Tuesday, October 5, 2010

World Cup & South Africa - Part 1 - Johannesburg

I should say I am fortunate as a football fan, for not every fan will be able to fulfill one of their greatest dreams of seeing the Football World Cup in South Africa, and for this I am obliged to God. The credit for me making this successful trip should also go to three people who are very close to my heart – Zacchy, my nephew for planting the idea in my head, Bindu, my wife for supporting and encouraging me all along and Jeff, my close friend the main reason for the trip besides football.

I reached OR Tambo Airport, Johannesburg on the beautiful morning of 23rd July 2010 at 8:30 AM by the South African Airways flight. The 30 minute wait near the FIFA ticket counter, as decided earlier for Jeff, was mixed with anxiety and Joy, and I should say, I was pleasantly surprised and quite relieved to see Jeff coming, in his trademark walking style, with a large bottle of ‘Lambs Rum’ in one hand. After all Jeff was an international travel veteran and did most of the planning if not all, for this dream come true trip. We quickly collected our match tickets, the local MTN sim and were enquiring about the transport facilities in the FIFA information counter when we apprehensively noticed a little smiling man, showing more than the casual interest in our conversation and said that he would be willing to drop us to our place in his car for a more economical amount of 150 Rands. Jeff and I, reluctanly started talking to this man but quickly decided to travel with him. Little did we know that this man, Samuel would be our travel guide and become our very good friend in the course of the next couple of days.

We reached the ‘Medhurst Complex’ in Johannesburg University where we had booked our stay along with 3 other friends from Singapore (Farhan, Kieth and Diana), whom Jeff had made friends through online interactions,who were also going to accompany us for the rest of the trip.
Just as we were settling in to our room, Farhan entered with a bottle of whisky and couple of glasses in his hand, from that very first moment, I felt we shared something nice, so we decided to say ‘cheers’ with the smallest of drinks, served more as a welcome note. One look at their room was all it took for Jeff to realise they will not be able to travel with us immediately, so Jeff and I, left along with Samuel in his car, after weighing our options we decided that we will go to Gold Reef City.

Gold Reef City is a uniquely South African, world famous theme park which is just 8 kilometres from the centre of Jo’burg, offering the widest range of features and attractions in Africa and with an exhilarating Casino complex, alive with the excitement and buzz. It had a lot of really exciting thrill rides like Tower of terror, Jozi express, the Anaconda, Golden loop and the Miners revenge, along with lots of other less adventourous rides and children rides. Please use this link to explore all the rides in the park http://www.goldreefcity.co.za/themepark_rides_home.php.

I should say some of the rides were really intimidating, allowing us to scream, bringing out the children in us and enjoying the thrills to our hearts content. We quickly covered most of the challenging rides, and also got see some live entertainment like the tribal dance, and got a little insight into Jozi’s story of Gold and also got to see the ‘Gold panning’ the way it was done traditionally.

We asked Samuel to take us to traditional African style restaurant for lunch and he took us to moderate restaurant in town, where we had Rice and gravy with large pieces of meat, which was quite nice. I should admit though the place had a strange smell of non veg soup/gravy which was not too comfortable. We then went to the local market and brought a couple of ‘vuvuzela’s the famous plastic horn, usually of about 2 feet long, that produces a loud monotone note. Next, we headed to the Sandton City, shopping centre, where we got our faces painted by a pretty lady, with flags of our supporting nation, for the evening’s game between Germany and Ghana. We also did a little window shopping, with the sole intention understanding the cost of things in this part of the world.

Time was just flying and we realised that it was time for us to head to the FNB or Soccer city stadium, the largest stadium in Africa, with a maximum capacity of nearly 85000. The 2 odd kilometre walk from where Samuel dropped us to the stadium was a pure delight, with hundreds of football fans from different nations, singing and blowing vuvuzela’s, showing their passion and joy of going to see the world Cup match.

It was fun to be moving along with such a passionate crowd, our hearts filled with the excitement and joy, realizing that we were extremely close to realising our dream and that of every passionate football fan, to see a World Cup match. The stadium was site to behold, its earthen colours with a ring of lights running around the bottom of the structure, simulating fire underneath the pot, making a perfect back ground for some memorable pictures.

The security check was swift and orderly, and Jeff in his unique style managed to sneak in the hip flask with the precious Lambs rum. After soaking in the atmosphere in and around the stadium we reached our clearly marked chairs. The stadium had three tiers of stands and we were in the top most of them, giving us clear picture of the ground below and also the nearly capacity crowd.

Jeff and I shared few drinks right in the stadium, where beer was the only allowed drink that too which had to be brought from the stadium premise.

Seeing the two teams practice, coming out of the tunnel, lineup for introductions, and actually playing right in front of you is something which can not be expressed, it has to be experienced to be believed. It was sheer pleasure to be midst of 84000+ football passionate crowd, actually seeing what you always dreamed of. On the 60th minute of the game we witnessed our first world cup goal, the only one of the game scored by Germany’s Mesut Oezil.

