A Goan sojourn

Travel is really what keeps me going and my family likes it too. Of late, with college going children, it is somewhat difficult to plan family vacations but we do what we can. On the other hand, it does give Lipi and me enough flexibility to plan our travels. We have been going to Goa every year since 2014 and have just come back over the weekend from another trip which was both relaxing and rejuvenating.

Why do we go to Goa so often? Well, for starters, it is a great place for visits and we have a Timeshare with Karma Royal who have most of their resorts in Goa. Since 2014 an incremental motivation is our son Ronju being there for his college in BITS Pilani, Goa campus. It has made sense for us to take our week in Goa so that we get to meet him briefly as an added bonus. Karma has 4 resorts in Goa, so we can rotate these as desired.

This year, we went to Goa between 5th and 12th August. As is my wont, I planned the trip way back in February and this resulted in us getting a good unit in Royal Palms as well as getting air tickets at very decent rates. In fact our total air fare came to less than 9000 Rs. The unit was practically free, though we have to pay a great deal of maintenance on it for having this ownership. As Ronju would stay with us for a couple of days, we took a one bedroom unit this time. It was spacious with a separate sitting area, kitchen, bedroom and washroom, apart from the two balconies. The resort is near Benaulim beach and is landscaped quite well, with a nice swimming pool, restaurant and bar.

Coming back to the actual trip then – we started on 5th and spent some time in the Plaza Premium Lounge before boarding our flight. Our credit cards allow us to do this and it helps us to avoid having overpriced and often, not so good, meals at airports. In this instance we had a pretty decent late breakfast which was still being served there. The flight only took an hour and we were soon in Goa airport. We booked a pre-paid taxi, picked up Ronju who had come there and were soon on our way. It was a good ride and I always find the localities in Goa quite interesting, especially that most of them have a lot of greenery. The check in was smooth, us being members and all, and we settled into our unit which was to be our home for the next 7 days.

The first evening we went to the Benaulim beach which is our favourite haunt. The beach has two good restaurant, namely Johncy’s and Pedro’s. We normally prefer Johncy’s as it is closer to the beach and offers both great food and views. After an early dinner, we went to the local superstore to stock up provisions for breakfast etc. The final stop for me was a liquor shop, every locality of Goa is dotted with these. The rates are great there, was able to buy 500 Ml Kingfisher cans for 50 Rs and a bottle of Blenders Pride for 475 Rs.

Ronju was to go off on Sunday evening so we made a trip to Kolva beach on that day. Unlike Benaulim, where the crowd is less, Kolva is a pretty happening beach with multiple shops and water sports options. We were unable to catch the sunset courtesy the dark clouds but it was a good way to spend the evening. Later on we went for a longish walk towards Margao and had dinner at a local Goan Cafe. A great thing in Goa is that the food is almost universally good, whether you eat at a high end restaurants or in a beach shack. Also, almost any restaurant worth it’s ilk is automatically a bar too.

Once Lipi and I were on our own, life settled into a rhythm for the next 5 days. I would wake up early and go for a morning walk along the beach while Lipi luxuriated in the knowledge that there was no real need to get up if one did not want to !! I always find walking along the beach, listening to the sound of the relentless waves rather relaxing and there are few better ways to spend time. We would normally have breakfast in our unit though one day we broke the routine and went to Pedro’s for brunch. The Spanish omelette there with Ham, potatoes and onion is simply divine though their Hot Chocolate could do with a lot of improvement, greater quantities of chocolate being one of them.

After breakfast we normally went out for some sightseeing or just relaxed in the resort. One day we hired a car and went off to Agonda and Palolem beaches which are about 40 Kms from the resort. These are probably the best beaches in Goa, especially Palolem which extends over a large area. The restaurant called Silver Sands is placed quite strategically and we had great views of the sea while sampling Golden Fried prawns and Goan fish curry for lunch. Apart from the beaches, the journey itself was a memorable one, long winding roads through Goan villages, forests and some hilly terrain too. This was a case of both the journey and the destination being equally worthwhile.

