Alta: City of Northern Lights

Leaving Oslo behind, we caught a plane this morning to fly north into the Artic Circle. The earth is split into five major circles of latitude, and the Artic Circle is the most north of these. It received its name from the Greek word “ἀρκτικός” which translates to “near the bear; northern.” The term may also refer to either the constellation “Ursa Major” or “Ursa Minor,” which contains Polaris, the North Star.  

Credit: CIA World Factbook

 This polar region has mystified and beckoned to explorers for centuries; from the unique evolution of the local wildlife, to the giants of ice, and, the most mythical of all, the Northern Lights. It is for this reason that Tom and I have bundled up to brave the cold. It’s even expected to get as cold as ZERO degrees farenheit during our stay!

Alta is an idyllic city nestled further inland and east than other well-known Norwegian cities such as Tromso. While we could have chosen Tromso as our home-base for our hunt, we felt that it would have been too touristic in feel. Furthermore, based on our research, Alta’s geographic location makes it less prone to cloudy weather, as clear skies are a must. 

This is the reason why the first Northern Lights Observatory was built here in 1899 by Kristian Birkeland. It’s about a 3-hour hike up Mount Haldde and therefore inaccessible to visitors during the winter. We would have loved to see the lights at night from up there! 

 Since today was predominantly a travel day, we stopped by the city center to grab lunch before heading to the nearby Gargia to check in to our hotel. We knew we’d be renting a car for our hunt, so we opted to stay outside of town to save on lodging costs. Fortunately for me, Tom can drive a stick shift, a skill I have yet to learn! I had a Reindeer Wrap, and it was really yummy! 😄

After relaxing for a bit in our room, we ventured out for Day 1 of our hunt. We drove South-East for about 2-hours and steadily climbed up a mountain pass away from the city lights. Norwegian highways here have designated parking spots along the main thoroughfares making it easy and safe to stop between driving intervals to check the sky. The only time it was remotely scary was when one of the lots had deep snow, I was concerned that the car would get stuck and there would be no human-beings around to rescue us from our dire fate. 

 The skies ended up cloudier than predicted by the forecast, and since it was our first time out, we weren’t even entirely sure what we were looking for. There were some glimmers in the sky that I managed to capture with my Sony RXIII, but a lot of the lights were overshadowed by clouds. We were optimistic about our minor success and knew that we had 3 more nights of hunting ahead of us, so we headed home. 

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Travel: Waterfall Safari and Spices

A group of us woke up early today to embark on a day trip beyond the beaches. After all, there is only so much beach bummage that one can handle!

It took us about 2-hours by taxi to reach the the the small town of Kulem, a town located just outside the Bhagwan Mahaveer Sanctuary and Mollem National Park, a protected area located within the Western Ghats.

What I didn’t know at the time is that the Western Ghats are a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and said to be one of eight “hottest hotspots”of biological diversity in the world. The mountain range is home to 39 properties in total with locations in Kerala, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, and Maharashtra.

From there, we hopped in a safari jeep for a 1-hr climb through the mountains up to the waterfalls.

As expected, the 4-wheel drive was more than needed as we climbed the mountain. We crossed over rocky terrain, small streams, and large pools of water at low points along the road. We parked and then there was a short hiking path to the base of the falls.

Dudhsagar Falls is one of India’s largest waterfalls with a peak height of 1017 ft. It sits on the border of Goa and Karnataka, and is a four-tiered waterfall. Its name can be translated to “Sea of Milk” because the monsoon rains transform the entire rock face into a jaw-dropping force of water. Unfortunately the monsoon season is from July to September, so we were just catching the remnants of water left behind.

I wasn’t aware that we were allowed to swim in the pool. Fortunately Tané had a spare bikini top and I decided to sacrifice my underwear for the cause. (I ended up having to ride home commando, wet panties in a pair of jean shorts is never a good idea.)

It was definitely an experience being able to lay our backs against the rock face and feel the pounding of the water run across our heads and shoulders.

