Monday, March 24, 2014

Cows, dust and horns...we must be in India!

Traffic jam

India, a land of many random sights, sounds and smells, fascinating and confronting at the same time. Cows EVERYWHERE, make sure to watch every step, as well as camels, dogs, pigs, goats, and the occasional monkey. Cows rule as the traffic, human and otherwise, just flows around them like a river flowing around the rocks. And the dust gets into everything.

Frantic and frenetic the road rules appear to be suggestions as the traffic seems to take no notice of speed, lanes and right of way. For instance at a railway crossing cars and motorbikes fill up both sides of the road as they wait for the train to pass, facing off against each other. As the gates go up they all surge forward, squeezing between each other like a throng of human traffic at a pedestrian crossing. Horns go off continuously and loudly but are more informational than for danger; they seem to be saying, 'I need more room move over' or 'I am coming through so try not to bump into me'. There's less anger than you'd expect, though a brief read of the paper in Delhi gave the impression that road rage is on the rise.

Chickpea flour with a
chilli surprise
But crazy traffic only adds to the experience as the people are friendly, a new cultural experience is around every corner and the food fits me like a glove. Indian food is mostly gluten free as the spices do not contain gluten and there are a lot of products made using chickpea or lentil flour. As long as I stay local and traditional in my food I have plenty to choose from. I can also eat at street stalls where pakoras (vegetable filled patties) and a fried dish with a chili in the middle called mirchi vada, are both made with chickpea flour.

Qutub Minar

We arrived in Delhi at 2 in the morning and by the time we found a taxi, and the taxi found our hotel (not an easy feat as he seemed totally lost and stopped several times for directions), we got to bed around 4+. At 8 we stumbled out of bed to officially start our Wonders of India and Nepal tour with a basic buffet breakfast. After meeting our tour group we all decided to go out together to see as much as we could on our only day here (we are back after the tour, but just us). Sleep was put into the luxury basket and we zipped around the city visiting the Qutub Minar (world's tallest brick minaret), Humayun's Tomb and the Gurdwara Bangla Sahib temple.

Elizabeth catching some zzz
First up was a local train trip to Bikaner. Not like any train I have been in before, they had benches across and along the train and up, with the option of making three levels for sleeping. Once at Bikaner we quickly high tailed it to Karni Mata Temple, affectionately called Rat Temple. The reason being abundantly clear as thousands of rats were sitting, fighting each other, eating the free food or running across your path (sometimes over your feet). The rats here are considered holy, possessing the souls of Karni Mata followers, so they treat them reverently with some people sitting on the ground with rats in their lap and around them. Some of our tour group had to overcome some fears to come in here. Elizabeth, like usual (she finds rats 'cute'), took the place in her stride and we had trouble getting her out.

Our tour group
The next day we mini-vanned to Jaisalmer, but this was not a normal day; it was the day of Holi, a religious festival (also known as festival of colours or festival of love). Part of the celebrations is to take bags of coloured powder and cover other people with it. Most of the locals were considerate and would only attack you if you were happy for them to. The same could not be said for our tour leader and some of our fellow tour members, who were a tad too enthusiastic. A very friendly day with smiling children at every turn exclaiming 'Happy Holi'.

The next day we were off on an overnight camel safari. This entailed riding camels over the desert to a camping spot where we spent the night either looking up at the stars or in a tent. Elizabeth chose the stars. I chose the tent. The desert looked beautiful. The textures and contours of the sand dunes were strongly defined in the early evening light and there were green bushes dotted around, some with bright purple flowers. We sat on the dunes to watch the swift sunset, subdued except for a few seconds when the sun turned into a golden orange ball, and black beetles burrowed into the sand around us. Dinner was a traditional meal cooked on site comprising a mutton roghan josh and vegetable curry which was ravenously polished off while sitting around a campfire. Stories were told, toilets were pointed out: 'girls on that side of the dunes and boys on the other side', and everybody had a well deserved sleep. India was turning out to be a lot of fun :-)

Around the campfire
The morning after

Camel ride as seen on the camel

Kuldhara - deserted overnight in 1825,
dropped in on our way back from camel safari

Saturday, March 15, 2014

As white as snow

Day 2 of 15 in Tromso and we had already accomplished our goal for coming here. The Northern Lights were locked away in our memories forever (or until senility sets in, whichever comes sooner). Now what?

Well, after talking to our extremely helpful hotel staff and visiting the tourist office we found there are quite a few unique experiences that can be had during our time here. Initially the weather was wonderful, a touch above zero (during the day), so finding somewhere to hike was an early goal. Tromsdalstinden Mountain is just across a bridge from where we were staying and a cable car takes you half way up. From there it is a leisurely (slippery, steep and soft snow) hike to the summit consisting of a pile of rocks and a metal flag.

But the view was stunning. Beautifully white snow under the perfectly clear softly sunny mid afternoon sky and then subtly tinged with colour when the endless sunset arrived. Not mere seconds like in Belize (near the Equator) but several hours long. We both had slips on to our asses and were freezing cold by the time we got back to the restaurant at the top of the cable car, which made the coffee in the open fire heated room an experience of its own. We did not leave until dark and after taking some night shots of Tromso lit up brightly beneath us.

