The Cinnamon Journey

Variety is the spice of life”, it is said.  What better way to seek variety than to go on a journey. That is what this lady from Indonesia has been doing. She has travelling to places of pilgrimage all over South and South East Asia. The Cinnamon Journey is a record of her sightings and musings during her travels.

To start with, I must say I found the title very catchy. The word cinnamon has a rather exotic feel to it and kind of excited me to immediately go and check out this blog. The motif designs in the background kind of keeps with the title and maintains the exotic Oriental feel. The dark background inside for the posts gives a good effect to the photos. So I would give full marks for the title and background. My philosophy is simple background for picture blog, attractive thematic backgrounds for text blog.

I would not really put this blog with the regular travel blogs. I would prefer to put it in the personal blogs category.  Her purpose is to capture her internal spiritual journey through pictures and words as she makes a physical journey through places of pilgrimages in Asia. She also points out her specialty is her personal musings around the history and culture of the places she visits. That is the most endearing aspect of the blog. The photos are also more offbeat and not the typical ones on travelogues. They are of the sights that made her think and she honestly shares her thoughts with us. So we get to see places through her eye.

Talking of the overall quality of content, the photographs are excellent. The writing is interesting though a bit weak on the language side. The importance of grammatical correctness has always been a matter of debate. Bad language is only a problem when it distracts the reader from the content and becomes an irritant. Here that is definitely not the case. I find the usage somewhat cute, if I can call it that. Most of Asians talk similar kind of English. So it adds to the general authentic Oriental ambiance of the blog.

 Coming to the areas that can be improved, the overall readership and traffic seems quite low for a blog that has been active for close to 3 years. I can think of three reasons for this. There is hardly any navigational support. There seems to be very limited interaction with readers. The content is too personalized. Let me take up each of these aspects separately.

The archives are the only way to navigate the blog. Even labels have not been used effectively. So it is very difficult to access and read old posts unless reader is very passionate and wants to pore over the entire archives. Definitely a lot of work needs to be done in terms of navigational widgets and more effective use of labels.

In general the volume of comments is low. However even the few comments that come don’t seem to be responded to. Musing kind of posts can trigger lot of discussions with others sharing their experiences. The blogger should reply to every comment and promote more discussion to improve reader engagement.

In terms of scope of content, I feel it is too narrow.  A little bit more offline research on history and legends surrounding the place and some more structure to the content can make it more broad-based. Inclusion of the things such as logistic details of getting to places, shopping, climatic conditions etc. can attract people looking for travel guides as well.

Overall I would say it is sweet and nice blog. If one is interested in places of pilgrimage in South East Asia, this is a good blog. One can also see Indian places of pilgrimage from a different view point here. I have given below a sample of best posts selected by the blogger herself as a starting point to explore her blog.

1. Home of Shiva
2. Its all about Faith
3. Loro Blonyo
4. The Last night at Ganga Arti
5. Saigon Destination - Cao Dai Temple

Three things I want to change - I, me and myself

Slaying the Monster

After years of hunting, I was face to face with the monster. Its innocuous looks could not deceive me. Its deadly green eyes gave it away. I slashed at it in all my righteous fury. Die, you vermin! A drop of blood touched the floor as a shard from the shattering mirror hit my face

A Backbite Victim's Tale

I was deeply hurt. I had always considered Amit a close friend. And he had been making uncharitable comments about me behind my back. What would my image be in front of the team now! Back biting was something I hated the most. If only there was some way one can banish all these wretched backbiters from this world.

A few days had passed.  I was having tea with my colleagues. We were having a good laugh at the stupidity of our new manager Raj. He had done his MBA from some top Business School. But when it came to technical matters he was a total dunce. Then suddenly a thought passed my mind. Wasn’t what we were doing exactly what back biting was all about? How would Raj feel if he came to know about what we were saying about him behind his back?

My wish had come true. I now had at least one backbiter in my power who I could banish from this world – me. But back biting was just an effect. What was the cause? Few moments of pondering and the answer presented itself – jealousy.

Fair Wages

This is unfair, master. I have been slogging since morning. He has only been working for the past one hour. But you are giving both of us the same wages.

The master replied calmly, “Am I or am I not giving you what I promised when you started work.

He had no answer to that.

