Step into the Field

A few months back, Rajbir connected us with a talented Indonesian photographer, Ranar. He took us to this offbeat spot in West Java, called Argapura Majalenka to photograph hills full of harvest-ready bawang merah (spring onions). Quite a difference from the popular paddy fields found all over Indonesia, these hillside plantations have their own charm. Standing in ankle-deep soil, we did our best not to trample any, but it wasn’t easy.

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Ranar is a specialist in making excellent photos in-camera without the use of editing software, and taught us some of his techniques of using our cameras to their maximum potential. The best time to have these views is towards the end of the rainy season, March-April. How to get there? I have no idea! This area doesn’t attract tourists, only photo hunters like us. The village is pretty; we were in a simple and comfortable homestay, the owners of which insisted in bringing us homemade food for every meal.

We rounded up our trip with a bit of waterfall photography, before plunging into the never-ceasing traffic headed into Jakarta.

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Above the Water Level

Diving in Manado was one of those boxes that I should have checked off long ago, rather than waiting for ‘things to happen’. Now that I’ve made the decision to relocate, I want to make time for all those dream trips, and can manage only a fraction of them in the few weeks left.

While I had no success with underwater photography, being ‘grounded’ for a day before the flight with a tour in the highlands was totally worth it, and highly recommended for all Manado visitors. 

Sulawesi, called Celebes by the Portuguese, is an island with some interesting and some mind-boggling features. Some say it looks like an orchid flower on the map. It is home to some of the most unique and diverse life forms, both over land and under water. There are fascinating ethnic cultures all across the island, and I literally just scratched the northern tip of the land.

The half day drive is near perfect, self-contained with a mix of adventure and entertainment, vast landscapes and scenic villages, the ordinary and the bizarre. No sighting of the famed tarsiers or the maleo birds though – that would take a proper trek through the forests.

There are the ubiquitous farmlands:

manado-2

The ‘Pasar Extreme’ is not for the faint-hearted, where roasted whole dogs vie for shelf space with bats fried mid-scream and pythons spilling their guts. I’m sparing you the gory sights, but after walking through the extreme-meats lane, I remember thinking that self-mutilation aka tattooing was probably the gentlest activity of this region.

manado

Clouds played spoilsport on the vista views, but made some nice ‘atmospheric’ shots:

 

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The villages – Tomohon and others – had this European quality about them, with highland-type blooms and cute cottages.

Then I came upon this:

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Don’t know what they use it for, but it’s my idea of a perfect vacation homestay!

Coffee by the changing-colour Linow lake was so pleasant, I never wanted to leave, even though I saw only 2 of the 3 colours.

A couple of quick stops to see the wooden houses being constructed in the village of Woloan:

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And a copra processing unit by the roadside, with a beautiful cacao pod as a sideshow:

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If I were a pescatarian, I would be over the moon at the last stop, but I’m just a live-fish lover so I let them go by.

Goodbye, dive boat. So long, Manado.

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The Hills Are Alive!

The day after my Lago Titicaca exploration, we were scheduled to fly out from Puno back to Lima. Woke up at an unearthly hour 4th day in a row to find that the clear skies of the morning before had transformed into gloomy and overcast. I’d been following weather reports that were so off the mark until that point – cloudy in Cusco, rain in Machu Picchu, rain at Titicaca,  all in reality ending up being warm and sunny days and cold nights – that I sniggered at another rainy day forecast. There was a little icy drizzle as we bundled up into the car, but nothing had prepared us for this sight from the airport after security check:

Juliaca to Arequipa

SNOW????? Oooh, we didn’t see THAT coming! Never a cause for complaint, especially when a camera is handy to click away. Except, soon there were announcements that the flight was cancelled, and we would have to queue up to reschedule. As the announcement was made first in Spanish, we were the last to figure it out, and ended up in the tail end of that queue with little hopes of getting out that day.

With plenty of time on hand waiting for our turn, we made a Plan B, and a Plan C. The brightest idea we had was to drive to Arequipa, 5 hours away (sunny forecast), and fly out of there. The lady from the airline had heard that the road might be dangerous or blocked, but if we could make it to Arequipa, she would have our flight changed at no extra cost. Nice!

I must admit I was excited at the prospect of a road trip. We rushed through a late morning breakfast, and soon, were on the road. Predictably, the landscape was gorgeous. A light sprinkling of snow on brown mountains gave it a cake-dusted-with-icing sugar look. We marvelled more than once about the sudden snowfall. And I couldn’t resist all those moving vehicle photos that I warn people about.

