A Lake in the Mountains

Lake Titicaca features in geography text books as the highest navigable lake in the world. I missed that nugget when I was in school, but life dragged me by the collar and dropped me off right by the lakeside to drive home the point. Not that I was an unwilling traveller. After following the route of the sun (in reverse direction), we got to the coldest spot of my Peruvian adventure, at 12,000 ft above sea level, tucked into the Andes mountain, this enormous lake with sea-like proportions.

Lake Titicaca

The hotel I picked was higher up, at Mirador del Titicaca, a short drive from Puno city, up up up onto a hill. The hotel has only a few rooms, all of them looking out at the lake from glass windows. You can spend all your time in the cozy confines of its lobby with the fireplace, or your heated room, and admire away from a distance.

Lake Titicaca

Or, you can sign up, like I did, for a boat ride into the lake, to visit one or more of the islands, and have a mini adventure.

Lake Titicaca

A day tour promises a visit to one of the many floating islands of Uros, and then to a larger island, Taquile, for about USD 25. The floating island is a concept that I’d read about in plenty, but not quite grasped the concept until actually setting foot on one. The totora reeds that grow abundantly in the lake are employed in everything on the island, right from the ‘floor’ to houses and boats. There’s no terra firma to step on, just a dense carpet-like squishiness, and your foot sinks into the reedy floor, with a bit of a swing. No shuffling possible, you have to tread purposefully for every step.

After being welcomed by this colourful lady on the island, we were whisked off on one of the smaller boats for a ride into the reeds.

Lake Titicaca

Lake Titicaca

Then, returning to the island, the chief spoke to us about their life, with some scaled demo models.

Lake Titicaca

Of course, there were pretty things available to buy, and photos to be taken:

We had a friendly bunch on our boat, all eager to take photos of each other, and have their own too.

Lake Titicaca

After a short snooze, we arrived at Taquile, and my heart sank at the thought of climbing the hill.

Lake Titicaca

I’m sure our guide said something about the island and its people, but all fell on my deaf ears, as I panted my way up into the thin atmosphere. If I had missed the altitude sickness before, it hit me right then. The only relief was stopping for scenic photos. Until I finally arrived at the plaza, where the group had been waiting for me to go to lunch.

Lunch was a simple affair at the home of one of the local families. They had long tables set out in the courtyard, and a young man serenaded us with his songs, while we were served quinoa soup and trout, followed by a herby tea.

Lake Titicaca

Lake Titicaca

After lunch came the easier bit of going downhill, which was trickier than it seemed, thanks to the never-ending uneven steps. I wasn’t complaining.

The return journey was long, and we’d been warned of winds and waves that might pose a threat – apparently a couple of days back, tourists were stranded on the islands because the winds had been too strong for the boats. We were spared of that fate, and the winds worked in our favour, sending us back a little faster than we anticipated.

Lake Titicaca

The dark clouds threatened to bring rain, and more cold weather. I was glad to be back in my cozy room before any of that happened. Souvik finished his day’s work in Juliaca nearby, and we stepped our later at night for a meal of delicious wood fired pizzas accompanied by the aji (chili) and ajo (garlic) sauces at Pizzeria del Buho.

A day on a boat.. with plenty of time to sit and stare

Sundarban… The name entered my brain during a book club reading of The Hungry Tide by Amitav Ghosh… and stayed there doing in some dark corner, doing nothing, waiting to be forgotten.

Then, with all the Kolkata planning, I thought, why not use the opportunity to travel a little further – Darjeeling? Sikkim? Agartala? Thanks to the internet, the mind can travel without any constraints. As it turned out, all my potential travel partners had to leave right after the wedding, and I only managed to convince my parents to stay on a couple of days longer, then frantically tried to find some places near Kolkata to visit.

That’s when (aided by Google and some other sites) Sundarban jumped right out from that cold storage of my brain right to the forefront. It made perfect sense to fit it in our West Bengal travel – Baba likes his art and architecture, so we had Shantiniketan – and Mummy likes nature and wildlife – Sundarban made just the right balance. There is only one good place to stay if you want any chance of spotting the Royal Bengal Tiger; that is the Sunderban Tiger Camp, situated inside the protected area of the forest. But, good luck with trying to get them to respond over a simple email from overseas. I had none.

