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Why I wouldn’t go back to Phnom Penh

The bus ride from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh was fairly uneventful, the so called highway was nothing more than a never ending dusty stretch of land, and by the end of it, we were pretty glad that we hadn’t attempted to drive around on our own.

A short Tuk Tuk ride from the bus stand took us to our hotel, The Plantation. I had read rave reviews about this hotel, as one of the best places to stay in this city and I wasn’t disappointed. The hotel is really artistic, the staff is very friendly and helpful, the buffet breakfast is fantastic, and the spa, totally relaxing (we were offered a discount which I obviously availed 😛). But the absolute best part is the huge pool with cabanas along it’s length, where you can relax endlessly with your drinks and books, and when the sun gets too much, just walk down few steps and jump right into the pool!

The giant pool at The Plantation

The giant pool at The Plantation (the cabanas are on the left, you can somewhat see them here if you look closely)

The room

The pretty room overlooking the pool

I had two days in Phnom Penh which I spent mostly at the pool and spa in our hotel, visiting the Killing Fields, sampling amazing cuisine at Romdeng and Friends, buying souvenirs at the Russian market, walking across the waterfront and enjoying a meal at one of the local café’s right opposite it. While that sounds like quite a bit, I must be honest in admitting that I didn’t really enjoy Phnom Penh. It’s not a city that made any impression on me, at least not a positive one, which is exactly why I wouldn’t go back a second time.

I recall that on our first night we decided to have dinner at the very famous Romdeng, which wasn’t even a kilometer away, so we wanted to walk the route. Our hotel strongly discouraged us and asked that we take a Tuk Tuk since pick pocketing was common on the road. We didn’t pay heed, since it wasn’t too late in the night(8 pm) and presumably safe. While walking in a fairly well lit lane, we were followed by this guy on a bike, constantly circling around us and it did scare us a bit. We clutched our wallets and phones tightly and walked hasty steps till we reached the restaurant. And this wasn’t the only instance, all of which eventually led us to leaving our phones, cards (even my earrings behind) carrying only the minimum possible cash. This left me edgy and uncomfortable for the most part, and as a traveler that is pretty disappointing. I have also known of others who have experienced this – a friend who went to Phnom Penh on a work trip was elbowed by a guy on a bike and had her bag snatched. This was while she was walking with another colleague in broad daylight. She bravely held on to her bag and the bike guy had to let go.

I had a fantastic time in Cambodia but Phnom Penh was probably the only place in my entire trip where I didn’t feel safe and welcomed – it seemed like everyone from the Tuk Tuk driver, to the roadside vendor was out to rip us off.

Possibly the only thing that you may want to specially visit Phnom Penh for is the Killing Fields and Genocide museum. These are the biggest tourist draws to Phnom Penh, and while one may argue why such a place has been opened to tourists, I do think seeing these places will offer you an insight into Cambodian history like nothing else. It is said that every Cambodian today, over the age of 50 has witnessed and survived Pol Pot’s extreme regime, every family has experienced this horror.

I visited only the Killing Fields and I can tell you that it is definitely not an easy place to visit. Under Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge, nearly one third of the population was killed or died out of starvation. The killing fields were where these mass executions were carried out and one of these is now open to public viewing. Since bullets were expensive, people were killed by torture, slitting their throats by sharp leaves, hacked by hammers, rods or hung from trees. The “killing tree” was used to kill babies, by smashing their skulls on this tree. The experience is disturbing and horrific. During rains, many times skulls, bones and clothes rise to the ground surface even today. A giant stupa now acts as a memorial for all those who lost their lives and displays skulls and bones of the victims, which were recovered from the mass graves. It is unimaginable, chilling, painful.

We walked back in silence, the air still, heavy and foreboding, and skipped going to the Genocide Museum that day.

Cambodia is now opening up to tourists from all across the globe, but it is a country which is still getting back on its feet, one day at a time. In a warped way, I could make sense of my discomfort, understand why locals are always out to make an extra buck, why you need to be careful with your belongings lest someone snatch them – I can’t justify any of this, but I could understand it.Somewhat.

The memorial, Killing Fields

The memorial, Killing Fields

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Have you visited Phnom Penh? Would love to know of your experience in the comments section.

The alternate world in Copenhagen’s backyard – Freetown Christiana

I chugged along on my bicycle, occasionally stopping to take a quick look at the map on my phone till I could see the entrance to Christiana. I turned to B, who was right behind me and with a quick nod of agreement, we decided to a few more minutes of cycling till we were officially “outside of the European union” and inside Christiana.

