Come alive…in the Arctic landscape – By Abhik Dutta

Lapland

It’s snowing…huddled in the cosy little room in the Arctic Finland (Lapland), I know the temperature is roughing out between a minus 6 to minus 18. And that is really cold.
The daylight is for approx 4 hrs only from 1030am to 2.30pm (sunrise and sunset resp). But then, surprisingly, this is the time when this region, called Lapland comes alive.

A land which holds a Narnia like appeal…a land, if you look at the map is loosely the Northern tip of Europe covering northern parts of Norway, Sweden, Finland, Russia most of which is within the Arctic Circle.
I spent a couple of days last week in Finnish Lapland in the small town of Saariselka, considered to be one of the Northernmost resort towns in the world.
A land where the white winter calls out like a siren to me.

Day 1: The Finnair flight from Del-Helsinki connected to another flight to Ivalo, 250kms inside the Artic Circle. A short 25min drive brought us south to Saariselka where we spent 2nights. Cold, dark and snowing, the mercury had plummeted to minus 15 deg C. We were escorted to our glass igloos in the resort village of Kakslautannen, a small resort with log cabins as well as igloos (both ice as well as the more comfortable heated glass igloos). The glass igloo had a small attached toilet (no shower) and twin beds. Small but cozy….and definitely had a warm appeal to it. What took our breath away was the glass dome, a way to ensure that in case anyone sees the Northern Lights, all you need to do is peep out of your blanket and voila!  But unfortunately, the Aurora Borealis proved elusive that night.

After unpacking, we trudged to the other side of the frozen lake (on which Kakslautannen is located), to the communal sauna. Walking on the wild side, we decided to go by the old adage, “When in Rome…do like the Romans” In this case, we followed the local Finnish custom….we went into the sauna, got suitably warmed up, then ran in the buff to take a snow roll and run back inside. After another 10 mins inside the sauna, we ran another 20mtrs to the lake, where they had carved a hole in the ice, took the ladder down to the icy waters of the lake for a dip, came out, searched for a white towel in the white landscape in a disoriented state, abandoned the search and ran back to the sauna..the towels would follow later, some day.

Boy, were we glad that Day 1 ended at all.

Day 2: In the morning, we packed our bags and walked through snow (roller suitcases/strolleys aren’t meant to be dragged through foot deep snow) to the main lodge for breakfast. Post that we drove over to a husky farm where we were first outfitted with a thick overall and snow boots and then met up with the cutest bunch of snarling huskies for a 30min ride through a frozen forest. I will not use the word frozen again. Whenever in doubt about the state of mind or body or the surroundings, rest assured it was always frozen.

And if we thought that the glass dome and the dip in the icy water was the highlight, Day 2’s husky ride was an experience, which probably, I wouldn’t be doing justice with mere words. A MUST EXPERIENCE!

By now we were hungry, so off we trudged into Holiday Club Saariselka in the heart of town – ideal for families who want to be in the middle of a small town. The resort claims to be the Northernmost spa hotel in the whole world. Its USP is the large indoor heated swimming pool complex. At plus 32C, it’s a fantastic break from the minus 15C outside.

Post lunch we returned to Kakslautannen Resort to our 2 bedroom log cabin. Equipped with a kitchenette, common bath in the living room, a children’s room with 2 bunk beds, a fireplace and the master bedroom with a private sauna;) this is ideal for a couple with 2 children. After another mandatory sauna, we left for another spectacular trip…Northern Lights hunting on snow mobiles. These 800cc bikes are easy to use and fun to ride. Once again we were outfitted with a warm outer dungaree, balaclavas and snow boots. A rudimentary lesson on snowmobiles followed. But we had all seen Mr. Bond plowing his snowmobiles all over the world in countless movies to know how to ride one. And so off we went. The 10 snowmobiles zooming off into the winter landscape in single file with headlights on. By now the snow was soft but fell relentlessly on us. We followed a forest trail sheathed in white, the trees laden with pure white snow and drooping onto our trail. Soon, we left the city lights behind us. The soft glow of white light of the Arctic sky brought out the eerie beauty of the place. We zigzagged through narrow forest trails, over a frozen river bed, revved up small mounds and zipped down the inclines. Pure adrenaline rush. After a while, we halted. The guide asked us to turn off the engines and soak in the Arctic night. Nothing prepared me for this. The stillness of the landscape punctuated by the silence of falling snow. We were on a mound with the fell below us. The soft, white light of the Polar night illuminated and embellished the landscape. There would be no sighting of the Aurora tonight. The snow was heavy. But, it didn’t really matter. We started on our journey again. A few minutes later, we reached the end of a trail. The guide asked us to switch off the snowmobiles and follow him down an incline towards a frozen stream. A small tent awaited us there. We sat around in a semi circle on reindeer skin rugs, while the guides went about their business of preparing a small fire, putting the kettle on it for some hot tea and coffee and grilled up some excellent sausages! 30mins later, we were off again, this time bound for the city lights, which would appear soon enough. But till them we would continue with the ride of our lives.