Quick facts: Sundarban is a protected area of dense mangrove forests that straddles the south-eastern tip of West Bengal, India and parts of Bangladesh, and is one of the largest reserves of the Bengal tiger. It derives its name from the Sundari trees that are present in abundance in the region.

We settled for another tour company that were much more responsive. Their resort in the village bordering the Sundarban was neat and comfortable enough.

Tour around Sunderban

There’s no electricity in the village. The power in the evening comes from generators. And the villagers choose to use that power to blare long music all evening. It may have been a way to scare off man-eating tigers, now that I think about it. Not much crowd in the middle of the week, but we had some Baul geet entertainment until late at night. This kid seemed to be quite popular, he makes appearances on TV, and some of the audience had him sing requests too.

Tour around Sunderban

The first afternoon we set out to the Watch Tower, which was actually a tiger (protected) area. No tigers in the wild, a couple in enclosures, the less said about that the better.

Tour around Sunderban Tour around Sunderban

A disappointing start, but we had some lovely sunset views to enjoy.

The next morning, we set out earlyish, along with another family from the resort, on our boat cruise.

Tour around Sunderban

Tour around Sunderban

Our timing for visiting the Sunderbans was off, most of the animals are to be spotted early morning or evening, and we were wandering about in the middle of the day. We did see a few deer, monitor lizard, crocodiles from a distance, but for the most part we lounged on the boat, chatting and eating.

I wish I’d planned the excursion better, but as a means to bond with parents (who often complain that I’m forever running off), this one was perfect!

Tour around Sunderban

And as I was writing this post, I remembered a painting by Rabindranath Tagore. Was the scene above the inspiration for that painting, I wonder?


Blues and Greens

It’s a happy event to be traveling within Indonesia, after a dry spell in the summer. With Anshu visiting, and interested in diving, I had the opportunity to explore new islands, one that I’ve been wanting to for a long time.

We booked ourselves in Gili Trawangan, one of the three tiny islands off the north-west coast of Lombok. If you’re mighty curious about where that might be, click this map. It’s a 2-hour flight across Java and Bali, then a 3-hour drive through Lombok, and a 15-minute fast boat away. No motorised vehicles on the islands. Just walk or horse-cart.

We dumped our bags at Marta’s, and quickly set out to book some dive trips with Big Bubble. The island life is totally focused around diving, snorkelling and partying. Dive centers in Indonesia spoil you; you don’t have to lug your equipment to the boat and back, you don’t really need to check your gear, but it’s always safer to do so. We finished 4 dives in 2 days before Souvik showed up.

My camera handling skills need much improvement underwater, and our guide helped out a bit. (Images best enjoyed in full screen; just click any image.)

With Souvik around, we spent an entire day in a glass-bottomed boat, and snorkelled around the three islands, stopping at Scallywags on Gili Air for a delicious lunch.

If that wasn’t enough, we had a further visual treat of a full moon rise from the beach.

We then took the boat to Lombok, where Souvik headed back to Jakarta, and Anshu & I spent a couple of happy days shopping and trekking through rice fields to find a secluded waterfall.


Tam Coc & Hoa Lu

It’s always fun to discover something new in Vietnam with every guest that comes visiting. With Aparna & Deven, the lucky spot was Tam Coc – a place I’ve wanted to go for quite a while. A long-ish drive to Hoa Lu in wet weather in a cramped bus, and most of us unprepared for the rain. The vendors outside the citadel met their daily targets by selling us raincoats and bright helicopters that li’l Nishad couldn’t do without.

Nishad enjoying a splash while the women look on in glee

Hoa Lu

Citadel guards

The caped crusaders

Holy buffalo

The lunch was very light, and rather disappointing for Deven who was expecting a 40-item buffet. All the better for the boat people who had to row us down the river for around 7 km past rice paddies and limestone rocks.

The natural beauty of the region took our breath away, and the rain mercifully stayed away for the duration of the ride. The wily boat ladies from the ‘floating market’ had some tricks up their sleeve, and didn’t let go the opportunity of having a captive audience to make a sale or two. I volunteered my services for rowing a bit, which enabled the lady to open her bag of t-shirts and other handicrafts to sell.