Less than 50 km away from the hustle and bustle of the capital – Guatemala city is the colonial town of Antigua. First look and it feels you’ve been transported to a different period in time; that is if you can ignore those motor vehicles.
The city proudly sits surrounded by three volcanoes; its majestic outlook not doomed by the earthquake that turned the city to rubble in 1773. The earthquake stopped the time there it seems – the brightly coloured facades of colonial houses, majestic cathedrals, still standing walls of churches whose domes have caved in, cobbled streets are so inviting. Its a UNESCO world heritage site now; there is still magic in this centuries-old decayed dilapidated town.
I was excited about Antigua ever since I decided to visit Guatemala; since this was going to be my first ever Spanish colony experience. And I was not disappointed at all. The orange and red and yellow mansions are fascinating, the flowering trees lining the streets, the whiff of breeze as you walk in the evenings only added to the charm.
The “avenida” and “calle”(streets) crossing each other north to south and east to west at first was confusing; later I got used to it. I decided it was best to explore the town by walk though there were tuk-tuks (our very own Indian Bajaj auto rickshaws) for short rides. That way; I got to explore in leisure and have a chance to chat with locals. Most of sight seeing in Antigua are the religious and other colonial structures. There is no dearth for cathedrals, convents and churches. Most of them are in varying states of despair, but functioning. I went around and explored most on my own; few have entry fees that is nominal. However; I gave a miss to few museums whose entry tickets seemed too pricey for me.
It gets hot and sultry around noon and what better than to savour fresh fruits bought on the street from locals. They are peeled and cut and given in a neat polythene cover and it becomes easier to eat them as you walk. But if you want to take a break and enjoy your meal in leisure; there are many cafes and restaurant with good food and drinks and free Wifi.
I loved Antigua; I am a sucker for such colonial architecture and experience. However; every nice thing has a flip side. So is Antigua; this pretty laid back town is infested with heck a lot of tourists like me. Hoards of cafes and restaurants and vendors selling food and wares. You’d see many Mayan men, women and children in their traditional clothes pestering tourists to buy textiles, accessories, flutes and such. I met one such very old lady who started talking to me in her limited but fluent English (enough to start a conversation and sell her items). I wanted to take a picture of her; her features and wrinkles on her face were so attractive. Since I didn’t want to take a free picture; I offered to buy a beaded necklace from her after good bargain. And later when I requested her for a picture; she asked me for 10 Quetzals (Guatemalan currency). Well! very tactical lady huh. I denied and went my way. So yeah, this is an account of how tourism is driving Antigua. Nevertheless, I thoroughly loved the place.
Something that keeps you in mystery for a long time and then one day; you stand facing it. What feeling does it evoke in you? Joy? Disbelief? Mix of emotions; disbelief at first and then it slowly settles in. I’ve been dreaming about Tikal since my school days when I first learnt about Mayan civilization. In the rain forest jungles of Guatemala is the 2000 year old pre-Columbian Mayan complex of Tikal.
I did not think twice to book a ticket to Guatemala from California when I had to visit the US on business this July. I always wanted to experience Tikal and this was the time. Hairline fracture in my right ankle did not deter me from doing this trip.
Enveloped by lush rain forests; the monuments of Tikal is spread across and so the hike from one to another can take long. The humidity of rain forest can be unforgiving; with mosquitoes and insects making it worse. But it is all worth for what you’d witness; for what is seen hidden in this deep jungle is the archeological equivalent of shock, awe and disbelief. Six temple pyramids dominate the skyline; how did they manage to build them? How did they manage to transport resources when wheel was not discovered yet?
I just sat there for a while and staring at the Grand Plaza. This is the most recognized view of Tikal and is a centerpiece flanked by Temple 1 – Temple of Great Jaguar and Temple 2 – Temple of Masks. A climb to Temple 2 gives you a panoramic view of the Grand Plaza and is an awesome view.
Temple 4 is the tallest and an ascent rewards you with all the temples playing hide n seek in the jungle.
Tikal left me dazed. While I was there; I had to remind myself many times that it was for real. The strenuous trek; untying and tying my ankle binder many a time and popping pain killer was worth it. The feeling is indescribable. It takes you back in time; to marvel an intelligent civilization who were well ahead of the time and got extinct before the Spanish conquest.
