Some spectacular sunsets from across the world

I am not a morning person – there, one confession down right at the beginning. I try – I earnestly do. I have tried going to sleep early, all I end up is sleeping for 10 hours instead of the required 7 hours. I have tried alarms away from my hand or literally in the bathroom by the washbasin. I go in, pee, even wash my face, then wonder if that morning walk or even reading for work is really worth the half hour of delicious snuggle in a warm bed and you know which side of the debate wins, don’t you? So even if I wanted I couldn’t do a post on the spectacular sunrises I have witnessed across the world. So I thought why not flip it? Show you the most spectacular sunsets I have seen – a few I captured too.

With this post I shall take you across the globe. The sunsets that I have witnessed while much younger when my parents wielded the camera and not me – I will hope that my power of description will paint the pretty picture. I don’t intend to use representational pictures for sure – does not make sense does it? This is a travel blog – my travel blog. 🙂

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Busting the ‘Nothing to do in Oslo’ myth

Travelling means different things often. Some travel for a holiday, others like us to discover the world. What is the difference you wonder? Well, travelling for a holiday often means a lovely relaxed break at a luxurious spa or resort in a scenic location. Travelling to discover the world? Well, that means lugging backpacks, hunting for bargains for rooms, tickets and even the best ways to move around. That often means that you get back home, in need to soak your feet, pamper your skin and with a backpack of clothes to wash…but what makes it worth it is the memories that you come back with. New places, new discoveries and most importantly…people and seeing their countries to their eyes. Following their suggestions, discovering the local quirks and secrets and concluding that this world is not as bad as the politics that sour it. It is true that most European capitals begin to resemble each other, differing just a tad bit in grandeur and scale. But that should be no reason to feel been there..done that now, should it?

So here we are in Oslo…braced for a boring city, as reiterated by several friends who have been here before and surprisingly, guide books too. Friendly tip 1: Ditch pre-c0nceived notions. Take all the advice on where to travel and how to travel till you actually begin the journey.

Once the travels begin, let yourself be surprised and overwhelmed or underwhelmed. Don’t let someone else’s experience be your guiding bible.

We crossed over from Copenhagen to Oslo in a cruiseliner. Woke up to a sunny but slightly nippy day and clambered to the topmost deck to experience the scenic crossing of the Oslofjord into the bustling city.

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Highly recommended, but remember to carry Norwegian currency. The last point that they accept Danish Kroners are on the cruiseliner. That said the city centre, Jerbanetorget, is not too far away. You can find money exchanges there. Friendly tip 2: You are better off without paper currency. Use the card, pay online. If you are from countries where you need to convert your currency first into USD, GBP or the Euros, perish the thought.

Oslo is a relatively small, cosy city. Walk around. If you have a couple of days, grab the Oslo pass. It gives you access to museums and various modes of public transport including the train, tram and the buses. But look hard at what you want to do in Oslo and select your pass accordingly. Most museums in the Oslo city are shut on Mondays. And on Thursdays, entry to their lovely National museum is free. ( Thank me later!)

What were my absolute favourites:

  1. Walking around on a bright and sunny day along the main tree-lined Karl Johann’s gate and realising several of Oslo’s landmarks are on that very road!
  2. Sitting on a bench, eavesdropping on the conversations of elderly Afghani men trying to follow snatches of their conversations while the Oslo Jazz Festival played in the background. wp-image-1695615096jpg.jpg
  3. Sipping a glass of Claude de Val Blanc in a restaurant set in the oldest house in Christiania – the town built by Christian IV. Oslo was known as Christiania up till the early 20th century, the Norwegian king Haakon secured Norway as a separate kingdom from Sweden.
  4. Watching the Oslo harbour from atop the Akershus Festning. Take a book and grab a bench and just spend a couple of hours dividing your time between reading and staring at the blue blue seas and skies
  5. The ferry trip to Bygdoy – the museum island to take in the Viking museum, Kon-tiki museum and Maritime museum.
  6. Trudging through one of the biggest and prettiest cemeteries and nearly getting lost there, while on our way to the Vigeland Sculpture Park. The sculpture park was a sight to behold and to think, one sculptor sculpted and designed the mammoth park. wp-image-782475138jpg.jpg 
  7. Some quiet time spent wandering through the Nobel Peace Center and the powerful messages of peace and reconciliation.
  8. I haven’t even got to the Munchmuseet – that hosts the second largest collection of Edvard Munch’s paintings after the Oslo National Museum. It is tiny and while we were there, I discovered the work of Jasper Johns. wp-image-1788179780jpg.jpg
  9. Ohhh..and our Air B&B hosts, William and Sofie who opened their home to us. They gave us a peek into the lives of the Norwegian. (Sofia is Swedish, but William believes Norwegians are the most adaptable of the Scandinavians!)
  10. Ohhh and talking about people, a big shout out to Gert too ( we talked for over 5 hours but never asked him his surname!) Gert, the retired electrician who was our co-traveller on our Oslo-Bergen train journey, pulled out all the reserves of his limited English vocabulary to tell us about Norway and its people. Final friendly tip: If anyone tells you that Norwegians are neither as friendly as the Danes or social, tell them that’s because you did not smile and say hello. Everyone acknowledges a friendly gesture..even the shy Norwegians!!