It was interesting to note that Ghana had the majority of the support, being an African nation and the Goal actually dropped the enthuiasm of the crowd. The crowd had a happy ending because though Ghana lost the match, they had qualified to the next stage thanks to results of the other match played at the same time. It was great to see the unbound joy of the supporters as the large screens flashed the news of Ghana qualifying to the next stage. We hence had the privilege of seeing the whole stadium celebrating together because of the unique situation, and what a celebration it was! It was an effort actually to not get too involved in the celebrations and make way to designated place where we were supposed meet our friends from Singapore.

We got a drop to our hostel, in one of their friend’s car and we reached our rooms quite late, in the early hours of the next day, after a little adventure of losing our way, which I was completely unaware as I had fallen asleep on the way, and was informed when we stopped to buy quick take aways to satisfy our hunger.

Jeff and I, bieng early raisers got up by 7:00 AM and strolled around the University campus, clicking a few pictures and went to have a great breakfast in Mike’s Kitchen, a family oriented restaurant serving some amazing food (http://www.restaurants.co.za/details.asp?resId=3652). The university had a large campus and a beautiful ground, and incidently the Dutch football team had used this as their practice ground. We packed our luggages and realised that waiting for our Singapore friends to join us for sightseeing was not a posibility atleast in the morning; as they were still asleep after an extra long night and also seeing the things they had to pack considering that we had the 6:00 PM flight to Port Elizabeth. So we called Samuel and decided to spend the day ourselves, promising to pick them before going to the Airport.

We headed to the place called the ‘Cradle of the humankind’ a UNESCO World Heritage Site about 50 kilometres northwest of Johannesburg. This site currently occupies 47,000 hectares and contains a complex of limestone caves. The name reflects the fact that the site has produced a large number, as well as some of the oldest, hominid fossils ever found, some dating back as far as 3.5 million years ago and it is widely believed that life originated from here.

We realised that there was also a Rhino and Lions Nature Reserve with in the ‘Cradle of humankind’ and the combined tickets for the seeing the Caves and the Nature reserve was a good bargain. The Reserve is 1200 hectares and has more then 600 animals with nearly 30 different species, including 3 of the big 5 namely Lion, Buffalo and Rhino.

The interesting part is that we can self drive the car along the well marked route, and our initial sightings included ostrichs, Wild Beasts and Deers. As we moved in furthur we saw a herd of Bisons, and encouraged by the cars ahead of us we stopped our car in the middle of the herd and it was nice feeling to be surrounded these huge beasts.

The next sight was nothing short of astonishing, we saw a lioness lying near the road allowing us to get very close, within a few metres, and watch her peacefully soaking in the warmth of the sunlight. We alaso a saw few Rhino’s before heading to the entrance of the cave for the guided tour.

The Wonder Cave is the third-largest cave chamber in the South Africa and believed to be about 2.2 billion years old. The sixty metre deep cave can be accessed by combination a narrow flight of steps and a classic elevator. It was discovered in the late 19th century by miners who dynamited and excavated limestone for the making of cement.

The cave has about 14 stalactite and stalagmite (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stalagmite) formations up to 15 metres high, 85% of which are still growing. One such formation has got the name of ‘The praying Mary’ due to close resemblance and is a true wonder to watch considering it has taken millions of years to form.

We went back to the town to pick our Singapore friends and we all just reached in time to board our British Airways flight to Port Elizabeth after grabbing some quick takeaways from “Subway’ within the Airport as our lunch/snacks, bidding temperory farewell to Johannesburg.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Football - My Passion

There have been a lot of people who have asked why I am passionate about football and why I travelled to South Africa to see World Cup considering the risks involved, I always found it extremely hard to make them understand, and according to me it has to be experienced. For someone like me who grew up playing football from a very young age in a small village called Venkitangu in Kerala, for whom playing football was experiencing ecstasy beyond compare, enabling me to exhaust all my physical strength, forgetting everything from pain to sorrow, football is much more than a'passion'.

I still remember the earlier days, when we used to play matches with neighboring villages having just 3-4 members a side, the amount of running one had to do was unbelievable even for a 40 minute game, and you could not stop even if you are hurt, even if one player stopped then the team was sure to lose. we played like there was no tomorrow, falling often and getting scars some of which have remained till date, but I still do not remember stopping a game because of pain, it was only after the game you realized the pain, and you always felt the game was worth it and there was never ever even a slightest feeling of regret.

Football had become a part of me, so when I moved to Bangalore I could not help but continue playing the beautiful game. I remember the games with my cousin and a few friends on the tarred roads of first block Koramangala and matches in the Police quarters ground with my school mates and their neighbors. Then I moved to 7th block Koramangala and almost the same time I joined St. Josephs school, the high school days were filled with football, on a typical day I would spend 20 minutes playing football while waiting for the school bus, almost 30 minutes after lunch in the school and atleast about an hour in the evening near the house. Saturdays and Sundays saw us playing matches with the neighboring blocks in Koramangala, most notably with the KHB colony team. I remember most of us played the opposition like they were our enemies; it would be fair to say that it is only after the game that we became humans again.

