Going Back to Scandinavia (In Winter)

Tromso on a winter night

I am not a big fan of camping. The first time I actually did camp was in the Sahara, under a night sky filled with a thousand stars, next to remains of an early night dinner, of some barbeque chicken and beer kept in the sand to chill. That night after some initial discomfort I slept, slept in the sleeping bag below which the desert sand took the shape of my body. It was one of the best sleep I have ever had, a lot better than the memory foam mattresses that came into my life later.

That night maybe in my dreams I saw Oslo, I was going to be there in the next 24 hours. It was the Oslo of summer that I was known to. As the wheels of my Turkish Airlines flight hit the tarmac, it felt like I am still in the clouds. It was all white, just the desert was under the moon the night earlier. Excuse my being a bit romantic about the snow and the sand, but the same romance got me to think about two tours in those two nights. One to the great white desert of Egypt and the other to the land of the extreme north, to Scandinavia in winter.

A lot has happened since then, since the year 2011. The way I feel about Scandinavia hasn’t changed though. I still am both happy and fulfilled to spend time in that part of the world, especially in the North of Norway. This time though it took two winters to get back. I went with no thoughts, with a small group of people. Like in the early years when I would say, I am going, come if you want to. This time too I knew I was going.

Reindeer Sled Ride in North Norway

There is a way, things are done up north, especially in Norway. The people are different than in Oslo and Stockholm. They have time on their hands, they smile a lot more and are forthcoming. They live in close-knit communities and understand the importance of interpersonal dependence. Nature plays a bigger role in the everyday lives of the people, most of whom are fishermen. The temperature of their sea goes up and they have to go further north to get their catch. There is a snowstorm and the only road connecting the two towns shuts even with a very efficient mechanism in place. I once asked the guy who was driving my group, “what happens when there is a snowstorm and someone is stuck”. He said, “nothing we just go to the nearest house and knock on the door”.

The doors in North Norway open wider than in the south. They speak less of English but still communicate more. Ok, enough I had started thinking I would write about my travel but ended up writing about the people. But then what is travel without people? The sighting of the northern lights is the highlight of this tour that we do here, and for the people that travel with us, that remains the most important thing. I have been lucky through the years to have people who even value the beauty of the winter wonderland. They smile as much as they do, being on a dog sledge as they do when they see the lights dance. Though I have to give it to the northern lights when they begin their dance, then we don’t just smile. We scream and we jump, we fall on the white blanket of snow and let it take our body’s shape. Same as the sand that night in the Sahara.

Snowmobiling around Tromso

The camping in the desert would’ve not been complete without the stories our guide told us at his home earlier and which continued well into the night around the fire. The starry desert sky stays, just as maybe the northern lights stayed in my mind when I went to bed the night we spotted them. The thought I slept to was of the afternoon though. A local café owner earlier allowed us to eat our make-shift lunch of Norwegian Polar bread and a prawn salad in his café with just a warm gesture of his hand. The smile that he had when I offered him some Indian snacks while leaving remained as I smiled back from outside through the glass. The snowflakes brushed my face as I went back to the bus and he went back to attending to his next client.

*The above images are from our Scandinavia Winter tour. Although the blog speaks about North Norway, our intention is to introduce you to the feeling of being in Scandinavia. 

The Taste of Kinnaur, from Chandigarh to Thanedhar

A Kinnaur village

I think I was still in my late teens when I first heard of Kinnaur. It was perhaps from the fruit seller who had arranged his prime fruits of the season on the top of his cart. Back in the mid-’90s in Bombay, the Washington apples had still not made their way to the top of his cart. So when I came home with a bunch of apples and gave my mother the account, or the heesaab, I said with the same pride as the fruit Wala had said earlier. “Sahab, ye Kinnaur ka apple hai, thoda mehenga hai par Swaad yaad rakhoge”. These are apples from Kinnaur, they are a little expensive but you will never forget the taste. I might have forgotten the taste though. It took me 25 years and a trip to Kinnaur to get it back in my senses.

The Pandemic had eased out a little and India had just got out of the Delta wave. So, when I was able to get both my shots, I decided now is the time. Not that it was in the planning, but like everyone everywhere in the world, I just wanted to get out. It was June, and with the international skies still shut for commercial traffic, a flight to Chandigarh from Bombay was the longest I had taken in about 15 months. I got into the cab of someone I had given a rough idea about my travel plan. The plan was to get on the road to Kaza for a week. The drive from Chandigarh to Simla was not new to me. I was doing it after maybe a decade or more though.  Roads were wider and the restaurant billboards uglier. The traffic made sure that you still went at the pace you did twenty years ago. Everyone was trying to get to the mountains after the lockdown. Thankfully, 90% of those only had Simla and a little beyond on their mind.

Dusk at the grandma stokes homestay.