We found a good spot to park our bicycles and decided to walk around. As history goes, Freetown Christiana was established in 1971 by a group of hippies, who broke down barricades to an abandoned military base and eventually built a society, with its own rules, laws, currency, completely independent of the Danish government and “considered outside of it”. Over the years, this community built houses, workshops and cafes, experimented with green building techniques, solar energy and water-treatment systems to reduce their ecological footprint. Many small businesses flourished and the place attracted artists and musicians, free thinkers who found it a haven. In 1973, the government gave Christiana the temporary status of a “social experiment” which allowed the town to persist, and 16 years later with a majority vote in the parliament, this squat was made officially legal.

But can such a Utopian world really sustain?

YES, there are over 900 people living in the town today, many of them third generation.

As we walked around, we saw these houses and sheds and murals and art and boutiques. There was even a community center and a movie theater. Residents were out and about, sitting on their porch, walking their dogs and just going about their daily business.

We were distracted by a sound, a woman’s voice but coming from a speaker. Intrigued, we followed the sound, to be led to a large garden in which a huge crowd had gathered. Everyone had a green balloon in their hand, those who didn’t were offered one by the volunteers. The woman on the mike was asking more people to join in, to what exactly was unclear to us. As we got closer to the crowd, a lady approached me and offered a balloon. I asked her what it was for, she smiled sweetly and said something I couldn’t quite comprehend. I held on to my balloon, confused what to do with it. The woman on the mike suddenly began a countdown, 10,9,8,7,6,5,4,3,2,1 and shouted “Legalize Cannabis”, everyone released their balloons in the air and chanted the same, like a slogan. It felt strange and stupid to be standing there, taking a part in something that I had no reference point of and did not endorse. Why were these people fighting to legalize drugs, and what point of view did I have on it to stand there and release a balloon, for god’s sake. I felt disturbed.

B and I walked away and decided to get a coffee, we sat in a small café, quietly sipping our coffees, confused with what had just passed. As we got up to leave, we heard loud music on the street and came out to see people dancing and drinking, like it was a carnival. A few makeshift stalls had come up, out of nowhere, and we could see that they were selling cannabis. A tourist tried to click a photo, and immediately 2 men came from behind the stand and took his phone and I would presume, deleted the photos. You are not allowed to click pictures, specifically where the cannabis trade is done, its written everywhere on street signs in the town. Don’t ignore it.

We left this scene and walked around an area which was like a flea market, selling t-shirts, food, jewelry, crafts, and household items. I would hope it was all locally made, but knowing that Christiana is the second most popular tourist attraction while visiting Copenhagen, I can’t be sure if it is outside businesses making sunshine.

We reached our bicycles and decided to head back. It was an odd experience, but it felt like there was more to the place than what I saw in the afternoon, so I decided to do some research online. I learnt that Cannabis is still illegal in Denmark, however Christiana allowed for it since the beginning.  Since the town is a “Freetown”, the government tolerated it. Initially the trade was run locally and by small businessmen, but how long could bigger gangs keep away? The trade was too lucrative for that.

Raids have been conducted in Christiania many times to keep a check on drug sales on a street names Pusher Street but none got as violent as in 2016, when a police officer was injured by a gunshot.  The residents were upset and decided to have a meeting where it was unanimously decided to shut down Pusher Street. The current version of the trade is probably very small and patchy from used it used to be.

Since then, Copenhagen officials are trying to legalize cannabis so that the trade can be controlled effectively. The proposal has been rejected multiple times in the past. What happens in the future is anyone’s guess.

The internet is full of videos and articles from the residents, who claim to want to nurture and protect the spirit of Christiana, which is self-sustainable, free thinking and independent. Where everyone is equal and has a voice. Where the community is supreme. Where creativity is valued. Most express disappointment that the focus largely remains on the Cannabis trade, which they say is a part of the ecosystem but not the whole system itself.

The more I read about the place, the more I realized that my first encounter was a bit deceptive. I was a passerby in an ecosystem that I did not understand, and I found it comforting to paint everything with one stroke and generalize. The reality turns out to be far more complex. One can have an opinion on an ideology, and even disagreement with certain aspects of it, but it is incredible that a place like Christiana can exist and sustain itself for over 46 years.  What will its future be like, I am curious to know. But if only for its spirit, you should go see it – With an open mind.

