In May 2012, I was lucky enough to take what was truly a once-in-a-lifetime trip, to a remote corner of the Hindukush mountains in northwest Pakistan. Near the town of Chitral (at an elevation of 3, 700 ft), and a 26-hour drive from my hometown in the plains, Lahore, the Kalash Valley is home to a small but unique tribe of people, the Kalash, “the wearers of the black robe”, Indo-Aryans who settled among these rugged peaks thousands of years ago, and have held on to their ancient beliefs, language and customs since then, while the rest of Central Asia assimilated to Muslim culture.
We visited the Kalash village of Bumburait at the time of their annual Spring Festival, “Chilum Josh“, and got the chance to see the iconic Kalash in all their pomp and glory. Their population, which was once fast declining due to forced conversions, is now on the rise; protection by the Pakistani government and growing local tourism has helped them maintain cultural independence.
Let this album take you on a photographic journey, from the windswept highways of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province to the bustling streets of Chitral town, to the vibrant, beautiful faces of Kalash women and the windy, shadowy alleys of their hamlets on the hill.
Many thanks to the brilliant folks at Adventure Travel Pakistan for organizing the trip!
Lake Saif-ul-Malook, situated at a height 10, 600 feet at the northern tip of the Kaghan Valley in Pakistan’s Himalayas, is one of the most beautiful places on earth. I have been there twice, the first time as a 12-year old and then in 2009, when I determined to capture some of its magic on camera and on paper, in the words of two local storytellers who relate the legend of the Lake to visitors.
It is the story of a prince and a fairy, Saif-ul-Malook and Badr-ul-Jamal – a story of love, adventure, faith, magic, suffering and betrayal – a story of the multitude of human passions.
Many different versions exist, but below is a reproduction of what the storytellers told us, with ample writer’s liberties. I hope you enjoy it!
It was the Lake – emerald-green, calm as a mirror, ringed by rugged snow-capped peaks – the very one from his dream.
Saif’s joy was uncontrollable. “I shall find her, I shall find her here!” he cried, jumping up and down like a child. “My suffering is finally over!”
In his excitement, he forgot about how he had been transported to the Lake in the first place – courtesy the jinn of Solomon’s cap, who was at this moment standing behind him in human form.
The jinn cleared his throat. “Ahem, Prince Saif…there is one thing.” Saif turned around with a start. “What…?” he said slowly, peering at the jinn.
“You will not be able to see the Fairy Queen Badr Jamal. She is, like us, naari, borne of fire, hence invisible to the human eye in her true form.”
“So, what must I do to see her?” Saif asked impatiently.
“You may pray,” the jinn replied. “Pray for forty consecutive days – the chilla – without food, drink or sleep, without moving from the circle wherein you sit. Then, and only then, will you be able to see the Fairy Badr Jamal.”
With these somber words, the jinn vanished.
It sounded impossible. Only saints and prophets like Jesus and Moses, and later on Baba Farid Ganj Shakkar and Hafiz of Shiraz, had been known to perform a chilla to completion – others either died or lost their senses in the attempt.
But Saif was not about to be thwarted from his objective so close to the end. “I’ve looked for her for six years, wandering the streets of Egypt with nothing but a kashkol, a begging bowl. Surely I can endure another forty days?”
So, drawing a circle of pebbles on the southern shore of the Lake, he seated himself inside, closed his eyes, and began to pray. He prayed, and prayed, and prayed, and as the suns went down and the moons came up, Saif grew a little weaker, his face thinner, his pain stronger, his yearning deeper. He lost count of the days, and awaited each night with the hope – “Perhaps I will see her tonight?”
But Badr Jamal did not appear.
One night, as the sun cast its dying amber rays on the Himalayan slopes, and twilight crept into the sky with the daub of a divine paintbrush, Prince Saif sat in his circle wondering if he would live to see another day. Physically exhausted, his body was about to give up the struggle, but his mind had never felt sharper, calmer.
It was also a chowdveen ki raat – the 14th of the lunar month, or night of a full moon – and the sight of that perfect silver orb, glowing in the star-studded indigo sky, enveloping the Lake, the mountains and himself in its ethereal light, filled Prince Saif’s heart with peace. “If I were to die here tonight, if my soul were to leave my body tonight, I would be happy man.”