When we crossed Kufri, a little more than 20 km away from Simla, the number plates on the cars got more HP’ish (local) than the DLs, UP’s and PB’s that dominated the road from Chandigarh to Simla. The driving too got slower. It was like suddenly we were in Kinnaur even before we were in Kinnaur, I thought to myself. Our stop for the night was unknown, i like it that way. So, when the driver, Salim asked me, Raat Kidhar? where do we rest our backs for the night? I said wherever you feel you can’t continue anymore. To which he said, he can drive to Kaza if it is what it takes. Kaza was still 250 km and 5000 Feet above and away, and Salim was

Into the clouds at Grandma Stokes

being nice or just letting the driver in him do the talking. I, on the other hand, felt like was on a mission. It felt normal like how it felt before on the road, after 18 months and I was going to keep going, I thought. The early dusk stop, however, nearly made me change my plan. It was a homestay I had read about, the pictures were inviting but to get to it with the background of the setting sun behind the mountains was something else.

We got to Grandma Stokes, the homestay in Thanedhar at around 5 pm, and I only left coz I had to continue on the road. The owner sat with me over a glass of tea and we spoke about a possible itinerary for the next couple of days, amongst other things. I was completely new to this region and this was the first local I was having a face-to-face with. He even asked me to stay back, but I think we concluded that this piece of construction with 6 rooms all overlooking the Himalayas and the Sutlej valley might be a little too much price-wise for me at that time. Also as I left I thought,  it is too less inventory-wise, when it came to getting a tour here. I left the homestay with a couple of cherry seeds still in my mouth from the plantation. I had no idea that the Grandma Stokes will single-handedly define the course of my Kinnaur Spiti tour to come. The, ‘only 12 people per group’ thought came from the only 6 rooms at this lovely spot of apple and pear orchards

Salim’s wheel descended into the Sutlej valley from Thanedhar, and as the night fell on us the road started its parallel journey with the river Sutlej’s sound. With an altitude difference of 3000 ft between our night stop at Rampur and Thanedhar, there was an immediate change in temperature and a need for both beer and an air-conditioned room for the night.

We drove on this road back to the Valley

The next morning was an early departure as we would enter the interiors from Kinnaur. The apples were still a couple of months away. I saw them on a random walk in a village. They were small although they had started to develop color. I couldn’t resist and plucked one. I wanted it to be a souvenir. What if I never came back to the land again? It was too soon. Too soon to pluck the apple and to think that perhaps I might not come back again.  

It happened in August of 2021, the end of August. The first apples from low altitude Kinnaur came to refresh my taste of Kinnaur and with them our first group to Kinnaur. 

Lake Atitlan, Guatemala

It was supposed to be the main attraction in Guatemala. Lake Atitlan was/is after all the crown of Guatemala and maybe the most visited of its place. However, I struggled to like it. I wanted to like it so bad coz it was going to decide if I would come back to Guatemala ever again. Even worse, I did not like Guatemala too. Maybe coz I saw the country in the lake and only with North Americans. So many of them were there around the lake, that I felt Cancun was more Mexican! So, when someone told me, “you have to try San Lucas de Toliman on the lake” I felt like going all in, and include it in my group tour itinerary. Hoping that If nothing works then maybe the only thing that remains will. Well o Well, and did it work this time!!

View from the Hotel – San Lucas Toliman

I should have written this from Lake Atitlan, I am thinking now. I should’ve written it from San Lucas de Toliman, the small town on the lake that changed my view of all things previously imagined. There were crowds here too, but they were just locals. Families enjoying a quiet Sunday by the lake. There was no sign of English or people who spoke it as their first language and that was refreshing. I do not want to sound anti-English, but when only one kind of tourists come to town, the town becomes them, rather than they become the town.

Also, a crowd of locals does not feel like a crowd as they seem to somehow merge with the place. I am writing now however from 30000 ft above and on my way to Cuba. I can still see from way up here, the volcanoes that overlook the lake. San Pedro and Atitlan though may have erupted hundreds of years ago but for the many tourists who come back from the lake, the images keep erupting in their mind way after. The volcanoes of Patagonia have an ice cone whereas here its pure soil.

The more local town – San Antonio Palopo

The other towns on the lake like Panahchel, San Pedro and San Marcos are nice but then they have so many tourists and shops selling things catering to them that I struggle to find the lake in the towns. They have the view, they have an international vibe, but in them, Guatemala feels, unlike Guatemala. San Antonio de Palopa feels a little more of Guatemala to me in the series of towns around the lake. Just like Lake Bohinj in Slovenia feels more like Slovenia than lake bled.

The quiet lane at San Marcos

Sometimes in the night when I look at the Atitlan, and well, I can’t really see anything but yet there is the wind and there is the sense of being around the water. The volcanoes that guard the lake are lost in the darkness but even in that, there is the feeling of someone watching over the lake. Someone, not some mountain. With the lake, the extinct volcanoes feel active. The Volcanoes and the Lake complete each other.

If there is a day of touring around the lake then this is how I would recommend you to do it.

Around the lake in a day!