A Laid-back Weekend in Copenhagen

One would wonder how a city break could be termed “laid-back” but that was the thing about Copenhagen. Its compact size and easy, relaxed vibe demanded slowing down and focusing on the good stuff – like a glass of wine, a bit of sunshine, a good book and a hearty meal. I felt out of place to rush and try and do too much and I was happy to meander wherever the city took me.

Copenhagen is easy on the eye, but not so much on the pocket. Paris has been my benchmark of an expensive city but Copenhagen beats that – the food, transport and hotels all come steep. But don’t let that discourage you, it is a beautiful city, friendly and cozy and you won’t leave it feeling dissatisfied.

STAY

We rented an Airbnb in the very hip Norrebro district, with great public transport connectivity and a wide selection of neighborhood bars, cafes, galleries and boutiques to browse through. Norrebro is a part of the city with its own distinct charm, youthful and bright.

DO

Get a bike

It would be a pity to not cycle in a city made for cyclists 🙂 ( I also found Danes to be fairly patient on the cycling track). Be prepared for a hardcore workout though if you are riding against the winds as they can get very strong. As I discovered while uphill on a bridge with the wind against me, it was so difficult that for a moment I was literally standing on the pedals and the bike wouldn’t budge!

The Stunning Copenhagen Opera House

Colored houses at Nyhavn

Go on a walking tour

I clicked this picture because I was impressed with water and sky this blue 😉

If you are not sure on what to spend time on in a new city and prefer a quick browse first, a walking tour will be perfect for you. Most guides on these tours are very friendly and will be happy to share recommendations of places to explore, eat and things to do. I joined the Sanderman’s walking tour which started at the Town Hall Square and took us through the iconic Tivoli Gardens, Danish Royal Palace, Nyvahn Harbour, Amalienborg, The Marble Church, Copenhagen Opera House and more over two and half hours. The city is stunning on foot, with its canals and architecture and color.

Statue of Bishop Absalon, founder of the city of Copenhagen

Nikolaj Contemporary Art Center which was the former church of St. Nicolas

Bishop Absalon on the Copenhagen City Hall

Copenhagen City Hall

Marble Church

Visit Christiana

A “Freetown”, established in 1971, with its own currency and laws intrigued me enough to pay a visit. This town was built on the spirit of community living by squatters and artists and became somewhat a hippie commune. It’s got a bunch of art galleries, organic cafes, coffee shops and is home to nearly a thousand people today.  The place was busy with enough curious tourists. Around afternoon, some people started selling cannabis (photos not allowed), and suddenly there was loud music playing on the street and the residents came out to drink and dance. It was a unique and confusing experience for me (will share more in another post) but there is probably no place like this on earth, and for that you should pay it a visit.

EAT

Granola

The name had me and I was desperate to give this café a try. The breakfasts are quite popular but we didn’t make it in time hence we went for the lunch menu. We basically ate a whole lot of eggs – on top of avocado and with a stew of sausage and tomatoes along with an open chicken sandwich, a croissant and some wonderful coffee.

Mothers pizza

An Italian restaurant with a wood fired oven in the old meatpacking district, this restaurant has great food at decent prices by Copenhagen standards. We tried the Burrata, with vine tomatoes, rucola & of course gooey oozing burrata itself as the star of the show. We finished off with Panna cotta and candied orange.

Copenhagen Streetfood

This is a street food market, built in a warehouse across the harbor, serving local and fresh produce across a wide variety of cuisines. It has a cool, easy vibe and I absolutely loved this place. So much so, that we went here both nights for dinner. You basically browse the stalls, decide what you want and pay directly at each stall. There are a bunch of benches and chairs around on you can plonk yourself. If you do want to make sure you have a table, there is something called as The Greenhouse, where you can make a prior reservation for a table for 2 hours. The benefit is that there is a bar inside the Greenhouse and they serve you drinks on your table. Food is self serve, whether you eat here or outside. It’s open till 9pm all days and 10pm on Saturday and Sunday. The food and variety is amazing, prices are great too. Overall, a must visit!

That was all I packed in for a 3 days 2 nights trip. Have you been to Copenhagen and what were your favorites?

