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
Lake Saif-ul-Malook, situated at a height 10, 600 ft 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, as faithful to their words and mood as possible, with some writer’s liberties. I hope you enjoy it!
“Now listen to me,” he said, and he began.
“I have not seen the Fairy, but I have seen the glory of God.
Every month, on the chowdveen, the 14th night of the lunar month, the Lake is like a mirror – cradling the mountains, the sky, the innumerable twinkling stars, the glowing orb of the moon – so still, so clear, you can scarcely tell between reality and reflection. It is a sight to behold.
Many a night I have also seen lights, floating lights, a thousand floating lights, here on the slope where we sit, and watched them disappear under the rocks.
I have not seen the Fairy Badr-ul-Jamal, but I have witnessed the glory of God.”
Once upon a time, there lived in Egypt a prince called Saif-ul-Malook. They say that Saif was the handsomest man to walk the earth since Joseph himself – tall and lean, with skin the color of gleaming copper, a clear, noble brow, deep-set dark eyes and black hair that fell in waves to his shoulders. He was brave, a skilled hunter, rider and swordsman, true to his Arabic name – “Sword of the Kings”. Born to riches, Prince Saif had never wanted for anything in his life; there was not a stone, river, man or woman in the kingdom that he could not claim.
Until one night, he had a dream.
A dream that changed the course of his life, and robbed him of his peace of mind forever.
He dreamt of a lake, a lake he had never seen before, surrounded by mountains that seemed to touch the sky and water that shimmered emerald-green in the moonlight. In the lake seven fairies were bathing – ethereal creatures, slim as gazelles, with creamy skins, wide, golden eyes, and hair like rippling ebony – but the seventh among them eclipsed them all in beauty. Her face was as radiant as the full moon, badr, but it was when she laughed, skipping on the water without a care in the world – it was when she laughed that Saif was seized by a joy and a sadness so intense, so inexpressible, that he awoke from his sleep with tears in his eyes. Badr-ul-Jamal…he had never seen anything more beautiful.
The next morning, Saif was visibly troubled.
“Why so crestfallen, son?” asked the king, his father, at breakfast.
“Father,” the young man confided. “I think I am in love.”
The king was overjoyed. “What happy news, son! This calls for a wedding! Who is the favored princess?”
“No princess, father,” Saif replied grimly; then, with a sudden burst of elation: “She is a Queen…A Queen among fairies!”
The king’s face furrowed into a frown as he considered his son’s words. “Saif, you do realize what you are saying? A fairy! She is a bird, a creature cast of fire, naari. So how can a human being, an earthbound mortal like you, ever hope to possess her?” He shook his head vehemently. “It is impossible. Abandon the idea at once. It will bring you nothing but misery,” he foresaw.
But it was no use. It was too late for discussion, for persuasion and advice. Saif’s heart was already on fire. He begged his father’s permission to set out and look for that magical lake where the fairies bathed, in the hopes of finding their Queen. With a heavy heart, the king consented, blessed him on his quest, and watched his only son ride away into the desert.
For six long years Prince Saif searched, roaming every corner of Egypt, from Alexandria to Sinai. Begging on the streets, his hair in his eyes, his shoes in tatters, consumed by love, people no longer recognized him.”There he goes, the madman!” they cried. “There goes the madman, the majnun, who looks for a lake the color of emeralds and mountains of pure white! Who ever heard of such a place?” And they laughed and pushed him out of town.
One day, as he wandered about the outskirts of Cairo, Saif saw a holy man, a buzurg, sitting under the shade of a lone olive tree. “Perhaps this holy man can help me,” Saif thought. As he approached him, the old man looked up expectantly.
“Ah, there you are,” the old man said, a smile playing on his lips. “I’ve been waiting for you, Prince Saif.”
Prince! No one had addressed him thus in years. But before Saif had the chance to express his surprise or explain his predicament, the buzurg dug a hand into the bountiful folds of his cloak and produced an old, battered round sheepskin cap, frayed and thinned with what seemed like centuries of use. Placing it in Saif’s hands, the holy man said, looking at him with keen eyes, “You have been through a lot, my son. But the important thing is that you don’t give up – nothing valuable is won without a struggle.”
Saif toyed with the cap in his hands. “Thank you,” he said hesitatingly. “But what am I supposed to do with this?”
The old man chuckled. “Why, what do you think? Put it on!”
Puzzled, Prince Saif gingerly placed the old cap on his head.
What happened next cannot be described, only experienced by the wearer of a Suleimani topi, Solomon’s fabled magic cap, which has the power to transport its wearer to any place he or she desires in a matter of seconds. There was a gust of wind, and Saif felt the earth give away under his feet. Suddenly, he was shooting through the sky in a fantastic whirlwind of faces, places, colors and memories; a deafening rumble filled his ears; and then, just as suddenly, his feet were firmly planted again on the earth. When he opened his eyes, this is what he saw.