Suddenly, a sound reached his ears – like the fluttering of a great flock of birds, far away at first, then closer – intermingled with a delicate tinkling, like the chime of a thousand tiny bells. Saif looked up; a great white cloud was moving from the west towards the Lake.
“Perhaps it’s the Angels of Death, come to take me home!”, Saif thought.
But they were not Angels, because Prince Saif-ul-Malook was not destined to die that night. That chowdveen ki raat, Saif became one of the handful of human beings to ever complete a chilla, and one of the rarer still to set eyes on the mythical Fairies of Koh Kaaf, the Caucasus Mountains, that magical land that lay at the border of Asia and the savage West. The Fairies flew to the Lake every full moon to bathe, and their Queen was Badr-ul-Jamal.
The white cloud slowly descended at the shore of the Lake, and seven forms emerged – seven beatific creatures, fair-limbed, dark-haired, golden-eyed, with large gossamer wings on their backs that glittered in the moonlight.
Saif was dumbstruck. An invisible force propelled him to his feet and he ran behind some large boulders, from where he could see without being seen. His mouth agape with wonder, he watched as the seven Fairies laughingly doffed their wings, folded them neatly on ground, and dived into the deep, shimmering waters of the Lake.
And then he saw her – Badr Jamal. She was the last to enter the Lake, effortlessly gliding through the water with her long black hair spread out behind her, her face radiant as the full moon, eyes twinkling like a child’s. She was the most beautiful creature he had ever set eyes on.
Prince Saif felt like he would faint from rapture. The object of his quest, of six years and forty days of tortuous struggle, was right there in plain sight; a living, breathing, palpable creature!
September 5th, 2010
Santa Elena / La Fortuna, Costa Rica
We woke up to the sound of sizzling eggs and childish chatter in Spanish. I rubbed my eyes and looked at the forest-green walls, the lacy white curtain spilling light, the gigantic tiger-print fleece blanket on the bed. “Where am I?”
We hurried down to the kitchen, where the hostel-keeper Ronny’s wife was cooking us up a hearty breakfast, while her two adorable children Daniel and Jasmine capered about in their sky-blue school uniforms. Soon, a Turismo van arrived to take us to the Selvatura Adventure Park for our canopy tour.
Selvatura Park is located on 1, 200 acres of virgin cloudforest in the heart of the misty Monteverde Reserve, founded in 1951 by a group of American Quakers. There are no walking or hiking trails traversing the forest, so the only way to see it is through a network of hanging bridges, or on horizontal cable-trolleys called ziplines. Ziplines have been used as a method of transport in remote mountainous regions (including northern Pakistan and India) for over a century , but the modern canopy tour was developed by naturalists in the 1970s as an eco-friendly way of exploring rainforest.
As our guides geared us up with harnesses, gloves and helmets and hammered out instructions, I had that familiar fluttery feeling in my stomach – What if I get stuck mid-way on the cable? What if I lose my balance and topple upside-down? What if I scrape my hand on the steel and it starts to bleed?
“Really, you’re the last person who has the right to be scared, you’ve jumped out of an airplane!” my husband Z scolded me. I think I was only pretending to be scared though – just so I’d be mentally prepared in case something did go wrong.
But once we were up there in the treetops, on the first platform, and with one push I was sent zooming along the cable, comfortably seated in my harness, lush forest below and sunny skies above, there wasn’t a happier person than me in Monteverde.
I just couldn’t control the smile on my face. It was so, so, so much fun. The moment I reached the other side I couldn’t wait to do it again. We rode 15 different cables in the span of 2 hours, over various lengths and heights – sometimes brushing past leaves and branches in the thick of forest, sometimes a kilometer above the canopy, stretching green till the horizon. On the two longest cables (650 and 700 meters), they sent you in pairs, so me and Z rode together, whooping at the top of our lungs the whole way!
Back in Santa Elena town, we were famished (as usual), and made our way to a red-painted soda called Maravilla, recommended to us by the hostel-keeper Ronny. We ordered a typical Costa Rican lunch, casado, which consisted of the basic Latin American fare of rice and beans, with a portion of meat-in-gravy, fried plantains and salad. I polished down my casado con pollo with a tumbler of fresh Tamarindo – imli juice! – and followed it up with dessert at the beautiful Morphos restaurant.
