Costa Rica wasn’t part of my original Central America travel plan, because it seemed to be part of everyone else’s. I imagined this little country to be overrun by tourists and expats, and its culture to have been eroded by tourism. After all, it’s the only country in the region which has been extensively written about online. Turns out, I was wrong. I made a short two week trip to Costa Rica, while waiting for a friend to join me for a long trip through Nicaragua and Panama. And I instantly fell in love. The Pure Life Pura Vida isn’t just Costa Rica’s tourism mantra. It really is how locals greet each other in the hinterlands! I’m yet to meet a people who live more in tune with nature in their daily lives. I’m yet to visit a place that is as developed and connected, yet so wild and pristine. The country welcomed me with a green carpet of swaying fields in hilly San Jose. The blue hues of the Pacific Coast called out to me as I cycled along its small villages. …
As I swayed on my hammock, hearing the gentle waves of the Pacific Ocean in Costa Rica, India seemed pretty far away. But I only had to traverse the crevices of my mind, to recall the solitude of the Himalayas, the serenity of the backwaters and my serendipitous encounters over the past year.
It was almost midnight when I knocked on the door of a humble yellow house, hours after the tiny village of San Jose had tucked in. Below, lake Peten Itza glowed softly in the moonlight.
In my first tryst with Latin America, I’ve found myself joyfully lost amidst the cobblestoned streets and quaint colonial houses of Antigua in Guatemala. I feel like I’m still in a dream, as I gaze out at the surrounding volcanoes while lying on a hammock from the rooftop of my bohemian apartment. I’ve had conversations entirely in broken spanish, indulged in hand-rolled corn tortillas stuffed with frijoles (black beans), sipped some of the world’s finest coffee, marvelled at the colourful traditional dresses worn by many Mayan women, and well, quite simply fallen in love.
Romania had one hell of a way to welcome us. We had dragged ourselves out of the flight after 20 hours in transit, when 3 burly ashen-faced men stopped us the moment we stepped into the airport. Passport, they demanded. Confused and intimidated by these casually-dressed men, we dug around in our bags. A little police badge on their belt was our only solace. They examined us well, comparing our passport photos with our faces for what felt like an eternity, and finally let us enter a country that would stop us from judging people by their stern expressions and lack of smiles.
It all began one night, when a friend and I sat staring at the world map. I had landed a fat assignment and finally reached my savings goal for a long overdue trip out of India. After turning down many drab international 3-4 day FAM trips that offered nothing immersive or even remotely exciting, I craved a mix of the east and the west, interesting food and the chance to experience a culture I knew little about. Romania seemed to tick all the boxes. Flights were booked, visa hurdles painfully crossed, and off we went. Into a world that continues to delight and surprise me.
On a sunny afternoon, I sit on the steps outside my room, gazing at the bare, brown mountains and their snow-clad peaks. I’m lost in thought when four kids, wearing maroon sweaters and warm stockings, their heads shaved off, come and sit next to me. Word has gotten around that I speak Hindi, and the curious ones have come to check for themselves. On first glance they look like young boys from the village, so I ask Aap sab bhai hain? (Are you brothers?). They solemnly nod no, point towards the nunnery, and tell me they are nuns.
For centuries, the valley remained cut off from the rest of India. Legend has it that when a road was finally built and the first car drove up, the locals weren’t sure what to feed it. The driver playfully declared that the car likes chicken and whisky. The locals innocently obliged, and the driver had a feast. They also say that when an elderly woman boarded a bus for the first time, she left her shoes on the road as a sign of respect to the bus. Getting off at her destination, she was shocked that her shoes were gone, no longer outside the bus where she had taken them off.
On a late evening, we sat on a steep cliff, drinking the local Sikkimese Beer. Sparse villages and farms lay scattered in the valley below. The River Teesta roared along intensely. The mountains echoed with hypnotic chants from a nearby monastery. We were lost in our thoughts, when the mist slowly rose, and revealed to us in all its snow-capped glory, the mighty Mount Kanchendzonga.
Some connections are just meant to be. Like Gangtok and me. At first glance, the city feels like any other hill station. But delve deeper and you get a wistful peek into an India that could have been. Flanked by the majestic Himalayas, the first thing that strikes you is the city’s cleanliness – no litter, no noise and no pollution, rules that the locals strictly abide by. Traditional monasteries stand in perfect harmony with the city’s evolving cafe culture. And the laid-back vibe of the locals slowly rubs off on you.