Travel

Pura Vida! – A Costa Rica Travelogue

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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.

Hammock = Bliss

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.

10 days in a backpack - didn't think I could do it!

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 :)

First sight of Costa Rica - green as far as the eye can see!

My Top 8 Outdoor Adventures

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“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
Hiking through Harriman State Park, New Jersey
Our campsite at Pine Meadow Lake, Harriman State Park
Our campsite at Pine Meadow Lake, Harriman State Park
  • Horseback Riding
Getting on my horse Mariposa in Arenal, Costa Rica
Riding 2 hours through Costa Rican countryside
  • Rock Climbing
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Rock climbing in the Adirondack Mountains, New York
Hi down there!
  • Skiing

(I don’t have any pictures of me actually skiing, but here’s the beautiful place we went to!)

Mallamjabba Ski Resort in Swat, Pakistan
Ski slope
  • Snorkeling
On the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica
Angelfish at the Cahuita coral reef, Costa Rica
  • Zip-lining 
Canopy Tour in Selvatura National Park, Costa Rica
Riding on a 1km-long cable 500 ft above the Monteverde Cloud Forest!
  • White Water Rafting
On the Pacuare River in Costa Rica
Class III-IV Rapids!
  • Skydiving
Parachuting down after the freefall at the Long Island Skydiving Center, New York
Strapped on to my instructor, with the whole of Long Island below us!

The Legend of Saif-ul-Malook Part I

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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!

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“Now listen to me,” he said, and he began.

The storyteller
The storyteller

“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.

Lake Saif-ul-Malook
Lake Saif-ul-Malook, Kaghan Valley

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.

Prince Saif roamed the streets and towns of Egypt
Prince Saif roamed the streets and towns of Egypt

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.

Read Part II of the story here

Travel Slideshows

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Achelya, friend!

Here are some of the slidehsows I’ve been working on since I joined the Huffington Post as a Travel intern. No traveling myself yet – at least physically! – but I have been learning a whole lot about the world, and getting a million more ideas about places to go and things to do. Oh, world, you’re just too vast and beautiful and interesting for one lifetime!

Deep in the Hindu Kush mountains of northwest Pakistan lies the remote and picturesque Chitral Valley – home of Tirich Mir, the 14th-highest peak in the world (25,550 ft), and of the legendary pagan tribe Kalash.

With more than 110 peaks that rise over roughly 22,965 feet, the Himalayas are the longest, highest mountain range on earth. They straddle a mighty 1,500 mile-long swath across Nepal, Bhutan, Tibet, India and Pakistan, and are home to 9 of the world’s tallest peaks, including Mount Everest.

We love places of worship – their grandeur, their peacefulness, their architectural beauty. We especially admire mosques. Here’s our pick of 24 beautiful mosques, from Morocco to Malaysia, which reflect the great cultural diversity of the Muslim world.

Monasticism is an important institution in many religions, especially Buddhism and Christianity. In part for defense, and in part to facilitate the process of detachment from worldly concerns, monasteries were often built in highly remote and inaccessible areas.

On the dusty, noisy, chicken-crossing streets outside Accra, the capital of the English-speaking West African country of Ghana, a tribe called the Ga is making its name in the business of coffins. The coffins come in a variety of shapes and sizes, from cars to Coke bottles and cell phones.

Imagine a time and place when a yellow cab, car or train wasn’t the only way you could get from point A to point B… Bikes in Beijing, gondolas in Venice. But outdoor elevators in Chile? Giant plastic balls in New Zealand, art-on-wheels in Pakistan?

Living in New York City, with its endless jungle of gray skyscrapers, even a patch of blue sky from the office window is enough to make our day. Imagine living in one of these 15 stunning towns and cities, where at every turn you’re met with a wondrous explosion of color!

The world is full of breathtaking mountains, pristine valleys, thundering rivers and waterfalls – and what better way to explore these scenic locales than on a raft?

Which one of us hasn’t dreamed of living in a castle, a tree-house or a hobbit hole as a child? We dream of it still! And though many of us eventually settle for regular (rectangular) homes and condos, some adventurous people out there just go ahead and build what they dream.

