Archive for Travel Stories
September 29th, 2010 • Travel Stories
|That’s me – Almost touching an alpaca!|
It’s already September. I barely noticed the summer pass me by and here we are again, my favorite time of the year. Come September, I begin to feel a renewed glow of energy for life. The summer lethargy is washed away as things at work come back into focus and life fills back into the city, yes, even on weekends.
We’ve managed to stay mostly local this summer and I wouldn’t have had it any other way. I think R and I are both the kind of people that need and want home time to re-charge and feel grounded.
But now summer’s ending and our travels are about to begin again, with Claire’s wedding in Ireland.
I want to backtrack for a second though and speak briefly about Lima where I was earlier this year.
In hindsight, Lima was a joke of a trip. I’m not even sure how I ended up there. I remember an annoying day at work and RS pinging me online about a ridiculous deal to Lima. And even though I had no vacation time left, I bought two tickets. Machu Pichu was never on the agenda so I don’t feel bad about missing out on it. I know we’ll return. Last minute visa issues prevented R from making the trip and I bitched my way to the airport, turning back several times, but finally pulling through. I’m glad RS was traveling with me though and we ended up having a terrific time. Sort of felt like being in college again – what with living in a hostel and going out drinking and partying every night. It was a welcome change. Made some friends, ate some incredibly fresh food, finished reading four books on my Kindle, went cliff-jumping and laughed uncontrollably when RS flashed and mooned the locals as she changed into her surf-gear.
Lima reminded me of an old, forgotten shanty-town. Bollywood references (whether it was Shahrukh Khan’s photograph peeking from a Spanish magazine or a Peruvian woman at the salon opening up her cell-phone to play Bole Chudiyan for me) were never more than two feet away. Even at a local music store, A.R Rahman’s CD’s and his music permeated the atmosphere. It’s times like these when tiny waves of pride and joy envelope me, even if its just for a second. It’s humbling to belong to such a vibrant and rich culture. I feel its influence very viscerally in the most unexpected places.
|Paragliding – one of the best pleasures of Lima|
(Or maybe I seek it out. It’s strange how I look for references to Bombay every time I visit a new country, a new city. It helps me draw parallels and quickly orient myself into unfamiliar surroundings.)
I’m not much of a history nut, but the catacombs at San Fransisco Church, Plaza de Armas in downtown Lima took my breath away. I was fascinated. To imagine it was someone’s job once to handle these bones and skulls and arrange them in such perfect symmetry for the benefit of wide-eyed tourists such as me…wow. History is same all over. A hero, a martyr, an uprising, a revolt, a victory, a defeat. I’m more fascinated with the now. How do people live now and how different are their lives from mine? What do they read? What are their favorite foods? What are their dreams and aspirations? What do they think about the world outside of their immediate lives? What are their imaginations like? and where do their curiosities lead them?
Another memorable experience in Lima was our last dinner at Almazen. RS heard of this place and it took us a solid two hours to find it. I lost my patience a few times, out of hunger and then out of annoyance, but RS’s determination prevailed and we finally hopped into a cab only to realize that the restaurant was three blocks from our hostel.
|With my close friend RS, overlooking the Pacific!|
Henry, the chef and owner of Almazen, was immediately taken by our candor and excitement. We were the only guests in the restaurant and Henry made it worth our while. We engaged on a gastronomical journey tasting Peru’s local fruits and vegetables. Who knew cactus fruits are delicious, bright and moist red? Who knew tomatoes originated out of Peru? We learned this and more from Henry. His story was just as inspiring: a vegetarian out of choice, he is as Peruvian as they come. With his lightly accented English, he told us of the time he spent in England before returning back to start a vegan restaurant in Lima. The food we ate had only hours before arrived from his farm 45 minutes outside of the city. Both RS and I agreed that this dinner was perhaps one of the richest experiences we’ve had in Lima.
On a different note. I will remember Lima. A lesson on moral boundaries and an epiphany but perhaps, this trip was meant to be a story from the moment it began. If its cryptic, it’s meant to be.
May 29th, 2010 • Travel Stories
The Curious Case of the Drunk American:
When: April 2011; 4 days
|The Little Mermaid, Copenhagen|
I have one remarkable story to share. The solitary statute of the Little Mermaid (from Hans Christian Anderson’s fairy tale) is Denmark’s pride. We made the thirty minute walk from Nyhaven to see her. The guidebooks extol her beauty but we were warned to keep our expectations in check.
