I woke up to a distant roar, and felt a chill run down my spine. Sitting up, I slowly moved the curtain behind me, half expecting two fierce eyes staring back. Much to my relief, the only glow in the pitch black night was from the million stars twinkling above. A cool breeze tingled my face, and the stillness of the surrounding forest washed over me. I oriented myself in the dim light of a lantern, reminding myself that I was sleeping in a machan in the buffer zone of Pench National Park. My love affair with Central India’s forests began a couple of years ago, when I lost myself in their wild ecosystem, and discovered why encroaching on tiger territory on safari may not necessarily environmentally irresponsible (Read: Wildlife Tourism: Are We Saving the Tiger?). So when Taj Safaris‘ invitation to experience the dramatic forests of Pench landed in my inbox while I was away in Central America, it went right to the top of my India cravings. Now, with a friend in tow, I was tucking back into the comfy machan of our hut at Baghvan – a …
This week, I made the long journey back to India from the Americas. Having a glass of wine at the bar on my Virgin Atlantic flight, I got chatting with a fellow passenger from Costa Rica, and began reminiscing about my adventures of the last six months. When he asked me what my most memorable experiences in Central America were, I was torn. Should I tell him about the wild dolphins playing in front of my rancho in Panama? Or how a Tico mugged me in San Jose, Costa Rica? Or living with an indigenous Mayan family in Guatemala?
So I emptied my glass, and promised to tell him this story on my blog!
An old dug-out wooden canoe waited for me on the banks of Yorkin River. Two cowboy-like young boys, dressed in vests and gum boots, greeted me with wide smiles and is-be-shkena. Dusk was fast approaching, so I had little time to voice my apprehensions. For an hour, we manoeuvred rapids upriver with an old motor and a wooden stick, slowing down to a crawl at narrow bends, tilting almost 60 degrees when sharp rocks rose from the river bed, nothing but dense forests on either side. My pumping adrenalin washed off the nervousness of being somewhere so remote, alone, in a country I had set foot in only two days ago (Read: Costa Rica Wasn’t The Country I Imagined). As night descended and finally on land, I lugged my backpack and followed my new friends into the home of the Bribris – one of the last remaining indigenous communities in Costa Rica. Deep in the rainforest, without electricity or connectivity, far from civilization as we know it. The boys made way for Don Guillermo, the head of the clan, to receive me. I expected him …
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.
I had to pinch myself as my tiny 20-seater plane with an open cockpit, circled a lush mountainous island surrounded by the deep blue Atlantic Ocean. It looked a little like Isla Sonora from the Jurassic Park movies. The plane descended sharply as the hillocks parted to reveal a tiny airstrip, which ended just a few feet away from the ocean. The airport was only connected to the rest of the island by boat.
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.
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.
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.
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.