Day 3: We boarded the 9am coach from the highway bus stop. This is a daily Saariselka to Rovaniemi coach and costs Euro 42.60 per person for the journey. A very scenic drive of 3-1/2hrs with a 20min halt in a small town for a rest break. The bus eased into Rovaniemi bus station at 1230pm, from where we were picked up by our taxi. There is no train or flight between Saariselka and Rovaniemi. The road journey is excellent. In summer, the snow would disappear giving way to nature to show its true colours. After checking in at Santa Claus hotel in the town centre, we took a cab to the Arktikum (the museum), followed by a drive around town and were later dropped off to the Santa Claus Village. A fairy tale village which comes alive in winter!

And guess who was in…none other than Mr. Santa Claus – who I had the honor of meeting and just when I thought that I had seen and done it all, I had Mr. Claus tell me that he had heard good things about me! Photography is not permitted as they take their own snaps and video for you to buy. Santa Claus also has a house in Saariselka and there you can meet him in private without the rush of Rovaniemi and can take your own snaps. Needless to say, kids will love the place as will adults. Next up was the Post Office which handles hundreds of thousands of letters every year with December being the month when Santa is flooded with mails from all over the world. There are 2 boxes. If you post your letter in the red one, it gets posted immediately. If you drop it in the orange one, it will be posted during Christmas. We returned to our hotel and later were driven 10kms out of town to a reindeer farm. Here we put on the warm overalls, and went for a short, sweet ride in a reindeer sleigh. Not thrilling like the husky dog sled, but quite an interesting one. We returned to our hotel, went to the sauna for a mandatory run in and later at midnight, went to a local Karaoke bar which was packed to capacity on a Wednesday evening and stayed on till 2pm listening to drunk, middle aged Finns singing out-of-tune Finnish songs.

Day 4: Drove to Rovaniemi airport (10mins away). Flew back to Helsinki where it was a warm minus 8! The Baltic Sea was frozen as was the quaint city.

Sitting down to pen my words, I go back to every second of my stay – every experience which, I equate to being a book in my Travel Diary. The magic, the mysticism, Santa Claus, the huskies, the Northern Lights…Wandering has never seemed better! Packing my bags, but already working out my schedule to head back yet again into the white magical land of Lapland.

Wanderers’ Flavor in Lapland:
–    There is no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothing.
–    Winter tours in the Arctic in Lappish Finland till mid April. Catch the Aurora Borealis on snow mobiles, ride a husky dog sled, meet Rudolf the reindeer and be an easy rider
–    Stay in igloos or log cabins; soak in the sauna; go skinny dipping in a frozen lake
–    For the adventure buff, there’s a lot more in store for you. In winter, go cross country skiing, snow-carting, snow rallying, ice fishing, heli-skiing, multiday wildness safaris on snow mobiles or on husky sleds.
–    Experience the ice breaker Sampo
–    Learn to ski, build an igloo, go on a snow shoe trip
–    In summer, go for hikes, experience the land of the midnight sun, go fly fishing


Wanderers Pick: Must Try Food around the world.

Japanese pizza Okonomiyaki

Yes, being safe is the usual choice when it comes to eating out whilst you are travelling. Well, you really don’t want an upset stomach in the midst of your a trek in the Namibian desert or a stay in the village where the nearest doctor would probably be miles away.

The safe traveller would pack in couple of packets of dried nuts, fruits, chips and resort to heading out to the nearest burger joint. And yes, I do agree that packing a sandwich or a burger over trying out the local flavor always seems the right way to go especially when you are face with a menu of unknown dishes. Paani-puri? Anago-meshi? Uova con tartufi? “Um, I’ll take a sandwich and a salad to go”

But, I’ve always felt that the best way to sink your feet into the local culture is experimenting and what better way than the local cuisine. There is an instant connect – bang on when you sample the local delicacy just like every one else. You throw off the mantle of being ‘just another tourist’ and don on the ‘locale flavor. So how do you do it…well, it’s pretty simple!  Take a cue from the locals when looking for the perfect dish to try. Look around. See what the crowd is gorging on.  Smile. Point. And Indulge!!!

And ofcourse, a bold and brave taste buds are essential; in some cases, an iron stomach is encouraged.