Football taught me to respect people for the their game, I remember the captain from KHB colony team who used to the target of our calculated attacks when we play, but after the game I always had a feeling he was a very good person just by judging the way he plays football and behaves on the field. Football gave me some of my best friends, most notably Gopakumar (Gopi) who was one year my junior but the respect for each others game became a pivotal bonding in our unforgettable friendship. Playing football in St. Josephs I H S during lunch break was an experience, on a typical day there would be around 20-25 teams playing on the two grounds available. So a ground of 150ftx250ft had about 100 odd children playing and it was common for someone like me to run past the players only to bang head-on to players from other teams apart from your opposing team. And a lot of times the game used to be played using the ‘rubber balls’ or ‘tennis balls’ and you can imagine the task of guiding the small ball through a crowd of players with out getting kicked on your legs. I also got to play couple of times for the school team when they had shortage of regular players. I was never part of regular school team, for a couple of reasons one I was not so good and the second I was never able to go for the practice and it was mandatory to go for morning practices at about 6 AM to be part of the regular team.

The college days in St. Josephs was fun although the playing time reduced considerably, we still played whenever we could, sometimes even in the commerce college grounds. The highlight happened during my degree days (3 months before I joined engineering), we had an intra college tournament and I was the captain of my ‘class team’ and we won 6-7 matches to win the championship defeating the teams from 2nd and final year degree classes. I just can not forget the final against a third year team which had 7 players from the college team; we beat them in the penalties after a 1-1 draw in the regular time. The only goal in regular time from our team being scored by me, I also managed to score in the penalty kicks. This was great achievement as we had put together a new team from our class 40 odd students, most of us hardly knowing each other as we had joined Degree College just a month or two back.

The engineering days gave opportunity for even more football, we used to play almost every evening even compromising the time with girls/girlfriends, going for movies and of course drinking with friends, which was the most sought after activities in small town like Tumkur. For a few of us football had the top priority and everything else came a distant second. I was lucky to have room mates like Jeff and Jijo, who were equally passionate about the game. Most of the days we used to play till it becomes dark and then have a lazy walk to our house to have showers and by the time we are back from the mess after a good dinner we were completely exhausted to do anything but sleep. In our college we had the inter-departmental tournament every year and I remember I had the privilege of being in the Electronics team all the 3 years it was conducted, it was achievement to be in the team when I was in first year as we still had the last batch of annual scheme and a lot of players from 2nd to 4th year. I remember the team had more than 70 percent of players from final year and annual scheme, and there were only Rajeev and me that played from 1st year. We won the tournament all the three years and I also had the privilege of being the captain of the team when we won the tournament during my final year.

After the engineering days I still continued playing football regularly for the next 3-4 years. During this period I also experienced my most difficult time on personal front, staying alone in an isolated room for reasons I can not detail, being away from my complete family for the first and only time, football being only recreation and the saving grace. The trying times for any normal person became truly an enjoyable time for me that was the time I realized that I do not need anyone or anything in the world as long as I had football. I realised that throughout my life with its moments of despair, playing football was the most important aspect which kept me happy and healthy.

The regular work timing has almost completely stopped me from playing football since 2004, and as they say in football 6 years is a very long time, which I realized the hard way in the occasional games I play with my nephews and their friends these days. I am rusty and with a pouch the size of a small football, it is battle to keep up with the younger lot, but I still try my best.

After all these years living with football and giving it the most priority even more then some of my loved ones, I hope atleast few will be able to understand why I keep saying football is my passion. Let me conclude by quoting the famous phrase of Bill Shankly, who was a good player and even greater manager, notably for Liverpool “Some people think football is a matter of life and death. I assure you, it's much more serious than that”.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Spain falters at the first hurdle

This had to happen sometime and I believe we waited pretty long for the first upset of the 2010 World Cup. Spain the joint favorites with Brazil, was beaten by Switzerland yesterday in a match, in which they had the more than 60% of the possession of the ball. I have been a fan of Spain from the last European Cup and expected much more from them, than merely kicking the ball around.

Seeing the match I felt they lacked the pace and penetration, it was like they had 10 kg stone tied to their legs. The injury history to most of their significant players could be the only excuse they can come up with, that too is not really convincing. It was frustrating to see arguably the best strikers and midfield players unable to even score one goal.

I really get the feeling they took the game lightly and should learn a lesson or two from the Germans.

Monday, June 14, 2010

The Germans at their best

Germany Vs Australia was probably the match of the world cup till now. This has been the first time in this World cup that you saw a ‘favorite team’ play to their potential completely battering the opposition. The football showcased by the Germans was of the highest quality.