We then swam back to the rocks, dried off, and had a quick photo-op before heading to take the jeep back down the mountain. After we hopped in the taxi, it was on to our next stop for the day.

The diversity of India’s culinary creations are something that no one should skimp out on. India is the largest democracy in the world, and its substantial geographic presence results in six, unique climate subtypes. From north to south an abundance of dish varieties can be found. Goa, for example, is well known for its Goan Fish Curry, and the south for its use of lentils, rice, and dosas, whereas naan, rotis, and samosas originate from the north.

Such variety would not be possibly without the use of spices, and we learned all about the difference flavors that each spice can add to dish on our tour of the Tropical Spice Plantation. We were able to see, pick, and taste all of the following: Pepper, Vanilla, Betel Nuts, Cardamom, Lemongrass, Piri Piri, Nutmeg, Cashew, Clove, Cinnamon, Bay Leaves, Chinese Coriander, Turmeric, Ginger, All  Spice, Gherkin, Cardamom, and Black Cardamom.

imageThey even had an elephant giving rides! (Although I can’t comment on whether he was being ethically treated and cared for.)  We then headed back to the hostel to relax for a bit before we all grabbed dinner together to celebrate my last evening in Goa.

Travel: Beach Bummage 

I have nothing of consequence to note. Haha. As much as I love the backpacking culture of seeing and experiencing as much as possible within a limited timeframe I’d be lying if I didn’t say that it is EXHAUSTING. Traipsing around Central and Southern India with a friend that was native born-and-raised in Bombay has been uniquely authentic, but I am due for some serious R&R!

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The exciting think about today is that a group of us from the hostel spent the evening exploring the Arpora Night Market. For me, it was very remniscient of Taiwan’s night markets, with stalls offering anything you could possibly want, in addition to the quintessential souvenirs.

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The market sprawls over a large outdoor are and is only active and open during the main tourist season. Divided into a Lower, Central, and Upper Field, it is difficult not to get lost and overwhelmed by the crowds.

We browsed everything from traditional handicrafts to huge assortments of spices and teas. There were booths after booths brimming with Kashmiri carpets, Pashmina scarves, silver jewelry, and unique art creations. You name it and you can find it! There is also a food court centered around a stage that hosts an array of live music from Rock to Indian Classical.

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I was both overwhelmed and in awe. It is impossible to miss the fervor in the air, and although similar to previous night markets I experienced as a child, the Arpora Night Market had its own distinctive character. It offered the diversity of a global experience without overshadowing the unmistakeable hints of a typical Indian Bazaar.

 

Travel: New Years

Last night while walking amongst the crowds on the beach and celebrating the holiday, my butt got grabbed twice. The first time I thought it was an accident, but the second time I couldn’t help myself from turning around and shoving the guy behind me. Nick, ever a great guy friend, backed me up and the group of males backed off. It took me awhile to shake it off and go back to enjoying the celebratory atmosphere.

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This morning, Nick and I slept in. We started off our morning with lunch consisting of traditional Goan Fish Curry and Fried Prawns. It was so tasty! After, we meandered on to the local beach and rented cots for the day to spend a lazy afternoon. We enjoyed quick massages from a peddler, and certainly couldn’t skip our daily tradition of Chai and Biscuits.

With a twinge of sadness we watched the sun dip below the horizon. This was to be Nick and I’s last night together as he was flying out in the morning to spend some time with his extended family in India. We celebrated our eye-opening Indian Adventure together by sharing one last dinner.

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Travel: Matrimony

Today, I was fortunate enough to garner an invitation to a traditional Hindu wedding as Nick’s plus one. (You may recall the various Saree shopping debacles that we encountered in Jaipur and Jodhpur).

imageUnlike a typical wedding, which tends to be a more serious and understated affair, Indian weddings are loud and energetic. The one we attended, was actually a 3-day affair (we chose to attend only 1 of 3).

It started with a Swagatam “welcome” ceremony. Under the raucous beat of drums, the Baraat “groom’s procession party,” consisting of family and friends, joyously dance into the building. In contrast, the bride’s entrance is a much more solemn affair.