Arepas of Colombia
Colombia might be the only Latin American country where rice is more important than corn. But Colombians have a special place in their heart for the cornmeal cakes they call arepas. If you’ve never had the pleasure, imagine corn bread with a more delicate crumb that’s been flattened into a pancake, filled with cheese or egg, and griddled or fried to form a brown, crispy crust. Each bite sends butter streaking down your chin and, for Colombians, inspires memories of abuela at the stove. For the best, fly down to Cartegena…head to the nearby soccer field, where a gaggle of ladies sell carimañolas (yuca fritters filled with ground beef), empanadas, and most importantly, those fabulous arepas.

Sago’t gulaman of Philippines
One of the beautiful things about the Philippines is the love for food everyone has. And a must try local delicacy is Sago’t Gulaman – walking around local markets, you would find street food vendors with their moveable food cart serving hungry lines of mouths just waiting for a bite to eat of this local delicacy. Sago’t Gulaman is a mix of sago and agar agar in a sugary caramelized liquid. This dark colored refreshment is sweet to the taste and filling with all of the sago and gelatin like cubes. Top it up with a cantaloupe juice – where the melon is so sweet….strips of the cantaloupe meat float around your cup, so you get some with each sip you take. If you finish all of the juice, the cantaloupe strips are layered right in the bottom of your cup, all ready to be snacked on.

Hot Pot and Jian Bing of China
In Beijing the restaurants in the alleyways of Qian Men are renowned for hot pot, or huo guo where you’ll find the streets are lined with boiling pots filled with soup ingredients. Its excellent selections range from Mongolian specialties–best known for lamb and mutton dishes–and spicy Szechuan. And walking down the alleyways of Shangain which is best known for its street food, especially soup dumplings. Also, savor the Jian bing, egg-based crepes with a bean sauce or chili smear, which is a local power breakfast.
Patatje Oorlog – Holland
It translates to ‘war chips’ –  a simple local delicacy – fried potato chips served with mayonnaise, tomato ketchup, garlic sauce and peanut-butter. But, it apparently gets its name because a war breaks out in your stomach when you eat it! Comfort food…but with a twist! Sample it…we say!

Curries, Stews and chaats – India.
If I were you, I would avoid the street food – though the locals swear by it. Many locals are vegetarian, but Indian cuisine includes a variety of delicious meat and seafood. Grilled minced lamb, seekh kebabs, are the staple of Tandoori cooking, while the nation’s coastal regions are renowned for masala (spiced) fish or prawns. While India conjures up images of curries, local specialties are worth digging around for. In North India, never say no to chaat or paani-puri. that the Indian cuisine offers is a gastronomic delight.
The piping hot ‘aloo parathas’ for breakfast dished up with a dollop of butter and yogurt; the steaming hot ‘idlis’ served in South India, the sheer variety  These delicious crispy crackers are dressed up with condiments of the sweet and spicy variety. If you’re in the south, say Kerala gorge on the appams and stews and don’t miss out on the ‘sadhiya’ – a feast served on a banana leaf.

Exotic Pizza of Naples
Not exotic enough because it is probably your weekend flavor back home. But, one bit of the pizzaa in Naples and you are hooked! The ingredients are are simply dough and a rich marinara sauce with oregano. In this case, native is best. “Locals say there’s something in the water density in Naples that guarantees you will never have a pizza like it anywhere else in the world.
And the local flavour would be lampredotto, a special street-cart sandwich.  The ingredients:  chili sauce, salsa verde and cow’s stomach. Don’t look at it before it’s cooked–it looks like a brain. But one bite and you’re hooked. I would also recommend the uova con tartufi–fried eggs with truffle oil. It can’t be found on restaurant menus, but chefs from Tuscany and Umbria will know exactly what you mean if you ask for it.

Okonomiyaki in Japan
When it comes to Japanese cuisine, it is Sushi all the way through. But if the local flavor is what your palette is willing to experiment, then reach out to okonomiyaki, a savory pancake (or Japanese pizza)  This dish is made with batter, vegetables, seaweed, meat, a sweet sauce resembling Worcestershire, and Japanese mayonnaise. I would also recommend the anago-meshi, or sea eel rice, and tonkatsu ramen, a pork-bone white soup with ramen noodles if local flavor is what you are looking out for.

Mezze – Lebanon
Think Middle East cuisine and it’s Hummus for you. Now, that’s safe. But, if blending with the locale is what your travel diary is all about, then you cannot leave the country without trying the Mezze –  a selection of starters with dips like hummus and the smoky eggplant baba ganoush, fresh vegetables, olives and leavened bread that could be a meal in itself.