Another day we went to the Bigfoot museum which is a must see for anyone visiting Goa. This is an open air museum having a model of a typical Goa village with life size statues. You get to see the various facets of their daily lives and the commentary is both crisp and lucid. We probably learnt more about life in Goa from the museum than we ever would by reading books etc. Most importantly, it is really something one can enjoy and completely challenges the drab way in which most of our museums are presented. The Old Portuguese Mansion, next to this museum is also worth seeing. You will get to know a great deal about how Portuguese noblemen lived in Goa. The distinction with how the Britishers  lived is quite evident. Interestingly, many such houses dotted all over Goa are still lying empty as their owners neither stay in them nor have they disposed off these. We rounded off our museum visit with lunch at Nostalgia, a speciality Goan restaurant.

Among other activities at the resort, I introduced Lipi to playing Pool one day. She acquitted herself rather well and will get better with practice !! The wi-fi in the resort was good so we could post all our pictures rather easily on Facebook and I also got to do some work. Lipi too was able to order some stocks when the market fell precipitously over the week we were there. At other times I may have got worked up about my portfolio declining badly, but when you are in Goa you tend to take a relatively laid back look at such things. I did manage to catch some cricket and the hyper debates on TV too.

All too soon, the week came to an end and we were to travel back to Hyderabad on Saturday. As our flight was only in the afternoon, we combined a trip to the Bogmalo beach and Naval Aviation museum with the airport drop. Bogmalo beach is relatively less known but quite nice, we saw it for the first time in this trip. We had Kingfisher strong, Watermelon juice accompanied by vegetable pakodas as we watched the sea for the last time in this trip. It could have been rather poignant but we will be back soon.

The Naval Aviation museum is one of it’s kind in Asia and outlines our Naval history in a great manner. The aircraft  shown are real ones and have a glorious history, especially with relevance to the 1971 war, where the Navy played a decisive role. If you are in Goa do not miss this and be sure to look at the photographs and the models too.

Our return was good and uneventful and we were back on a Saturday afternoon to Hyderabad. This was a really good trip with all the ingredients in a great cocktail of experience – family time, good food, great beaches, culture, history etc. We will now wait for the next travel.

Funding my daughter’s marriage

Now that my daughter Rinki is going to be 23 soon, it is time to start thinking that she will get married in a few years. Of course, given the fact that she is in the second year of her BM program at XLRI and will probably work a few years before getting married, I think we are still looking at another 4 years or so, maybe 5. However, given the kind of expenses it entails one must plan for it in advance.

As my regular readers will know well I do not have separate portfolios assigned to specific financial goals. I simply have 3 portfolios of Debt, Stocks and MF where I invest in and take out money from these as and when needed. So far this has really not been needed as I have always had enough to spend from my active income. This is true even in my current state of Financial independence but may not remain so at the point of time my daughter gets married. There is thus a need to plan for this.

In general, my idea always had been that I will pay for my children’s graduation, no matter how much it cost, and also a reasonable amount in their marriage. Post graduation was something I wanted my children to fund themselves, normally through a bank loan or even taking some money as a loan from me. I did not see much point in paying high interest rates to the banks. This will burden the child with high EMI and restrict his or her freedom to make the right choices.

Based on all of these, when Rinki got admitted to XLRI we took a 12 lacs loan even though the course fees were in the range of 22 lacs. The idea was that I will pay much of the first year fees and she would get it paid by the bank in the second year. Total costs for the first year was 10.5 lacs and we took only 50000 from the bank. This was needed to keep the loan valid. In the second year the fees to be paid are as follows – 4.71 lacs in June, 2.5 lacs in August and 2.5 lacs in November. Right now we have paid the first 4.71 lacs through our own resources – Rinki had some internship money from her Summer stint in GE, one of the FMP I had earlier done for her reached maturity and a FD I had done some years back matured now. Under ordinary circumstances I may have needed the money for my expenses but as my active income is going well in 2017 the flexibility is quite a lot more.

