Travel Stories + Original Photos by VJ Singh. My adventures far, far away and my reflections when I am back.
Travel Stories + Original Photos by VJ Singh. My adventures far, far away and my reflections when I am back.
Where the wild Things are. Þingvellir National Park, Iceland, Jan 2013.
Today, Þingvellir (pronounced Thingvellir) is a beautiful National Park, with milky waterfalls, hiking paths and a lake below which Iceland is “drifting apart” between the North American and Eurasian continental plates. Divers can swim between continents in the Silfra Rift. Affluent Icelanders (including musician Björk) are said to have summer cottages along Þingvallavatn Lake. I see neither the Rift nor Björk, and I have definitely missed the ‘thing’. By about 215 years.
From circa 900-1800, the ruling Vikings organized their Alþingi here, the oldest continuous parliament in the world. It was held outdoors for two weeks, in the summer, I hasten to add. People came to hear the leaders, settle quarrels, talk important matters, and trade. By all accounts, it was a rather wild thing!
On a snowy, windy winter evening, with limited visibility, we stand on the ridge from where the laws were supposed to have been declared, and wonder what this place looked like during a crowded, boisterous “thing”. The church at Þingvellir is brightly lit, and we are drawn to it, literally, like moths. It’s a wildly evocative place. The sky is changing color. We should leave, we tell each other, for the nth time.
Old World. Hotel El Convento, San Juan, Puerto Rico, Sep 2013.
Old San Juan is a weekend town. A weekend is typically sufficient to experience it, and it’s easy enough to get back for another weekend.
In the 17th century, the war widows of San Juan petitioned the government to build a Carmelite convent opposite the old cathedral. This convent remained for the next 250 years. A magnificent restoration later, my room doesn’t bear any resemblance to a nun’s cell. The cloister is a gorgeous courtyard patio, restaurant and bar. The domed chapel is likely hosting a wedding reception at this very minute. The massive 300-year old tree growing in the middle of everything has happily survived the change. Ernest Hemingway and Gloria Vanderbilt have stayed here. And there’s a resident cat called Trixie.
My favorite things about Old San Juan:
I have travelled to faraway, exotic places ever since I can remember. I travel for inspiration, for adventure, for learning languages and for appreciating new cultures and flavors. And for satisfying my seemingly endless appetite for stories and photo opportunities. Needless to say, I am very thankful.
This year, I was able to marvel at both the Northern Lights and the Midnight Sun! I also saw some of the most spectacular scenery I will probably ever see.
But mostly, I will remember this year for the resilience and strength of my fellow Bostonians, as we rallied together to support one other during the terrible Marathon bombings. And how we stayed resolute and charming as one winter storm after another - cute names like Nemo notwithstanding - lashed our city.
Giving Thanks — For the beautiful world we live in, and for my city Boston.
False Bay Dreams. Muizenberg, Cape Town, South Africa.
If there was graffiti in Muizenberg, it would read like this:
Kipling spent his summers swimming and walking on the beach. Ms. Christie learned surfing: “I got a good run on my board and came out delirious with happiness. Surfing is like that. You are either vigorously cursing or else you are idiotically pleased with yourself.” It is, after all, one of the best places in the world to learn surfing. I always dreamed of riding that perfect wave. Sadly, I never went beyond the ‘vigorous cursing’ stage and must be the only person to give up after a couple of hours, warm waters and patient instructor notwithstanding.
Muizenberg is a laid-back/lively seaside town on the shores of False Bay, perfect for a stopover when driving from Cape Town to Cape Point. It has history, old charm, Art Deco architecture, Edwardian-style railway station, tidal pools, quirky second-hand shops and, of course, surf schools.
For me, the most memorable 30 minutes were spent taking pictures of the brightly painted beach huts from every possible angle, as the seagulls competed with the waves on who was the noisiest.
I first meet the Arctic Tern at Isfjord Radio. This is the bird that provided the “template” for the popular Angry Birds game. It lays its eggs on the ground, and then strikes at anyone who get close to the very-hard-to-find-nests. Our guides tell us to raise our backpacks above our heads - and it is a terrifying 5 minutes as dozens of ‘angry birds’ start their striking attacks at us.
Hotel Isfjord Radio, Spitsbergen, Norway, July 2013
Roller-Coaster. The Atlantic Road (Atlanterhavsveien). Molde To Kristiansund, Norway, July 2013.
“What’s in store for me in the direction I don’t take?” (Jack Kerouac) .. And what does teetering on the edge of the ocean feel like?
