Friday photo: seaside village

I left a bit of my heart behind in Portugal – on a recent two week road trip through the south of Spain and Portugal. Spain was lovely, but we knew what we were in for. But Portugal, so unexpectedly delightful! Gorgeous views, friendly people, soulful fado music, and oh, that stunning Azulejo tile art…

So, this Friday, a view of Azenhas Do Mar, a seaside village close to Lisbon – and if this does not make you want to pack your bags for Portugal right away, I don’t know what will…

It’s always soup o’clock in Myanmar

Soup for breakfast? Yes please!

It was a pleasant winter morning in Nyaung Shwe, the small town in the Shan region in eastern Myanmar. Even at that early hour, there were people milling around on the narrow lanes. Many of them were travellers, on their way to Inle Lake, one of Myanmar’s most popular tourist destinations.

The others, locals all, were either sitting on wobbly plastic chairs clustered around plastic tables inside small shacks. Or they were walking purposefully towards one such shack.

These roadside cafés were not just makeshift breakfast joints but also served a serious purpose as social hubs for the local population. Here was where they caught up with news – either in the form of the printed word or in the form of gossip – over their morning soups.

I was also headed to one of those, following my guide Aye, who assured me that it was the most popular. I had eschewed the usual bland fare served at my resort, for a local breakfast of the Tohu Nuway soup that was special to the Shan region.

When I had first read the description for Shan Tohu Nuway, it was not the most promising, I assure you. A soup with tofu? Blah, even if it is Burmese tofu. But these blogs from seasoned travellers had said it was a must have, and who was I to protest?

And then, it was also a vegetarian dish, a blessing I would usually grab with both hands and warm words of thanks. Myanmar, I discovered, has a wide repertoire of vegetarian dishes, perhaps because it is culturally closer to South Asia (think Nepalese lentil curries and Sri Lankan coconut gravies) than South East.

The main meals had been easy thus far, with Myanmar’s incredible range of salads, from the very quirky and tasty fermented tea leaf salad to the more sedate ones like those with green tomato or avocado. But I was a bit unsure about this breakfast soup.

In any case, the Tohu Nuway soup turned out to be absolutely delicious, the tofu here made of mashed chickpea and served as a warm gloop as a topping. The texture of this tofu was creamy and silky, very unlike the crumbly soy tofu that I tended to steer clear of.

My first spoonful was tentative, suspicious; but after that, it was all over in a quick and undignified flash of slurps. It was a sublime marriage of tastes and textures.

The tohu paste, I discovered, is kept warm, and poured on to a liquidy soup of flash-boiled noodles. It is then further topped with all manners of delicious and crunchy things, including roasted garlic, pounded peanuts, toasted sesame, cabbage and parsley.

But it was that last addition, a crunchy chilli paste, that really made my blasé sub-continental palate sing. And go back for it the next morning.

Walking on thin ice

In a year filled with once-in-a-lifetime kind of travel moments (Machu Picchu and Niagara Falls, to name just two) one of my most memorable experiences was walking on the Athabasca Glacier in Canada. I had written about it for DNA newspaper then – and here it is, if you ever decide to head to Canada.

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My only previous experience with a glacier was a distant sighting of Fox and Franz Josef in the south island of New Zealand; I remember craning my neck and zooming my camera lens to its fullest, only to feel utterly exhilarated and vaguely dissatisfied at the same time.

This time around though, the experience was totally different.

To begin with, I was standing right on top of the glacier, walking on it and even miming crazy dance poses for keepsake photographs. This was what I had been looking forward to all morning, throughout the stunning drive between Banff and Jasper National Parks.

This route, the Icefields Parkway in the state of Alberta in western Canada, was through glacier territory, and widely hailed as one of the most scenic drives in the world. It did live up to that promise: smooth grey tarmac lined with snowcapped mountains, and glaciers glinting in the mellow morning sunlight on their imposing slopes.

Yet, all I could think about was the highlight of this 230 km road journey, the Athabasca Glacier, waiting for us somewhere in the middle.

