Paris’ 2018

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Paris.. this city evokes a myriad of emotions in the hearts of travellers, tourists and locals. And those emotions have a wide range from awe to puzzlement.

Parting from Paris was bittersweet. But lets start at the beginning.

My regular readers know that I met Kevin, an Irish gentleman, in Bratislava last winter. We went to Vienna Christmas market and parted with a promise of meeting again.

We kept in touch and decided that Iceland could be a good idea for next trip. As I looked into the visa process I was quite disappointed to learn that I had to send my passport over to Danish consulate in Ottawa to process which could take upto 45 days and since we wanted to go during easter break it was not enough time.

So, it was back to the drawing board. We contemplated several options: Caribbean : too hot in April, London: won’t be travelling for Kevin, South America: Too far for Kevin and not enough time, so we landed on Paris. A city not yet seen by me or Kevin.

The visa process was simple enough and on March 29th, after a crazy day at work, I was on my way to Paris.

March 29th: Enroute to Paris

I ended my last work call at 5.30, boarding started at 5.40 p.m.. Leaving unfinished business on work front is not my style, but I didn’t have a choice. I got on the plane and reassured myself that my capable PM will take care of things.

I was flying Air France and they had impeccable service, they even have small printed menu for their food, so pretty. The staff was attentive, helpful and upbeat. A world of difference from Air Canada!

It was a comfortable flight but I could not catch even 5 min nap. I think i was very charged from work and also excited about Paris.

In past 5 years, I have read most about France, understanding their food, culture, music, movies, fashion!

With open eyes, I dreamt of Notre Dame, walk along Seine. All things French!

March 30th: Landing in Paris

Reality struck when I landed in CDG; I had to stand in line for an hour just to pass border control. This is worse than India. On getting out, I was greeted by yet another line up just to buy the ticket for train to the city centre! Shocking !

In my opinion, this was partly due to Easter break and also Paris being a popular european destination. Each trip has a theme, Chile was bad food, Mexico was crazy schedules, Paris was waiting in lines. If I had to chose a one liner for Paris, it would be: Paris: it builds character.

But despite this, I have to say French people, the employees working in those venues such as airport, transit and other tourists spots were very upbeat and patient.

I managed to get on the train and reached my hostel, checked my luggage in and took a walk around the block, saw a pretty church and then grabbed a coffee at a bistro.

In the meantime, Kevin reached Paris on Eurostar and we decided to go to the main tourist area. Which houses Eiffel Tower, Notre Dame, St Chapel, Louvre etc.

We reached Notre Dame and were astounded by a 4 block queue up to go inside, it was so easy to give up. We walked around and found an old city staring back at us with empty eyes, sighing as many tourists trampled past its bosom.

The Gothic architecture makes for a very stark setting. Against a backdrop of dark clouds, the looming towers provided a perfect foil for a mystery or a dark romance.

We took the metro to St. Germain and grabbed a late lunch at a bistro. I ordered a croque monsieur which was disappointing, because I had a different rendition of that in Boston which was way better. Tsk Tsk Paris! Sometimes, I wonder.. as evil as I find America, they do a grand job providing a wonderful twist to other cuisines.

We made our way to Eiffel Tower only to find it cordoned off by steel boards for security. We stood 4 hours in various lines: Security, tickets, 2nd level lift, top level lift, All the while suffering through wind and rain. As we stood in the line, I asked Kevin , how long did he think it would take, to which he replied, I dont know!

Was it worth it? Not 4 hours of beating that we took. Yes, we had a stunning view of Paris from the top; but as far as views go, have had better. Coming down was easier, we then walked across to a bar and had wine and then took a bus back to Gare Du Nord. We took in the sights of Paris from the bus and it was beautiful, but we remained unimpressed. Partly due to Vienna hangover.

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Notred Dame de Paris

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Seine

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Eiffel Tower

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Top of Paris, Champ de Marias

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City of Paris

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Meenal and Kevin at the top of Paris

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March 31st: City tour

Due to my jet lag, i got up at 11 the next day, half the day was gone.  I am sure, Kevin was not pleased but he seemed pretty ok for a person who had been up for 3 hours sitting in his bunk bed reading a book while Paris awaits exploring!

I quickly got ready and we made our way to the Champs-Élysées, along this street, there are many points to explore such as the Cleopetra’s needle, arc de triomphe , etc. We spotted Angelina, which is this famous place for one of the best hot chocolates in the world, as yes, you guessed it. There was a mad rush right at the front!

Just our luck that we ended up in a shady restaurant at the back of an alley with sub par food. I was beginning to build a slow burning resentment towards this city and more importantly towards anyone who thought Paris was this heaven of fashion, food and culture. I wondered out loud, is this really the best Paris has to offer in term of food? to which Kevin replied, I dont know!

I had decided to get something for my mentor and manager at work and thought chocolates from Paris  would be very appropriate , i tried to ask Kevin of his opinion of a store off Champ-Elysees and he replied, I dont know. I was getting fed up this reply so explained it is a common practice in several culture including Canadian to start a conversation with a question and its ok not to answer in facts but in opinions. He learnt quickly and provided me his opinion the next time I asked a question. 🙂

Kevin looked up a walking tour which was to start at 3 and we decided to catch that. The tour guide was Irish and very entertaining. We started at the St. Micheal’s square and he took us to important sites around explaining the history of Paris right from inception with a Celtic community called Parisi settled here as a fishing tribe. They were later attacked by the Romans who gave Paris its name as a salute to the bravery of the opponents.

The city is divided into two parts by Seine, and joined across by 37 bridges and each and every one of these bridges provides scenic vistas of Paris from various angles. Each side boasts of imposing structures of significant historical importance.

Paris is a city to be marvelled at by History buffs. Anyone who is not into history is just lying that the enjoyed Paris. Or else highly superficial and a complete tourist. As far as beauty goes, Paris is not my top 5, it is smelly, dirty, unkempt. It pales in comparison with Vienna, Barcelona, Madrid, Lisbon.

The tour guide also gave an overview of the history, gave recommendations on which spots to visit etc. He ended the tour at the statue of king Henry who was killed in an assassination.

I won’t say Paris is any different or special if you compare with any of the other European capitals of the west, all were influential, opulent, colonial, scarred by world wars, declined in supremacy against USA in that order.

One thing I missed was greenery, parks or any areas where people can enjoy outdoors in the city. there were few parks around the city centre, but more like patches of garden than a proper and planned green space.

After the tour ended, we went to Arc De Triomphe commissioned by Nepolean who didn’t live to see its completion, It was later used for a march of victory by Charles De Gaulle.

At that point, I was bone tired and so was Kevin, we walked into a beautiful hotel and decided to have our dinner there. It was an expensive affair. 128 Euroes for drinks, appetizers, mains. For 200 CAD, it was steep and nothing exceptional.  We felt so under whelmed. I felt like a fever coming on and suggested that we call it a day.

I was dead as I laid asleep. But then I woke up at 12.30 to the loud music from our hostel club and thought of waking up Kevin to see if we could talk to pass the time. I shook him and asked , are you sleeping.. and he replied testily.. I was untill now!

I retired back to my bed and stared at my phone till i was tired and fell asleep.

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Seine

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Louvre

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Arc de Triomph

April 1st: Versailles

I woke up at 9 with a start and kicked right into action as we had decided to go to Versailles that day.

We took the train to Versailles, the day was chilly and grey. But there was a promise of musical fountains turned on special occasions , Easter being one of them. We considered ourselves lucky while the Gods in heaven laughed on our folly!

On reaching Versailles , we saw a procession leading to the the palace. Hundred of people in droves were walking to the Palace. On reaching we found out that there was a wait of 3 hours to get inside the palace. 3 HOURS!

Needless to say, I had lost it by that time, I started to show my displeasure at the person who informed us, as if she was personally responsible for this. Kevin remained calm and maybe secretly enjoyed my consternation at the long queues.

And this was after we had planned and bought the tickets the night before. Fat lot of good it did. Resigned to our fate, Kevin suggested that we go check the gardens out first.

He dragged me in fuming and kicking. As I stood on the steps of the palace overlooking the garden, the wide expanse of the gardens, fountains, and the lake calmed me down, or just defeated me.

We took a walk and enjoyed the musical fountains, took in the sculpture all the while hoping that the crowd would have thinned out for the palace. Kevin was very confident and I kept telling him , he is dreaming and as usual i was right.

Back at the entrance we saw 10 lines of long winding queues. I decided to stand in the (another line) line of the cafe to grab sustenance, Kevin stood for the palace. Divide and conquer. 40 mins later, I joined him, we went through several emotions for 2.5 hours, shock at the no of people who had turned up, the fact that no blogger ever mentions this ridiculous line ups when they talk about Paris and so on we bitched relentlessly. First world problems.. right? !

As the line trudged along, we chatted, joked, tried to make the best of it. At last we were at the door steps. Our enthusiasm was tempered considerably as we realized that we were going to be back to back with 200 other people as we walked along the path that they had cordoned off. Many selfie sticks were stuck into our faces, poked in our backs as we tried to look over people. Hall of mirrors, where the treaty of Versailles was signed was exceptional. It was ornate, gorgeously decorated with murals and designer mirrors reflecting off each other across the long hall.

We went up and spotted another location of Angelina. Kevin joked that it saved us another queue up. I found myself not laughing at that point.

We waited with bated breath for the chocolate only so Kevin could declare that the one in Bratislava’s unpretentious cafe was better. I had to agree. This was good, but.. we have had better. The dessert was also nothing to write home about, I say this, as I write about it in my blog. Irony!

It felt like we desperately wanted to fall in love with Paris, but it kept fighting us, testing us, taunting us. Defeated, we made our way back to Paris.

Just so the day was not a total loss, I suggested we should take a boat tour along the Seine at night. By that time, we had grown so resilient that the sight of a line up didn’t deter us, in fact, spurred us on. As we stood up for the line, we met two girls who had been in our walking tour the day before, they sold us their tickets to the tour as they had a package deal in which this was included. We were very grateful to skip at least one line up. Even so, we missed the 8 pm tour, but caught the next one.

The commentary on the tour described the sites as they appeared  and sure it was pretty but hyped up by bloggers. For me, it was another of the check mark for Paris, been there done that, not impressed.

We caught the shimmering Eiffel tower at 10 pm. The tower is set to shimmer at 9,10,11 and 12 at night everyday, which makes for a pretty picture.

As 10, we had had enough of Paris and decided to call it a day.

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Hall of mirrors

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Angry Kevin at the line up

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Palace

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Fountains

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Gardens

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Angelina at Versailles

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Palace of Versailles

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Lake of Versailles

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Gardens of Versailles

April 2nd: Louvre and Moulin Rogue

Today we had decided to tackle Louvre and the Moulin Rogue at night. Keeping it simple.

No prizes for guessing what we saw as we entered Louvre. The blasted queues! Partly it was my fault for not waking up earlier. My quiet grumblings turned into full on rage on this city.

I went on a rant on everything and everyone, at which point Kevin asked me to shut up. We had a row and walked off from each other in opposite direction. He went in direction of Notre Dame and I found myself walking back to Louvre, without a map or internet.

Then i walked to Notre and tried to look for Kevin in the long line up, considered shouting his name, but considering it is a fairly common name, gave up. Then i went to St. Chappel thinking he might have gone to the shorter queue.

Not finding him there, I swallowed my pride and texted him that I am stuck and if he wants he can find me at the St. Chappel queue. Notice that I mention the queue, not the location itself. 😛

Needless to say, I felt extremely sheepish at that time, having walked off in fury 10 mins before. Although I told him that i needed the maps, but in reality I did miss his company and calming effect. I felt relief, joy and comfort when I saw him walk towards me.

This city had unsettled me so much, I needed something / one familiar to feel comforted. I hugged him and apologized for being a c*** (his words). As we stood in the line, he quietly suggested that maybe we should head back to Louvre for our 1 o clock entrance. I agreed and on the way he took me a small street market which was selling trinkets. I bought one and Kevin noted that I was smiling, meaning I am was somewhat normal now. of course I was normal. I never was not ok. Its just very normal of me to fly into rages like a dragon breathing fire at real or perceived unfairness and then be a complete playful puppy. hehe!

We were admitted early to the museum and went into the bigger glass pyramids and I fell down the stairs majestically making a fool of myself. With Kevin and I burst out laughing, the morning was so tense, it was good to release the tension. We had a mission: to be in the 20% of the public who sees something other than the Mona Lisa. So we tottered off to find Venus De Mello, then to Egyptian exhibit, then to South American one, and finally to Mona Lisa. A crowd was gathered around it and only view we had was a sideways one.

Now, having processed it , I kind of get why it became so famous. For sure, it was stollen and then got huge publicity on recollection from Italy. But most importantly, very few times, a common person (real or imaginary) has been depicted in paintings of that era. Mostly the painters focused on god, angles, landscapes, themselves (Van gogh), royalty. So it was interesting that Da Vinci could feel confident that by painting a mere mortal he was not going to become a common painter. And that is the beauty and greatness of art, its not what is , but what it is depicted as seen by the artist.

Another significant discovery for me at the Louvre was the Easter Island heads, Maui, which I hd seen in Chile. It was like my travels had come a full circle!

The collection is massive, impressive and just mind blowing, anyone who has gone to Paris and not to Louvre should make another visit. It truly is the best Paris has to offer.

We went in search of a good restaurant for lunch and landed on one at the Champs-Elysee. After a glass of wine, food, and tiring walk, i was ready to sleep.

I woke up at 6.30 and got ready for the show. We walked to Montmart, as we turned a corner, we saw Sacre-Coe church imposing itself on the city. We decided to walk up and Kevin was accosted by a bunch of Africans who wanted to sell him stuff. One of them tried to stop me, and I glared straight at him while calmly asking him to mov away and he complied. I almost went to rescue Kevin, but he managed to escape. Poor white guy! lols

We went all the way up to the church and were rewarded with a beautiful site of the city on the outside and a tranquil high domed ceiling on the inside. We waited for the darkness, so we could see Paris in the night from the top. Even though rain took the edge out of the view, it was much appreciated.

We made our way to the performance but decided to grab dinner and drinks on the way. We chatted about our new room mate.. who was rather special in that she was a lunatic. lols! Kevin told me all about her stalking and crazy dating , information he collected while I snored blissfully. I had only managed to catch the tailend of the conversation where she was asking Kevin about my star sign , and had thought I was Taurus. Which is extremely funny, because taurus are supposed to be calm and cool headed. Boy, I really give people wrong impression. But what must I do, start yelling when I first meet them? Above all, I am reasonable!

On our walk to MontMart we realized that it is the red light district of Paris, not a surprise because Moulin Rogue was the yesteryear s strip club. What was gauche in past is sophisticated now! I dread to think of what my kids will think of porn from this era!

The theme of the line continued, we were brought all around the theatre and finally to the entrance. The hall is lit in stark red light, and tables are arranged on several levels so everyone can have a good view of the performance. Beautiful lamps, furniture, rugs give an air of opulence and remind you that enjoying naked woman was not so pedestrian in the past. I say naked woman, but fact is that these are some really talented individuals.

The show started with a foot thumping no. There several high points, most popular being a daredevil act of skateboarding, then a funny juggling act and a eye popping moment when the performer was thrown in a water tank full of cobras.

All the while, we drank champagne, it really was the perfect night!

Kevin suggested we Uber to hostel due to it being late but I was too drunk and felt like a daredevil myself, forcing the poor guy to walk 30 mins to the hostel through some pretty dangerous streets of Paris lined by drug dealers and prostitutes.

 

 

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royal jewels

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Louvre

 

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Venus De Mello at the back, Meenal in the front:P

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Sacre-Coe

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Moulin Rogue

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Little preview of Moulin Rouge, from Kevin’s copy of the program

April 3rd: Alternate Paris

Today was our last day in Paris, so we wanted to do the alternate Paris. And most importantly i was anxious to go shopping. We headed to the shopping district and grabbed breakfast at a high end cafe right in front of the Opera house. Kevin wanted to try a tea place and I promised him we would go there later, i feel bad that we could not. 😦

We went into the Opera house, then walked into Gallerie Lafayette , a huge mall, very pretty from inside. But overwhelming to shop at. We were quite jaded and then Kevin just asked me to follow his lead. He took me to Charoun, a hip cool district , with cafes, bistros and boutiques lining up the streets. I was in paradise and went from one store to another, falling in love with a leather jacket. It was pricey so we thought we will grab a coffee while I mull over the possibility of buying it.

In the end, I decided to buy it. My trip was finally worth it. I had been looking for a simple but elegant leather jacket since an year and this neat and warm Scandinavian piece is a timeless classic. And not just pretty it is utilitarian , functional and lends an air of easy sophistication and instant glam at the same time.

We walked through the various parts of Paris which were much better than the usual touristy crap. We had a glass of wine and took shelter from rain. Then we walked back to the hostel; in the meantime I had managed to take offence as Kevin’s innocent remarks. he said he preferred to travel alone after this experience, on one hand I agreed, cause we certainly see travelling in different lights, on the other hand, I don’t, because he would not have been better off without me, he would still be standing in line ALONE! not having gone to Moulin Rogue! Not having gone to Alternate Paris !

And same goes for me too, had it not been for him, I would not have gone to Eiffel Tower, Versailles , I would have given up at the queues. So, I think we enriched each other’s experience and it pissed and hurt me in equal measure that he thought otherwise.

I contemplated branching out on my own and leaving him to his devices for that evening. But I felt it would be very immature to start a fight and lose a friend. So I came up with a plan to hit the bars and try something new. He was on board and we proceeded to the north east area.

We went to Mama Shelter, hip bar and grabbed drinks, chatted about Paris, about ourselves, and laughed on our silly fights. I was happy that we reconciled and was enjoying the night. In the evening I had talked about having moroccan cuisine and lo and behold as we walked from one deserted and nondescript street, we came across the no. 1 moroccan restaurant in Paris. A small , unpretentious little nook with gracious hosts. Angana was one fo the best Chicken Tagines i had, all prepared with love and attention by his wife, Fatima. We conversed in broken French, English and gestures. And they were so thrilled to know that they were no. 1 ! I highly recommend branching off from the beaten track..

As the night was young, we decided to end with another drink and walked back to the boutique area that we had gone to in the afternoon. But since it was a Tuesday, it was dead and not at all appealing to sit outside, besides I was starting to feel sleepy from a full stomach.

I packed my stuff as we reached hostel and slept off.

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Charoune

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Montmart

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Graffitti

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a bar, Mama shelter besides an abandoned train yard

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Opera house

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Opera house

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Leather Jacket from So we are, Samsoe and Samsoe

April 4th: Back to Toronto

Kevin woke me up at 8 and i changed quickly and was ready to leave at 8.30, we grabbed breakfast and chatted away. He bid me adieu and we promised to look each other up if were in London or Toronto.

I battled at the airport with blocked entrances, long queues, lack of signage, with 30 mins left to departure I managed to buy myself a beautiful scarf from Longchamp.

The flight was delayed by 2 hours but after an uneventful journey, I stormed in Toronto.

It was bittersweet for me.

On one hand, I was glad to be coming home, happy i made a great friend for life. On the other hand, I felt like Paris slipped through my fingers like quicksand. It felt a lot like dangerous liaison with a stranger, you just don’t know where you stand with them, They have shown you enough to want to go back, but you wonder if going back would mean a entanglement that you will regret or finally a happy ending?! 🙂

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Thanks for reading my blog (Scarf from Longchamp)

 

 

 

 

 

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Kerala’ 2018

 

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Backwaters

This trip was taken more out of necessity than any real intention to travel.

