Talking of this planet, there are stunningly beautiful places with awesome assets each a carefully kept secret-lands of great beauty enhanced by physical vastness, geographical diversity, historical legacies, cultural richness and distinct people with distinct lifestyles. And Inder Raj Ahluwalia, the indefatigable globetrotter, has covered almost every latitude and longitude that straddles our planet-from the French Riviera to the Polar Arctic, to Istanbul to Tokyo.. the list is endless.
Meet Me At The Border presents unforgettable vistas of nature that include the world’s highest sand dunes just minutes away from endless beaches; the world’s oldest desert; an exceptional variety of wildlife in sanctuaries that are role model in environment preservation; safaris that bond one with nature; a hotel made entirely from ice and snow; an underground hotel; service that’s an effortless whisper; blazing sunsets melting into lantern-lit romance; cruises that are almost sinful in terms of what they offer; meals that are the envy of royalty; thermal springs that provide instant rejuvenation; festivals that border on the sublime; people who are still living in the past, and much more. A must-read!
Inder Raj Ahlwalia is an internationally renowned travel and aviation writer, who has been recognized several times over as the ‘most-awarded, most-honoured and best travel writer in the world’.
Ahulwalia’s been writing on travel, tourism and aviation for the past 30 years for leading Indian and foreign newspapers and magazines. He has lectured at several national and international forums, and has been part of ‘think-tank’ activities involving tourism, heritage, environment and aviation.
Ahluwalia’s brilliant and distinguished writing career has been crowned by several international and national awards for travel writing. His list of honours and awards includes the prestigious Mark Twain Travel Journalism Award by the Heidelberg Convention and visitors Bureau; the Medaille d’Or du Tourism (Gold Medal of Tourism) by the French Ministry of Tourism; a special Swiss Tourism Award; and the Best Travel Writer in India trophy. He has also been recognized and nominated for diverse honours by several other tourism boards and private organizations.
One of the burdens of my life as an international travel writer has been answering people's repeated queries about the 'most beautiful' country I have ever visited. My stock answer has been that it is hard to single out a particular country. And it is.
Or is it?
I mean, should I not be thinking of the innate charms I have seen in some select spots that have wrapped themselves around me like an octopus' tentacles, and enveloped me in a dream-like world? Should I not be thinking of the culture that seeps through almost every facet of a country, and shrouds everything to the point that it almost drags you down with its sheer weight and intensity? Should I not be thinking of the thousands of men and women I have met across the globe, and of those I have managed to get close to, and those with whom I have broken bread?
I do think of all this often enough. But is merely thinking of these myriad elements enough? Isn't there much more to this stunning script that has become part and parcel of my life and daily existence? Isn't there another dimension that needs to be addressed? Isn't there a need for more ground to be broken? It is a richly confused legacy that needs richly confused minds to delve into, understand, and appreciate.
I guess I am 'richly confused' enough. How else can I explain the immense pleasure I have got from the life I have led so far? It has been a rich experience, and I have felt the need to share it in detail with others. That's what I have done. I have charted my exciting journey as an international travel writer, a journey I embarked upon three decades ago, and presented the scenarios and people I encountered across the globe through the four seasons of each year. I have threaded together the moments, passions and adventures, and the comical interludes that have made the canvas of my life so colourful and interesting.
A wise man once said it is better to laugh at yourself rather than have others do it for you. I have been involved in incidents that would make a dancing girl blush. One such incident immediately comes to mind. Way back in 1983, I happened to visit Singapore to attend the Travel Agents of India Annual Convention as a young and zippy lad with just a couple of years of writing experience. As part of general city sightseeing, the delegates were taken to Haw Paw Villa, or Tiger Balm Gardens as it is also known. As our motley group was alighting from the bus, our guide said we would stop there for 20 minutes, and cautioned each alighting delegate to look after his wallet. When it was our turn - myself and another young travel writer - the good man said with a twinkle in his eyes, "Gentlemen, you just look after yourselves!" Deeply embarrassed, we looked around to see if anyone had heard this, and of course, everyone around had!
While in the 'confession mode', I must mention that no account of my travels, and indeed of my life itself, would be complete without mention of the impact my being a Sikh has had on my personality, character, and life's adventures. And it must be showing because all through my travels around the world these past thirty-odd years, I have received more smiles - I call them 'goodwill miles' - than J have merited. There have been literally hundreds of occasions on which people have just smiled at me for no real reason at all.