Solyanka – Russia
The names in the menu confound you. But if you see  solyanka on the menu, don’t hesitate to order. This salty, sour and often spicy soup combined with meat or fish and topped with smetana, Russian sour cream, is truly delicious. Boscht and pelmeni (dumplings) are ubiquitously Russian,which can be spiced up with roasted apples and smoked goose breast.
Must try if you are wandering in Georgia or Armenia – the Azerbaijaini plov, a spiced rice dish cooked with meat and dried fruit.

Manchego – Spain
A must try – Manchego, an aged sheep’s milk cheese which has an intense flavor. Enjoy it with bread, served with olives and meat or accompanied by a full-bodied red wine–a Rioja makes sense. Must-haves include patatas bravas, crisp-fried potatoes with a secret sauce, and mel i mato, a curd cheese and honey dessert cooked in an earthenware pot.


Top Eight Things to do in Dubai

Top Eight Things to do in Dubai

Now this is one city that sure knows how to hit the headlines. The magical lure that the city has leaves us asking for more. Futuristic, surreal, yet holding an old world charm – there’s so much do…so much to see…so much to absorb…

1. Shopping Paradise

Ask a shopaholic and the Dubai Shopping Festival is a page out of his/her fantasy. Year after year, the festival just seems to get on a better footing. And that leaves me intrigued. Sure, the shops are familiar and no cheaper, but there’s just something about shopping in Dubai which beats any other country – the shopping experience is built on a platform of unrestrained fantasy, offering surreal attractions to lure you (and your credit card) in. Just to give you a flavor, The Souk Madinat inside the Madinat Jumeirah Hotelboasts its own waterway to transfer people from its shops, bars and restaurants to the neighboring clutch of hotels or The Mall of the Emirates which has a bona fide ski slope.

Dune Bashing with Hatta desert trip: Most tourists do the typical afternoon dune bashing at the overcrowded dunes followed by dinner and belly dancing. This can be quite a tourist trap, though first timers seem to enjoy this. Personally, I would recommend that you go to Hatta, one hour’s drive from Dubai City where the ancient fortress village of Hatta is located. It is the home of the Hatta Fort Hotel, Dubai’s only mountain resort complex. The drive is as fascinating as the destination itself, taking the visitor through burnished sand dunes and mountains varied in colour. Tours cover the recently renovated old fort and a trip through Wadi Hatta with its lush greenery and diverse wildlife. The village, which is more than 200 years old, and Juma Mosque, which stands amid palm groves, are other tourist attractions. And if you are looking for a ‘out of the world’ desert safari, then head out to Najwa – albeit a bit more expensive, but the spectacular desert scenes and thin crowd promise you a journey of a lifetime.

The Gold Souk

Your trip to Dubai is incomplete without a jaunt to the famed Gold Souk. It doesn’t matter if you want to buy, but a walk into the souk is a must do. Simply to soak in the gold, diamonds, platinums and the semi precious laden stores.

The Burj al Arab

In a mood to splurge, then stay the Burj al Arab. It has been consistently voted as the world’s most luxurious hotel and one of the most photographed man made structures in the world. It’s the world’s tallest hotel, and probably it’s least subtle — gold-leaf is applied as liberally as undercoat, there’s a fleet of white Rolls Royces on the forecourt and dancing fountains in the foyer…but then, you didn’t come to Dubai looking for understatement! And if you want to just want to experience the flavor of the place, opt for a quiet dinner at their restaurant Al Muntaha?

 

Discover Dubai

The drive towards future has transformed the tiny little fishing village, but then a visit to the Bastakia Quarter has another story to tell – a little corner of Dubai which has managed to hold on to its old world charm. This quarter squeezes itself between the Dubai Creek and the buzzing Bur Dubai district – a mini maze of wind-towered buildings, a clutch of which have been transformed into art galleries and cafés. Discover the textiles souks – where you’ll find magnificent bolts of fabric. The old world charm of the quarter is mesmeric. And there’s nothing better than discovering this on foot.

Atlantis Dubai’s waterpark has everything from a Dolphin Bay where you can interact with dolphins to Aquaventure, a 42-acre area with slides, rapids, an area for kids, and a beach. If diving is of interest to you, whether you are experienced or a first-time participator, take advantage of the Atlantis Dive Centre and head to any number of dive sites off the coast of Dubai.

Go boating to avoid the traffic – cross the creek using a abra, one of the small wooden boats. Rustic flavor, but with the cool winds blowing, it’s magic and poetry interwoven! Try the shisha at one of the shisha cafes – definitely a must do!

A ride of your life –  Take a lift to the observation deck of the Burj al khalifa the tallest building in the world and we promise you it is an experience of a lifetime – heady, adrenaline rush…and more!  The best time – just when the sun sets. And following that, you cannot miss the mesmerizing musical fountain show.  End your evening with a dinner opposite the fountain over a glass of champagne.