  • Take the boat and start early, after 4 pm the lake starts to feel like a sea when it’s windy.
  • In San Antonia Palopo to see the locals while not being bothered by tourists.
  • In San Pedro be in presence of party-goers and feel the buzz.
  • In San Marcos walk in the narrow lane lined with yoga casa’s, organic café’s.
  • In San Juan explore the coffee and the chocolate makers.

The town for Coffee and Chocolate – San Juan

I would come back to the lake and always stay at San Lucas Toliman, but for what the lake is, to each one his own. I am sure just as I found my lake in Toliman you would find yours elsewhere on its periphery.


Mexico and Peru, Twins..!

There is something in these two countries, Peru and Mexico. No, not just that, there is something in this continent. True, that it is one big stretch of land from North Mexico to South of Chile, right to the end of where humans still live on extreme lands. Never there can be so much of madness, sheer amazing beautiful madness in one stretch of land. The land is known as Latin America.

Machu Pichu in Peru

Palenque in Mexico

Mexico and Peru are far away from each other but yet feel closer to me than any two neighbors. Well, then again neighbors are not known to be the best of friends. We have multiple examples around the world to prove that. I fell in love with Peru a long time back, but my love for Mexico is new. So, you know it feels a little more exciting here in Mexico. When I first came here last year in 2018, I was not even sure if I would stay for more than a few days. Well, here I am a year later on our first group tour to Mexico and beyond for over two weeks.

Over the years in the continent of South America, it has felt more like home than even sometimes in India, the country which is home. Lima, in Peru, is a constant parallel to Mumbai and maybe someday Ciudad de Mexico, or CDMX as it is known, would be the second spot for me in this continent. I keep saying continent, so let me clear this out. Mexico is geographically in North America, and before even we come to the South, there are at least 6 – 7 countries that are a part of Central America, which technically is not a continent. The entire land, however, from Mexico to Chile feels so similar that I choose to call it one land, one continent.

Che Guevera had set course to travel around South America, and further north, where there spoke one language, had many similar customs, and yet there were so many different countries, so many borders. He had thought of uniting all the countries. That did not happen, and never will,  but in my mind, I am at times confused with where exactly I am on the continent. Peru feels like Mexico feels like Peru on so many different occasions that sometimes I just let the food decide which is what. Peru has Ceviche and Grilled Chicken houses everywhere, Mexico has Tacos and other regional food around. So for me when in doubt I just find food to let me know. But then the whole culture of food is so similar in both these countries.

Someone mentioned that in Peru, when you ask an average teenager, “what you want to become in your life?”, the chances are the reply would be, “A chef”. I am sure in Mexico it would be the same. With so much of freshness in food from the streets to the chic restaurants. The basic standard of food in these two countries is high.

The creole cuisine in Peru

The Maya cuisine in Mexico

Then there are the drinks. Pisco in Peru and Mezcal (not just tequila) in Mexico. The cocktails that are made out of these two spirits are some of the best I have had around the planet. There is the beer but that’s a common thing.

What really strikes the chord in these two countries, above food and drinks and the rich heritage with the Incas in Peru and the Maya in Mexico, are the people and the way they treat outsiders. Both countries have their share of big-ticket tourist destinations, with Machu Pichu in Peru and Chichinitza Pyramids in Mexico, but in the end, what is the big take away is the kindness of the people. The kindness and the way they are with tourists. Yes, it’s a little bit commercial, but it feels that both the countries have been there and done that.

The masques in Lima’s Square

The dance in Mexico city Square

Like tourism has already reached a ceiling and now it’s just a constant plateau. A flat good feeling within between peaks of wow! That’s what it feels when I write from this bar in San Cristobal de las Casas in Mexico. It just feels wow! It is such a pleasure to be here. Here in Mexico or there in Peru!

San Blas in Cusco

To every traveler in Peru, Cusco is the place to go. One, for exploring Machu Pichu and two, coz Cusco comes with its other sights and high altitude hikes. There is however so much more to Cusco than just the history and nature. True, Cusco or Qosco as it is called in the local Quechua language wouldn’t be Cusco if not for the Incas. But, they are long gone, and what remains is the town itself. A labyrinth of narrow cobblestone streets, like blood vessels running through a body. One of the streets leads to the balcony of Cusco, San Blas.

Is the square with the tower

It is easy to miss the charm of Cusco, let alone visit San Blas and be mesmerized by it. A lot of tourists at the end of their day hikes are so tired that all they do is use Cusco to sleep. It’s a shame as the town has as much in its womb as it has in its surroundings.

The Artisans back in the time (not so long ago) came to Cusco from not only the surrounding villages and Lima but also from other parts of Latin America. Cusco was in the making to become the capital of tourism in South America. And as Cusco was becoming that, San Blas was becoming the place to go to in Cusco.

Narrow Street

Today San Blas feels very similar to Barranco in Lima. Café’s and restaurants adorn every street and unlike the town, they do not feel touristy. The plaza of San Blas is so quiet by the time it is a sunset that you would wonder where is all the buzz that lies just 4 blocks downhill in the central plaza of Cusco. At first, when I climbed the narrow street to San Blas, I did not think much of the climb with shops still asking you to come in and see. But, once in the quarter, suddenly the noises dimmed and the scent of coffee prevailed, coming from the tiny café’s that match the narrow streets.

