with hot air would be flying all over this town and it’s surrounding hills and I was not going to miss it, not for the world! I am still a child when it comes to such things.
View from the bedroom!
At around 6am the hot air balloons lined the sand at the stadium and slowly got ready for take-off. This was the first time I observed the goings on behind each balloon launch. Quite interesting for a techno – motorhead like me. The sounds of huge fans and the intermittent blows of hot flames into the balloons were hard to miss. Plus the conversations with balloon pilots made my being here even more interesting. Sadly, I could not afford to fly aboard one of these friendly beasts but still, I spent close to two hours just recording and photographing the goings on behind ballooning.
These balloons are mostly operated by German and British companies who are specially invited to perform here. A joyride on one of these will set you back about 10 grand Indian. One by one the colourful balloons stood up and took to the sky as others took their place on the stadium sands. It is a sight to behold I must confess. The sun came up and the balloons flew away, the excitement of the morning was still in me. I sat down under some shade and checked out my shots whilst sipping on some chai.
As the day moved on, hour after hour of games and processions took center stage. The wrestling and the Kabbaddi competitions are by far some of the most interesting games played here as teams are formed with locals and foreign nationals pitching themselves against each other. What really caught my attention here was the moustache competition. Oh yes, this is where Rajasthani men come into their own. If there is one thing you ask any Indian to visualize about Rajasthan, it will be their moustaches.
Kabbaddi, action packed!
This time there were five participants in all but only two were true contenders. Both had a personality which was unmatchable! The contestants lined up as a huge crowd gathered to watch this unique competition. The gentleman who won had a moustache 10feet long from one end to the other! Whoa!
A long moustache and a personality to match!
There was also a game called ‘Ghota Dhari’ being played here. Looked much like hockey being played in sand actually. Furthermore, another whacky and witty sport was the turban tying competition. Basically for foreigners who wanted to showcase their turban tying prowess.
Ghota Dhari and tying the turban!
There is also a very popular temple here in Pushkar. Dedicated to Lord Bhrama, it is hailed to be the only one in the world. One can’t be too sure about that but this one is definitely the most popular Bhrama Temple in the world. There is an interesting story behind there being only one Bhrama temple in the world. Folklore says that Lord Bhrama’s wife saw Gayatri (a woman Bhrama married to complete a religious practice known as Yagna) sitting next to him in her place and cursed him. The curse entailed that no worship would be offered to him anywhere else in the world and hence the exclusivity of this Bhrama temple. Well that’s as far as the story goes in my opinion. The temple is said to be about two thousand years old and is run by Gurjar Sanyasis.
The Maha Aarti.
The streets of Pushkar during the fair are narrow. Lined by pushcarts or stalls selling a variety of things, during the day and the evening there is rarely any place to walk. It is advisable to find a safe parking spot for your vehicle and head out on foot. At any RTDC (Rajasthan Tourism Development Corporation) tourist information kiosk here, you can ask for a pamphlet with the fair schedule. Once you have that, you will know when and where the interesting events are going to take place. I spent the time in between competitions and games strolling around the markets and checking out the animals here on sale. Because that’s what the Pushkar fair is really about. Cattle.
Street market, Pushkar.
A cattle auction – That is what the Pushkar fair originally started out as. This year, a horse was sold for 12 million INR. The scene is, various stud farms and camel breeders put up their tents and showcase their best specimens which are mostly for sale. Buyers horde the town during the first two days of the fair and pick up whatever animal they like. The animals, be it horses, camel or even goat and sheep then get taken for meat or for production of wool etc. Some horses even make it into races and camels of course, get down to doing what camels do in Rajasthan, ferry tourists around.
The evenings here, if spent around the Pushkar lake are serene and calm. They say the Pushkar lake is a special one. Replenished only by rain water it is considered to be holy. It is a man made lake. It is also not very hygienic as it is not drained by any river, yet it is said that no one has ever fallen sick by taking a dip or using its water here. One doesn’t know how much truth there is to that lore though. Thanks to my RTDC abode, I had a panoramic view of the lake which served as a beautiful vantage point for the evening’s photography.