Juliaca to ArequipaJuliaca to Arequipa

Juliaca to Arequipa

Juliaca to Arequipa

The sun made an appearance at midday, skies turned blue, and all was well on the road.

Juliaca to Arequipa

Juliaca to Arequipa

Juliaca to Arequipa

Juliaca to Arequipa

And then, this:

Juliaca to Arequipa

Juliaca to Arequipa

Juliaca to Arequipa

Hey, all those photos with a greenish colour cast are through the tinted windows, thanks to Souvik’s strange reluctance to open windows. Maybe it was the cold? I didn’t notice 😉

I requested Señor Jimmy, who was driving the car, and taking photos on his own camera at the same time, to stop if we spotted any grazing llamas. He obliged.

Juliaca to ArequipaJuliaca to Arequipa

Juliaca to Arequipa

Juliaca to Arequipa

Llamas, alpacas, does it matter? I was pretty much on top of the world, whooping with joy, no other people for miles around!

Juliaca to Arequipa Juliaca to Arequipa Juliaca to Arequipa

There was only one roadblock on the way. A long lineup of vehicles, because a bus had broken down. No movement for almost an hour, then some aggressive moves by some cars, and good old-fashioned road rage. I’ve added to my limited Spanish vocabulary “El Burro” and even contributed “estúpido”, coz one must learn the ways of the locals, right?

Soon after that traffic cleared, the landscape had a drastic transformation too.

Juliaca to Arequipa

No more snow. Only desert. And the hint of canyons.

Juliaca to ArequipaJuliaca to ArequipaJuliaca to Arequipa Juliaca to Arequipa Juliaca to Arequipa

Juliaca to Arequipa

Juliaca to Arequipa

Arequipa itself is one of the major cities of Peru, and has a long and interesting history and culture. I would have loved to visit, especially the Colca Cańon nearby, but time’s too short, and Lima is calling. Saving Arequipa for another trip!

After an eventful 5 hours, one of those rare drives where I stayed awake throughout the way, we arrived at the airport. The LAN airways staff were super helpful, and we had our flight changes without any trouble.

I like to think that this was a bonus adventure thrown in at the tail end of my stay in Peru, and I left with a lingering image of awesomeness:

Juliaca to Arequipa

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.

The Beauty of Dieng

There are some places whose names stick in your brain and don’t budge until you’ve tackled them head on. Dieng plateau has been one of them. While I’ve been to Jogja and visited most of the temples around there, Dieng has stayed on my list of must-visit since almost a year.

Not so much for the temple ruins, but for the sunrise, Sara and I took the long way out to Dieng: by train from Jakarta to Yogyakarta, then by road onwards to Dieng in the middle of the night. I’m loving these long train journeys across Java, where you just have to get to the train station in the nick of time, and then sit back and relax for the next 7-8 hours. There’s a bit of thrill in packing a nice breakfast and lunch for yourself, and a few sinful treats, like Sara’s mint-chocolate brownie muffins. Trains leave from Stasiun Gambir, but none of the local trains halt here, so you must have a taxi to drop you off, especially if you are lugging multiple bags. It would’ve been brilliant to hop on to the local train to Tanah Abang, then change trains to stop at Gambir, but I don’t suppose the town planners had commuter convenience on top of their minds while designing the local transport systems.

We were destined to do this trip at an easy pace, with our Jogja driver not willing to go even a little faster than 40 kmph on the highway. The journey of about a 130 km took almost 5 hours (route). We stopped at the Dieng village to pick up a guide. Sunrise tours are popular here, it was no hardship to find a guide at 4 am!

We got to Gunung Sikunir, and headed off to the top of the hill. Sara was smart enough to have packed a head-lamp, which she planted on mine, coz I insisted on tripping over all the big stones. Hiker I am not, and we needed a number of breathing breaks on our way up. We did make it in time before the sun came out!

Sunrise at Dieng Plateau Sunrise at Dieng Plateau

Though the sun sent out a ray from behind the mountain, it chose to stay out of sight, denying us a glamorous sunrise shot! The clouds and the mist swirling around the hills was a beautiful sight, and we had to get creative for our photos.

Whatever forest might have existed in this region before has now been cleared for plantation, potatoes mainly, and some other vegetables too. We drove around a little to catch some of the other sights.

Sunrise at Dieng Plateau

Sunrise at Dieng Plateau

Sunrise at Dieng Plateau

There was another short walk up to spot the Telaga Warna (changing colors lake). Thanks to the absence of the sun, we could see just the one color.