 


Top things you need to keep in mind when you are traveling with your kids: The Wanderers’ Way

Treat your trip like an adventure – and before you know it, the annoyances, missteps and mishaps simply become small obstacles for your hearty band of explorers to overcome. If you get stressed when you can’t find your hotel, your kids will get stressed too. When you think of it as “exploring the neighborhood,” voila…it becomes an adventure and the whines and groans vanish into thin air.
Yes, it would be easier if you visit kid-friendly destinations while you are away. Places like a children’s museum or the zoo are great fun for the whole family. The key to a good vacation with kids is to keep them busy!

Bring lots of travel games and activities for the kids to do in the car or on the plane. Personal gaming systems like the Nintendo DS and a portable DVD player can be a real sanity-saver on long road trips.  Bring plenty of snacks and drinks- keeping little tummies full and happy keeps you sane.

When you are flying: Most airlines have Children’s meals. They tend to include more kid friendly options and often come with toys or stickers. Don’t forget to pack in some pretzels and candy bars. Pack in a good set of portable art supplies with crayons, markers and some paper and lo behold…the supplies work their magic into transforming boredom into hours of amusement.  Don’t forget the medical insurance, medicines and baby wipes.

Oh yes, at the end of it what you really need is the right attitude. Whether you are pushing a stroller with one hand while pulling a wheeled carry-on with the other, or if you are tagging along a toddler who insists on pulling his own rolling bag (at his own leisurely pace), allow yourself – and your kids- plenty of time for check-ins, security checks and walks to your gates. Kids have an amazing ability to completely ignore the urges of parents who are late for an appointment. So go on with a smile and keep a camera ready – you can always capture a candid moment!
When you are going on a road trip…


•    Frisbee – great for some quick exercise when making a stop.  Also can be used for a handy tray for eating on.
•    Plastic Boxes – To hold the supplies – the lid makes a great desk.  Fill with crayons, mechanical pencils, highlighters
•    Clean Water – several bottles of water work best for drinking, a quick wash up, cleaning a scrape and so on.   Buy a case for the trunk or refill at rest stops.
•    Lightweight Blanket – small child’s blanket for cuddling with at nap time, blocking the sun or using as a pillow.
•    Paper Towels – for quick clean ups.
•    Snacks – Cookies, hard candy, pretzels…lifesavers in our book.
•    Compass – Fun for the kids if they want to help navigate.
•    Zip Lock Bags – bring several different sizes.  These come in very handy for collecting items (shells), storing food, wet clothes…
•    Trash bags – for storing laundry, wet items or for keeping the car clean.


Experiences of my Kenyan Safari, By Farah Bode

WILDEBEEST MIGRATION

No wild life documentary or anything you have seen on National geographic can truly capture a firsthand migration experience which I was fortunate to see and ‘hear’. The wildebeest are called gnus and they make a sound just like their name. I can imitate something very close to it :)

It was the last day in the Masai Mara. We had seen a vast herd just before our lunch and were hoping to see them do the river crossing. Post lunch to our good luck the herd had reached the river.  We were on one side and they were waiting on the other..restless must say.  Some of them had made it half way to the river but no one was taking the lead to cross it. We could see hundreds of them walking in single file, coming in from nowhere on the horizon, all heading for the river.

We inched closer. The disturbance caused by our vehicle sent them back and to our dismay, the ones that had come half way to the river suddenly started going back. Our guide, Ben, then relocated us further away. There were some zebra at the start of the herd. Ben told us that the zebras are a bad sign and the crossing won’t happen.

The Zebras are smart you see  and will not just go headlong into a crocodile infested river.The herd started following the zebras and moved down the river bank. We were quite disappointed but then our guide told us to watch for more signs. The herd that was coming in from the horizon was ready to cross. They were all grunting the ‘gnu-hmmm’ anthem and there was  a lot of shuffling as the herd was  restless ..

Suddenly they started crossing and it awesome an sight to see them plunging, swimming or lunging across the river and safely reaching the other bank. Suddenly we saw a thrashing movement..a zebra was caught by a crocodile. All I could actually  see with my binoculars was a huge crocodile with its mouth agape and the zebra thrashing and being sucked down into the water. An NGC moment! About a 1000 animals crossed while we witnessed what may have been the only zebra death that day at the crossing.

We couldn’t stop talking about the experience and all the locals we met thought that we were truly lucky to see the spectacle of an actual crossing, which despite the frequent ‘Animal Planet’ sightings on TV are quite rare in reality. Many of the locals have come and waited for hours at  the river bank and witnessed no crossing.

