Most Indian tourists can be found lounging at the beach, chilling out on a Swiss mountainside or munching on theplas on the Eurail. But a small number of desi travellers are breaking away from the package tour mould and, instead, opting to pick up skills, certificates and souvenirs that last a lifetime. Whatever they do—flapping fins underwater, cooking up exotic dishes or climbing a Himalayan peak —you won’t find them near the proverbial beaten path.
On a family holiday to Mauritius, Varun Shah, 15, was very disappointed when he was told he couldn’t go diving despite his swimming skills. “Till then, we weren’t aware that one needed to be certified to go diving,” says Janak Shah, 43, his father. So, the two of them went on the underwater walk Mauritius is famous for and, while it was fun, it wasn’t too memorable.
Back in Mumbai, Varun began badgering his dad for a visit to the Andamans, where he had heard there was a diving school. But, a travel agent told them about the Lacadives diving school in the Lakshadweep islands and and the two of them took off on an impromptu holiday in March. “The whole trip was completely unexpected,” says Shah, a garment exporter. “We were in Lakshadweep for seven days and the course took up five of them. It was a beautiful learning experience.”
Take the plunge: Learn diving and soak in the breathtaking submarine life.
The foundation course the duo signed up for covers snorkelling, equipment orientation, lagoon dives and open water dives, in addition to diving theory. After practical and written tests, they received CMAS (Confederation Mondiale des Activites Subaquatiques) one-star certification, a lifelong licence to dive anywhere in the world up to a depth of 21m.
“In the past season itself, we have issued 100 certificates, up 150% from the year?before,”?says Siddharth Pujari of Lacadives (www.lacadives.com). “The combination of clear waters around Lakshadweep and guidance from trained instructors opens up a whole new dimension of beauty for our clients.”
Coral reefs, shoals of fish, water snakes, turtles, manta rays, sting rays, unusual sand and earth formations and even some remnants of natural destruction—snorkelling and diving reveal a world that is silent, singular and, by its very nature, stress relieving. With a glass mask to protect the eyes and nose, a tube (snorkel) that helps you breathe and a set of propelling fins, even a novice swimmer can catch a glimpse of submarine life from the surface of the lagoon. Breathing through the tube, though, takes some getting used to.
Scuba diving (the acronym stands for self-contained underwater breathing apparatus) is stage II of the underwater experience: Instead of the simple breathing device that is the snorkel, it uses compressed air to allow a swimmer to go deep and remain there for extended spells of time.
“We don’t normally associate holidays with applying ourselves,” says Shah, “but I can’t think of a better way to learn something.” The best part? The keepsake lasts a lifetime.
“How much sightseeing and shopping can you do?” ask Atul and Anuradha Sahasrabuddhe. So, in December, on the way back from a holiday in Bangkok and Krabi with their grown-up children, they were already nursing half-formed ideas of a return trip. But this time they would focus solely on cuisine.
“We’ve always been interested in food,” says Atul, 52, a financial consultant, “and Thai happens to be the family favourite. We learnt about the quick courses during our first holiday, but couldn’t join them: You need to register early.”
On their return, it was Atul who surfed the Net and discovered that while course structures were very similar, Bangkok schools charged almost twice as much as Chiang Mai establishments. So, husband and wife enlisted online for a day’s course at the Baan Thai Cookery School. It began with an 8am visit to the fresh market, discovering vegetables and herbs they had so far seen only in cookbooks.
Menus are decided on the basis of the produce available, but the course structure remains the same: Each person in the group—usually not more than six—does everything from scratch, including making the curry pastes, and cooking six-seven dishes at his or her individual hob. “Even if you are used to cooking, as I was, it’s still an education,” says Anuradha. “I was besotted with the cleaver—I love the fact that our teacher used it to cut everything from meat to vegetables, and the way she encouraged us to use our instinct in measuring quantities.”
In situ courses can be eye-openers for professionals as well. In September last year, Baksheesh Dean, executive chef of The Park hotel in New Delhi, signed up for an intensive two-week course with the Italian Institute for Advanced Culinary and Pastry Arts. Only four of the 14-member team, though, were professional chefs.
Learn to scale a sheer ice cliff.
“I was interested in the course more for the lifestyle factors than actual technique,” says Dean. “I had no idea, for instance, that Italians, especially in the south, enjoy having dynamite-hot fresh chillies with their meals—or that olive oil and balsamic vinegar are used only to dress up the green salad usually served with the main course.”
