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I recently undertook a road and rail trip across New Zealand’s North and South Islands in December 2011 with my husband and then 17-month old daughter.

What follows is an alphabetically arranged account of New Zealand’s many attractions and experiences. Some letters (such as M) demand the inclusion of more than one topic. On the other hand, New Zealand may have some awesome things starting with U, X, Y or Z, but I did not encounter these.

Do check out the BootsnAll page.

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Hiking Fox Glacier

“Follow me closely and never stray from the group. Do not go out on the ice on your own”, warns our guide just before we start on our hike of Fox Glacier. Back at the café where the hiking company has its headquarters, we have already been given very filthy hiking boots to wear and a pair of crampons to carry with us in our backpacks until we need them on the glacier. In a tone that will not brook dissent, our guide is now giving us safety instructions for the hike and cannot emphasize enough that we have to follow rules on the glacier.  To me, it seems rather tame to be merely following so closely in the footsteps of our fearless leader (as I label her in my mind). I chalk her warnings down to sales talk. After all, if tourists start venturing out on their own, won’t the hiking company lose business? When I drove up to view Fox Glacier yesterday, it had seemed very calm  and non-intimidating. Surely there is opportunity for some improvisation on the ice?

 

There certainly is not, it turns out. Near the glacier’s Terminal Wall, there are signboards asking people not to not venture beyond the barriers. To really emphasize the point, the authorities have pasted a newspaper article that tells of two brothers who had jumped over the barriers to take pictures, and unluckily for them that day, the rocks and ice had come crashing down and killed them. The message is clear: Fox Glacier may look calm, but it can spring nasty surprises any minute. Okay, point taken. It was not sales talk after all.

 

I have signed up for the half day hike, choosing it over the spectacular 30 minute helicopter ride over Fox and Mt. Cook that my husband and our 16 month old baby had opted for. I, on the other hand, preferred something more active and with a longer duration. The prospect of taking half a day off from diaper duty (babies are not allowed on the glacier) was an added incentive. I was sorely tempted to do both the hike and the helicopter trip, but the family finances would have groaned under the strain.

So here I am, looking at a white river of snow as far as my eye can see. In the distance there are tall jagged cliffs beyond which hikers cannot venture. Surprisingly, the ice is not pure white, as one might have expected. It looks dirty in spots, due, we are told, to minerals. The ice melts and forms the river that runs down from the glacier. The river looks grey because it is washing down all the minerals. To my surprise, I find that I do not even need my jacket while on the ice and can manage perfectly well in my T-shirt for much of the time. I wonder why.

The answer is that Fox really is a very odd sort of glacier. Strictly speaking, it has no business to be sharing the same location as tropical rainforests or being just 300m above sea level, but it manages to do both. Fox originates in New Zealand’s Southern Alps and winds down 13 km until it reaches the sea, sharing its terrain with Franz Josef and Tasman glaciers, among several others. As if this weren’t enough notoriety, it also lies on an earthquake faultline. Fox and its fellow glaciers alternate between advancing and retreating. One decade they are steadily advancing and the next, retreating.  Back at the café, they showed us a photograph of the glacier in the 1980s. It was in retreat, with a lot less ice. Subsequently, it started to advance and became fuller. According to our guide, (and contrary to popular wisdom), the advancing and retreating of Fox Glacier does not have much to do with global warming. Apparently, it depends on weather patterns further up on the Southern Alps. The advancing of the glacier is responsible for causing rock and ice falls and this is a major reason why venturing on the ice so dangerous.

 

From the Terminal Wall, our group makes its way to the ice along a very rocky path. I am now thankful for the filthy hiking boots they made us wear. My regular sneakers would not have lasted very long on this terrain. Just before getting on the ice, we are asked to put on our crampons. The Fearless One shows us how to tie the crampons underneath our boots so that they are positioned to grip the ice firmly. ‘You will need to change the way you walk. Make sure your feet land such that the crampons touch the ground first’. Yes, ma’am. We do our best imitation of gorillas walking on a red hot surface.

As we walk up the glacier slope, our guide tells us of a Maori legend about the Franz Josef glacier next door. There once lived on the mountains a girl called. Hinehukatere, who fell in love with a lad who lived at the foot of the hills called Tawe. She persuaded him to come and stay with her on the mountain-top. But being inexperienced on the mountain, Tawe fell down to his death one day. Hinehukatere was heartbroken and cried and cried and cried. Seeing her grief, the gods took pity on her and converted her tears to ice, causing the glacier to form. Not very helpful, I think. The gods ought to have exerted themselves a bit more and actually revived the guy.

Our way downhill on the glacier is very slippery, and I am rather apprehensive. But never fear, our guide has a solution. With a few brisk strokes of her pickaxe, she cuts steps into the ice, allowing us to descend safely. But here, right in the middle of the glacier, slippery ice is not the worst problem. There is the possibility of plummeting down into holes that are not visible because they have been covered by snow. In fact, we are assured that it will be almost impossible to pull us out, should we fall into one. If we were not already fully convinced about staying close on the heels of our leader, we now totally are. This is the other reason, apart from  the falling rocks, that visitors are asked to not venture on the glacier on their own, unless they happen to be experienced.

