Inca Land Explorations – The Classic Inca Trail Trek

Now for the final part of my blog on the Inca adventure and the highlight of our trip, I chronicle the much looked forward to or dreaded trek which was called the Classic 4 day Inca trail or Pilgrimage that we had booked way back in February.

Map of trail: courtsey traveltocusco.com
Off we go!
The first day, we were still happy and had smiley faces in our photographs, as we started out from Ollantaytambo on the Inca trail. Here are some pictures from the first day of our trekking. It is certainly amazing what nature presents when out in the open outside of the din of the city. These photographs are certainly barely representative of the sights we did see there. Mountains, rivers, Inca ruins, Clouds and forests live in a 360 degree view is really quite difficult to capture on a lens. But well, this is what we have to do with once we get back to the city! We tasted Chef Caramello’s food for the first time starting with lunch which was an elaborate affair starting with an avocado starter, going onto a soup and entree of Pasta, Creamy Potatoes and Rice followed by some chocolate pudding for dessert. We certainly didn’t want to hike after that sensory meal! We fortunately did get a few moments of rest though after that before we started off again rejuvenated.
Day 1
Llactapata ruins
During the course of our trip, we got to know our fellow trekkers who were fortunately a wonderful bunch of people including Americans, Australians and other Indians! For 12 of us trekkers, there were 17 porters, one chef and two tour guides. I must say they all did a wonderful job despite how difficult it really must be. In fact, things like food which are a luxury during camping, actually became a highlight as we received full elaborately prepared three course lunches and dinners as well as breakfast and snacks. All we had to do was really, just climb, as all our food was cooked for us, stuff carried up for us! Even that was not easy I must say. Especially, since I conveniently missed the step of training in the gym forever before that! It was quite incredible, that while we climbed up, the porters cleaned up our lunch, washed up, scurried up with the tents and all those other hundred things, set the tents all up, cooked our dinner and we arrived only much later.

Porters scurrying up
Lunch!

The second day was the toughest part of the trek having to climb to a high elevation of 4.200M to the Dead Woman’s pass as it is called. Was that the high point otherwise for me? Well, honestly, it was the most difficult thing I must have ever done physically! I had to break after every 10 steps when I was some 100 steps away from it! The air being pretty thin at this altitude affected many of us in the group attacking us with migraines, nausea, sickness and the like. But well, we still grinned when the photo was clicked! :)

Dead woman’s pass

What goes up has to come down, and the next phase of the trekking was just down down and more down till lunch! Even that was tiring! And to think, while climbing up all we wanted was to go down! Going up is more work, but coming down is scary and makes all those muscles really ache! I had almost given up hope of ever making it through the day after which we not only made it to the camp for lunch but revived by Chef Caramello’s food, we hiked up the mountain for another 3 hours before we finally could celebrate the end of the toughest part of the trek with coca tea, popcorn and crackers!
Ruins at Phuyupatamarca – Don’t I love the names!
The third day of the Inca trail was personally my favorite, since there was less climbing up, and less steep steps although there was a lot of climbing down. We went through a lot of verdant jungles and took in breathtaking vistas every few steps. But then, it started raining. And rain it did, …it rained right till the moment and possibly beyond the day I took my taxi to the Cusco airport to depart Peru! The positive side of the rain however was the fact that everything looked far more mystical and magical with the floating clouds as we traversed through the hills and vales. We almost felt in the middle of an Avatar movie or an Indiana Jones movie amidst all that beauty. We reached the campsite early in the day and in time to visit a beautiful Inca site known as Winaywayna. Our chef made a special farewell cake for dinner as it was the third dinner together. Well, he certainly kept his high standards of food right till the last meal at the camp!
Runkurakay ruins
Mystic clouds
Rain Trek
Flowers on the way
Winaywayna Inca site
Happy travels to Machu Picchu!
On the last day, we had a short trek to our final destination Machu Picchu. Unfortunately it was still raining, and there was little hope of really seeing sunrise. But we all started off at 4:30 am to beat other hikers at the gate that opened at 530 am. Wasn’t an easy hike again as was expected. Plenty of climbing, and a lot more urgency to make it to the lost city soon. We crossed the Sun Gate, and there it was… Machu Picchu, in all its glory. The clouds that enveloped it, made it all the more ethereal, and we were enchanted.
 
Machu Picchu
Morning Haze
The lost city – Machu Picchu
The lost city nestled in clouds
Machu Picchu was indeed much bigger and far more different than the other Inca sites. It looked royal and awe-inspiring. There was an ancient aura about the place and amidst all the clamor of the tourists and the photo snapping din, it felt peaceful. Machu Picchu was surrounded by
mountains on all sides, and watching the clouds play hide and seek with it took our breath away.
 