Panoramic night view of the Pushkar Lake.
I set up one camera for a time-lapse and with the other I stood on the two story high ledge over the lake taking pot shots at every subject I could find. As the sun went down, for the first time on this trip, I got some alone time to sit back and think about the past few days of travel. From my home in Maharashtra I had ridden my bike all across the western desert towns and crossed over to the eastern side of Rajasthan.
Pot shot 1.
Ajmer as a city hadn’t offered much but Pushkar I think had made up for it. I had only spent one proper day here but I guess to my mind, that was enough. My Pushkar tenure ended here. After this point, the more developed towns were on my checklist, Jaipur, Udaipur and Chittaurgarh. This was the half way mark. I gave myself a pat on the back.
Pot shot 2. The Gurudwara at Pushkar.
My mind was still racing about whether or not to give Ajmer one more day of my time.
The next morning I was back at Ajmer and wondering what to do. There were a couple of tourist interests here which were pending but for some reason, I wasn’t too interested or motivated if you will. I decided that I would head to Jaipur the same day, since it was just a 3 hour ride away. I freshened up, loaded up and said my goodbyes.
I started riding towards Jaipur at 3pm that very day, I couldn’t wait to see what was in store for me at the capital of Rajasthan!
Just an hour had passed since I left Ajmer and suddenly I knew why I had left so early. There are things that happen which make one realise how all that happens is interrelated. Speeding down the smooth highway, I saw a huge herd of camels walking on the side of the road. Right there was a photo opportunity which sparked my next move. Twisting the throttle further I gained more speed and then stopped a little ahead of the camel herd.
I whipped out the camera and excited as a puppy, got ready to try and shoot the photograph I had in mind. The camels came and walked past my motorcycle, I clicked each second that they were in the vicinity. As they walked away, I wondered whether my timing was good enough. Beads of sweat dripped down my face as I frantically got back to my bike under the warm afternoon sun. I stuffed the camera inside and started the bike again.
Look what I got!
I was to have lunch on my way. That was the perfect idea! One thing us Indians love about our country is the highway ‘Dhabas’ or rustic eateries. The highway to Jaipur is a six lane road and is trouble free for the most part. Half way to Jaipur came a place called Dudu, a small town on the side of the highway. It was about 4:30 in the evening and the sun had turned golden, it was time to stop for lunch. Also, I could not wait to sit down calmly and check out my recent photographic endeavor. I ordered my grub and slowly went about checking the shots I had taken.
Sure enough, I had got my shot! That perfect shot with the camels surrounding my motorcycle was now mine. This photograph characterised my ride through Rajasthan the best. The road, the ride and Rajasthan, all in one photograph. Perfect. I would never have got this shot if I had stayed back at Ajmer.
The final shot.
Back to the food, two of the most spicy aaloo ka paranthas was what I ordered. So spicy were they that by the end of eating them I was sweating profusely. To my surprise, the spice not only cleared my palate of any culinary response but also flushed my head of the thoughts that had bundled up during my time in Ajmer. Sometimes I think my head is like a motorcycle’s air filter, one has to keep ‘servicing’ it for the performance to be good.
Jaipur it is!
The ride to Jaipur was smooth barring the knock knock games my bike and I were playing along the way. The soft evening sunlight was the perfect riding companion. Even my motorcycle took its state in its stride and soldiered on. It wasn’t like I was being soft on her either, on empty straights I’d often max out the throttle and she would respond well enough. This stretch was quick to end, I reached Jaipur with another hour of riding under my belt.
For more pictures from Pushkar, Click here.
In this article:
Number of nights: Ajmer – 2, Pushkar – 1. Total = 3.
Distance travelled: Jodhpur – Ajmer = 200 kms. Ajmer – Pushkar = 12 kms. Total = 212 kms.
Motorcycle condition: Occasional misfires, breakdown imminent (crank issues) though she’s still hanging in there.