As we descend, we see an ice cave in the ground. Quickly, a rope is tied down into the cave, sort of like a clothesline. Gripping the rope and balancing ourselves carefully, we take turns going down in pairs. Fear of slipping into holes, however, is not strong enough to deter tourists from taking pictures of themselves. Predictably, each of us hands our camera to our partner to take our photos, no doubt with the intention of posting these onto Facebook.

Because, if it’s not on Facebook, it didn’t happen.

Snapshots of Angkor

I have put together what I think were the most memorable scenes and snapshots of my trip to Angkor for the BootsnAll Indie Travel Challenge. Some of these are iconic images, such as the heads of the Bayon temple; some depict intricately carved bas-reliefs, while some of these images capture life in Siem Reap.

The First View of Angkor Wat:

The first view of Angkor Wat is every bit as good as expected, as the iconic towers of the temple come into view.

 

The Many Faces of Bayon:

The Peeking Face of Ta Phrom:

Floating Village:

This is the floating village inhabited by Vietnamese people on Lake Tonle Sap.

 

The kids are rowing boats shaped like little baskets. I was a bit worried they might fall in, but the kids were having a very good time and seemed very much at home on the water.

 

 Alligator and snake exhibits in the floating souvenir shop.

 

 

Banteay Srey:

This is one of the smallest Angkor temples but is the prettiest. The temple is full of intricate carvings from Hindu epics.

 

 

 

These monkey guardians are a striking feature of Banteay Srey.

 

The lathe pillars in the background remind me of similar structures in the Hoysala temples of Southern India.

Apsaras:

No mention of Angkor is complete without the Apsaras, both in the sculpture and the dance.

The Leper King:

 

Garuda Procession in Siem Reap Village:

During our visit to Siem Reap, a giant float of Garuda, the eagle was taken around Siem Reap. This was I believe, an initiative of local kids and NGOs.

 

Dear Brad

You may think this email presumptuous, but I believe this is an important issue that concerns women everywhere. I cannot stay quiet any longer at what has happened to you in recent years.

Here is a graph I put together to illustrate my point:

 

Image Sources (in descending order):
http://movies.yahoo.com/movie/contributor/1800018965/photo/520370
spreePix on flickr
http://www.celebuzz.com/photos/brad-pitt-promotes-moneyball/brad-pitt-promotes-moneyball-3/
www.cinemablend.com
Source: Badhaven.com

This graph illustrates an important axiom:

Hotness (H) is inversely proportional to Pretentiousness (P)

 

I have some great memories of watching Troy and admiring your er…..brilliance from every possible angle. In that movie, you played the self-centered, spoilt-by-an-overindulgent-mother Achilles and we loved you for it. The way I look at it, we women have to deal with spoilt, self centered guys all the time, so when one of these actually looks like a Greek god, we’re ecstatic.

When you fought over the poor slave girl Briseis, I put aside my reservations about women being treated like chattel. Instead, I envied her. I thought that Helen of Troy was a fool to have eloped with that idiot Paris (in the first place, isn’t Paris a very silly name for a guy? His elder brother gets a sensible name like Hector and the poor dude gets named after a hotel heiress? Priam and Hecuba must have been watching a lot of E! on the sly. I suppose Cassandra ought to be thankful she didn’t get named Miley or Britney). Coming back to the topic of Helen, if only she had eloped with you, the Greeks could have avoided the war with the Trojans and Odysseus could have stayed home with his wife. In fact the whole thing could have been settled with a round of single combat between you and Agamemnon and you could have killed that fat,  neck-challenged jerk. I mean, what sort of guy sacrifices his daughter to obtain safe passage for his ships? Not only is it unethical, it’s downright illogical.

Anyway, as I was saying, despite Helen’s regrettable taste in men, Troy was an excellent movie.

And then you made Mr. and Mrs. Smith. The movie did not make sense at any level, but then you looked great, so all the other stuff like script or logic or a coherent plot did not matter. Oh and there was the small issue of you leaving your wife for Angelina Jolie, but we’re not being judgmental here. As long as you’re looking hot and giving us ladies our money’s worth in the movie theaters, your personal life is your business.

But it was all downhill from then. Exhibit A: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. The problem, dude, is that you have been taking yourself way too seriously. You really think people are interested in the story of a guy ageing backwards? Big Yawn. You probably had your eye on the Oscars, but serve you right that Slumdog Millionaire walloped your movie out of the running.

As if this wasn’t bad enough, you started sporting a beard. Every time we thought this couldn’t get any worse, you came up with an even more atrocious version of the facial hair. Women everywhere started to have nervous breakdowns.