Thus ended the highlight of our trip there, and we left with exalted minds thinking about all those who lived and fled there wondering how it must have been back then. I wonder, would it have been any different had the Spanish not forced them to flee? If they could create all these wonders in just a century, I wish I could imagine, the marvels the great Incas would have created had they ruled for longer. On a closing note, here are some beautiful words from a poem by Pablo Neruda that I read somewhere in Cuzco -
 
“Then on the ladder of the earth I climbed through the
lost jungle’s tortured thicket upto you, Machu Picchu.
High city of laddered stones,
at last the dwelling of what earth
never covered in vestments of sleep
Mother of stone, spume of condors
High reef of the human dawn
Spade lost in primal sand
This was the dwelling
this was the place
here the broad grains of maize rose up
and fell again like red hail
Here gold threads came off the vicuna
to clothe the lovers, the mothers
the king, the prayers the warriors.”
To read more about the Incas and Cusco, their capital city, do have a look at my previous two blogs.
To read more about Machu Picchu, here is a wikipedia link http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Machu_Picchu.
Categories: Peru, World | Tags: , , | 27 Comments

Inca Land Explorations – Cusco

I continue on my exploration of the Inca-world, in the second part of my Inca adventure blog, and this time for real and not through the million articles I waded through, the books I read and the documentaries I watched!
Why did I really choose Peru as a country to visit you may ask?  When I was in grade 8, I hated studying history said my mum.  But now that I am older and wiser (hopefully), I have actually developed an interest in our ancient world.  This, coupled with an interest in exploring a whole new country and wanting to step onto a new continent, made me pick Peru, the land of the great Incas for my trip.
Our trip started off rather well and having a consultant husband really helped in getting us upgraded to the Business class in the flight and hotel points got us to a five star hotel. Well, it was certainly getting pampered before our ordeal began!  By ordeal I mean, the 4 day arduous trek that we had decided to undertake in our week there!
Cathedral at Main square
On a bright sunny day, we arrived at Cusco. Cusco that I have spoken about already, back then was the capital of the Incas, and in the modern world is a teeming tourist town with vestiges of Inca Pride.   Cuzco is at an altitude of 3,400 meters above sea level and is the base location for several places of interest including the starting point of several important hiking trails. This city retains many colonial buildings, plazas and streets, Inca walls and ruins, which led to it being declared a World Heritage site by UNESCO
Main Square
Old Inca Palace walls
We undertook a trip to Sacred Valley of the Incas first where we saw our first Inca ruins at Pisac.  There is also a wonderful Sunday fair at Pisac where the local people come together to sell their handicrafts.   Everywhere in Cuzco too, we came across wonderful shops selling Llama wool rugs, woven cloth goods, purses of all sizes, symbolic souvenirs and super knick knacks.  I must say my husband had a really hard time pulling me away from buying everything possible in the shops there!  I certainly was far more interested in the fair rather than the ruins! We must have exchanged our dollars for Peruvian ‘Soles’ at least 10 times in 10 days at the many money exchanges at every turn, each time spending more than we anticipated!
Sacred Valley
Local shop
Pisac ruins
After Pisac, we went to Ollantaytambo which like I had described in my story earlier, had been established as a stronghold of the Incas and a raging battle took place there.  Ollantaytambo (don’t I just love the Quechua names!), was a gorgeous Inca site with walls so finely built and without the use of mortar that not even a knife could pass through them (as you can see in the picture). In 1950, an earthquake had occurred in Cuzco, during which a lot of modern structures including colonial structures came down.  However these Inca walls stood mighty and strong standing testimony to the engineering prowess of the Incas. This site also had well built terraces and granaries.   All the terraces were also wonderfully engineered with varying temperatures at different levels for different crops.  Irrigation was also done using a fine system of canals and aqueducts.  Our guide told us, that the holes seen in the mountain across from where we were were burial chambers for the Inca dead.
Fine Inca wall with niches
Ollantaytambo terraces