When mom and dad visited me last summer, they expressed growing concerns regarding our dear PM, Narendra Modi tightening his grip over all the accounts that any individual had which had no activity for past few years. And I had a few of those in India since 2010. I was asked to come to india just to close them.

And since my parents still work and I am left alone at home with the TV ; i implored them to go on a trip with me while I was visiting. Also, trip co-incided with my parent’s anniversary so it was an added bonus.

Several options were considered such as Singapore, North East, Nepal. But all were discarded due to visa issues, lack of direct flights from Jaipur etc.

Things were crazy at work before i left, but when are they not? Anyway, was mostly happy to get away from the Canadian winters and mountain of work.

As you may recall from my past 3 posts that my flying experience was less than perfect. I was really dreading to fly this time but… ok.. I will let you read to the last to find out what happened.

Day 1: Feb 9th : Flight to India

My Flight was with Jet Airways who are known to fly on time. And the flight did board on time… but.. on the tarmac we were told that there is ice on windows and doors which needs to be de-iced. This caused much consternation within me, obviously mistrustful of airlines in general, I twiddled my thumbs in nervousness. Soon, it was announced that the plane is ready to take off, I was still doubtful and only breathed a sigh of relief when it was airborne.

On landing in Amsterdam I stretched my legs and bought an anniversary gift for my mom and a scotch for my dad. I also bought a 15$ sun glass for myself after having lost my 300$ ray bans in San Fran, i didnt bother to replace it with an expensive one.

Soon it was time to board again and before I knew it I was in Delhi on 11 th feb.

Day 3: Feb 11th

The wait to my domestic flight is 6 hours which is a lot considering its the middle of the night and no company. I chugged coffee to stay awake and vigilant. Staying vigilant is important as someone can put something in your bag / in your drink. What really irked me was that there was no wifi at Indra Gandhi International Airport, if you didn’t have an Indian no. Which was rather ridiculous, given it was an international airport. So many passengers were pissed as they were not able to contact anyone, or inform. One miffed aunty told off a poor coffee vendor that she would complain to Modi about this!

At 3 am i made way to the Domestic terminal in a rickety bus.I killed few more hours till my flight and reached Jaipur at 9 to my parents waiting at the airport.

It was surprisingly chilly , nothing compared to Canada of course. But houses in India are not thermally insulated which makes the cold seep in your bones. Mom had made  salad on my request since I texted her i was feeling queasy from my flight. But I changed my mind when I saw she made sarso ka saag, it is my favourite and difficult to get in Canada. So I stuffed my face , followed by carrot halwa and laddoes 😛

The day before we were about to fly, mom and dad already had different POV on the trip. Not where we would go or what we would do, but what we will buy.

Little background, my dad is a foodie and a great cook, if he is not cooking, he is buying, eating, talking / thinking about food. My mom is the opposite , she was the family brat and never gave two hoots about cooking. My dad taught her how to cook after marriage. However, she now is better than him. Thats how awesome she is.

Anyway, he wanted to get loads of spices from Kerala, which is what its famous for. But mom insisted we get little or none. The argument raged on, and a compromise was reached with my arbitration. We cut the quantity of the spices by half, he grumbled but got on with it.

Jump to Feb 15th:

Our flight was early morning so we left home at 6, and reached airport well before time.

We drifted in and out of sleep during the flight and reached Kochi at 1 in sweltering heat and humidity. We called our driver and he asked to meet us at a designated spot where he collected us from.

From there we were dropped off to our beautiful resort along a river. We checked in, had tea and proceeded for sight seeing. He took us to Fort Kochi, which as the name suggests is not really a fort, but rather an area of the city. It consists of the port and St. Francis Church and Marine Drive. Again, marine drive is not really drive along the marina but rather a lake. It is truly a city of misnomers as put by my dad.

Now on to another quirk of my mom’s. She doesn’t eat onions / garlic and of course no eggs, meat, fish. So she is a vegetarian who doesn’t eat onion and garlic, there is no term invented for such people. Some might call them “annoying”.

I have wanted to take my mom and dad travelling in Canada for a long time, but due to this restriction of mom’s we cant. Because literally no restaurant will be able to satisfy this and even if they did, she will be able to smell the onion from the knife they used / the hands they touched the food with, the list is endless.

Therefore, even though she had decided to not be picky this time, our first meal was a landmine. After much deliberation, a lengthy discussion with the waiter who didn’t follow english / Hindi and nodded yes to all the questions thus contradicting himself , we settled on aloo gobhi and roti.

We breathed a sigh of relief when my mom approved after the first bite , but I had lost appetite by then and passed my leftover to dad; who also got mom’s share too. He made a face but went on eating. The hog!

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our resort

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infinity pool with the river and coconut trees on the other end

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St. Francis Church

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Fresh fish

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Fort Kochi Port

Feb 16th: Kochi to Munnar

We got up early, had breakfast and several cups of delicious coffee before embarking on the drive to Munnar.

While waiting for the driver to come pick us up. I saw a big group of Tamil ladies in the hotel lobby, getting ready, putting make up and got inspired, I put kohl and wore a bindi and was pleased with the effect.

The first stop on the way was a rubber plantation , where we saw rubber being collected from the trees by making a cut in the bark. Next we saw some pineapple trees , more like bushes. They don’t grow higher than 2 feet and give 2-3 pineapples per year , these bushes are often found in intermittent years between coffee crop to rejuvenate the soil.

Many house fronts were lined with rows of pepper which was freshly harvested and left to dry on in the sun. All the houses even in the city had at least banana, coconut, black pepper, all spice plants in their yard. People in Kerala are very connected with nature and constantly look to it to resolve their medical ailments as we know. Kerala is the hot spot for westerners to come and try Ayurveda, massages, yoga and reconnect with their soul and body.

We then saw a hanging bridge and the river had this fish, Gambushia which comes and eats the dead skin off your feet.

Next on the agenda was the Spice Garden. Mom was not keen on it but caved in to dad’s enthusiasm and in the end came out more excited than him for reasons that I will disclose now.

We bought the tickets and got into a jeep for the scariest ride ever. The jeep took us down on an incline of 60 degrees and almost circular road. Our hearts were in our mouths when we got off.

Our guide explained each and every plant in great detail, its provenance, medicinal properties, there was something for all of us. Mom particularly got excited over the plant which cured snoring, which  in my opinion is as much her issue as dad’s. We also discovered plants that cured metabolism, hormonal imbalances, hair fall  etc.

Pictures do not do justice to this garden. Only because you had to be there to experience the aroma. It was potent and immersive. You felt like you were in heaven.

After the tour, we were taken to the store that sold all these magical herbs and my dad was like a kid in a candy shop. Even mom bought a lot. All my requests were ignored due to the fact that I am known to waste money. So I retired to the car while they collected the elixirs of youth.

After 2 more hours of drive, we reached our hotel which was on the edge of the hills. The drive was very rough on the back and we wanted to take a nap but soon we had to be ready for the live show of Kathhakkali and Kalaipayuthe , a kerala martial arts form.

I wanted to charge my phone as I was taking pics incessantly, much to my displeasure, i realized I had left my phone charger at the hotel in Kochi. Now, this charger was borrowed from our tenant and my mom was even more displeased with this development than I was. She talked to the driver and we made call the hotel staff, who confirmed that they found the charger and that we could pick it up on our way back. problem solved!

Katthakali was not as impressive as I thought it would be at least till the very end. What was riveting was the martial arts show. It kept everyone cheering and on the edge of their seats. We were thoroughly impressed with the agility, flexibility, strength and technique.

After a full day of activities, we were exhausted and returned to the hotel to sleep.

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Indian Meenal

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Rubber Plantation

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Rubber sap collection

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Pineapple bushes

 

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brown rice drying outside a home

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hanging bridge

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Dad working on his pedicure

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Kalaipayutte

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Kathakali

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selfie mandatory

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with Cocao bean

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Guide explaining the medicinal benefits

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Feb 17th : Munnar Tea Estates

We went up the altitude for a view of the tea estates, Most of them are owned by Tata. We had started off at 9 am and the drive was picturesque, the weather was cool and inviting.

Then the driver took us to a place where we took the boat into a river for an hour which was pleasant.

After which we were taken back to the hotel, where we rested and got ready for our Ayurveda massages.

On the way to the massages, we were taken to a homestay, which is people renting rooms in their home for a more authentic experience. This is to be taken with a grain of salt. The home stay was a hotel, with impersonally furnished rooms, coiffed landscape, a picture postcard worthy stream flowing tranquilly next to the balcony. It was quite nice, but authentic? I am not sure.

I was expecting a gentle massage which would put me to sleep as I was very tired from the drive and the journey itself. However, it woke me up in a good way. The girl applied pressure in the right amount and didn’t unnecessarily knead the problem areas as they do in Canada which makes it so much worse. She also gave me a head massage which was heaven. The best part though, was that she thought I am 22!! 😛

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View from our balcony at Munnar

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Tata Tea estates

 

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so Bollywood!

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Feb 18th: Thekkady, Periyar 

Today was the actual anniversary. And of course, I managed to forget it. My mom reminded me and I wished both of them. They had also color co-ordinated their outfits to wear pink. I wore  blue.

After breakfast we headed to Periyar, the boat ride there was uneventful, we sighted wild dogs, bisons, a deer and wild boar. Nothing to write home about. On the way back ,dad and I decided we will go on an elephant ride. The ride was a rip off for 400 / person and very touristy, more like a photo op. My mom also took a picture on it, but the elephant decided to walk off with her on it. The trainer intervened and we calmed my mom down.

After the ride, we drove to our remote resort on the hills. It was so perfect, beyond words. A secluded cabin in the middle of woods, you could hear insects at night. We had our dinner out on the porch and then had tea and chatted away. My mom entertaining us, I laughed non stop. When I went to my room, I thought about all these precious moments I was spending with them. I cannot stress how important it is to spend time with your parents as they age.  When we are babies and kids, our parents are busy raising us, then during youth, we are mostly rebelling against them, its only in your 30’s you realize how important they are to you.

I felt a tear trickle down my cheek as I thought about this. How short the life is, how fleeting these moments are. Before you know it, you will be old, they will be dead and you will wonder when did your life go by.

The insects lulled us into sleep and the chirping birds woke us to a beautiful chilly morning.

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Cottage in Thekkady

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Cottage in Thekkady

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Cottage in Thekkady

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Feb 19th: Alleppey

We got up and had tea together on the porch to morning sounds and sunrise.

The breakfast was full of flavours, served lovingly with great attention to detail. We were waited on half and foot. It was a shame that we got only a night to spend their but we bid adieu for drive to Alleppey, our last stop.

One hour into the drive, I turned back to get my sun glasses from my bag, but was aghast to find it missing from the boot. Soon, it was apparent that my dad had left the bag at the hotel room so we turned around to go and pick it up.

The mood in the car was so thick with tension, you could cut with a knife. Even the driver was positively pissed at us. Of course, it was dad’s fault for not checking the room properly but we didn’t make progress with that line of argument cause he was sick. But then my mom asked him why he had to go and take this responsibility. To which his come back was that we were busy taking pictures (which we were, evidence below). Our quibbling was put to an end when the driver took dad’s side saying he is an old person. I was shamed into silence exchanging only eye rolls with my mom.

After collecting our bag, and wasting 1 hour driving back, we reached Alleppey at 2.00 pm in high noon. We were transported to the houseboat and it took sail immediately. We had our lunch and I was particularly excited about the fish that I had ordered the day before on the phone when they had called to ask about our preferences.

We sat on the porch looking out at the sea till it got boring and then went inside. We were driven out to the porch again by the heat inside, the a.c. s were turned off till 9 pm and there was no where to go but up.

We were the only non couple people there. Well, technically my mom and dad are a couple.. however… the boat was filled with the newly married honeymooners.

After the long wait, tea was served with bhajiyas and I peaked into the kitchen to see how they prepared the fish. I told the cook I was very excited for the fish, he informed I was not having any. But I protested telling him I had requested for the fish on the phone call we received the other day. He said, all he remembered was someone shouting no onion no garlic and rest was drowned out. MOMMMMM!!

I begged the cook to somehow forage a fish for me as I had come all the way from Canada to eat just that. LIE! hehe. He got very emotional and promised me the legendary fish.

I marched up to the deck to tell my mom that her rants almost cost me fish, to which she shrugged her shoulders and then laughed her Mutley laugh. ugh! water off her back.

The fish was as tasty as ever and I was so happy that the cook made so much effort just for me. Satisfied with our meals, we went to bed and while I slept well, both mum and dad got up drowsy.

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Photo session that resulted in dad’s wrath

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Morning in the lap of nature

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Breakfast nook

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Contented

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Out on the porch

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Backwaters

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my masala fish

Feb 20th: Back to Kochi

Our flights were at 9 pm so we had a lot of time to kill in Kochi, it was suggested by the driver that we check out Lulu Mall.

We drove back to the city and were dropped off the mall. After some shopping and a big lunch we were picked up and dropped to the airport,

We took the flight and reached Jaipur at 3 am.

My mom had kept the keys to the house in the suitcase which was of course locked using the plastic tie and at 3 am we were looking to find something sharp to cut the cord.

We didn’t let our driver go and damaged in his taxi to find something that we could use. Deadliest item we found was a screenshot driver, I insterted into the cord and pulled from the other end till it gave way. Keys were furnished, doors opened and we flopped on the beds half dead!

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Spice boat !

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our big lunch at the mall, rajasthani thali

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Stuffed!!

 

Standard

California’ Dec 2017

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Before I even went for the Europe trip in Nov, a thought was gnawing at me, what to do for the Christmas break. I don’t have family here in Canada and no boy friend either so nothing to keep me in Toronto. My aunt did ask me to join her family in Cuba to an all inclusive for 5 days which was coming to 1800 CAD. I had already been to Cuba and for that amount of money I knew I could do better.

So considered several options such as Panama City, Italy, Greece etc. But rejected all for one reason or the other. Then an idea struck me, why not go West coast to USA. I had a friend living in San Diego for few years who I had not met for a long time since we worked together as programmers back in India.

So I texted him to see if he was around during Christmas and he confirmed he was. After figuring out the dates, going to San Fran later made the most obvious next step.

So I booked all the air tickets and my hostel accommodation in San Fran before I left for Europe.

The trip was going to be 8 days and I was super excited for my first time in West Coast.

If you have read my previous blogs; you would have realized how bad my  luck is while travelling, delays in Lisbon, delays to Berlin etc. As I made way to the airport, I started to have anxiety attacks as my connection in philly was only 1.5 hours.

Dec 23rd: Flight to San Diego (or so I thought)

On my way to the airport, in Upexpress i got a text that there is a 30 mins delay due to “air traffic control” issues. My heart sank to my stomach! It was deja vu!

At the boarding gate, I met my friend Kim from Deloitte who was waiting for her delayed flight to Abu Dhabi with her son. We chatted for a while and soon I realized we were cutting it too close to make the connection. The flight faced further delays to the point that it was confirmed we wont make it in time for the flight to san diego.

I talked to an agent there and she said the fastest she could get me to San diego was on the 8.30 am flight on the 24th. Which meant spending the 12 hours on the philly airport, not exactly a great start to a vacation. It totally sucked but at the same time, I had no option but to take it.

I landed in Philly and got the boarding pass to the 8.30 am morning flight to San diego.

for the next 12 hours, I roamed aimlessly at the airport, tried to catch some sleep on the chairs and benches. Woke up bleary eyed and feeling like shit.

Dec 24th: Take 2: Fly to San Diego

At 8.30 am, our flight took off and I dozed off in the plane. The plane landed and I called Parvez, who was already at the airport to pick me up, Bless him!

it felt so good to be in sun shine that all my troubles were forgotten. We went to a taco bar where I ordered fish tacos and hogged to my heart’s content. After that, we went to his place and chatted, he left to meet help his friends with fixing their baby’s crib and I could not hold off my sleep.

I ate and slept at 7.00 p.m..

Dec 25th: Merry Christmas !! 

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Ja Holla beach

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We woke up early and Parvez had an itinerary planned for me.

First stop was La Jolla beach, which is touristy and a surfer’s paradise. I saw many people of all ages walking, surfing, swimming in the chilly pacific water. Things that a normal Californian does.

One look at the crowd and the city and you can tell what people pay for in San Diego. The beaches were pristine and the Sun was shining bright cutting through the chilly air. We walked on the waterfront and headed to the La Jolla coves to see the Sea Lions.

The coves had a row of beautiful houses and restaurants by the shore; lot more tourists this end though. Surfers were surfing right next to the sea lions. Next we went to the La Jolla cliffs from where we could see the city of San Diego spread out across us.

It didn’t have a lot of high rises and was definitely smaller than the Toronto downtown, but from the cliff you can make out the bay as it curves around the hills and spot several islands on it. After this, we had lunch at the Denny’s as we were starving from all the walking.

As the day was warming up, we made our way to the Balboa National Park. This is situated in the city and has several little parks with different themes, lots of fountains, a rose garden, a cactus garden, Church ( of course!), museums, vintage restaurants and cafes, picturesque trails. So a lot more than just a park, a great place for a family picnic or a date even.

As we had gone through the sights fairly quickly, we had time and it was getting too hot to be outside. So we decided to catch a movie, Coco, which was great fun.

As the day came to a close and it got dark, we thought of catching the Christmas lights at a neighborhood that is famous for providing the most artfully decorated fronts.

As we strolled through the street, we noticed each house had a theme, like super hero, Harry Potter, Little Red Riding hood etc. Some people had lit up fire in pits and were serving hot chocolates to passer bys. It was the perfect Christmas evening.

We had dinner at an Indian restaurant that parvez recommended and I realized that I was till not over the jet lag and the arduous journey so I excused myself and went straight to bed at 9.00 p.m.

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War memorial at the La Jolla cliffs

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Sea lions

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La Jolla cliffs

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Balboa National Park

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Rose garden

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Cactus Garden

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Mormon temple

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Dec 26th: Coronado and D-town 

Parvez has a motorbike and I had my heart set on taking a ride in it. So Parvez planned the morning to take me for a ride while also showing me Lake Poway.

It was still chilly as we rode to the lake. With wind in my hair and a song on my lips, i felt like i have been set free. Last time I rode a bike was in 2010 in India, so was thrilled when i got the opportunity.

Lake Poway is in a small valley with great hiking trails around the lake. We took some pics and left for home to pick up the car.

We drove straight to the Coronado beach which I found was posher and better than the La Jolla. We went to the Hotel Del Coronado, an iconic beach resort which has lots of cute beach cabins and a great sea front cafe / restaurant.

I was drawn to the hotel stores like a moth to a flame, however, since I was with a guy totally not interested in shopping, i kept it very short, it was worth taking a stroll through.

Then we grabbed coffee and sat on the bar table right in front taking the beach view. It got warmer and I was totally blissed out while my friends in Toronto sent me texts of being pummeled with snow.

Then Parvez drove us downtown to a brewery for pub grub and beers. For the uninitiated, San Diego is a heaven for breweries and Karl Strauss is a trend setting, yuppie brewery right in the heart of d-town.

We had some food and I tried a sampler of 4 beers which I loved!!

Throughout the trip, Parvez would not let me pay for anything, food , admission tickets etc. And I really wanted to buy lunch for him, so I sneaked in my credit card to the server and she was nice to play along and when the time came to pay the bill, Parvez was surprised I took care of it. 🙂

After drinks and food, we headed to the harbour, which housed USS midway (air craft carrier), Sea museum etc. We booked a 1 hour cruise to take us upto Point Loma.