The jungle, those stone edifices are ready to tell you rich stories if you listen to them. They beckon you into a mysterious world; making you wonder if you pressed a stone or go close to a chamber and pressed your ear by the cold wall; you could perhaps hear a voice or a secret chamber would open to reveal treasures.
Tikal does not diminish the mystery that enshrouds it.
What does your mind think of when you see locks. Doors and cupboards secured with a lock to protect any valuables. To see a lock on a door or a gate or on an almirah is common. It might generate an extra interest if the locks are artistic or different than normal looking mostly used ones. But if you see normal looking locks on a bridge; serving no purpose at all?
The beauty of travel is that it throws surprises at you even with the most mundane of things and those wonderful sights you see and observe often makes you realize how ways of life differ from one part of the world to other. These discoveries fuel you further to go on, explore and educate yourself.
So the locks. Locks – nothing is alluring about locks. They serve a purpose and that’s about it. More locks, more security; that’s that. So when I saw that bridge weighed down by so many locks of all kinds – colorful, rusted, number locks with initials and names of 2 people; announcing their love to the world; it was intriguing. Yeah; I have read about the belief of sweethearts who pad the locks and throw the key into the river praying their love survives…but I thought it was a Paris phenomenon only. Only when I saw at Helsinki; I realized it was prevalent not only in Europe but in other parts of the world.
It seemed very simple. Lock the padlock; throw the keys in the water and your love is eternal and you’d be together forever. Rakkauden Silta – Helsinki’s Bridge of Love – crosses over a narrow section of the Vantaa river at Vanhankaupunginkoski, just near the Uspenski Orthodox Cathedral is where you’d find many locks on both sides of the metal bridge.
My curious mind set off to read more on these locking affection and love. Such love bridges exist in European cities, the US, Canada, Australia and even South Korea. I chuckled when I read how these were accepted in societies across the world. While few municipalities considered such an act as vandalism and damage to public property; there are few cities which encourage visitors to pad locks. There is also website where users can send others virtual love locks 😮
Fortunately ; for lovers in Finland; Helsinki law allows love locks on its city bridges.
Why not celebrate and flaunt love in pretty pinks and cherry reds and candy blue padlocks 🙂
I recall having responded with “I’m game!” to a suggestion of doing the Laugavegurinn trail while planning for activities while our visit in Iceland. Iceland – a tiny mass of land close to Arctic circle away from mainland Europe and of course the ever infamous Eyjafjallajökullvolcano that erupted in 2010; that disrupted flights over the Atlantic for over a week and making Iceland famous. Ah! dont bother about pronouncing it now! Will have more of it in my later posts.
So Iceland; one definite thing on the list was to hike one among world’s top hiking trail. After the “Im game!” response; I started looking up on internet for information. It did seem that I have signed up for something more than I can chew! But hell! yeah! I would not want to miss this for anything else! The trail goes through what you can describe as epitome of beauty – natural beauty abundant in Iceland that you could at one point say “Im done! This is too good to be true”
The 56 km long trail is the longest in Iceland and most popular; the scenery is top notch – colorful rhyolite mountains, hot springs, thermal vents, hills covered with lush green mosses, ice sheets, enormous ice caps and ice caves, highlands, glacial fed freezing rivers, deep gorges and canyons with maroon and green and gray rock faces, glaciers, lakes, volcanic fields and black sand deserts…
It was almost end of summer when I hiked; the weather was more erratic than what it would be. You dont freeze to death; if you keep walking that is 🙂 I was not prepared even a bit in terms of physical fitness and practice. Oh cmon! nothing prepares you for what you go through. There are many reasons to tackle this trail. Mine was nothing fancy; just didn’t want to miss the heaven. The ascent averages to 300-500m through the trail but at Arctic level; its as good as 3000m.
The 56 km can be done in 3 or 4 days. 4 days was what we chose and averages 12 km per day taking around 4-6 hours; depending on the terrain and the weather conditions. The hike seemed good when we started that noon around 12:30. A steep climb immediately after starting from the campsite adjacent to hot spring region of Landmannalaugar led us through colorful rhyolites and headed uphill past volcanic vents belching out sulfurous streams. As we climbed further; the weather got worse post noon.