Man holding mountain and burial holes in there
Near Cusco, we also visited the South valley to see more sites.  We stopped at Piquilacta or the ‘town of flies’ which was a pre Inca site. I do wonder why it was called so, it certainly would not attract many people to stay there, if it really were full of disgusting flies! This town was a large town, and what remained today were the huge walls they built around the city and the houses.  There even were entry gates to this city and everyone coming in and going out was monitored.  We also visited a few churches around Cusco.  Although, honestly they did not interest me as much as the old Inca structures did, for the sake of memory, we visited the Chinchero and the Andahuaylillas church which is called the” Sistine Chapel of South America.
Piquilacta ruins
Gates at Piquilacta
We began on the next part of our trip, the four day Classic Inca trail, but I will chronicle our journey there in another blog.  When we returned from our trek, tired and with exalted minds more fun was in store for us without our knowing it!  1911 being the year Machu Picchu was discovered, 2011 was the centennial year of its discovery, and we were perfectly in time to be a part of the festivities. We were able to witness a grand spectacle of a military parade and a cultural celebration.  The whole square and streets were full of mirthful dancers and musicians in their eloquent costumes of lions, clowns, traditional Peruvian, colorful flumes of birds, elegant Spanish dancers and masked jesters who swirled about gracefully around us in a parade.  Ah! I can almost hear their lilting melodies and the beat of the music they danced to.
Machu Picchu discovery centennial celebrations
Machu Picchu discovery centennial celebrations
Machu Picchu discovery centennial celebrations
Machu Picchu discovery centennial celebrations
Machu Picchu discovery centennial celebrations
Before I conclude this post on the picturesque town of Cusco however, I would certainly like to make a special mention of our tour agency Llama Path who had made all the bookings for us and were our trek operators.  I have certainly never ever seen the exceptional level of service that they provided at the trek and outside of it.  They did goof up on not booking our hotel, but certainly made up for it by going the extra mile and we had no grouse whatsoever.  At the trek of course, the service was indeed superlative.  Every day, we even had hot water and soap in front of our tents to clean up, tea served on our waking to our tents, warmed plates to eat from and our every need tended to. The guides and porters were courteous and knowledgeable and the chef Caramello’s food couldn’t have been finer in taste or presentation.  I almost feel sorry for our guide Jose, who accompanied us and patiently encouraged the battered miserable us in difficult moments with ‘My champions – you can do it!’ even though we were taking breaks after every 5 minutes, after everyone else in the group were at the top of the mountain already! Llama path certainly was a very commendable and enterprising tour company and I would certainly endorse it to anyone who would be interested.
Like all good things come to an end, our trip did to and it was with a heavy heart that we walked away from the welcoming city with warm people and back into the world of work and humdrum existence.
If I haven’t tired you enough already, do stay tuned for the next blog on the exciting four day trek that we undertook from Ollantaytambo to Machu Picchu. The pictures will certainly not disappoint you!
This post is re-published from my other blog Richland Talk.
Categories: Peru, World | Tags: , , , | 16 Comments

Inca Land Explorations – The story

Travelling in history is a wonderful thing.  As I hiked down the Andes, in the highlands of Peru, I could not help, but wonder how it must have been during the Inca times.  The Incas were the Romans of the South Americas. Brilliant builders and engineers, they created Machu Picchu, the most sophisticated road system in Americas and masterpieces of gold.
Inca terraces
What I write next is a pre-read to my next blog on my visit to Peru. Most of the information here is from a wonderful documentary I saw namely ‘Conquistadors’ by Michael Wood which was featured on PBS and insights from the book ‘Inca land Explorations in the Highlands of Peru’ by the discoverer of Machu Picchu, Hiram Bingham.


During their short rule from Peru from around 1400 to 1525, the Incas built a 40,000 km road network, wonderful cities and monuments, and converted steep wastelands on mountains into terraced farms. They used a variety of methods from peaceful assimilation to aggression to incorporate a large portion of western South America including large parts of modern Eucador, Peru, Bolivia, Argentina, Chile and Colombia into a large empire

Inca Empire – courtsey google
 
In the winter of 1527, a boat arrived at a lonely island on the coast of Peru. Its leader was an old conquistador called Francisco Pizzaro. He had come to seek the gold from a previously unknown world, not knowing he would lead the conquest of the most powerful kingdom in South America, the conquest of the Incas.


Atahualpa who was the king of the Incas was proceeding with his army towards Cuzco. He met Pizarro at Cajamarca. Being a band of 150 people Atahualpa did not consider them a threat. Atahualpas army was 30,000 strong. The Spanish told the Inca ruler Atahualpa that they would help him against his enemies. However, in reality the Spanish were plotting to kill everyone then. An accompanying priest made a speech on the cross and the pope, and asked Atahualpa to convert to Christianity. ‘I follow my religion’ said Atahualpa and threw the Bible he had been handed on the floor. Pizarro was waiting for just this provocation and attacked. Crude Inca weapons of sticks and stones were no match for Spanish guns and steel. Blood ran freely and some say 6000 people were killed. Atahualpa was captured alive. He made an offer to the Spanish. If they set him free, he would fill the room with gold. He thought Pizarro would simply go away if he did so not realizing it would make the conquistador even greedier. Atahualpa filled his ransom room with 7 tons of gold. He kept his word, but what would Pizarro do? Pizarro put Atahualpa on trial for treason. The jury was the Pizarro brothers and their friends. The verdict- the Inca must die. After his execution, Pizarros men, went across Peru looting the greatest shrines of the Peru. Pizarro marched his army on the royal road to the capital- Cuzco (modern day Cusco).  In November 1933, they reached Cuzco. The streets were grand, and the palaces wonderful.  Pizarro looked at the ceremonial squares and palaces and set about systematically ransacking them all. 
Inca Ruins
As news reached the shores of Europe, Spaniards flooded Peru in their gold rush. Pizarro brothers were exalted as they tightened their grip on Peru. They appointed a puppet Inca king Manco, Atahualpas half brother to placate the local population.
 
But the Spanish treated the Peruvians with contempt. Gonzalo Pizarro raped Manco’s wife the queen. Discontent rumbled around and word spread of war of liberation. Manco summoned his subjects in 20 days to attack the Spaniards. Above Cuzco, a vast Inca army surrounded the Spaniards. Spaniards were outnumbered, one Pizarro was killed, but in the end, the Incas were outgunned. It was a heroic battle and is still remembered as the great rebellion.
 
