Walking on thin ice

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, given how far the glacier was.

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.

Icefields

Views

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.

Explorer

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 channeling their inner children.

Snow

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.

Bus

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 Jasper National Park website for more information on this experience.

(A slightly edited version of this was published in the Sunday DNA on September 04, 2016)

Friday photo: Shark

I don’t usually post personal photos on this blog – but this one is special. I have a crippling fear of water (we are talking swimming pool terror here, and five aborted attempts to lean swimming).

So, when I was in Dubai recently and came to know that I was booked to go on this shark safari, I was excited and terrified in equal measure.

This is an underwater walk with the fish, sting rays and of course, the sharks – in other words, the thrill of diving, without actually diving into the ocean. And I am so glad I did it. After the initial seconds of panic, I relaxed and let go of my guide’s hand. And when the fish started swimming right by my face, I couldn’t stop smiling.

My Friday photo this week, from this incredible shark safari…

shark

The world through its burgers

For many travellers, a visit to the Hard Rock Cafe in any new city is a thing to definitely tick off their list. Have a drink, feel the vibe and buy a T shirt: that’s me. Despite the fact that HRC runs as a family-friendly cafe / restaurant in many places, I have never paid much attention to the food there.

Till recently, when I was invited for a burger tasting event at my friendly neighbourhood Hard Rock Cafe. The occasion was a preview of their World Burger Tour (from June 1 – July 31), which, as you have guessed right, is an offering of the most delectable tastes from all over the world, enfolded in a bun.

The late afternoon session started with a dazzling array of special cocktails (a bad idea for me, given that I had eaten nothing since breakfast and it was already past 3 pm then).And oh, every one of them had a surprise twist – they were all topped with beer, in keeping with the mood of the festival.

We started with an El Matador (luckily, the serving sizes were small shot glasses), with fresh strawberry, basil leaves, Bacardi rum and fresh lime juice topped with beer. And in rapid succession, we went through others with whiskey, rum, gin, liqueur and much more. At the end of this tasting session, it was all I could do to wait for the burgers.

Cocktails.jpg

And then they arrived at the table – and what an array! Chef Niranjan came to our table to talk about each of these burgers and the inspiration behind them.

The burger options did live up to its promise of world food – with tastes ranging from Mediterranean to Mexican, Lebanese, Italian and even Indian. And to my pleasant surprise, four of the eight burger options were vegetarian, a nod to the eating culture of this country. The chef also explained how each of the burgers had been designed keeping in mind local tastes and expectations.

Burgers.jpg

I did try a bite (or more) of the vegetarian burgers – and my favourite was the Mexican Quesedilla Veg Burger – with the flavours of polenta, sweet corns, beans and vegetables, avocado and nacho straws, all flavoured with a tangy enchilada salsa. You tell me, what is not to like?!

At the end of this burger marathon, there was one more waiting for us – the Burgerthon organised by the HRC guys. And as the sole woman in the group, I was batting (eating) for all womankind as I competed with guys who clearly knew their burgers and beer. To my credit, I finished half the burger and got rewarded with a huge Jagerbomb for my efforts!

The World Burger Tour is on at all Hard Rock Cafes in India till July 31st – go bite into that juicy burger now and come back to tell me about it here!

Wind beneath my wings

paragliding1

The takeoff itself wasn’t particularly tough; it was the decision to board that took courage. This happened on a recent whistle-stop tour of Kumaon’s “lake district,” with Bhimtal as my base. Stopping on the hill roads one evening to stretch my legs, I was drawn to the bustle of people milling around a large parachute spread out on the flat surface of the cliff-top. And in front of my eyes, a young couple took wings, each tethered to an instructor who would help them stay in the air for the next few minutes of their paragliding adventure.

I knew that paragliding was popular in Himachal Pradesh, but I hadn’t expected to find it in this remote corner of the Uttarakhand hills. After a few minutes of watching, as I was ready to get back into the car, my cabbie fired the first salvo by inquiring if I had done this earlier. I mumbled sheepishly under my breath, hoping he would drop the subject, but that was not to be.