With the above backdrop and the assumption that Rinki is likely to get a job which will pay her at least the median salary in XLRI, I have worked out the following plan with her

  • We will try to restrict the bank loan to 4.5 lacs or so.
  • In the first year of her job, she will pay back the loan in full. Along with the interest this may come to 40000 per month.
  • Assuming that she gets a take home salary of 1.2 lacs per month and needs to spend about 40000 on regular expenses, she will still have 40000 left as surplus in year 1.
  • From year 2 the surplus is obviously a lot more.

What about the money I have paid for her PG education? It will amount to about 14 lacs and I do not want her to pay it back to me. I have asked her to invest it in a portfolio of 4-5 MF over the next 3 years @ 40000 per month. Over this period the amount of the corpus will be 17.4 lacs and in 4 years it will be about 20 lacs. This is the amount I plan to utilise for her marriage. Yes, the costs may be more and if so, I will fund the gap.

What if she decides not to get married at all or get married later. Well, in the first case the money is her’s to use in any manner she wants to. In the second case, the money will remain invested and we will be using it as and when she gets married.

For my son the issues will be simpler as the marriage expenses are likely to be lower. Also, like I did for myself, I am hoping he will be able to foot the bill to some extent, if not for all of it like I did. That is way down the future though, at least 8 years if not more.

A life plan must precede a financial plan

With the increasing readership of my blog, I get a lot of requests to either make financial plans for people or to review an existing financial plan that was made by someone for them. What strikes me as amazing is that people by and large focus greatly on their financial goals and almost take their life goals for granted. This flies in the face of the obvious reality – your finances are there to support your life goals and therefore must come after you have thought through your life goals.

The first thing which surprises me is that people project their lives for the next 30 years or so without having the ambition to do more with it. Let us say you have passed out of college and got a job. While it may be a job which you like, you may still look at ways and means of improving it. An IT person who started his career just 5 years back may already be finding himself in the cross roads. There is no guarantee that your current job will last for 10 years, let alone 30. It is therefore imperative that you fix your life goals based on your current skills, future skills you may need to acquire and the kind of work you want to do. It may be necessary for you to take up your first job for many reasons, but there will be equally good reasons as to why you may want to do other things.

The same goes for people who are in their mid career with a family. Yes, changing your life direction may be more difficult now but it is not impossible by any means. I had a friend who was a hotel manager for 10 years, worked in Rediff for another 10 years, went on to do an MBA abroad and is now a professor in an US Business school. Note that the latter career moves were all done when he had a family. Another friend of mine who is from an IIT and an IIM, went to the US recently to pursue a second MBA as he was not happy with how his career was shaping up. In his case too he took his wife and a young daughter to the US. There is no doubt that these people had to go through a lot of tough times but they were clear as to what they wanted to achieve.

Changing careers are getting much more common nowadays than ever before. I just came to know of a Doctor, who practised for 7 years after his MBBS and has now got into IIM Ahmedabad for their one year Executive program. He wants to be associated with Health care but not as a practising Doctor and felt that an Executive MBA will give him the opportunities that he is seeking out.

The problem with financial plans is that they are done assuming people will proceed in their lives linearly. They will start with a job, increase their salaries every year, get married, invest and increase their investments, plan their finances, home buying and have other goals such as children’s education, marriage and retirement. This does not at all cater to real life and real people. For example, I started working at 24 and always wanted to retire at 45, or at least be financially independent by then. If I had been to a financial planner, he would probably have told me that I needed to work for 35 years and early retirement was just not possible in India.

The logic can get extended to any particular passion you have in life. Earlier it was difficult to take up your passion due to lack of resources and opportunity. However, many people nowadays want to take up their passion after they have fulfilled most of their responsibilities. I know of people who have taken up travel, reading, teaching and several other interest areas at a relatively late stage in life and have done very well in them.

So the point is your life plan must be dynamic in nature to fulfil the aspirations you have. We will not meet all our aspirations but there should be a clear and concerted attempt to do so. The financial plan must adapt to your life journey not the other way round. You need a financial planner who understands this.