After lunch, we said goodbye to Ronny and family, checked out of Sleepers Sleep Cheaper, and made the journey back to La Fortuna, where we had other activities planned over the next two days. We’d made reservations online at a local hostel, and the jeep was going to drop us there directly.
But as the jeep trundled past La Fortuna’s cheerful downtown and twisted into a pot-holed back alley, and colourful facades turned into tin-roofed shanties, I said to Z with some foreboding, “I have a bad feeling about this place!”
Before we knew it, the jeep was gone, leaving us in the pouring rain at the porch of a dingy grey house with a sputtering tube-light and an emaciated, bulgy-eyed, 5ft-high man at the reception. “Bienvenido,” he rasped with a crooked grin, “Plees check een hee-yre”. I watched with horror as Z lifted the pen and wrote down his name in an empty register.
The little man then took us around to our “room”, opening a creaky door to a prison cell from Alcatraz – damp and windowless, with paint peeling off the grey walls and a spindly bunk bed covered in grey sheets that looked like they were last washed in 1968.
I stared at Z. “No – way. Nooo way!” He gave me a helpless look. “I know this isn’t very pleasant. But what can we do? We’ve already checked in!”
“It doesn’t matter!” I pressed. “Just make up some story, tell him we have friends at another place, and want to stay with them.” I was conveniently excused from the dirty work because I didn’t speak Spanish and Z did :P
Z came back five minutes later. “I told him. He wasn’t very happy, but I have a feeling this has happened to them before!”
Laughing with relief, we strapped on our packs and set off in the rain towards downtown La Fortuna, to hunt for a decent place to pass the next two nights.
There wasn’t a lack of choice – the main street was strewn with them. We first walked into a beautifully designed, leafy, woody, two-storeyed hostel, comfortable, clean and cheap rolled into one – perfect, really, except for the manic old American hippie who ran it . “But what don’t you like about this place? What? What?” he pleaded when we told him we wanted to look around a little more. “But why would you want to do that? Why? Why?” he almost shrieked.
I looked at Z again – another one of those “looks” – and, finding some excuse or other, we extricated ourselves from the desperate old fogey and ventured on.
A few blocks down, we passed by a place called Hotel La Amistad, where a rotund, smiley-faced man signaled us in through the glass door. “You looking for a place to stay? Won’t find a better deal!” He introduced himself as Salim from Nicaragua, the proprietor of Hotel La Amistad. “You can look around all you want, my friends, but I bet you’ll come right back here!” he winked.
And Mr. Salim – named after an Arab friend of his father’s – was absolutely right. I don’t know if it was his exuberance or the open, inviting look of the hotel, a courtyard surrounded by rooms with hammocks and easy chairs outside every door, but we did’t even bother looking anymore. We were sold!
After a light dinner at the Lava Lounge restaurant across the street, we turned in – and was I glad to be sleeping in the airy room and freshly-laundered white sheets of La Amistad instead of on the bug-infested coffin-shrouds in Alcatraz two streets away ;)
Next week, Day 4: Cano Negro River Safari!
September 4th, 2011
Santa Elena / Monteverde, Costa Rica
After a pleasant 20-minute ride across the warm blue lake, chatting with the nice young couple from Texas who were on the tour with us, we reached a forested edge where our next, much anticipated, four-legged rides awaited.
I also have a theory – tried and tested, believe me – that if I don’t find my horse attractive, we just won’t get along, and the ride will be a miserable experience for both of us. So, quickly scanning my four options, I spotted a favourite – a strong, slender chestnut mare – and hurried to bag it, lest one of the Texans got to her first.
I didn’t regret my choice. Mariposa just flew – through woods and dales, over brooks and hills – neck and neck with the lead guide Mariano, effortlessly carrying me behind her. The others in the group, including Z, were left far behind, and for 2 hours it was just me and the spry, sun-wizened Mariano, communicating with gestures and my broken Spanish, a permanent smile on my face. “Cómo se llama esto? Esto? Esto?” I pointed to birds, fruits, flowers that grew in tangled bunches along the way, and Mariano would smile and silently respond by offering me a ripe guava from a tree, or a fragrant white orchid that I happily tucked behind my ear.
