Monday, 21 December 2015

License to Dive- Scuba Diving in Koh Tao, Thailand

Sitting alone on our knees, face to face on the white sea bed, Tim tells me to take off my BCD. I can’t say a word but look at him apprehensively. He is asking for too much and I barely know him. But over the last few hours, I have come to trust this stranger. Slowly I unstrap and unhook all my releases. I let go off all my hesitations. I keep looking at him straight into those eyes while I slowly take off my BCD and keep the most essential piece in my mouth. The piece that keeps me alive.

Three months back when my friend told me about backpacking through Thailand, I yawned. But the moment she mentioned scuba, I had my ears glued. Then instead of just doing a fun dive, I wanted to get a scuba license for myself. Everyone who has scuba-ed told me about how amazing and incredible an experience it was. Nobody told me you need to go through theory and practical before you actually get out and dive!

It is day 2 of my course, and I can’t remember when was the last time I was this nervous. Yesterday, my first dive, was a complete disaster. After our theory classes and review test when we got onto the dive boat, I got my first chance to wear my dive suit and put on my BCD. *Oh by the way, BCD stands for Buoyancy Control Device. It is the black vest that keeps everything connected, the air cylinder, all the regulators etc. and primarily helps in keeping one buoyant. Basically in layman terms, inflating it so one can stay afloat.* We did a 12m dive and I was petrified beyond my own belief! As soon as I descended, I started to panic. Multiple times actually. Each time I panicked, I showed Tim the thumbs up sign. I wanted to go up. I just could not stand the saline dryness in my throat. I couldn't stand the infinite sea around. But each time I panicked, he would come over to me and signal me to take in deep breathes. Weirdly it worked every time. But I would be lying if I said I wasn't scared. This was the scariest thing I had ever done. I vaguely remember seeing some beautiful things around me but for most part of the dive I was just following Tim’s bubble trail with his flippers right on my face.

The first time I saw Tim was at the institute. A young lanky bespectacled German boy with longish golden hair. Initially, I wasn't sure about trusting him with my life but then he had 15 years of dive experience. Hmmmm.

Today we were back again for the confined water dive. After practising some basic scuba skills like swimming without the mask on, buoyancy control etc. we moved a bit deeper to work on more skills.

So here we were, Tim, my dive instructor and me at 5m underwater (u/w), on the ocean floor practising the curriculum laid by PADI and required for an Open Water Diver license. We were off shore near Ao Lewk beach, Koh Tao. I try hard to focus on whatever Tim is signalling me to do. But the school of white goat fish nibbling at my legs, keeps me distracted.

Finally it was time to take off the BCD unit. With the regulator in my mouth, I tried to mentally recall the instructions he had given me. Unhook all releases, placed it in front of me and then wear it again. As easy as it sounded, as easy it wasn’t. Once I removed the BCD, it kept struggling to float up to the surface because of the air cylinder attached. With the regulator held tightly in my mouth I wrestled my best to keep the unit below me and wear it again. There! OK. It wasn’t so tough.

From here we moved to our dive site for the day. Today I had to make my second 12m dive.

As I descend into the dark blue water, I had the most uneasy feeling. It was a mixture of nervousness, uncertainty and excitement all meshed together in weird degrees. In my mind I was supposed to be gliding alongside pretty fish, turtles and Whale Sharks maybe. But here I was containing fear in each of those continuous air bubbles that I let out. What if I sneeze, what if my air pipe blocks mysteriously, what if my ears don’t pop, what if *anything that could possibly go wrong*. As I held onto that rope which disappeared into the infinity below, thoughts like ‘why am I doing it’ kept popping. But as I slowly descended towards the end of the rope, the only thing to pop were my ears. I was nearly at 12m now and still a bit nervous. After finishing some basic exercises on the sea bed, we head towards the reef for the fun part of the dive.

Today I was much more comfortable, and Tim, much more receptive. He kept close and at one point even led me by my hand. I think it really helped. By now I had got used to the dry salty feeling in my mouth, the weightlessness, the claustrophobic feeling and strange silence.

I kept breathing rhythmically. Deep breath in, deep breath out. Funny how this is the basic principle of everything, whether trekking at high altitude or diving in the deep sea, it was all about the breathing.