Talking about weather; I can recall exactly when the temperature plummeted on the very first day. It was windy and chilly yeah; but the sun was out and as long as you kept climbing and walking; it felt ok. But 3.5 km away from the next rest hut area of Hrafntinnusker; the weather was not that promising. People behind me started walking faster; though the snow was ankle deep. Soon I was struggling to breathe; the chill wind hitting my face; blizzard and snow storm pushing me away as I fought my way forward carrying the heavy backpack. Worry and pain gave way to fear when I passed a memorial of a 25 year old Israeli hiker died of hypothermia.
Seemed I was going to be stranded and die of hypothermia if I didn’t pull my feet forward. The boots in thick ice lurched forward; the thermals and the weather proof jacket and trousers long given up. The chill was raising up my feet….so this was Icelands weather in summer; or rather end of summer – demonic! Walking with head down to protect from snow storm hitting my face; I tilt my head to see where my friend was. I could see nothing; thick fog having enveloped everything around. These are the moments when deviating even 15 m means death. I kept following shoe marks on the ice and there saw a faint figure walking; thanks to my friends bright orange backpack cover. But he was over a km away. No sound or gestures requesting him to wait were heard or seen. But it was good I let him go since he had to keep abreast with other hikers if we had to be safe. 3.5 km of hell…thats when I thought if my decision was right.Finally what seemed like a lifetime; I saw the hut. The entrance was all wet; the rains were like unstoppable bullets being pelted. The hut was minimal in facility but the heater was such a blessing. Had just about energy left to change and cook instant noodles. Never has been a simple hot vegetable noodle tasted that great in my life. The dampness, cold, the pain, the lack of smartphone…none of it mattered. The night went by in a sound sleep.
The next day’s hike was 12 km; the first part of trail takes through the snow fields and ice caves. The colors are unbelievably contrasting – the shimmering blue of the ice, the white snow, the muddy stream against the bright green moss and distant black mountains..Wow! The trail crosses lot of small ravines that has steep but short descent and climbs and the snow here lingers through summer. A steep descent for about a km and half and you can see the distant hut of Alftavatn beside a big blue aquarmine lake against jagged mountains. Thats the stay for the day.
The hike is arduous and challenging but worth every way to get a slice of untamed Icelandic country side. Harsh yet beautiful, unforgiving yet comforting…The third day is a 15 km hike mostly along plain terrain. But as soon as you leave the hut; you come across river crossings. “Its not so cold and not so deep; just shin-deep” is what they say. To be wading across the flowing water with your backpack is not easy; the water is so frigid that you just want to give up and flow away it. You do stand after taking one or two steps; though the freezing water is numbing your legs. You just can’t take another step; its a test of endurance and mind tricks. After you cross; the tingling and numbing sensation and later the pain…but its all worth it.
The landscape changed dramatically from lush greenery to never ending area of black sands and volcanic rocks; with small shrubs of pink flowers thrown; one could see Myrdalsjokull glacier at the far left as if it merged with the sky.
Towards the last few kms; the wind gained speed and was throwing the sands at us and the force was so strong that it was knocking off the trekkers. Occasionally saw off road jeeps with gigantic wheels ferrying tourists who opted to visit the landscape on wheels than trek. Oh it was so inviting to stop them and ask for a ride. The hut at Emstrur was tiny and the oldest. While checking in; the hut warden recommended not to miss a canyon nearby. I rested for a while and towards evening went in search of wooden plank that directed towards the canyon.
We were asked to start as early as possible the next day by the warden since the conditions predicted strong gales at 40m/s. It would get worse by mid morning. So we planned to start at day break and reach the end of hike 16 kms away by noon.
We had to keep up time since the bus from the camp leaves at 2 PM and there is no way we could afford to be stranded.
My pace slowed a bit due to fatigue and blisters. It was a welcoming change to see green foliages and birchwood after the previous day black sands and volcanic fields. When I thought the trek ended; the sign said 2 km to the hut at Thorsmork. Thats where we had to head to for the bus. There was another plank showing bus stop in a different direction. We were confused but decided to head to the hut.My friend was worried that if the hut is not where the bus would arrive; we have to traverse all the way back and that mean 1 more hour. Given my pace; it would not be possible. So we decided he would leave me at my pace and he would run to the hut as it was anyway a descent. As I walked; I did not find a single creature ahead me or behind me and that got me worried but I relied on the trail wood posts at regular intervals.