Pizzaros rule took savage reprisals against the civilian population for their revolt. A massive exodus followed into the Sacred Valley in the footsteps of the fleeing Inca king. The Sacred valley was the Inca heartland. Here they built their finest palaces and terraces to grow maize and coca leaves. Here Manco could call on for help of the ancestors. Manco built more houses and terraces to feed the many pouring in. These terraces can be seen at Ollantaytambo. Here was where the Spanish attacked next. The Incas rained down the walls everywhere. For the first time, the Incas beat the Spaniards in a battle. Manco planned to build a new Cuzco in the Sacred Valley. But he knew, he needed to flee further as Spaniards continued to pour in. He decided to retreat into the valleys and jungles of Vilcabamba. It must have been a heart breaking moment for the young Inca as he made a moving speech to his followers. He asked them to remember his ancestors had been good rulers. ‘I know’ he said, ‘One day in the future, a time will come, when they will force us to worship their Gods. But in private, do what you have to. If they destroy our shrines, keep them forever in your hearts.’ With that, Manco with his army began their long march into the Andes and the jungles demolishing the road behind them. Pizzaro went in search of him into the jungles. The road was weary with high altitudes, dense jungles, and landslides. When Pizzaro reached Vilcabamba, Manco had retreated further into the jungle. Gonzalo Pizzaro searched for 3 months till sickness and starvation threatened them. In his fury, Pizarro took revenge. He shot Manco’s wife and sent her down the river to be found by the Inca king. Manco was grief stricken. However, he fled further and made his capital at Uiticos. The Spanish described this place on high mountains with wonderful views. On top there was a substantial flat area, where majestic buildings were built with great skill and art. Manco held court here for 7 years but in the end they got him. With him, the supreme reign of the Incas ended as his descendants were either mere puppet kings or executed.  
Ollantaytambo terraces
Thus the mighty Inca empire came to a fall as the political structure ended. However what lasts still today is the long lasting tenaciousness and deep rooted culture of the people. The Inca people survived, and beliefs survived just like Manco Inca had said they would. Nearly 500 years on, the people of the Andes still respect the ancestors of the Incas and worship the sun. Every year in June they go to the glaciers in the mountains. Like their ancestors, they still greet the rising sun.
Categories: Peru, World | Tags: , , , | 13 Comments

A trip to Washington DC and the Shenandoah National Park

With family visiting us in May 2011, when I was in the U.S. , we set out to shortlist all the ‘touristy’ locations on the East Coast to show them around.  Most itineraries of people visiting the east coast include New York, Washington DC, Niagara falls, Boston and if budget/time permits Orlando theme parks. Throw in an Atlantic city, and the US visit is complete!..rather if they don’t go for a ‘Tirth yatra’ to any of the above places, they have seen nothing at all in the US!

We were on our way!

So, as Memorial Day (the day to honor war heroes and veterans) dawned, we packed up our bags and our assortment of snacks of sandwiches, gobi parathas, pickles, ketchup, cheese, chips, laddoos, bananas, oranges,strawberries, water, frooti, ‘fast’ snacks, halwa, cake and chocolates!  Yeah, I can’t believe we actually finished all of that! It took far more time to make and buy all that than gobble it up!

I dozed off almost immediately in the car to wear out the weariness of all that food preparation and refused to wake up till lunch time at Maryland where we stopped for a picnic lunch.  That power nap did me a world of good, as I took up the wheel in the next leg of our drive to Shenandoah National Park. As we got on to the Skyline Drive of 105 miles, the cool mountain breeze and the scenic vistas greeted us all along.  Although we did not spend as much time as we would have liked to hiking and biking, I did enjoy the feel of wild grass under my feet, the bloom of the wild yellow flowers, deer peacefully chewing away in natural surroundings and the balmy breeze.
A short hike at Shenandoah
The sun peaking through the lush trees at Shenandoah
A Shenandoah wildlife sighting
The woods are lovely, dark and deep
Day two and three of our trip had been set aside for Washington, and we set forth after a heavy breakfast at the hotel.  Well, again, it being a purely touristy trip, that translates into getting off the car, taking photos and getting back to the car, we thought, we would do it in no time at all! But fortunately or unfortunately, the city had other plans for us!  Memorial Day is a big deal in USA, and I was hoping to witness something of this day in the capital city to reflect some of Americas traditional celebration.  I was not disappointed.  As we drove in, people with waving flags greeted us as we crossed overhead footwalks and bridges, several Harleys zoomed past us everywhere making us wonder what was in store.  As traffic moved to a snails pace, we pulled out and took the metro route.  Riding a city’s trains has always excited me, be it New York, Kolkata, Mumbai or Washington as it is something non-touristy, something that citizens use to go about their life everyday anywhere. The stations here were much cleaner and spacious and far less smelly than NYs stations.  Being Memorial day, well, only tourists clambered onto the train and took away the charm of the locals travelling! We got off at the station near the White House, and started our act of clicking away to glory in the usual silly poses. Barrack and Michelle must certainly be uneasy in that fortress with snipers patrolling its terraces and with all that security and tourists and even protesters constantly outside their windows. Never a moment of peace to enjoy those lush gardens outside!
The White House

