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. 

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

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.