Ever wonder how it would feel to jump from a plane 13,000 feet in the air?Terrifying, yes – but also inexplicably exhilarating, tiny and powerful at the same time. And the vision: you couldn’t be the same person after diving down the highest peaks in the world, or beholding a bird’s-eye view of the Great Barrier Reef.


California Dreaming

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Published in Pakistan’s “Women’s Own” Magazine, November 2010

I’m sitting on a Virgin America flight to San Francisco, sandwiched between two very distinct gentlemen: one, a rotund avuncular specimen happily cuddled into a hot pink inflatable pillow, and the other a goggle-eyed, fuzzy-lipped stick figure equally absorbed in a game of Doom on his personal TV.

Meanwhile, I’ve been nibbling on the egg and cheese Panini I bought from JFK five hours ago. Consider yourself lucky if you even get a complimentary packet of peanuts on a domestic U.S. flight; the crisp coleslaw sandwiches and squelchy shahi tukray of PIA en route to Karachi are but a distant fantasy. Ah, PIA, I forgive you the screeching babies and leering uncles and assiduously obnoxious 5-year olds kicking behind my seat for the sake of those shahi tukray!

There it is again – that incorrigible nostalgia I’ve been wallowing in of late. It also happens to be the sole motivation behind this trip to the West Coast. San Francisco, Berkeley, Bay Area! What don’t I miss about that place? The deep blue waters of the Bay, the impossibly puffy white clouds, the crunchy-freshness of the air, the swaying palms on the horizon? Or the incredible purple-gold sunsets over the Golden Gate Bridge, which I watched from the steps of the International House in Berkeley every evening on my way back from class…

The Golden Gate Bridge at sunset, from Berkeley

Then there were my favourite haunts – the thrift clothing stores where you could find tassled Pocahontas skirts, Dashikis and BCBG jackets all on the same rack, Berkeley’s answer to Zainab Market and the place I’d inevitably splurge half my work-study paycheck. Those wondrous second-hand book stores, musty and chaotic, where wiry old men in suspenders smiled benignly at you over their wire-rim glasses, exactly the kind you’d expect to hand you a copy of “The Neverending Story” and promptly vanish. The board game shop that I never spent less than an hour in each time I entered.

the happy chinese baba on telegraph and bancroft
The Happy Man

The diminutive Taiwanese baba in a coolie hat who stood on a bucket all day chanting “Happy, Happy, Happy” and holding anti-Bush and anti-Dalai Lama placards; the crazy campus bum who earned his daily bread by charging people to swear at him  (I think the rate was a dollar per minute). The roadside jewellery stalls on Telegraph Avenue, a riot of feathers, seashells and antique Afghan silver; the proliferation of Pakistani fast-food joints,  free Lipton mixed chai and plastic cups of kheer; the refreshing absence of chain stores till as far as the eye could see, save for the errant downtown Starbucks. The fixture of anti-war protestors on Sproul Plaza, the Native American chief who lived in the trees and ran for Berkeley mayor, the weedy-smelling People’s Park and my homeless old Vietnam-veteran friends who strummed away my favorite Eagles’ songs on the grafittied pavements.

Crazy, beautiful, bubble-of-a-Berkeley, just my kind of place.  But most unforgettable of all were the friendships, forged over the unforgettably tasteless food they served at the International House, where I lived two years during Journalism School.

So, when I found out that Z’s company was sending him to Los Angeles for work, I immediately pulled out my old Dashikis and peasant tops and gotay-wali kurtis from the suitcase under the bed – no way was I missing out on a trip to California either!

Anti-War Rally at People’s Park. Thrift store togs.

As for New York City – well, I’m learning to like it. Getting out of the house definitely helps, which can be quite a challenge for a ghar ghussoo or homebody like me.  As I blissfully look around at the avocado green walls of my apartment, the potted Pothos plant hanging from the ceiling, the block-print Gultex tablecloth, the beauteous kilm gracing the dark brown floor of the living room, which my mother brought over from Lahore this summer, the mantelpiece full of books, and as I inhale the scent of caramel-vanilla candles and sandalwood incense, listen to the birds chirping in the trees, and open my fridge to admire the lasagna, apple pie, leftover homemade Pad Thai and housewarming chocolate pastries, I think: who in their right mind would want to step out of this piece of heaven?  Out there, into the puddles and gloom, odiferous subways and tourist-yapping streets?