The Germans have the knack of peaking at the right time and making a significant impression in the tournament. They usually do not have the favorite’s tag, but always seems to make it to Semi or finals. This time too it may not be very different.

One really good sign is that the team has good mix of youngsters and veterans. The mix though is favoring the youngsters with Lahm being the youngest captain in German history. It was also nice to see the youngsters like Mueller rising to the occasion and making sure that the team did not miss the big name absentee, Ballack.

The team played with tremendous pace and exposed the weaknesses in the aging Australian team. I always believed goals makes the difference, and no wonder that this was the highest scoring match in the world cup so far.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

The Inter wall tames the Barcelona floods

Last night Inter Milan lost to Barcelona 0-1 in the return leg, but successfully managed to move in to the Champions league final, thanks to their first leg win by 3 goals to one. This was an extraordinary match, not for the beauty of football on display but for the defensive tactics of Inter Milan. I have not seen another match which showcased such a spectacular and spirited defensive display.

Barcelona was the defending champions and currently the best team in the world according to many, having lost to Inter in the first leg, they were expected to be at their attacking best in their home ground. Yesterday’s did nothing to indicate they were the best in the world, with all their attacking might, spearheaded by Messi, they were unable to score more than a solitary goal. That goal too loses significance when you consider that it came very late after Inter having played with just ten men for nearly 60 minutes of the game, and that too which quite clearly was an offside. Inter was unlucky to have Motta dismissed before the 30 minutes mark which hardly looked like a serious foul.

It was wonderful to see spirited defensive display of all the 10 Inter Milan players against formidable opposition and they played like their life depended on it. It was very clear to see the influence of their coach, Jose Mourinho, as not even once in the match you felt that Inter looked like losing, apart for may be the last few minutes after the goal. The confidence of the Inter players was there for all to see.

I agree that their game may not be a treat to the eye, but what is the point of kicking the ball around to entertain the audience with out scoring goals. My question is if Barcelona is the best team in the world currently, what you would call a team which convincingly beat them with a goal aggregate of 3-2 in more than 3 hours of football, having played the last one hour with only 10 men.

I read a few articles in the morning and was really surprised to find them hesitating to applaud the great effort by Inter Milan, which prompted me to write this blog. Some coaches need a great team to win matches and some coaches make any good team perform great to win matches. Jose is one of the rare ones; no wonder than he is called the ‘Special One’.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Dandeli and Goa - Part 2

GOA (11th to 14th Feb 2010)
Click here for Part 1
We left Dandeli at around 4:00 PM and took the NH4A through Ramnagar, Mollem, Ponda to Panjim. The roads are quite good but there is considerable lorry traffic. The travel is best remembered for the imaginary creation of a film story and narration of the same by Nagu and Benda. Nagu morphed into the award winning director Nagarathnam, and Marky in to the 6 pack long haired hero. The story told spontaneously for almost 30 minutes was creativity and limitless innovation at its best. The intentional humor put into the story had us in constant laughter, and even the drinks and hectic rafting in the morning could not make us sleep, atleast most of us. On the way we started calling up places to stay near Anjuna beach.

Mackey has an extraordinary talent of making calls; he has a great voice and coupled with courtesy and exceptional telephone etiquette, makes it really difficult for people not to be helpful during calls. He worked his magic and we were assured of a room at Hotel Sunshine an affiliate of Villa Anjuna, you could say almost on Anjuna beach which is usually lent out only to foreigners.

We got a feel of Goa as soon as we got close to the Anjuna beach, our Innova entering the narrow roads leading to the beach with shacks and familiar shops on both the sides, their sales mostly done for the day at about 9 PM. We did quick freshening up in the room before hitting the beach. The beach was quite with very few people outside, most of them preferring to sit and have few drinks in the beachside shacks, with the beautiful view of the beach and fond memories for company.
A shack can be described as a restaurant, usually with an open view of the beach/sea which is typical of Goa, something like a pub with open air and view. We walked the entire stretch of the beach, admiring the live music played in one of the shacks, before deciding to quench our thirst lightly in one of the shacks on the beach with a beautiful view. We went to another shack called Moonstar restaurant for dinner just few meters from our room. This shack has good food with moderate pricing and beautiful view of the sea. We also shared a few more beers here and became quite friendly with the guy named Roshan from Himachal Pradesh who was managing the shack/restaurant, a very nice and polite man, although he did tell us a white lie that chicken cost more then 300 rupees per kg in Goa.

The next day 12th Feb was a beautiful day, I was awakened in the morning by Benda and Nagu, and we three went for walk on the beach to stretch our legs or should I say our minds. We saw a foreigner with an amazing body juggling 3-4 wooden dumbbells at a time, as usual disturbed by few Indian men trying to do the same at his discomfort; this again reminded us of another interesting but difficult way of building good physique. We moved on to savor the beautiful sight of sun rays kissing the sand and water, creating ripples of glistening silver, soothing our minds and body. By the time we reached back to the room most of the others were up, and we decided to start the day with a little bit of ‘cheers’, the combination of Bacardi WR with the Jamaican breezer, too good to resist even at the odd hour.