The Atlantic Road is an 8-kilometre roller-coaster stretch of road between Kristiansund and Molde. It skips nimbly from island to island, across seven curvy bridges. The tallest of them, Storseisundet, has a dramatic rise/fall and an impossibly artistic curve. At the highest point, I can actually see the other bridges connecting the tiny islands ahead. I only wish I could have seen an aerial view of this!
In contrast, the bridge nearby - from where I take this photo - is flat, specially constructed for anglers - and the woman standing next to me comes here every day to catch her meal fresh. She demonstrates how she is only finding small pollock this evening - and calmly proceeds to slash the just-caught fish’s throat before dropping it into her nearly-full bucket. TMI, I tell her. On the hillock opposite the bridge, I count seven pairs of people holding hands and looking out to the water. It is that kind of view.
If this was autumn, I’d probably witness a raging storm pounding the bridge! There are 18th century fishing villages along the route that offer a traditional rorbuer meal/stay. Or Thon Hotel Kristiansund for a modern option on the waterfront.
All She Wants. Grunnfør, Austvågøy, Lofoten Islands, Norway, Jul 2013
This is the closest I will get to posting a “selfie”. It’s rare for me to be the ‘photographed’. There are times, though, when I just abandon my camera, because it is impossible to capture the essence of the moment.
I once saw a picture of this place (minus me) in a coffee table book. In 1998, the Norwegian Parliament had decided that what would put Norway on the map is beautiful roads along its coastline, and I knew this place was part of that project. Turns out it’s a bike shelter for cyclists riding from one beach to another along Lofoten’s northwest coast - the place to see the drama of the midnight sun. There are no signs leading to it and so it is purely by chance that we come upon it. The structure is completely weather-proof and must provide shelter from the cruel winds that lash Lofoten in winter. The 360° panoramic view is just magnificent. I can see birds in the water. An old couple has brought picnic chairs and is sharing a romantic flask of coffee at the edge of the water. I’m trying to be as unobtrusive as possible, but they gaily wave out to me. They come here every week, they tell me, but it’s rare to see anyone else here.
Do I want my camera back? I don’t. Not yet. All I want to do is be.
Falling in Love. Cape Grace Hotel, Victoria & Alfred Waterfront, Cape Town, South Africa, Jan 2010.
When I tell people that I left my heart in Cape Town, they tell me, “It isn’t really Africa, you know”. I’ve seen safari Africa extensively, and much of desert Africa and tribal Africa, I will likely never know the “real” Africa, but I did fall in love with Cape Town. It’s often compared with San Francisco for its Big Sur-like craggy coastline, and with Sydney for its surfing vibe.
But Cape Town is different. It’s that wild and sexy boy who persuaded you to break rules and skip class, who pushed you to climb mountains and dive off a cliff, and feel joyful even if you were scared out of your wits. Its geography - nestled between wind-sculpted mountains and two oceans – overwhelms your senses. You quickly catch on to its passion for sports and music. Its spirit of adventure and daring is irresistible – and you’ll be sky-diving, shark-cage diving, kite-surfing or just hiking up Table Mountain. And it has a lively urban scene that can take you well into the night before you notice how late it is.
Cape Grace is located on the Victoria & Albert waterfront. It’s very charming, with its Cape Dutch furniture, nautical colors and hand-painted fabrics. The service is impeccable. The view to Table Mountain, with the perpetual ‘table-cloth of clouds’, is lovely. Location-wise, I prefer to stay in Camps Bay so I can “live like a local” but for a short stay, the V&A location provides an easy immersion in the charms of Cape Town. There are always street performances going on, you can catch a ferry to Robben Island, or just gaze out at the colorful boats while sea gulls and seals entertain you.
The sheep of Mykines have big personalities. I feel this one is looking at me with severe censure, like a disapproving older relative. I love how the hair and horns around the mouth are tinged green with grass.
Faroe Islands, August 2013.
Viking Mash-up. Fretheim Hotel, Flåm, Norway, July 2013.
1. Drive to Flåm. Yes, you can get there by cruise ship or rail, but you’d miss navigating hairpin bends and tunnels alongside World Heritage fjords. If you plan well, you can even include the 24.5 km Lærdal Tunnel in your route – an engineering phenomenon, it has three ‘caves’ with psychedelic lighting, no doubt to reassure jet-lagged drivers that they are making progress through what seems like an endless, looping dream.
