One for the road…

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Tales from the mystical Lapland!

Let me cut to the chase here.. Northern lights – An eternal dream! It appeared that life was finally presenting an opportunity to witness this wonderful theatrical production from nature, rea…

Source: Tales from the mystical Lapland!



Tales from the mystical Lapland!

Let me cut to the chase here.. Northern lights – An eternal dream!

It appeared that life was finally presenting an opportunity to witness this wonderful theatrical production from nature, reading about which had mesmerised me for years on end! On with the planning then.. The dead of a cold dark winter it would have to be, and Finland was chosen as the stage.

The mystic tone of the trip was set when peeping out of the airplane window as we inched towards Helsinki – cruising over a carpet of clouds, with sunlight glistening over a few patches, making for the most magical sights I’ve ever seen from an airplane. And later descending through a thick blanket of clouds for everlasting minutes.. wondering whether the airplane would ever come out of the other end.. whether this was afterall the final journey then.. to neverland from here? Alas, no such extreme tales to narrate – the airplane soon emerged from the clouds, and descended onto a white Helsinki. The final leg to Ivalo offered no such visual treat, as the plane pierced through the dark.

Our group  was put up in a hotel close to the wilderness, and a few metres away from the lake Menesjärvi, which had now frozen. In spite of being tired to the bone after a long day of travel, we couldnt resist the lure of this frozen landscape around us, and went fumbling around in the dark to explore a bit around the hotel. Child like enthusiasm gripped us the next morning, when we couldnt wait to step out and take in the eerie blue snow capped surrounding, with the moon still lingering around.


The first adventure of the day was getting a glimpse into the life of a reindeer herder. We were to venture deep into the forest to meet the reindeer. The herder tried to level our expectation, by telling us that it was quite up to chance as to how many reindeer we get to see – could be just a couple, or could very well be a hundred. Popped on to a sledge which was pulled with his snowmobile, we made our way through winding paths into the heart of the forest. Having reached a clearing, it took the herder a couple of calls, before an entire battalion of reindeer started making its way towards us from multiple directions. In some time what started as a light snow drizzle, grew into a full fledged snow fall. A small bonfire was then kindled, and a kettle of water left to bubble over it. The undeterred snow continuing to descend from above, coniferous trees and scores of reindeer all around, the fire making a meek attempt to keep our freezing selves warm, and the cup of coffee in my hands – made for the most perfect magical setting! And my friend quite rightly put – “Santa can appear at any point”!



Nightfall saw anticipation slowly rising in our bellies, further fueled by a strong Arora Borealis prediction for the night, as also a photography workshop which showcased few of the brilliant northern lights pictures taken around the forest and the lake. During the workshop, we were informed that the shapes and colours of the lights as captured on the camera turn out to be more crisp and pronounced, than what is seen with the naked eye. Latching on snow shoes we hiked back into the forest and picked a spot for the viewing. What flared up in the skies was a faded green arch that stretched across the horizon, and later turned into a green haze. However clouds soon sprung on to the scene, and what started off with a big promise ended up in a bit of a disappointment.


The activities for the next day started amidst a lot of barking and howling, on a farm with Alaskan and Siberian huskies. People who know me well, know about my extreme fondness for the canine species. When I had first learnt of the husky safari being part of the itinerary, I tried negotiating with the tour operators as to whether I could opt out of it, and engage in another activity instead, as I wasnt sure the dogs enjoy pulling sledges. Being denied any such option, I had left it to the day to make up my mind. When on the farm, I was amazed at the wild barking of the huskies eager to go on the safari, and the disappointed howls of the few handful who were getting left behind! The safari was an experience in itself, with the dogs growling every time the caravan had to halt!

Arora hunting in the evening was all the more special, as we were to drive snowmobiles ourselves over the frozen lake! I had driven a two-wheeler automatic scooter only on 2 previous occasions in my life – one is the day prior to getting my driving licence when my father showed me which one was the accelerator and which one was the brake, and the next day for the licence test itself. Getting into the driving seat of the snowmobile more than half a decade after that test, gave me the jitters to begin with. But though the snowmobile looked huge and unwieldy, I soon realised it was a gentle beast, easy to tame. Riding it in the night on the frozen lake is now an unforgettable experience!