With some time at hand before the cruise, we took a leisurely stroll at the harbour. The cruise took us across the bay and the guide explained various points of interest mostly military significance. I half listened to it, but mostly enjoyed the view and tuned out the guide.

Then we headed to home but on the way, Parvez made a quick stop to the Pacific beach. This was unique because it had a row of cabins on the boardwalk leading up to the ocean view. They were cute little cottages on the pier and I do want to do one trip to stay for few days in them and the Coronado beach cabins.

On the way home, we had dinner and as we headed our way, I asked Parvez about the two spires that I kept noticing on our journeys that lit up beautifully at night.  He told me it was a mormon temple that did not allow entry for non-mormons but he drove around to show me the exteriors as they were beautifully lit up for Christmas.

I peered inside and caught lot of people walking by which made me feel that maybe we can go inside and have a good look ourselves so I asked Parvez to join me as I walked in. Finding the gate open, we headed in and the were greeted by beautifully decorated gardens and temple.

I was curious when I saw people dressed in all white hanging inside at the reception and had a chat with them. They gave me a pamphlet and explained I have to convert and be a member of this exclusive club to be able to use the premises and attend prayer meets.

After a long day outside; we were ready to go home. We grabbed a quick dinner and then reached home at 7.30 which was still pretty early, so I suggested we watch something on Netflix. I could not really pay attention to the movie and was dozing off, so I went to bed and fell asleep instantly.

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Biker babe!

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lake Poway

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Hotel Del Coronado with my friend Parvez! 

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Karl Strauß

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USS midway

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Star of India maritime museum

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hotel del Coronado.

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pacific beach deck cottages

Dec 27th: Point Loma and Seaport Village, fly to SFO

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We had time till 3.00 p.m before I caught the flight to SFO so we decided to make the most of it.

On the way to Point Loma, we went to seaside cliffs which gave another stunning view of the ocean, somehow you never get tired of this.

Later we rode up to Point Loma, Cabrillo National Park. We went to the lighthouse and took in the view from the other end of the bay. Not very far off was the coast of Mexico. We drove down the winding path and headed straight to Sea Port village.

This is a small cluster of cute seaside restaurants, stores, food courts, gardens in the heart of downtown. I tried some fish tacos and deep fried oyesters which were mouth watering with some beer.

We took a walk back to the car and headed to the airport, Parvez was so sweet to buy me a going away present, 2018 Calendar featuring San Diego’s best!

He dropped me to the airport and Off I went to the part II of my travels.

San Francisco:

My flight was on time and I made good time to the hostel which was conveniently located close to Union Square.

I did not even set my suitcase down as I started to chat to a nice English girl, Ashliegh, in my dorm. She said her plans were open ended for the night so I joined her for drinks.

We went to an Irish bar and she got the first round of wine, we had a few more drinks there and shared our entire life story like most girls do when they first meet. Our shitty BFs, good ones, the ones we loved, ones who loved us!  Then we headed to another bar (a bit shadier) where we had ciders. I was starting to feel quite drunk as I had skipped dinner that day and alcohol went straight to my head. I was truly done after the jagermiester shot. I felt dizzy as I went to the washroom and soon I was throwing up. Poor Ashliegh had to help me get back to the hostel. Nothing much to write here due to the fact that I had a blackout!

Dec 28th: San Fran d town, shopping

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Golden Gate bridge

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New jacket: Theory, Nordstrom, on sale for $299! 🙂

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Union Square christmas tree, from Macy’s rooftop

I woke up feeling and looking like shit. Went for breakfast and nursed my hangover with a lemon tea. Right across from me sat a guy from Iceland, Einar, and we started to talk. He asked me, what was I drinking and i replied groggily that it was a cure for hangover. He was very amused and we started to chat. He told me he used to live in San Fran few years back while studying at Berkeley. We had a good chat and he asked me to check out some spots in the city, exchanged no and agreed to meet up later to hang out.

Then I headed to Golden Gate with instructions from the hostel and reached in good time, took some pics and walked the bridge. it was very windy and took me almost 50 mins to walk the 1.2 miles. Then I caught the bus 30 back from the underpass and headed to union square.

I was roaming aimlessly when I stumbled across a food truck festival right d town and had a philipino mexican fusion dish which was ah-mazing!!

With food in my belly and still not 100% recovered from my hangover, I decided to take a nap. I slept for 2 hours and then headed to the mall, where I bought a tailored jacket from Nordstrom on sale.

As I headed out the mall, I saw a guy selling tea made in Samovar and I backed up few steps to grab a cuppa. It was the best tea I ever had outside India!! So flavorful and milky. Then headed to Chinatown to grab a meal from one of the top rated restaurants, Hong Kong Clay Pot. The wait was long, service slow, food average. Clearly a over hyped place !

I reached hostel in time for my outing with Einar and Ashliegh. We headed out for drinks and went to a cool bar which had a chilled out club vibe. the music was certainly loud, not ideal if you want to have a conversation, but the setting was perfect, the floor was almost empty with few high top tables, a fire roared in the middle of the room and there was a ledge bar all along the sides.

When Einar asked me what I wanted, the thought of alcohol caused a traumatic flashback so I decided to stick with mocktails and requested a virgin Mojito. He was very amused at the “Virgin” drink which I later explained is a cocktail / sans alcohol.

Then Einar took us to the Clift Hotel which was much posher and nicer. All the tables were sadly reserved for a party so we headed to the lobby with our drinks We headed back to the hostel after a nice night out at around 1.00.

Ashleigh asked me what my plans were for the next day and I said, I didnt plan much so she offered to take me bike riding up the golden bridge and to Saulsolito.

Funnily enough, we seemed to handle our alcohol and cold better than the Icelander. He said he was feeling like the beer went straight to his head and was all bundled up in a jacket and even added his scarf INSIDE the hotel lobby! he was definitely an anomaly as far as Scandinavians go! 😛 He later admitted he was made for the warmer climes! And made me think, am I made for the Canadian winters despite being from a tropical country?

Dec 29th: Golden Gate bike ride and Saulsolito 

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20 kms over the bay and golden gate!

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We biked points 2-10, then ferry back to point 1.

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Lunch at Saulsolito

We woke up early-ish, had breakfast, and headed straight to the Fisherman’s Wharf through little Italy. After we rented our bikes, we biked all along the bay, over the bridge to Saulsolito, a 20 km ride, some of it uphill.

Needless to say, our asses were busted. Speaking for myself only, I have a sitting job and riding the bike first half of the ride was certainly tough but got better as we rode downhill to Saulsolito.

The ride is filled with expansive views of the bay, the ALcatraz, lookouts from the bridge, and finally the harbour at Saulsolito.

On reaching the town, we went into a waterfront restaurant with a overhang deck where had fish and chips (I was with English girl after all!).

We headed back with bikes on the Ferry and rode it back from the Ferry Building upto Pier 37 to drop off the bikes. By that time; I was tired and ready to go for a nap.

We walked to the hostel (as per Ashliegh’s phone, we walked 21000 steps and biked 20 kms!) and slided on our beds. Both of us dozed off and I only woke up at 7.30 in dilemma whether to wake up and eat or not to move a muscle. Lazyness took over and i continued to lay there like a lazy pig only to wake up at 1.00 am, by that time, i was hungry but it was too late to do anything about it. So I distracted msyelf with my phone and fell asleep.

Dec 30th: Mission, Dolores Park, Castro, 

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Opera House

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Dolores Street

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Dolores Park

 

Ashliegh had to work that day so I left her to it and we arranged to meet up for lunch around the mission area.

Although the plan was to head to the mission, but I had a hankering for the samovar tea, I recalled the guy telling me they have a store at the Yerba Buena Gardens , so I headed that way and looked and looked but could find them. 😦

Dissapointed, I made way to the mission. It took me through some rough parts of the town but I as I reached Mission and the 12th, I turned to Market st and beyond to quickly check out their Opera house and the symphony theatre where they were playing Alladin and the Nutcracker. Previous day Ashleigh had suggested to go to one of the shows but at 120/170 / show it definitely seemed pricey. Nonetheless, the buildings were majestic in size and ornate. Compared to the National Opera House of Vienna, it was nothing special. But still an achievement for a North American city to invest in art.

I continued on Mission and then went on to a parallel street, Valencia, this reminded me of Queen St w, lots of cute cafes, gastro pubs with diverse cuisines were lining both the sides of the street for a 5 blocks stretch. Armed with my map, I then started to look for the Doleres Park which Einar had suggested me to go to. After a little search, I found the park with its sloping landscape and a street lined with Palm trees, quintessentially west coast.

The day was balmy with bright sunshine and cool breeze. Lots of people with dogs, kids and their partners were on stroll. I did some people watching while waiting for Ashleigh to join me for lunch.

She had a productive day of working at a Gay bar in the Castro region (Gay district of San Fran) by this I dont mean she works in a gay bar.. haha.. I meant she was working on her MacBook while sitting at the pub which happened to be in a gay district; we chatted and thought about where to eat. I had done some research and Burma Rose seemed intriguing so we walked to the restaurant and took seats.

I ordered a typical Burmese shrimp dish which came with a warning that they will not take it back if I dont like it. I was equal parts excited and anxious about it. First bite into it and I was surprised that people will send it back. Sure, its taste was peculiar for a North American palate but it was certainly flavourful and i truly enjoyed it.

When the bill came, Ashleigh insisted on paying as she had just received a bonus at work. It was super nice of her and I was shocked at her generosity if I have to be honest. In Canada, when we hang out with friends, we never pay for each other (guys pay for girls regularly, but we all know that is different) and even the first time when I went drinking with Ashleigh, I found it odd that she asked me what I would like to have had. Not sure, if she is exceptionally generous or is it the British manners or just very European. I always felt that the north American culture is a bit transactional but this definitely made me feel so. Apart from this, I noticed several other differences, such as willingness of non-North American to become friends with strangers, have fun with an open mind which is hard to find in Canada.

Dont get me wrong, Canadians are the nicest people on earth, its a fact than an opinion. But I find myself difficult to connect with them, maybe they take more time and even then they don’t invite you to their place or want to hang out with you other than work hours. And it is completely alright to be that way. Its just it becomes rather difficult to integrate as an immigrant.

Anyhoo, all this to say, I was quite lucky to meet nice folks like Ashleigh and at the same time I respect Canadian way of socializing 🙂

On second thoughts, it can even be a difference between people who travel vs those who don’t.

We took a different route back to our hostel via Castro and the Market street right up till Union Square. Once we reached the hostel, we got chatting with Larissa, our American room mate, and discussed the current dating trends. She made a funny and relatable comment that to get a North American guy to commit is like pulling teeth.

because.. first it is.. 1. i am talking to someone. 2. we are just meeting. 3. we are casually seeing each other 4. we are exclusively seeing each other 5. we have changed fb status. blah blah !! They are so wishy washy and almost never take charge. So, only European from now on for me! haha!

This was our last nite together (that sounds rather odd), so we decided to dress to the nines! which for me was the same as usual + new jacket from Nordstrom. 😛

Ashleigh was looking super hot and i looked like a business woman who just made a profit ! We went to Foleys, Irish bar, and got chatting with a couple from Hawaii. At first they seemed nice but then the guy started to swear and it became unsavoury so we diverted our attention to a nice Norweigian couple on the other side. We had a pleasant chat and when we turned the couple was gone, replaced by what looked like father son duo. I was being my usual chatty self and got to talking with them. It seemed very off putting that the father kept flirting with me in the creepiest way possible. I suppose thats how men got laid in the 1970’s ! he spoke really low and did a weird twitchy eye and lip movement. I was appalled that he was behaving this way in front of his son. But we later got to know that they were co-workers not related at all!

Things only went downhill from there. If the older guy was creepy, the younger one was cocky, self assured dickhead. They certainly wanted to make a night of it; but I made an excuse and we left to go to the Clift Hotel. By that time, Ashleigh was slightly drunk and I asked her if she wants to go to the Clift or leave. But she insisted she was fine so we grabbed drinks and sat at the lobby again! This place was very popular !

Within 45 mins or so, I made a judgement call and decided to walk Ashleigh to the hostel. Luckily we made it back unharmed and I put her to bed. I guess we were even now! lols!

I got a text from Einar asking me if I was available for drinks and I agreed to meet him downstairs. We grabbed few beers and sat in the lounge chatting about our days, then about Canada and Iceland. He told me about his travels and I told him about mine. He had 2 beers and again seemed to feel more drunk that he should have been! I think he needs to work on building his alcohol resistance.. tsk tsk!

We chatted till 1 and then called it a night.

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Drinking at Foleys

Dec 31st: San Fran and fly back to TO (or so I thought)

Next morning, Larissa , me and Ashleigh were all action; we got up early, packed nags, checked out of the hostel.

I ran into Einar at the reception and we made plans to meet later in the evening for drinks and dinner.

Then I and Ashleigh went in search of a nice hotel where we could enjoy the city view and have a coffee. Alas, due it being 31st, lot of spots were closed so we had to manage with a french bistro outside China Town. By the time we were done, it was time for our goodbye lunch, I was craving Sushi, but had to go to a mediocre restaurant as the good ones were closed for lunch due to new year s eve.

After more girly chat and lunch, I dropped Ashleigh and Larisa to the cab on the way to airport. I bid farewell with a heavy heart , end of vacation was coming nearer.

At lose end, I struggled what to do next, mall seemed like an easy choice albeit a cop-out. So I went to browse the stores and bought a comfy linen pants and one cozy sweater.

After walking for 4 hours in the mall , at 5.30 I decided to head to the hostel to rest up before meeting Einar. At 6.00 sharp he was there, impressive timing.

We headed to China town and then to Little Italy, he showed me some cool spots like the church, Washington park, nice bars and then took me to a dive bar at market st. close to the Gay district. That bar was frequented by the hippies of the yesteryears. Anyone who knows me knows I like dive bars, my favourite in Toronto being Green room and PJ O’Brien. But this was different in that it had an eclectic clientele of young and old both but definitely the nomadic variety.

At the bar we talked about immigration and shared out POVs on the policies that are shaping our and next generation due to a more and more diverse population. What positive and negative impacts it could have. Due to my time limit to catch the flight, we moved quickly to dinner. For dinner, he took me to a street style casual Italian diner which served solid Italian food without pretentious BS!

He order the Lasagne and i had spaghetti and meatballs. Einar had both, and declared his was better, oh well, maybe next time? 🙂

Then we walked and talked our way to the hostel and we talked about our experiences travelling in Cuba. I recalled all the amazing cocktails I had in Cuba, Mojito, Daquiries, Cuba Libre, Pina Colada and he made fun of my order the other night being “virgin”. We chatted all the way to the hostel and time flew so quick that I hit panic mode realizing that I had 10 mins to catch the train to the airport. Einar assured me it would be fine even if I take the next one. But it was too late, I had already started to spiral down, given my bad exp with flying I was sure this time I will miss the flight because of being late to the airport.

We grabbed my luggage and ran to the station and I missed 8.55 by 2 mins, by that time, I had calmed down and stood a while chatting with him, then we said our goodbyes promising to meet in Iceland soon (in March).

I got to the platform, boarded the train and soon I was at the gate waiting with other passengers to board the flight. Flight was on time and i slept through most of it.

jan 1st: happy new year! or was it?!

We landed on time and i had a wait of 3 hours from Chicago. it was after the first announcement of delay that I had a bad feeling in the pit of my stomach. Soon it was revealed that the flight would not fly. I tried to rebook the same day, but all flights were booked fully. Air Canada was at it again (after Lisbon in July) and I have had enough frustrations dealing with airlines.

So I decided to take control of my life, booked 5.30 flight to on Porter the same day. AC can go f itself!

After checking all the boards for flight departures, I could not find porter and soon it struck me it could be a different airport, turns out it was true. I took a cab (80 bucks!) to Midway, then waited there with few more delays but managed to reach toronto the night of Jan st at 10 p.m. having left San Fran the Day before at 12.00 am. literally 24 hours. Same time it would take me to reach India! outrageous!

As I unpacked, I realized I had forgotten my $300 sunglasses at Nordstrom while trying clothes! Splendid! Marvellous! Super!

I took a shower, made salad for next day’s lunch (yes after 24 hours in transit, I had energy to do that, I can be quite crazy that way.) As I cut the lettuce, tomatoes, I fantasized how to get back at the airlines. One phone call with my credit card insurance for travel and it was back to reality, there is not much they can do if the reason for trip delay or interruption was weather. What percentage of flight get cancelled due to weather = 99.9%. So basically as a consumer, you can fume and fret but there are no clauses to protect you while the airlines and the insurance companies line their pockets!

these rants perhaps require a separate article? Or maybe its just a first world problem and I should count my blessings, the fact that I was able to travel so much this year, 6 new countries! it was safe to do it alone as a woman?! met wonderful people ! had a great year, turned things around for myself personally ?

So on that note, I will start this year hoping to write more about my travels, new people i met, new adventures I have. Till then, ciao!

Total trip cost: 1200 for tickets + 700 for food and accomo for 8 days Vs 1800 for the Cuba all inclusive for 5 days. I was happy with my decision.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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July’2017: Spain and Portugal

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The idea of girls trip to Europe was actually conceived in 2016 January, but the way my life took turns later, forced it to 2017 summer. However, the important thing is that it did happen.

On the plane ride back from Mexico, Pratima and I were discussing, if we should go to Switzerland or somewhere like italy. It all came down to cost for us as we had not seen any of these places. So after a quick cost analysis between : eastern Europe, Brazil and Spain + Portugal, we landed on Spain + Portugal for 16 days.
The idea was to land in Lisbon (due to cheap flights), then make way to Spain: Sevilla, Granada, Barcelona, Madrid , Porto and back to Lisbon.
After all the visa approval, planning and booking hostels, trains and internal flights, we were ready on the 7th of July to start our European Adventure.
Day 1: July 8th : Arrival in Lisbon
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First day in Lisbon at the city gates

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I look ok, but I was shivering in my shorts! 

On arrival into Lisbon, we quickly realized that it was much cooler than we had anticipated it to be and regretted not packing something warm. We took the subway to the hostel and had to walk quite uphill to get there. By the time we reached, we were tired and took a shower and slept for 3 hours.
That day, we took the city map and decided to take a self guided walk through the alleys of Lisbon. We walked to Baixa Chaida, Targus river bank, St georges Castle upto the Fado music club.
This made for a very tiring trip and the cold and jet lag caught up with us which made us turn back after 1 hour.
On the way back ,we saw a lot of cozy cafes in the old city.
In the hostel lobby, we met fellow Canadians who asked us to join for the club crawl, but we were bone tired and politely declined the offer. Also, me asking the hostel front desk for hot water for my chamomile made them reconsider their decision to hang out with us. As we were being super lame!
The first day was productive but we were ready to call it a day and took shower and slept off.
Day 2: July 9th, Lisbon
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With my trusty water bottle !