How does one go about doing this? Let that be the subject of another post.

An Italian odyssey

Writing this post is an anticipated event for me as, even before we left for our Italy trip, I got a lot of requests from several quarters to do this. I will directly start with the trip itself as I have already covered the planning of the trip as well as my thoughts and experiences with the tour operator Kesari in other recent posts.

We started off from Hyderabad on 5th May morning as we had to join the group for the night flight to Abu Dhabi and Rome. Though the wait in the Mumbai airport was somewhat long, we were quite impressed with the facilities, the only jarring point being the food costs. We connected with the Kesari representative on the appointed time, collected our hampers and checked in early. The tour leader welcomed us and wanted us to meet her before the transit from Abu Dhabi. The flights were largely uneventful, though tiring as usual. Breaking it up into two flights is a good idea as long as the layover is manageable. We reached Rome in the early morning. Immigration was a rather long process and freshening up in the airport with hordes of people wanting to do the same took it’s own time. We boarded the coach after that and the trip was well and truly underway.

We had a pretty comfortable coach which we would be using for the entire trip, the tour leader was articulate and knowledgeable and the visit to Pompeii was fulfilling a long time desire. The ruins of Pompeii are maintained rather well and we were lucky to have a good guide who spoke English very well. She explained the times of 2000 years back with a lot of imagination and some of the things such as the water pipe of those years, the stepping stones on the streets so that people could cross when they got waterlogged in the rainy season, the roadside eateries with ovens for cooking the food and a brothel with the services menu drawn on the walls were the highlights for me. As was Homer’s Odyssey drawn as fresco’s on the walls of an erstwhile commercial place.

In terms of sheer heritage, history and scale few places in the world will beat Pompeii. Our own Hampi is great too but it is not as old as this. Moreover only 25 % of the city has been excavated and that itself boggles the mind. A near perfect experience was made even better by an excellent 3 course lunch in a good restaurant.

Day 2 of our Italy trip was very different from the first. From history and heritage of Pompei we landed in Sorrento and Capri, with all it’s natural beauty of the sea and hills. The views all over were quite captivating and the sheer cliffs rising practically right from the sea. Much of Sorrento is perched atop these cliffs.

The highlight of the day was travelling to the highest point of the island in a chair lift. It is literally a chair hung from a cable. As we sat there, the mist rolling in from the sea quite engulfed us as the chair passed through some greenery with the sea to our right and the hills to the left. A surreal experience is probably not an exaggeration in this case. While I was sorry to miss the Blue Grotto, a cave with the blue reflection from the sea water, this was somewhat made up by the views from the highest point of the island – particularly, the myriad hues of the sea, I myself could count some six colours.

Day 3 of the Italy trip started with a whistle stop tour of the Naples square. Quite an impressive place with the Galleria and the Opera house, which was built way back in 1737.

Next stop was Rome and we spent the afternoon in Vatican City. I had always been interested in it and my keenness had grown over the years after I followed the Dan Brown novels. The Vatican museum was a treasure trove of Italian Renaissance creations and it was rather overwhelming in some sense. The Sistine chapel is definitely the crowning glory of Michaelangelo’s painting career and the vivid colours were remarkable just for their longevity as well as the artistic brilliance.

The Basilica is probably the most famous example of a Christian Church and the richness in terms of conception and execution is simply incomprehensible at first take. Finally, the square which finds mention in so many novels for the Papal conclave and election, the news of which is conveyed by the colour of the smoke through a chimney, was a fitting end.

Day 4 of the trip was dedicated to Rome. We saw the Trevi fountain in the morning and it was a great sight. It is maintained very clean, even though a lot of shops are around.

The Rome orientation done from the bus was rushed but we did get to know a lot of unknown stuff about the city. The Time elevator ride was a great experience and the show has been conceived very well.

The Piazza Venezia is a magnificent structure and I went and explored it on my own. Finally the Colloseum was a fitting finale to the day. Even with much of it being in ruins, it is easy to imagine the grandeur it had in the past and our guide was brilliant in conjuring up the visions of gladiators going at each other full tilt in a filled Colloseum with the spectators baying for blood.