Cafes I like in San Blas.
The Monkey Café for its really unpretentious and homey feel.
The Cafelito for its vibe and also making it a plantation to cup concept.

When the odd car does pass on the cobblestone street, there is just enough space on the sidewalk to step out of its way. This for me also has been a way to look into space, be it a shop or a bar or a café. Otherwise just walking in San Blas is a joy in its own, without even needing to enter a closed place. No one is in a hurry in San Blas but everyone is moving. Even the whitewashed walls feel like they are moving. Moving with the flowers brushing them in the flower pots hanging over the streets. Sometimes in cities like Budapest and here in San Blas, there is as much to look up at as there is on the street level.

Random musicians

Although I went to San Blas for a view, in the end, I feel it gave me a new point of view to look at Cusco. It also made me increase a night in Cusco for the group stay.

Puerto Varas in Chile

Sometimes a town is so small that everybody knows everyone but also large enough to get lost and not be found. A town can be located on banks of a lake with two volcanoes looking over it, and yet the streets and walking on them can make one forget the towering snow-covered cones. Patagonia starts from this town and goes all the way south, to the tip of the world, Cape Horn. For me though not just Patagonia, but Chile starts here. Here in Puerto Varas.

Puerto Varas street Cafes

The region del Lagos translates to the region of the lakes and is not just a geographical region but a whole state of Chile. The Germans came here in the late 19th century and settled. My guide says they contaminated the locals. The Germans contaminated them with the work ethic that they got along from Europe. In 10 years the region was changed from being a loose settlement of countryfolk to being Chile’s first industrial hub. This back in the early 1900s. No wonder, as we enter the town on a road running parallel to the lake Llanquehue, the very first building that you see is the German school adorned in in its national colors. Puerto Varas feels like Bavaria decided to come to the South Pacific.

How to get to Puerto Varas?

  • A flight from Santiago to Puerto Montt and then by road in 30 mins.
  • OR From Bariloche on a lake crossing over the Andes. Nothing beats this!

Read more about the lake crossing in our South America itinerary.

The lake region here and in general in North Patagonia feels like the Alps, I have heard. I haven’t been to the Alps, so whenever I meet people from the countries where the Alps reside, I ask them how do they feel here. “It is similar but so much wilder” is what I often get to hear. There is beauty in being pretty, but there is a certain charm in being wild. The southern you travel in the Chilean Patagonia, Wild itself gets redefined. For now, though let’s stay in the Lake Region in this part of South America.

Oysters and Crabs, a must in town!

Things to do in Puerto Varas

  • Excursions: From Climbing Volcanoes to Rafting in the river.
  • Café Scene in the city. Spend an entire afternoon taking it easy. The bars are still beer-centric speaking of which P.Varas hosts the October fest too.
  • Outdoor sportswear. Lippi is the local brand to buy Jackets and stuff.
  • All Handmade! I have not seen so many hand-made stuff being sold in a square kilometer.
  • Walk around the lake Llanquihue (jaan quii huey) and on a clear day stare at Osorno and the Kalbuko Volcano.

The lake region is also where Chile’s 70 active volcanoes erupt every now and then. The last eruption was in 2015 when Mount Kalbuco gave out so much of fire that the cloud of ash closed Bariloche’s airport in neighboring Argentina for an entire week. Chile erupts but the winds blow easterly to Argentina to cover an entire stretch of land with nitrogen-rich ash. However, without the rain, Argentina still feels like a desert. Chile on the other side is fertile.

Driving through the countryside and away from the highway, the farmlands come into view and they stretch for so long, that the cows grazing on them seem minuscule over the distance. Nestle owns most of these fertile lands marked with small Nestle logo, which somehow feels bigger than the pastures themselves. As Tata is to tea gardens in India, Nestle is to South Chile.

Coming back to the Puerto Varas which at times just makes me sit and want to do nothing, not even talk to the locals. Eat, yes and maybe just stare out of the window of a café to the street, or out to the lake llanquihue and over to the volcanoes. Or just stare in space, feeling lost in this little town, with no desire to find anything, not even me.

Best of the food scene

  • Seafood not too expensive: Las Buenas Brasas / expensive.
  • Drinks: La Barista (They have heating outside).
  • Icecream: Pudu (artisanal and very good)

charming book shop

Table with a view

Kilkenny to Killarney via Kinsale

The morning was not wet neither was it cold. “This is not your typical Irish morning”, said my host as she took down my breakfast choice. Between, the full and the half Irish breakfast option, there was not much of a choice to make, full it was!  A wholesome breakfast is a good way to start the day especially when you know that there might be no lunch happening. Of course, at that moment I did not know that nor did I know the portion size of a full breakfast. It took me some time to finish my hosts offering that morning, and when I left, the only sign of anything being wet was my windshield. As the engine started the wipers quickly ran through the traces of the typical Irish morning and the wheels moved towards the direction, Rock of Cashel.