I was sad when the ride came to an end (and a little alarmed, when I got off Mariposa and realized my thighs felt like two immovable planks of wood!) After a brief stop at a roadside Minisuper for some fresh pineapple, we were whisked away into a jeep for the last leg of the journey to Monteverde.
There were other tourists in the jeep, including two British girls in their mid-20s, who revealed to us that they were currently in the 10th month of a year-long around-the-world trip. “One day, we decided we hated our jobs and where our lives were going. So we quit, gathered up all our savings, and bought a round-the-world air ticket, from London and back.” There were gasps of disbelief and wows of admiration. “We’ve covered 20 countries so far,” they continued, “from South East Asia to South and Central America, on our way to the States…” I told them they’d better write a book about this when they were done. “Yes, that’s the plan!”
Soon, we reached Santa Elena, the charming, cobble-paved little pueblo closest to the Monteverde Cloud Forest, where most budget travelers stayed. The jeep dropped us off at our hostel, Sleepers Sleep Cheaper, where we checked in with the jolly proprietor Ronny, showered, changed, stuffed our faces with bread and cheese from the nearest Supermercado – we hadn’t eaten a bite since breakfast save the piña! – while another one of those ubiquitous Turismo vans arrived to take us to the coffee tour at Don Juan.
The Don Juan Coffee Plantation was established some 60-odd years ago by a now ancient Don Juan, who greeted our group of 6 with a sweet toothless smile at the reception. Our guide, Elizabeth – a chubby, exuberant Costa Rican woman – proceeded to show us around, demonstrating each step of the traditional coffee-making process, from planting and picking to drying, cleaning and roasting, while throwing in interesting facts about coffee (Did you know that the coffee plant originated in Ethiopia, that there are 40 different varieties, that only 2 are drinkable, that it’s the most traded commodity in the world after oil?)
By the end of the tour, damp from the persistent drizzle, we were desperate for the pure Arabica coffee that awaited us in hot thermoses at the reception. I tasted all three roasts – light, dark and “farmer’s” – before downing 3 cups of the one I liked best (farmer’s, smooth and subtly sharp), accompanied by sweet corn bread and chocolate candy. Z, on the other hand, a religious caffeine-abstinent, decided to go for a shot of the bitter dark roast, sans milk and sugar. “If I’m going to do this once in my life,” he reasoned, “I might as well go all the way!”
That evening, we roamed around Santa Elena – a cluster of souvenir shops and picture-perfect restaurants,populated almost entirely by tourists – and had a fantastic dinner at a place called the Tree House Cafe.
It was barely 9p.m., but sleep was warm and welcome back in our cute, woody little room at the hostel – replete with excellent comida and toasty coffee, blissfully aching from the horseback ride, watching fireflies dance at the misty, lace-curtained window.
Next week, Day 3: Ziplining in the Cloud Forest
September 3rd, 2011
La Fortuna / Arenal, Costa Rica
After 10 hours of traveling the day before – 5 on the flight from JFK to San Jose, 5 on the bus from San Jose to Arenal – I had planned to laze in bed or hang out by the breakfast buffet for the better part of the morning. But the foot of an active volcano is no place to sit and relax. Before we knew it, a bright sun was streaming through the window of our room at the Arenal Observatory Lodge – it must have been about 5:30am? – and our stomachs were rumbling for adventure.
After a hearty breakfast of scrambled eggs with toast, hash browns, pancakes, fried plantains, Costa Rican cheese, and as much watermelon, papaya, pineapple and fresh blackberry juice I could possibly devour, we set out to explore the surrounding forest. Butterflies and hummingbirds kept us company on the way, as thick, misty jungle meandered into meadows full of ruminant cows, a smoky-grey Arenal looming in the background.
Soon, we made it to the head of the Cerro Chato trail. Cerro Chato is a 3,740 ft-high dormant volcano next to Arenal. They told us there was a gorgeous blue-green lake at the crater that we simply had to see. The hike up was 4km – we thought we could get to the top, check out the lake, and be back at the Lodge in about 4 hours, before sundown.
That delusion was soon dispelled.
Half an hour into the hike, the “trail” disappeared, replaced by fallen tree trunks, giant boulders and thorn-filled bushes. Cerro Chato seemed to be saying to us, “So you two New Yorkers thought this was going to be easy? Ha!”