Reaching the hut meant relief; back to civilization. People were sitting all over; nursing their bruised body and munching on whatever goodies they were left with. The 4 hour journey back to Reykjavik was spent dozing off. But the short 4 day extreme hiking provided with unforgettable experience; where every moment we were reminded this was a place where nature remained very much in charge.
What does one do when your visa gets delayed? Sit and crib and brood…which I did because Ive been wanting to visit Philippines for a while. Yeah; there have been many times when I have cursed for the passport I hold; no offense to my country but I strongly feel countries should revisit their visa policy from time to time and not have a blanket policy. More about my ordeal later.
So yeah; since Philippines was ruled out. Where next? I certainly didn’t want to cancel my vacation just because I didn’t get visa! After deliberating about Myanmar to Laos to Vietnam (last minute flight bookings mean expensive tickets and I would sure lose some money in canceling Philippine tickets); thought why not Bhutan? It was on my wish list and so everything needs a time 🙂
I knew it was not going to be flying to Bhutan for the same reason – flight tickets. The idea was crossing Bhutan by land. The way to do is fly to north West Bengal and then travel by bus until the border. Darjeeling from Bagdogra airport (Siliguri) is about 60 kms and so it made a good first stop. With all these confusion and indecisions and finalizing was Mrigank who was to travel with me to Philippines as well. He took it well; my mad moments.
The taxi from Siliguri to Darjeeling is an interesting story. Its a Bolero or Sumo and they shove 10 people inside; everyone sitting on one another literally and the route is mountainous. It was shocking to me first but then I learnt that it was the best way to commute since thats the only mode of public transport. The rains made it even more nicer. The night for resting; started next day pretty early to explore the town.
My only intention of a Darjeeling stopover was to ride the Darjeeling Himalayan Railways. That has always been one of my notion of romance. Remember “Meri Sapon Ki Rani” song? Seeing the tiny 2 feet narrow gauge through the journey from Siliguri to Darjeeling the previous night excited me enough. It was chilly, foggy and rainy. That wouldn’t stop us, would it? The rainier the better 🙂
Bought an umbrella and we set off for the train journey. The return loop from Darjeeling to Ghum costs 600/- per head and is for touristy purpose only. The railway stations are by themselves heritage sites and one can spend hours gazing at their architecture.
We set off and I chose to sit by the window though it was pouring; tried to fix it by placing the umbrella strategically and it worked.
Riding on the Toy train is fun; its so slow and the lines are so close to houses and shops; one can just jump from a house entrance into the train! I haven’t rode the Nilgiris Railway so I dont know if its as amusing as this one. The train stops at one location called Batasia loop which offers an amazing view of the Himalayas on a clear day.Nevertheless the gardens and flowers in the Batasia loop is charming enough and the views were worth.
What happened at the Ghum station is dramatic. The train just stopped and we all got out. In a minute or so I am saying Mrigank “Hey can you please hold me. I think I am feeling giddy”. Thats when I realized it was the earth quake and the train beside us was wobbling. As much as scary it was; that was my second encounter of an earth quake and I dismissed it off until I knew later in the night the Nepal quake’s disaster. Spent some time admiring the decades old steam engine; standing near by and observing the engine man pour oil, clean the burners, the shiny copper steam pipes and loading coal. It was a privilege to have touched a machinery that old and still the grand old man chugging along the beauty of Himalayas. Took conscious decision not to visit the rail museum; the live piece was right there! why a museum.
So after getting back to Darjeeling; walked around the town and walked all the way for a couple of kms in the rain to St. Andrews church in the mall area. Its a beautiful Anglican church sitting on a hillock built in 1843. Couldnt enter inside as it was closed.
Noticed this lovely lady in deep thoughts. The flowers on the sill made it dramatic; requested her for a snap via gesture and she agreed.
Once a year go someplace you’ve never been before – Dalai Lama.
The travel bug bit me quite late I must say; but also quite early. Wanted to venture out into this big blue world; having spent most of my childhood and academic years going to school or college and getting back home. The curious nature in me wanted to always explore. And one day it just happened and since then; there has been no looking back.
The social and personal life didn’t hinder my travel madness. Now having traveled to a handful of places and knowing things; I have begun to call myself a seasoned tripper? traveler? tourist? I dont know.
I know I yearn to visit new places, learn new things, explore culture and nature and that gives me immense satisfaction. So watch out for my experiences as I share..