For our 17th anniversary (its been THAT LONG?) we decided on a dog sled ride. Initially apprehensive (I was worried about how the dogs would be treated), our fears were allayed by a local we got talking to in the cafe on the mountain. He assured us they love to run and are well treated. The trip was booked and at the appointed time we arrived at the pickup point for the half hour drive to where the ride takes place.

Perfect weather and (nearly) toasty warm in our arctic duty overalls and boots under a blanket in our sled. Dogs so cute the way they scampered along in their socks, rolled in the snow with excitement and howled whenever they stopped they were so impatient to get going again. Our gentle young driver had to put an anchor on our two front dogs whenever we stopped to stop them taking off. At the end of our ride he invited us to thank our dogs, saying "There are no angry dogs or sad dogs, only friendly dogs and shy dogs; they love their work." Sure enough, when we stroked them they all looked very happy but a couple were a little shy.

Loved the dogs :-)
Lunch in a Sami hut
We had lunch of soup and reindeer stew with thick mud-like coffee in a traditional Sami hut (the indigenous people of Norway and parts of Finland). We had a few moments with the puppies before we were reluctantly placed on a bus to return to Tromso.

It wasn't all perfect sunny windless weather; it took a change for the worse about eight days in but by then we had done our outdoor activities :-) We caught the fast ferry to travel south to Finnsnes and then snuck on to a cruise ship for a much slower trip back,  alternating between braving the bitter cold and wind for unobstructed views and enjoying the warmth of looking out the wide windows.

On our third last day we hired a car again to explore the countryside and try our luck at seeing the Northern Lights again. The Aurora tracker had forecast good conditions but the weather was not looking good. It ended up being a very white wintry day; the photos looked black and white. The scenery was stunning: stark semi snow clad mountains of black rock, grey still fjords iced over in parts, mounds of ice clinging to cliffs like frozen waterfalls or mini glaciers (which gleamed in the car headlights at night), streaks of blue hued ice in the snow fields on the road to Skulsfjord, and pee yellow water where the snow had melted to slush. Most buildings were primary coloured rust red, mustard yellow and quiet blue like in Tromso but there were occasional splashes of green or cobalt blue as well as the typical greys and off whites. At night we could see a glow behind the clouds which we're pretty sure was the Northern Lights because it was too late to be the sunset and was coming from a different direction to the moonlight. The white world was just as beautiful at night with the snow glowing in the car headlights and town street lights (and faint Northern Lights?), and the houses lit up by lamps.  

Seen on our way back from
the Museum
Of course this does not add up to 15 days. But after our gruelling three week whirlwind tour of Central America, it was time to slow things down and smell the roses in preparation for a month long tour in India. Some days we did nothing at all but watch the snow falling outside our very comfortable room, watch the TV, wash our clothes and cook meals in the shared kitchen/living areas in this cosy warm hotel/hostel. We visited the Museum, Art Gallery, and Polarium with its gigantic aquariums, funny seal shows and panoramic movies of the science of the Northern Lights and the scenery of the Arctic Circle. One night we even went to see the movie Gravity (brilliant) in 3D, special screenings due to the Academy awards occurring at the time.

Anniversary Dinner at Egon Restaurant
It has been a wonderfully relaxing time, and full of gluten free food in this very gluten aware country, pizza 3 times!!! But be warned, Norway is not cheap. Two weeks here would have lasted us two months in South America, but sometimes you just need short spells of pampering and luxury between the more hectic periods. Which coincidentally enough brings me back to my current situation, over Vienna and at an altitude of 10,668m heading towards India and a drastic temperature change ...

The dog sled ride in action

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Hunting the Aurora

The very helpful Fred and Nadia of
the ABC Hotel
We arrived in Tromso, Norway, on the night of the 25th Feb. On arrival at our hotel we asked Nadia the girl on duty about the northern lights. She checked her computer and told us that the likelihood of auroras, according to the aurora tracker website, was going to be high the next night. She checked another website and gave us information on cloud cover, pulled out maps and gave us tips on the best locations and lots of other useful information. Similarly in the morning Fred behind the counter gave us up-to-date information on the aurora and best locations etc.

The readings from the Aurora Tracker website
After four plane trips and over 30 hours to get here, we were going to use the 26th to sleep and recover, but with a reading of high for an aurora, sleep was going to have to wait. We went to several nearby car rental places and after a very good deal and some more advice we took the last car available from Hertz, which fortunately had GPS built in. Finally at 4:30pm, while it was already going dark, we set off to find the northern lights. Trying to rush but captivated by the landscape, we alternated driving to the first lookout with stopping to take photographs.

Some of the scenery
The GPS seemed to have a sense of humour because when we turned on to the street going to the first location it said 'drive for a long time'. It was not as long as we thought as we soon ran out of road and drove up a steep, slippery, ice covered driveway and ended up in somebody's front yard. Several family members came out on the balcony looking at us strangely. I tried to back up but started slipping and only just made it back up. The son came out and moved his car out of the way and the father helped me make a 7 point turn to face down and front first, which made it easier to drive down.

