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Posts from the ‘Offbeat’ Category

My Impressions of Guatemala.

I was a bundle of nerves before I left NYC for Guatemala. I had read enough stories about how unsafe it was, hadn’t travelled solo in another country for a while, and Central America just felt like a world away. My fears were gradually alleviated when I landed here, realizing how laid back the locals are, and in some ways, how much more organized travelling here is than many developing countries I’ve been to.

Here are my impressions of Guatemala, penned during my three weeks here:

Guatemala pushed me out of my comfort zone.

Guatemala photos, Guatemala places to visit, Guatemala solo travel

Solitude in San Marcos La Laguna.

When it comes to comfort zone, no country forces you to push your boundaries the way India does. But after all these years of travelling, often solo, in India, Europe and Asia, that nagging feeling of being too cocooned in my comfort zone had started to surface. My time in Guatemala has rekindled my sense of adventure; from speaking only Spanish for twenty days, to delayed buses depositing me at abandoned bus stops in the middle of the night, to living with and adapting to the ways of a Mayan family, to exploring places that I had only ever read about in text books. It took me longer than usual to lower my guard to the ways of the country, being my first tryst with Central America, but I came out with the realization that as long as I followed my instincts, I felt as safe as I did in any other part of the world.

The ancient Mayan way of life is still alive… but maybe not for long.

Guatemala people, Guatemala culture, Maya guatemala

My friendly (and shy) neighbour in San Jose.

First things first, the “end of the world” calendar of the Mayans has been misconstrued by most people; it merely signified the end of an era. I tried to raise the topic in some light-hearted conversations, but was met with confused looks; the Mayans clearly didn’t have an idea of the broo-ha their calendar had caused at the end of 2012! Of the 22 indigenous Mayan communities that live in Guatemala, many still speak their native sound-oriented languages (“ha” means let’s go in Q’eq’chi, and “maltiosh” means thank you in Itza), are distinguished by the patterns of the women’s dresses, and a few even worship Maximon – a Mayan saint depicted with cigar and alcohol, and Ixcacao – the Mayan Goddess of chocolate!

But it was living with a Mayan Itza family that led me to realize that while Spanish colonialism and Guatemala’s dictatorship era wiped away big chunks of the ancient Mayan way of life, tourism and globalization continue to chip away at it. Most communities are now entirely catholic and primarily speak Spanish; the younger ones often aspire to learn English and adopt western ways – something we can’t really hold against them. Go experience their unique culture while you still can.

The natural beauty is stunning!

san marcos la laguna, guatemala photos, guatemala airbnb, lake atitlan where to stay

My solar-powered Airbnb studio above Lago Atitlan!

While I expected to rub shoulders with Guatemala’s ancient Mayan culture, I didn’t expect to be awed by the country’s natural beauty, something I seldom read about in my research. Antigua itself offers breath taking views of three active volcanoes, and on it’s outskirts, the road winds along green-sculpted mountains, past swaying maize fields, and across sleepy villages. In the northern department (as states are referred to here) of Peten, I found myself amid rolling meadows with grazing cattle, lived in a village that overlooked the pristine lake Peten Itza, and hiked in the dense tropical rainforests of the Mayan Biosphere Reserve. And my solar-powered Airbnb studio in the village of San Marcos La Laguna was like an eagle’s nest above Lake Atitlan and its volcanoes (Sign up on Airbnb with my referral link and get 25$ off your first stay). So yes, I give Guatemala full credit for sweeping me off my feet with its natural beauty!

Vegetarian food in Guatemala is delicious!

Guatemala vegetarian food, Guatemala cuisine

Plantains, eggs and black beans, to be eaten with tortillas.

Frijoles (black beans) and arroz (rice) are the staple diet in Guatemala, and as someone who is always craving Mexican-style food, my vegetarian taste buds felt delighted here. My host family in the village of San Jose typically ate the expensive meat dishes for only one meal, with plenty of veggies. Lunch and dinner mostly consist of frijoles, platanos (plantains) and huevos (eggs), and sometimes pasta, topped with salsa picante or chile, served with heaps of maize tortillas. In many local-run cafes and restos, I’ve indulged in bean or veggie tamalitos, empanadas, tostadas, and such. Yummy!