Rock of Cashel

A few minutes into the drive, I rolled down my windows. The scent of the morning had a mix of all that I was seeing around. Driving in Lofoten Islands, Norway, the sea was everywhere not only in front of my eyes but also in my lungs, mixed with the occasional dry cod, here in Ireland on the local road, it was mostly just grass, wet grass. It felt fresh when I stepped out to take a picture of the imposing Rock of Cashel. In the overall leveled landscape a structure like the Rock of Cashel felt like an abode of a ruler back in the times. I did not get to know more of it, as the road that led to the top was shut due to maintenance. Having made up my mind of coming back here with the group, I was thinking that even if the rock was open to visiting, I would’ve skipped it and driven where I was headed, on an impulse. South instead of North West, South to the town of Cobh, on the Atlantic.


With the change of direction came a change of plan. Maybe I would now reach Killarney, my destination for the night, a little late. Late in Ireland was 8 pm, which I realized that night. However, at that point when I was facing the town of Cobh, in the distance over the bay, and using the natures restroom, it felt good to just let go of any plans and see where the next few hours would take me. Cobh was known to have a Titanic museum. The Titanic on its maiden voyage called off at Cobh as the last port in Ireland before sailing to its fate in the North Atlantic. There was a group of people waiting to enter the Museum and I thought walking on the streets of the town was a much better use of my time. I had marked both Cobh and Kinsale on my ‘want to go’ list the night earlier, but I wasn’t sure I would be able to make them both. Here in Cobh, the houses all lined up on the street felt like a good sight but then in Kinsale it felt even prettier. Out of the two, I knew I would come back to only one. I would come back to Kinsale.


I did not spend a lot of time in Kinsale, but it was the kind of town which felt local and touristy at the same time. I like it when in a town, the establishments know how to work in tourism and the people running them get more locals than the tourists. ‘Tourists are welcome but we cater to local tastes’ is what it feels when you enter the café’s, book shops, or restaurants in Kinsale. It also is one of the most colorful towns I have seen in Ireland. When I started from Cobh, Kinsale was not the next town. I was maybe not too pleased with Cobh so I had decided to drop out on the south entirely and drive straight to Killarney. But I was glad I made the detour and also that on my way I gave a lift to a man returning from a funeral.

In the next few hours, I got a lot of low down on Ireland. The man was like a guide and even though at times it got a little too much, I would remember that route from Kinsale to Killarney through all the local roads, and the wild pastures more coz of the info I got on what we drove by. Stories always make a place more lively and my co-driver had a lot of them. It was for the first time that I learned, in Ireland, the counties have their pride and together that’s where the pride of being Irish comes from. I think it was the County Cork that we did most of the driving in, on my day 1 in Ireland. He always spoke of the town first and then followed it with the county.

My destination was in Killarney, I had told him before. Now after 3 hours of driving and talking about Ireland. I spoke about Killarney again, only this time I followed it up with County Kerry. I was already talking like an Irish, at least when referring to towns. Speaking of towns, Killarney was quite a surprise. As I entered the town through its central street, I saw more tourists than locals. It was not like where I had stayed the night earlier. I was late in reaching Killarney, but I was told that coz of the tourists the restaurants stay open longer into the night than the other small towns. Later when I walked in the town center, it felt more crowded than it felt from inside the car. It was exactly opposite of Kinsale, ‘we have more tourists but locals are welcomed’. You cant blame Killarney though, It is the base for exploring the Ring of Kerry and ultimately the unofficial start of the Wild Atlantic Way.

Enroute in County Cork

Killarney had a lot of color on its bars and the streets felt lively. But the strong Irish character was missing. Such is tourism though, you win some you lose some!

Chettinad – A Region in its Own

Chettinad came in bits and pieces over the years. It came through sights and smells and it came through stories. Stories that I read in travel magazines, but more so from people who had been there. Stories which spoke more in expressions than in words. Much like traveling in Chettinad is, without knowing how to speak in Tamil. Sometimes knowing a local language is so helpful, but sometimes just knowing how to communicate humanely is all that matters. Chettinad is that. It is more humane of an experience than just sights.

The Bangla

I landed in Madurai, the closest airport to Karaikudi, the biggest (small) town in Chettinad. The only direct flight from Mumbai was delayed well into the night so there was not so much of looking out of the window on our way to The Bangla in Karaikudi. The road felt smooth under the rubber and with not much of traffic, the 90 km journey took us only 90 minutes. When the car entered Karaikudi, the town looked like the average south Indian town I was used to seeing in Karnataka or Kerala. I was expecting Karaikudi to be sleepy but not the late-night kind of sleepy, but the midday kind. I had 48 hours in the region to find my kind of a sleepy town, not just to find that town but an entire region, and how it generally felt to move around.