I think I must have whined to Z a hundred times, “Let’s turn back, let’s turn backkkk, I can’t go on!” But the other part of me was grimly determined to see this expedition through – “Don’t be crazy, you can’t give up now!”
3 hours later, we made it to the top. I was grumpy, to say the least, but the sight of the lake and the yummy chicken sandwiches our nice waiter Michael had packed for us back at the Lodge made me feel a little better.
There was still one thing, however – we had to get back down! “I have a bad feeling about this, Z,” I intoned as we were getting up to leave. “I’m telling you, going downhill on such a steep slope is no joke. I’m going to fall, trip, break something…” And just when I thought the situation could not get more difficult, a roar of thunder ripped through the sky. I looked at Z, aghast. “Noooo!” As the rain began to fall, Cerro Chato turned into a gigantic mudslide, taking rocks, twigs, creepy-crawlies and two ambitious hikers down the slope with it.
Another 3 hours later, we made it back to the Lodge – muddy, blistered, scratched, sopping, and giddy at the seemingly impossible feat we had accomplished.
We were duly rewarded for our pains. Not only did we spend 2 hours soaking up in uber-relaxing thermal baths at Baldi Hot Springs (with an all-you-can-eat buffet dinner included!), we also saw a whole troop of Spider monkeys crossing the treetops from our hotel balcony. It was around sunset, so I assume they were making their way home (or going out to party?). They were some climbers, those monkeys, using not just their limbs but their tails to swing from branch to branch. One fellow attempting a super-vault didn’t quite make it, and went tumbling down the tree instead. But with those kind of limbs for support, I’m pretty sure he was OK!
With the day’s fatigue dissolved in the hot mineral waters of Baldi, I cannot tell you how well we slept that night. We have a saying in Urdu, ghoray haathi baich ke – roughly translated as the comatose kind of sleep you’d have if you sold elephants and horses for a living. Probably dates back to Mughal times…must have have been one tough job! :D
Last month, Z and I went on our very first vacation together. We desperately needed a break from skyscrapers, subways, sanitation trucks and drunken singing-at-3-in-the-morning below our apartment.
Costa Rica was just the prescription.
After weeks of poring over Lonely Planet and Fodor’s travel guides, we finalized an itinerary, squeezing in as many things-to-do as there were hours in the day and dollars in our budget. That was followed by days of necessity-shopping – boots, ponchos, sunblock, mosquito repellent, waterproof sandals, waterproof kohl – followed by days of outfit-picking, and somehow stuffing everything into two hiking packs on the day of our flight.
We returned to New York 10 days later, considerably sore, scratched and sunburned, but with heads full of unforgettable memories, and hundreds of pictures to show for it!
Starting this Friday, I’m going to post a day-by-day photo diary of our trip, including what we did, where we stayed, what we ate, as well as some pieces of self-learnt travel advice (for e.g., never judge a hostel by its website!). So check back every week for a new Costa Rica post :)
“I’m a synchronized-swimming, yoga-doing, horseback-riding, wall-climbing type of girl. My hand-eye coordination is zero.”
– Mia Thermopolis in “The Princess Diaries”
I was never very sporty as a kid. In fact, I dreaded Games period at school, when we’d be forced to wear those awful dust-blue track suits and pummel each other in Netball matches. I was also quite lazy, and always looked for opportunities to get by in a game of KhoKho or Cricket with the least amount of movement (hitting chaukas and chakkas was my specialty). Swimming was the only sport I enjoyed at school – maybe because I could do it solo, without depending on or being depended on by anyone. I suppose it’s not the kind of thing you’d mention in a job application, the apathy for competitive, coordinated team sports. But I just wasn’t into it.
Years after resigning to my regrettable un-athleticness, I discovered that there did exist physical activities that people like me were actually good at – “adventure sports”! I think it was that first rock climbing-cliff diving-caving trip to Khanpur with the LUMS Adventure Society in Pakistan that sparked it off – and, I’m happy to report, I’ve never looked back :)
Here’s a list of my 8 most memorable adventure sport experiences…hopefully many more to come!
- Hiking / Camping
- Horseback Riding
- Rock Climbing
(I don’t have any pictures of me actually skiing, but here’s the beautiful place we went to!)
- White Water Rafting