So next time someone says nothing much to do in Oslo…refer them to this post!!

(For more photos, check out our Instagram feed: travel kathas) 

Tak tak,

D

What we now know about travelling in Scandinavia

While blogging when travelling, the blog becomes kind of like my diary. You are privvy to my notes. I will do a more detailed travelogue, once I’m back at my desk and have gone through all my photos and notes. The Danish leg of this trip was so hectic that I realise I have written little about the beautiful Denmark. More on that soon!

So today..with just two days left of our Norwegian travels, I want to note down a few things I am wiser about:

However much you try not to, but you got to believe in luck. We did not know that Bergen receives just 60 days of sunny weather with little or no rains. We have seen two days already! Sunny and bright. Ditto with our luck in Flam and Aurland. People we spoke to there told us to be grateful for the great weather we got throughout this trip. 

Lesson learnt: Pray hard for great weather but pack an extra jacket and raincoat in. Sensible shoes too. A European holiday calls for several hours spent walking. So keep the fancy pairs for an evening out but pack the good sturdy ones to use daily. 
Euros don’t work in most countries, figure out money exchange or even better stick to using cards. Most places, even the smallest, cutest, quaintest (is that a word! In Europe, I’d vote for it to be) places accept cards. For a primer on our experience, do check out my post, A friend in need in Oslo. Another important realisation, public transportation is efficient but not cheap. Map your travel in advance and be prepared to walk shorter distances. 

Lesson learnt: If you plan to use cash and need a currency exchange, plan well. There are fewer exchanges around in the new era of plastic currency. Figure out the local currency and the first point where you can pick it up from. Buses across Norway only accept cash. Only bus stops around the city centre of most cities allow you to buy tickets using cards. Buying tickets early (from a bus station or online) is way cheaper than buying one on the bus or train.

Eating local in Norway might mean finding burgers and pizzas and paellas cooked with locally grown produce. Norwegian delicacies like canned fish, reindeer meat and moose are fun to sample, but like the brown cheese an acquired taste for most. 

Lesson learnt: Explore the sweeter stuff, the amazing cinnamon rolls, the bollers and the array of breads baked here. Also try out coffee. Norwegians are coffee lovers and have several kaffes that serve great brews. We loved the hot dogs and have tried at least one in all the cities we travelled in.  

Explore new travel plans that don’t always revolve around the big cities. The joy of clean and picturesque Europe is away from the cities.

Lesson learnt: While you make time for sightseeing and exploring the museums and landmarks of various historical vintage across Europe, also head out into the smaller, lesser heralded towns. If you are travelling by road, stop at a cafe or pub in a village or town enroute. If you are taking the bus or train, break your journey in smaller towns. 

And finally, use your guide books for what they are..they are guides and not bibles. Read several and not just one. No one has figured out all the best ways to travel and all the places to see in the number of days that you have. You are the best judge so set your own pace. 

Break a few rules, make a few of your own and blog about them. Your experiences may inspire others to do just that. 

Safe travels.. Tak!


Luck favours the adventurous in the land of the fjords

Sometimes you luck in…and how.

N and I love to plan our travel itineraries. We spend a fair amount of time on research..we like travelling on a budget and splurging occasionally on fine experiences along the way.