We were besotted. She was breath-taking. She evokes a deep sadness and longing. The area was least assuming – no tourist traps, no food vendors or memento vendors. Just her. Alone on her rock.
A passing cyclist stopped by us and chatted us up cracking jokes and telling us little anecdotes about the Mermaid. For a 98 year old statute, the Little Mermaid has suffered two decapitations, one theft and and several vandals (once someone colored her entirely neon pink). But she’s just been restored back to her original state by the Danish government. “She’s the most photographed little lady in the world, perhaps.” remarked our cyclist friend.
It was a calm evening and the dusk was fast approaching. We were high on conversations and the Baltic air. The atmosphere around us was full of lightness and happiness. A bunch of backpacking Euro kids stopped by and admired the Mermaid’s graceful stance. A father hoisted his two daughters on a stone next to the Mermaid to take a better picture. All was well until, three (I’m afraid) loud, brash and severely inebriated American kids ambled up to the Statue. On their arrival, the moment was broken and the spell was broken. The crowd began dispersing.
One of the drunk kids, decided to truly prove every single stereotype about Americans (but didn’t realize that he was just illustrating a stereotypical asshole.) He proceeded to climb up the slippery rock and mount himself on top of the Little Mermaid. Then he began making vulgar proclamations and touching the Mermaid inappropriately. Several families with kids turned away and the group of European kids stood transfixed observing this uncouth American kid. He commanded his drunken friends to take photographs of himself over the Mermaid. And after entertaining him for a few minutes even his drunk friends sensed the disdain and rage amongst the bystanders and became nervous. They began making loose statements and disowning their friend, “I don’t know you.. You aren’t with us. Get down.”
This encouraged the drunk friend and he took his antics a notch above. My heart reached out for the motionless statute. I understand its a lump of metal, but the kids antics felt extremely violating. 98 years of history had bequeathed the statute a life. What this kid was doing and what probably several other kids had done, felt wrong and disrespectful. It defiled her. Shortly thereafter, having made his very important point about his superior balls and large penis, the drunk kid began his descent.
There was a wave of unrest amongst the crowd. My friend and I debated yelling at the guy. The Euro kids looked continued to stare at the three boys. Our cyclist friend stood next to us and observed. Silently, everyone was hoping for and demanding justice. Karma.
And then it happened, the drunk America slipped his footing and splashed into the water. His cheek slammed against the rock and he got up, dazed. But the minute it happened, the onlookers erupted into an applause. (Myself included) How the mighty hath fallen!
The fall wasn’t dramatic, the water was barely half a feet. And the kid wasn’t injured. But there was a poetic and metaphorical justice to this fall. The story had come to a beautiful close and our eyes reflected satisfaction and pride at a revenge well served.
Among other highlights from Copenhagen, here is a brief photo slideshow. Hope you enjoy!
May 29th, 2010 • Travel Stories
Although we flew in and out of Dublin, we were more interested in exploring the Irish country-side and so didn’t allot more than half a day to walk around Dublin. The traffic was nuts – we managed to park our car two blocks from the Temple Bar neighborhood. We intended to cover as much of the City Center area as we could and marched into a brisk walk, stopping briefly to awe at interesting sights.
As it would happen, a strange little green sign for the “National Leprechaun Museum” caught my fancy. Even though we were short on time, we decided to follow the signs. Ten blocks down, we ended up at the museum. We were so curious about what such a museum could possibly have, that we bought the tickets! Absolutely unsure of what to expect, we walked inside with a group of Italians, Norwegians and a woman from North Carolina.
So turns out, it is not so much a museum as it is an interactive thesis on the storytelling tradition of the Irish. Our introduction to the museum began with a brief history of the leprechaun and its place in Irish stories and fantasies. As we traced the origins of the little green men, we learned a lot about the Irish penchant for storytelling and weaving tales. We also learned how the Irish bought the leprechaun stories to America and were shocked a few decades later when America packaged and exported back the leprechauns to Ireland in form of Simpons (the Leprechaun episode) and drawings on boxes of cereal. Cultural trade!