 

Stumbling upon Lawn Bowling in Lake District

Our 2 days in Lake District were laden with rains, which was frustrating enough and more so, considering that we drove from Loch Lomond in Scotland, and had to head back to Edinburgh to catch our return flight. Too confusing? The map below will help prove our rather navigationally challenged decision 😀 .
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The lounge at Rydal Lodge where William Wordsworth enjoyed his drink

I sincerely wanted to like Lake District, so that it would make the decision to go there feel worthwhile and the distance covered irrelevant. I was utterly disappointed to find it torrentially rainy on Day 1 and while the property we stayed in was very vintage and pretty (Rydal Lodge), it didn’t do too much to uplift my limp spirit. On the second day the rains continued, and we were stuck indoors, waiting inside our small cozy rooms with a cup of tea and cookies, desperate for the rain to slow down. The weather took a turn for the better around afternoon, and we decided to head out to Windermere and explore the streets with a vengeance. We savored the fish and chips at The Little Chippy, explored shops and tiny boutiques, and tried the Award Winning meat pies at Huddleston’s Butchers and I thought to myself, this isn’t too bad after all. We have managed to do nothing extraordinary, but it’s SOMETHING. And then it dawned on us that two of us had gone missing(apparently, random loitering is not everyone’s cup of tea) and upon some investigation found out that they had stumbled upon something called Lawn Bowling at the Windermere Bowling club. Intrigued, the rest of us followed.

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The prized pie

Pardon my ignorance but this was my introduction to the sport of Lawn Bowling.

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img_1481We reached the club to find a large square-ish flat field, perfectly manicured and a bunch of people rolling balls like in a bowling alley. We decided to sign up as we had no other exciting plans for the day and were explained the rules of the game – the simplest version for us newbies. The area to play in was called the “Rink”. It was surrounded by the “Ditch”. There were multiple teams playing so each was told to pick a starting point in different directions of the field. There was a toss and the winner of each team rolled the ball called “Jack”. The sole purpose of the game is to roll balls closest to the Jack. Each member gets four tries, whoever comes closest or has more number of balls closest to the Jack is the winner. While it sounds fairly simplistic, we were told that the game has a lot of nuances and styles of scoring, even fields sometimes may not be flat. It was a first time experience for all of us and we were thrilled to be a part of it.

We spent a few hours enjoying the game. The veterans on the field helped us wherever they could. It consumed me – the fun of it, how unexpected it was, the focus and rush that playing any sport brings. And all I thought was of beating my opponent, didn’t care about the weather no more. But misery struck again and it started raining. We rushed inside a small shelter where we were served tea, coffee, cookies and conversation moved from what we were doing in the area and how we found the club to the cricketing antics of the Indian and English teams.

The rains continued and we headed back to our lodge, drenched and later went out for dinner to a bar nearby, ate and came back and it was still raining. Like I said, I didn’t find Lake District spectacular, maybe it was the weather (this was in August), maybe we didn’t know the best things to pick, maybe I expected too much.

I probably won’t give Lake District another shot. Maybe I will. Just for the bowling.

 

Photo Story : Highlights from Scotland

I spent 5 days in Scotland in August 2016, flying into Edinburgh and spending a day there, followed by two days each in Inverness and Loch Lomond. I came back feeling that I hadn’t seen enough. This was not any FOMO(fear of missing out) talking, but Scotland’s vast expanse, natural beauty, dramatic highlands and bustling cities had this effect, like there’s a lot more to explore, and a few days is just touching the tip of the ice berg. Nevertheless, I had a wonderful time and am sharing below some pictures from the trip. Till I see ya again, Scotland!

Day 1

We flew into Edinburgh in the morning and checked into our Airbnb apartment. The day was spent exploring the streets of the city, eating, visiting the old town area and checking out bars in the historic Grassmarket.

Beautiful medieval architecture in the city center

Beautiful medieval architecture in the city center

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Love a good looking window 🙂

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Edinburgh ❤

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Antics in old town (you will come across a lot of stuff like this!)

Day 2

We left for the three hour drive to Inverness in the morning. Driving around Scotland is spectacular and truly the best way to explore this country. We checked into our hotel, Premier Inn which was about 1.5 miles from the city center. We spent the day exploring the town and loved Hootanannys, a traditional Scottish pub with live music. If you get the chance, do eat at The Mustard Seed. We did not get a reservation for any meal while we were there but everyone recommended this restaurant highly.

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Inverness

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Unfortunately we missed eating here, hence make a reservation in advance if you are visiting

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Day 3

We decided to explore the Glen Ord distillery and Robertson’s farm. While we knew we wanted to visit one distillery for sure, the farm was a surprise find. It acted as the perfect stop for some coffee and homemade goodies on the way back from Glen Ord. I have done a separate post on this experience which you can check out here.