The next halt was the George Washington memorial which is the tallest structure in Washington DC.  Here is the exciting part.  As we neared it, the vroom of motorcycles was heard nearby. As we recollected the many bikes we saw on the road, we hastened towards it.  It turned out to be a spectacular rally of 400,000 bikes (these huge mean machines- Harleys or look alikes) aptly known as ‘Rolling Thunder’ that was paying tribute to American war heroes in their own style.  That certainly was a super show!

George Washington Memorial

 

Rolling Thunder
The Capitol

For the remainder of the day we proceeded to visit the Smithsonian museums.  I went to the National Gallery of Art and tremendously enjoyed seeing master pieces of Impressionists as well as Modernists. I particularly enjoyed seeing the Chester Dale collection that included works of great masters such as Monet, Renoir, Picasso, Van Gogh among others.  I was also pleased to see special exhibits by Gauguin, who I was first fascinated by’ on reading Maugham’s ‘The Moon and the Six Pence’.  Apart from these that I admire, I also managed to find the ones I didn’t and took pleasure in rebuking Rothko’s and Barnett Newman’s modern (non!) art which I wrote about in a recent blog! I finally left the museum after it closed and dragged myself to the Air and Space museum to join the others and find out about their sojourn to the Natural History museum which I skipped seeing.  We ended the day with a meal at an Indian restaurant with a snooty manager and driving around in Washington , uh..driving around was not out of choice, but because our GPS kept taking us round in circles and all over the place!

The Air and Space museum
Our trip drew to a close the next day when we saw the lofty memorials built in honor of US Presidents Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson and the Vietnam and Korea war memorials. With plenty of memorial spots dotted across town, we had to skip most of them albeit with no regrets really!
Thomas Jefferson Memorial
Abraham Lincoln in his towering seat

Well, again, for people out to visit places for the sake of the photo, Washington DC was a pleasant place to be in.  However, as always, I always believe, cities are to be experienced by living there and a couple of days’ visits will never capture the essence or the culture. However, all in all, this was a lazy fun trip that kept everyone contented for all the things they saw.

Categories: United States | Tags: , , | 22 Comments

Guest post for the Cybernag – Ganapati Bappa Morya

Zephyr is one of my favorite bloggers for a long time.  She writes about social issues, families, kids and a host of things that will  make you sit up, take notice and react.  She gave me an opportunity to do a guest blog on her famous blog ‘The Cyber Nag’ and I was thrilled to do just that!  Here is a snippet of what I wrote on the Ganapati Festival in India- 

The festival of Ganapati is around the corner and the entire atmosphere is suffused with festivity. Shops selling Ganapati have cropped up all over the city of Mumbai, from main markets to narrow alleys, where rows upon rows of painted and unpainted Ganapatis of various sizes and shapes sit, waiting to be taken home. Kids and adults wander about looking for the one they want to install in their homes.

To read the rest of the blog go to http://cybernag.in/2012/09/ganapati-bappa-morya/

P.S.1  – This post was selected by BlogAdda as its Spicy Saturday Pick  :) .

P.S 2 – This post was published in the newspaper DNA, Mumbai edition on Sept 24. :)

Categories: India | Tags: , , | 1 Comment

The Fourth Wonder – Wahiba Sands, Oman

It was a sunny afternoon when I discovered Beauty. I had considered three elements, the turbulent seas, the star studded unending skies and the imposing mountains as the most awe inspiring wonders I had ever known. That day I discovered the fourth. It was the hauntingly starved desert. I had seen the desert on television, the biggest it got for me was 32’’. When I saw the Wahiba Sands desert at Oman, I discovered another facet of nature previously unknown to me.

We were picked up at Muscat by our tour guide in a 4 wheel drive. I had no idea what was in store when we left the road and entered the sandy desert.

The Wahiba Sands desert was as vaster than I could see, more beautiful than I had imagined it to be. There was so much sand everywhere. Humongous stretches of ceaseless sand were interspersed with shrubs that looked ravaged by the blazing sun. I saw Sand that had built itself into mammoth dunes which looked more like mountains to me, Sand that was so fine that it felt like water in my hands, Sand that formed beautiful waves styled by the wind, Sand which changed colors from red to white to brown as we changed course in the desert and Slippery Sands on which Camels walked on with ease. I was enthralled completely by the beauty of the whole vista.

Entering Wahiba Sands

Waves of sand

The Wahiba Sands is a popular desert destination at Oman with several camping facilities and tours that organize camps deep into the desert. Many of these are even luxury camps with almost all with running water and some with even a swimming pool! To maintain the ethnicity though, a well thought out cultural program with dances, local cooking etc. is often organized too. We had booked ourselves with one such camp and thoroughly enjoyed the royal treatment.