It would be fair to say that by the time we reached for breakfast in our parent hotel Vila Anjuna, we were in good mood, and the breakfast with the view of the swimming pool was quite an experience. It was interesting to note a lot of foreigners on the beds next to the swimming pool, relaxing and having a few sips soaking in the sun. It looked like they had no plans for the day or for that matter next couple of days, it also felt little odd that they were doing this by a pool and not the beach. (A hotel with a swimming pool could be availed anywhere, why come to Goa and do it)

One of the best beaches in Goa is the Arambhol beach, about 30 odd kms from Panjim to the north. This beach is unique because if you walk about a kilometer to the sweet water lake, you will find an extraordinary setting with the serene beach on one side and a natural lake with a hilly background on the other, separated only by a few meters of sand and few temporary beds and Umbrellas. The path to the sweet water lake is also beautiful along the slope of a hill lined with small shops, and providing beautiful views of the sea and the shore filled with rocks.

We decided to take couple beds right in the middle, and ordered a few beers and also sea food, before venturing to the sea to play with the strong waves, it was fun to wait and jump towards the bigger waves, leaving yourself to be tossed around harmlessly. After a while we decided to enjoy the fresh water and moved on to the lake, also shifting our beds and umbrella, to more convenient location by the lake. We all enjoyed playing in the clear green water, which was about 10-12 feet at the deep at the centre, with just 15-20 meters wide at the place we were playing. After swimming for a while, a couple of us decided to play beach ball (with the plastic bat and ball) with a young boy who had seemingly run out of partners. Couple of our others had gone to check out if we could place some orders for food only to return as the hotel guys were having their lunch.

The events which unfolded in the next 3-5 minutes was horrendous and astonishing, one of our friends who was playing in the water ventured a little deep into the water only to be startled to realize his legs were not touching the ground and he was being pushed deeper into the water by his own mass, he grabbed the hand of other friend, who could not support his weight for too long and had to leave his hand, when he felt he was also getting sucked into the water. Soon the friends returning from the hotel spotted them and one of them ventured to help only to be pulled into the deeper waters and in many senses lot of trouble. Things were a little out of hand by the time I realized that someone was literally shouting my name for help, I immediately threw the bat aside and jumped into water and got behind our friend who started all the trouble (Sorry buddy I had to mention atleast so much), with 3-4 heavy pushes from the deeper side I was able to shove him to a place were he could stand and be helped by others. (My experience in Dandeli with Mark helping my reflexes to make the correct decision of swimming around and pushing the friend to the shore instead of giving the helping hand, which could have resulted me also being pulled to the water)

I was about to climb up to the shore, being a little shaken from the experience when others told me that one of other friends were still in the water, I went back to help him and to my comfort saw a very white body of a foreigner pushing him towards me and the shore, and then my friend put his arm around me and we both swam the couple of meters to the safety. I still think my friends were extremely lucky, that we all worked as a group and we can not thank the foreigner enough for his timely help.

On a personal front, I will never be able to forget the expression of relief on the face of my friends (After I gave the first push and when the other put his hand across my shoulders), as I realize it now, it would have been one of most significant help I provided for my close friends, and the expression of their confidence in me, to be able to help them providing me with supreme sensation of accomplishment, easily pushing aside my greatest triumphs on the football field.

We were definitely shaken but not beaten by the events, as we continued with a couple of drinks on the beds with snacks/lunch, some of us even managing to take a quick nap, discussing a thing or two about football and Formula 1 with the 2 Russian couples on our adjacent beds. By the time we left we had spent close to 5 eventful hours in the place and we managed to see a couple of other beaches, notably the one with a view and access to the fort where the Hindi movie Dil Chahta Hain was shot, before reaching Baga.

We spent a while there in the beach, seeing the huge crowd in their frenzy to enjoy the last minutes of the day, and others trying their hand at the water sports and other facilities available here. We did contemplate drinking in one of the shacks here named St. Anthony’s, which was highly recommended by the brother of our friend, finally deciding to skip it and do something near the now comfortable Anjuna.

We came back to the room and sat outside for our ‘drink’ session the snacks being provided from the Moonstar shack, we continued the session in the Moonstar shack when the crowd became less and we had our favorite table available, we also had our late dinner here and went for small walk before retiring to the rooms for a sound sleep.

We got up a little late on 13th morning and by the time we had checked out and reached a moderate looking hotel for breakfast we were famished. We had heavy breakfast few selecting the goan style NV and others Aloo Parata. Our next destination was Fort Aguada, a well-preserved Portuguese fort standing on Sinquerim beach, overlooking the vast expanses of Arabian Sea. Built in 1612 it was once the grandstand of 79 cannons with a moat around the fort providing additional protection. Inside the fort stand the 4-storey lighthouse, erected in 1864 and the oldest of its kind in Asia. Built on the mouth of river Mandovi, it was strategically located and was the chief defense of Portuguese against the Dutch and Marathas. There are amazing views of the beach and the sea from different locations in the fort.