After getting ready, we had a quick breakfast at the hostel.
The food was organic fruits and bread from local bakery. Coffee was really good and in elated spirits we made our way up hill to the walking tour meeting point.
Our guide started off with history of the Rossio square, the burnt church from the time of Spanish inquest & then we walked all the way upto the look out point. This walk was a repeat to us as we had already done this the day before, so while it was new information, it was also rather tiring to go all the way up.
At Alafama, the tour guide explained the story of how the Fado music started, it was a form of folk music sung by wives of sailors while awaiting their return but then made mainstream by a prostitute named Maria on music composed by Fernando, a legendary fado music composer.
The tour ended at the St. Georges Castle, where she explained how a regular soldier called Marti Moneez had stuck himself between the closing doors and let the Portuguese soldiers get inside to capture the castle from the moors leading to recapture of the Lisbon and subsequently Portugal from moors.
We tried Ginghja, a cherry liquor, which tasted like sweet tonic and it was touted as a cure for female hysteria and depression at one point.
We went to a local Portuguese restaurant and I tried the veggie Paelha which was not good and so was the green wine which tasted almost like white wine.
Then we walked back to the hostel and rested, and in the evening went for the Fado music tour. If I have to be honest, I was not interested in taking the tour, but Pratima was keen on it and in the spirit of compromise, i went along. And I must say I was disappointed, we had a 3rd repeat of the same walk and look out point, then we went to a local pub for the actual music which was not that good especially cause of bad acoustics.
Overall that part was definitely a let down, cause I have had much better experience in Cuba, but Pratima seemed to enjoy it.
Then we walked back to the hostel and on the way stoped for coffee and cake.
As we were winding down and chatting about the stuff we saw, we met a British Indian guy, Jitesh, who i talked to till 1.00 am and then we exchanged nos and promised to keep in touch.
Day 3: July 10th, Seville 
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Plaza Espana, Seville

Today, we were going to go cross over to Spain by bus, it was an 8 hour journey to Seville through Faro.
We got up late at 10.00, had breakfast and decided to take the train instead of uber that we had first contemplated due to the uphill walk. Since this was downhill, it was not so painful and also we had to sit in the bus for next 8 hours which made the walk bearable.
We reached much earlier than expected and had to wait a while for our bus. Since i was still jet lagged and had not been sleeping well, i slept right away on the bus regaining consciousness only at Faro, with only two hours left for the journey.
In the bus, we befriended a nice Brazilian lady who was doing a European and Morrocan tour with her brother as she was on a winter break from her job and studies, Her plans to travel from St. Petersburg to Morocco created a wanderlust so strong that we even discussed quitting our jobs while on the trip. Better sense prevailed and we thought, it might be a better idea to make some money first as opposed to quitting right away.
We were very pleased when we reached our hostel in Seville, we were right at the heart of the old city in a high ceiling old charm hostel. After the check in and settling in, we checked out a local tapas bar recommend in Lonely planet. People were loud, friendly and getting drunk! Poor pratima could only find two veggie options but she still seemed happy.
We took a walk around the town and then called it a day and I slept badly due to a snoring room mate.
Day 4: July 11th, Seville
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Seville Cathedral

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Columbus’ grave

We got up late but had to rush through to make it to the walking tour, it was 10.00 am but the sun was already beating mercilessly with temperature at a simmering 40 degrees.
Luckily our guide was interesting enough with a dramatic flair who kept our minds off the heat for the most part.
He performed a little skit to explain the history of the spanish empire which started with the Fernando and Isabella I, who had 5 children who married different dynasties of that time which led to expansion of the Spanish rule which at one point rivalled the Roman empire. But due to excessive inbreeding to keep the line pure, their dynasty ended with Charles II. In the 18th century with Isabella II , a second lease of life was granted through the funds channeling through South America due to various conquests .
Sevilla was the centre of the historical turmoil and took turns in gaining and fading importance : It served as a port to collect taxes for any merchant entering the Iberian peninsula. It was also a venue for the Ibero-American conference in 1929. The original year for the Iberian conference was 1913, as during that time Spain was in need of funds to finance its conquests in South America, however, due to World War I this was delayed. The king then had an idea to include America as it was at its peak and it was thought that this will bring the American money into Spanish empire as well. But due to further delays in the conference, it could not be organized until the year 1929, hen America was hit by severe depression.
At this point, Spain has spent a ton of money to spruce the city of Seville, Madrid and Barcelona and the timing could not have been worse. However, as was to be found out later, this was indeed a sound investment, as the main industry of Spain now is tourism.
Later, Alfonso the 13th started tourism in Spain and commissioned the first hotel. Parks and public spaces were built all in 20th century.Several important international tv production took place here. Game of thrones, dictator etc.
After the 3 hour long tour in the sun, we were exhausted and quickly had our lunch and retired for the afternoon siesta.
Later in the evening, we went for a stroll around the city square , had tapas, i had beer, then we had ice cream. it was a perfect summer night.
Day 5: Seville, Granada
We got up early to make the most of the day. As the Church opened at 10.00, we wanted to make sure we were the first in line to buy the tickets. I took a coffee, but was asked to throw it away as it was not allowed to bring liquids inside.
While the cathedral is breath taking in terms of its size and scale, I felt the Notre Dame has a more delicate beauty to it, I suppose it is an unfair comparison.
You can see that Christopher Columbus is hailed as a national hero as his tomb, memorials and statues are scattered all over Spain. I am yet to see Sistine Chapel, but this will definitely be in top 10.
We were brave enough to climb the watch tower of the church which had 35 ramps instead of steps, It was a quite a workout but the view from the top was amazing.
Since our bus was not until 3 pm, we tried to spend time in cafes, restaurants till it was time to leave. The taxi to the bus stop was only 6 Euros and we reached too soon for our bus. We chatted and admired the handsome Spanish Policemen and made silly excuses to talk to them such as asking for direction to our platform!
On reaching Granada, we realized that our battle with heat was only going to get worse.
Nothing much happened that night, we had a quick dinner and slept off. The heat was starting to get to us, we were not able to accomplish a lot. We also bought tickets to Alhambra the same day.
Day 6: Granada 
After the tour, i was ready to call it a day at least till sun set, however, Pratima went to take the Sacramento tour which took her to the parts of the city where the gypsies lived.
I waited till almost 9.00 pm to step out and the mission at hand was to find the Bodega Constanada from Lonely planet and the challenge was to do that without GPS. So I went around in circles and asked several stranger till i just literally walked into it after giving up seconds ago. It was like it appeared right in front of me.
Pratima was already waiting when i reached, we both shared our experiences of the evening and slept early.
Day 7: Granada
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Al Hambra, Palace of Nazareth

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We got up early and due to bad direction from our hostel receptionist, took longer to reach Alhambra as we had to walk all the way. We wanted to make morning time count, since the heat had been merciless and staying past 11 would be suicidal.
One can take the C3 but to the top unto the Nazareth entrance which is what we should have done as well. But due to initial confusion as to what the entrance was, our beginning was very rushed. We did rent out the audio guides and while taking the tour of the main palace, it was very helpful. It would have been helpful otherwise as well, but we didn’t get an opportunity to test as by the time we got out, it was scorching heat already.
We did take respite from the heat when we went to former residence of Charles V, now a museum. It is built in baroque style and is very different from rest of the building which are traditional moorish designs. The museum houses original artifacts, while the palace has replicas for demonstration purposes.
We also walked through the gardens and several fortifications and towers which reminded me of Kings Landing from Game of thrones which incidentally was filmed here.

When we arrived in Granada, its proximity to Morocco led us to believe that we can finally experience an arabic Hammam which alludes us in Canada. But how wrong were we, we spent 33 euros for a moroccan hamam, and were thoroughly disappointed. But not everything in a trip can be perfect. Also, no trip is complete till you are scammed once.

I took Pratima to Bodega Contanada as well, which as she is a vegetarian turned out to be rather tepid affair. 😦
Day 8: Granada, Flight to Barcelona
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St. Nicholas point

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We got up early to catch the walking tour.  We also decided to extend the booking for that day, as we had a late flight and we wanted a place to rest up in the afternoon.
While the tour was nice, the heat got to me in the end as we climbed up all the way to the top at St. Nicholas point, across the hill from Al Hambra , the view was really amazing and worth the effort.
The tour guide explained how Isabella I had sponsored Christopher Columbus mission to America , showed us several point of historical significance and explained the influence of the moors on Spain and their exit from Granada in 1492.
She also took us to this monastery where the nuns prepare food items such as cookies, cup cakes. We bought 12 cup cakes which were the most divine orange walnut cup cakes i had ever eaten.
First stop was the justice hall, the medieval torture technique ,
Next we went to the royal Chapel , format of the cathedral was unfinished and took 118 yrs to build. It was decided to be built because the people would not go all the way up to alhambra to pray.
In the end, they only had funds for one tower. Next, we went to a honde . Place where traders stayed in the 15th century.
Then we went to souk. Then walked into the Arab quarters with narrow lanes and small stores.
Then we went to Albayacin,The Jewish quarters. Then we went uphill to the famous fleminco founder Enrique Morento.
After that we had a sucky lunch at a “moroccan” restaurant and went to our rooms grumbling. When we got up, the sun was still beating down with full force so we took a cab to the airport, we flew in late into barcelona and the metro service had stopped by that time so we had to take a cab to the hostel. All the money we tried to save by flying in late got spent in taking cab! one can never win!
We shared our room with a noisy snorer so sleeping was certainly out of question for me.
Day 9: Barcelona
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La Sagrada Familia

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On way to Tibidabo

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Gaudi’s creation 

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la Rambla

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From Mount Tibidabo

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Barcelonetta

We got up late ; but were relieved to find a much more pleasant climate in Barcelona. We went to see Sagrada Famiglia by Gaudi. As were walking, we debated if we should hire scooters and drive around or take the subway. But a better option presented itself in form of hop on/ hop off. And we did hop on.
One simply cannot look at Sagrada Famiglia with their mouth closed, it is humanly not possible. This imposing structure has been under construction for past 100 yrs and will remain so for next 5. Most of the beautiful buildings and architecture that surround La Rambla was only built in the 1920’s designed by Gaudi. If you want to see Barcelona from before that period, you need to take a walk in the back alleys of Barcelonetta. They are narrow and dingy and not a spot of sunshine comes through.
After Sagrada Familigia , the next stop was Tibidago. This is the same church that Disney wanted to buy the design for but was refused sale. We took the funicular up the Mount. Tibidabo and took in the view from the top. Alternatively one can also hike all the way up or take a car or bus.
After those two major spots and with the lunch time looming over us, we decided to take a break at a mall close to Farča Barca stadium on the east side and I had the most amazing oysters ever. They were juicy and fleshy and just out of this world divine!
After the satisfactory lunch, we remained on the bus for the most part and just checked out the main spots from the top of the bus as most of them required an entrance ticket or were visible from the bus.
As we reached hostel, Pratima inquired if I wanted to go clubbing since we were in the party town of Europe ( now I think, which town is not a party town in Europe, Amsterdam, Paris, Berlin, Prague! ) and I said, we can certainly look into it. But here is the thing about travel, no matter how open minded you are, you don’t end up doing things that are out of your comfort zone. And that is exactly what happened.
And since both of us were aligned, we just went to sleep convinced we would go clubbing the next night.
Day 10: Barcelona 
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Local food market

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We had bought the hop-on / hop-off ticket for two days so decided to continue on the bus but in the West direction.
On west end, there are not a lot of spots that you would want to check out so we took an easy ride in the bus. The weather was pleasant and we saw Plaza Espana, Mont Juic, Parliament etc. We then took a drive around Barcelonetta and decided we would head back here after a nap in the hostel in the evening.
The bus dropped us close by and we had a power nap and headed back to the beach in swim wear to lie in the sun. But, Pratima felt the beach was dirty and declared it unfit for swimming or even lying down. I quickly agreed cause it was a bit cooler for my liking to go swimming anyway. We then changed back into our clothes and decided to check out the Barcelonetta area. The beach was lined with restaurants, bars, pubs, shops and we took a stroll to the far end.
We had a mediocre dinner, decided to walk back to the hostel through the small alleys of Barcelona. As exciting as it was, we were a bit scared when it got really dark and there were unpleasant looking elements lurching in the background. We stopped outside a majestic door and a sign that said, “Live Flamenco performance” every night at 6.00 p.m. Having had a tepid experience in Lisbon with Fado music, i was not keen on it, but then having also seen Flamenco performances on TV I didn’t want to miss out on the real deal so we quickly bought the tickets to the next day. We made our way back to the hostel and AGAIN contemplated if we are making a huge mistake by not clubbing in Barcelona. Our tired bodies made the decisions and we slept right away
Day 11: Barcelona, Flight to Madrid
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In our efforts to be economical, we had booked flights that flew late so we had another full day at our hand in Barcelona but we still had plenty left to do.
In the morning we started off with the walking tour and the Irish guy gave us a comprehensive history of dispute between Spain and Catalan province. It is similar to Quebec and rest of Canada so was relatable and interesting. But interest started to wear thin due to the heat and overall tiredness. The hectic schedule of the trip had started to catch up with me and i got cranky and annoyed by the end of the tour which was 3 hours long.
While Pratime went in search of souvenirs, I sat on the sidewalk nursing my aches and pains from heat and the walk. When she got back, we had lunch in a cool and bustling eatery. I also texted Jitesh, the guy I met in Lisbon, to join us in Porto if he could. And he replied that he will.
After that, we headed back to the Flamenco place. To say that we were spellbound while the dancers performed to a hearth thumping music is an understatement. All over the room, we saw mouth gaping open in awe. The dance requires an immense amount of raw energy, sex appeal and flair. Both the dancers and the musicians did an amazing job and received a standing ovation from the crowd. Side note: This flamenco club served the best margaritas that i had ever had.
We had plenty of time, so decided to stroll a bit, but found it an unpleasant experience due to weight of our backpacks. We then headed to our station and ran bollywood style to catch our trains. And made it right in time. We were giggling hysterically feeling v proud only to realize that it was the wrong train. Panic struck and we started wildly gesturing to ask people if this is the right train. I had completely forgotten that i did know how to speak Spanish and we kept gesturing like deaf and mute even when people responded in English. it was like we had forgotten the idea of speech completely. A nice gentleman calmed us down and informed that it was the right train but will take longer as it did a loop around the city.
Pratima still had her doubts as she trusted the GPS more. But we made it well in time for our train. We grabbed dinner and was all geared up for our first super fast europium train experience. A normal speed train journey to Madrid from barcelona takes 9 hours, but super speed train takes 2 hours only. So in 2 hours at 11.00 p.m. we were in Madrid.
On reaching, we decided to take the metro and while we reached the hostel’s subway stop pretty quickly, it took us a while and few turns round the block to figure out where the hostel was. Which incidentally was right in front of us, it always works out like this in such situations.
I use the term hostel loosely, because it was not cutesy little hostel, but a chain operated efficiently like a well oiled machine. The rooms were a bit cramped but extremely well designed and functional. Since we reached at 12.00 midnight, we sneaked into our beds quietly.
Day 12: Madrid
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With our room mates at Madrid hostel

Since we had only a day in Madrid, we had to make the most of it. And this is what I dread most: when you are dog tired in a trip and have to make the most of short stay. You are pulled in two directions, a desire to have an actual vacation and FOMO aka Fear of Missing Out. In moments like this, I listen to my inner voice and it was telling me to take a break and chill. But I still stepped out for the walking tour with Pratima, however, when the guide turned out to be “too funny” for my taste, I took it as a sign and walked out to explore the city myself.
So far, I always had Ashish or Pratima for directions and I never had to use that skill myself. So I got used to walking auto pilot mode not paying attention. Therefore, now I was faced with a possibility of actually paying attention to where I was headed and decided to come up with a strategy. I took note of the metro stop of my hostel and decided worst case scenario I will take a cab to drive me there. With that figured out, I ventured fearlessly in Madrid.
I took the subway straight to Plaza Espana which was right beside other major attractions such as the Royal Pharmacy, Latin Qaurters, Presidential palace. After walking in the Sun for a bit, I decided to cool off in a nice cafe attached to the royal pharmacy. It had ornate interior and overly attentive waiters so much so that even the slightest movement on your part alerted them and they came rushing to your aid. So I tried not to make any noise or sudden movements and sat there silently as long as I could without ordering food / drinks. It didn’t last long, in 10 mins, I had a trilingual waiter ready to take my order was rather crestfallen when I just asked for coffee. So I quickly added a cake to the order and he seemed to have recovered considerably.
off he went on a mission to provide me with sustenance and came back with a big smile and steaming coffee and a decadent cake. I gorged down the cake and coffee completely forgetting the original intent was to spend as much time inside away from the sun. On seeing my plate empty, he asked if I wanted check or order something else. Caught between the cross roads ; I just ordered for the check as I certainly was not falling for the “pay more to buy time to sit” trick!
I did mark one spot that I wanted to check out while in the cafe and while I was not super confident that I will be able to make it, I wanted to at least try. It was the church of San Sebastian, the church itself is not anything special , but it houses Goya’s grave with a morale painted by Goya himself. As I made my way to the church from the metro stop, I kept going in circles till i asked a gentleman where to go. It was a km walk from the stop and initially I thought it was closed. I was walking back dejected when a girl came out of the side door and I asked if it was indeed open.
I stepped inside and looked up. The morale occupied the ceiling and top walls and was painted on the dome with flourish. The colour palette was neutral and pleasing to the eye.. blah blah.. I think I should stop now, before I make a fool of myself trying to sound like I know shit about art!
Simple facts, I wanted to see it, I liked what I saw and Goya was the shit in his time, So i was happy.
The girl i met at the side entrance hung out there with her friends, few americans. So I walked out with them and by default became their lunch companion. We had tapas at a restaurant close by and then I went my way and they went their’s
By the time I reached the hostel, my battery was dead and I went straight to the room hoping to find Pratima, but instead found my room mates and started to chat and found myself invited to wine and cheese. So when pratima came a bit annoyed from having called me several times from downstairs; I asked her if she thought it will be a good idea to hang out with them. But she is a sweetheart and agreed right away and by that time in the trip, we were both bored by each other’s company so welcomed new people.
So the 4 of us went to the wine and cheese place that these girls had yelped and had ton of menchengo cheese with amazing wine recommended by the bar owner. We chatted about our dating lives (or lack thereof, in my case), and recounted all the funny and embarrassing incidents from our dating past ( a lot, in my case ! ).
As the night grew younger, we found ourselves tapa bar hopping after the French girls joined us. We went to one recommended by Lonely planet which was a disappointment, and then to another one which was much better.
Overall the night of revelry cost us much less than expected which led us to conclude that Madrid was much cheaper than barcelona.
We had a flight at 8.00 am to Porto so had to get up at 5.00 a.m. in the morning. We slept off and soon I was in dreamland.
Day 13: Porto
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Porto Station