As we entered, the camp, our senses feasting on the beauty in the bareness, we were treated to refreshing ‘zatar’ tea. We later went ‘dune bashing’ or ‘wadi bashing’ on 50–200 m high sand dunes which was quite thrilling.

The desert that is scorching by day is chilly by night. As the lights grew dim, we washed for dinner and settled in the open area for the cultural program. After dinner, we started star gazing and there were oh, so many stars! The city smoke and fog allows us to see hardly any stars. Deep in the desert, the dark velvety sky was bejeweled with these a massive number of these bright starry embellishments. We star-gazed for several hours trying to figure out the few basic constellations we knew. Far away from civilization, we could see nothing but pitch darkness outside the vicinity of the camp.

We awoke in the spacious tent-room in the desert to a very dewy and chilly morning. A quick breakfast later we were on our way home. It was fascinating to see so many camels out there in the middle of nowhere. We made a halt at one of the local Bedouin people’s homes at the fringe of the desert. Although the Bedouin people or the residents of the desert now have access to the latest amenities, many still lead their lives near the desert, owning herds of camels, or through tourism.

A dewy campsite in the morning

Cute little camel at Wahiba Sands

Serene camels

The way back to Muscat was another visual treat on the Sur-Muscat highway which is a coastal road for a long patch. With bare mountains on one side and the sea on the other, it was hard not to stop at every scenic spot we saw! All in all, a fantastic trip which revealed to us a new element of nature we were hitherto unaware of.

The coastal Muscat-Sur highway

Muscat-Sur higway coast

Categories: Oman, World | Tags: , , , , | 12 Comments

Capture the Color

I was excited when I got tagged by Arti to participate in the Capture the Color contest. All I had to do was post 5 photos that would bring out the five colors – Green, Yellow, Red, White and Blue.  The first thing I could think of when I thought of these colors, was ‘Trees’!

The United States of America is a large country with varied landscapes, geographies, climates and diverse vegetation. During my two years stay at the US, I was fortunate to experience the stark seasonal changes that took place with every changing season.

For the Capture the Color contest, to highlight the 5 hues, I have chosen a theme of trees that I saw at the U.S.  While in India, the only color I associated with trees was green or less green.  In the U.S., I witnessed beautiful phenomena in spring, summer, fall and winter.

I understood the joys of new budding fresh green leaves in spring after snowy winter that left trees utterly bereft of leaves. The North East part of the U.S. was particularly green with miles of roads in a dense green cover.  The large mass of green cover that was called Central Park in New York City was my favorite haunt and I spent many a happy evening bicycling in the verdant park in summer. The photo shown here is from Central Park on a lazy  summer day.

Verdant Green at Central Park, New York City

With Fall, the leaves started changing their colors, withering or falling off after giving in to the strong winds that had replaced the gentle zephyr.  I went to New Hampshire in the peak of the fall season, and was amazed to see the brilliance of the trees in shades of Red, Yellow and some Green. Never in my life had I beheld, entire Red colored or Yellow colored trees as I did there.

Brilliant Yellow at New Hampshire, United States

 

Flaming Red Tree, New Hampshire, United States

Winter came suddenly without warning after Fall, and we were into our coats, mufflers, sweaters and gloves. The days became shorter and evenings dreary with dipping temperatures. The trees had lost their leaves as though biding the snow to come.  Around this time, we planned a trip to sunny California where the winter was mild and the trees had leaves.   A road trip in California led us to the Yosemite National Park. We stayed at a lodge for the night, and the next morning, for the first time in my life, I opened my eyes to a snowy morning.  Snow is not something we Indians get to see, in most of India excepting the mountains and the northern most parts of the country, and I was super excited.

I could not stop marveling at the snowy sights I beheld. The large conifers had their leaves intact, and each of their leaves was laden with much snow, that almost made it look white. The purity of the fresh glistening snow had transformed the park into a magical forest.  It certainly was one of those WOW travel moments that I would never like to forget!

Pristine White at Yosemite National Park, California, United States

My tryst with the four seasons in the United States allowed me to understand the vagaries of nature. Each season is indeed beautiful in its own special way.

The contest wants me to enter a fifth color – blue. Since, I didn’t get a chance to capture trees in the blue or blue trees (if they exist!), I am entering a separate photo here for this.  The photo shows the centennial celebrations for the discovery of Machu Picchu in Cusco, Peru.  After an arduous four day trek on the Inca Trail, we were rewarded by seeing the home of the Incas, Machu Picchu in all its glory.  Machu Picchu was discovered by Hiram Bingham in the year 1911, and we were in time to witness the grand centennial celebrations in the form of colorful parades and cultural programs. The parades were wonderful with hundreds of colorfully attired swirling dancers swaying  to bands that played cheerful notes. Here is one of the photos from the grand parade.