Rome is truly a city where the past and the present live in complete harmony and we have been fortunate to witness it. Though I have posted pictures for each of the above and some of them are quite good, one will need to get a real experience to understand this.

Day 5 of the trip was spent in San Gimignano and Pisa, both of which were exceptional.

San Gimignano is a very well preserved medieval town and it got the award of an UNESCO heritage site in 1990. It is a living city but the structures of the past are all preserved. Walking through it you get the feeling of being transported to a long past age. Definitely worth a visit, even for the brilliant natural beauty of Tuscany surrounding it.

Pisa is of course known for the Leaning tower and seeing it in front of us was an amazing experience. The Square of Miracles has several other great structures such as the Baptistry and the Cathedral. As with most Italian structures these are very well maintained.

Day 6 of our trip was mostly dedicated to Florence with a worthwhile viewing of the Ferrari museum in the afternoon.

Florence is probably the best example of architecture and sculpture seen anywhere, though Italy and Europe will have close rivals. The Cathedral is undoubtedly the high point of the walking tour we had. The two domes and the Bronze door were just amazing. The main square with the replicas of David and Hercules will please any art lover. Finally, the Alexander point offers a great overview of the City landscape.

The Ferrari museum is a veritable feast for the eyes to any sports car lover. Just to see so many of these together is great and gives you a feeling of elation.

The 7th and final day of the trip was for Venice, aptly called the Queen of the Adriatic. The whole experience was great from the approach by the boat, the walk through the markets and over the bridges, the church of St Marks and finally the Gondola ride through the canals.

Venice is different from all other places because of it’s unique ecosystem and the way it has been preserved over the years. Yes, the motor boats have made it more noisy and a tad more polluted but, in today’s day and age, a place sans any surface transport is great by itself.

The memories of Venice will stay with us for long. In all ways it was a high point of our visit to Italy. I have been to several places over the years but for the sheer diversity of natural beauty, history and heritage this tour has been an unique one.

Coming back from such a trip is always laced with a tinge of sadness but the memories will last us a long time. The return journey was more tiring as we were not really looking forward to the Hyderabad heat after the salubrious climate of Italy.

For the interested reader, my recommendation will be to go through the pictures I have posted in Facebook. To be candid though, no picture can do justice to the real experience of seeing the statue of David, the waters of Capri or the Sistine chapel among many others. You really need to visit Italy if you love history, heritage and culture.

For me, it was the only major country in western Europe where I had never been and I will now be looking at Scandinavia, Africa and South America as possible next destinations for my travel.

Children’s marriage – a financial goal?

In one of my earlier posts I had written as to why I do not consider the marriage of my children to be a life goal for me. I believe, they have been brought up in a way such that they can select their own partner for life when the time comes. Yes, as parents we will be supportive of it and may also interact with the families of their would be spouses according to the prevalent social norms but, neither my wife nor me, think that we have to initiate the process of finding a bride or groom for our children.

Some of the feedback I have received to the post is a pointer to what is wrong with our societal mindset till today. Sample some of this :-

  • If the girl is not having a good education, she may want to get married at the age of 22 or so. People saying this need to realise that if a girl is being brought up from her early childhood to simply get married after a perfunctory graduation, she is hardly going to have the motivation to do anything else in life. In this day and age, we as parents need to give wings to our girls, not shackle them with chains so early in life.
  • If a son is unable to find a suitable life partner on his own, it is the responsibility of his parents to do that for him. Well, I have no real issues with the parents taking an initiative in this matter as long as it is just for facilitation. Unfortunately, in most cases it turns out to be deterministic and two people, who have little going for themselves in terms of compatibility, get married to each other largely because their families are fine with it. The consequences, often, are quite disastrous.
  • Others said that while it was good in principle for the children to foot the bill of the marriage, how will they do it at such an early age etc. My thoughts on this are very simple – fund the marriages of your children to your heart’s content, as long as you can afford it without affecting what else you desire in life. If you are having a grand wedding but do not have enough money for your retirement years, then there is a lot wrong in how you are thinking through your decisions.