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With our new friend, Jitesh

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In the morning, Pratima had to drag me out of the bed. I woke up sulking about the early morning flight completely forgetting it was my idea to book those “economical” flights!
We reached the airport and after few coffees I felt like myself again. Another friend of mine had been to Porto and talked it up to me. So at first when we landed we didn’t think much of it. It was freezing at that time of the year though.
We took the train to the city centre to our hostel and realized that it was a town with a lot of character and rustic charm. On reading through lonely planet, we found there was a lot to do for the two days that we were there for. Jitesh was going to join us at 3.00 p.m. so we thought we will nap for a bit as we were very tired from our early flight.
Once Jitesh joined us, we walked to the river side but on the way saw the Church with ceramic tiles and couple of other landmarks. It was super windy on the river side and coupled with dropping temperature it was getting rather chilly for our iiking.
We had dinner at a really awful place with bad food competing with even worse service. It was so bad that I had to tell the waiter that this was probably not even fit for dogs ( I paraphrased here); I almost wanted to make him eat it as a punishment; it was so sad!
Due to the walk-on the bridge, we were frosted and stepped into a cafe for something hot and cozy. I had hot chocolate, which was literally melted chocolate. That certainly helped with the awful after taste of the food that we had eaten before. After we were warmed up, we walked back to the hostel and called it a night given we were all tired.
Day 14: Porto
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We quickly had breakfast as we were running late for the walking tour; But the tour started 15 min later than the scheduled time so we waited for a bit.
The tour was longer than expected but the guide was not that informative. The city is indeed beautiful with lots of good view points. We went to the 2-3 churches, he explained the different Porto wine wineries and recommended few. Porto wine is quite sought after but I didn’t warm up to it as it is too sweet for my liking. Therefore i was in 2 minds if I should do the wine tour later. As Pratima was signing up for it; I deliberated over it with Jitesh. He was completely ambivalent about it which didn’t help the matter. So I decided to opt out and give him company to explore the city.
The last stop in the tour was the local train station which was so beautiful and i commented to Jitesh about the legacy of the past generations as opposed to ours. We then headed to the Porto Library, which recently rose to significance on account of being inspiration for the Dumbledore’s office. I wanted to go in, but none of my fellow companions did so I skipped it as well, but if i was alone, I would have gone inside.
After the tour, we had lunch and then headed back to the hostel to rest up. In the evening Pratima left for the tour and I ventured for souvenir shopping with Jitesh. We also decided to look for a cafe that sold the best Nata (a sweet pastry) in town. We went around in circles for a bit and then gave up. Then we shopped for  bit and just my luck that the earrings that I loved were 840 euros only! 😛
While I lamented my poor financial status, Jitesh was happy after spending 10 euros combined on his shirt and souvenirs. If only I could be so content in life!
We had wine at a pub and then thought of heading back to hostel to catch Pratima for dinner. But she asked us not to wait for her and carry on and we did. We went to a cute little restaurant recommended by the hostel staff and had a nice dinner.
The trip was coming to an end; both for us and Jitesh and we contemplated on how it went for us. Jitesh promised himself to take more time off (i.e. more often than once in 16 yrs! ) and we both agreed not to be corporate slaves ( case in point, I work for a bank and he for an oil and gas company!).
Day 15: Porto and train to Lisbon
As usual, we woke up super early to catch the 7.00 am train as Jitesh had a plane to catch from Lisbon. We parted ways at the station and promised to keep in touch
We made way to our hostel. And I could feel that we were a bit deflated as this was the last day of vacation / freedom. We were both lost in thought, Pratima was thinking about work, and I was thinking of how to get out of work and keep travelling.
Anyway, we reached quickly and checked in. I slept right away and woke up refreshed. We decided to do some shopping pronto as it was the last day and we had not had a single opportunity to buy anything for ourselves or for  our friends.
We knew where to go from our excursion from 2 weeks back. So after grabbing an early dinner; we peaked in stores to find anything interesting. I really liked a cute Che-Guera t shirt which Pratima bought for me as a b day present and later she also got a “House of spirits” pendant. She herself bought a “tree of life” pendant.
Then we bought stuff for family and friends. and headed back to the hostel.
When we reached; I saw a amiable looking guy next to me in the dorm, so I commented to Pratima, lets chat with him, he seems like he wants to chat with people. The guy was Matthieu from France and was super funny and nice to talk to. He was taking a 6 month break to travel and was even visiting India. We made some recommendations which he was very happy with.
Day 16: Lisbon to Toronto
Later that night or rather the next morning, when I woke up, Pratima was no where to be found on her bed and worse, the whole room was pervaded with a disgusting smell of puke and beer.
I sprang from my bed and stepped into the washroom and there she was. She complained about the smell too and said she had seen a guy and a girl going at it in a bed next to hers! This was pretty revolting stuff! I went into the room and cracked opened the window. We got ready quickly and Matthieu joined us for breakfast as well.
We said our goodbyes and made way to the airport.
On reaching there we discovered that our flight was delayed and then later it was just cancelled. We got super frustrated because we were going to miss an extra day at work and no one wants to be stuck at the airport for hours!
We were given accommodation and food and were booked for next day to fly out.
The whole process was made bearable because I had Pratima with me and if nothing else, bitching about the airline made us feel slightly better.
At the end of the trip, I always think, go over the events, contemplate and reminiscence. However, this time, my parents landed in Toronto right after so I didn’t find time to do it alone. I did tell them about it and they were very happy that I was living the dream or at least my dad’s dream.
One activity that we thoroughly enjoyed was people watching. We admired the clothes that the european women wore, how men were also dressed up, no one roamed around in sweats. Everyone smoked, everywhere!
It was a great trip, but since both the countries have tourism as their main industry, it was difficult to get past that facade that they had created for tourists and get to the core of their day to day lives. And this was a reason that I didn’t want my next travel trip to be in a tourism based economy.
I am lucky to have a great companion to travel with, who also happens to be my best friend. However, I also want to do a solo trip and see if I can handle that which is what my next trip will be about.
So stayed tuned and as always, thanks for stopping by!
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Nov’2017: Berlin, Vienna, Bratislava

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My tales of travel continue, they all have a common theme: pain in the beginning followed by exuberance in the end.

Since my trip to Spain and Portugal in July, I had been giving some thought to where I should go next and lots of options cropped up: Wide, blue ocean from Caribbean beckoned on one hand and the lure of covering the last unconquered continent on the other hand.
Caribbean option lost its charm after it got hit by Nate and Irma and the African choice (Serengeti trail) was also discounted after research showed that there is no migration of animals after June,
That is how I landed on going back to Europe. I initially considered Italy or Greece, but found out that most of the islands shut down for business in Greece for Nov-Feb. Then I thought better to cover those two off together.
As a history junkie and huge nerd, I had watched lots of documentaries on Netflix (NSU German History , Sarajevo), including one German show, “The Same Sky”, about this spy who goes from East to West Berlin to spy on an American Diplomat.
The depiction of Berlin in that show and the amazing storyline was the reason I chose to fly there. Everything about Germany seems dark, shrouded in mystery and enticing. Then Prague and Vienna seem obvious choices due to proximity.
12 days and 3 cities seemed like a good plan, not rushed and not boring either since all three were big cities with lots to do and see.
After booking the air tickets with cheap airlines (WOW and Tap Portugal) and hostels in under CAD 1100 , I was feeling quite pleased with myself.
This is when it started to go wrong. I learnt the meaning of the phrase: you get what you pay for, through a painful lesson.
On Sunday, Nov 5th, 3 hours before i was about to fly, we got to know our flight was cancelled with no replacements available. We were shunted off to a hotel from the airport with no planned itinerary out of Toronto.
Next day, an agent came and told me I can only fly out on Wednesday, which I accepted. Later that day, i got a call that they can fly me out on Monday so I rushed to the airport to make my flight. Only to be told that they cannot accommodate me.
Needless to say that at this point, I was annoyed, frustrated and sad in equal measure cause this trip was special to me for various reasons.
Resigned to my fate, I decided to cancel the trip but the next morning, they gave me a boarding pass for my Wednesday flight! I was in two minds, so I called my mum, she said, you wanted an adventure and got one, now quite being a whiny cow and go on the trip. Mum knows the best! I am so glad I took her advice and went for the trip.
Day 1: Thursday, Nov 9th 
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Thursday pop up market at Kruezberg

After 2 failed attempts to fly, i was able to take off and landed in Germany via Keflavik, Iceland. On the train to the hostel, I met bunch of Brit kids who helped me get to the hostel (whenever i was lost, i found someone who was nice enough to drop me to the exact location).
After checking in, i went for lunch to Dinette, a hip bistro serving German and French fare with quality ingredients. I started beer bingeing right away out of respect for the German beer.
Feeling a bit tired and with weather being rather gloomy, I decided to nap and woke up after 5 p.m. On enquiry at the hostel front desk, I found out that there would be a gourmet food tour to Markt Hall Neun in Kruezberg area. (https://markthalleneun.de).
But let me back up a bit, while waiting for the tour to begin, an Australian gentleman started to talk to me and in the spirit of meeting new people, I got chatty as well. However, I didn’t get a lot of break from his monologue to actually get a few words in between, except when he was pointedly asking me if I was single ! Anyway, as the evening proceeded, he decided to latch on to me on the way to the market and even while we were there.
Getting rid of him was an exhausting process and i gave up after we got our drinks and he went on to explain how his ex gf (14 yrs his junior) was unfaithful, bitchy and the worst person alive. I have no respect for guys/ girls who bitch about their exes when they have just met you! I understand that sometimes break ups can be painful but to bitch at every opportunity to strangers is not something very mature, thats what your family, friends and therapist are for!
So I just nodded along, while he followed me around the market as I tried Wurst, Ramen Burger, Pilsners and other delicacies. The market was similar in size to St. Lawrence Market back in Toronto, but it was all a make shift market, with all cuisines under the sky. It was a great first intro to Berlin food scene.
I took advantage of the crowd in the market and after a while (Seemed like ages) gave mr. bitch-a-lot a slip. Then I headed to the hostel which turned out to be harder than I imagined on many accounts such as not having GPS , night time, my general lack of orientation. But I followed my instinct and worst case scenario decided to hop on to a cab.
The walk to the hostel was a bit scary due to it being in East Berlin. I got accosted by drug pedlers who were nice enough to back off when i declined to buy cause I was not sure of the quality..just kidding! :P. Luckily I made all the right turns and reached hostel a little scared as I live a very sheltered life in Toronto. And also this was my first night alone, in a new city.
Right away I felt that Berlin has an edge to it, destitution, drug peddling, poverty are in your face especially on the east side. It gets better and posher on the west end though and it might still take a few years to remove the traces of communist stranglehold.
Still Jet lagged and exhausted from the monologue, scary walk back to the hostel, I retired to my room early at 11 p.m. that day and decided to be a bit more in my interactions with men.
Day 2: Friday, Nov 10th 
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Brandenburg Gate

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Sony Centre dome at Potsdammer

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Berlin Tower

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Drinking beer at Friedrichshain

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Friedrichshain

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Friedrichshain

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Friedrichshain

I slept fitfully and got up late enough to have missed my walking tour for the day. I texted my friend Vaibhav asking him if we can meet that day. He promptly called me back and we decided to meet at Nordbanoft at 7.30 p.m.
I decided to check out the Friedrichshain area, I found it similar to Queen St west, cool, hip , happening, lots of cheap shopping. As I walked over in rain, I started to see lots of vintage stores and walked to into one and bought a cool leather jacket; After walking for 3 hours, I took shelter in a pub from the rain. I sat out in heated patio with candles, enjoying my beer and waited for rain to stop to make way to meet my friend.
I took the M10 directly to Nordbanoft, Vaibhav and his lovely wife, Anjani, joined me in 5 mins, they were perfect hosts who paid for my dinner, coffee , dessert, showed me around Berlin.
We went to Alexaderplatz, BrandenBurg, Jewish Memorial, Potsdammer, Berlin Tower, Sony Centre, Parliament Dome all on the West side.
It was 12 midnight when I took a cab from Jewish memorial to my hostel.
Day 3: Saturday, Nov 11th
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my cute sweater from the French brand ba&sh

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Hackesher Markt

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Sergio Angel

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Sergio Angel

Anjani had informed me that everything including malls are closed on Sunday, which threw me in a state of emergency and I decided to give the walking tour a miss till Sunday so I can shop on Saturday.
I went straight to Hackasher Markt which is a posh area like Yorkville with lots of German designed labels. I went into almost all the stores, none of the German labels fit me due to being on the small size, but then i got a really cute red sweater from a French label ba&sh. After lunch and more aimless roaming, i headed to hostel at 10.00 p.m. and fought jet lag while texting friends in Toronto.
I talked to all the boutique owners asking them where their clothes are from. Most of them were Italian, French or German. I also got a ring and earrings from Sergio Angel. He is an Argentinian jewellery designer who settled in Germany since past 30 yrs. I found a Scandinavian influence in his designs and liked it instantly, the question was what to buy cause i liked almost most of the pieces but settled on simple (maybe even standard / common) design.
Day 4: Sunday , Nov 12th 
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Sansoussi castle

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Dutch Qaurters

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Hotel Ams Jagator

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my fancy room

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Sansoussi view from the gardens

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Sansoussi entrance

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Bow top that I bought at Potsdam

A quick research showed that while everything in Berlin was closed on Sunday, same was not true for Potsdam, a must see if you are in Berlin. Thanks to Anjani for making this suggestion. I took a direct train to Potsdam and ran straight into a hop on-hop off which was picking up people from its stop as I stepped out of the station.
This city is so underrated, it is full of beautiful palaces, gardens (Sansouissi) , beautiful cozy houses, Serbian style log cottages, posh Dutch quarters. The Iron Curtain ran through Potsdam as well and there is a bridge called the Spy bridge, where KGB agents used to carry on their business.
The bus took us around the city, with the recorded voice informing me the origins of the city on being commissioned by the Prussian king as a summer retreat. Over period of time, history left its scars on the city, lot of it had to be rebuilt, but now it is restored to its former glory.
I contemplated staying over night and walked into a swanky hotel, Hotel Am Jagator, and when I was told one night for a single room was 220 Euroes, I decided I will have my dinner and leave for Berlin.
As I was seated in a nice restaurant, my waiter informed me that the price that the receptionist told me is ridiculous and perhaps I may have misunderstood her. He offered to talk to her on phone, and soon I learnt that I can stay there in 107 Euroes, so I was elated and thanked him for making the call.
I got chatty with a German couple having dinner next to me and they told me they were staying in the same hotel and will be headed to Berlin and can give me a ride back if I needed it. I told them I was not sure how my plans would unfold; but they shared their no, and I promised to text when I was ready to head back.
Day 5: Monday, Nov 13th 
The next day, i had breakfast at the cute organic cafe off the crowded streets and went to Dutch quarter for my favourite activity, shopping !
After having trouble with sizes again, I found a cute little boutique from where I ended up buying a nice bow top by a German designer.
 After roaming around for few hours, I walked into a cafe and contacted the german couple to let them know I might be headed to Berlin so was informing them as I had promised. They responded right away and I hopped on to the car. We had a pleasant conversation. They were intelligent, curious people with lots of question about India, my reasons to travel alone etc.
The tricky part came when they asked me where should they drop me off, while I had stayed in a fancy hotel in Potsdam with them, I didn’t know how to tell them to take me to a shady spot in East Berlin and so requested to be dropped off on the way to their destination. But they insisted on door to door service, and when I told them where I was staying, they got an alarmed look on their faces and recommended I move my residence right away due to nefarious elements that lurk in that area. I assured them I will be fine and they reluctantly left me at my hostel.
I was not yet done with the German hospitality. I ran into another nice German girl in the hall and got chatty with her. She said she knows all the cool spots in Berlin and offered to take me around,
Together we decided to check out the Berlin wall and checkpoint Charlie.
It was surreal , as I had seen the checkpoint in the German spy show, it was reliving history and she sensed that I was being respectful by not asking a lot of questions. She is a history major so luckily for me was happy to chat about it. She had a unique take on the events and reinforced my belief that Germans are indeed trying to over compensate for their actions during the world wars by taking in more refugees now.
We walked into a neat cafe which had chairs outside with warming heaters and blankets and we decided to have a few beers; it was a great conversation until two Italian gentlemen joined us. They insisted on buying drinks which we politely declined but they still felt it would be ok to stick around and monopolize our conversation. It really went tits up when one of them got handsy with me, started to kiss me and insisted we take a hotel to “make the sex”; the Italian cliche lives on.
We managed to shake them off as we left the cafe and got into a cab right away and they just stared at us open mouthed seemingly astonished that their charms were lost on us!
But lets talk about Berlin, the city is bike friendly, however, the bike path are right beside the pedestrian with little to no distinguishing markers, so be prepared to get shouted or spat at (apparently that happens) at if you do cross into bike lanes as I did.
The Germans are very polite and nice, which is not how the world perceives them, while the italian cliche was true, i am glad that German was not. Everyone i met was helpful, nice and pleasant, even respectfully curious about me.
Day 6: Tuesday, Nov 14th
I would love to have written that I took the walking tour, but unfortunately due to falling sick (from drinking beer and roaming out in cold) I had a severe headache  with sore throat and slept in. I woke up later than check out time and rushed to the airport for my flight to Vienna.
I reached Vienna and could tell right away that this is a world class city and my journey is about to get even better!
Day 7: Wednesday Nov 15th
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Wagner’s building

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National Opera House

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Albertina Museum

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National Library

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A Church

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Market

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St. Martin’s church

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Malange at Cafe Fraun Gruber

Having missed the walking tour in Berlin, I made sure that I go to the one in Vienna, so I got up early, had breakfast and started the tour at 10.30.
Our tour guide was passionate Viennese lady who took pride in her city and rightly so, and told us lot of viennese traditions such as sitting in a cafe for hours reading, ball room dancing season in January, eating Wurshtel with beer from the stands, eating dessert for lunch !
She took us through the important spots such as the Narscht Markt, Albertina Musuem, State Opera house, National Library, City Hall, St. Martin’s church and at the end she recommended to check out the cafe, Fraun Gruber off the Graben Square which doesn’t get a lot of tourist crowd and was also the last public place where Mozart performed.
So with the map and vague directions, I started to find the cafe, 2 American girls and one Irish gentleman joined me in my search and with team effort, we could locate it and found ourselves in a historic cafe where the waiters were dressed in coattails and bow ties.
I ordered the famous chocolate cake and a Melange coffee which is always served with water. That was a perfect Vienesse afternoon, spent discussing world events, on coffee and later alcohol, we chatted for 3 hours and got out when it was already dark, The Irish guy was leaving for Budapest, but I hung out with the American girls, Rachel, the phd student from Texas and Audrey, the intern at a Dutch company on a whirlwind tour of Europe before her internship was done.
It was very pleasant evening spent chatting on dinner and drinks and I make plans to go to Belvedere the next morning with Rachel.
Day 8: Thursday, Nov 16th 
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Belevedere Museum, Gardens

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Belveder Musuem

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Entrance

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National lib at night

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Random streets

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Cafe Central

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Cafe central, interiors

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Cafe central, interiors

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my order at the cafe

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Cafe central, interiors

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Christmas decorations starting to come up in the market, Operring street

I got up early and Rachel and I grabbed a quick breakfast at the Nascht Markt followed by an Uber ride to Vienna central and then a walk to the Belvedere.
The museum is surrounded by beautiful gardens and as you enter, you see a replica of the most famous painting housed in the museum, “The Kiss”, by Gustav Klimt. We took the 20 Euro ticket and went through the art work as well as the amazing architecture of the building itself.
However, we had over estimated our sophistication and were done within an hour , so we walked to a cafe and chatted till it was time for her to leave to Prague.
I went to Nuebengasse to check out the shopping but was throughly disappointed, so i headed back to the hostel. After resting, i headed out for a quick dinner and slept off.
Day 9: Friday, Nov 17th