Vibrant Blue plumes in the Centennial celebrations of the discovery of Machu Picchu, Cusco, Peru

‘May the odds ever be in your favor’ if you have participated in this very interesting contest. Some people who I would love to participate in this contest are –

  1. Umashankar of ‘One Grain Amongst the Storm’
  2. Sudha G of ‘My Favorite Things’
  3. Beli of ‘Beli Eats’
  4. Desh of ‘Being Desh’
  5. Srinivas of ‘Travel Tales’

 

Categories: United States | Tags: , , , , | 40 Comments

Are you an impulsive traveler or a planned traveler?

There are travelers who plan months ahead of time, draw up long lists of packing, scheduling, itineraries, do their research, make the bookings, and carry the right phone numbers. Then there are the impulsive travelers who do pick up a backpack and just get out there figuring out things on their way. Well, while it is usually smooth sailing for the planned travelers, the latter rough it out, end up sleeping in a barn, or spend exorbitant amounts. But the impulsive travelers usually have a story to tell for eternity.

Image Courtesy of Stuart Miles/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Not packing right and improper planning led us into a soup several times. I went dressed and packed for summer to Switzerland one April and spent a pretty penny buying woolens. I spent exorbitant amounts on flimsy raincoats from a souvenir shop in Disneyland when it poured heavily all the time. We got stuck out on the streets of Cusco, Peru at midnight because our travel agent did not confirm our hotel booking; and more recently almost being caught for driving without a license in Mauritius (I had very conveniently forgotten to carry my driving license)!

But when things have to go wrong, they will. Like when I visited Oman. Despite all the planning, we nearly missed our flight because of a miscommunication and the cab driver went to the airport to pick us up instead of picking us from home and dropping to the airport! The dash to the airport, making sad faces to the boarding pass authorities to let us in, and the final dash towards boarding certainly made for an exciting start to the holiday!

While bungling up is quite awful during the journey itself, in hindsight, there are several positives to it after you come out of unscathed. One, you learn to plan for that eventuality. Two, you may end up seeing something more splendid when you lost your way than you had set out to see. Three, you have an interesting experience and memory <and in hind sight, things always look rosier>. Four, you feel stronger, having survived what you did. Five, Distress brings people closer, so if you are in that arduous trek in a group, you might just make those friends of a lifetime. Six, and the best part, you have a story to tell everyone around you and have people hanging on to your every word!

I hope things never go wrong at all on your trips!  But if they do, when you come out of them, you are a wiser and a stronger person. A teeny bit of planning always goes a long way in smooth sailing on the most impulsive journey! A few tips for the impulsive travelers –

  1. I know you hate to book early, but during the peak tourist season, it is advisable to book your hotel and travel ahead of time.
  2. Check the weather and pack right. You don’t want to spend unnecessarily on what you have and be saddled with it forever.
  3. Carry dry high energy food and water if you are venturing on long drives/treks to places where you may not get any.
  4. Always check with the local tourist office for information (There usually is always one at every airport or point where you check into the place).
  5. If you are planning to drive down to the place, make sure you have enough gas, check the tire pressure, ensure the spare tire is in good condition, carry a toolbox and note down the emergency contact numbers of your car maker’s towing services
  6. Make sure you carry proper documentation and identification proofs with you
  7. And yes.. don’t forget to drop an out of office message on your office mail.. so that the boss/other office colleagues do not bother you

Plan ahead or just go at the spur of the moment, be happy with the tales you bring back. Safe and Happy Roaming!

Categories: Other Travel Blah | Tags: , | 21 Comments

Crawford Market at Mumbai

Sale! Discount! Unbeatable deals!  When it comes to unbeatable deals at wholesale prices, it’s gotta be the wholesale market itself! For the uninitiated, Mumbai’s biggest wholesale market is the Crawford market that draws eyeballs, pockets and mindboggling quantities for plenty of shopping.

I stood outside the Crawford market taking the scene in. Cars screech, Bikers honk, people get on and off buses in a cacophony.   A tourist bus screeches to a halt as sunburnt tourists stand in a file gaping at the chaos. People walk around with large sacks. Some like me frenetically click pictures in black and white, sepia and color standing at weird positions across the road trying to keep the chaos out and the market in!

Crawford Market – the main building

I entered the Crawford market expecting more madness. Instead of chaos I found and insane number of shops and goods selling their wares perfectly peacefully!

