Travelling is now an alternate lifestyle

Syed Zafar Mehdi

At an age when travellers are savvier and looking for new options each year, travel trends have a stronger following than haute couture fashion. Bhikaji Cama Place-based travel writer Sumitra Senapaty has seen volcanic steam vents to vast craters, boiling lakes, emerald green lakes, kayaked the South China Sea, snorkelled reefs, sailed in Seychelles and rafted the Zanskar.

Travelling is now almost as an alternate lifestyle. The appeal for destinations with religious significance has diminished and a number of people who have been drifting towards adventure travel (camping and river-rafting) has tread a step ahead and are looking at for the next level. Senapaty first travelled for fun. Now, she helps other women find their (travel) calling through a travel club called Women on Wanderlust, which organises all-women trips around the world. The entrepreneur says, “Many women want to travel. But restrictions or reservations associated with travelling alone makes them hesitate.” Sumitra has managed to convert her passion into a business venture.

We travel to relax, explore new locales, shop in hip markets, and eat and drink till we drop. But we also travel to connect — to people and to places and history, landscapes, food, and traditions. The magic and mystery of travel is gripping people big time. So much so that travel has emerged as a whole new lifestyle today. Be it nature lovers, adventurers, architectural critics or simple travel freaks; the frenzy is catching up fast with all and sundry.

Travel trends in vogue

Apart from Kashmir, Himachal, Uttaranchal and the Northeast, that has always topped the charts of travel freaks, fascination for exotic travelling is fast picking up on the travellers’ radar. With unique sensibility, the discerning crowd has been venturing off lately to places like Arunachal Pradesh, Sikkim, Vijaynagar Kingdom in Hampi and tribal belts of Orissa. “Adventure travel is the buzzword today. There is a tremendous rush of tourists flocking to places like Manali, Leh-Ladakh, Uttaranchal etc,” says Ishar Preet of Chawla Tourist Corporation, Defence Colony. His company is offering meaty packages to all these places, besides for the Hemkund Yatra, commencing June 1.

In between all this, the value for money has also assumed importance in holidaymakers’ decisions when it comes to travel these days. “Economical holidays will be the key deciding factor this year, with holiday makers searching out the best budget details and discounts,” says Ronjoy Roy, a South Extension II based travel agent.

A number of cycle expeditions and jungle safari trips are also being organised by youngsters who usually form a group to travel to places closer to the cities. Garhwal, Kumaon, Ladakh and Himachal are the ideal sites for these mountain biking or cycling groups. “A bike ride across the world’s highest mountains dotted with green valleys, snow capped high peaks, and the deodar leaves one mesmerised,” says Sheikh Mujeeb of South Extension II, who is planning a motorbike tour to Ladakh next month with his friends.

That Leh’zy feeling

Once only allowed to the Armed Forces, Turtuk and Nyoma in Ladakh opened up to the public just a month back. When Nathula pass, Sikkim opened up, it attracted a number of people. High altitude destinations like Leh, Ladakh and Spiti Valley, HP are still hot on people’s antenna with many activities being doled out by travel companies.  “The rush is tremendous, so much so that bookings are done months in advance. With its tropical climate and the beautiful landcape, Leh-Ladakh is the place to be this summers,” says Amitabh Sinha of Splendour Tours and Travels, South Extension II. They are offering a lucrative package for Leh Ladakh, Rs 14,000 for five nights and six days.

Eco-tourism a hit

Think ‘green’ is the trend these days, with its effects being felt even by the travel industry. Most travellers look for eco friendly holiday options that cause minimum damage to nature. Eco travel was born out of this need and is a continuing trend for 2010. Camps are designed on eco-development principles, with solar panels and dry pit toilets.  Here you can experience the typical Himalayan village life with all its interesting facets or create a bonfire or play volley ball which would otherwise not be possible in resorts or the closeted environs of a hotel. “Eco-tourism provides an opportunity to visit undisturbed natural areas, scenic vistas, and observe flora and fauna. In these times of global warming, it helps in protecting the local environment,” says Varun Bijli of Hauz Khas, who organises such eco-trips.

Some international locales, popular for their eco-friendliness are also on the radar of travellers these days. SS Sarawat of Green Park is just back from New Zealand. “The environment and climate is awesome there. They have managed to reduce carbon emissions and keep global warming ghosts at bay,” says he.

When tummies dictate

Run on the lines of a modern clubhouse replete with activities and facilities, the Himalayan Trout House in the Tirthan Valley providing a friendly place for locals and visiting fishermen, trekkers, campers and other holiday makers to meet each other, exchange stories, share bonfires, barbecue, read, listen to music, play games or simply laze in hammocks.

These are replete with fly fishing, then cooking it in the open accompanied by fresh salads, vegetables and herbs from a nearby organic garden and seasonal fruit from the local orchards. You might even try your own hand at a trout recipe of your choice from the many recorded in the kitchen cookbook.