The Arora Borealis decided to put on a better show for us that night. As usual it started off with a green arch stretched wide across the sky, only this time much more clearer, and soon assuming a spiral shape. The action lasted for a few minutes, but left us very happy and content. We had finally seen the northern lights!


Ice fishing is hard work! Drilling through the ice to get to the water which was almost a metre below in some spots seemed easy when the instructor did it, but required us taking a few turns each before we hit water. Secondly, fishing needs patience, which most certainly doesnt top my list of virtues! After idling for a while with the fishing line dipped into the freezing waters, I soon abandoned the hole and the potential catch swimming underneath it.


Being our last night in the Lapland, dinner was a special traditional fare served in wooden plates and cutlery in the “kota” – a Finnish wooden hut, with a provision to light a small fire inside. Also tonight was our last chance to see the Northern lights again, before we headed back the next day. I am glad to report that the heavens did not disappoint. Instead, they saved the best for the last! The broad arches soon appeared to cover almost the whole sky, and then.. began the dancing of the lights! A sight to behold! The old and the young jumped for joy, while expressing gratitude for this wonderful stroke of luck!



Lying down on the frozen lake, admiring the northern lights intermingled with the blanket of stars, is one of those precious life experiences that the heart will want to conjure and relive over and over!

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How I got smitten by Jordan

Why Jordan of all places? I often got asked this question, ever since my friends and I decided to head there for our Christmas vacation. Well, the reason is twofold. Firstly, having seen a bit of Europe now, we wanted to travel to some place that offered a different experience unlike the usual European city tour. And none of our travel check lists had seen a tick against any middle-east country so far. Also, the fact that Jordan offers Visa-on-Arrival to Indians, meant no hassle of any visa processing before our journey. So Jordan it was going to be where we would spend the Christmas break and ring in the new year.

Given the fact that Jordan shares its borders with the likes of Israel, Palestine and Iraq, I did have my apprehensions about this visit, none of which came to be. On the contrary, I found the country to be very peaceful and tourist-friendly. Jordanians at large came across as kind and respectful. (There were occasions where street pedlars helped us with directions, even after we turned down their offer to sell us camel and donkey rides – a trait I’ve increasingly come to see less of.)

So, there I was at the Heathrow airport on the 26th of December waiting to board the flight to Amman (capital city of Jordan), with an aching heart that had to forego the Boxing day sales (online shopping just isnt the same!). Did pacify myself by giving in to some impulse books buying before boarding though. As I began to sink into The Little Paris Bookshop (by Nina George), I smiled at the random co-incidence of one of the characters being named Max “Jordan” itself!

The on-arrival visa issuing process at Amman was fairly straight forward, as opposed to narrations of some harrowing experiences that we had read in some of the reviews.

Even though the taxi driver was sent by the hotel, panic did strike when he took a few dubious turns on some very poorly lit streets. But then, I guess it is some blind trust in the intrinsic good in the strangers around us, that keeps us travellers going. All was well when the conversations shifted to Bollywood; Amitabh Bachchan and Shah Rukh Khan are supposedly household names in the country.

The first thing that striked about Amman is that it seemed to be a city under excavation itself, with sand in the air, and eroded sandstone hills, debris and under-construction houses and buildings all around. This accompanied by the dry arid weather. But the scene wore the garb of a rich cultural history when we went exploring the ruins at the Roman theatre, Citadel and later at Jerash. Quite a lot of the remnants of enormous structures (like the pillars of the Roman temple of Hercules and the buildings of the Ummayad Palace at the Citadel, as also Hadrian’s Arch, the pillars of the Temple of Artemis and the Colonnaded Street at Jerash) are found to be still standing upright, only to make one marvel at the finesse of the then architecture.





Having explored the ruins in Amman and the mosaic city of Madaba, our next big halt was Petra – the very face of Jordan’s tourism industry. Nothing of what I had read so far about this pink city, prepared me for what actually met the eyes!