As I floated over the reef, Tim turns around and points at something below. If it wasn't for the mask, my eyes would have popped out of my head right there. Right ahead in the clear water ahead was a grouper. The first two words that comes into my mind are ugly and humongous. Brown with a weird mix of black spots and strips, it has a shape which in human terms we could call apple shaped with a big hanging lower lip. And it was huge. Maybe as big as me or bigger. And yeah I am quite big.
But that is the thing about diving, there are so many things around to gawk at and you don’t know what might just surprise you from across the reef. I was loving this delicious suspense.

For the first time in two days I was actually observing the landscape and life around me. On the corals below were colourful miniature christmas tree like projections in red, blue, yellow, orange, white. Think CANDY CRUSH. I stopped to take a look at it when Tim turns around and runs his hand over them and just like that, in the most synchronised fashion they twist and close, swish swish swish! It was like that scene from Avatar where he goes touching the plants and they go retract. JUST LIKE THAT!

The land here, the reef with corals- fanned, egg shaped, pockmarked in vibrant colours and in varied sizes made me feel minuscule in an infinite underwater forest. Just when the deep meditative thoughts come around, you see a cute little fish pout at you and look on curiously. At one point it was literally like being in the middle of a fish market. Lot of fish. Yellow, white, red, grey, black all going crisscross as if in a busy market tending to their chores, with each one in a hurry to be somewhere. I think it was insane. I wish I had my camera to capture all this. *sighh*

I look around for Tim, he had moved just a bit ahead and was upside down, looking for something under the big rocks. He signals me to come down at the bottom. There under the rock was a big sting ray chilling in his cosy den looking straight at us. This was just getting crazier and in the midst of all this I had almost forgotten why I had been scared all this while.

After gliding around for a while, he signals me to go up.

I turned around for one more look. It was like a moving canvas. Shades of blue dotted with mushroom like reefs and a splash of colours all over.

We swim up slowly making our acclimatization stops on the way. As soon as we surface I gasp for some fresh air.

He tells me we have been down there for 40 minutes. 40 MINUTES! Felt like 10 really. It is so easy to lose track of time down there. Time and space literally ceases to exist. It was pure joy. No wonder people say diving is so meditative.

Laying afloat there, I realized that this is the point where I overcame my fear of depth and I think… I actually fell in love with the ocean as well!

As for Tim, with the amount of whining and crying I did, I am surprised he didn't put extra weights on my waist and let me sink to the bottom….like forever! He was more patient than even my mom has EVER been. And something I learnt from all this was that it is very important to trust. One, to trust the person you dive with. And second, trust yourself. The day 1 dive was so difficult for me because I did not trust him or myself at all. On day 2, I started my dive by telling him that I trust him completely and I forced myself to believe it too. And it worked. Fear exists only in the mind. Your body WILL do, what the mind tells it to do.

So whether it is swimming with eyes closed and without my mask on (I wear lenses so can’t open my eyes u/w) with him or taking off my BCD anytime, anywhere, I trust him completely!

PS*- My next two dives of 18 m each went fabulous. I cleared my theory and practicals and am now a PADI certified Open Water Diver! Yayiee!! And yes I plan to do my advance course as well real soon, in Koh Tao, with Easy Divers and hopefully with Tim!

<The End>


·         PADI stands for Professional Association of Diving Instructors (PADI) and is the world's largest recreational diving membership and diver training organization.

·         You should know how to swim if you want the certificate. If someone tells you, you can get a license without knowing how to swim. Don’t listen to them. Before the dive, they will test your swimming capabilities and ask you to swim for 200m at least. You don’t need to be athlete though.

·         I chose Easy Divers, because they dive in small groups which is important because you get more attention. In my case, I was the only one with Tim and there were other divers with me with their instructors. Plus, they are good.

·         I chose to dive in Koh Tao, Thailand because one, it is cheaper (much cheaper than Andaman or Lakshadweep), second it has some great marine life, the weather is great for diving for most part of the year and I love Koh Tao as an island. It has the best beaches, best food, best cafes, best everything!!

Wednesday, 2 September 2015

Drive to the Highest Point of Adventure- 'Everest Base Camp, Tibet'

From my very first night at high altitude, 14, 000 feet at Sarchu, en route Leh, I knew AMS and me would be BFF. For the uninitiated, AMS is ‘Acute Mountain Sickness’ and BFF stands for ‘Best Friends Forever’. Trust me, at no point you want to have a BFF like AMS. But as luck would have it, here I was again at 17, 500 feet and minus 10 degree, AMS stuck, in the middle of the night, staring at the world’s highest peak, Mount Everest.