The two-week course in Calabria included a visit to Sicily as well as many old family-run restaurants where cooking methods have not changed for as long as 200 years.
Italy, in fact, is a preferred destination for culinary tours, with Jo-Ann Gaidosz of the US-based Active Gourmet Holidays (www.activegourmetholidays.com) describing Sicily and Tuscany as hot favourites. “People like the idea of being immersed in culture, food, preparing food as well as the learning aspect,” she says. “My tours cater to both beginners and experienced cooks and usually range from one night to seven nights.”
Typically, the tours involve staying with a local family or close interaction with one, trips to wine estates and olive oil mills, and classes at villas and monasteries. Occasionally, golf, hiking, biking and language lessons will be thrown in as well.
On a semester holiday a couple of years ago, Santosh Devarajappa took off for nearly a month. Unlike most 20-year-olds, though, he was travelling by himself. From Bangalore, he went to Manali to sign up for a rigorous 26-day basic mountaineering course offered by the department of mountaineering and allied sports (DMAS), government of Himachal Pradesh. “It was the best holiday ever!” he says. “So much so, I went back this year for their skiing course.”
DMAS, in addition to three institutions run jointly by the ministry of defence and the respective state governments in Darjeeling, Uttarkashi and Batote (Jammu and Kashmir), offers the only recognized courses in basic and advanced mountaineering in India. While the Kashmir centre is largely patronized by defence personnel, the others run a number of courses at all levels for beginners and advanced climbers at heavily subsidized rates. “Our charges cover everything from boarding and lodging to equipment and training,” says Mahavir Thakur, duty director at DMAS.
“Mountaineering is very demanding, physically and emotionally,” says Devarajappa, now a software engineer with IBM Corp. “I geared myself by jogging and playing various kinds of sports. It also helped that I’d been a member of the Karnataka Mountaineering Association for six-seven years and so was familiar with the ropes.”
There is little in the plains, though, to compare with the Himalayas—or the military precision with which instructors put trainees through their paces. “We spent six days in Manali, being introduced to basics theory, the equipment—all of it imported, the best quality available—knots and ropes, rock-climbing and rappelling. Then we moved to our base camp at Lahaul-Spiti, where days began at 5.30am by jogging 10km with 15kg backpacks,” says Devarajappa.
Hardly sounds like fun, does it? But, at those heights, when the only reality is your ability and desire to achieve an end, every minute is an endurance test in itself.
Lectures cover subjects such as mountaineering terms, avalanches, first aid and mountain sickness and how to read the weather. Once a trainee clears the written tests on the theory section, he moves on to the second, high-adrenalin part of the training: high altitude trekking, snow walking, sequence climbing and glacier negotiation.
“But we had fun, too,” Devarajappa says. “The campus at Manali is huge and has an excellent library and film collection. The food is excellent, mostly high energy carbohydrates. And the instructors, mostly retired army men, are very good.”
The biggest thrill, though, came with the final, crowning challenge: Climbing a 18,262ft peak at the Kunzum Pass, which qualifies one for the advanced mountaineering course. Devarajappa was one of only 15 in the group of 40 to make it to the top, and was awarded a Himachal government certificate for his efforts. Perhaps even more cherished is the knowledge that he can now take on mountains anywhere in the world.
As the landscape designer for the Club Mahindra properties and the Ista chain of hotels, Sunil De Sousa, 49, has plenty of opportunities to roll out his yoga mat and slip into meditation during his travels. But, what he really looks forward to are his long weekends, sometimes extending to five days, at the Shreyas Yoga Retreat.
“Every year, my three children, my wife and I go on a holiday abroad. The last holiday was in California. While we aren’t adventure junkies, we love to go trekking: backpacks, hiking shoes, et al. If such activity pushes you physically, yoga stretches you spiritually,” says De Sousa. “It feeds the desire to excel as a human being.”
Western tourists may have long been coming to India in search of yogic nirvana, but the “ashrams” they haunt in Goa and Kerala are usually given a wide berth by Indians seeking to combine a getaway with serious yoga. For them, retreats such as Shreyas, or the more austere BKS Iyengar Yoga Centres, work just fine.
Try yoga or meditation for peace of mind.
“The proximity to Bangalore is a huge plus,” says Devyani, 52, who goes to Shreyas regularly with her husband Ashley D’Cruz, director and senior paediatric surgeon at Narayana Hrudayalaya. “It began as a spiritual quest for me, with Ashley joining me later, and we went on to do several leadership and self-realization courses at Shreyas.”