 

The introduction between the families is made, and there is a Jai Mala, a garland exchange between the bridge and groom. During all of this, there is a constant flow of food and drinks circulating the room.

imageHonestly I had no idea what was happening for the majority of the ceremony, and neither did Nick. We had hoped to make the reception, which is when the bride and groom both perform separate choreographed dances to Bollywood music with their bridesmaids and groomsmen, respectively, but apparently that had occurred the day before. Nick’s friends, did however, regale us with some of their drunken stories from the previous night.

imageThe most significant part of the ceremony is the Saptapadi, a 7-step ritual. The bride and groom have a part of their clothing tied together, and they walk around the fire 7 times. The fire, represents Yajna, the divine witness and each circle represents the oaths that they make to each other. It is after this event that the bride and groom are officially considered married.

It was a vibrant affair filled with colorful clothing, diverse sarees, intricate henna, and shiny jewelry. The food selection allowed me to try some curries I’ve never had before. Nick and I even became best friends with the Chai-Man! I do wish, however, that I had known what was going on. Everyone is so busy carrying on conversation during the ceremony, that it was impossible to know what was occurring on the dais. 😦

 

 

 

 

Travel: Ancient India

Today, Nick and I learned the true meaning of IST ‘Indian Standard Time.’ We went to Vodaphone with the intent of acquiring pre-paid SIM cards. Needless to say, 2.5 hours later, we finally had our SIM cards, however, neither of us have managed to get service.

imagePart of the challenge was that regulations for foreigners to acquire SIM cards are much more stringent than it has been previously due to the 2008 Mumbai Attacks – 12 coordinated shooting and bombing attacks lasting over four days by the terrorist group Lashkar-e-Taiba.

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Credit: Nikhil Kulkarni

With our errands over for the day, we were finally able to explore part of Delhi’s ancient past. Delhi has been home to a total of seven previous dynasties, and as a result, retains unique heritage structures that illustrate the diverse differences between each kingdom.

 

As we cut our way through the bazaar of Connaught Place, one of the largest commercial, financial, and business centers of New Delhi, we went from the Inner Circle, Rajiv Chowk, to the outer ring, Indira Chowk.

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Credit: Nikhil Kulkarni

Nick managed adopt a little girl along the way. We were both confused and laughing at the time, because we simply did not know how to react. Truthfully, it was heartbreaking. She couldn’t have been more than 5 years old, and she just latched onto the corner of Nick’s polo, and followed us for a few blocks.

 

It was at this moment that I understood why some are proponents of Child Labor. While it may seem like a travesty against human rights, it does provide a means for children in developing countries to earn an income, and provide essentials for their survival. It’s a sad reality, but a necessary truth.

Outside the Rajiv Chowk, lies the Jantar Mantar complex. Built in 1724, it comprises 13 astronomical instruments. This site is one of five built by the Maharaja Jai Singh II of Jaipur, after he was given the task of revising the calendar and astronomical tables by the Mughal emperor Muhammad Shah.

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The Mughal Empire lasted for over 300 years, and spans the timeline from 1526-1857. Babur, the founder, had turned to India to satisfy his political ambitions after being ousted from his ancestral domain in Central Asia.

 

The towering instrument that greets us as enter the grounds is the Samrat Yantra, a giant triangle that is essentially a massive sundial. The 128-ft long hypotenuse is parallel to the Earth’s axis and points toward the North Pole. Each side has a quadrant, with graduations that indicate hours, minutes, and seconds, turning the basic instrument, into a precision tool.

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Credit: Nikhil Kulkarni

We next came across the Jayaprakesh Yantra; A hollowed out hemisphere with cross-wires stretching out between points of the rim. An observer at the center, could align the position of a star with the various ribs.