The Glen Ord distillery - one of the oldest in Scotland

The Glen Ord distillery – one of the oldest in Scotland

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The store at Robertson’s farm

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Day 4

We hit the road for Loch Lomond which was a three and a half hour drive from Inverness. On the way, we stopped at The House of Bruar and OMG, the food here was mindblowing! It was a very busy day because it was a Sunday. While we stopped only to eat, House of Bruar is actually an independant store selling Scottish country clothing. They house a self serve restaurant where we tried amazing soups, a sea food stew style dish, pasta, desserts and coffee – definitely some of the best food I had on this trip. Besides clothes, you can also buy fresh fruits, vegetables, cheese, chocolate and homeware.

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The restaurant

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Rabbits? Squirrels? What!

After spending too much time in the House of Bruar, we reached Loch Lomond in the afternoon. We were hungry(again) and decided to go to the nearest town Balloch, for a bite. Balloch was a small cozy town, people were extremely friendly and we ended up spending our entire evening at a pub called The Dog House. Most pubs don’t serve food till late but the drinks continue. There was a pizza place right opposite this pub, problem solved 🙂 . You can read more about my experience at The Dog House here.

Day 5

We spent some time at the Loch Lomond shores, just lying on the grass and soaking in the sun. There are hordes of activities to try out here if you fancy that. People we met at The Dog House the night before suggested we take a walk to Dumpling Hill, which was a short hike but great views(we all had the damning realization that our fitness levels sucked as we were huffing and panting to the top, and believe me when I say that it was barely a hike). We also went to Luss, a beautiful tiny village on the western shore of Loch Lomond and ended the day with a meal at Duck Bay restaurant(beautiful views, fancy place and very highly rated, however I didn’t think much of the food, AND it was expensive).

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Entrance to the Dumpling Hill

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Views on the way

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View from the top of the hill

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Loch Lomond shores

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Luss

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Entrance to the church, Luss

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Interesting crafts shop at Luss, very expensive though!

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View of the loch from the shores of Luss

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No pictures can do justice to how beautiful Luss was!

And so ended our short trip to Scotland. Have you ever visited Scotland and what were you favorite bits?

Recent Trip to India – My take on Annoying Stereotypes

I came back from India yesterday after a 3 week trip and an overload of festivity, food and socializing. I had a fabulous time, barring the toxic Delhi air, which was unbearable. Since this visit came nearly after a year, I was totally pumped about catching up with friends and family. And while I tried to restrict socializing to my closest circle (which is quite a mammoth task in India), I invariably ended up meeting some people that I could have very well avoided :-D. The good part is, my interactions gave me some interesting fodder and I decided to do a post on the most absurd things people said to me which had me laughing.

P.S. This is intended to be a fun, humorous post.

You must be thinking “Oh My Gawd, so much pollution”

Not only me you idiot, but everybody in Delhi was thinking the same. Anybody who had a choice was trying to get out of the city for a few days or stay indoors to the extent possible, schools were shut, people were wearing masks, it was pretty bad. Anyway, when I said “Yes there is a lot of pollution this time in Delhi”, this person says “You are such a firangi (foreigner)” :-).

Why do you care about spending money, you earn in Euros

Because it’s hard earned, and I spend that money on running a house and my livelihood and everything else that I feel like. I will do what I want to with it, thank you very much.

You must be used to cooking meals and cleaning up after yourself. My God, so much work, I could never do it.

What a loss for humanity, you little elitist a**.

How come you don’t have an accent

Me baffled “Why Should I?”

I am sure that you don’t want to come back.

Really? How do you? I never knew another human being could be SO sure of my thoughts, decisions and future, some super power that is ;-). But on a serious note, I heard this a lot, and it made me realize people look at being abroad with a rose tinted lens, and while it comes with certain advantages, it obviously has it’s own set of challenges. If you didn’t already know, NOTHING IS PERFECT.

Oye Firangi(foreigner), why are you stopping at a red light?

I never jumped red lights even earlier, ever. Apparently, it is now a “firangi” trait.

I love my family, I can never stay abroad

I am sure other countries must be shedding tears of disappointment today!

Do you live/have ever lived outside of India? What are the funny, annoying, ridiculous things you hear back home that make you laugh and cringe?

Explore Scottish Highlands – A day out at the Glen Ord distillery + Robertson’s farm

As a whisky lover, one of the things that I truly looked forward to in Scotland was visiting a distillery. If you didn’t already know, Scotland is one of the major whisky producing countries in the world, with the main regions in the country being The Lowlands, The Highlands, Islay, Campbeltown and Speyside. Hence, it would be fair to say that if you don’t visit a distillery while in Scotland, you are really missing out on something! And even if you don’t drink alcohol or whisky, this is a fascinating experience that I would truly suggest you don’t skip. If you look online, you can find a lot of whisky trail tours stretching over days, however if you don’t have enough time for that, you could just go for the one that is most convenient and make a direct reservation.