Usually, on research trips, there is a certain hurry in my stride, but somehow it does not feel hurried most of the times. In Chettinad too, an early start on day 1 would’ve helped, but we could only leave the Bangla around 10 to start driving. Blame it on the breakfast and the conversation with the friendly waiter, Selvam over the dosa and coconut rice. The coffee could’ve been better I thought, but then the fun of drinking a filter coffee in Chettinad is on the roadside Kaapi Shaap!

I had come to Tanjavur a decade ago, I don’t remember if I liked it or not, I definitely did not dislike it. When the car started out of Bangla, I decided for some reason that the wheels should be turned to ‘direction Tanjavur’. Though going to a big city with a big touristy temple was never on the cards, I felt I had to see it once to turn it down. What came up though were the cashew roasters near Pudukottai. On a stretch of a kilometer and a little more, there are families, whose job has been to roast the cashews from the surrounding plantations. At first, it looks rather rustic, but wait till you peel your first fruit and taste the smokey kernel. Distant imagination, but I thought of the smoked Salmon that Norway makes.

Cashew Roasters

The cashews helped to work up an appetite but lunch was still far away. It was planned by our guide in Kanadukathan. On entering the town, I knew was in the ideal Chettinad town that I was looking for. However it has hit the tourist map and though the streets are my kind of sleepy, I have imagined how it would be in the peak season with a bunch of white tourists taking pictures of the huge mansions. It was still off-season in Kanadukathan, and the first mansion we visited felt like it has been empty for 100 years.

There was an eery silence and every step on the wonderfully laid out tiles felt like walking on the soft sandy and more importantly a lonely beach during sunset. It is nice and much cooler inside the mansions. The walls were plastered with egg white and even before I felt the smooth texture on them, I kind of felt the temperature drop from the outside. The pictures of ancestors on the walls make the mansions look lived in, but that’s the only sign of life I thought in the present. In its past, though the same structure would have housed at least 50 people, all eating together in its huge dining area.

Chettinad Mansion

The Beedi making industry in South India has reduced to very few units still making the hand-rolled mini cigar. The reason I heard, was Cigarette, not that people stopped smoking. In the British days, the governor of the Madras province used to love smoking a hand-rolled cigar made in Trichy. My interest in the hand-rolled tobacco leaf from Cuba or cheeoot from Myanmar got me wondering how would it be in my very own country. I was pleasantly surprised to know that the shop that sold one of these was only a few meters away from my lunch place. With the cigar in one hand and a glass of freshly brewed ‘straang’ black milk tea, I felt that the only thing needed now was a bed to sleep.

I even asked my guide, ‘how many places still to go’. My guide was a local from Kanadukathan, and there was a sudden excitement in his voice the whole afternoon when he spoke of his village. The entire Chettinad region has many small scale home run works. The next couple of hours got us from laying our own colors on a hand made tile to frying our own murukku on a woodfired gallon of hot oil. The later was fun coz the women in the women’s co-op that made the snack were in a good mood. They let us hang around for quite a bit as we all engaged in humor that we did not understand but laughed nevertheless.

Tile Making

Women cooperative making Murukku

By the time we hit the basket making place, we craved for tea. I am not a tea drinker, but it is like in Poland, vodka is everywhere. Here in this region, there was tea and filter coffee on every street. In the evening at the Bangla before dinner, we made time for a drink and the cashews from the morning. As I peeled the nut I relieved the day with my brother, Ani. We spoke about tomorrow and how to go about planning it, but we also smiled about today. We smiled talking about the events of the day from the cashew roasters who seemed like they work round the clock, to the odd clock on the wall of a mansion. A clock which perhaps stopped when the family moved out but was still there to remind us of the time that was.

Later at dinner, we were upbeat as we knew that Chettinad is now open to explore as a workable idea. It is always nice to sleep to that thought! Especially after a good meal for company.

To be continued in Part 2

Kilkenny, Ireland

Kilkenny was the first town in Ireland where I felt the cobbled stone streets under my feet. I think it was a Sunday evening and that’s why I thought it felt so empty. It was only later in my trip that I learned that all the evenings felt this silent in Ireland. The sounds came, but only when the door of a bar opened, and sometimes the sound traveled like it did that evening. I had to only walk in that direction and very soon I was seated next to three very happy men at a bar counter. My first Irish bar in my first Irish town had a vibe which was different from the one I was used to in Eastern Europe or Peru.

The bar and restaurant street

There was only space on the counter to keep my phone and my drink, as most of it was occupied by the empty beer glasses the men had consumed. The bar was not as full as its counter but was loud, and when one of the three men near me to make a conversation, I simply said ‘India’ coz I assumed it was the most standard question, ‘where are you from’? The atmosphere was lively and when the singer switched over from classic Irish to western country, a few of the North American bar mates joined in. One of them like me, even said, ‘Canada’. I think he just wanted to differentiate himself from his neighboring country.

On the top of the table

Very soon both were on the table, my second drink and the singer. He had decided he wanted a higher stage. The barman looked at me, smiled and said, ‘Welcome to Ireland’. I smiled back and said, “could I get one more?”. The food was pretty basic but I was not complaining about such an atmosphere. It was loud only with the noise, it did not feel loud. I walked out onto the streets of Kilkenny and once again was surrounded by silence. It felt as silent as walking in midnight in the Arctics.