We also learned why storytelling is at the core of Irish culture. With its tumultuous history, the Irish often have had nothing but stories and tales and conversations to carry forward and pass on to the next generations. The magic, wonder and imagination is the gift they pass on – and evident in Ireland’s rich literary legacy. (Ireland is the only country that has three noble laureates in literature)
Anyways, so this exhibit was the brainchild of a local Dublin architect, Tom O’Rahilly. From what I was told, Tom is obsessed with storytelling and wanted to create a fun, experiential way to experience Irish stories. And boy, did he!
The museum has twelve rooms that you are free to explore, take pictures and play around in. Each room offers a very interesting perspective of dimension, color, story and play. There’s the Giant’s Causeway, the Tunnel (an important symbol in fantasy storytelling!) Life-sized furniture straight from Alice’s Wonderland, A room with a hundred thousand Rainbow colors, and a Wishing well room.
The Wishing well was one of my favorite rooms because we literally sat on the ledge of a largish well and peered down at the leprechaun gold (fake gold!) as a young literature student from Trinity College regaled us with Irish stories. I have fond memories of this kid – he was incredibly engaged and so intelligent. He weaved in stories from his own childhood and made our listening experience even richer. The room itself is a little dark and warm – exactly the kind of room that makes you want to curl up and listen to stories with a fire crackling nearby.
At the end of the museum is a place to chill, make drawings and read more about the rich Irish tradition of stories, faeries and leprechauns. We left our drawing on the wall – so who knows, maybe if you visit the museum, you might see our little drawing in its archives.
Storytelling is my passion as well. I wish I could do it as well as others but I try, in my little ways. Maybe that’s why this particular visit has so profoundly affected me. I can tell you one thing for sure, I’ll be courting Ireland and its stories for a long, long time to come.
May 29th, 2010 • Travel Stories
When: July 2009; 5 days
With: R & J
Helsinki sits on the edge of the world; or so I felt when I spent five days there. The sun never tired and the air tasted crisp and clean. As you read more about my journeys, you will know that I don’t plan very long sojourns into new countries. I take what I can get. While a handful of days are not enough to experience any city in its entirety, they are just enough to whet my appetite, so I can make solemn promises of return.
Helsinki was a birthday gift planned artfully by R and my sister. Even though our flight was delayed from New York, we made it in good time. R and J are not the kind of travels that enjoy roughing it out – so its my default that if I’m traveling with them, we end up at amazing hotels. I’d be hard pressed to convince either one of them to hostel it out with me. This trip as no different – we stayed at the fantastic four-star Hotel GLO. It’s strategic location (now I sound like an ad for Hotel GLO) allowed us to walk everywhere. They sweetened our stay by offering us free access to laptops, bikes, a SmartCar and (thank God) breakfast. And what a spread it was! Freshly baked breads, sliced tomatoes, rocket, variety of cheeses and jellies. If you eat meat, your breakfast just got ten times better with the assortment of cured meats, eggs and other goodies they offered.
My more permanent memories of Helsinki are 1) a panoramic view of enormous cruise ships bayed at its port on the Baltic and 2) a design sensibility so strong and so tangible that it put Helsinki on the global map as the World Design Capital for 2012.
My favorite place in Helsinki was the “Helsinki Cathedral.” It is an awe-inspiring magnificent white structure, with tall green domes. Although it is one of the most popular tourist destinations, it was relatively empty the morning we paid it a visit. I remember this church in particular because it’s neoclassical architectural influences had me confused. Its entrance is a close replica of the Pantheon or the Green Parthenon, which made sense when I wikipediad it and learned that it was built by Carl Ludvig Engel, a German architect known for his neoclassical style.
R and J rented bikes from the hotel and I walked. After spending a few hours at the Cathedral, we visited the Uspenski Cathedral, a clearly Russian church designed by a Russian architect. I was charmed by the unusual golden red color of the Cathedral, but both the interior and the exterior were extremely overwhelming and impossible to process in one visit.
But most favorite adventure in Helsinki was when I convinced the two of them to take the train with me to an industrial suburb of Finland in search for the Marimekko outlet. Because the trip was in honor of my birthday, they couldn’t possibly deny me my madcap request. So we boarded a bright orange subway and made our way to this mythical outlet. Thirty minutes out of Helsinki and our surroundings began to resemble those of suburban Pennsylvania. My throat constricted and I felt a little sick. You see, travel puts me in a slightly disjointed frame of mind. When the newness of it begins to remind you of the trivial you left behind, the magic dissolves. “Fuck, this is just like the burbs!” The ugly freeways, squat industrial buildings, not a soul on the roads. So eerily similar. Upon on closer introspection, I thought, why wouldn’t it be? It wasn’t like I had traveled through time or that I sought an experience that was nestled in mostly in fantasy. And yet, the stark reminder was jarring.
