Scandinavia in Winter – Start of a tour!

In the summer of 2010, Anubhav Vacations, a travel company just over one-year-old in the outbound tours from India crossed the Arctic Circle with a group of 20 people. The trip was planned around the Mid Night sun and the sun at midnight we did see. Our first group above the Arctic circle was not only our first one but also the first ever from India. I did not know this in the beginning and perhaps the fact that we were an Indian travel company with Indian people born and living in India was seen in the Lofoten islands, Norway as completely out of mind. The idea of going so far up north was as surprising to the locals who spoke to us as it was for the people in the group. That trip in the summer of 2010 and the lessons I took home from it decided the future course of work for Anubhav Vacations in a very significant way. We started taking the route of the countryside to show the country and over the years the scale has tilted in favor of a stay in the villages to staying in huge cities.

The reason for this brief introduction above is that without learning how to travel in summer in Scandinavia, planning a trip in winter wouldn’t have been possible. I think it was for about a year that I heard stories about the Northern Lights in Tromso. Facebook and internet marketing was still new but articles had already started to appear in travel magazines around Europe. SAS, an airline based in Scandinavia had a piece on the Northern lights in the north of Norway and I would think that it was in one of their in-flight magazines that the trigger to go and check Tromso in winter occurred. So in the winter of 2012, laced with whatever woolen clothing I possessed, I decided to take a SAS flight crossing the Arctic circle for the first time in winter. I think in that personal trip the Northern Lights was not so much of an agenda as was to understand whether a 60 + year, Mumbai living individual can take the cold. The warm clothes that I wore on that trip made me look like a Russian grandpa, with all the heavy wool. I was sitting at the window on my flight to Tromso and the cloud cover below was pure white. It was only after the sudden touch down did I realize that it was really the snow cover and so much of snow that even the roofs of the houses were white. I remember saying to myself, “I don’t care if I see the lights or not, this is so good”.

That winter two things happened, one, my bond with Scandinavia grew stronger and two an itinerary took shape. The same itinerary which gave us the first group tour to be ever done from India. Over the years, the image of the Northern lights though is a postcard image of winter, the real thing is to experience the Arctics in this time of the year. When a family of four rolled on a snow-covered river and got up only to see the sky change color, as if dawn had just gotten to be dusk in 30 minutes, the expression on their face said it all. Maybe they had a more ‘aww’ of an expression when the saw the Northern lights later, but the calm they had earlier was different.

As I write tonight from my hotel in Stockholm having finished the first group and waiting for the next group to come, I am happy that I am here for yet another year. I keep learning from Norway and in general from Scandinavia, summer or in winter!

Myanmar is to feel!

Myanmar

It was in a large room of a guest house in Yangon that I had my first night stay in Myanmar. The alarm went horribly wrong and a flight which I had struggled to find a seat in was in jeopardy of being lost. I rushed to the airport in a cab and as soon I reached the check-in counter and apologized for being late, they just smiled and said, “we have a delay, fog”. I realized it later that delays are not only due to fog but just a way how flights operate internally in Myanmar. I guess It was when the staff started calling out the flight that I actually woke up from a stretched position on a wooden bench. The Airport felt like a bus station in India but it did not look like one. It was spotlessly clean!

On getting down at the Heho airport in the center of Myanmar, I hired a taxi which later I learned was a 5th – 6th hand model of a Japanese Toyota. With an unpaved road ahead and a really old car, I was in for a very bumpy ride. But all this did not matter to me, coz by this time, and within 24 hours of my arrival in India’s unknown neighbor, I had already fallen in love with Myanmar.

The Inle Lake at just under 3000 ft above sea level was the reason why I had flown to Heho. The tickets back then and I guess still couldn’t be bought online. In fact, back in 2013, most of the modern world things did not work. Credit cards, cell phones, internet, nothing! Traveling in Myanmar by road is still not an option, back then it was more complicated. So, flying on small flights was the only way of going from one part of the country to another. The tour groups were there, they were mostly Europeans, looking at Myanmar as the next thing to do in South East Asia. I was there to see if I could have my own group tour to Myanmar. It was the first time I realized that simply liking a country’s feel is not enough, to start working with it. Big brother, US had its sanctions imposed, and any trade with Myanmar was very very difficult unless done from Singapore. Well, let the logistics be, this blog is about the land of Myanmar and its people.

On my second night in Myanmar, I stayed in a guest house in Nyuang Shwe on the banks of the Inle lake. The town felt like the ones from old Indian movies, the people felt like the ones from a different world. A world, where helping is just second nature and smiling is as natural as breathing. The country is not rich but the poor can feed themselves. Back in the time socialism was still very alive, if not kicking. The military was in all high offices and even though the gradual shifting to civilians holding posts in key positions in the government was happening, they were mostly relatives or close friends of the army personnel.