A moment of hesitation – rightly interpreted by them as a sign of weakness – was all it took for the paragliding team itself to take his suggestion forward. And they went at it non-stop, slyly suggesting that it was silly to be afraid, when even a five year old child could do this easily.

The clinching argument was made as a joke by the instructor who would fly with me – “Oh madam, remember, it is my life also.” So, before I knew it, I went from curious bystander to intrepid paraglider, all harnessed and ready to soar. One, two, three, four steps forward – and the wind force carried us up into the air.

Courage on the ground was all fine, but my first minute up in the air was one of sheer terror. I confronted that with a volley of questions to Vir Singh, who hailed from Himachal and had been doing this for seven years. Vir was remarkably patient as he explained – yet again – that he had all the controls in his hand, direction, altitude and speed included.

paragliding2

I closed my eyes for a moment to take a deep breath; perhaps it was the feel of the wind on my cheeks or the sound of absolute silence, but when I opened them again, I had begun to actually enjoy the ride. There may have even been a brief moment when I let go of the straps and spread my hands in the air a la that classic scene from Titanic. I had been on a hot air balloon ride a few years ago but this exhilarating sense of flying, strapped on to a massive parachute and perched on a makeshift canvas seat was like nothing I had ever experienced earlier.

When it was finally time to land, Vir decided to test my nerves one final time with a few trick moves – and whoosh we went, swinging treacherously to a side, dipping low and high, and almost upside down. Forgive me for not describing it in great detail, for all I remember is holding on tight and pleading for my life to be spared. And unlike the ride itself, I didn’t have time to get used to this and begin enjoying it. But by the time we landed, I had managed to rustle up a halfway genuine smile for the camera that was capturing the flight all the way.

paragliding3

That night, I had adrenalin fuelled dreams of sprouting wings and flying high. My last coherent thought before I fell asleep was that I couldn’t wait to try paragliding again.

TRAVEL INFO

Distance: 307 km from Delhi

Time: 7 hours

Route: Take NH 24 from Delhi towards Ghaziabad and Moradabad. Connect to NH 87 going up north towards Haldwani and Nainital. Or take the overnight Ranikhet Express to Kathgodam and hire a cab for an hour’s drive (Rs.1000) to Bhimtal

Stay: Fredy’s Bungalow; tariff for double room starting from Rs 6053, inclusive of breakfast and taxes.

Essential Details: My flight was with Eagle Eye Adventure (http://www.eagleeyeadventure.com/; Rs. 1500 for the flight from a height of 1500 feet). There are dozens of local operators, so ask around before signing up.

Published in the ‘Weekend Vacations’ section of Mint

Scenes from a street parade

The sixth edition of the Seychelles Carnival, known locally as Carnaval, took place in the tiny capital of Victoria last week. And I was lucky enough to have a ringside seat to watch this parade. Apart from the cheerful and friendly Seychellois, artists and performers from all over the world – from Indonesia to Germany (and India too) – sashayed their way through the parade.

It was a riot of music, dance and colour on the streets of Victoria. I want to share a few standout images from the Carnaval, to show the impressive variety on display that evening.

Starting with one of my favourite performances of the evening, this Chinese masked dancer who changed masks with just facial movements…

Chinese

As a bonus (and because I was so fascinated with this), here is a short video…

And then this pretty dancer from Indonesia, wearing clothes and accessories that must have weighed a ton, through the sweltering afternoon, with a smile…

Indonesia

Colour was the leitmotif of the parade, with stunning, sometimes starling hues on display…

Blues

Multicolour

Not surprisingly, Africa was well represented, with artists from Mauritius, South Africa and several other neighbours showing off their skills…

Clown

Stilts

Dancer

But the undisputed stars of the evening were the Brazilians, with their costumes and chutzpah – it is no wonder that the word carnival brings to mind (atleast mine) images of these sassy dancers…

Brazil1

Brazil2

I hope you enjoyed this short photoessay on the Seychelles Carnaval – do stay tuned for more stories from this beautiful island.

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