Off we went again. There were many pull over points on the road back and we would stop regularly to look up and see if we could see anything. I thought I could see a glow in the sky but Elizabeth thought it was just clouds. It turned out eventually that Elizabeth was right and I was just being optimistic. We saw lots of minibuses from the aurora-chasing groups that you could pay to go with, so we were obviously in the right area for looking. At 8pm we were hungry but had to drive nearly back to town before we found an eating spot, a pizza place. A customer helped translate a meal for us because the owner did not speak English. The customer's brother was a northern lights photographer and he gave him a ring; his brother said it was not a good night. Hmmm, things were not going well...

The car dash -3 Deg C  brrr
Off we went again, taking a new direction this time. Elizabeth at one point yelled that she had seen something green flash down and bounce off a mountain, but I was not quick enough to see it. I tried to be positive but inside not happy. This was my dream. We found a few really dark spots with absolutely no light from anywhere but still no luck. At 11:30 after passing lots of brightly lit towns we decided to head back to our really dark spot and sit it out. At midnight we parked the car and just sat and waited. The temperature according to the car was -3 outside, so we just looked out the windows.

Finally at 12:15 Elizabeth shouted that she saw something behind her, we jumped out the car and saw a sky lit up with dancing lights. Initially there was a large glowing circle of light at one end of the sky followed by a tail that went the full length of the sky to the other side, AWESOME. The sky continued its display for 20 minutes. One part that sticks in my mind was when it looked like somebody was sprinkling powder from above and then bouncing it off a glass dome breaking across the sky. By the time it was over my fingers were numb but I was definitely satisfied and happy. Now, no word of a lie, and I know people will think I am faking and using poetic licence but this occurred on the 27th February, the exact day of my 53rd birthday.

I did take some photos as you can see, but they are not very special. I found out my $200 camera is not quite geared for aurora photos. One photographer told me they got their best photos using 60 second exposures at 200 ASA. My camera had a 15 second limit as its longest possible exposure on manual, which I took on the 400 ASA setting. Consequently not long enough to build up enough light to show up brightly and bring out the mountains and a bit on the grainy side, but hopefully you get the idea.

The view from the car window of 'our spot'
All over the news the next day were reports of brilliant northern lights throughout England and Scotland. One lady we spoke to said she had just travelled from Scotland to see the northern lights and in 40 years there she'd never seen them. I had allowed over two weeks to see the northern lights as you never know what they are going to do, but luckily we saw them on our first day. So, what are we going to do for the rest of our time...

Monday, March 3, 2014

I can't belize we're in Belize!

As we enter the final stretch of our Central American adventure, we cross into Belize and spend a couple of nights in San Ignacio. For our free day activity we decided to try our hand at cave tubing. Just like it sounds this is where you stick your ass into an inner tube and let yourself free ride down a river which goes through caves.

It was quite cold that day, so not the best of activities while fighting colds. It even rained, but when you have limited time in a place, you can't let that stop you too often or you might as well go home. So off we went down the river and into our first cave. With torches on our heads and bums in the water we spent a large amount of time inside pitch black caves. It was a lot of fun and quite exciting with some breathtaking moments. Like seeing a small waterfall inside a cave. Other times we were floating down the river outside in the rain with the occasional tiny rapid. You have very little control and just need to be careful to push off the sides of the river, as well as keeping your bum high enough to avoid scraping it at the shallow spots. Afterwards it was hot coffees all around and a hot lunch.

Next stop was the tiny Caribbean island of Caye Caulker, just 32 km off Belize City and a short boat trip from the Belize Barrier Reef, about the third largest barrier reef in the world (go Australia). There is a real rastafarian culture on this island and you'd better like Bob Marley and dislike cars as the only traffic is by golf buggy. This is one relaxing island and the in thing to do at sunset is to go to 'the strip' and watch the sun go down.

We could not leave here without going out to the reef on a sailing boat and doing some snorkelling. That was one awesome day. We snorkelled in three different spots including one with a huge number of stingrays. At the second spot the crew threw out some food to attract sharks and we were soon surrounded. We were then allowed to go in the water and being accustomed to sharks from Galapagos, Elizabeth and I went in. At the last spot we swam to the reef, and by taking a large circle route came across a wide variety of fish, some sea turtles and I saw a large moray eel. On the way back we were treated to ceviche and as much rum punch as we could drink. It was hard to leave this little island paradise.

Can you see the Iguana?

Our last stop was back in Mexico at Playa Del Carmen where we had time to squeeze in one more Mayan ruin and some trips to the beach and one very cheap, but good, massage. The ruins were at Tulum and were a 1 hour shared taxi ride away. Tiny when compared to some of the other ruins we have visited but wow! location, location, location. Overlooking the beach, these ruins were once part of an important trading port.

Lastly, on a day forecast to be 30 degrees Celsius we boarded the first of what would be four plane flights and around 30 hours to get to Tromso in Norway, deep into the Arctic Circle, to start my search to see the northern lights...