Comparisons - A zero sum game 

But what was the cause for the jealousy at the work place? I decided to probe deeper. It was not as if everyone was jealous of everyone else. There were specific patterns to this jealousy that I wanted to unravel. Amit was jealous of me because in spite of both of us having the same level of seniority and exhibiting same level of capability, I had got the promotion ahead of him. In case of Raj, I was jealous that he was my manager in spite of being the same age as me just by the merit of having done a MBA.

If I could generalize the root cause of jealousy in this context, it is the feeling that the other person deserved less but is getting more. International surveys have also shown employees’ happiness with their salaries was not absolute but more in comparison with what their peers were earning. But this kind of comparison is ultimately a zero sum game and it has to change. And the change has to start with me.  I need to learn to look at things from an absolute perspective and not relative to my peers.

The King and the Snake

The snake bit King Nala and he transformed into a dark skinned hunchback.

Is this how you repay me for saving your life?” he seethed in fury.

This is for you own good. You will now be safe from your enemies. They would not be able to recognize you in this form”, replied the snake.

A silver lining on a dark cloud

I have solved one part of the problem. I should stop back biting. But there still would always be others who would backbite about me. And that would continue to hurt me. What am I to do about that?

Well as they say there is a silver lining to every dark cloud. One just has to look for the silver lining. And the silver lining here is this: it can serve as a feedback mechanism for self improvement. After all there can’t be smoke without fire. If someone says something about you, it must have at least some basis in truth. And that bitter truth is something your office colleagues might be hesitant to share openly with you in a professional environment.

There are so many things about oneself that falls in one’s blind spot.  Whatever you hear said about you behind your back is the critical feedback that you need for your improvement. That is the reason kings in ancient times used to go around the city in disguise to hear what people are saying about them behind their back I guess. It would of course hurt to hear such things said about you. But often I have found things that hurt are the ones that helped me become a better person. So if one takes it positively and is looking to change and grow, even back biting might serve a constructive role after all.

Writer's note:

Here I have attempted to combine 55 fiction with a philosophical musings kind of post. All three stories are 55 fiction, stories told in exactly 55 words. The first is entirely my own, second is based on a biblical parable, the third based on a  story from Indian mythology.

Picture Credits (In the order of appearance)

1. Green eyed Monster
2. Toiling laborers
3. Biting Snake

First plunge into chilly waters

As long as one is within the protected environs of one’s home, the whole world looks scary and one fears to venture out. I was once discussing with a friend about adventure fiction by one naturalist Willard Price. I mentioned how I longed I could have that kind of nature adventures. But he was more practical. He said he really enjoyed reading those books as well but he preferred to enjoy the thrills in the safety of his couch curled up with the book rather than expose himself to real hazards. Though I argued with him a lot, I realized I too had indulged only in arm chair adventures so far. I longed for something more real. But I was set in my habits, my activities and my friends. I had no clue where to start. Then suddenly out of the blue, an opportunity came my way. I blindly took the plunge without thinking. Like the first dip into chilly waters!

I was quite a reserved guy by nature and mostly confined myself to a select group of friends at college. I was in one of my close friends' room when four guys burst in. I kind of knew them vaguely. I had had a minor run in with one of them in the first year and he had stopped talking to me the past 3 years. I was busy finishing some assignment that was due the following Monday. I did not even bother to raise my head to acknowledge them. These guys had just completed an exam and were planning to go on a trek to a nearby waterfall to de-stress. They had come to my friend to borrow money from him for the trek. He lent them the money but politely declined the offer to join in on the trek. He was not really the trekking type. For some reason these guys decided to do me the courtesy of the offer as well.

Normally I would have returned the courtesy with a polite refusal and they would have got on with their trek. But I don’t know what came over me that day.

Thanks for inviting me. Sure I will join

They too were probably not expecting this and seem to have been taken aback by my response.

It’s a very tough trek. We will have to sleep in the open tonight and then tomorrow morning we would need to climb 5-6 hours.

They probably thought this might intimidate me. But instead that further steeled my resolve.

No problem. I am coming

They tried one last ditch attempt.

But we have to leave in 5 minutes or we will miss the last train.

But I had made up my mind.

Give me 2 minutes”, I said and went inside my room, pulled out a backpack and stuffed in whatever clothes I could lay my eyes on. Then I opened the drawer and pulled out whatever currency notes I could find and stuffed them into my pocket. In exactly 2 and a half minutes, I was ready for my first adventure.