The town of Kilkenny has its share of sights with the Castle looming large over the city. The town center though has more bars than sights to visit but then the bars are a sight in themselves. The River Nore runs through the town and a view of the castle with the river in the foreground is quite nice especially coz not many people would come in between your camera and the castle.

Kilkenny castle

That evening when I walked back to my accommodation, I had thought I would go to the castle in the morning before driving out of town. I, however, found a piece of town on its central street and therefore felt no such need to go to the Castle. When the shops are closed and the streets are empty, a town bears a deserted look, which has its beauty. Kilkenny too felt beautiful that Sunday evening and as I slept that night, I felt a sense of excitement. Kilkenny was known as a beer brand around the world, but to me, I will always know it as my first town in Ireland, the first time I liked Ireland.

Top 5 Kilkenny Experiences

  1. Walk on the central street, interestingly called ‘The Parade’.
  2. Go bar hopping on a weekend with live music pouring out on the streets.
  3. Try the classic goat cheese dish in any of the restaurants.
  4. Even if you aren’t a big stout fan, have a Kilkenny beer.
  5. Choose some time in the late evening to just stare at the River and the Castles reflection on it.

Classic sheep cheese recipe

Note: This post is written and published as group of posts for Ireland and Scotland. More to follow.

The Malabar Introduction

On my first journey to Kerala, I was seated opposite a monk. The train whooshed out of the Mangalore station and even before we had left the city limits, the monk untied the strings of his lunch box. His lunch, a mix of raw veggies and fruits was neatly wrapped up in a banana leaf. The fruits and veggies were wrapped in separate leaf’s, just as we have containers for a salad and the cooked veggie in the home tiffin. Inside it was the monk and outside it was the green intermittently taken over by water. It seemed that inside the train was in complete harmony with outside. It did not last for long though, we had just entered the most densely populated state in India. We were in Kerala.

The script changed from Kannada to Malayalam and there were more houses around me than there were just a few minutes ago. Strangely though the concrete merged with the greenery. The monk started to talk to me about the North Coast of Kerala. He seemed much happier suddenly, I thought coz his lunch was done but I realized later that he was home. ‘Malabar’ he said was home. That was the first time I heard the word, ‘Malabar’, and when I asked him, “so will you get down on the next station?”. He smiled and said, “We still have 4.5 hours to go before Calicut comes, before Malabar ends”.

It’s been 18 years since I met the ‘Monk from Malabar’ and got introduced to the North of Kerala, with words from the monk inside the train and in silence form the passing scenery outside. Calicut came, and I woke up, but the monk I learned had got down much earlier, somewhere in Malabar. It has taken me all this while to head back to the scenes from that train journey. This time I was away from the railway tracks and on the road and this time Malabar did not speak to me in silence. It welcomed in screams and it hugged in silence.

Malabar Coast

We started from Mangalore at 6 pm and in an hour I realized I should’ve possibly stayed back. The rains in South India were already at their peak and the night came sooner than I thought. To drive in the dark meant to not know what was passing by and on that first night as I went to bed in my hotel in Kasargod, I thought, what if Malabar sounded good only in the Monks words? I couldn’t know unless I found out for myself. I did not have the monk to guide me, so I resorted to what we all do, the internet. The experience of driving on the Wild Atlantic way in Ireland, helped. I told myself if I could do it in Ireland I can in Malabar. That helped, helped me sleep.

The next morning I was up before my alarm, It felt like back in school when I had to get ready for a school picnic. I did not have to be woken up by my mother, in fact, I was up even before she was. Travel does not change that way, from going on a planned school picnic to planning an itinerary for people, a new place always excites. Malabar felt so new that morning, that the need to explore grew with every turn on the road. The more we turned towards the inner roads, and away from the highway, the better it got, not only with the traffic but also with how the people seemed. I couldn’t help but compare the North with the South, the North felt more welcoming. I even told my team “this feels like Myanmar”.

Malabar temple architecture

There are things on day 1 which I could write about here. From the breakfast at the 60-year-old dosa place to a welcome drink in a 100-year-old house, all of it felt pure. It took me only the first 2 hours of the first morning in Malabar to know that a tour here will be a good experience for people. While in Kasargod to Kannur did not only make me fall in love with Malabar, it also made me rethink of my priorities of travel in general. From wanting to explore only out of India, to maybe start looking at stuff back home.

When I started writing this, I thought I would fit in everything from Kasargod to Kannur in one blog post. Well, I have written but I am only still at Kasargod. I guess it will take me one more hit to get to Kannur, or who knows even then I would still be hovering around the first 50 km of Malabar. After all the monk did say, “We still have time to get out of Malabar”.