Next we visited and offered our prayers at the Basilica of Bom Jesus, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The basilica holds the mortal remains of St. Francis Xavier. The body is preserved in a casket and is placed on the right side at a height of about 15 feet for public viewing.
The church is more than 400 years old and is located in Old Goa about 10 km from Panjim. The church also holds paintings with scenes taken from the life of St. Francis Xavier. We also visited another church which is located across the street which also has a museum attached to it.

We had a late but good fish curry lunch from Margoa, before reaching Palolem Beach by around 4:00 PM. The beach is largely unspoiled and is about one mile long and is crescent-shaped enabling one to view the whole beach from either end. Both ends of the beach consist of rocks jutting out into the sea, providing beautiful scenery. As soon as we reached Palolem, we were approached by a local man extending help to locate a good place for us to stay. He took us to the hotel, which had a number of wooden cabins standing on stone pillars, along the beach. We settled for 2 comfortable looking and relatively new cabins, and were quite thrilled by the unique accommodation which had attached bathroom and a small verandah outside each cabin. I thought at the cost of 1000 rupees a cabin it was really cool and provided us with a different experience. The man also helped us get in touch with a boatman who agreed to take us to the Honey Moon beach and Butterfly beach for 700 rupees. The butterfly beach was decided as one place we were not going to miss as I had heard and read a lot about it, and seen pictures of it had which had captivated my imagination for quite a while.
The boat ride provided quite a thrill as we were able to spot a few dolphins, occasionally jumping to provide us with the mesmerizing view of their silky grey and white skin, and showing off their skill of smooth and effortless swimming. The boat was moving against the waves, tossing around and splashes of water hitting us, making it little uncomfortable for all and especially for Deepsy who was sitting in the front, his back taking quite a beating. Benda was also not very pleased and said that they could have made the trip much more pleasurable if they had provided us with lifeboats, which I think would be very good idea to make the people comfortable. All were quite for a while, a friend also saying a little prayer for safety, I for some reason was not worried at all and even offered to sit in the front where Deepsy was sitting on the way back. However in a little while we got used to the tossing of the boat, and the splashes of water, or should we just say we were so lost in the beautiful surrounding that we forgot about everything else.

Soon we sighted the Butterfly beach and what a sight it was to see the beautiful, unspoilt and secluded beach, surrounded by hills with the clearance of just about 20-25 meters. It was like the Mother Nature had embraced this place much a like a shell, protecting it, opening a very little for her beloved people to enjoy and admire the pearl. We did not get down in the beach but went very close to get the complete view of this enchanting place, admiring nature at its very best.

Just a few meters away from this, we saw one more isolated gem of a beach, slightly wider but equally beautiful, for some strange reason called as the honey moon beach. We got down here and there were only handful of other visitors in this beach. The beach is surrounded by wilderness with a few boulders mostly along the end’s creating beautiful sight for the eye to behold. We did not realize the racing time with the fading light adding a sweet calmness, to the already peaceful surrounding, prompting us to lose ourselves in the serenity of the place. The boat ride to see the beaches and dolphins is a must if you go to Palolem, however the ride can be little intimidating and you may have to think twice especially if you have children accompanying you.
We spent an hour or two walking along the streets leading to the beach, which are lined with shops selling a variety of things like clothes, sweets, caps etc. One thing that we noticed here was that T-shirts were quite cheap and they had a lot of designs, more interestingly they had designs which were stitched apart from the usual printed ones. They had huge choice of stitched designs from the logo’s of Foreign football clubs (Including Chelsea and Arsenal), Om and different signs, animals etc. We picked up a few T-shirts for our children and also managed to buy cashew nuts and the famed Bibinca sweet (A Goan Speciality) to take home, notably being the only purchase we did.

We got back to our rooms by around 8:30. There was a Kerala Ayurvedic Massage centre in the place we were staying and couple of my friends enjoyed the relaxing Massage. There was a good shack/restaurant right in front of our cabin and we decided to spend the evening there having the right “spirits” as luck would have it they allowed us to have our own drinks, on the condition that we buy the snacks and food from there and also pay a little extra money for their cooperation. We had a glorious session here, recollecting and discussing the events of the trip apart from the usual gyan, some of us continuing the celebrations till around 2 in the morning. I also remember talking to some Swedish travelers, who were in the same state like us, about football before we finally called it a day.