Heaven!

Actually, I have been forced to step out. I have been forced to communicate with people other than my husband, the Palestinian landlady and the Indian-Guyanese cashier at the grocery store – courtesy my two jobs.

Yes, I’m working! The hitherto unemployed, Master’s degree-holding housewife has found not one, but two jobs (Thank you, thank you). I have joined the ranks of the active labour force. Now I too get to catch the morning train at rush hour along with the rest of the dapper designer bag-clutching Stieg Larsson-obsessed populace. I, too, grumpily slam down the alarm clock at 7 a.m., gulp down a bowl of cereal, throw on a slightly crumpled H&M button-down, and shoot down the stairs to the subway with the alacrity of somebody who’s just been informed that Michael Jackson has come back to life – all to sit in a windowless office staring at a computer screen for 8 hours straight, with a meager 15 minutes at lunchtime to eat your humble turkey sandwich, and, if it’s a particularly exciting day,  exchange a few words other than the mechanical “Good Morning” with your ambitiously poker-faced colleagues.

Sounds tempting, doesn’t it? It’s true, jobs are overrated. Work is overrated. A necessary evil. At least that’s what I’ve concluded from my weeks of face-reading and eavesdropping on the jam-packed subways, and from my own (brief) brush with a 40-hour work week. I’m already beginning to daydream about the “Era of Gainful Unemployment”: extended tea sessions with Mama Jama the landlady over half-a-dozen wedding albums and Syrian soap operas, 5-hour long grocery store binges, simultaneously reading Kafka, Tolstoy and Orhan Pamuk, walking with no purpose. The “Era of Frustrated Unemployment” has been conveniently glossed over, like a Pak Studies History book, as has the even more miserable “Job Application Process”. Dissatisfaction, thy name is me! Of course, it would be an entirely different matter, if, say, I actually found that elusive “dream job”, or,  if I even knew what that was…

“Ladies and Gentlemen, we have begun our descent into San Francisco International Airport. Please switch off all electronic devices, bring your seat backs to an upright position…”

Yay! The announcement I’ve been waiting for! Peering over the globular uncle’s hot pink pillow, I catch a glimpse of the blue water, the green hills, the red  arches of the Golden Gate from the window. Memories flood back to me. I remember the moment when, over 3 years ago, I landed in this city as a graduate student, straight out of LUMS, moving away for the first time from the only home I had ever known. I remember teasing my mother at the forlorn finality of her goodbyes – “Ammi, I’m going to come back, you know!” But she knew better.

And though I can’t wait to see all the places and people I loved, the nooks and crannies and eccentricities of this place I grew to call my second home, I also feel a little nervous. Will it be the same?

I often feel this way landing in Lahore. Is going back ever the same? Or do those beloved places and people inevitably move on, and leave you behind, so that the only way you can enjoy them is through nostalgia, through memory?

Perhaps they don’t change at all. Perhaps the change is in you.

PS: I had an absolutely fabulous time in California. Can’t wait to go again.

PPS: In case you were wondering, the beady-eyed furry creature(s) in the oven have been eliminated.

Photo Win – almost!

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Yay! One of my photos made it as a finalist in the the Photographer’s Forum Annual College Photography Contest! It’ll be published in the hardcover coffee-table book Best of College Photography 2010

Meat shop in San Francisco's Chinatown, Feb 2009

It’s an itsy step-up from last year, when the photo below (one of my personal favourites) made it to the semi-finals of the same contest.  

Truck transporting building materials in Balakot, Pakistan, Aug 2008

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Unfortunately, I’m no longer eligible for Student Photography contests (who knows what could’ve happened next year?), nor can I afford those beautiful glossy coffee-table books! For the moment, though, I’m happy with the growing stack of gold-embossed congratulatory letters :)