Once on a flight from Paro to Kathmandu, I had a chance to view Everest from the top. Since then I have always dreamt about going to the Everest Base Camp. But in those dreams, I was always walking with a load on my back, panting at every breath and finally standing in front of the World’s Highest peak.
#bucketlist #dreams #TrekktoEBC. *sigh…*

But seemed like God had other plans for me, a relatively easier one.

It started with the crazy team at Mahindra Adventure who organises expedition drives every year. The crazier the better! Last year this time, I was part of one such expedition. A 7 day drive from Kathmandu to the Everest Case camp in Tibet, China.

While the trekkers make their way to EBC from the south side of Everest from Nepal, the north face is accessible by road via Tibet, China.

Next thing you know, a team with two Thars, two XUV500s and one Rexton were made ready for the ‘Mahindra Adventure Summit Challenge’, a 7 day drive to the north face of the Everest Base Camp in Tibet.

The vehicles lined up at Durbar square, Kathmandu. Sadly many of the structures here was destroyed during the earthquake that took place earlier this year. 

Driving through the colourful by lanes of Kathmandu
We were a bunch of 10 people, 1 guy from Mahindra Adventure, 5 Indian media guys, 1 Nepali journalist,  1 organiser from Nepal’s Sacred Summit, 1 Tibetian Guide and me, as the photographer.

The drive which started from Kathmandu wasn’t easy from the start. Fresh landslides in the Jurey area of Nepal, ensured we rocked and rolled in our vehicles during the slush trails and river crossings. This also threw us off schedule and forced us make an unexpected overnight halt at Kodari. (*This was the place where the second earthquake hit earlier this year.)

The next day was our border crossing into the Chinese territory via the iconic Friendship Bridge.
Crossing this bridge between Nepal & China is rather interesting because exactly half way down the bridge is a line marking out the two countries. Since Nepal drives on the left, you drive your vehicle up to that line keeping left. Then as soon as you cross the line into China, you have to shift to the right of the road as China follows the opposite system.

During the team briefing the day before, the guide team from Sacred Summits, had warned us about the strict customs and scrutiny at the Chinese border. Eyes on us all the time, from measuring our body temperature to sanitizing each and every vehicle, it was everything that we were cautioned about. But in retrospect, the whole process wasn't as gruelling as we expected it to be. None of us where questioned except me. During the security check, they opened my bag just to find a big case of Khukri rum. The Chinese guard looked at the Khukri (Nepalese knife) shaped alcohol bottle and with wide eyes looked at me.
While the boys in my team snickered behind me, I wanted to make a good impression on the Chinese and coyly lied, “No, for my dad.”
He smiled and no further questions were exchanged. I was on the other side with my bottle of rum!

*Fifteen men on a dead man's chest, yo-ho-ho and a bottle of rum... Drink and the devil had done for the rest, yo-ho-ho and a bottle of rum!*

Welcome to China. :)

Zhangmu, the town right across the border was our lunch stop, which also introduced us to YAK meat. I am a poultarian (fancy term for someone who eats only chicken and eggs) but beggars can’t be chooser and for the next few days it became a staple part of our diet. And apparently produces gas of massive proportions!

*{ While on our return journey we made a stop-over at the sleepy commercial town of Zhangmu. The enthusiasm it lacks during the day is made up by the night. I am a city girl and I know what ‘night life’ means but there is nothing to beat this town. After dinner, we headed to one of the local pubs. Honestly I wasn’t expecting anything much but go underground it’s a whole new level definition of party scene. The place had music (from techno Tibetian songs to Venga boys…everything) and dance floor with the cutest old Tibetian aunties, young boys in their skinny jeans and shy girls all holding hands to synchronised dance steps. And the alcohol. Oh man. Nobody orders a pint or a bottle, every table had at least 2 stacks of beer cans. And these are given in shot glasses. I have never had beer shots and this was crazy! Every time someone toasted “Shyabdaa”, everyone around would raise their glasses and gulp it. And before you even keep the glass down, it is miraculously refilled by someone around you. The beer is light, so 20- 30 shots is absolutely doable, with of course insane number of loo trips. The real party starts after 3:00AM with the music going strong and people still flowing in. We go pub hopping, keep hearing “Shyabdaa” all through the night but what floored me was the way the Tibetian youngsters danced. All on the dance floor in two circles, girls and boys. Terribly cute. No vulgarity of any sort. I had never imagined this in Tibet but as our guide said, things are changing. More so towards modernisation and western influence. I will never forget what I witnessed that night.}