Having gone through those above, let us examine why I think it is a good idea to fund the marriages of children through them. We live in a very different world and social milieu today as compared to even 10-20 years back. At these times the parents were taking complete responsibility of their children till they got married and this included higher education as well as marriage. The underlying assumption was that the children, in turn, would take care of their parents, at least financially, when the time arrived. Today we dare not depend on such hopes as parents and therefore need to look at things with a lot more objectivity and logic rather than just filial emotion. The other thing that has changed is the cost of both higher education as well as marriage. Even 15 years back a B school degree used to cost about 3 lacs, today the same figure is close to 25 lacs. A degree in Engineering with associated expenses has gone up from 2 lacs to 16 lacs plus in the same period. So if you are sponsoring just the first graduation degree of your child you are probably paying more than what our parents paid for all these together.

Coming to the issue as to whether the children can fund their own marriages at such a young age. Well, I think that no son should marry till he is about 28 and this can probably be 25 or so for a girl. This will give then 4-6 years of working life which can be quite adequate to save up for the wedding. Of course, if they are paying a high student loan then the idea should be to pay it off first. Also, if you have the bandwidth as a parent to sponsor either a PG education OR the marriage, I will say choose the first.

I will write other posts on typical wedding costs and how these could possibly be funded by the children, but for now, let us look at a situation where you want to foot the bill. As long as you are being reasonable about the spending according to your own financial bandwidth there is nothing wrong with it. Unfortunately, Indian weddings today have become a spectacle of unmitigated desire to show off money, promoted by mindless and rather vulgar consumerism. I have seen many parents go completely out of the way, in order to show up their relatives and neighbours. At the end of the day, such reckless expenditure cravings often have rather sad endings.

My own experience here will not be out of order. I had worked for about 5 years and a bit when I got married to Lipi. Though I lived a good life as a bachelor in Delhi, I did manage to save a fair bit in those years. In 1993 the world in India was a different place and weddings were expensive affairs but not exorbitantly so yet. In order to comply with my mother’s wishes about how the wedding should be done, I ended up spending most of my accumulated savings and was quite happy to do so. I remember being so broke that Lipi had to sponsor the train tickets for our honeymoon in Panchmarhi. I never thought anything about spending for my wedding as my father had spent a lot of money for my education and those of my sisters. Yes, they were less expensive then but his salary as an Engineer in SAIL was also not a lavish one. 

So coming back to the core issue, is the marriage of your children a financial goal for you? Yes, if you want it to be but look upon it as the least priority item, after your own retirement and children’s education. If you have enough money, do what you want with it. However, if your children are unable or unwilling to take responsibility for their lives when they are 26-28 years of age there is a basic issue. Also, if you have brought up your daughter letting her think she just has to complete her graduation somehow and marriage is her only real goal in life, there really is a huge problem.

Coming to my children, I do hope they will choose their own partners when they want to get married. I will fund their marriage to the extent I deem logical but if they want to indulge in crass consumerism, they can foot the bill on their own. By then, they should be doing rather well in life and will be able to afford it quite well anyway.

How much did our Kumarokom vacation cost?

A question I have had to face several times last week is the title of this post. Ever since I wrote about the vacation in my blog, people have wanted to know more about how they could go there and also how much it had cost me. For the first, I will definitely recommend a vacation in Kumarokom for anyone who is looking for relaxation. As to the costs, let me handle it in this post.

As any experienced traveler will know the costs of a vacation can broadly be divided into the following heads :-

  • Transportation to and from destination.
  • Accommodation.
  • Local conveyance.
  • Food.
  • Sightseeing and other activities.