 

 

Then, we came across the Misra Yantra, a tool used to determine the shortest and longest days of the year in addition to the exact moment of noon in cities and locations worldwide, regardless of geographical distance from Delhi.

imageDescending even deeper into time, the Qutab Minar is the 2nd tallest Minaret in the world at a total height of 73 meters. It is made of red sandstone and marble, and has a diameter gradient that begins at 14.3 meteers at its base before narrowing to 2.7 meters at its peak. This sprawling tower has five layers, and despite construction beginning in 1192, was not complete until 1368.

You will often see minarets as an iconic feature of muslim mosques. It is from these spires that Adhans, the call to prayer, are issued five times each day.

imageIf you look closer, you can see the islamic influence in the shape of the Muqarnas that encircle each tier of the tower. Remniscient of stalactites, they take the form of small pointed niches stacked in radially symmetric tiers that project outward. The number of unique tiles is limited by N-gonal symmetry, or the equation N = N/2 -1.

imageWe then stopped by the Dilli Haat, a market that hosts unique handicrafts from each of India’s 29 states, and snacked on some Momo’s, which are essentially dumplings. This makes sense, given that this ethnic food is from north-eastern India near the Chinese border.

 

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Travel: New Delhi

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Credit: Nikhil Kulkarni

After checking-in to our rooms, we took some time to scour off the travel grime, and prepare for our day. We arrived at the hotel around 7 AM, and had decided that taking a nap would basically just serve to encourage our jet lag.

New Delhi is the capital of India, and the seat of its executive, legislative, and judicial branches. Although the capitol was originally in Calcutta in the early 1900s, the British, formally decided to migrate the seat of their power to New Delhi in 1911.

It is not difficult to feel the british influence when one walks along the kingsway.

 

Master-planned by the architect Edwin Lutyens, New Delhi is centered around two central promenades call the Rajpath and the Janpath. The streets are wide and tree-lined, a design that was both ambitious and forward thinking in its hey-day.

imageOur first stop, was the India Gate. It sits along the eastern edge of the ‘ceremonial axis,’ and is a towering memorial that evokes an architectural style akin to the Arch of Constantine in Rome, or the Arc de Triomphe in Paris.

 

It calls for the remembrance of the 82,000 soldiers of the undivided Indian Army who lost there lives between 1914 and 1921 during the First World War and in the Third Anglo-Afghan War.

Below this towering structure, is an understated black marble plinth that bears a reversed rifled, capped by a war helmet, bound by four urns, each with a permanent jyoti (light) from flames. Inaugurated in 1972, this is the Amar Jawan Jyoti, India’s Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

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Credit: Nikhil Kulkarni

At the opposite end of the Rajpath, lies the secretariat, home to some of the most important ministries of the Cabinet of India. Much of the buildings of the North and South block are classic in style, but it is not difficult to see the Mughal or Rajastani motifs that have been incorporated.

 

They are visible in the form of the perforated screens which shield from both the scorching sund and the monsoon rains. Another feature is the dome-like Chatri, which provided shade to travelers in ancient times.

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Credit: Nikhil Kulkarni

Our last stop of the day was the Lotus Temple. This location serves as the Mother Temple of India. The Bahá’í Faith, has roots dating from 19th-century Persia, its founder, Bahá’u’lláh died a prisoner when he was exiled to the Ottoman Empire for his teachings.

 

 

Three core principles are emphasized in the Bahá’í religion: (1) The unity of god, (2)  The unity of religion, and (3) The unity of Humanity.

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Credit: Nikhil Kulkarni

Inspired by the lotus flower, a symbol of purity, the Lotus Temple is composed of 27 free-standing marble clad “petals” that form nine sides of three clusters each. Each of its nine doors open into a central hall that is more than 40 meters high, and can hold a total capacity of 2,500 people.

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The engineer in me was completely awe-inspired by this building. Not only is it remniscent of the Sydney Opera House in Australia, but its a challenge to grasp the depth of shell-stresses and structural analysis involved in the fabrication of each monstrosity of a petal.

 

imageWe finished our day by savoring a snack of Pao Bhaji (Bombay street food, very similar to the American Sloppy Joe, except vegetarian) and having Tea, before retiring to our rooms to pass out.

 

 

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