Giraffe at 6 oclock

Beg, borrow, steal but you must have your  own set of binoculars. I was lucky to have borrowed my own set and could point out giraffe at 6 o’clock and elephant at 9 ‘o’. Hence I was designated the official giraffe spotter for my vehicle. We were really lucky and saw giraffes, countless zebras, cheetahs (twice), the elusive leopard once and a pride of lions – twice. The beginner’s luck, they would have me believe!

Traffic jam in the jungle

The drivers are all contactable on the radio and can hear each other so if one car has seen a leopard then all the other vehicles will come to the same place and if you see my pictures you will get an idea on the traffic jam that happened over our leopard spotting. The feline then lumbered down the tree and the whole convoy of gawking tourists started following him and slowly but surely he just melted into the tall grass and was nowhere to be seen. Then he emerged on the other side and crossed right by the other groups vehicle and they got a real close up view of him.

Mofassa and me

We had just started our evening game drive when we were alerted to a sighting of lions. The male lion was sunning himself when we first spotted him. Our 4WD vehicle moved quite close to him. We  named him Mofassa, after Simba’s dad from the Lion King animated movie. We observed him and his family for long. The cubs playing around. The mothers keeping a close watch. Another NGC evening!

Croc meat is very chewy!

On our last night we were all set for the famous Carnivore restaurant which has a huge spit with all possible meats on it and the exotic list featured crocodile and ostrich meat. Ostrich meat was nice and tasty, but the croc was a tough cookie I was unable to digest. Every table has a  small flag, so when you are full and can’t gobble, munch, chew or gnaw anymore, you need to lay the flag down in a gesture of surrender! Just for your knowledge, Zebra meat and other exotic meat is banned since the last 3 years.

Shopping

Well, we all got ripped off and paid much more for everything except at the Masai market where we spent too little time. You will see souvenir shops during your ‘comfort’ stops. One really needs to bargain here. Start at 25% of the cost quoted. You will see at least one fancy souvenir shop at your hotel. Avoid, unless you are desperate and will not go to any mall in Nairobi which will have the same stuff at more reasonable prices. Last, but not the least, there is a Masai market on different days of the week at different malls . It’s the local Masais selling their wares laid out on mats in one area like a terrace in a mall. They sell directly to you for the best prices. We caught it on a Tuesday  at the Westland mall. For my rhino mug I paid 1300 at a mall shop. It was 2200 in the hotel shop, but I paid only 570 at the masai market for another one. So much for the learning curve.

Travel tip: The order of an itinerary should  be start with Mt Kenya National park followed by Lake Nakuru and its flamingoes, then Lake Naivasha and finally Masai Mara. The Mara experience can’t be bettered!


Beach bumming at Culebra, Puerto Rico by Joe Varghese

Much as we had heard of Puerto Rico, not much was known about the island of Culebra. The only thing we knew was that, till the recent past, it was used as a target by the U.S. Navy. For years, we have driven by the U.S Naval Academy in Annapolis and the Destroyers and Submarines in Baltimore Harbor. I could imagine the big guns booming and the projectiles flying towards that tiny landmass in the Caribbean. How would it be to stand on the very same beach that had endured the mighty firepower of the Naval fleet for years, we asked ourselves ! The answer was three hours away. It was an early morning flight to Puerto Rico, landing at San Juan International Airport. Puerto Rico is one of the better countries in the region, with financial and political support from Uncle Sam. This is especially true for San Juan, where the infrastructure and lifestyle is almost like that of the US. Getting out of the airport, renting a car, and driving toward Fajardo on the East coast, was a cinch. We waited at a tiny little airport to catch a plane to Culebra. I don’t know if one can call it an airport.

Another way of describing it would be a single building with a huge parking lot, on which teensy-weensy airplanes landed and took off. When the time comes, you walk up to the plane, climb in through the back door (just like you would climb into a car) and dump your bags in the back. The plane can seat about 10 people, including the pilot. Is it too hot in the plane? Just crack open the window a wee bit! On-board refreshments ? Sure I just reach into your backpack and pull out the munchies you had bought at the airport. If you are lucky, you could call shotgun and sit next to the pilot. Culebra was half an hour away, and our eyes were riveted to the window as we passed the beautiful beaches of mainland Puerto Rico, flew over the sea with its little islands and boats, till we saw the mountains of Culebra looming in the distance. It is kinda noisy in the plane, so conversations may be limited. Every once in a while the plane may hit an air-pocket, so you have to be careful with your drink, if any.