2. After many twists and turns, ups and downs, when you encounter an astonishing cloud that thinks its rightful place is low in the valley, you know you have arrived. “Flåm” means “little place between steep mountains”. Perfect for cycling and hiking.
3. Stay at the historic Fretheim Hotel – architecturally delightful, white wooden building located at the head of a mighty fjord. The historic rooms are described as places ‘where the atmosphere from the 1800s still lingers’. You can also stay in a lovely America Room that I can confirm is ghost-free - and has views of the fjord.
4. Try to get up before 10 AM for an exhilarating RIB boat ride across to World Heritage Nærøyfjord. For sunshine, freezing temperatures (even in July), pure freedom and beauty, and legends narrated by an intrepid captain.
5. After the best-ever lamb burger lunch at Fretheim’s outdoor restaurant, take the 65-year old Flåm Railway to Myrdal. On this amazing 2-hour round trip, you will climb 900m from fjord to mountain top, an incline of one to 18, and see stunning views that only a hairpin tunnel that twists 180° can provide.
6. Lament that you can’t stay longer.
Pretty Picchu. Chinchero Market, Urumbamba, Peru, Jan 2009.
.. That of multiple spindles unraveling so fast that I don’t know which one to focus on, for that perfect picture.
Chinchero is a small Andean village near Urubamba. A handicrafts market is held here thrice a week - and it’s a great place to meet the local people. To haggle for textiles. Or vegetables. To learn how to distinguish between the various Andean tribes based on their different, wildly colorful hats. To catch a weaving demonstration at a local workshop. And marvel at how every color in the wool comes from a natural dye source. To make an old lady laugh by showing her pictures on my viewfinder of her own toothy grin from different angles.
I can spin a decent yarn too, figuratively speaking. But to watch the women separate their yarn with a drop spindle is nothing short of a choreographed dance sequence. Starting as young as five, girls learn to wash wool. By the time they are twelve, they can weave their own pieces. A crafty little salesperson, all of 13 years old, sold me three wool hats that still bring me compliments when I wear them.
Ozymandias. Abu Simbel, Aswan, Egypt, Sep 2009.
Despite what The Mummy would have us believe, there are no flesh-eating scarab beetles. And books don’t open with keys. Also, sadly, I have no way to prove Brian Andreas’ quote “that Ancient Egyptians had fifty words for sand”.
After a short plane ride from Aswan, I walk from the airport, and around a bend in the hill to find myself right in the midst of this scene. No one has warned me about the size or nearness of these colossal structures, and my senses are slightly shocked. So I walk backwards on the sand to get a more balanced perspective of this and the adjoining rock-cut temples. And spend some quiet time with Rameses II and his favorite wife Nefertari.
True to Rameses II’s ostentatious style, there is nothing modest about this temple. And it is possibly the most awe-inspiring sight in Egypt. When Aswan dam was built in the 60s, the area that is now Lake Nasser completely flooded. Abu Simbel was dismantled into 8000 pieces and reconstructed 200 ft higher up on the same hill.
Here, Rameses II allows Nefertari to have a temple of equal size and stature next to his magnificent one. Considering the times (3200 years ago), it was a touching gesture. I wonder if the ancient Egyptians had fifty words for love?
Fall arrives in the Public Garden in Boston. Nobody does crimson fall foliage like New England. Nov 2, 2013.
The George Washington statue in the Public Garden dresses up in Red Sox gear too.
Beacon Hill, Halloween 2013.
Pillowcase or jack-o’-lantern bucket? After much consideration, I decide that I am too old to collect candy from my generous neighbors. So I pick up my camera instead and wander through Boston’s most historic neighborhood to celebrate its annual Halloween tradition. Since the 1970s, this is one day when the charming tree-lined streets of Beacon Hill get packed with costumed pets and people, infants dressed as pumpkins to the elderly dressed in traditional witching gear. Watch out for the brooms.
I run into a friend dressed up as Jamie Lannister from the Game of Thrones, complete with chopped arm hanging around his neck. There’s a dog dressed up as a skunk. And thanks to the Red Sox World Series win, there are lots of red shirts. A house on Pinckney Street is showing black-and-white Dracula movies. Another has turned its precious courtyard into a set right out of Sharknado. There’s a rumor that John Kerry is handing out candy from his Louisberg Square house, but I can’t confirm it.
Beacon Hill has the perfect Halloween atmosphere with the wrought iron, cobblestones, narrow alleys and seriously all-out decoration. Besides, its spirit of Boston Strong is very, very real.