We had to take the local train to this village Gummidipoondi on the Andhra Tamil Nadu border. From there we had to catch a bus to Tada where this waterfall was located. We had to reach before sunset if we hoped to make it to the base camp by nightfall. But the first bus was too crowded and the next bus was after 2 hours. Needless to say by the time we reached the village in Tada, it was well into the night. So we had to find a place to sleep in the village itself. That did not seem much of a challenge to me. Some hotel or lodge was sure to have a room free. But then there was a small catch here. There were no hotels or lodges in that little village.

We knocked at the door of one of the larger houses and asked if we could get a place to stay. They asked us to make ourselves comfortable on the open Veranda of the house. It was the first time I would be sleeping without a roof over my head. The idea kind of excited me.But my spirit was dampened when I saw who would be our sleeping companions: a drunkard and three stray dogs!

The drunkard was fast asleep. He had his mouth open and was snoring loudly. The place reeked with the smell of alcohol. We decided to ignore our new companions and go to sleep with our backpacks as pillows. But we could hardly get a wink of sleep. If the dogs were not barking, the drunkard would be snoring or muttering in his sleep. And the overall surroundings kept the mind on red alert and sleep would just not come.

We were relieved when the sun finally rose. We got up immediately and left without even stopping to thank our hosts. We were not too sure if they would be too happy to be woken up so early in the morning. The starting point of the trek was pretty close by and it was a pleasant trek for the first couple of hours. Then the sun started beating down upon us in all its ferocity. Also the path was not as scenic as I had expected. Most of the leaves had dried up and not too much greenery could be seen.

It was quite an arduous climb. But we maintained a steady pace and within a couple of hours we were at the base camp. Soon we were by the waterfall and stream. We stripped down and got into the water and had fun for an hour or so. There was a long tree branch jutting right over the water. We climbed on to it and sat there chit chatting for a while. By now I had been accepted as part of the group. One of the guys had brought a packet of cigarettes. He lit one and passed it around as we relaxed on the branch. I was not a smoker. Nor did I intend to become one. But I had managed to find a place in the group with great difficulty and did not want to lose out on the camaraderie by acting like a wet blanket. So I also took a puff and almost immediately let it out and passed on the cigarette. I don’t know why. But somehow smoking tends to foster male bonding.

By now we were hungry. My companions had brought along kerosene, cooking vessels and Maggi noodles. We went around looking for dried branches fallen on the ground. Since it was summer, finding fire wood was not much of a challenge. We gathered some water from the waterfall and soon we had some Maggi cooking. This whole process of finding firewood and cooking in the middle of wilderness reminded me of Tom Sawyer and Enid Blyton adventure stories. Finally the Maggi was ready. I had never imagined just plain Maggi could be so delicious. Maybe it was the hunger or the natural surroundings or just my mental state. But at that moment I found the noodles just amazing. For drinking water, we gathered water straight from the water fall. I am usually very finicky about hygiene and drink only packaged water and insist on washing my hands before I eat. But somehow all that seemed part of a different world, a different time. I was now in a world where old rules no longer applied.

It was still afternoon and we had a lot of time with us. So we decided to climb up further to the middle camp. However we decided to leave our bags at base camp. We had not seen a single soul in the vicinity since morning and we were sure our bags would be safe. The trek to middle camp was tougher. But that was fully compensated by mind blowing views we got of rock formations and waterfalls. I had never seen anything like that ever before in my life. I was so inspired by the sights that I forgot my tiredness and insisted that we should carry on next to top camp as well. But my friends were mindful of the time constraints and decided to head back to base camp.

A nasty surprise greeted us at the base camp. All our bags were gone. There was absolutely no trace of them anywhere. Everything was gone, including our clothes. Luckily we had kept our money with us. We knew we had no hope of recovering our lost items in the midst of this wilderness. So with a Stoic air, we began our descent. As they say misfortunes seldom come alone. Though I had managed the trek very well, same could not be said of my shoes. One of my shoes opened up at the toe and it became impossible to walk with the shoe on. So I had to dispose of the shoe. So I covered the rest of the journey with one foot bare. I must have looked a clown in tee-shirt and shorts with a shoe on only one foot. The rest of the trip was uneventful except for a moment of gaping on sighting a girl in modern dress at Gumidipoondi. By night fall we were back at our rooms.

My mother always used to say the best part of the journey is the obstacles you face and how you overcome them. If it is just the scenery, one can as well just see them on television or read about them on a book and be satisfied. The challenges are what contribute to real excitement. So true! To date I cherish the memories of my first trek.

