In 2004, when I was living between New York and Toronto, I undertook a gruelling four-week trip to Everest Base Camp after which I had a desire to visit Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh. I had watched the movie, ‘My Father My Architect,’ and was thrilled by Louis Kahn’s work — the National Assembly Building in Dhaka is regarded as his masterpiece, taking as long as the Taj Mahal to build and his last project before his death.
To get to Dhaka, I had to fly from Kathmandu via Calcutta, so I took the opportunity to stay there for a couple of days. The most luxurious accommodation option was the wonderful Oberoi Grand hotel. This heritage hotel is quite stunning and wonderfully located. A bathtub and swimming pool were such luxuries after many weeks of camping and no showers!!!!
While there, I had a yearning for great Bengali food, knowing just a little bit about the distinctive cusine and wanting to try it. When I asked the concierge for help, he first directed me to the Thai restaurant; on clarifying I wanted local food, he then directed me to the 24-hour multi cuisine restaurant serving continental, Chinese and Indian; on explanation that I wanted to leave the hotel, his response was simply one of shock and confusion resulting in a recommendation for a restaurant in another 5 star hotel!
So I took myself to the bookstore where a charming lady in a stunning silver sari graciously escorted me to the guidebook section whose shelves, of course, had all the regular mass market pan India books (some of which I was carrying with me) and containing some eating recommendations. But I was only in Cal for two nights and each night really mattered. This wasn’t about simply getting fed, this was about experiencing the Bengali culture through food and soaking in the atmosphere. A safe place for pizza was never going to do!
The bookstore lady sensed my disappointment and asked what exactly I was after. I explained. She then smiled and wrote on a piece of paper the names of the three best Bengali restaurants: including a women’s cooperative serving recipes that have been handed down for generations, another, a wonderful family place set amongst antiques in a home, and the third a hip, orange decor Bengali delight.
Sensing I was onto a treasure trove of information, we then discussed textiles and socially aware craft centres and suddenly Cal was opening up! I knew how to get to the museums and the sights, but I needed intimate knowledge of what made the city really zing: where did the people who loved the city shop and eat and how did they live?
Through this lady I found it and I began to fall in love…
A few days later, I arrived in Dhaka wishing that the bookshop lady had a sister who lived there, or wished that I was friends with the ambassador’s wife and get the insider knowledge I craved. I had to make do with a Kuwaiti airline pilot – but more of that, would be kissing and telling.
The next stop was Bangkok and as I was just one flight away from my old life and the corporate whirl, I began pondering a massive change in my life. I had thought that the insight would have happened at 19,000 feet in the majesty of Everest, but no, it snuck up on me in Calcutta and Dhaka, probably seeded by the wonderful Jeff Greenwald book, Dr Raj’s Neighbourhood, given to me by my friend, Dave.
Over a green salad and a fine glass of Burgundy (the first salad and wine in a month) at the Metropolitan Hotel in Bangkok, I sketched out a plan for a life living in India and writing the kind of guide book I wanted, now that I was committed to trekking and increasingly going to more and more remote, interesting spots.
I thought back to the climb up Mount Kilimanjaro, wouldn’t my stay in Dar Es Salaam have been revolutionized? Or how about when I went to Cairo, or to Nairobi, to Buenos Aires, to Bahia, to… and the list went on and on.
So decision made, I transited in London, shared the idea with a close pal, Anne, who was totally encouraging. I then resigned to my boss in New York and exited the world I had known for 20 years.
In November that year I arrived in India, homeless and unsure about where to start or how to start with the project. And what indeed to call the project.
The universe helped me find friends, a home and in the Imperial Hotel in Delhi, a name for the books: LOVE, of course.
This idea was about falling in love with all the cities in the world and the places you can visit from them. It is time to fall in love with more cities than London, New York and Paris. Indeed, time to fall in love with the cities that are outside of the west.
Love Travel Guides were named and the journey continued… until the launch and the first book, ‘Love Bangalore,’ appropriately going on sale on Valentine’s Day 2007.
Since then, I have launched Love Mumbai, Love Delhi and Love Jaipur, Rajasthan. We are on the 3rd ed of Love Mumbai, 2nd ed of Love Bengaluru and the 3rd ed of Love Delhi and the 2nd ed of Love Jaipur, Rajasthan and will launch Love Goa in September 2011. We have sold close to 39,000 books since starting and have an active community of Love Friends who keep the books honest and updated.
Future Plans in India include Love Goa, Love Calcutta, Love Tamil Nadu, Love Kerala and Love Hyderabad. Outside of India, we have just started work on Love Sri Lanka.