The next day (same morning to most of us) we left the hotel by around 9 AM and started our long journey back to Bangalore. We had stopped for a few drinks and lunch in Haveri and for night snacks in hotel Kamat in the outskirts before reaching by around 9 PM. This trip will remain very close to our hearts as we had a wonderful time, the rafting, the boating, the shacks and the sessions, the beaches etc. bringing a smile of satisfaction whenever we recollect the experience. It also taught us to be really careful with water and understand the calmness of the water in a lake or the sea can be very deceptive. On a personal note I felt we were much more dignified in our consumption of the ‘liquids’, quite unlike the usual men only trips (especially in the college days), I just hope that it is not the signs of aging.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Inter gains the slightest advantage over Chelsea

Inter milan 2 - Chelsea 1 (Champions league last 16, first leg at San Siro)
Yesterday's match, or should I say today mornings match between Inter and Chelsea, put me into a rather interesting dilemma as to which team to support, being Chelsea supporter and Jose Mourinho fan, I guess it was quite natural to be confused. The fact that I became a Chelsea supporter mainly during the Mourinho era and this being a crucial Champions league first leg only added to the drama. So I was dilpomatic and decided not to support any team in particular and hoped the best team on the day wins.

It would be an exaggeration if I said it was a great match, I feel it failed to bring out the best football in both teams, as it usually happens in the matches between high profile teams. Chelsea defintely had more pocession and arguably created more chances but Inter looked solid in defence, except for a very ordinary effort from the keeper which resulted in a goal. Inter probably had the best chance to score, which was wasted by Eto and if you consider the freekick by Drogba which hit the crossbar it would be a fair assumption that both teams had equal chances.

It looked like Chelsea were missing the Cole's, which hindered their penetrative attacking runs from the left. Inter scored two beautiful goals thanks to milito and Cambiasso, the timings of which always gave inter the upperhand in the match. The first was in 3rd minute and second only 3-4 minutes after chelsea scored their only goal, making sure Inter was almost always leading.

After seeing Chelsea for so long, I thought they would a little more probably bringing on Joe Cole would created a little more innovation in the attacking front. It looked liked Chelsea are preserving their best for the second leg in Stamford Bridge, but having an opposition managed by their best coach in history may be the deciding factor. Whatever the result of the Second leg I am sure we will be able to watch a great match, and the results will have huge impacts in the leagues, the transfer markets and also in the personal battle of 2 of the greatest coaches in the market today.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Dandeli and Goa - Part 1

10th to 14th Feb 2010
It would not be an exaggeration if I say that this was one of our most anticipated trips. Dandeli and Goa are destinations which can awaken the spirits of even the most indolent and you can imagine what it can do for 6 active men like us (Bennish aka Benda/Ben, Mark aka Marky, Mahesh Aka Mackey, Deepak Aka Deepsie, Nagendra aka Nagu and me aka Sunda/Josie). I do not think many can blame us for planning to be lost in the right “spirits’.

We started the Journey from the Infant Jesus church after a small prayer for protection on the 10th of Feb, 2010. We took the Tumkur-Chitradurga-Davangere-Shiggaon-Tadas-Kalghatgi-Haliyal-Dandeli route, which looked like the best route to reach Dandeli according to Google maps and also for the fact that we were traveling in NH4 most of the way and about 80 Kms of state highway. We picked up a couple of Bacardi’s from the St. Marks road and it took about an hour for us to start our first drink session in the innova itself, which finished just before dinner in a Dhaba near Haveri.

The travel on the NH was mostly comfortable apart from the fact the never ending constructions were still in progress at some stretches making sure one could never fully admire the roads. Things changed as soon as we left the NH, the first surprise was that there was no sign board or lighting before the diversion to the narrow road leading to Tadas from the NH, infact we did not even realize there was a road there until Mahesh who was tracking the route using his GPS enabled mobile phone, told us that we had missed the way. The road from Tadas to Kalghatgi was bad with atleast 5 kms stretch just having nothing called tar, it was a mud road with the usual potholes. But none of us, even in our wildest imagination were prepared for the condition of the road, from Kalghtagi to Haliyal, in some of the stretches there was hardly anything you could call road, it was really shocking to know that it was supposed to be a State Highway. One thing we all agreed was usefulness of a GPS enabled phone, if it were not for that, we would have been stranded till morning in the middle of what seemed nowhere, with literally no sign boards to guide us. I am sure the next phone I buy will be GPS enabled, thanks to the condition of state highways in Karnataka. My sincere advice to anyone who is planning to visit Dandeli is to take the Bangalore - Hubli - Haliyal route.

We reached Dandeli at about 1:30 AM, my cousin Ben had arranged for a homestay package including river rafting, unfortunately the contact person Manju, who had called us couple of times on the way to confirm the time we reach there, was not reachable from last 2 hours, our concern was doubled when we came to know that his mobile was switched off. We had no choice but to take a 4 bed room in the hotel opposite the bus stand for 1000 rupees, the room was quite bad and unclean, worst was as soon we got onto the bed we felt like there was something itching (a very slight but definite sensation of irritation), we were all a little uncomfortable but the beauty of the group was that no one really complained. Then for our luck we got a call from Manju asking us where we were, it was an experience to see the expression on Ben’s face when he was talking to Manju, there was noticeable attempt to contain the blunt anger, which turned to relief at the hope of escaping from the horrible room. Ben was confused for a minute and said he will callback to confirm if we are going to Manju’s place, we all unanimously agreed to go there even before the question was completed. There was room for more drama as Ben tried to call Manju and his phone was not reachable. It was big relief when Manju called and confirmed that he will come to pick us up, we got out of the room, collected 800 from the hotel owner after giving him 200 for the very short, unpleasant stay we had there.