We got off at a nondescript station and in the scorching heat, began trying to negotiate our way through the freeway traffic. We asked anyone we met on our way if we were headed in the right direction. Most had no idea. At one point, we even contemplated walking back. Eventually though, we found the outlet. It was a small flat building with no signs on it. We knew because we watched a car laden with Marimekko bags drive past us. I want to say that it was worth it or that I ended up buying just what I had in mind. But the truth is, it was a strictly OK experience. I might have acted extra happy then to avoid the collective wrath of my travel companions, but secretly I was a little disappointed because even though we were at the outlet store, I couldn’t afford a whole lot more than at the actual store!
Nonetheless, I dug, rummaged and found a couple hundred meters of affordable and stunning fabrics for home (which by the way, took me a little over two years to stitch and upholster my pillows with) All in all, it was an incredibly unique adventure and opened my eyes to an alternate reality of travel.
(PS: Marimekko is a Finnish textile company that is world-famous for its bright fabrics used both for high fashion and home furnishings. If you’ve watched Mamma Mia – the movie – you’ve glimpsed at Marimekko fabric which was all over the movie: on Meryl Streep’s clothing lines, in her bedroom, even on the boat. Marimekko Stateside fame, however, is attributed to Jacqueline Kennedy who wore Marimekko dresses throughout the 1960’s Presidential campaign.)
|At the ridiculously overpriced Ice Bar|
With the prime purpose of our trip achieved, we spent the rest of our time in Helsinki drinking, partying, saunaing and in general merriment. We met a few travelers at the Absolute Ice Bar (which is a total waste – a 10×10 room made of ice-blocks; barely fits more than three people at a time and costs 10 Euros to enter! Definitely not worth it.)
Helsinki has an incredible night-life. If you can stay up that late, that is. It only begins a little past 1a.m and goes on until early morning. We just didn’t last. We’d been up since 6am and by midnight, were ready to call it a night.
Midnight, according our watches. If you looked were outside without one, you could never tell what time it was because the sun just never set! Our hotel room had thick black-out curtains that simulated darkness, the only way we could fool our bodies into believing it was night and time for bed.
There’s probably more I could write about Helsinki but I didn’t take notes then and now it’s too late to rummage through my head for stories.
May 29th, 2009 • Travel Stories
When: November 2008 (5 Days)
|The Infinity Pool & Beyond at ME by Mel|
I’ve probably lost the more colorful details to time and memory. But here’s a short account of my first time in Mexico.
I visited Cancun with my sister and a close friend during the 2008 Thanksgiving. We were cautious and a little reluctant of going to Cancun because of its strong association with spring break. But any reservations we had about finding a remixed spring-break version of Cancun flew out of the window the minute we stepped into our swanky hotel, Me by Melia. We joked that the hotel wasn’t meant for single girls with no beaus. It’s flamboyant design, colors, abundance of flimsy fabric and a very generous sprinkling of outdoor beds, coupled with the kind of music and staff (read: hot; young; doable) you’d find at a Sex & The City party, made it ripe for, excuse the brutality, mating.
Because we were visiting during a low-tourist month, we were spared the torture that came in-built with these fashion-y hotels . (Although, Sunday morning saw throngs of hot, wealthy Mexican men and their girl-friends frolic in and around the Infinity Pool at the hotel)
There are three things that stand out to me about my time in Mexico:
1) Our trip to Chichen Itza – I insisted on this two hour trip outside of Cancun. The idea of being so close to one of the world’s old wonders tickled me pink. And also because baking on the beach is definitely not my idea of a vacation. What struck me most about Cancun was its organized tourism. I understand that perhaps the seasoned traveler might not want the organization and might actually prefer a slightly more rugged, “authentic” experience. But for three single girls, we couldn’t have asked for a safer city to vacation in.
|ChichenItza a shoddy photo, but the structure is quite magnificent.|
We booked our trip to Chichen Itza with our American Express Concierge the night before. (Some other time, I will write about the joys of traveling with an American Express umbrella)
At 8am the next morning, a bus picked us up below our hotel and took us to a central meeting point where hundreds of tourists from other hotels on the strip were convened. Around 9am, the tour operators began dividing us by our destination and assigned us our bus number. It took us about two hours to get to Chichen Itza. On our way, we made a forty-minute stop at a Cenote. (Cenote / Sinkhole is an under-ground water pool) We weren’t carrying our swimsuits so we wandered around the Cenote instead of jumping into the pool with some of the other tourists. But I remember a distinct feeling of coolness and general well-being wrap around me when we stepped into the cave that housed the Cenote. We people-watched for a little while – mostly little kids who without a care in the world nose-dived into the crystal clear waters of the Cenote and lapped around happily in the waters.