My journey of being mesmerised by this city, started with the “Petra by night” tour. Having not yet seen Petra during the day, the only reference I had were the images stored in my mind from all the pre-travel reading. The path to the Treasury (Al Khazneh) was lit by nothing but the flickering lights of candles that stood on sand inside little brown paper bags, braving the winds. With the moon acting as the only other source of light, we made our way through narrow gorges wondering what the next turn had in store; all the while being humbled by the enormity of everything around us. The hundreds of candles lit in front of the gigantic Treasury, made it all seem surreal. Then ensued a delightful performance by local Bedouin artisans, acquainting us with some of the early musical instruments, followed by a fairy tale in an Arabic-English accent. To be honest, I was expecting a bit of a discourse on the history & legends of the place too, but that perhaps would make it too technical for the setting. With the dark skies overhead, the magnificent Treasury ahead, and the numerous little candles flickering to the sound of the music, I couldn’t evade the bit of pensive melancholy that seeped in, blended with gratitude towards everything that life had bestowed so far..


Traversing the enormous Siq, the next day, which runs for over a kilometre, and serves as the entrance to Petra, only made the 5.2 feet of me feel further dwarfed. Though the cloudy weather played a bit of a spoilsport, the occasional sunny spells rendered a beautiful glow to the entire landscape. After dropping our jaws at the day-time sight of the Treasury, we scaled a few rock mountains for the most amazing views of the rock-cut architecture all around us, exploring the High place of Sacrifice, along with few of the tombs and streets. Though the legs were worn out by the end of the day, the heart still yearned for more. It was easy to see why Petra is considered among the wonders of the world!





The entire landscape transformed when we travelled further South from Petra to the desert of Wadi Rum. This was my first experience of being on a desert, and the sight of the first sand dune was undoubtedly very inviting. Its only when one foot after the other kept sinking deeper and deeper into the red sand, that I realised how deceptive its looks were. It took considerable effort to reach its summit, but that offered a chance to take in the outstanding desert landscape of sculpted rocks and dunes that lay all around. We spent 2 days at Wadi Rum, staying in a desert camp and exploring, trekking, climbing all day, taking in the beauty of its vast uninhabited expanse.


The one memory that shall stand out from our experience at Wadi Rum, is that of our tour guide cooking us lunch inside a little natural cave like structure. That simple meal of tomatoes cooked with chillies over wood fire, and served with pita bread and cream is undoubtedly one of the best meals I had on this trip.


Lazing on a rock watching the last sunset of 2015 till the tiny stars started making their appearances, and welcoming 2016 from a tent in the middle of a desert is certainly one of my most memorable new year celebrations thus far.


After roughing it out in the desert, we treated ourselves to the luxuries of a resort by the Dead Sea. In spite of the icy cold winds and the single digit temperature, we did manage to venture into the sea, and validate the phenomenon we read about way back in school – yes, one does automatically float in the Dead Sea! Barely 15 minutes and we were out of the water, headed straight towards the next ritual of plastering our bodies with mud from the Dead Sea. I don’t quite remember how my skin felt after all that mud, but the entire ritual was quite amusing.


The last evening of the vacation was spent swimming in the resort’s heated pool, reminiscing about what fantastic 8 days these had been. And that’s how I got smitten by Jordan!



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To Jannat and back!


“Jai Mata Dee!” is the chant that reverberates in my ears every time I close my eyes and command my mind to relive the experience that is “Mata Vaishno Devi”. When couple of years back, the thought of wanting to someday make my way up to Her shrine, crossed my mind, little did I imagine that Mata’s “Bulawa” would indeed arrive one day; and braving all odds I would eventually find myself in her “Durbar”. And then, what I felt on meeting Her for this very first time and in the company of Her thoughts when making my way up and back from the hill which is Her abode, is too personal to be shared. I’m sure everyone who has had the good fortune of Mata’s “Darshan” would have experienced this sense of tranquility and more importantly, belonging, that cannot be put into words. And that is just how my trip to Kashmir and Mata’s shrine culminated.

In fact, Kashmir itself had been an aspirational travel destination, for me all through these years. I somehow could imagine taking myself on journeys throughout the length and breadth of my country, to the enchanting far north east and to the islands down south even. But for some reason, not linked to money, Kashmir just didn’t seem attainable and always felt to be out of my reach. When planning for the family vacation this year, after having considered and weighed my options of trips to Rajasthan, Himachal Pradesh and the Andaman, I don’t remember exactly how I mustered up the courage to slowly peak into what a week in Kashmir would entail. Being lured by the teaser, I was usurped into the travel research in no time, increasingly realizing how none of the other destinations in my mind impressed me as much as Kashmir did.