We reached the home stay at 3 AM. The home stay was in the private guest house, surrounded by nature and the rooms were quite good and comfortable. At the rate of 1800 per person for the stay, breakfast and lunch, a guided morning trek and river rafting it was very economical (It would cost 2500 rupees if dinner and the Safari were included).

We decide to skip the morning Safari as it was impossible to getup at 5:30 AM after sleeping at 3:30 AM, we got up by 8:00 and went for small guided trek through wilderness to see a small temple and a Cross erected in the hills by the locals.

The trek was good with our young guide taking us through the small narrow footpath, surrounded by wilderness wrapped in the soft mist, taking us to the Cross which gave us beautiful view of the hills and the plains below.

We left for the much anticipated rafting in a jeep, after a delicious breakfast, enjoying the beautiful view of the Supra Dam and the reservoir on the way.

The rafting was done in the Kali river, basically having class 2 and 3 rapids, for a 9 kilometres stretch from a place close to Ganeshgudi to another place about a kilometer from the Dandeli town. There was just another family of father, mother and a teenage daughter, who was staying next to our guest house, for rafting as it was a weekday. Soon the rafts arrived and the two guides Sunil and Muhammed, split us into two teams of the 4 each (Ben, Nagu, Father & Daughter in one and Macky, Marky, Deepsie and me in the other), made us wear the life jackets and helmets according to our sizes. In the boat we got instructions on how to row front and back, how to kneel down with the oars etc. The when we were in the middle of the river, the guide Sunil asked us to jump down to the river to get confident with our life jackets.Deepak was first to go with Me and Mahesh following him, Mark refused as he had done rafting before. I know to swim a little and found it very comfortable with the life jackets on. We soon got into the rafts and started our experience, and what an experience it was, I was sitting in the front with Deepak and as we approached the first rapid we felt a little anxious as we could not see the river below from a distance, we rowed to the rapid and got down to the floor of the raft, looking out with sheer joy as we went through the rapid, the power of the water making the raft move randomly down, with the water gushing at us simultaneously, creating a unmatchable bliss which has to be experienced to be believed. There are 8-9 rapids on the 9 km stretch the first rapid being the best, the cruise down the river is a great experience, the river, with crystal clear water flowing around the trees, creating marvelous scenery blending with the surrounding wilderness, and the occasional sightings of attractive and rare birds like the long tailed hornbill providing the icing on the cake.

There are other stretches in the river where you can swim, and we all decided to jump down again. Mark jumped down last and with one look at his face I knew he was not comfortable, he was struggling and I instinctively held on to his life jacket and repeatedly told him to calm down. It was a matter of few seconds before he realized that he could easily float with the life jacket on, but those few seconds were enough to make me comprehend the power of a man (who thought he was drowning), making me realize that he could easily pull me down with him if not for the life jackets. The experience, I feel did come in handy for me to help a friend in another situation, which I will explain a little later.

One of the best part of the rafting is ‘Surfing’ which can be described as an attempt to go up a rapid in vain, making the water gush at you pushing the raft down, and experience 3-4 splash of water, throwing you and the raft of balance and hitting you with force of about 15-20 buckets of water thrown together each time. The words fail me to detail the absolute joy we felt, the marvelous sensation embedded in our minds, instilling us to try it again. We did surfing 4-5 times before we were totally exhausted. It was almost 2:30 by the time we reached back to the guest house; we freshened up and sat out to have a round of MHB, which Manju got for us before having delicious buffet meal with Chicken dry and Chicken curry along with other excellent veg dishes. The food here is excellent and got better votes from Mark (The food expert from our gang, whose quality of single minded focus on food is something to be admired), who also have stayed and experienced the cuisine in the Jungle Lodges.

For the benefit of the people who plan to visit Dandeli, it is about 480 kms from Bangalore and will take about 10 hours. The river rafting has to booked in advance and you need atleast 2 days to see and experience the things here. Apart from rafting which will easily take 4-5 hours, you have the jungle safari of about 3-4 hours, the forest trek/nature walk and interesting places like the Syntheri/Cyntheri Rocks, Kavala Caves which will take 3-4 hours. There are places like the Jungle Lodges, Bison river resort and few other resorts here to stay which will arrange all the activities for you. The cost of staying in these resorts along with the activities would come around 3500 a day per person. The guest house/home stay is a little cheaper at about 3500 for two days (2500 for one day as it includes river rafting and 1000 odd for the second day) compromising a little on the luxury aspects. Manju is in charge of the Guest house and also provides sleeping tents and can be contacted at 9900671757 or 9449175001.