The locals are friendly, but knowing a little Spanish is a must.

Guatemala culture, Guatemala people, Guatemala homestay, Bio Itza homestay

My host family in the village of San Jose.

I must admit that I was taken by surprise in Antigua, where I met only two locals over my three days who spoke any English at all! I had chosen to ditch expat-run cafes and was after local interaction, which rigorously tested the little Spanish I had learnt years ago. It really helped to enroll in the Bio Itza Spanish school and live with a Mayan Itza family in a little village in Peten; I was literally the only English speaker in the village, and got to practice everything I learnt. I had plenty of light-hearted conversations with locals, was approached by young girls and boys in remote villages to take selfies and add me on Facebook, and even had a few admirers! And of all things I thought I’ll be doing, I didn’t imagine I’d be playing basketball with Mayan boys and girls.

It’s a delight for offbeat travellers.

Bio Itza guatemala, Peten Itza guatemala, san jose peten guatemala

The village of San Jose over the pristine lake Peten Itza.

I was a little wary of spending too much time in Antigua, the most popular first stop and colonial town in Guatemala, but even when I strolled along its cobblestoned streets over the weekend, I saw only a handful of other travellers (SEE: A Glimpse of Antigua, Guatemala). I borrowed a bicycle from my Airbnb home and cycled through some pretty neighbourhoods, peeping into courtyards, hearing Spanish music pouring out of most homes, and watching people relaxing on their hammocks – something I’ve come to love about the spirit of the people of Guatemala, even in remote villages. Point being, if you like to go off the beaten path and discover unspoilt locales and cultures, Guatemala is your kind of place.

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By the time you’re reading this, I’ll be seeking more adventures in a protected forest in Honduras!

Join me on FacebookTwitter and Instagram to follow my adventures live.

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What are your impressions of Guatemala?

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A Glimpse of Antigua, Guatemala.

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. Read more

Offbeat Goa: 12 Mind-Blowing Experiences.

On a rainy Goan afternoon, wrapped up in my blue poncho, I drive my bike past verdant rice paddies, abandoned railway tracks and sleepy hamlets, to cross over to little-known islands in the interiors of Goa. On the empty ferry, the surprised driver asks me why I’m going there. Why? Because these islands are covered in mangroves and mist-laden meadows, adorned with old Portuguese homes, and home to large populations of colourful migratory birds and tiny populations of people who, far from the beaches and revellers of Goa, exemplify the susagade (content) way of life. Read more

Romania, You Can Fool The World With Your Smiles, But Not With Your Heart.

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. Read more

Snapshots from Romania!

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.

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The World From the Lens of Ladakhi Nuns.

When I went to live at a nunnery in the high Himalayas of Ladakh, I didn’t imagine that I would be interacting with nuns as young as six years! Living with these Ladakhi nuns for a fortnight was beautiful, insightful, heartbreaking and introspective, in that order. But that’s a story for another post. Today, I want to show you the world from their lens, in photos taken by them with my Sony Cybershot camera. Read more

Kinnaur: Of Mountain Legends, Unknown Trails and Wild Beauty.

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. Read more

6 Offbeat Experiences Near Hampi.

After my soulful sojourns in the North-eastern and Garhwal Himalayas, I descended to Mumbai for some personal work. Three weeks of sweltering heat has left me craving the rains, and made me nostalgic of my monsoon adventures last year, when I chased the rains from Rajasthan to Hampi.

Over two trips to Hampi, I’ve discovered experiences that go beyond the majestic ruins of the ancient Vijaynagara kingdom. Take my list, stay with the locals, meet the dwindling gypsy community, cycle amid dramatic landscapes, and indulge a little: Read more

Sikkim: The Lost Kingdom.

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. Read more

In Photos: The Garhwal Himalayas a Year After The Uttarakhand Floods.

I’ve never travelled in my own backyard. Born and brought up in the valley of Dehradun, I’ve always wondered what lay beyond the mountains I could see from my terrace. And last month, I finally decided to find out. I made my way up to the villages beyond Uttarkashi, and down via Mussoorie, transfixed by the majesty of the Garhwal Himalayas, as much as by the conviction of the locals to move on after the devastating Uttarakhand floods of 2013. I’ll let these pictures tell you their stories. Read more

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