Biz and pleasure combo

The world is always on the go, with most travellers finding it more economical and viable to mix business with pleasure. Nowadays business travellers look for accommodation options that cater to all their business needs while providing leisure activities as well, so they can enjoy the best of both the worlds.  SDA based globetrotting businessman Pawan Jain has been to 72 countries. He believes in mixing business with pleasure. “I usually finish my business related commitments within few days, and then the rest of my time is spent in going around and exploring the place,” says Jain.

Ode to wellness

Over the past few years, the wellness vacation, formerly a choice only open to the rich has found a bigger audience with many destination spas going easy on the money. Even chain hotels are adding more spa-like amenities to attract people.  “There is no such beautiful way to funnel out stress than head on a wellness trip to some idyllic resort,” says Mayur Ahlawat, a travel freak from Defence Colony.

Call it the craze or the crunch of having a long-term holiday, but the reason for

travelling remains the same while the nature of travelling has evolved over the ages. Simply, pack a bag, grab a friend and hit the road.

(First published in Hindustan Times)

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Why is Azadi the warcry in Kashmir

Syed Zafar Mehdi

In a throwback to early 90s, life in Kashmir remains crippled. The political leadership has failed and economy is in shatters. Notwithstanding the ‘bantamweight’ interlocutors being dispatched with the task of dousing the flames, normalcy seems like a far-fetched dream right now. The fate of the strife-torn state hangs in balance. As the youth on streets would tell you, it is no more about the political or economic packages, the half-hearted pronouncements, or the cosmetic confidence-building-measures. The resounding war-cry on the streets of Kashmir is Azaadi, which roughly translates into freedom from specter of oppression and humiliation.

What is Azadi?

Here in Delhi and elsewhere in India, the definition of Azadi still appears hazy. “What do Kashmiris want,” asks a friend of mine from South Delhi. “Azadi,” I say. He appears bemused.  “But what does Azadi mean to you. Aren’t you free already,” he asks with a puckered brow.  “If living under the shadow of terror and breathing through the barrel of Kalashnikovs is what you call Azadi, then we are Azad,” I retort. He draws back.

There is no need to press the panic buttons, I keep telling my Indian friends here. Azadi is not any strange beast, or a hydra-headed monster. It means people are demanding their basic and fundamental right to lead a dignified life. Azadi, more than anything else, is about breaking free from the specter of repressive laws like Disturbed Areas Act, the Armed Forces (Jammu and Kashmir) Special Powers Act, and the Public Safety Act, which provide the armed forces with extraordinary powers to search, detain, and use lethal force, ultimately leading to grave human rights abuses. Azadi means justice for one lakh odd Kashmiris killed in last two decades of conflict. Azadi means justice for 7000 odd custodial killings, and 3700 odd people who have gone missing under mysterious circumstances in past two decades.

There are different interpretations of Azadi, depending on which camp you align with. But the definition of Azadi will be best given by the thousands of orphaned children and widowed women, who have been the victims of this decades old strife. For the vast majority, Azadi means justice for the cold-blooded crimes committed by Indian soldiers as well as by the Pakistan-backed militants.

However in the mainstream Indian discourse, there is hardly any mention of the horrendous crimes committed by over a million Indian trigger-happy troops stationed in Kashmir since many decades now. Kashmir happens to be the most militarized zone in world, more than Iraq and Afghanistan. The struggle for self determination has a long history. Kashmir has always been ruled by ‘outsiders’. The circumstances under which the ruler of Kashmir Hari Singh signed the instrument of accession still remain shrouded in mystery and controversy.

Massacres and denial

The chest-beating jingoists in India need to be reminded of Nehru’s promise at Lalchowk Srinagar, where he spoke to a large gathering accompanied by Shiekh Abdullah. They should be reminded about umpteen UN resolutions on Kashmir and how successive regimes in New Delhi made mockery of them. Speaking of killings, massacres, carnages, they need to be told about Gaw Kadal Massacre on January 20, 1990. Central Reserve Police Force had opened fire on a group of unarmed Kashmiri protesters, including women and children, leaving over 200 people in pools of blood. Victoria Schofield calls it the “worst massacre in Kashmiri history” in he  book. ‘Kashmir in Conflict: India, Pakistan and the Unending War’.   This massacre took place just a day after New Delhi sent Jagmohan as Governor to Kashmir on January 19, 1990.

Gaw Kadal Massacre is not the only blot on the face of the largest demon-crazy (read: democracy). Chhatisingpora massacre that took place on 20 March 2000, is something that government of India should include in its NCERT books alongside Jalianwala Bagh massacre. Around 15 armed personnel had entered the village of Chattisinghpora in Anantnag district, lined up 34 Sikh men and boys in an open field and mowed them down in cold blood. This happened on eve of the then US President Bill Clinton’s visit to India. And worse, none of those army personnel were prosecuted in the case.