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Sewer man

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Jewish memorial

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Bratislava Castle

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Bratislava at night

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UFO bridge

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As I was looking up day trips from Vienna, Bratislava cropped and I decided to go to as it was only an hour ride from Vienna and I wanted to check off eastern europe for my travel bucket list.
As I sat in the train and pondered over my life, I was felt rather proud of myself. From a nerd who only worried about her assignment, test scores, planned and organized to death, this was a 180 transformation! I was seizing the day, living precariously! Taking my chances. It was exhilarating, liberating and I felt like nothing can get me down !
So after a short train ride, I found myself in a rather desolate district of Petrezenka which made me have second thoughts about the trip.
Even though i have travelled far and wide, it shames me to say that my only knowledge of Bratislava comes from Euro trip which depicted it as a derelict eastern european town with communist under current.
As i walked through the city centre, that opinion only got reinforced. I settled myself in a cafe and decided to wait there till my walking tour started because it seemed a waste of time and probably dangerous to walk around in the city. But how wrong was I?!
At 3.15 I left the cafe and again was helped my a nice Slovak gentleman and his gf to the spot where the tour starts from. It was only then i realized that my first impression was so wrong. I came across trendy bars, boutiques and cafes that suggested this town has left its communist roots far behind.
I quickly made friends with two Brit girls and one Irish gentleman by the name of Kevin. We joked around the entire tour.
The guide was a fresh 24 year old with lots of passion and energy. It was biting cold but everyone stuck till the end.
We started the tour in the historic centre, where he gave a quick summary of the history from 300 AD till the 2005 when Slovakia was included in the Euro Zone. Then as we were taken through different parts of town, he explained significance of various statue, buildings, bridges, churches, the castle. From the top of the castle you can see three country boundary : Austria, Hungary and Slovakia. After 25 mins on the top of the castle with sub zero temperature and biting wind, it was a respite to go to a warm cafe and have hot chocolate. I like the fact that in Europe, hot chocolate is what it is supposed to be, not a sugary mix dissolved in milk or worse, hot water as in North America.
The tour ended soon after and I went for drinks with Kevin, somehow I convinced him to join me for the Christmas market tour the next day in Vienna.
He dropped me to a cab and I explained the driver where I wanted to go with considerable difficulty due to his lack of understanding of English. I was sure, he did understand Vienna and train but I panicked when he dropped me to a station which didn’t seem familiar at all. So I told him to take me over the bridge because that was the only landmark I remember. As this was unfolding, my mind was racing at light speed conjuring up various scenarios where I would soon pay the price of “living precariously”.
Soon liberation, exhilaration that I felt in the morning ride to Bratislava turned to panic attacks and hyper ventilation. Despite this, i stayed calm and collected and made sure I didn’t appear scared to the driver.
Picture this: A brown girl alone at night in cab going God knows where in Eastern Europe. It really cannot get worse than this. For a moment I thought of calling Kevin and asking where he was staying but I was relieved when the driver dropped me at the same stop from morning. However, he did haggle with the price, there was no point in arguing, i was just glad I could take a train back to Vienna and not get sold off to a Russian mobster ! Yes, I am imagining there will be lots of those in Bratislava!
I rushed inside the station, bought my ticket, jumped on the train and breathed a sigh of relief. I was home and dry by 12.30 at night and let Kevin know i reached sparing the melodramatic details!
Day 10: Saturday, Nov 18th
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Inside School of Fine arts

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Inside National Opera house

 

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Turtle necks..<3

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City Hall Christmas Market

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St. Martin’s church

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Band set to perform at the city hall

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my cute willies mug for mulled wine

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Inside the tropical garden cafe

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Butterfly garden

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Live Butterfly life cycle

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Kevin texted me that he would take the 11.30 train to Vienna so I hauled myself out of my bed, got ready and had a scrumptious breakfast at NENI, a cute contemporary restaurant i discovered in Nascht Markt. After breakfast, I checked out the interiors of many buildings that we first saw on the walking tour such as the Session, School of Fine Arts (THE SCHOOL which rejected Hitler’s application) , Albertina and did some souvenir shopping.
Then i went to Museum Cafe and waited for Kevin, who joined me for a coffee and dessert and then we picked one direction and started to walk. We came across the butterfly garden which also had a tropical theme cafe attached to it. Kevin really wanted to go so I followed. He paid for me and I told him if its good, i would owe him a drink.
I really liked the concept and the attention to detail in the garden, it was a very nice touch. We continued our walk which led us to the main christmas market in front of the city hall. There we had mulled wine which I bought for him , since I did owe him a drink. We got wine in cute and whimsical wellies shaped mug. We continued the walk towards St. Martin’s church, which is easy to spot from anywhere in the city. it is the defining feature of Vienna’s skyline appearing in many postcard. And I told him what little I remembered from my walking tour. He was glad he made the trip and thanked me and was excited to come back in June.
Soon enough we got hungry and looked for a spot for him to try the famous Viennese Schitnzel. We went into several spots but walked out due to various reasons. Sadly, we had to settle for a turkish restaurant but he still liked the food, so i suppose it was not that bad.
He left for Bratislava after dinner and I made way to my hotel. There I had an epic struggle with my suitcase as I had bought a shit load of stuff but I won eventually. Having a 4 inch think lonely planet didn’t help the matters and I missed my trusted backpack which had much more room.
Day 11: Sunday, Nov 19th
It was time to fly back home and with a heavy heart I checked out of the hostel and made way to the airport. After check in, I had 20 mins to roam around and I managed to grab a cute bracelet and a beanie on the way to the plane. I wanted to make every second count.
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Bracelet from Vienna

This was my first time travelling solo. While i had been thinking about it for a long time, it just happened this year.
I think it was because before I used to always find someone to travel with and while that was great, it did create dependency on their availability and also bit of conflict when I wanted to do something different.
I must say, after travelling by myself, it will be v v difficult for me to travel with other people. Because not only you meet more solo travellers like yourself, which is great to build a network, you also have freedom to go at your own pace. Get up whenever you want, sit in a cafe for hours doing nothing, watch people.
I had a great time and I think this will be my mode of travel till I meet someone who is worth the effort.
On my way back, i got an upgrade to premium economy, law of averages caught up with me finally ! in a good way!
Photo credits to Kevin Mullan for pics from Bratislava and Vienna Christmas market.
The whole trip including flights, accommodation, food, drinks, shopping cost me 1500 Euros. I did shop for over 450 Euros; which I assume not a lot of people would do. So you can do it for much less.
A quick note on Fashion in Europe:
I love fashion. I might even call myself a fashion victim. But I always look for classy, elegant pieces that survive trends and look timeless whenever you put them on. I strive to look effortlessly stylish instead of appearing like I put in a lot of thought into my looks.
When I travelled to Spain last year, I took my usual sturdy denim shorts and few t shirts, lugged my backpack around which screamed tourist. This time I didn’t want to stick out like a sore thumb so I took my roll on suitcase, my cute leather backpack, nice boots and leather pants to fit in better.
I loved the shopping scene in Berlin. It was original, eclectic, sophisticated and affordable. Vienna disappointed me, because it just had extremely high end brands or very run of the mill ones. And not a lot of native designers to chose from.
Some of the items of clothing I noticed on women were leather pants and skirts, leather shearling jackets, backpacks were choice of storage, neutral tones for clothes mostly black.
In Vienna, the style was tad more on the classy side. With flared skirts, tall boots accessories such as scarves lent an air of elegance providing warmth at the same time.
I tried to bring those elements into my wardrobe by making a conscious decision to shop only local boutiques or brands and I am very happy with my choices. I think I will wear them for a long time.
As always, thanks for reading my blog. Until next time! Tschüs!
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Mexico: Yucatan Peninsula’ Feb 2017

 

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Beyond myself, somewhere, I wait for my arrival: Octovio Paz 

Nobody could have summed up the feeling in the heart of every traveller better than the Nobel Laurette from Mexico: Octovio Paz.

For what is a journey ? but a path to discover and rediscover ourselves and we wait, for that one day when we finally arrive and meet a transformed version of ourselves.

Salute to the maestro!

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While I raved about Europe, I was quite oblivious to treasures closer home. Ashish was the one who constantly talked about Latin America and having visited Cuba and Chile with him, i did get the reason why. But truly speaking, i got more interested only after reading amazing work of literature from those countries. In one such conversation, he brought up ChiChin Itza.

Funny how people leave, but they plant seeds in your mind which take root and blossom into beautiful journeys.

The initial plan was to do it alone since I didn’t want to drag Pratima as I knew she had to go to India in April and her leave situation at work was not the best.

In fact, i didn’t have to bring it up. She asked me if I wanted to go to Vegas and of course I didn’t. I associate Vegas with debauchery resulting in drunken stupor with few blunders along the way that you will live to regret. So I surreptitiously yet cunningly suggested Mexico and she agreed on spot (as usual). And I scurried off on Amazon, buying a lonely planet here, a collection of Mexican short stories and a heavy political read there.

Once I equipped my arsenal; I had a long chat with my friend Serena (names have been changed to protect identity) and she lent me a worn out copy of her travel books and I started preparing for the journey using them. She gave me a pretty solid foundation to begin planning and instinctively I knew I wanted to target Yucatan and stay away from the centre. It was brought upon by anxiety from media coverage of Mexico’s drug cartel which are active around the capital and up country and also because of the fascinating Ceynotes.

One look at the Ceynote and I was sold. The deep blue water in cavernous opening beckoned me from my laptop screen.

The more I read about Mexico, I felt a kinship. Like Mexico, I grew up in the shadow of my sister. Also, despite being blessed with lots of opportunities, loving parents, I feel like I have not achieved my true potential and that the best is yet to come. And I believe maybe..just maybe.. despite the naysayers, best is yet to come even for Mexico only if they own their history can they command their destiny.

A really difficult part of growing up is to dissociate yourself from the idea of success forced by society, becoming aware of your flaws and then reinventing yourself to reach your true potential. I think this country is still lacking on self awareness. They are timid when they should be proud, they look to America when they should be looking inwards for inspiration , they are constantly second guessing themselves. Even a revolution could not save them, a democracy could not liberate them. To the world, they are America’s subservient neighbours, to themselves they are an enigma, to me they are on precipice of greatness.

I want to show the world what I saw, share with them what I felt so they can reimagine Mexico to be not just a travel spot but revere a country that created a great civilizations, had its own trials, faced natural catastrophe yet came out stronger with an unbreakable spirit.

I continue writing as Ricky Martin croons latest chartbusters … and no girl minds Ricky martin saying sweet nothings in her ears. 🙂 “vente pa ca….”

Day 1: Toronto to Cancun

We left for the airport and boarded the flight which was on time, the immigration at the Mexico airport was fast and soon we were out looking for transportation to our hotel in the downtown.

Before we left for the trip, Pratima was concerned about how seedy our hotel was and I was busy with work and planning rest of the trip so didn’t pay much attention and kept telling her she is over reacting and that it will be ok.

How wrong was I! I must say my heart leaped to my throat as we reached the hotel. It seemed like we stepped into the seedy underbelly of Mexico. There were cops everywhere and it looked like a drug deal had gone bust right in our hotel. We reached our room and despite my best efforts to avert my eyes off the open windows, I could not help but notice nefarious  characters in their underwear hanging off the windows chatting on phone (probably calling a prostitute or ordering a take out for drugs). Even the cops were giving us the once over and we dashed to our rooms and locked ourselves in.

The door was a portal to a horror movie set of the 60’s. Bare minimum room with a creaking fan, rickety old beds, dirty beige bed covers and a strange phenolic and urinal smell assaulting our nostrils. I gave apologetic looks to Pratima and we decided that we will book hostels for the rest of the days that we planned to stay in Cancun.

Unfortunately, as much as we wanted to hole up in the room and not step out till check out time, we had to go out to get water. So we stepped back outside and bought bottles and ran back inside. I had a fitful sleep majorly because of the fear of someone busting our doors and holding us hostage.

Day 2: Velladolid 

I woke up to a strange sound of scraping across the floor coming from the room above and had visions of someone dragging a body. That shook me up and without mentioning it to Pratima, i started packing stuff and she sensed the urgency or perhaps had heard the same voice and followed suit.

We got out and pretty much threw the keys at the receptionist and ran to the bus stop. On the way to the bus station, each of us grabbed breakfast empanadas and waited for the bus. The journey was uneventful and we reached in little over 2 hours.

Our hostel in Velladolid was charming, clean with friendly staff and a great location. But our woes were not over. While we got a great place to stay, we also got a rather interesting psychopath who befriended us the moment we stepped in the dorm.

A part of travel I enjoy is meeting people and when she approached I was my usual friendly self and before I knew it, she was having lunch with us at the Yerba Buena. This was a great restaurant recommended by Lonely Planet and had lots of veggie choices. The juice and coffee were great too. However, our unwelcome companion complained throughout the meal and felt that the owner was particularly ignoring her. Wish she had understood how rude she was! She sounded and acted like a typical American. I am shocked how opposite Americans and Canadians are when it comes to their attitudes, demeanour and approach to life and boy am I glad I live in Canada.

It was almost 3.00 pm and the Xchichen keynote that we wanted to visit was closing at 6.00, so instead of waiting for the collectivo, we took a cab. I wanted to control spending and was a bit anxious but cabs are super cheap in Mexico as is the food. I felt like this was a single most important factor in helping us do and see much more in a short time. If not for this, we would have been stuck taking the local transport and cooking our food.

As we reached Xchichen, we found the ceynote teeming with people. It gets dark and damp as you step into the cavern. I stepped into the chilly water and lapped around, soon Pratima joined at the edges and so did the psycho. 🙂

We splashed around for a bit and then came out and had drinks. Even though we didn’t do much, i was starting to feel drained and we took a cab back to our hostel.

We came to the hostel, bathed and stepped out again. Now we had a permanent third wheel stuck to our side. At first i didnt’ mind her presence, but she would not let me and Pratima talk at all. On her insistence, we went to a fine dining hotel, Del Marquis, the food was lacklustre and pricey.

I could see Pratima phasing out and I took it  as a sign of either boredom or tiredness. Anyway, it had been a long day and I suggested to head back to the hostel.

When we reached the hostel, Pratima and I were packing for the next day as we were planning to go to Chi Chin Itza and then head to Merida. Psycho convinced us to stay here and do Ek Balam instead as it was much closer to Velledolid and though it required shifting our plans and losing money on our one night s booking, we agreed.

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Ceynote Xchichen

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City of Velladolid with the monastery behind

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Hostel

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Ceynote Xchichen

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Hostel Velladolid

Day 3: Ek Balam

Next morning, the three of us got up and psycho was slow as usual, I told her that I will head out for coffee and she can catch us later. She decided she doesn’t need breakfast and tailed us in high speed.

One thing that annoyed me was that none of the coffee stores were open even at 8.30 so we ended up drinking bad coffee. I was also rather surprised that the coffee was not upto my expectations or maybe Cuban coffee had spoilt me.

We took the cab again since the cost would be split between 3 people. As we reached, we saw several guides and when i started to approach one, the psycho told us that they over charge and tell nothing of importance. Even though we agreed, i had misgivings the whole time and from the snippets of the commentary that i heard from other groups, i had a major FOMO and kept telling Pratima that we had made a mistake. She too agreed since we were just gawking at the structures and had no sense of what they meant, when was it built, what is the significance to the Mayan history.

We climbed to the top and kept berating ourselves for listening to her advice. And being girls, we started to share our feeling (aka bitching) about our new “friend”. This led to a major resentment built up and we decided to get back at her in our own way.

However, on reading about the site in Lonely planet, one gets to know that Ek Balam or the black jaguar was considered to be the ruler of the underworld and revered and feared in equal measure. The temple had stuko and carvings of an open mouthed jaguars and skulls at the bottom, a recurring theme across all Mayan ruins.

As she joined us, we gave our best plastic smiles and headed to the ceynote. She mentioned how we could do Chi Chinitza the same day. It was 12.30 already, the sun was high, we didnt’ want to skip the ceynote, and frankly i had had enough of her BS!

So even though i wanted to shut her up, I asked Pratima if she wanted to visit ChiChin Itza with a special signal that only two people who have known each other for long time understand. She glared at me and loudly voiced her opinion about how ridiculous the idea was. I shrugged my shoulders at psycho and somehow she took it as a sign that there was difference of opinion between me and Pratima, since then she started to drive a rift between us. Making obscure comments and it was rather funny to watch. She thought she was messing us up but in the process looked like a pathetic loser.

Ek Balam ceynote was open to the sky and more inviting because there were no bats hanging on the walls. We swam for sometime and then took our bikes back to the entrance.

I had read that there was a great spa / boutique hotel in Ek Balam and really wanted to see what the hype was about, so we took the cab to Genesis Oasis and I was sorely dissapointed when I found out that they don’t open to non residents for lunch. Not only that, the owner ( A Canadian) was rather rude and didn’t even let us in to show us around. There website was not helpful at all, had i known this before I wouldn’t have gone.

We headed back to Velladolid and stopped for lunch at ceynote Xaci, there i was served a huge portion of lunch that i barely touched and psycho talked non stop nonsense. Finally I made a rude comment at her which of course didn’t bother her at all and she continued her rampage.

We then walked to this little cafe run by a Mexican lady who was also a herbalist. Her food was really good and I wish I had a chance to go back and eat lunch. But we did have very nice tea and cakes and were ready for our naps.

Back in the hostel, the psycho tailed me and I pretended to read a book and then write in my journal, all in vain. She refused to take a hint to leave me alone. Finally i got up and flopped on bed to catch a wink. The band playing outside on the town square only left me drifting in and out of slumber and i woke up when Pratima shook my feet.

She told me in low conspiratorial tones that the psycho was sleeping and it was a great time to give her the slip and head out. Despite wanting to get rid of her desperately we did fret a bit on how it would look being the good guys.

We thought it would be a nice idea to check out the stores here for souvenirs but buy then when we reach Merida since we didn’t want to carry too much stuff around. Both bought Mexican bags and some other nick nicks and then headed to a restaurant recommended by the store owner. The setting was very nice, but the food was horrible. The watermelon juice was more water and less melon. All the dishes were bland and uninspiring.

This came as a shock to me, I am used to much better Mexican food in Toronto.  Who were they catering to by putting out food fit for dogs. And then it hit me. This was made to please the masses. Hordes of Americans and Canadians that visit mexico would love food like this. Indian palette is sophisticated and difficult to please so I was not expecting fireworks but I did expect fresh fruit juices.

A big part of the problem brought to my knowledge courtesy “Democracy interrupted” by Jo Tuckman is that Mexicans are yet to own their identities. If you don’t like food in french restaurants, the fault is yours but the tables are turned in Mexico. They imagine no one will like their original food and hence pelt out unimaginative bland dishes.

Pratima was very concerned for her safety after our daring escape from psycho, she was convinced that the psycho would kill her in her sleep. When we got back, psycho was waiting in the lair and pounced on us with her saccharine smile.

She even brought tequila and beers to share. I pointedly handed tea bags to Pratima to signal we are ready to wind down for the night. She took the hint and let us be. As we drank tea, we discussed how audacious she was thinking she could stick to us and make us change our plans.

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Level 2: Navigated by the stairs to the top

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level 2: Open mouth of the Jaguar

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Staring down at the bottom

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Ceynote at Ek Balam

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Cycling back from Ceynote

Day 4: Chi Chin Itza and Merida 

We were ready with our plates when the breakfast started to serve at 7.00 a.m. I was very surprised to see psycho up at that time as she had no plans of going anywhere and she had already seen Chi Chin Itza. We bid her good bye, but she insisted on taking Pratima s no, i had given her one of icy stares and caustic replies so she kept an arms distance. Pratima gave her a wrong no and we made haste.

As we reached the bus station, we saw a collectivo head out and asked the driver how much he would take. Our estimate was 35-50 pesos but when he said 350 / head, i was shocked and started to negotiate but then we walked off. We looked around and there was no other collectivo leaving, we didn’t want to waste time as we had been warned about the how brutal the sun at noon could be so we thought we will go back to the one we saw before.

As we reached, Pratima suggested that we negotiate and bring the price down to 300/head and I agreed. I started to insist that he take 600 pesos in my broken Spanish. And a nice gentleman came upto us and informed that he was asking for 35 and not 350 pesos, i realized how dangerous half baked knowledge could be and gave 70 pesos. But we had a good laugh about how stupid we looked negotiating with the driver. He asked for 70 and we insisted on giving 600 with a smattering of “por favors”, he must have thought we had some kind of twisted humour.