We visited the Glen Ord distillery which is a 30 minute drive west of Inverness and is situated on the edge of the Black Isle in the Highlands. It was founded in 1838, making it one of the oldest in Scotland and it is the only single malt producing distillery currently in this region.

So let me start to explain what you can expect at Glen Ord, after all what better way to learn and taste than the source itself 😀 (and let me warn you, this post is heavy on all things whisky so if love the drink or want to know more about it, this is totally up your alley otherwise it is best you move on).

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The visitor center at Glen Ord distillery, the building at the back is where the production takes place

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You can buy bottles of whisky at the distillery

Our guide began by telling us that in Gaelic, whiskey translates to “uisce beathaor” which means “water of life.” She then gave us a little bit of a background on the distillery, plus explained the process of Scotch production, which was actually fairly simple to understand and involves these main steps – Malting, Mashing, Fermentation, Distillation, and Maturation. It is quite interesting, how one could transform essentially barley and water into the “water of life”.

We were taken around the distillery and explained each step in further detail. (No pictures were allowed to be clicked in the main production area.)

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What the barley turns into after each step

1) Malting —Barley is soaked in water, drained and then spread out to germinate into malt which takes nearly a week. The malt is then dried using an underground furnace (a kiln), the fire for which is stoked with peat and this gives a “smoky peat” flavor to the alcohol.

2) Mashing — The dried malt is then ground into a course flour which is called “grist.” The grist is mixed with hot water, churned further and then allowed to rest to release sugars. This sugary liquid is called “wort.”

3) Fermentation — The wort is then pumped into large wooden or steel vessels where it is combined with yeast and allowed to ferment for about 2-3 days. The yeast feeds on the sugars, producing alcohol which is about 6-8% alcohol by volume and is called “wash.”

4) Distillation — The wash is distilled twice to increase the volume of alcohol. In the first step, the wash is boiled and the evaporated alcohol is collected in a condenser. The resulting liquid is called “low wine” and is approximately 20% alcohol by volume. The low wine is then distilled further and the best part of it is extracted which is actual whisky and is colorless.

5) Maturation — The spirit is placed in oak barrels, or casks, for the maturation process to begin. This was the part that I found most interesting. This step adds flavor and color to the whisky and is entirely dependent on the cask used. Our guide told us that different distilleries use different casks – such as second-hand sherry barrels and even barrels of beer, cognac, or wine. We were made to smell whisky maturing in both a Bourbon and Vanilla barrel and the small is very aromatic.

Before bottling, various whiskies are mixed together to add to the complexity of flavors.

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The spirit maturing in casks

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Very interesting – influence of the type of cask and duration of maturation on color

Fun Whisky Trivia

  1. A whisky is called “Scotch” ONLY if it is produced in Scotland. Funny that many people use it mistakenly for whisky from other regions.
  2. The Scots are quite sensitive about the spelling of whisky. Hence, never spell it as “Whiskey” while in Scotland, however do know that spirits originating from United States and Ireland are spelled as “Whiskey”.
  3. Whisky only matures while it is in the cask/barrel, it doesn’t mature any further once bottled.
  4. For most whiskies, having it on the rocks is not really considered apt as too low a temperature is supposed to dull the aromas of the alcohol. Few drops of water is supposed to enhance the flavors.
  5. The spirit must be aged in oak casks for no less than three years. It can’t be sold as whisky at this young an age, but can be used in blended whiskies. Scotch needs to have matured for a minimum of 8 years before it can be marketed. Of course, the older the whisky, the pricier it gets.

Practical Information

  1. You can reach Glen Ord distillery in about a 30 minute drive from Inverness.
  2. They run a variety of tours which you can find here . The simplest is a tour of the distillery with a complimentary tasting of the Glen Ord 12 year old single malt which costs 6 pounds per person and takes an hour.
  3. You can find a lot of distilleries listed on this website along with all practical information for your visit.

On the way back from Glen Ord, we stopped at this cute little farm called Robertson’s – The Larder. They have a small shop where they sell seasonal produce of fruits and vegetables and quite a variety of homemade goodies like cookies, cakes, cheese, chocolates, chutneys, crackers. We took a pit stop here and got some coffee and goodies to much on. They are a friendly bunch, and if you have kids you should know that they have a children’s farmyard where kids can meet and interact with the farm animals.