Kasargod day 1 highlights

  • Visit the Ananthapadmanabh Swamy Lake temple. One of its kind in Kerala.
  • Meet Shantala Nair at Thalathoor Heritage and if possible stop for lunch.
  • Try Vasanth Vihar in Kasargod for breakfast.
  • For accommodation try the City Tower hotel. Cheap and Clean.
  • Fort Bekal, 15 km down south. But that will be for the next post!

Shantala Nair at her house

to be continued

Antigua – Guatemala

As my mini-coach entered the cobbled stone lanes of Antigua, I noticed two things. One, there were more locals that tourists. Two, the tourists had a very easy pace. In the first few minutes of looking at Antigua from a partially blocked view in my coach, I fully knew that this would be ‘the place’ in Guatemala. Maybe I expected too much from Lake Atitlan or too less from Antigua, that turned the tables in favor of Antigua as my favorite town in not only Guatemala but in entire Latin America including Mexico.

closeup of Guatemalan cuisine

Sometimes on a research tour, when I go to places which are high on the ‘must go’ list, I end up not liking it so much. It has the face but just lacks the soul. Lake Ohrid in Macedonia, in the Balkans was one such place. With Lake Atitlan it was not as clear as Like Ohrid. I knew there was something there I was missing, and I knew I would find it. I can however say that I found what I was missing in Atitlan when I walked the streets of Antigua.

Five facts about Antigua

  1. Only Colonial city in Latin America with the backdrop of two volcanoes.
  2. The favorite city to learn Spanish for American and Europeans.
  3. Although the cuisine is not as popular as Peru, it still has a spark.
  4. Beautiful old world charm hotels for less than $30 per night.
  5. Best infrastructure for tourism in Guatemala.

It was lunchtime. Tourist friendly, lonely planet and TripAdvisor ranked restaurants had laid out their menu card out, with a person talking about it. I had left Atitlan without breakfast and it was nearly 2pm. Today however, it felt like walking not in search of lunch, but to just feel the cobblestones under my feet and to watch the locals eating at joints or having a dessert from a street seller. I think I could only keep up with the ‘oh I want to walk’ for the next 15 mins though. To blame, were the two ladies who just when I walked past their space, opened two big metal containers of food and pulled out the food with a ladel. I think since I couldn’t see what they were serving, the pure scent of it pulled me in. I simply nodded to what one of the ladies said and under a minute I was having a hot and hearty meal. Under $5 with a refreshment and a desert, it was as good as it gets.

Lent carpets outside church & volcano, Antigua, Guatemala

As the evening came in, the temperature came down. I had to go to my hotel room to get an extra layer. I think the warmth of the room made me a little lazy and I ended up taking a nap. When I woke up it was already time for dinner. I did not complain.

At the end I know there is a lot that I would’ve not done in Antigua in my first visit. But then that’s why going there again and then again would be good.

Lake Atitlan, Guatemala – To Be or Not To Be!

I had never thought of Guatemala much at first. When the name began to surface in my travel plans, for Latin America, it was still a filler country. Mexico for its heritage and food, Cuba for its ‘travel back in time‘ feel and Guatemala for?! It was a question I needed to find an answer to, and just Guatemala as a filler did not make me feel good. I had seen images of this turquoise lake and the two volcanic mountains at the edge of it. I had also heard that the Lake Atitlan was very touristic in places but even then there were a few corners that felt peaceful perhaps like its southern counterpart, Patagonia. I had seen the lake and the surrounding towns, enough on the map. It was time to find it out for real.

The hostel where I chose to stay was heavily recommended on both lonely planet and TripAdvisor. It also had a beautiful location with direct views of the two volcanoes. Inside though it felt more like the U.S than it felt like in Guatemala. I think that was the first reason I wanted to stay as much out of it as possible. So I traveled and traveled a lot to find where on the lake it feels like Guatemala.

After spending 24 hours on the lake I was still trying to find out that one place which was charming and not just pretty. When in an open truck as I passed through the tiny hamlets of San Catarina and San Antonio, the first feel of being on a lake in ‘Guatemala’ struck me. Sometimes in my hunt of a destination to stay for my group, I come across places like Lake Atitlan, beautiful but yet something feels like not complete. Maybe I judge too much or maybe I should just let the work to score over personal preferences. Or, I should just wait and let it grow. Sometimes what we expect and what comes up is so different. In Guatemala, I fell in love with Antigua and only liked Lake Atitlan. I had thought the reverse would happen. With Lake Atitlan, I think I would wait and let it grow on me, coz for the people I know it would be an instant ‘wow’.

The accommodation possibilities on the lake range from hostels to guest houses to fancy hotels. I had to find a hotel for my tourists but before that, I had to find that one village where it felt different than in most places on the lake. San Lucas de Toliman did not have the view as it was directly under the volcano. I did not find time to look at it, but a hotel surfaced and I will take my group there this November. I will also hope that I like the lake better.

My favorite towns on Lake Atitlan and why?

Panajachel – Entry point and good to stroll around even at the expense of being super touristy.
San Catarina & San Antonio Palopo – Unpretentious and calm, easy access from Panacjel.
San Marcos – As Hippie as it gets but good for a walk and some really good cafes.