This post is an entry for Incredible Stories contest sponsored by Mahindra 

Picture Credits

This post describes an event from 12 years back when I was not even aware of the existence of something called a digital camera. So obviously I have no original photos to post. However I have put some pictures from the net to break the monotony of reading. Find below the picture credits in the order of appearance in the post.

1. Backpackers
2. House Veranda
3. Branch over water
4. Cooking with fire wood
5. Tada Waterfall views

Team g square

Why do we travel? Of course some of us are forced to travel in order to keep up with professional and family commitments. Let us leave that aside and again ask ‘Why do we Travel’? Everyone gets so excited about going on vacations. Is it really worth all the hype? I have been pondering this question for a long time. I have tried to find some meaning in vacations. One of the things I discovered was learning new things on each vacation – like rock climbing, skiing, snorkeling etc. Another thing is collecting souvenirs from different places. I am still on the lookout for more answers. Team G Square blog is one place that has brought me very close to the answer I have been looking for. The authors of this blog– a husband and wife team really know how to really squeeze every last drop of value from a vacation. They have managed to experience every place they visit in an entirely holistic manner and capture the same in their blog. They have captured the natural landscape, the local myths & legends, the flora & fauna, the history and the architecture and beautifully present it to us through pictures and words on the blog.

The strongest point of the blog according to me is the true passion for travel underlying the digital manifestations of the same on the blog. The truly passionate traveler can derive much more value at a spot 2 hours from home than a typical vacationer from an exotic foreign location. One can find a wealth of information scattered all around this blog – about logistic details related to travel to specific places, about flora & fauna, about history and about architecture. The blog also has good navigational constructs to help a new reader explore information related to his specific areas of interested. There are drop boxes with heads under different categories from which the reader can choose based on his or her interest and view all posts related to that topic. Additionally the 'popular post' widget and 'related post' widget further guide easy navigation. 

There were some areas which I felt could have been done slightly better. To start with, I felt the name of the blog could have been stronger. Possibly the name has a strong personal association for the bloggers. But for a new reader, it does not convey any information on the nature of the contents. It does pique one’s curiosity though, which is a good thing. However no explanation has been given about the genesis of the name to create a recall in the reader’s mind. I could certainly suggest giving an explanatory note about the reason for the name.

Green is the color of nature and a green color background is a natural choice for a blog that places a lot of premium on nature. However the green on this blog is kind of dull and is not as vibrant and full of life as it should be. A darker background would have also been a good choice considering the number of wonderful photos taken in bright lighting posted on this blog. I find darker backgrounds tend to amplify the effect of bright photographs.

Coming to the content, whereas it is rich in information, more can be done on the style and presentation. The current method of presentation is a strong focus on the pictures from the trip and a little bit of background information. I feel it is like a set of loose threads and does not appear tight knit. The narratives can be made much more interesting if it is has more structure and it all ties in together like a story. Also a little more of personal touch in the narrative can help connect better to the readers.

The one remaining aspect is interaction. Like most travel bloggers, the level of interaction is not very high. If traffic is more, replying to everyone can be tough. But responding to everyone can help retain readers and develop a loyal reader base in addition to the floating traffic from search engines. Also a section for readers to ask general questions about travel in Karnataka can greatly improve interaction.

Overall I would say an excellent blog for people wanting to know more about places to visit in Karnataka and also for the confused travelers like me seek
ing to find the true essence of travel. I present below a few posts selected by the author as a trial sample.

A journey to the land of rice fields

It was early morning. Night had taken its time and cooled the huge rock that overlooked the city. It would take just two hours for the sun to undo the night’s entire 8 hours effort. But luckily we were up and could enjoy these 2 hours of pleasant weather. I was not sure how many of my friends would have agreed with me though. Many of them would have placed a higher premium on 2 hours of extra sleep on Sunday morning.

I sat at the window seat on the bus to Vayalur. My mom sat next to me. We had recently moved to Trichy and this was my first visit to this temple. My mother was visiting this temple after 15 years and she was very excited.
As you know God Muruga is my favorite God. And Vayalur has always been my favorite temple. I used to come here often during my school and college days. The memories of my last visit to this temple are still fresh in front of my eyes as if it happened yesterday. I had come with my entire college batch after the completion of our MA final exams. We were a group of 15 girls in the economics department. One of them was a Christian but she had also come along anyways keeping with the group spirit. We had come to pray that all of us pass the exam and complete our MA successfully. We all were a close knit group and there was no cut throat competition those days. Today there are so much more job opportunities than my time. Yet instead of becoming cooperative the environment in education institutions has become all the more competitive.