In our case, the week long accommodation at the Karma Chakra resort was a bonus week through our Timeshare and it cost us 5750 Rs. Of course, if it was a regular exchange week then the cost would have been in the region of 22000 Rs. In the absence of Timeshare such a property will at least go for 6000 Rs per room night, so be prepared to shell out 42000 Rs if you are planning to stay for a week. Apart from the bonus week fee we also had to pay about 1100 Rs for the luxury tax levied by the state of Kerala.

As far as transportation was concerned, we took the flight to Kochi and back. From the Kochi airport to the resort we had taken a cab. As we bought tickets reasonably early and also used credit card discounts, the ticket prices came to only 8000 Rs. The travel to the resort and back by cab cost 4800 Rs – 2300 for the onward journey, 2500 for the return one.

Local conveyance in Kumarokom was mostly by Autos and we took the bus on one occasion from Kottayam. The Auto drivers are a law unto themselves and even a 1-2 kms ride will cost you 50 Rs easily. Our total expenses on these were not much, maybe in the range of 1000 Rs or so. Travel to the Hyderabad airport and back home was another 1500 Rs.

Food is something which both me and my wife love to indulge in and it was reasonably expensive at the resort though the quality was great. We also dined out a few days at a local restaurant apart from sampling some rather good fare at the nearby bakeries. For the 7 days our overall food costs came close to 9000 Rs.

Sightseeing and activities were mostly a visit to the Bird sanctuary and a house boat ride on the serene Vembanad lake. Overall costs were in the region of 5000 Rs.

So putting it all together the tally will be as below :-

  • Accommodation       – 6850 Rs
  • Transportation          – 12,800 Rs
  • Local conveyance      – 2500 Rs
  • Sightseeing                  – 5000 Rs
  • Food                                – 9000 Rs

Overall cost of the vacation was therefore 35000 Rs and change. Pretty expensive, by most standards but we had a great time. The costs were real but so was the experience and the memories, quite priceless.                     

Kumarokom – a bliss for the discerning traveler

For an avid traveler like me, the first trip of the year is always an eagerly anticipated one, often setting the tone for the rest of the year. Last year we had been to the Rann of Kutch and this year we have started off with Kumarokom – both in some style !!

Kumarokom is not new to both Lipi and me – we had been there in 2003 for a few days in the KTDC property Waterscapes, adjoining the bird sanctuary. It was a memorable trip then but a trifle rushed and a lot of time has passed since then. Therefore, when our upgrading of the Timeshare entitled us to a bonus week which could be taken in the signature property Karma Chakra, I had no hesitation in making the decision.

A little about Kumarokom and the Vembanad lake will be useful for readers who are not completely aware of it. Kerala is a narrow state with an extensive coastline. In several places the sea water comes inland creating a vast system of canals, more popularly known as the backwaters. There are also lakes pretty much adjacent to the sea and almost leading to it. The charm of the backwaters is that you can navigate these on boats and get a slice of the Kerala village life as the boat sails past the inhabitants engaged in their daily work. These boats come in all shapes and sizes – from the humble rowing boat to the shikara type ones and finally the fully loaded House boats which in the local lingo are called Kettuvalams. These are fully functional house boats which can navigate the lakes and canals. They come with air conditioned bedrooms, proper toilets and great cooking arrangements. These house boats have a lot to do with Kerala being an iconic tourist destination – not to forget the beaches, culture and cuisine of course.

The Vembanad lake is the largest fresh water lake in India, if one does not consider the Chilka lake in Orissa for it’s brackish water. It is a vast water body covering an area greater than 2000 sq kms, stretching in length for 93 Kms between Aleppey and Kochi, with a maximum width of 14 kms. If you see it for the first time, you may well mistake it for the sea – such is the vastness of it’s expanse. Kumarokom is really a village in the Kottayam district and has a lot of resorts now, bordering the lake. The nearest town is Kottayam, a rather bustling place, quite different from the idyllic serenity of Kumarokom.