Staying in a hotel run by the government or flying Myanma Airlines, the national carrier, was and perhaps still, considered a no. The lady Aung San Su Kyi back in the days had appealed to all the tourists visiting Myanmar not to help the government with money. Now, as she heads the government, I don’t know what is the new norm.

It was 6 pm and the lights in the town of NyuangShwe went off. The restaurant which I was seated in, immediately came up with candles on each of the tables. As I finished my meal and head out, I realized that in this dark, candlelit town (no generators), the evening makes one travel back in time more than it ever does, and in Myanmar, one is always traveling back in time. In our tour to Myanmar, I hear senior citizens often mentioning, back in the days, this is how it was and when they say it the expression on their face is priceless. A couple came back from a tour and in their description of Myanmar to their friends, they said, “we could show you the pictures of the places we have been to, but how can we tell you about how we felt there”.

This is Myanmar, I guess. An experience to be felt rather than a place to be seen.

The Nile in Egypt

Water has a very calming effect, both in sight and sound. In the evening with the setting sun behind the vast Sahara, or late at night when there is nothing to view but just to hear the water flow, the Nile speaks differently to me each moment. The waters reflect my inner thoughts, sometimes even giving me answers to questions I might not even know how to unravel. Here in the middle of Aswan and Luxor in upper Egypt as I wake up to the sound of the first prayer of the day, the Nile feels more Egypt than ever.

Although it flows through eight countries after its birth in the Victoria falls down south, It is only in Egypt that it gets its true fame. As much as Egypt depends on the Nile for its life, the Nile has depended on Egypt since ancient times to be known. The country is classified not into north and south but as upper and lower Egypt, and since the Nile actually flows into the Mediterranean in the north, the south of Egypt is called as upper Egypt. For me, the Nile is truly beautiful to be within Aswan, a town in the south or upper Egypt. Here the various small islands on the Nile, some formed after the building of the high dam gives the Nile the contrast of the rugged land. Otherwise only really the obvious contrast of the Sahara exists.

The Nile in upper Egypt has the community of Nubian people live on it. The Nubians are a beautiful lot, with their skin color distinctly different and their features more Sudanese than Egyptian. A Nubian house is colored with all the possible images of the surroundings, of everyday life, much like the scriptures on the walls of the ancient Egyptian temples. I wonder if 400 years from now when the natural colors of the paintings are still visible, only the Nubians here in Aswan would have something to look at from the past, while us living in the modern world will only have stories to hear of.

In Egypt, the people make for an interesting blend with the Nile. The Arabic that they speak flows seamlessly like the waters of the Nile and the tone in their sound is like music much like the sound of the waters. The food that they grow on the banks of the Nile is freshly served in their houses, more so here in upper Egypt and Nubia than in the mad rush of Cairo. Speaking of which, the Nile in Cairo doesn’t feel very happy. It feels like it just passes through the city while here in upper Egypt it feels like the Nile wants to be for a while, chatting with its people, wanting to know their stories while sharing its own. The Nile goes through eight other countries in the African continent before creating the fertile Nile basin on its way to the Mediterranean in the north. In our group tour to Egypt we spend 5 nights on the Nile out of the 8 nights in all and even then the people feel like spending a night or two more before they depart to India.

A huge chunk of the Nile experience involves sailing on the Nile and the 4 nights spent on the cruise help people to feel the river up close. Aswan to Luxor is downriver and takes 3 nights while the other way from Luxor is a 4-night affair. Luxor is known to have the highest number of heritage monuments in the world any single town, and you would realize it soon as you start sailing towards it. The kings of ancient Egypt aptly had the temples dedicated to the gods on the east bank of the Nile, while the place where their dead rested was on the west. You, would want to know why? Well, it’s quite simple, just follows the path of the sun, coming up from the east and disappearing below the horizon in the west.

The Valley of the Kings on the west bank for many is the highlight of the tour in this part of Egypt. The pyramid is a tomb but because it was so noticeable and on the training route of the Arabs and the Bedouins, it got looted time and again leaving it with nothing but black soot on its inner walls. The tombs in the Valley of the kings, however, were hidden and yet looted, however, they continue to shine with their interior chambers still possessing the vibrant colors of ancient Egyptian art. All over the Nile especially from Aswan to Luxor the kings built various temples. The temple at Edfu and Kom Ombo remain favorite of tourists for the way they come to be seen in the cruise itinerary. The former in the early morning sunlight and the later in the evening.

I have heard that by not taking a big cruise and just going on a motorless sailboat, known as the Dahabiya the Nile can be enjoyed in an intimacy which is hard to compare. It’s the one thing I have always wanted to do. It’s nice to look forward to this. It’s nice to have the Nile to look forward to.