After a quick lunch (limited vegetarian choices; and a tepid “Mayan” dance performance) we made it to the ruins around 1pm. Chichen Itza is breathtaking. That Mayan warriors and poets walked on the same dirt roads I was standing on left me bewildered. Our guide narrated stories of the Mayan culture and what I loved most about his narration was his emphasis on the fact that the Mayans were like any other civilization. It’s reputation as being one of the most advanced, magically endowed and intelligent civilizations was true for almost all others, according to our guide. He said, just like in our society, the Mayan’s had their top doctors, top economists, top leaders – but it also had regular folks that whose only concern were the daily bread. He was clearly upset at popular culture’s depiction of the Mayan culture.
The mid-afternoon sun on the bland, dessert-like terrain was scorching. We wandered around in search for shade and napped on a lonely tuft of cool grass we found. Unfortunately for us, the officials had stopped allowing tourists to climb the ruins only a few months ago to preserve them. So we could only admire, not touch. We flirted a bit with the rules but were too chicken to break them.
The grounds were also infested with barefoot, snotty-nosed children selling cheap cotton hand-kerchiefs with Mayan motifs. In an uncharacteristic wave of kindness, we decided to buy one of the kids an ice-cream. But he bought five other friends, and we end up buying ice-cream for them all. I was both ashamed and happy – the scene isn’t any different at tourist destinations in India and I’d be hard-pressed to entertain them there. I suppose I excused myself because they were Mexican.
2) Snorkeling with the fishes – Done with our history lesson for the trip, the next day we rented a motor-boat and followed our guide twenty miles into the middle of the ocean. We parked our boat, put on oxygen masks and flappy fins on our feet. And when it was time to jump into the ocean, we hesitated. (Not my sister though – she was already paddling around in the water, her head submerged, tickling the fishies) I am scared of water and not a confident swimmer – at all. At our guide’s insistence (and then tough love) I finally jumped but began screaming the minute I realized that there was no security of ground beneath my feet. We were a good thirty feet above ground. But as I realized that I wasn’t sinking, I felt bravado return into my body. Adrenaline pulsed through me and I felt invincible.
Underwater, a muffled silence enveloped me. The fishes were moving in perfect synchronicity and the corals swayed as if their every move had been orchestrated to the last detail. I felt coltish when a fish grazed past me and I jumped every time I felt its slippery, cold scaly skin on my bare legs. It was fantastically weird.
On our return trip, I manned our little motor-boat and relished the power buzzing through me, propelling the boat forward. There are no signals and roads on the oceans, and if you are lucky, no traffic either. I zig-zagged as I pleased, leaving behind bold tendrils of white waves in my wake. It was a power-trip like no other. Back at the hangar, we changed out of our wet swim-suits, showered and taxied back home.
|Our scrumptious Thai Dinner -two nights in a row!|
3) Thai food! (yes!) – Dining in Cancun was one of most surprising and delightful experiences we had. Twice in a row, we ended up at the same Thai restaurant by the ocean. It’s alfresco dining reminded me of Bombay. And it was hands down, the best Thai food I have ever had. (Even better than Jaiya Thai in NYC!) On our last night though, against the wishes of our concierge, we ventured out into the “city” for a taste of authentic Mexico. (Btw, there is no such thing as authentic Mexico in Cancun) Downtown Cancun was a square mile of cacophony of typical bars, strip malls and tourist shops. We ventured into what could be the dollar store version of Cancun – it was larger than the ground floor of Macy’s on 34th street. Although we didn’t buy anything, Mexicans have a flair for making cheeky souvenirs.
And that was our very PG-13 trip to Cancun! I could bore you with the ins-and-outs; how to get there and back; and other details, but that’s frankly, not very interesting to write about so you’ll just have to rely on Google and Tripadvisor