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Travel the world on your hobby horse


EYES UP: Amateur astronomer Aadil Desai made friends with locals during eclipse-watching in China

Dancing, diving or chasing eclipses. Combine your passion with your vacation and you've got the best of both worlds.

Though special interest holidays are just catching on in India, a small number of intrepid people are chasing eclipses across the skies of China, tackling different tides and winds while sailing the Aegean Sea, learning martial arts in Brazil, or dancing the flamenco in Spain. Rather than just whizz through scenic spots, they're choosing to spend their annual vacation learning more about a hobby they're passionate about, while soaking in the history and culture of the place they're visiting.


That's what Swetha Amit and her husband Amit Sridharan did this March when they decided to combine their passion for scuba diving and Egypt. "We both love diving as well as seeing new places, so for the past year we've been planning holidays that let us enjoy both, " says Swetha, a school counsellor and freelance writer in Mumbai. After all, what can be better than swimming through spectacular coral reefs in the Red Sea to catch a glimpse of a bluespotted sting ray and following it up with an afternoon at the Khan El-Khalili open market buying spices and souvenirs. The icing on the desert cake was the sight of the famous Pyramids and Sphinx, and then diving back into the underwater world of parrotfish and seahorses.

In August, the couple went diving in the South China Sea. "We spent three days on a boat diving, and then went to Singapore for two days. It was a great break, " she says.

Apart from the thrill of adventure and the joy of pursuing a passion, there's also the chance to make new friends. "We dive in twos, so you have a different 'buddy' every day. You communicate in sign language under water to spot all kinds of marine life, and then on land, you have so much to share, " says 28-year-old Delhi banker Aseem Agrawal, who has gone on scuba diving holidays in the Andamans and Thailand, and keeps in touch with friends made on these trips.

While these trips are expensive, the adventurers say the cost is well worth the thrill. "It's definitely not pocket-friendly, " says Swetha. "We choose off-season times to get lower rates, " she says. A diving holiday costs upwards of Rs 70, 000, says Aseem. "But you get to experience a completely different world. And when I'm sitting in the office bored, just looking at the photographs makes me happy, " he says.


Marketing professional Aparna Shekar Roy makes it a point to do capoeira, a form of Brazilian martial arts that she learnt in Mumbai, whenever she travels. "I've done capoeira in Brazil, Sao Paulo, Chile, Argentina, New York, Atlanta, Moscow, Bali, Austria, even Dubai, " says Aparna. She's spent seven months in South America in 2008-09 learning more about this mix of martial arts, dance and music, created in Brazil by African slaves. "I've always loved travelling and wanted to go to Brazil after I started learning capoeira in 2006. That desire to go to Brazil became a seven month mega-trip, " says the 30-year-old.

Over the seven months, she took classes in Salvador, Sao Paulo and Belo Horizonte in Brazil, and also attended the capoeira festival there. "I didn't become an expert just because I went to Brazil, " says Aparna. "I picked up the language and various elements of the culture. I got to understand nuances of the form as well as the philosophy behind it, " she says. "Now there's a new dimension to my travel - capoeira. " Aparna says having a hobby is an easy way to find friends in a new country. "I went to Russia on work and if it hadn't been for the capoeira group, I would hardly have seen Moscow outside of the conference room. They picked me up from hotel and showed me around, " she says. Capoeiristas travelling to India also stay with her.


Language teacher Deborah Zerneri agrees with her: "There's nothing like living and breathing the art form you love. " Deborah, who has been learning different dance forms since the age of seven, spent two weeks in Grenada, Spain, in 2008 learning flamenco. "Everyone in Spain sings and dances, so you see people doing the moves in clubs and during street festivals. It's all around you, it was heavenly, " says Deborah, who has been teaching at the American International School in Chennai for seven years. "I brought back castanets, fans and shoes to show my students - and I sometimes dance for them to make classes more interesting, " she says, laughing.


Amateur astronomer Aadil Desai is an umbraphile and it's this passion that sends him chasing across the world. He has travelled across India and to Iran, Zambia and China to chase eclipses. "You get to make lots of friends and just share experiences with locals. " Aadil, who works for Air India and has been star-gazing since 1981, talks about reserved Muslim clerics in Iran warming up to him and asking to see the eclipse through his telescope. "In China, we had a lot of locals joining us even though we could not understand any Chinese and they couldn't understand English, " says the 45-year-old.

These trips can be a lot of work as these aren't as simple as signing up with a tour operator or packing that Lonely Planet Guide to read on the flight. Most vacationers do their own planning and research, often writing to locals at the place they're visiting to make sure they can indulge in their passion. Swetha and Amit go online to find the right diving schools, tides and safety standards. Aparna finds capoeira groups on-line and emails the members to find out whether she can attend classes. "Just as I research food and stay, I also research capoeira groups, " says Aparna. "If the price and timing is right, I go for it. "

Aadil checks weather conditions and the duration of the eclipse at the destination, apart from flight and hotel availability. "If I don't take the weather into account first, I won't get to see an eclipse. Sometimes even the best predictions go awry, " he says. That's exactly what happened to him during his recent trip to Hangzhou in China. "The eclipse day turned out very cloudly so we had to search for a gap. We finally found a good viewing position quite far away from where we had initially planned. "


If you don't have the time and energy for extensive research, there are tour operators who offer learning holidays. Gaurav Punj, founder of Connect with Himalaya, which organises theme-based holidays and homestays in remote parts of the Himalayas, is adding painting and music holidays from next year. Professional musicians will accompany the group on the music holidays and evenings will be spent in three or fourhour jugalbandi sessions and discussions with local musicians as well. "The painting holiday will introduce people to the basics while showing them the beauty of the Himalayas, " says Gaurav, whose clients are mostly from Mumbai, Pune, Chennai and Bengaluru.

If the world is your playground, and money is no object, Parthaa Kundo of Esperienza, a lifestyle experiential vacation company, organises more exotic activities such F1 driving in Malaysia or Muay Thai boxing classes in Thailand. "There are people who have travelled the world and now want to learn and experience something new, " says Kundo.

Reader's opinion (5)

Pushkar ThakurNov 8th, 2010 at 10:43 AM

Nice description shwetha an damit. Seem slike you guys had awesome fun in egypt.

Parthasarathi KNov 7th, 2010 at 11:11 AM

Amongst the hobbies listed, I liked the scuba diving.I am not aware whether you need any formal training or license before you jump into deep waters.It must be exciting but with the gadgets risk free to some extent.I would welcome a stand alone article on scuba driving from Swetha and Sridharan.

G.k. DesaiNov 7th, 2010 at 09:48 AM

So finally Swe and her adventures are up there for everyone to relish , grt going dear,I wish both you and Amit more such adventures in future,Have Fun !!!

Bev OlsenNov 6th, 2010 at 23:28 PM

Found it ver interesting. Would like to see more like it
Mahalo from Kauai, HI

Cynthia LewisNov 6th, 2010 at 21:07 PM

Having met Aadil in Mumbai, I made the mistake of asking him what he does in his spare time. Was given a fascinating account of his search into the galaxy, rare eclipse sightings and his various travels.

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