So while planning our trip through Norway, we began by being certain only of one thing..seeing the fjords. You can’t come to Norway and not see the fjords…duhhh.. To get to the fjords, we realised Bergen is a great place to start. And then our research threw up Flam. 

However, August, the time we had chosen seemed to be when everyone was heading here. We spent a fair bit of time researching AirBnBs to find ones in our budget, but Flam was a no-go. No hotels available for our dates, even if we were to considerably loosen our purse strings.

And then we chanced upon regions near Flam..a ferry ride away we read first…across a fjord branch was Aurland..the Aurlandfjord is a branch of the much bigger and one of the most majestic fjords in the region, the Sognefjord. 

We landed in Flam by the Flamsbana train that weaves its way from Myrdal down a spectacular mountainous rail route and gushing waterfalls, valleys and ravines. And the instructions from our host was to catch a bus, a specific one at that which would drop us on the doorsteps of the apartment we booked for the day. 

Till the moment, we got here..we had no clue how we had lucked in! The place couldn’t be more scenic…with mountains on all sides and the gushing waters from waterfalls nearby the only sound for the most part. We lucked in with the weather too- bright and sunny and welcoming. And imagine spotting a double rainbow!!

We used the spare bikes that were available to bike around by the fjord. I was happier to sit and sun myself while N pedalled further. 

Guides and guidebooks don’t do justice to these fjordlands. We highly recommend that you head to one of the fjords..any one that you blindly narrow down on the map..choose a little place, rent a room for a few days and pitch yourselves here.

Breathe the mountain air..cycle up a path or two or trek along these paths…drink a beer and fire up a barbeque…

Do try some local brown cheese and see if it grows on you (its sweetish and tastes fudgy caramelly almost) and walk around the local shops..some do really fine work (your wallet will definitely be lighter but it might just be worth it!) 

If none of these are your idea of good times…just sit around till the sun finally sets around 11pm in the night. 

And tick another place off your bucket list…The Northern Lights is still a biggie on my travel list and Norway, I promise to be back for that. 

Till then, oh lovely fjordlands…stay pristine and virgin and please don’t give in to the demand by cruise lines and big hotel chains to add more shacks and hotels. Stay small, stay beautiful. 

A friend in need in Oslo

Early this morning, the Pearl Seaways cruiseship docked in at Oslo. N and I were pretty keen to start the second leg of our Denmark-Norway trip. 

Since we got on to the ferry, N has been wondering about whether to convert our dollars into Norwegian Krones (NOK) or wait till we reach Oslo. In a sagely wife moment, I decided that wait made sense. The bureau de change exchange rate sucks, so N didn’t grumble much. Well, we could always exchange it after we disembark. Words that I did not realise would come to bite me in the back. 

We disembarked, finished the mandatory immigration check and uhhh…we were outside the terminal. To get to our Air BnB apartment, we had to get to the City Centre and then take another bus. A taxi driver assured me we could get tickets for the bus on the bus itself…but ahemmm..we had Danish kroners and dollars and euros and pound but no NOK! 

Bus no 60 draws up and the passengers board. I step up and hesitantly check- Can I buy two tickets please? 

Sure, he says. 

Can I please use my card or pay by Euro or Danish Kroner or dollar??? (Highly hopeful and laughable even to my ears)

No, Im sorry..I can only accept NOK

Uhhh…oh no..thank you anyways..we dont have any money. We’ll figure it out.

He looks and asks me in Urdu..where do you want to go?

N hops into the conversation and shows him the address and says but first we need to exchange money.

He smiles, tells us not to get off the bus..and gives us directions to the nearest currency exchange from the point, where he promised to drop us. And in the ten minutes that he took to drop us, I learnt about Mohammad Afzal, the bus driver from Gujarat, Pakistan. His story has been pieced together from the conversation that happened in Urdu as he drove:

He arrived here with his wife and kids..the youngest one was five then..from Gujarat in Pakistan. It wasn’t the easiest of moves he says. But we managed. Today, sixteen years later.. he is a Norwegian, his sons settled here too. And we bond over the Urdu saying…himmat-e-mardaan toh madad-e-khuda. (God helps the brave). 

There are about 20 members of his extended family here. There is a community. A good life built from literally nothing.