As the flight entered the airspace of Jammu & Kashmir, the visual treat offered by the fluffy clouds adorned by bright sunshine soon gave way to the huge expanse of sprawling green meadows, and mountains dotted with tall coniferous trees. And that in a way, was the moment that finally confirmed to my mind – “Yes, Kashmir has finally happened!”

We arrived in Srinagar during the holy month of Ramadan, and just 3 days before Eid al-Fitr, owing to which the main city roads were chock-a-block with hordes of cars and people rushing to complete their festival shopping. What the driver took was a very roundabout route to avoid this traffic, and what this long winding route through the narrow lanes of Srinagar offered was a first glimpse of day to day life here. The wooden houses with metallic slanting roofs that gleamed in the strong afternoon sun, and the distinctly handsome Kashmiri men in their spic white Pathanis are the two most prominent memories that stand out in my mind from that day.

‘Jewel of Kashmir’ was the name of the houseboat company. The first thought to cross my mind as I stepped into this hous20140726_181709eboat on the Nagin lake, was how different it was from the one on Alleppey (Kerala) which I lived in for 2 days in July 2012. While the cane work attributed to the beautiful simplicity of the Alleppey houseboats, it was the artistic walnut wood work that lent the Kashmiri houseboats their grandiose. But the best part of this houseboat was the little sit out that let me gaze dreamily at the large expanse of the Nagin lake, watching random ducks pop up their heads for brief seconds before plunging into the water again. Given the holy month, the soothing sound of the Azaan that was heard almost throughout the day from the various mosques around the Nagin lake settlements, added to the romanticism. The serene calm was interrupted only by a few random shikaras that drew up to sell you anything from Kesar (saffron) to Kashmiri jewellery to tiny hand-crafted wooden keepsakes. The evening ride on the slowly drifting shikara, which was aimless, in the sense that no destination was planned to be reached, but with the only objective of cruising on the lake drinking in its beauty and then that of the sun setting over its waters, along with the imposing Zabarwan mountains in the background, is an experience that I will cherish for the rest of my life.

At Gulmarg, the uphill drive up to the starting point for the Gondola ride to Khilanmarg was a long winding one, but needless to say, very picturesque nevertheless. The path was adorned with Pine trees all around, and little carpets of tiny white flowers growing wild 20140727_135223here and there. I found the Gondola ride to be a fairly organized affair, the only annoyance being the countless touts that follow you undeterred, offering pony rides and guides. As the gondola climbed up to Khilanmarg, which is supposed to be one of the world’s highest cable car rides, the eyes were met with unparalleled beauty of the snowcapped Himalayas in the distance, and the tops of the tall pine trees below my feet. The place was fairly crowded with tourists and touts, and it was an effort to try seeing beyond all of them to let myself immerse in the sheer beauty of the place.

As the car pulled through the long journey from Srinagar to Pahalgam, the scene suddenly lit up with the gushing waters of the Lider that greeted us at Pahalgam, and then stayed with all us all throughout our stay here. Pahalgam is completely picture postcard material. Mountain ranges adorned by Deodars and Pines for as far as you can see, and the Lider flowing through the valley made for sights to be treasured forever. Aru valley, which was some 12-15 kms from the hotel we were put up at, is easily one of the most scenic places I have seen till date. I thought it quite enviable to be living in one of the little villages at a place like Aru, but only once I saw the military camp further down the road that reality striked. While doing some solo wandering and soul searching on the hills of Aru, I met two school teachers from Ladakh. We exchanged notes on our Kashmir travels, and talked about our professions and everyday lives back in the real world. They were of the view that while Ladakh was beautiful in its own right, nothing beats the alpine beauty of this part of the state.

It is said that Kashmir offers one with contrasting different beauties during different seasons of the year. I, for one, am most certainly smitten with what I saw during the warmer months in the valley. So till the time I undertake the final journey to the one up above, I know there is this other piece of “Jannat” (Heaven) right here on earth, that I will always want to go back to and experience over and over again.