The plane has to maneuver between two mountain peaks during its descent, which can make some people nervous. We landed at the airport, pulled our backpacks from the trunk and simply walked up to the terminal, making sure the rotating propellers were a safe distance away. Once there, you have a choice of renting two wheelers or 4-wheel drives. There are also some vans that ply across different parts of the island. We took one of the vans to a local eatery, which was the house of one of the local people. As expected, most dishes consisted of sea-food, the most intriguing of which was conch. We had the local drink: Scotch with coconut milk. The coconut milk has to be fresh or it ferments, thus ruining the taste of the drink. We tried one glass and decided the Medalla, the local beer was better. We camped at Flamenco beach, reputed to be one of the top three beaches in the world. The beach has a very well maintained camp site, which was almost deserted when we went there. It is not uncommon to see wild horses on the island. There is nothing more refreshing than to wake up in the morning to the sound of the ocean, unzip your tent and walk into a breathtakingly beautiful sun rise. We walked on the white sands of the beach, appreciating the green water and eyeing the corals that were within swimming distance. Soon we came across a couple of rusty battle-tanks on the beach. Apparently, these were the targets that were to be destroyed when the Navy conducted its exercises. Certain parts of the island are still cordoned off with fences.

We shared the whole beach with less than 5 other people. A quick breakfast later, we were swimming toward the corals. A few hours later, we were trekking to a beach on the other side of the island. It is like searching for Easter eggs: you walk through the dense vegetation and suddenly there is a beach. You walk some more, and look, one more beautiful beach, this time with corals a few meters away. Every once in a while you will find some other backpacker discovering the island the same way. The Navy has stopped using the island for target practice, and most parts of Culebra, along with its beaches and archipelagos, are protected wild life refuges. The main income source of the island is tourism, mostly domestic. It is very common for mainland Puerto Ricans to jump on a boat and come down to Culebra, enjoy the beach, have a barbeque and simply head on back home. The happening spot of Culebra is the township of Dewey, named after Admiral Dewey of, what else, the US Navy. We went there to have lunch. Dewey is nothing more than a collection of houses with some bars. The docks are a short walking distance away. The place is dead in the afternoons and sees some action at night. We walked around Dewey, talking to some of the local people. A large number of the locals speak English. The population of Culebra is around 1500, and crime is almost unknown. You could leave your bag at any place and simply walk around to enjoy the scenery. On the way back, we waited at the airport for our flight. There was a guy standing next to the ticket counter, cracking jokes and having fun. Turns out, he was our pilot. A Kashmiri gentleman named Babar, who spoke to us in Hindi. What are the chances of meeting a man from the Indian sub-continent on a tiny island of less than 1500 people in the Caribbean? Globalization has truly hit even the remotest part of the world. This trip was a unique experience: the island, its people, its food, and definitely the airplane ride.