Less than three hours after leaving Banff, our small group pulled up at the Columbia Icefield Discovery Centre for tickets and a quick lunch. Fortifying ourselves with a couple of more layers of sweaters and socks, we then trudged up towards what I can only describe as a red mechanical monster. It was an all-terrain bus (called ‘Ice Explorer’) with wheels that came up to my shoulders, a trusty old thing that carried us through the steep ups and downs of the slippery ice, to that safe spot on the glacier where we could actually get off and walk.

The first thing I did upon getting off was to remove my gloves for a quick dip of my hands into the thin ribbon of glacial spring. As I poured the cold water from my cupped (not to mention frozen) palms into my mouth, I got a sense of what the expression “pure as the driven snow” actually meant.

Even on that sunny day, there was a chill in the air, not easily defeated by all my thermal wear. That was, however, no deterrent, as I began to explore the area, stepping gingerly on the ice that seemed solid but was unexpectedly slippery in places.

Despite that, little children were running around with gay abandon, and adults were lying on the snow, fluttering their hands and legs in an attempt to create snow angels. It was just that kind of place, where adults could easily find themselves regressing into childhood.

The Athabasca Glacier was formed thousands of years ago, when most of this region was under ice. It is part of the massive Columbia Icefield, itself believed to be a remnant from the last Ice Age on earth. And if that is not impressive enough, the glacier is now flanked by 11 of the Canadian Rockies’ 22 highest peaks.

Standing on the glacier that sprawls over six square kilometres, I was reminded once again of my miniscule, insignificant place in the universe. Despite the crowds surrounding me, I had a sense of being alone, on the surface of something primeval and powerful.

The ice, unlike what I expected to be unblemished white, was a sparkling blue in places; perhaps a play of sunlight, or perhaps a hint of the water that flows underneath. I only had time for a brief exploratory walk before it was time to get back on the bus, all too soon.

Back home in the Indian summer, I found my mind drawn frequently and irresistibly, to that day in the Rockies, when I made snowballs on that venerable marvel of nature. And given that the glacier has receded almost 2 km in the last 100 years and continues to disappear at an alarming rate, I was grateful for that up close and personal encounter with it.

TRAVEL INFORMATION

Getting there

The Athabasca Glacier is located inside the Jasper National Park, 104 km from the town of Jasper in Alberta. The nearest major airport is Calgary (320 km), 3½ hours away by road.

Best time to visit

The Columbia Icefields Adventure is open only from May 1 to October 15, and the best time to visit is between June and September, when the weather is temperate.

Good to know

~ Begin the glacier adventure with a stop at the Columbia Icefield Discovery Centre, which also houses a café, museum and souvenir store.

~ Carry extra layers of warm clothing as the weather is unpredictable and can turn bitterly cold any moment.

Information

Visit the website of Jasper National Park for more information on this experience.

My fascination with Indian stepwells

My fascination with stepwells started when I first heard about Agrasen ki baoli a few years ago – an ancient stepwell hiding in plain sight in the heart of modern New Delhi. I finally got a chance to see it two years ago; we were living in Gurgaon then.

It was an unusually balmy winter Sunday morning, and my husband and I decided to make the best use of it by heading to Connaught Place for a south Indian breakfast at Saravana Bhavan, followed by a leisurely stroll around the neighbourhood.

I suddenly remembered that the baoli was supposed to somewhere in the area, so why not make a visit? It was tucked away in a small lane, with the wall in front of it decorated with an exquisite Ganesha mural.

Unfortunately, the site was undergoing restoration work when we visited, so thanks to the scaffoldings everywhere, I could not take any photos. But during a recent trip to my alma mater in Ahmedabad last winter, I squeezed in a quick trip to Patan – rightly considered the queen of stepwells in India, fittingly built by a queen – stopping at Adalaj and Modhera on the way.

Here is a photoessay on a few of these stepwells – but before that, do read my story in BBC Travel on these ancient engineering marvels.

The kalyani at Hampi

A classic temple tank at Modhera

The steps of the tank at Modhera

The dramatic vav at Adalaj

Multiple levels of the Patan stepwell

Peering down into the well

The exquisite carvings at Patan’s Rani ki Vav

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