Ok, enough of an introduction then. Our journey started off on 4th February and the availability of a flight to Kochi made it rather easy. A short flight and a car ride for a couple of hours saw us in the resort by 2 pm in the afternoon. The resort is really built on what used to be a wetland before and is right on the Vembanad lake. All the 24 rooms are on one side ensuring that each room has a lake view. The other side has the Reception, Activity center and the restaurant. The swimming pool is in the middle of it and the whole middle section is on stilts with water being there. You get a feeling that you are crossing bridges when you walk from one side of the resort to the other. In all ways, this is a great property and our room was a very nice one too. It had all the amenities and the crowning glory was definitely the spacious balcony which had a great view of the Vembanad lake – we practically woke up each morning with the mist swirling over the vastness of the lake with the birds flying around and swooping down to get an early start for their food.

The best activity in the resort was definitely the sunset which could be observed sitting under a Gazebo, erected strategically at a perfect place. The lawn next had a swing and a hammock, the swimming pool with the deck chairs just behind and the resident house boat of the resort tied nearby. This along with the variety of birds moving around in the evenings, made this an idyllic activity. We spent all our evenings there and though the final moments of the sunset were often obliterated by the clouds, whatever we did get to view was spectacular nonetheless. At night the resort was also lit up beautifully and the lights coming on as darkness engulfed us slowly was rather magical. On a more prosaic note, the restaurant served quite delectable fare – both local cuisine and also some North Indian varieties.

The resort was good enough to just laze around, lie down in the divan provided in the balcony and catch up with some reading while soaking in the sight of the majestic Vembanad lake. To be sure, we did that awhile and I finished the 2 books I had got for the trip. Even managed to do some work done for my current engagement, courtesy the wifi available, which was rather good. But as travelers who are fairly active, we also got to do a lot of other stuff too.

Lipi has a friend in Kollam and she visited us along with her husband, who is in the army, on the Sunday we were there. It was great to meet them and even better that I got some Beer as a gift – saved me a lot of expensive buying at the resort. We went down to a local restaurant and had some authentic Kerala food – Fish thali, Karimeen fry and Prawns Masala. We also repeated lunch there on our last day – this time trying the Karimeen wrapped in a banana leaf along with some Duck Mapaas.

Ferries are a common mode of transport in Kerala waterways and we went in a local ferry one day. It was quite an experience, what with all kinds of local people clambering on board the ferry in their bikes. As the resort house boat was way too expensive we hired one on our own for 3 hours and 3000 Rs another day. It was a great way to spend time on the Vembanad lake, we nearly went close to Aleppey. Just the number of birds we saw – Egrets, Kingfisher, Cormorants, Snake birds, Storks, Robin and many others made it worthwhile. While you are there the peace and serene tranquility is broken only by the chirpings of the birds. One can also go for an overnight trip but as we had experienced it last time, we did not opt for that.

Some word on transportation – autos are available and are the same as everywhere else in India, inasmuch as they will quote their price which is normally high. We also went in a few buses for short distances and once coming back from Kottayam. The service is fairly good but there is not a word of English written on any of the buses so you really have to find out things for yourself from the conductor or fellow passengers. They were normally helpful though, especially the one who directed us in Kottayam.

We had a good visit to the bird sanctuary one morning and though the birds were not seen in great numbers, the walk through the sanctuary was a good one. We also revisited the KTDC resort Waterscapes after all these years and liked what we saw. There was a bird enclosure with a huge Turkey and some Emus there. The buffet breakfast was rather expensive but good otherwise and our appetite was rendered rather keen after the long walk.

Kottayam was another day visit – we had snacks in the Indian Coffee house, which is pretty ubiquitous in most of Kerala towns and also went to the local mall. It was not a big one but had a pretty good collection of clothing for all types and occasion. We did not spend much time there, it looked quite a bustling place with all the normal stuff.

The days kind of flew by and it was soon time to go. Kochi airport was overcrowded and we started missing Kumarokom even while we were in Kerala !! All vacations have to end sometime but the good thing is you can keep the memories and play them in your mind as much as you want. When life really gets busy, and it will this week itself, I will play the mornings and sunsets of Kumarokom in my mind’s eyes.

It will be an almost guaranteed way of seeking some relaxation and busting stress.