Sunrise at Dieng Plateau

There was a perfect spot from which to admire this landscape:

Sunrise at Dieng Plateau

As for the temples? Almost as an after-thought, we stopped over to see the ruins. There are only a couple of them left standing. What is most striking about these temples is their location, surrounded by the hills, enveloped in the mist. The ‘touristification’ of the site evokes mixed feelings in me. It’s nice to have access to facilities, but the aura is lost.

Sunrise at Dieng Plateau Sunrise at Dieng PlateauSunrise at Dieng Plateau

The beauty of Cotswolds to behold, the Contents of Haggis Ne’er to be Told

Back from Cotswolds

Hah! That was Not how the day started**. Sunshine brightened my day and made everything beautiful.

Driving in England for the first time was a little stressful, as they have far more rules than I’m used to in India and Indonesia. I was committed, though, and a few minutes into the drive, guided by the efficient SatNav, I was well on my way into the beautiful countryside.

It was a Herculean task to keep my eyes on the road, when I wanted to admire the landscape. The sun shone fiercely, and an hour later, as I drove into Stow-on-the-wold, I wanted the drive to end fast! My plan was to drive as far as Northleach and work my way backwards to Bourton-on-the-water and Stow. However, I wasn’t able to go past Bourton-on-the-water because a) it looked so pretty, and b) how foolish I was being sitting in the car when I should be out walking in the sunshine.

The decision was rewarding – picture-postcard views of the riverside, charming honey-coloured cottages, tempting shopping. I had my fill of all.

I had to tear myself from this village to get going to the next stop at Northleach. Stopped there for lunch at the Wheatsheaf Inn and had a little walk around the village after that.

The village Painswick had stuck in my brain while reading the Lonely Planet, and with the few hours of sunshine left, I chose to drive there. But not before detouring into some farm roads and getting in a few pictures.

Cotswolds Cotswolds

Painswick was unique in its landscaping of the church of St Mary and the 99 yew trees that have legendary status, but mostly built in the same Cotswold stone that I am now in love with.

I couldn’t linger, thinking that there might be just enough time to enjoy a cup of tea at Stow, and started the drive back. This time, there was much less traffic, and a few good spots to park by the roadside to collect some evidence of the famed Cotswolds landscape.

Cotswolds Cotswolds

As it turned out, the photo ops ate into tea time, and I couldn’t stop any more.

Back into Warwick, it was time for the haggis dinner with Jamie and Denise. I had the veggie adaptation which was yummy, and Souvik overate as usual.

** It was the end of the day scene, just as I pulled into the Premier Inn car park.

Ruins and glory is history’s lot, Oh the thrill when the car was got*

It was the day to pick up the car in the afternoon, which meant that I couldn’t venture too far in the morning. There was some frantic tossing of the coin to choose from a ride to Henley-on-Thames and Oxford some 100 miles away to Baddesley Clinton and Kenilworth next door. After a sumptuous breakfast, the decision was made and Kenilworth won.

Kenilworth is just 6 miles from the hotel, but I wanted to save my energy for traipsing around the castle, so a 10-minute taxi ride it was. I’m still marvelling at how short the distances are, and how little time it takes to drive from one place to another.

The Kenilworth castle has hundreds of years of history associated with it, some wars, some sieges, some romance. It was first built in the early 12th century as a single structure, then was expanded by successive rulers into a palace fortress surrounded by a ‘dammed’ lake and finally a renaissance palace before it was destroyed, and now is preserved as a heritage structure.

The self-guided tour is wonderful; the history and architecture dished out in bite-sized doses, as you walk around the various points of interest. There was a school trip in progress while I was there. It was almost as much fun to watch them learn about the castle from the teacher who was making it come alive with stories about kings and battles and lots of playacting.

A significant part of the tour is dedicated to the story of how Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, wooed Queen Elizabeth I, by buiding new sections to the castle and a beautiful garden for her. There’s an exhibition on this piece of history in the gatehouse. And I have to go back and watch the movie Elizabeth by Shekhar Kapur.

The stables now house a cafe, where I had my lunch of cheese and chutney sandwich and a pot of tea with a fudgy brownie. Set off by bus to Leamington, picked up a very nice car with satellite navigation, and got back to the hotel to spend the evening planning out the route for today.

Jamie and Denise had promised us a Scottish dinner of haggis (veggie for me), but Tammy put her foot down and we ended up at a fabulous Italian restaurant instead. The menu sounded like Italian-English fusion, and I thoroughly enjoyed my beetroot risotto with grilled goat cheese tart and caramelised onions. Souvik had chicken with butternut squash. The food was delicious, but the company was super, and we had a madly entertaining evening.

*Now there’s a pressure to do this daily, and Souvik has started to protest!