Imagine an international travel convention with 1200 delegates from the world over, and just one of them wearing a turban. You stick out like a beacon! And that's the way it has been with me for years now. I have felt thousands of pairs of eyes peering at me through umpteen two-hour banquet dinners and cocktail receptions. Most times, and in most places, the reactions have been extremely pleasant. The delegates have sought me out, engaged me in conversation, asked me to join in at their table, and tried to unravel the mysteries of my being!
The list of questions is endless. Is my turban for show, or is it part of my religion? Do I wear it all the time? Does it come readymade or do I tie it every day? How long is it? Does its colour have a special significance?
I'd be lying if! didn't confess to a feeling of smug satisfaction at this, especially pertaining to the women who smiled and 'chatted' me up. And I'd be lying if I didn't admit to intense flirtation on my part. Shameful as it sounds, the fact is that I've used my physical appearance as a weapon of seduction.
There has been no dearth of inspiration in my life. My late parents, in their own distinct way, spurred me on to achieve what I was seeking through my writing. They never professed to understand exactly what I was doing with my life - I think they thought of me as some sort of drifter really - but were supportive enough. They never questioned my methods and seemed to accept the fact that there probably was a method to my madness. And as I grew in stature and my writing became more visible and impactful, they developed a sense of pride in my work. They never tired of talking proudly of my writing and travels behind my back. "Your parents are very proud of you" was the message repeatedly relayed to me by their circle of friends. They were the sort of parents I would wish everyone to have.
And then there is the inscrutable S.P. Dutt - affectionately known to his cronies as 'Speedy' - with whom I have shared a laugh or two, over a drink or three. (He doesn't drink, by the way!) He tosses what I have dubbed his 'signature' phrase at me, "Young man, tell us about yourself!" And I toss back my stock answer, "There's little to tell and plenty to hide." Upon which he showers me with compliments about my 'superlative talents' as a travel journalist, and my 'enormous success'. We both come away happy. He, because he has done what he does best, which is praise others. And I, because I am relieved that at least one person on this planet has been fooled by me.
Anil Katoch and his wife, Nupur, have sort of adopted me and insist I give them a shout whenever I need anything. Their grouse against me is that I didn't move into their apartment to spend more time together. Just knowing that people like them are around for me helps. Manika Chopra has remained unchanged in character, and maintained her friendship with me for some 25 years in spite of being hit by the modern catastrophy called 'big money', which can severely dent friendships. And there's my uncle, Jagrnohan Singh, who has kept tabs on my health and general welfare.
Talking of this planet, there are stunningly beautiful places with awesome assets - each a carefully kept secret - lands of great beauty enhanced by physical vastness, geographical diversity, historical legacies, cultural richness and distinct people with distinct lifestyles.
I am talking about unforgettable vistas of nature that include the world's highest sand dunes just minutes away from endless beaches; the world's oldest desert; an exceptional variety of wildlife in sanctuaries that are role models in environment preservation; safaris that bond us with nature; a hotel made entirely from ice and snow., an underground hotel; service that's an effortless whisper; blazing sunsets melting into lantern-lit romance; cruises that are almost sinful in terms of what they offer; meals that are the envy of royalty; thermal springs that provide instant rejuvenation; festivals that border on the sublime; people who are still living in the past.
I am dwelling on the thrill that accompanies travel. I mean real travel, or at least my perception of what that should be. I am talking of the intense beauty and mystique still on show at select places on our planet. I am touching upon some of the mysteries that cling to certain places and make them exotic beyond belief. I am talking about vast oceans; wide horizons; clear skies; memorable sunsets and starry nights; ethereal landscapes; silence and solitude.
But things aren't idyllic. They are just real. And reality was never meant to be simple. There is hope and despair, joy and grief, belief and doubt.
There is a stoic tenor to the different landscapes and to the people themselves. And therein lies the beauty.
I am talking about a feeling of antiquity engendered by three-toed dinosaur footprints left more than 200 million years ago; by petrified forests where fossilised tree trunks have lain for over 240 million years; and by oceans so deep, their secrets will never really be revealed.
And yet, I have experienced it all just now.
There is a huge, wide world waiting out there. It shows many faces and many images that range from 'subtle' to 'stark'. Though I have tried to understand them all, it is the starkness that has floored me. The many gripping faces generate a sense of freedom, as rot of déjà vu.
I had asked myself if I could afford to miss all this. And I knew I couldn’t. And thus began my journey.
This is my way of sharing it with others.
Meet me at the border!
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