Aisle inside the Crawford Market building

Why you should visit Mumbai’s Crawford Market

  • Go there particularly if you are shopping for a party of any kind. Go beserk on buying Party decorations, Diwali decorations, Christmas decorations for a fraction of what you’ld pay in your neighborhood
  • You think your neighborhood mall has a lot of ‘imported’ and exotic foods? Check out Crawford market for the sheer variety of things you can buy – types of pastas, sauces, exotic dry fruits including pink cashewnuts and green cashewnuts, chocolates, cheeses, oils of all kinds and cookies from around the world.
  • For a long time, elite south bombayites visited this market for imported perfumes, toys, accessories, luxury soaps, detergents, gifts and cosmetics. It is interesting to still see Persil detergent boxes, the array of perfume shops and the beauty products.
  • Go there just for the heck of seeing how big a market can get!
  • Go there just to check out one of Mumbai’s popular landmarks
  • Go there to check out a piece of history
  • Go there to see another example of architecture after seeing the jhuggis and jhopdis in Mumbai.
  • If you think, the building is not enough market, venture outside into the maze of lanes and by lanes for an even bigger market. Tiny alleys with ramshackle buildings might have the most interesting of things you want to buy. We even came to a shop of magic tricks and one where they sold ammunition! (See pictures below)
  • Visit it to go to another piece of history – the Badshah Juice center which stands there since 1905. You cannot miss out on their famed ‘Falooda’, the rose/saffron flavored drink with vermicelli and jelly and ‘sabja seeds’ at the bottom and laced with icecream  and nuts at the top.oooo. yum!

Fast Facts

  • Crawford Market earlier named after the first Municipal Commissioner of the country, in the spirit of renaming all that sounds ‘British’ is now officially named as the Mahatma Jyotirao Phule market after the social reformer.  However, the powers that ordain these things have not been successful in getting anyone to call it anything but the Crawford market!
  • The Crawford market building was the first to be lit by electricity in India
  • The Crawford Market used to be the primary wholesale market for fruits and vegetables. However, in 1996, the fruits and vegetables market shifted to Navi Mumbai
  • A Grade 1 heritage structure, the Crawford market was designed by Lockwood Kipling, father of the famous novelist Rudyard Kipling.
  • This building is a blend of ‘Norman’ and ‘Flemish’ architectural signs designed beautifully to allow plenty of natural sunlight, air and shoppers!
  • Don’t miss the impressive frieze on the main entrance that delineates peasants in fields or the charming clock tower.
  • The Crawford market occupies a prime piece of land that is much eyed and sought after by builders, developers and politicians. Fortunately, citizen groups and some sane people in Mumbai have managed to keep these roving eyes away atleast for a while from here, while plans of renovating it are underway

At the Dryfruit store. Check out the pink cashews!

There are chocolates and there are paan chocolates

An Oil shop at Crawford

Blazing guns!

The famous Badshah Cold Drink restaurant

The Yummy Kesar Special Falooda (Yellow) and ‘Royal’ Falooda (Pink) from Badshah

The roadside Magician in an alley

 

How to get to Crawford Market

  • The market is located in South Mumbai near the Chattrapati Shivaji Terminus (CST)  opposite the office of Commissioner of Police of Mumbai
  • Take a local train or Bus to CST) and cab it after that.
  • If you insist on taking your car, try and park far away and then cab it since parking can get expensive (Rs 80 per hour!) in peak hours.

Tips

  • Carry lots of cash, since paying by credit card might not be an option.
  • Carry cash for yourself not others. Be wary of pickpockets in the milling crowd
  • Buy in bulk for better deals
  • Haggle. Haggle. Haggle. Even if you think you are getting a good deal. It can get sweeter.
  • Try to go earlier in the day around 10 a.m. after they are done with the loading and get away before it gets chaotic in the evening

 Happy Seeing, Shopping and Saving!

Going back in time with a Sepia look for the main Crawford market building

P.S. - This post was published in DNA in its column ‘Around the Blog’.

Categories: Mumbai | Tags: , , | 31 Comments

Lovely Landscapes of Salalah

The holy month of Ramadan is on here in Muscat at the Sultanate of Oman.  The days are somber and the evenings alive.  The city is sweltering in the August heat and it is cloudy now and then.  I had only heard of this cool city (literally cool I mean) of Salalah where the Sultan resides and which is supposed to be as green as Kerela in India.  With some preconceived notions in my head and how really (not) green can it be in this desert country, I assented to go on a reprieve to visit the tourist town of Salalah.

Where is Salalah? – Salalah is Oman’s second largest city in the Southern province of Dhofar in the Sultanate of Oman and attracts tourists from all over the Middle-east and the world.

How to get to Salalah? – Convenient flights from Muscat and Dubai are preferred options. There are also frequent buses which are quite cheap between Muscat and Salalah for overnight journeys.

What is this city about? – Well known for its green cover and cool weather, it is a welcome change from the oppressive heat around. This is the land of frankincense and history for the traveler.

What is the right time to visit Salalah? – Happily, the best time to visit Salalah is the ‘Kharif’ or the monsoon season in June to September. Few tourists visit in the holy month of Ramazan.

Although I had read about it being a hillstation like place and had some ideas, what I was totally unprepared for was the variety of landscapes that presented themselves in a span of a few hundred kilometers. Beaches, green mountains and valleys, and complete deserts all adjacent to each other were baffling to say the least apart from picturesque. Some snapshots on the landscapes before the full blown blog on this trip -

Desert Sand at Salalah

Coastal fishing village at Salalah

Peaceful green hills and chewing cows

Rocky seas

Observe the contrasting Green hills and desert plains beyond from one location!

Categories: Oman, World | Tags: , | 22 Comments

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