Anyway, the price of the guide is steep at 900 pesos but it can be easily split if you get other people to join the group. Which is super easy. Lots of people approached us to join their group and we quickly headed to the ruins with our guide.

The sun was starting to beat down. El Castillo, the big pyramid at the centre takes your breath away not because it is big / beautiful but because you start to wonder how the Mayans managed to build this without any beast of burdens to carry the rocks or wheels. They just used ropes just like Incas in Peru to build Machu Pichu.

The entire compound used to be coloured turquoise and red and if you close your eyes you can imagine the grander of the Mayan empire at its peak. They were built from 500-800 AD and had social gathering places such as the temple of rain god, basket ball field and the square for town gatherings. It also had an observatory for recording movements of the stars and other celestial bodies. Mayans believed in astronomy and were worshippers of the forces of nature such as sun, rain, moon, venus and animals such as the jaguar.

Chi Chin Itza was included as the seventh wonder of the world dethroning the Giza Pyramid. One wonders why one pyramid was considered more important than the others. Not having been to Egypt I can’t do justice to this comparison. But what I can tell is that the pyramids here were not merely burial grounds for the royalty, they were a manifestation of the Mayan’s superior knowledge of the astronomy. The 365 steps represent the no of days, the four sides- four seasons, the two snakes on either side are illuminated equally on the equinoxes when hoards of tourists gather to watch this phenomenon. I see them as portals through which the ancient Mayan still talk to this generation and if we listen carefully, they give a message of being at peace with nature, invoke realization that we are nothing but a speck in the grand scheme of the universe.

And this is an important message for humanity in general and Mexicans in particular. With the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, lack of conservation of bio diversity, extreme mining by Canadian and American companies, Mexico is at a high risk of losing its ecological balance. The coral reefs face immense danger from overflow of tourists and are continuously been destroyed with exposure to sunscreen. Cancun is nothing but a mound of man made island created by shifting sand from nearby islands. Although the tourist industry is thriving and creating employment, but the real cost far outweighs the revenues. This is heartbreaking to watch and I wonder if there could be more ethical travelling where in we can reduce our impacts and still enjoy the beauty of other countries.

We also visited the sacred ceynote where the brutal tradition of sacrificing human heart took place. In one excavations several skulls and lots of gold was unearthed therefore confirming that they indeed did carry out this inhuman practice to appease the rain god.

By the time we got into the bus, we were drained and tired and as we reached Velladolid we thought a good lunch can surely lift our spirits before we headed to Merida. So off we went hunting for a good spot. We walked around in circles and then got v tired and frustrated and sat down on a pavement cafe and munched some tepid Mexican fair before heading back to the hostel to pick up our backpacks.

The psycho had been waiting for us as usual and “happened” to leave right at the same time as we did. She made it very awkward but I was resolute and ignored her to the point till she lost our trail as we boarded the bus to Merida.

We reached our Lonely Planet recommended hostel, “Los Nomadas” in the centre of the town. And showered and headed out for food. On the way I fell in love with a red hand woven scarf but refrained from buying as I wanted to conduct due diligence regarding the prices. We walked into M60 which is basically a street food corner but had more non mexican options but we did narrow down to some stores selling Mexican food.

My longniza tacos were v good and the store owner was super cordial and nice and even took our pics to put on his Facebook page.

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Observatory at Chi Chin Itza

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Skulls on the wall: A reminder of human sacrifice

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Basket ball field

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El Castillo

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Temple of sun god

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Merida at night

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M60: Street food corner

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Day 5: Merida

We took a walking tour the next morning. I personally find them very informational and a great way to orient ourselves in the city. The guide was good however, there were too many of us and I wished they had split the crowd into two groups. I was being my annoying self and asked a lot of questions to the point that one lady asked if I had a history major. 😛

The city was founded by Francesco Montego who missed Seville so much that he modelled this on his beloved city. It has many city squares lined on four sides with art galleries, boutique hotels and churches.

After a quick coffee break, we headed to Museo del Mundo Maya. It took us 2 full hours as we went about learning about the Mayan history. I don’t want to diminish their contribution by writing on my blog as I feel like I am very unqualified and also humbled so I would suggest you pick a book by Octavio Paz and travel to the “Mundo del Maya”.

Our legs were giving in by the time we were done and we took a cab to another LP recommended restaurants. As usual poor Pratima didn’t have a lot of choices and they refactored a non veg dish for her.

We rested a bit at the hostel. Or tried to. There was loud banging going next to us and I complained to the hostel staff. They were nice enough and upgraded us to an amazing poolside room with a private bathroom. We were elated, they even offered for us to extend our stay for a day without any extra charge but we had intense plans for the next day.

We headed out again to the Cathedral de San Ildefonso as we wanted to see the statue of the christ that was made from a tree trunk that stuck by lightening but burnt without charring. After having a look, we searched for the Casa de las Artesanas which is a government store that sells local art at fixed prices. It had the quintessential Mexican stuff but at great prices. I would not recommend to get chocolates or coffee. However, we did get souvenirs, gifts, decorative items for our places and chilmole, habanero sauce.

We had dinner at LP reco; Lo Chaya Maya and we discovered our favourite drink; Lemon Con Chaya. Chaya is a herb similar to chervil and it takes like basil and mint combined. I ordered a seafood fajitas and Pratima ordered some vegetarian dish I cannot recall.

As we reached hostel, our aching bodies were screaming with pain and we pondered when to get up tomorrow for the bus. The plan was to go to the Uxmal ruins and then head to Tulum. When we found out that the bus to Uxmal leaves at 6.00 am and then at 9.00 am, we seriously reconsidered. Getting up at 5.00 o catch the bus was out of question, waiting for 9.00 am bus would mean reaching Tulum quite late. So with a heavy heart we made a decision not to go. That immediately lead to a chatting session; funny how soon we got over this loss. 😛

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Plaza Mayor

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Jesuit Church

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Palacio Municipal

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Palacio Municipal

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Colorful streets of Merida

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Plaza Mayor

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Dinner at Lo Chaya Maya

Day 6: Tulum

We got up at 8.00, had breakfast and hopped on the bus to Tulum.It took us 4 hours to reach Tulum from Merida.

We were in for a rude shock as our hostel and its care taker can only be described as the stuff a travellers night mare are made of. The room was dank and light deprived, next to a washroom whose wall had not even been raised to the ceiling. As you can imagine it was smelling and looking quite bleak. They also expected their guests to have night vision as the room didn’t have any lamps to help us see what we might walk into. I gave an earful to the caretaker and he had that smug look which made we want to smack him.

Pratima suggested we get out of this hell hole and head to the beach. We had a quick bite at this hole in the wall place and then took a cab to the beach. There we frolicked around in the water. I found it rather chilly and proceeded to sunny spots on the beach. The day was starting to wind down and so were we.

We reached our hostel, I took a quick shower trying hard not to touch anything in the filthy washroom. After searching long and hard as we always do, debating the pros and cons of eating at this place or that, we settled on a supposedly local joint. The only high point was two for one drinks , food was sans salt, sans taste but we were too drunk and too tired to bother. We laughed and joked and enjoyed the live music and then walked back checking out the stores on the way.

 

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Hostel at Tulum

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Out for dinner at Tulum

 

 

Day 7: Tulum and Cancun

Early morning after waiting for breakfast to be prepared on time, we left and grabbed a coffee and croissant on the way to the ruins.

Before i launch into how beautiful the ruins looked against a backdrop of shocking blue water, i want to tell my readers a disheartening reality of tourism. The entry fee was just 70 pesos, however, if you want to take a tour it was 20USD / person and another USD 20 / person for a boat ride to see the ruins from ocean side even if you don’t go snorkelling.

This meant USD 40 instead of USD 3, and to sell it to us, they had promised we will get coveted spots to sit on the beach and one free drink each. The spots were a bunch of beat up plastic chairs with a flapping tarp on top for cover and drinks were coke and water stored in a cooler on the beach. This seemed like such a rip off and I would highly recommend just reading about these ruins in a book / youtube video.

Anyway, the guide gave us a perfunctory tour, missed out to tell the layout and his explanation didn’t reconcile with what i had read before, so i was super dissatisfied. We walked a mile and a half in heat to the beach and discovering what was offer in our USD 40 only added fuel to fire.

We sat on the porch of the resort to wear our shoes on the way back to the street and a guard shouted at us and asked us to get up. I flipped my middle finger to his face and he offered me his dirtiest smile!

We swam a bit and then left for the hotels to collect our things and could not wait to get away from this over priced, over hyped town.

The bus frequency had not disappointed us the whole while in Mexico and we immediately boarded the bus to Cancun. On the way, we slept and reached in 2 hours. Our hostel was close to the bus station and had a welcoming vibe. It was managed by a bunch of charming Argentine girls and guys who were most helpful and accommodating.

We took the receptionist’s suggestions on what we can do in the one day that we had in Cancun and she suggested Isla Mujeres because it had white sands and clear blue water. I also managed to wrangle a month long itinerary for Argentina from the care takers and they were most helpful and quite excited to share the secrets of Argentina with me. We talked about tango and I (think) I impressed them with my references to Carlos Gardel and appreciation of Mendoza wines. 😛

We then proceeded for dinner to an extremely fancy place,La Habichuela, where only people over 60 were eating. We stood out like sore thumbs in our jean shorts, beachy, sticky, salty hair. The meal was finger licking good, service was exceptional and the vibe was very warm. I don’t even remember how much we paid because it didn’t matter, the entire experience was worth it.

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Temple of the Venus

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Main temple at Tulum

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Boat ride in Tulum

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My month long Argentina itinerary

Day 8: Isla Mujeres 

We got up and I noticed that they had only meat options for breakfast while i looked incredulously at what was on display, the guy in the kitchen tinkered about.

I approached him and asked,” I have a question”, to which he replied, “yes, I am single”. Keep in mind he was a Argentine guy, a typical Mexican guy would probably not have a direct approach with a foreign looking girl. I laughed and asked him if he had any vegetarian option and he made some veggie sandwiches.

We caught the ferry to the Isla Mujeres and were astounded at how blue the ocean was , how white the sand was and Pratima had her wish fulfilled. She wanted to drive in Mexico and although riding a golf cart is not the same, it is similar. Even I drove a bit, with my hands at 10 and 2, back stiff and piercing concentration that made Pratima worry about her safety.

She asked me to hand over the reins and we had a jolly ride along the coast of the Island from south to north. We returned the cart and went to look for a spot to lie down on the beach, after much haggling we landed on a spot we didn’t like at all.

That didn’t dampen our spirit and we took pics, played in water, however, i had started to feel a bit cold and then changed into my clothes, Pratima joined me and we went to a famous sea food restaurant, Los Minimos. The whole grilled fish was delicious but poor Pratima s food sucked. I felt quite bad about it, vegetarians have pretty bad eating choices in Latin America, the whole vegetarian concept is laughable to them.

Tired but satisfied with our beach time, we headed back to Cancun. We had the burrito at the hostel, they provided a free dinner along with breakfast which was a great bonus. We wanted to go to the museum the next day and I asked Pratima at that time our flight left. When she told me at 2.30, we dismissed the idea and got up late, packed and left.

At the airport, we found some cool t shirts however, they were very pricey. We were determined not to overspend because we wanted to save for our next trip to Europe. So we held on our purse string and on the plane I did some fast calculations and realized that the whole trip including shopping cost us 1750$/ person which was not bad at all considering we took cabs and ate out all the time.

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Playa del Sur: Southern most point of Isla Mujeres

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On the way back on ferry

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Whole fish at Los Minimos

 

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Cancun Hostel

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Cancun Hostel

************************ After thoughts *******************************

This trip was whirlwind like no other. In Pratima I had found a perfect travel partner, one who could restrain me when i went overboard but also match my unbridled and unconfined enthusiasm for the unknown and the unexplored. In the trip, I learnt more about her, myself and our friendship.

I found her to be an extremely difficult person to take care of. She is so strong, such a happy person, even when she was in pain, she didn’t slow down and kept going. I had planned the trip from beginning to the end, but when we reached she took control and i sit back and let her pour over the routes and worry about maps and schedules. This is why we are a good team, i conceptualize ideas and plan and she is a great executor. While I fret and fume, she is the calming influence and always puts my mind to rest, to keep me tethered but also give let me fly far and wide without losing way back home.

Mexico generated the exact same feeling. Where I knew I was thousands of miles away from home, yet in spirit I was very close. Like India, apart from being a developing economy, it has a colourful vibrant culture, similar struggles and outlooks on life and family.

I wish and know in my heart that Mexico will be the capital of the new world. Having sided with USA on several issues important to Latin Americans, it has lost foothold among its peers. Castro, Hugo Chavez and others pointedly ignore Mexico in international conventions which sure hurts. But like I said, it struggles to come out of the shadows of the giant next door and the only way i see out is to look within.

Thanks for joining me on my journeys! until next time, adios!

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Weary traveller return: On UP express from Pearson

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All the admission tickets to the ruins

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the red scarf I fell in love with and later bought

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the sauces and little souvenirs I got for myself and my family

 

Meesha

References:

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  1. First stop in the new world: David Lida
  2. Democracy Interrupted: Jo Tuckman
  3. Heart of the artichoke: Elena Poniatowska
  4. Lonely Planet: Mexico
  5. Yucatan Peninsula: Moon books
  6. End of Nature: Bill Mckibben

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Standard

Cuba Oct’2016

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can’t get more quintessential than this

Epilogue:

When you visit Cuba, and by that I dont mean stay sipping cocktails in a resort, when you step out and scour the backlanes of Havana, soak in the tranquility of Vinales and immerse yourself with abandon in little calles of Trinidad, till you are heady with the mixture of cigar, rum and coffee, its only then Cuba opens itself to you.

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Before Chile happened, there was Cuba, in my mind and Ashiesh’s, but more so in Ashiesh’s. He always had an affinity for Latin America in general and Cuba in particular. He roots for the under dog and I just love the vibrance of salsa, kick in a mojito and punch of a well brewed coffee. In fact, Ashish had lived right next door to Cuba in Virginia in the USA for so many years and still haven’t been there, he kept harping on it the entire trip till I told him that these things happen only in the right company aka Meenal Sharma. Without me, he would have not survived, i can say that for sure, his Spanish is limited to “No comprendo” (which also I taught him) and on his best days, people barely get his English. 😛 Even his Hindi comes with a lilt and an accent which cannot even be placed!

Both of us didn’t want to do resort, but then the best value for money is if you book through Sunwings, in $730 we got return ticket and 7 days stay (breakfast included). The plan was to reach there with the package and then stay in Casa Particulars ( these are rooms that people rent out in their homes, this way they make money and we get a taste of real Cuba). I booked Casas in Old Havana, Trinidad and Vinales via email. We got quick responses from all of them. The payment is only in cash when you reach.

Once the broad strokes were done, I took the baton of planning. I had just completed my reading of Cuba: An outlaw culture survives by Ben Corbett and The Cuban Night by Pico Ayer, so was intrigued and fascinated in equal measure.

While “Outlaw culture survives” is a non fictional account of Cuba’s past struggles till 2001, “The Cuban Night” is a love story weaved in the by lanes of Havana, masterfully crafted by intertwining love, heartbreak and freedom.

My first impression on reading books and watching documentaries on Cuba was that of an impoverished communist state where people starve for food, freedom and fun. On reaching there, I found out that they maybe lacking in modern comfort but not in spirit. And that is what makes Cuba an eternal anomaly, struggle and joy co-exiting and co-creating the landscape that is Cuba.

Without further ado and psycho babble, I present to you the ever evolving Cuba that never misses a beat.

Day 1: oct 8th

Flight, landing transfer to Havana.

For simple reasons of economy, we decided to fly into Varadero and took a prearranged transfer from there to our resort in Havana.

The airport is quaint and people are polite and always smiling. Ashish carried only a small backpack for the entire 7 days and was stopped by the airport personnel on his way out because they could not believe he packed so little, and we constantly surprised people in the resort and the Casa regarding our luggage.

I felt this was due to their impression of tourists, who they feel have so much more than them, of course there are few outliers like me and Ashish who travel shockingly light. 🙂

A hot and humid air greets you as you step outside. We quickly exchanged our CAD into CUC and stepped into the transfer bus. The bus had some interesting occupants. Three middle aged, boisterous, drunk American men: think a typical Donald Trump supporter!

We rolled our eyes as Ashish continuously declined free beers from them. At one point Ashish had to pull me by the seats of my pants so I don’t launch myself at those uncomely occupants of our bus!

The driver put some music on the way, of which one song stuck, “Shaky, Shaky, Shaky…”

Enjoy!

On reaching the resort, we decided to check out the nearby area, we had seen a lot of cool clubs on the drive over so we walked into a sea front club called “Havana Play” which had a queue of crazed teenagers outside, clearly not a scene for 30 somethings. That was all it took for us to call it a night, who were we kidding? We both wanted to sleep, simple as that, however, kudos to both of us for trying to make an effort. 😛

Ashish stuffed his ears with plugs and slept like a babe, I on the other hand, tossed and turned thanks to the loud music from that club. At 2.00 am I gave up and just stared into darkness hoping that would tire me into sleeping.

Day 2: Oct 9th , Old Havana

I got up groggy and irritated, Ashish maintained a good distance to avoid getting into my claws. We went down for breakfast and the sun began to shine after my first Cuban coffee, an affair that will last a lifetime. 🙂 I fear what will happen when my stash is over.

We stuffed our faces sitting in front of the pool and I decided to jump in the inviting waters. Ashish sat there reading Lonely Planet and advertising the fact that he is a text book hippie traveller. 🙂

We were greeted by our tour representative who gave us options for various tours that were offered from their company. We booked 3 of those:

  1. Havana City Tour
  2. Overnight Cienfuegos and Trinidad tour
  3. Buena Vista Social Club live performance

Then off we went to old Havana, the part I was most excited about. I had booked a Lonely Planet recommended Casa, “Juan and Margharita” which is right on Obispo next to “Floridita”. While the location was excellent, afraid I can’t say the same about the place itself. To say that our experience was bad would be an understatement, this guy was charging us for water, asked to return his map, did not provide any food options and had a creepy smile that matched this horrid experience.

Ashish had that look where I know he was going to punch the guy or leave in disgust if he was unable to. At this juncture, I decided the best course of action will be to separate the clueless offender from the silently raging bull. So i waited for a pause in his monologue (and waited.. and waited); finally he took a breath and I told him we will talk to him in case we need anything and we must leave now.

Obispo is the main artery of Old Havana, everything revolves around it, if you take it all the way north, you reach Plaza de Armas, you if go south, you reach Prado which houses Capitol, several museos, famous hotels such as Park Central, Ingletera and Saratoga. If you walk north on Prado; you hit Malecon, the defining characteristics of Havana. Beyond Prado on the

Just like kids in Disneyland, we were confused, overwhelmed and indecisive where to venture first. Ashish decided we should go to this Lonely Planet recommended restaurant, “El Template” since I am a sea food enthusiast.

The streak of mis fortune continued and the food was not only horrible but we were also hesitant spectators to two street singers who refused to part till we paid them. We took the winding lanes back to our Casa but I was intrigued by this palatial looking building which was a boutique hotel. I almost stepped in but Ashish said we can check it out the next day, so I had my one foot inside and one outside. The doorman sensed the longing and hesitation and invited us in more out of pride than anything else.