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What a charming little shop!

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Rows of endless local goodies

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And then some more 🙂

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Looks like a party in here right?

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That night in a Scottish pub in Balloch

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We knew as soon as we entered the door that we were the odd ones out – a dimly lit room, with a huge bar running along its length, filled with tables and chairs and people and dogs and beer and conversation. And a strong air of intimacy, like you just entered someone’s living room while they were discussing things only meant for their ears. We hesitated, the six of us to take a step forward. Till one of us decided to go to the bar and request for a table, and was told that this room was reserved for locals, most of whom met every day to catch up over a drink, and the main bar was out front for all guests. As we took a step in that direction, the bartender laughed and said “No no, don’t go, of course you can sit here. You guys are more than welcome, everyone is”. We looked at each other for affirmation to stay on. And thus began this night in Balloch, a long night this one.

A few drinks later we eased into our surroundings, people smiled at us when eyes met. Someone said that there was live music in the main bar in thirty minutes and we decided to move ourselves there and grab a table. Crossing a narrow passage, we entered a much larger room, but cozy and rustic all the same. We settled at a table and as I looked around while gulping my Scottish ale, it seemed obvious that everyone knew each other. People were entering the bar each minute, and everyone waved to everyone else, knew their name, made some conversation or cracked a joke. Like an extended family get together. It must have been obvious that we didn’t belong to the town, and some people came over, asked where we were from and what we were doing there, welcomed us, made jokes and conversation flowed as freely as beer. It didn’t seem strange at all or intrusive, I think it was the warmth that did us in :-).

Travelling exposes you to a lot of different types of people, cultures and mindsets. Some people are curious to meet an “outsider”, some aren’t too thrilled about it, but a major chunk is, for lack of a better word, “indifferent”. In a good way though – that they will be nice and helpful if needed, but will let you be, accepting you as passers by in their town and nothing more. But not in Balloch. I wondered that night if these were people for real? This warmth and enthusiasm was so genuine. And rare. Like we were guests at their party, and they wanted us to walk away with the time of our lives.

The band arrived and started setting up, and suddenly there was traditional Scottish music and singing and dancing. People clapped and sang, and men and women danced and laughed and drank. And then someone started pulling at my elbow, and the elbows of my girlfriends, and in a second we were all on the floor, in the midst of other women. They danced and we followed and everyone hugged and drank and danced some more. I think we repeated this pattern many times, I guess I lost count after a while.

We left late into the night, and on the way back I reflected on this evening. How ironic it was that I hadn’t given this small unassuming town of Balloch more than a passing thought in my head before. How ordinarily had the evening began, and how unexpected it had turned out to be. How glad I was that in that split second we decided to stay on. How the people you meet during your travels are probably the most memorable part of it. And would I ever visit another town like this, and meet other people like this and feel this truly welcomed and special? I wondered.

I posted a small video of the night on Instagram here.

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The Tree House at the Berlin Wall

B
erlin is a city with history at every turn. And for me, one of the most intriguing aspects of this vibrant’s city’s past was the Berlin Wall. Not only because I could actually see a part of the wall still standing, but because it seemed incredulous that this wall stood  tall and mighty till less than three decades back, dividing a city and it’s people. Everyone I met had been a part of this piece of history, having lived it themselves. It made it seem so real and close and tangible, not like a textbook chapter on a moment begone.

There was one story in particular that I especially loved, that of Osman Kalin. “Osman Kalin who?” you ask. A commoner, like you I, but there is something very special about his story. Read on.

Osman Kalin was a Turkish immigrant living in Kreuzberg district in West Berlin when the wall was erected in 1961, cutting off the West and the East. Due to a bend on the border, a small patch of land which belonged to the east side ended up on the west. Nobody in the west side cared about this piece of “No Man’s land” since it wasn’t really theirs, and it became a dumping ground for all sorts of trash. Till Osman decided to clean it every weekend, so that he could make a little garden of his own. Which he did and he planted flowers, fruits and vegetables and took good care of them.

East Germany guards got a whiff of this and decided to pay Osman a visit. They told him that they had concerns that he was building a secret tunnel to move people across the wall. Osman turned them away with vegetables. They eventually found their peace and the guards let him and his garden be.

Osman loved this spot so much that he decided to start building a house here. He used discarded furniture and house hold goods and other odds and ends to create his masterpiece. Every door, window, wall and room looked different and the house became a unique piece of art and creativity. Osman took up residence there with his family.