I nodded in agreement. By now the bus was moving at full speed. At this time there were not too many passengers and the ambiance inside the bus was rather pleasant. We could not talk any more as the bus driver had started playing music. The song that was playing was Kanda Shasti Kavasam, a devotional song extolling the divine qualities of God Muruga. The song brought back some pleasant memories. This was one of my mother’s favorite songs. I remembered sitting with her in the pooja room at 6.00 every evening during my summer vacation and reciting after her. It was a really lengthy hymn that took around half an hour to recite fully. Initially I would get bored and impatient. But eventually my mother’s persistence had paid off and I had come to enjoy this activity. Unconsciously I was now reciting within my mind after the singer on the bus stereo phone.

While my mind was held captive by the song, my eyes latched on to the wonderful scenery outside. Wherever one looked, only one color caught your eye - green. There were rice fields, coconut groves, a few mango trees and a few settlements scattered here and there, mostly belonging to the farmers. The air was fresh and it felt really good. I turned and looked at my mother. She also had a kind of distant entranced kind of look. Clearly the environment had been working its magic on her as well. I soon returned back to my own reverie. I didn't know how much time passed when suddenly the bus conductor decided to dispel the spell. We had arrived at our destination. The bus stopped with a jerk, the song stopped playing and the conductor was shouting in his hoarse voice for everyone to get down.

The place Vayalur also was extremely scenic surrounded by fields on all 4 directions. I wondered if the name of the place itself came from this fact. In Tamil, ‘Vayal’ means field and ‘Ur’ means town or village. This Muruga temple in the midst of all these beauties of nature reminded me of a story my grandfather used to tell me of how God Muruga had wooed his consort Valli. I would have imagined a similar place as the setting for that story. Valli had been a tribal girl and God Muruga had appeared before her in the middle of the fields as an old man. He had proposed to her in this guise and she had spurned his advances. Then the God Ganesha, the brother of Muruga had appeared before them in the form of an elephant to frighten her. In her fear, she had agreed to marry the old man in return for protecting her from the elephant. Of course this is basically a summary version of the story. It was much more interesting the way my grandfather narrated it. However my mother always insisted that her grandfather could narrate it even better. Her grandfather had been part of the village theatrical group and so he could narrate the story in a dramatic way accompanied by dance and songs.

The temple was quite small compared to some of the other temples in and around Trichy. There was a temple pond opposite to the temple. One could see a shoal of fish swimming around lazily in the pond. There was not too much rush at the temple. So it did not take much time for us to reach the main shrine. The shrine had a really divine aura. Since there was no crowd, we could stand there and partake of the divine beauty of the idol for how much ever long we wished. After standing there for some time, we took some holy water, walked three rounds around the temple, sat at the courtyard for a while and were soon ready to leave. As we were leaving, much to our delight, a peacock flew down and alighted in front of us. It was the first time I was seeing a peacock outside a zoo and I was very excited to see thus beautiful creature. It looked breathtaking in its entire colorful splendor. Seeing a peacock at a Muruga temple is also considered a good sign as the peacock is the God’s steed.

We were soon on our way back. This time the bus was more crowded. Now they were playing the latest Tamil movie songs. Only dawn was the time for devotion. Rest of the day was for enjoying the worldly pleasures. But these small distractions did not affect my serene state of mind till we reached home.

Within an hour of reaching home, mother had idlis ready for breakfast. They were some of the best idlis I have had ever had. The batter had been hand grinded by my mother. Always idlis that are made from hand grinded batter taste better than those made from batter made on electrical grinders or mixers. Moreover, these idlis had that ingredient X that hotel idlis can never have – mother’s love. That gave the idlis a really heavenly taste.

Overall it had been one of the most satisfying days of my life that I remember even 15 years later. Looking back at each event of the day separately, they look petty and mundane. But taken together like the different threads woven to form a tapestry, one can see the contours of something really charming. Add to it the past memories and associations with each of the little events, the whole thing seems nothing short of pure magic. That’s what I call a real experience.

All pictures are taken from google images. They are all generic photos without clear ownership. If anyone claims these photos, I would be willing to take them down and pick up alternate ones from millions of similar ones available on the net.

For whom the bell tolls

A book of faces