We stepped in gingerly and inside awaited us a world of grandeur and old charm in all its imposing glory. Ashish decided to have coffee (at that hour of night, :P) and I had a daiquiri. The drinks matched the decor to say the least and I wondered out loud how expensive this would be and if we could afford it. Ashish put my doubts to rest by proclaiming that we must do this now or we will regret it, I just needed this positive reassurance to find the gumption to ask the price. it was CUC 190 which is approx. 250 CAD, this was steep but we had already decided, asking the price was a pretence we both got quickly over with.

We came out on the main street of downtown which houses landmarks such as Teatro, Capital building, hotels such as Ingletera and Park Central and took some pictures.

We walked back to the casa but then it was just 9.00 pm so we decided to grab few drinks at “Basque de Bologna” , a resto bar known more for live performances than food. Locals danced with abandon on salsa tunes while I stared at them wishing that the person next to me was not so boring and would actually get up and dance! if not in Cuba then where?!

Finally, we made our way back to the Casa, that characterless, over sanitized, a rip off of a dump. We slept in a small bed which had a trampoline for a mattress on which I performed feats of impossible agility the whole night with Ashish rolling and bouncing besides me.

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Ashish in contemplation

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sun junkie

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happy me, crazed maniac

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In front of Teatro America

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A teeny weeny car

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One of gazillions street shows

Day 3: Oct 10th 

We woke up and bid adieu to the creepy smile and had a lack lustre breakfast at Hotel Ingleterra on Prado. This hotel is akin to Hilton / Mariot. It was stripped of personality to give an appearance of muted elegance which looked misplaced next to the chaotic backdrop of Havana. On top of that, they committed the eternal sin of serving cold coffee which to me is unpardonable.

I wanted to drink good coffee and Ashish thought it will be in his best interest to entertain my wishes lest I rip his head off in caffeine deprivation. We stepped into a French Patiserrie next door and I had my coffee cravings satiated. Now bight and shiny, I marched with Ashish to the San Frances square which is designed on Spanish architectural principles and transports you to the time when the life happened in the town square and not on a smart phone!

We had a coconut ice cream and watched a street show. We were looking for Calle Marcaderes since morning and we finally walked into it on leaving Calle San Rafael. I have a talent of walking into undiscovered treasures of any city. In this case, it was a perfumery that had been functional since past 100 years on the same spot. I bought a heavenly fragrance called “Cubana Elegante”. After our horrid exp with food , Ashish decided we will not spend a lot of money on it and just make do. I agreed 100% but kept rejecting all the food options he suggested until we came across a pallador. Pallador are the new kid on the block since loosening of sanctions on private enterprise. They claim that they serve better food than the govt run restaurant so we went in to verify that.

While the service and food was indeed good, the quantities were miniscule. On top of that we also had to pay the live performers, they add 10% service tax to the bill as well. At 60 CUC it turned out to be a rather costly meal which was the last nail in the coffin of culinary adventure. We stuck to our resolve the rest of the trip.

Having walked in the high sun, we now headed to check into our room at the Hotel Florida, the boutique hotel we booked the night before. To our delight, we got a whole suite to ourselves which featured a living room, bathroom, bedroom and a private patio. We were whopping with joy. It was like being in the lap of luxury, we stood in a excavated home of 17th century, which was renovated keeping the original high ceilings, doors and still had an aura of sophistication and simplicity that cannot be created now.

Ashish suggested we cancel our Havana city tour for the next day which seemed like a logical plan because the pick up was from our resort in Miramar which meant we had to leave from old Havana asap next morning, so I called the agent feeling quite sure he would refuse to do this. He quickly agreed and cancelled it, we adjusted the money in the next tour to Vinales and met him the next day to book it.

Ashish ran out and bought us rum and water while I pranced around feeling like a queen. We had some drinks and though I was looking forward to our visit to Buena Vista Social Club, i didn’t want to leave the hotel. We went in at 8.00 which was the time mentioned in the ticket, however it was for people who had dinner + show in their ticket, we sat thru 1.5 hours while everyone around us chomped through their dinner.

The show finally started at 9.30 and time just flew by after that. Performers not only knew how to enthral and engage but each came with its own personality and quirks. There was a Black lady who grabbed Ashish’s hand and put them on her bums and slow danced with him, there was the white suite guy who was a born entertainer charming your socks off, the Cubano who danced to every rhythm and the black guy who looked like a father figure who kept the group together. The whole show kept all the audiences involved and due to our front row seats, Ashish and I were picked on by the performers more often than not.

They had multiple segments which appealed to all and the show ended on a crescendo with everyone , old and young, black and white, woman or man on the stage swinging their hips to salsa! Ashish at this point thought Bhangra would be appropriate.

We left exhilarated and I for one looked forward to sleeping in my palace. 🙂 We decided to take full advantage of our private patio and had drinks, chatted and then went to sleep. I had a good night s sleep finally. I am so at home in luxuriant surroundings while Ashish is conflicting, a part of him craves this, while another shuns this. I, for one, am shamelessly indulgent.

On a side note, I can’t help but also put up this pic of me and Ashish together 5 years back which is so similar to the one taken in Buena Vista club :). Old times.

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a top the Casa on Obispo

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Quenching my coffee cravings at Pasteleria Francesa

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Plaza Del Cresto

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Perfumerie in action

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Hotel Florida: Our Living room

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Entrance to the suite

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Bedroom

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Antique furniture

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private patio

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Born entertainers

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Ashish groping an old lady 😛

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Cubans: the originator of the grind

Day 4: Oct 11th , Old Havana

I woke up looking forward to the buffet breakfast. Ashish was stopped by the waitress who asked him his room no. before he served himself. He didn’t get a word of spanish and whined and pointed her to me while he dug his arms elbow deep in sausage and eggs. The breakfast was filling, served with perfection on dainty plates with attention to detail. I insisted we stay there till check out time, since we already paid for it. Ashish agreed and we chatted sitting in our spacious bedroom overlooking our sunny patio.

We checked out with heavy hearts and made our way to the must see attractions on Lonely Planet. First stop of the day was the Rum Museum. Which we reached on a Coco taxi, a cute little auto on which you can feel the wind beneath your hair and smile on your lips.

The tour was conducted in English and we gained a lot of knowledge of the process of preparing rum especially Havana Club the iconic Cuban rum. We even had a tasting and rum taken neat was definitely not my thing, Ashish pretended to enjoy it more out of pressure of appearing manly. 😛

We then walked into yet another museum, Museo de la Cuidad, which was stalked with antiques right from writing desks to horse drawn carriages perfectly frozen in time.

After this, we went looking for “Maqueta de la Havana Vieja”. this is a scaled down model of the city and the person explaining us could only speak in Spanish. I translated 80% correctly and Ashish found new respect for me. I was quite thrilled and impressed myself, I was one of them, Ashish was an outsider. Score! Seeing all the art in the museum, buying a painting from Cuba seemed the next logical steps and we thought of walking to the Artisans Market. The walk turned out to be quite arduous due to heat, sun and dehydration. I was getting antsy while Ashish asked for precise direction. I asked him to leave it to me to take him there. Once we reached, he looked around but found nothing interesting.

We walked back all the way to Hotel Saratoga, this was much appreciated by our agent so we wanted to check out what the deal was. We came out feeling satisfied at our choice of Hotel Florida. This was yet another concoction to please a westerner. Not to our liking.

Just like Chile, Ashish had a “Brilliant” idea to buy rum and go sit on the Malecon drive. I had a feeling he has a lot of experience in creating alcohol based memorable experiences. 😛 So we walked to the Malecon through Prado and enjoyed few drinks. It started to rain and a local asked us to leave as there were warnings of a Hurricane. We walked for a bit and then a vintage taxi driver stopped besides us; we negotiated and he agreed to drop us to the resort in 15 CUCs. Cuba is so full of unique experiences waiting at every corner; jumping at you with a “Boo”! Even though I had read and watched so much about Cuba, it surprised that it continued to surprise me!

We reached the resort, ordered Pizza and drank and chatted and called it an early night since the next day we were going to leave for Cienfuegos and Trinidad tour.

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Coco taxi

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Ashish s happy place

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Museo de la ron

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old contraption to extract sugar from the cane

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at Plaza de armas

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Museo de Cuidad

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Museo de Cuidad

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Museo de Cuidad

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Museo de Cuidad

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Artisans market

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can’t get more quintessential than this

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Drinking at Malecon

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Malecon drive

 

 

Day 5: Oct 11th Santa Clara, Cienfuegos, Trinidad

Santa Clara:

We hopped on to the bus and the first stop was a “Campesina” which was essentially a farm which served sandwiches and you also got to see some farm animals. I got bitten by ants on my bum, however Ashish was in throes of agony due to a boil on his left bum. I felt quite bad, he was a trooper throughout the trip. Lesser men would have crumbled but he was stoic and never let it show.

Speaking of heroes, the next stop was a monument to Che Geuvera (Ernesto Che Guevara) who is not only a Cuban National hero but has become a symbol of revolution all over the world. Some know him as a liberator, a term he is openly criticized, people liberate themselves was what he believed in.

He led a life of adventure; in his 29 years, he travelled the world, sought to bring change and still continues to inspire millions. All his possessions and memories are carefully preserved in the memorial which is a fitting tribute to this legend. It would be better however, if the current Cuban leaders truly bring his ideals to life instead of just tooting the horn of communist principles.

Cienfuegos:

Next, we drove to Cienfuegos.

Here we had lunch at La Union and officially got to touch the waters of the Caribbean, this side of Cuba boasts phenomenal views of the Caribbean sea and also some of the most exciting scuba diving spots.

Everywhere in Cuba, a legend was born or lived or made a mark and this was no different. This town is famous for producing the legendary musician, Benny More and it also houses a Teatro, Tomas Terry, Built in 1836, intact with its original fixtures.

Trinidad:

Our next rather short stop was Trinidad. Both me and Ashish fell in love with this quaint town. The cobbled stone and streets after streets lined with Casas fill you with wonder if this is even a town or Cuba putting a grand show fooling you into that touristy stupor where you wake up and suddenly everything  is gone.

We roamed around and also had one of the best cocktails “Canchanchara” made with water, lemon, honey, santerro / Light rum served in a earthen cup with a stick with honey.

I gulped it down and we grabbed some more Rum on the way to our resort which was on top of a mountain. After an agonizingly slow drive up, we reached and stuffed our faces with food. I went into my foul moods when i got to know our room was on top of the reception where the crowd was getting louder by the minute. I threw a mini fit, Ashish tried to calm me down which sent me in a downward spiral and I decided to sulk the rest of the evening, we called it an early night.

 

Day 6: Oct 12th, National Park

I puked twice that night and that explained my sour mood, next day I woke up and mentioned this in an accusatory tone as if Ashish poisoned me. I can be a real hell on wheels sometimes. Yet, he maintains he loves travelling with me,in fact I am the only girl he has travelled with. I suppose my dazzling personality makes up for the bitchiness. On eating breakfast, I puked again, which certainly didn’t improve my mental state.

A Russian truck was waiting for us and the enthralling ride to the national park put my bad mood to rest. We hiked with the guide who explained us about the local flora and fauna. The hike took us to falls and then to a natural spring where I took a dip while Ashish looked on. The water was freezing and took all of my bravado but I did it.

After 1 more hour of hiking, we reached a picturesque restaurant which served wholesome lunch and our truck was waiting to take us back to the bus, the ride back from the bus was a quiet one. We chatted and slept.

On reaching the resort, we ordered Pizza and had our drinks before heading off to bed.

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I find joy in people’s pain.. Ashish wincing on sitting on his swollen bum

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a dip in the natural springs at national park

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Rociar falls at marque de Guanayara

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Enjoying Canchanchara

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old pub

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City square, Trinidad

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Trinidad

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Cienfuegos

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tired waiting for a table in the resort for lunch

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Monument of Che

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La Union

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Cafe Benny

Day 7: Oct 14th, Vinales

We woke up next morning and after a hearty breakfast made our way to Vinales. The guide was not the best, but she was trying. The first stop was a Mural commissioned by Fidel which depicted the evolution of life. At first, its meaning is lost on you since it is neither beautiful nor informative. But once you read about Vinales it makes complete sense. A archeologist discovered fossils at this site which has great evolutionary significance.

“Once upon a time the whole region was several 100 mts high, then during the cretaceous period 100 million years ago, underground rivers ate away at the lime rock. Collapsing leaving only the walls we see today. it is the finest example of limestone karst valley in Cuba containing the Santo Tomas cave, largest cave system in Cuba” Lonely Planet

We had a Pina Colada here which was refreshing and also healthy considering the ingredients. Then we took a detour at a Tobacco plantation, since we were early in the season we didn’t see the tobacco bloom to fullest, the plants were just shooting up. We went to a hut which is specially prepare for drying the Tobacco leaves which need to be dried at least for 45 days. A skilled cigar roller rolled one which was enjoyed by couple of people on the tour including yours truly.

Later , we stepped into a homestead and marvelled, oohed and ah-ed at the natural beauty , simple pleasures and uncomplicated life that surrounded us city folks.

Next stop was a restaurant that served the best food in Cuba. We had chicken and pork roast with beans and rice , coffee and a rice pudding. Who knew the best food was tucked away in this small valley ? yet another Cuban twist in the tale. 🙂

Next on the agenda was a boat tour through the Santo Tomas cave, I have been to Ajanta Elora caves in India and while it is enthralling, the way Cubans have preserved their natural treasure is worth commending considering 3.5 million people visit Cuba every year. We came out the other end, took some pics and did some souvenir shopping and off we went to our last stop of the tour, Los Jeminos, the look out point beside this hotel set right a top the cliff. We discussed staying here the next time we were in Cuba. The view from the swimming deck was just breath taking, nature shakes us city dwellers and makes us feel alive and insignificant at the same time.

On the way back, we mixed rum and water in the bus (yet another genius idea by Ashish, by now all the readers would have concluded he is a drunk , at least I have :P) we took swigs one by one and reached hotel in elated spirits. I don’t deny that I am more than an agreeable accomplice in these drunken escapades.

The trip was coming to an end and we were engulfed with varied emotions. Between the two of us, we have enough emotions for entire country of Japan.

Some of our beliefs were reassured, some were challenged, some simply negated. But all the changes in my belief system were welcome. Coming back to Toronto and especially to work after 4.5 months of time off was putting Ashish in rather broody mood and I tried to cheer him up by coming up with countries to visit on our next trip, wishing he would stop me and say he wants to come back to Cuba even the next time.

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Old rum factory at Pinar de Rio

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Morale at the Vinales Valley

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a casa in the valley

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man rolling cigar

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Santa Tomas Cave

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View from Hotel Jeminos

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Ashish mixing drinks in the bus

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swig swig..

Day 8: Old Havana, Back to Varadero

Next morning we took it easy, had breakfast, packed our stuff and took the hop-on / hop off bus to the Old Havana. The aim was to spend time at the Hotel Nacional but Ashish insisted we visit the Cigar factory and the Museum of Revolution.We found the Cigar factory to be closed on the weekend and the museum of revolution was a bit of a snooze at CUC 8 entry. They didn’t even have an English tour, and most of the descriptions was en Espanol solamente. We did buy some postcard sized painting made from coffee from a sweet Cuban girl who was very excited when we told her we are from India.

I had dressed up nicely even put some lipstick ( which is as frequent as apocalypse) on for Nacional, however after 40 degrees C and 80% humidity, I looked like a rag soaked in water and left to dry. By the time we reached the hotel, I was exhausted but quite impressed by the size and the interiors. It was classy done right.

We had a very attentive server and after much deliberation we ordered roast pork and grilled fish and two cocks each. We wiped the plate clean and licked it for good measure. The trip ended on a high note.

We stepped out the seafront onto the patio to the open air bar area and were greeted by Malecon drive and splashing waves, we didn’t have much time left so reluctantly made our way back to the bus.

Taking the bus was right move, we got to know a lot about other parts of the city which we didn’t have time to explore. Like Revolution square, Miramar with its embassy etc..

On reaching the hotel, i had broken into my allergies and we ordered some coffee to relax, but were interupted by the pick up for the airport that arrived earlier than scheduled. We hoped on the bus and reached the airport where I shopped souvenirs for my three gf s. On the flight back I drooled and slept while Ashish stared into the emptiness.

Reflections: 

The first reaction to Cuba for any westerner would be dismay at the utter chaos and disorganization, but for us Indians, it was business as usual. It was like being back in India but safer. India is still not safe for female travellers while I think Cuba is extremely safe, being a female and esp. a tourist, no one will dare bother you, you will however get not- so-subtle compliments, flying kisses and whistles. It may make the blood of feminists boil, but Cubanas take it in stride and what more, give it back with gusto.

Whenever I visit a new country, I end up comparing it first with India ( of course) , then with all the other places I’ve been to.

When compared to Chile, people in Cuba are more free flowing , easy to talk to, easy with smiles, very accommodating and proud and humble at the same time. Not to say that Chileans are rude; but they are def not a happy go lucky lot. They take themselves too seriously to even be considered Latinos. (Ref: My Invented Country by Isabella Allende) 

When compared to North America, Cuban woman enjoy all the freedom that we have here and none of the bull shit. They have heavy representation of women in work force, you dont have to be stunning looking to get a job at a restaurant like in America, everyone is truly equal ( a positive outcome of egalitarian society), all have access to education (literacy rate is 97%), free health care, control on migration to big cities to ensure correct population spread, organic farming and most importantly an envious spirit to live to the fullest.

While rest of world is figuring out how to crawl out of the hole they have dug through “modern industrialization”, Cubans never got into it for good reasons or bad. And this sleepy island stays tucked away in its serenity. Lets see how it survives the onslaught of the behemoth next door.

As my alarm for Buena Vista Social club event goes in my phone a week later, I get transported to the centro Havana, our after party at the patio of the Hotel Florida and the heavy chandelier that hung over my bed as I drifted into a deep slumber when I was queen for a day. In Cuba, everything is possible, a disillusioned corporate slave can be a queen, a skeptic can turn into a believer, a believer in a revolutionary, a revolutionary in a legend 🙂

Keep the dream alive, Cuba!

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View of Malecon from Hotel Nacional

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Museo de la Revolution

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Interiors by Tiffany of New York

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Cocktails at Hotel Nacional

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Hotel Nacional

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My first and rather successful attempt at rice and beans

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Cuban brew in Toronto

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Souvenirs and treasure of Cuba

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Quick facts:

Economy:

They have 2 currencies:

CUC pegged to USD

CUP, 1 CUC = 25 CUP

No one tried to dupe us by giving us CUP instead of CUC but still keep an eye out.

Generally do not expect culinary excellence because it is still evolving, go for simple local fare, better value for money , much less disappointment .

Resort + Return fare= CAD 730 /head

Stay at the Hotel Florida, tours, food, drinks, souvenirs= CAD 900/ head

Total / head for 7 days: 1630 CAD

Food & Drinks:

Roast pork

rice beans

Coffee

Rum

Pina colada

Mojito

Daquiri

Activities:

  1. Live shows in Tropicana / Buena Vista Social Club
  2. Museum of rum
  3. Stay in a legitimate Casa
  4. Venture out of resorts; explore, it is v safe
  5. National parks
  6. Hikes in vinales
  7. Scuba diving in Cienfuegos

References:

  1. Lonely Planet Cuba
  2. Cuba: An outlaw culture survives : Ben Corbett
  3. Cuba Night : Pico Iyer
  4. Cuba: The forgotten Revolution

Will end on this beautiful song from an Indian movie which captures the eccentricity of Cuba, which translates to: “I am lost…” in love or in Old Havana? you decide.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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