I must admit that things have gotten better in recent months and you seem to have pulled yourself together for Moneyball. But judging from the latest photos, the beard seems to have made a comeback, along with a pair of terrible glasses. (Sigh, here we go again). In order to find a long term solution to the problem of the beard, it looks like we might actually need Congress to intervene. They may not be able to agree on things such as the deficit or foreign policy but on major issues like Brad Pitt’s beard and glasses, I am optimistic that we will see bipartisan co-operation.

At the end of the day, though, you need to take charge of your own appearance and image. With that in mind, I have put together a simple 4 point action plan for you to get back on track.

(1)Lose that beard. I know you’re very busy and all that but it’s really not that hard to shave every day. If you don’t believe me, ask your buddy George Clooney. He makes great movies and finds the time to shave.

(2)Lose the glasses, too. Throw them on the floor and stomp on them and you will feel better. More importantly, we will feel better.

(3)Stop saying silly things like you will quit acting in 3 years’ time. It upsets us.

(4)You need to make us forget some of those awful recent movies (Benjamin Button, I’m looking at you). The best way to do this is to make sequels to Troy.

Troy 2: Elope with Helen, duel with Agamemnon, and massacre him. You will win the gratitude of not only modern movie goers, but also of Odysseus and his wife, as well as Agamemnon’s wife and daughter. Happiness all around.

Troy 3: The Greeks and Trojans band together and fight the empire in a galaxy far, far away. You, as expected, do single combat with Darth Vader and demolish that tin-voiced bore strutting about in fancy dress.

Darth Vader Image Source: Flickr by Andres Rueda

To set up an appointment to discuss more such brilliant ideas, have your people call my people. Oh, and leave Angie at home.

Considering how essential they were to the Mayan civilization, the underground water sources called cenotes are very modest entities, hiding themselves away within wells and caves. Cenotes are subterranean water sources formed by the seepage of rainwater underground. Since Yucatan province  in Mexico does not have natural rivers, the Maya relied largely on the cenotes for fresh water, and therefore for survival.

 

The Mayan settlement of Chichen Itza developed around the cenote known as the Sacred Well.

 

Many of the cenotes have stalactites and stalagmites. These are calcium carbonate formations that evolve when rain water drips down the limestone cave walls.

 

 

Cenote visits are a must-do for visitors to the Yucatan. One descends steep steps to get to the subterranean caves with the fresh water and beautiful stalactites and stalagmite columns. Sometimes sunlight peeps down into the caves and bounces off the stalactites, making for a pretty spectacular experience.

Mayan Bas-Reliefs



If you happen to be a guy with a sharp nose, a portly figure and an evident awareness of your own importance in the scheme of things, you might consider auditioning for Mayan bas-reliefs. But it would help to also have achieved something grand, such as defeating enemy kingdoms and making your land the most powerful force in the Maya world, etcetera, etcetera.

Palenquehas the loveliest bas-reliefs, but the other Mayan structures also have a few, although they’re not as intricate or well preserved as the ones in Palenque.

Panel with carvings in Chichen-Itza

Palenque

Imagine that you are an explorer in the 18th or 19th centuries trekking through the lush jungles of Chiapas in Mexico. Suddenly you see ruins sticking out through all the foliage. You investigate, and voila, find that you are in what promises to be a very spectacular Mayan site. If your name is Count Waldeck, you camp out there a couple of years and come up with fanciful theories connecting the Mayans of Palenque with Atlantis and Egypt. Or if you are connected with the Spanish government, you could organize military expeditions to investigate the ruins. In any case, you definitely need to make drawings and blueprints  and excavate foliage accumulated over several hundred years.

Fast forward a couple of hundred years. To get to Palenque these days, it is not strictly necessary to trek through jungles or organize military expeditions. You simply hop onto an overnight bus from Cancun and try to wake up early enough in the morning. Otherwise you might find yourself a few hours later near the Guatemalen border still on the bus waiting expectantly for Palenque, which of course has already passed while you were blissfully asleep. It could so happen that the bus suddenly screeches to a halt and is invaded by half a dozen banana vendors who have forced their way in by the simple but effective technique of standing on the road in the bus’ path not letting it drive forward. Declining the aggressive sales pitch of the banana vendors, you ask your co-passengers whether this bus will ever get to Palenque, only to be met with a ‘you’ve got to be kidding me’ look that transcends language barriers and are informed that Palenque was passed about 4 hours earlier. You are told to get off and wait for the bus heading back in the opposite direction. At last in the evening, you reach journey’s end at a ramshackle bus stand in a ramshackle town.

Like I said, it isn’t too hard to get to Palenque these days.

 

Unlike the ramshackle town and its bus stand, the Mayan ruins that have put Palenque on the map are pretty impressive. Pakal, the ruler responsible for Palenque’s greatness was not the sort of guy to have put up with a ramshackle anything and so all the Palenque structures are well….extraordinary, even though they have been worn out by time and were covered by foliage for several centuries. Painstakingly clawed back from the jungle, the ruins have been lovingly restored. The structures that are visible are said to be only a fraction of those still buried inside the jungle foliage waiting for archaeological rescue.

The Temple of Inscriptions

The Palace

The Temple of the Count

The Cross Group Temples