We ignored that gas warning, ate YAK at every meal and continued driving to our next stop, Tingri. The road to Tingri is part of the famed 800KM long Friendship highway that starts at Zhangmu and ends at Lhasa, Tibet. This stretch quickly became one of the best part of the drive. From the bump-less serpentine roads, the vehicles cruised from the green waterfall laden backdrop to the arid desert with snow covered mountains cradling it tight. With every passing kilometre the landscape changed drastically, the mountains rose and became more spectacular. En route we also crossed a pass, Tong La at 16,900 feet. This pass is a great place to view the majestic spread of the Himalayan range. I could sit and describe the drive and the fantabulous views in more paragraphs but I would rather have you see them yourself. 

*(PS- Not trying to be lazy, just at a loss of adjectives and superlatives to describe it.)

View from Tongla Pass


En route we also made stops at the local tea shops where we were hosted by the most gracious rosy cheeked people. The warmth exuded by them while sitting in their colourful kitchen and sipping butter tea in the cold reminded of the Ladhakis back home. 

At 14,000 feet, Tingri is about the same level as Sarchu. Which also meant a huge climb in altitude for us especially since we had no acclimatization day between 7, 500 feet to 14, 000 feet. Diamox was passed round like Tic Tacs and the YAK meat continued to dominate our meals. Now we were worried about not just headaches and nausea but gas as well.

Except for the strange rumbling sounds at night breaking the silence of the place, the night was surprisingly very peaceful.

A quick count next morning saw a few long faces here and there but everyone survived. AMS can be a bitch. But this was just the start.

Stay at Tingri
Me at Tingri 
Then came the drive that would have change our lives, the reason why we readily agreed to go through some major self-inflicted pain. A 70 KM off-road drive to Rongbuk, the nearest location to the Everest Base camp! This drive was the true test of Mahindra’s tough and rugged DNA. Driving through spectacular barren landscapes on the roof of the world towards the base of the highest mountain peak made even the ‘off-road’ road seem like the best drive ever! This was the grandmother of Moreh Plains!

With the awesome Tibetian guide- Tenzin

Rongbuk, a small settlement at 16,500 feet boasts of the highest monastery in the world and is an important pilgrimage site. It is from here you can catch your first uninterrupted glimpse of the Everest. But as luck would have it, the sudden lash of snowfall and grey clouds overhead, made us cancel the day’s visit to the base camp.

Tibetian Mastiff basking in the sun. They might not look so huge here but they were enormous and with it's dreadlocks, it looked rather intimidating!
With dampened spirits, even the atheist among us prayed hard for the clear skies. After all, we all had together battled the cold, altitude and bad case of gas to come this far. With conversations freezing midway and heavy panting in every breath, we sluggishly waited for the next day.

As day light faded, the temperature dropped drastically. We hung around the kitchen room for as long as possible. But as the night drawled in, we were forced to move out of the warm kitchen to our rooms. I realized no amount of clothes or blankets could keep me warm. Just when I huffed and puffed and reach my room, (at this altitude and no acclimatization even 10 steps can make you pant like crazy), I realized I need to pee. Ugghhh.

*Warning- Nonsensical rambling in the next paragraph. 

Since I was on the Diamox course, I had forced myself to drink insane amount of water and now it was all processed and ready to get out. Going to pee in the cold is probably the worst thing ever. With every layer of bottom I peeled, I could feel the cold needles on my bum. Worst pee session ever. I wished I had worn adult diapers or had one of those ‘go girl’ peeing contraptions.

It was probably around 11:00PM. Some of us couldn't sleep and walked around to the balcony with our cameras in hand. There in the cold but clear starry night, we could see the sparkling mammothian mountain. Under my layers of woollens, I could feel the goose bumps.

Midnight view of Everest!
With my fingers crossed and frozen, I prayed the entire night for the weather to stay put.

The next day I woke up with an excited but heavy head and looked out.
Clear morning sky- Check.
5 layers of clothes- Check.
Cameras and batteries- Check.
Vehicles- the cold had got to them.

With the temperature down till minus 20oC at night, and the fuel freezing, the summit challenge came into play! But with a little molly coddling, and some warmth, the men with their frosted machines were back on the road.

As we drove the last few kilometres to the Everest Base Camp, I wondered how magical it would be to finally meet Everest face to face.