Postcard from Cambodia-Part 1- by Abhik Dutta

Postcard from Cambodia
Part 1:
Reaching Cambodia

April 2005.
April, they say, is the worst month to travel to Cambodia because of the heat. So, I being me, against all sane advice that I downloaded from the internet, decided to go to Siem Reap from Bangkok
by road.
The journey from Bangkok started on time. 8am
to be precise. The road to the Thai border Aranyaprathet (also known as Poipet) was like a smooth runway. In 4 hrs I was there.
Shortly thereafter all hell broke loose. Our group of five was made to sit outside a small eatery on the Thai side of the border. The agent’s agent (I shall call him ‘Bon’ as a local in these parts would pronounce the International super-agent) at the border initially gave all five of us in the van the Cambodia visa forms. The other four, I learnt later, were all on a ‘visa run’, where they’d do a small ritual of crossing the Thai border, getting a Cambodia visa and then exit Cambodia immediately to re-enter Thailand. A process that takes 2 hrs and 200meters to complete. It’s generally done by those who are working for a long time in Thailand
and need to renew their visas after 30 days or 90 days.
Bon came back in a while saying contemptuously, ‘You Indian’? (The emphasis on the second word was not lost on me).
I said,’Yep’.
‘No visa for Indian at border. Okay?’
I gave him my as-nasty-as-I-can-get look (eyes narrowed down, lips curled in a snarl) and croaked  ‘And why not?’.
He looked right through me and said ‘You pay me 2700 baht. I try for you. Ok?’
I would have none of his nonsense and said (in my suddenly acquired Thai accent), ‘No ok. I go wih you to immigration. No pay more than foreigner’. (Meaning the other 4).
Bon looked at me for a very long time (that usually means bad news at the border) and said slowly, ‘then you sit heah, mistah. Ok?’ He threw my passport and visa money on the table and disappeared from the restaurant.  Half an hour passed. I gulped 2 bottles of water and some tasty fried vegetables in Oyster sauce and made some conversation with Bon’s dog (I shall call him Bon-Bon), just to show that we Indians are a friendly lot and there’s no harm in letting a dog-loving-Indian cross the border into Cambodia.  Soon Bon came back with the visas of the other 4 travellers and asked me ‘Wha hab you decided?’ I said, ‘No pay more than foreigner’.
He was disgusted with me and disappeared again. I drank a little more and made more conversation with Bon Bon.
An hour passed. Bon returned and with his hands on his hips said, ‘Ok, you follow me’. Bon, me and Bon-Bon walked single file towards the border. We went past the market and took a left turn to reach the Thai immigration counter. After a 30min wait in the queue, the Thai official issued an exit stamp and I was on my way to the Cambodia
immigration counter, 50 meters away.
A huge gate with the slogan “Welcome to the Kingdom of Cambodia” stood out like a sore thumb. I prayed that this should not be the first and last glimpse of Cambodia. Bon caught up with me at the counter and asked me for the passport and 1500baht (actual visa fee is 20US$). I duly obliged and sat for another 30mins. It was hot and humid. The gun toting border guards were smoking and chatting away. I saw Bon-Bon crossing over to Cambodia
. What a dog’s life, I thought. Strange thoughts cross one’s mind during times of border crisis. I wondered whether Bon-Bon was born Thai or Cambodian. He looked quite Indian as well. Sullen and morose. Just like me. But at least he could cross. Bon came back to me and said, ‘here your pahport. Visa ok. Ok? Now you go to immigration and wait for me on the other side.’
At the Cambodia immigration counter, there was this crazy Japanese tourist (you can make them out by the large floppy hats, knee-length shorts, the omnipresent camera with a mile-long telescopic lens dangling around the chest) hugging all the border guards one by one and shouting ‘Better than sex, better than sex’. He looked ecstatic. I wondered what could have induced a well-dressed Japanese backpacker to hug the Cambodian border guards at two in the afternoon on a hot April afternoon and think of sex.
His story unfolded. He had arrived 3 hrs earlier and realised that he had lost his passport (the ultimate nightmare for a tourist). He searched for it on the Cambodian side, on the Thai side and on No man’s land in between. He searched for it inside his backpack, inside his T-shirt and shorts, inside his pouch. Inside his camera bag. Inside Thai and Cambodian loos. Everywhere. Soon, he came to believe that he would be required to spend the rest of his miserable life in No man’s land just like Tom Hanks in The Terminal. 3 hrs later he found his passport on his head underneath his cap! I understood why that moment felt ‘better than sex’.
In another 30mins (everything in Cambodia takes at least 30mins or 1 ‘dolaar,’ I learnt later), I was giving an angelic smile at the immigration camera and thanking the officer in bowed reverence. ‘Enjoy your stay in Cambodia
‘, he said. ‘Not many Indians cross this way’.  And he stamped and handed me the passport.
It was that simple. Indians do get Cambodia
visas on arrival at the border. Later, when Bon and I became friends for five minutes, he said that his stern gaze and the act of ‘throwing’ the passport on the table usually makes ‘third-world-country-travellers’ pay up whatever he demands!
Bon and Bon-Bon were both waiting on the Cambodian side. The former on a motorcycle. I bid a fond farewell to Bon-Bon (who couldn’t care less and trotted off to Thailand). I sat behind Bon and he whizzed off. Turning, he said, ‘Wehcome to Cambodia
, Ok?’ In the same breath he asked, ‘You tip me mistah, Ok?’ He seemed to know every second person we zipped past. Five minutes later he stopped outside a small tin-roofed building and said, ‘Your bus will come here and take you to Siem Reap’.
‘Its air-con, right?’ I shouted after Bon as his small frame vanished into the dust of Cambodia
. I faintly heard two words drifting out of the red haze, ‘Yeah, yeah’.  There were fifteen of us inside the tin-shelter. All of us bound for Siem Reap. An hour ticked by.
Soon the bus came chugging along and halted outside the shelter. There was a mad scramble as we tore, kicked, stamped, gouged each other apart to get the desired seat. We Indians were raised for moments like these. Second row, left window seat. The 3rd world passengers (Thai, Cambodian and me, Lone Indian ranger) all occupied the first few seats. First world tourists brought up the rear. It was 40degrees outside. And 40 degrees inside with the Air-con on.
It took at least an hour for the bus to start. We were packed like sardines in it. It was like a boiling cauldron inside. We left at 3pm.

In half an hour, the AC stopped functioning. Within the next half hour, the road disappeared giving way to a red-coloured, dusty, potholed path, I am ashamed to call a road. In another 30minutes, the diesel finished. And it took another 30minutes for the driver and his comrades to get a barrel of diesel from the undergrowth and fill up the tank.
I settled down for the inevitable. I opened the window to let the hot air from outside cool the interiors of the bus. In the distance I heard the thunder. It looked like rain. We were all smiling.
I was en route to what has been described as one of the Wonders of the World…the temples of Angkor Wat.