Do you like cricket, we ask. No Indian-Pakistani conversation can move forward without that mandatory question. No, he says. I like to walk, go to the mosque and then the rest of the time is spent working or with the family. I am.blessed with a good family he says. 

Does he go back to Pakistan? Yes, he says..once a year for sure..sometimes twice. His aged parents live there. Moreover like last year, when his daughter got married, he says half the plane was filled by his family members going home for the wedding!

This year though, his leave will be spent going on the Hajj with his wife. Its easier to get a permit from Norway unlike from Pakistan and India he says. 

And as he turned the bus towards the town centre, he points out to the currency exchange.. gives me a few tips on travelling in Oslo too.

As I thank him, I tell him how touched we are that he offered help. I take people to their destinations. You are my people. Im happy to help.

Mohammed Afzal from Gujarat in Pakistan considered N and me as one of his own. We speak the same languages, we have shared history but a political line now dictates our patriotism and allegiance.

But when politics is kept aside, the Mohammed Afzals of the world are the friends that lend you a helping hand when you could do with one.

Thank you travel gods for sending him our way this morning. He did us a good turn and someday we hope to do someone else a good turn. If there were more such favours traded, there would perhaps be a little less hate and more empathy for each other? 

And thank you, Mohammed Afzal of Oslo Ruter# Norway and Gujarat, Pakistan. Your good samaritan deed will remain a big debt of gratitude in this wo-mad’s heart!
Love,

D

Exploring Budapest: A Slice of Holocaust History

Travel is perhaps the best teacher in the world – especially if you are curious about history and how the world changed and morphed into the beautifully ugly crazy rabid zone – where every identity has a religious, ethnic, racial sub-story. At some point of history or other, there has been persecution, pogroms, subjugation and conquests that have radically changed the way our world is today.

An epoch that changed Europe, an unhealed scar that raises its ugly head time and again, one that reverberates across the continent even seventy years later – The Holocaust. While a trip through cities and regions that have World War II tour (of cities and places that are part of the turning points in the War) is still in the works, we keep stumbling on the dark side of modern European history in several cities of Europe.

Walk by the  banks of the Danube river along the Pest side and you’ll come across shoes by the bank. From afar it look like several people just took off their shoes to take a swim. But from up close, you realise they are metallic – stark and cold. We stumbled on it by sunset of our first day there. Perhaps it was the setting sun playing tricks, but that sinking feeling of melancholy – that sense of ‘I don’t know the story, but I know it will haunt me for long when I do’. The moment we were in a cafe with wifi, I wanted to know the story behind those pairs of metallic shoes by the Danube. Before the Second World War began, 25% of Hungary’s population was made up of Jews. During the War, the Arrow Cross Party that had Nazi affiliations murdered around 600,000 of them. Nearly 19% of the Jewish population wiped out during this time were Hungarians.

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The Travel Bug: It Bites Some Harder than Others

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The view of Mandalay from atop the Mandalay Hill

I’m on my final day of travelling through Myanmar. It’s been ten days since I got here. And I’m in love with a country that’s still learning how to embrace the free flow of tourists into their country. The systems are still not completely in place – public transportation, lack of signages or population that speaks English to help a lost traveller – it might take a few more years, but those that are in place are admirable – new highways, really comfortable long-distance buses, clean restrooms on highway stops (Allelujah!!) and honest people with smiles that make you want to hug them when they struggle through the language barriers to help you out.

Myanmar, I must admit is not the easiest country to travel  especially not in the non-touristy, monsoon season. The hotels offer off-season rates, but you have to shell out a premium for travelling in and around cities. Lack of tourist volumes mean that you are shelling out that much more. And there are few warnings or written material that can help you plan and budget your trip better – often, the hidden costs pop at you when you are already at the spot. There are tourist rates and there are local rates. And as in several other countries, tourist rates are in dollars. But all these aside, there is a joy of discovery when you move through the country. It still feels virginal and lesser explored – not jaded to the ways of foreign travellers poking and prodding through their history and lives.

When I talk about a new plan to travel – a new country that I’m excited about exploring, I’m often subjected to friendly chides – What? Another holiday? Do you even work? Can I have your job? If I could, I’d love to not have to work and only travel. So this post is dedicated to the travel bug – a bug I think that bit me very early in life. And still continues to have its tiny claws embedded deep in me. So what is it that makes you lock your home, pack your bags and take off?

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