We reached base 1, where we waited for some formalities to close. In the meantime, we wandered into a small tent that said, Post Office. I always thought Hikim in Spiti had the highest post office but I guess I was wrong. Here I was at the world’s highest post office at 17, 060 feet.

Finally the team drove till we could possibly drive to. Not leaving an inch to spare. After a point, everyone had to take a 50 meter hike till the base camp. With the amount of layers I had on me, I felt like Bibendum walking and panting all the way up. When that moment finally arrived, it nothing less than magical.

Known as Qomolangma by the Tibetian, Sagarmatha by the Nepalis and Everest by the rest of the world, here she was gorgeous and humongous. The sight was actually very humbling. With cold induced numb faces, aching bodies, oozy head, panting lungs standing at 17, 500 feet and minus some degree, all you can actually manage to do is stare at the World’s Highest Mountain peak, absolutely speechless, for we had just reached the highest point of our adventure!  

I have seen Everest from above, I have seen Everest from below and now I cannot help wonder how it would be standing on Everest someday….

Why you ask?
Like George Mallory said, “Because it’s there.”

Shyaabda!!! (*Cheers)

Extra Information:
This driving expedition was organised by Mahindra Adventure along with Sacred Summits, a Kathmandu based travel & trekking agency. For more details on driving holidays, you can visit,

Saturday, 29 August 2015

Where the river meets the sea & the sea meets the bank- Poovar, Kerala

Barely are there a few places left around here which is actually explored and that gets me excited any more. But I realized these shockers still exist but unfortunately get shadowed by the bigger touristy names around. For example Poovar in Kerala. Heard of it? No..Yeah? Been there? No? No..? Well, I am not surprised because if someone asked me to go explore Kerala I would also first visit places like Alleppey, Munnar or Kochi maybe.

But let me tell you what you are missing and why you should plan a trip to Poovar ASAP!

Poovar is a small fishing town, untouched & unexplored. In Malayalam it literally translates into, Flower River (Poo-Var). Like any other beach town this hidden hamlet has its own share of swaying coconut trees, clear blue sea and sandy brown sand. But what sets this place apart from other beachy places is the fact that it is located at the mouth of an estuary. Pristine backwater on one side and the gentle sea on the other, it has all the Kerala elements one looks forward to.

I stayed at this place called Estuary Island. It is an island because it is surrounded by the backwater on three sides and by the ocean on the fourth. A relatively new property, the view from the deck is spectacular. It makes you want to kick your shoes, put up your feet and wriggle your toes while basking in all the serenity. The villas have the traditional Kerala roofs, sloped and tiled with an interior that is very classy yet traditional! (*PS- go during to the monsoon to get great off-season deals)

One must-do here is to take a short backwater cruise around the island.  It can transport you to a sort of mini Amazonian forest (minus the snakes and mosquitoes). The still green river water enveloped with a canopy of low lying green vegetation carries one beyond the present realm of reality. The vibrant birdlife with its water crows, woodpecker, cranes, the white headed kites etc. this place is definitely a birdwatcher’s paradise. Their occasional calls are the only things you can hear apart from the paddling of the oars.

In Poovar, an early morning visit to the Fishermen village is essential so you witness the everyday life of the fishermen and also chose what you want for lunch! You can easily spot a fishing cove by the number of crows in the area and the amount of jelly fishes on the beach. I spotted both and was excited to witness a fish auction, where the men would throw in their catch together and sell it the women who bid the highest.

The beach here is everything you can imagine, virgin, soft and private. As I sat on the beach looking at the ‘Elephant-in-the- Sea’ stone structure, I wondered whether I should keep this place a secret. But then beauty is one such thing that can never be hidden. And in Poovar you can not only see & hear beauty but feel it too. And on my part, it would have been such a shame to not share it.

If I were you, this is how I would include Poovar to my Kerala itinerary. Fly into Trivandrum, travel to Varkala, soak up some sun, surf a bit then travel 70 KMS down south to Poovar, and then head 70KMS south to the southernmost tip of the Indian sub- continent, Kanyakumari and then back to Trivandrum.

  1. Best time to visit is after the monsoon and during winters
  2. The nearest airport is Trivandrum which is 25KMS away
  3. It is best for couples who are looking for some privacy, but people like me also can be spotted
  4. Not for all the party animals. Finish that in Varkala and come here for some solitude
  5. Ensure you eat the fabulous sea food here