The wall fell in 1989, and the authorities decided to build a road, passing through the exact spot where Osman’s house stood. West German authorities couldn’t do anything about it as this piece of land was not under their jurisdiction. Osman decided to resist this move, and cemented all his furniture to the floor as a show of his intention to not leave. Locals supported him, and so did the church and eventually Osman won. This piece of land was handed over to Kreuzberg district and they gave the land deed to Osman.

This wall is gone, but this house still remains and is an iconic reminder of that era in Germany’s history. And a testimony to the human spirit of perseverance, courage and creativity. Osman lives close by and is happy to shake hands with any visitors.

Below is a picture of the house as it stands today. If you pass it, it may not look like much but there is a tremendous story behind it.

I got to know about Osman Kalin and the Tree House through our guide at Alternate Berlin Tours. When I heard this story, I was really inspired to meet Mr Kalin, but unfortunately it didn’t work out. If you do want to, there is a number on the board outside the house which you can call and arrange a visit.

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Love, Equality and Freedom – At Amsterdam Gay Pride Canal Parade,2016

In it’s 20th year, and playing host to EuroPride 2016, it was natural to expect the Amsterdam Gay Pride Canal Parade to be bigger and better this time. And while I was stunned(second year in a row) with the eclectic boats, the carnival-esque vibe and colors, what truly stands out about this event for me is its spirit – of love, equality, freedom and respect, not only for others but for your own self.

We live in a world that is becoming increasingly intolerant on so many issues, a fact that is disturbing as it is unfortunate. Witnessing this parade is heartwarming for me, while many of course come to enjoy the party, there are as many that come to show their support and acceptance for the LGBT community. It makes me want to believe that there is still hope, that a lot of the world will stand for freedom of choice as long as it does not harm anyone, that we believe in the power of love, no matter it’s orientation and that we are willing to be respectful of each other, even if we are different. What also truly stands out is the spirit of respect for yourself and owning who you really are – no masks literally or otherwise. It always amazes me, seeing people like this. Don’t we all struggle with “owning who we really are” – for fear of judgement, for the sake of popularity, for the uneasiness of the unknown? We sometimes live so much for the world and so little for our own selves, our definition of success and happiness heavily adulterated by the perceptions of those around us.

I guess these are questions with no easy or correct answers – but they need thought, and acceptance and maturity. And till we all get there (hopefully), I am sharing my favorite moments from this year’s parade.

P.S. You probably know that my photography skills suck big time, so in case you do feel the pictures have improved from last year, it is because B clicked most of them 😀

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A Weekend in Bruges

You know those wonderlands we all read about in books as children, of cobbled streets, beautiful houses, flowery window sills, blue skies and music floating in the air, Bruges is that place in flesh and blood.

Bruges isn’t really a secret anymore so you can well expect thronging crowds especially in the center. But walk down a side alley and it feels like a different world. There is a certain romance and charm to this city that I find tough to put into words – it’s like a fairy tale in motion right before your eyes, every tiny piece of it perfection, a place fitting enough for happily ever afters, dreamy and unreal.

Where I stayed

Hotel Aragon – On a quiet street just 5 min walk from the markt, this is a pretty good hotel with a decent breakfast. We could get a room for 3 which was great.

Good places to eat

The Olive Tree – A family run Greek restaurant with super friendly staff and scrumptious food.

Gran Kaffee De Passage – An old fashioned art deco style bistro with hearty food which isn’t too heavy on the pocket.

Things to do

  • Explore the markt and the surrounding streets on foot. You don’t need a map or GPS, just follow your instincts ;-). It’s a very small city and you will find your way around
  • If you feel like some shopping, the streets to explore are Steenstraat and Nordzandstraat
  • Buy lace – it’s extremely intricate and expensive, but it’s a specialty
  • Canal Tour – it is very touristy but it is still fun to see the city from water along with endless swans floating around
  • Have Belgian street food on the go – Waffles and Frites(fries) are not to be missed
  • Try some hand rolled chocolates – I especially like Dumon Chocolatier (pictures ahead)
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The Markt, Bruges

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Live entertainment in town

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A hidden alley waiting to be explored

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The window and it’s bicycle

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Loved dinner at this Greek restaurant

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Aren’t these houses the cutest?

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Intricate lace curtains

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Can’t escape waffles while in Belgium

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And some ice cream

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Followed by FRIES!

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Dreamy, beautiful Bruges

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Endless variety for a chocolate lover

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Carriages on the street

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Run by a friendly mother daughter duo, Dumon is a great stop for chocolate lovers

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