There are Pathribal killings too, that my friends in metropolitan cities of India have hardly heard of. Five days after the Chattisinghpora massacre, a battalion of Indian troopers gunned down seven men in Pathribal village of Anantnag district, dubbing them as “foreign militants” responsible for Chhatisingpora. On 19th March 2012, CBI informed that the fake encounter at Pathribal “were cold-blooded murders and the accused officials deserve to be meted out exemplary punishment.” But the accused have already claimed immunity under draconian Armed Forces Special Special Powers Act (AFSPA).

Add to the list Zakoora and Tengpora massacre of 1990. Zakoora massacre happened on March 1, 1990, when thousands of protestors decided to approach United Nations Military Observer Group office in Srinagar, next to CM’s Gupkar Road residence, to protest against the policies of governor Jagmohan. And what they got in return were bullets from army, leaving 26 dead. Tengpora massacre took place on the same day, when 21 more Kashmiri people, totally unarmed, were killed by Indian army at a bus stop in Tengpora, Srinagar. The dead included 5 women. There is also Handwara Massacre, when nine civilians were shot dead by BSF on January 25 1990 in frontier district of Handwara. The list goes on.

The new ‘intafada’

The year 2009-10 brought back the memories of mid 90s when resistance movement was at its peak. Many people were killed, most of them innocents. A 45-year old physically challenged Abdul Rashid Reshi was shot dead on January 07 near CM’s high-security bungalow in Srinagar. A 17-year old Amina fell to bullets on May 12, 2009 in ‘exchange of fire’. Neelofar (24) and Asiya Jan (17) of Shopian were raped and murdered on May 29 2009. A B.A. final year student Amina Masoodi of Doolipora Trahgam was killed inside her house during the night intervening of July 8 and 9, 2009. Inayat (16) was shot dead on January 08, 2009 followed by Wamiq (13) on January 31 and Zahid (16) on February 05. Habibullah Khan of Handwara, a beggar, was mowed down on April 13 and passed off as ‘veteran militant’. Shehzad Ahmed and Riyaz Ahmed of Rafiabad were mowed down in fake encounter in Machil and dubbed as ‘militants’.

Tufail Ahmad (17), whose death gave fresh impetus to the spirit of rebellion among Kashmiris, was killed while returning from tuitions on June 11 2010. Asif Ahmed Rather, a nine year old from Baramulla was literally bludgeoned to death. Mukhtar Ahmad Sheikh, 68, a father of five children, including three daughters was shot dead by Army’s 21 Rashtriya Rifles in the Bawan Watser forest area. Army said the sexagenarian man was killed in an encounter between militants and the army. These were followed by even more brutal killings of Ishtiyaq Ahmed Khanday (15) on June 29, 2010, Shajat-ul-Islam (18) on same day, Muzaffar Bhat (17) and Abrar Ahmad (18) on July 06. An 11 year old Irshad Parray of Islamabad fell to pallets fired by police while protesting against the earlier incident of women’s beating by police and CRPF. One injured boy died on his mother’s lap near Batamallo bus stand during curfew on August 2010. And the list goes on. There were more than 150 killings, mostly teenagers, in 2009-10 alone.

Even journalists have faced the music. A Srinagar-based correspondent of New Delhi based Hindi news channel was thrashed with bamboo sticks, injuring his arm.  “Who is DC? We don’t follow, but give orders,” the scribe later quoted a cop as saying to him. Another journalist, working with local daily was attacked by CRPF men even when authorities had announced relaxation in the curfew. He was hit with bamboo sticks on his legs, right arm and head. He had three stitches in head at Bone and Joints hospital and X-rays showed fracture in the arm. Photojournalists have been the easy targets, since they commit the heinous crime of filming the cops. It won’t be exaggeration to state that all the tall talk about freedom of expression and free media, in context of Kashmir, is hogwash.

Vanished into thin air?

Nazima Jan of Tathmulla Uri in Baramulla district has been waiting for her “missing” three brothers, since past one and a half decades. She, along-with the kiths and kins of other missing persons, gather in Partap Park Srinagar on the 10th and 28th day of every month to register their protest against involuntary disappearances in Kashmir. They have formed Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons (APDP) and their Azadi means getting to know the whereabouts of their loved ones and ensuring justice for them.

Tailpiece:

“Isn’t that a reason enough for us to ask for freedom,” asks Suhail Khan, (22) who has been booked for stone-pelting twice. For Suhail, a final year student at Kashmir University, Azadi means justice for every single drop of innocent blood shed in Kashmir. That actually is a war-cry.

 (First published in Asia Times)