Shreyas offers personalized yoga instruction, pranayama and meditation classes, yoga nidra sessions and yogic kriya classes. Days begin with a group yoga session, followed by a healthy breakfast of sprouts and fruits, lectures on spiritual subjects and, maybe, a massage. There’s another communal yoga session in the early evening and the option of karma yoga: volunteering in the organic kitchen gardens, which supply the resort’s vegetarian tables.
“My children love working on the farm: one day, they’ll sow seeds, the next day, they’ll harvest something and eat it too,” says De Sousa. “I can’t think of another place that would give city kids this opportunity.”
And, if you’re just looking for peace and quiet, all you need to do is wear the ‘Shhhhhhreyas’ badges, which is a request for private space.
While packages at Shreyas are flexible, varying from three nights/four days to 14 nights/15 days, the Pune-based Iyengar institute advises students to sign up for at least a month, with three to six classes a week. However, it does not provide for boarding and lodging.
“A yoga retreat gives you all that you get in a spa,” says De Sousa, “plus internal change.”
That’s one takeaway that doesn’t qualify as baggage.
The wild side
If your inner adventurer seeks more novel ways of going back to school, check out the following:
u Go belly dancing in the Sahara. Do the flamenco in Andalucia. If you’ve got the dancing shoes, www.danceholidays.com has the getaway. For those with a classical strain, schools in Austria offer lessons in the waltz. Elmayer (www.elmayer.at) is one of the better regarded (and has an English language website). Swirl to “The Blue Danube” on the banks of, well, the Danube.
u Take off those gloves. Pick up the bow and arrow and learn to fight the Genghis Khan way as you gallop across the Mongolian plains on horseback in a package sold by www.whydontyou.com. Corporate warfare might seem tame after this experience.
u Try your hand at being a gaucho as you ride across the Andes from Argentina to Chile on Criollo-crossbreds. The route covers the pampas and forests before moving into the mountains, and requires some knowledge of horse riding. The website, www.rideworldwide.com, also offers an assortment of other rides across countries and terrains.
u Fancy yourself a mean sax player? Can your blues guitar make listeners weep? Hone those musical chops with week-long courses at the Centrum Centre for the Arts and Education (www.centrum.org) at Port Townsend, Washington. Dorm accommodation, on-campus meals and evening jam sessions may not leave you much time to explore the water sports on the beaches of Fort Worden.
u Get up close with the other Indians. Utah (www.history.utah.gov) runs Native Ed-ventures (so pardon them the nomenclature), which coaches visitors on Native Indian heritage and history and throws in a ringside seat at a pow-wow celebration. Mornings and evenings can be spent at the National Bison Range.
A number of outfits offer diving certification courses in Goa, Lakshadweep and the Andamans. Before signing up, do ensure they are affiliated to either Padi or CMAS, the most widely recognized certifying bodies. Aspirants need to be at least 10 years of age, possess basic knowledge of swimming and have a clean bill of health. Courses start from Rs10,000 and usually run from mid-October to mid-May.
Culinary holidays are still catching on in India though there are chefs and service providers in Rajasthan, Kolkata and Kerala. Gourmet trips abroad are much better organized and can be very good value for money. In Chiang Mai, for instance, a day’s course (structured so it can be part of a five-day session), costs around Rs1,000 per person, inclusive of lunch. Go to ‘www.cookinthai.com’ for information on the Baan Thai Cookery School. A two-week high-level course in Italy could set you back by nearly Rs2 lakh, exclusive of airfares. More information on the Italian Institute for Advanced Culinary and Pastry Arts is available at the ‘www.italianculinary.it’ website.
Why go abroad when the world comes to the Himalayas? The courses at the three institutes mentioned in the accompanying story are absurdly cheap, ranging between Rs4,000 and Rs4,500 per person for 20-plus days of dormitory accommodation, food, superior training and state-of-the-art equipment, from sleeping bags to ice axes. The only drawback is that the courses are gender-specific—men and women cannot undergo training together. There’s also a high demand for the courses, so friends in defence circles can come in handy. Check the websites for course dates:
Department of Mountaineering and Allied Sports: ‘www.adventurehimalaya.org’
A number of ashrams, especially in foreign tourist havens, claim to offer yoga packages, but their authenticity/ambience may be suspect. Do seek personal recommendations and verify what you sign up for. Rates will vary, depending on the services on offer. At Shreyas, night-stays start at Rs13,000 for a couple.
Shreyas Yoga Retreat: ‘www.shreyasretreat.com’
Iyengar Institute: ‘www.bksiyengar.com’
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