Sunset at Death Valley

November 7, 2016

dsc_0664We made it to the Badwater Basin in time for sunset. We opted to drive up further from the parking lot and then walk across the salt flats, as suggested by pamphotography. Walking across the salt flats is tricky because you don’t want to break the ridges, at the same time there is something deeply satisfying about crunching salt underfoot. We’ve set up our cameras and we have nothing to do except wait. If you forget to bring a mat, like we did, you can take your shoes off and use them as a cushion. Getting up is harder as the crystals will hurt your hand as you try to lift off. The Basin is at a much lower altitude than the mountains that surround it. Therefore, the sun sets ten (10) minutes earlier here. The drama begins around ten (10) minutes after sunset. We see an orange-pink cloud starting to form. Slowing it grows bigger and starts moving. More clouds form. One shaped like a dragon too. When we turn around and look behind us, we see long pink fingers ripping the grey clouds to shreds. I have seen many spectacular sunsets with blood red skies, mixed with turmeric yellow, but this crazy pink and grey is a first. While the sunset is far from what we expected, it most certainly does not disappoint.

dsc_0679As the light starts to fade, we move towards the parking lot. The Badwater Basin is also a great place to stargaze, we stay there a little longer. There is a bottle of wine and two steel glasses in the car.  The clouds take over and we head back to our camp site.

file_001Tonight’s dinner is rice and pasta cooked in an open pan over coal. This really feels like camping. Despite his protests and reluctance, I can see that the husband is enjoying the experience. The skies have cleared and we can see the stars shining brightly overhead. After a few attempts to identify constellations we call it a night. We must be up early tomorrow to catch the sunrise.

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An Afternoon in Death Valley

November 7, 2016

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We head back to the Mesquite Sand dunes because we didn’t really see them last night. It never occurred to us to venture out on to the dunes. On a starry night, how gorgeous it would have been – sand, stars and a scorpion! We reach the dunes soon enough. It’s a gorgeous morning; bright but not hot. The sky is the perfect light blue that complements the soft warm colour of the sand. The sand is carved in stark, graceful curves and shadowed ripples. This dune field includes three types of dunes: crescent, linear, and star shaped. Someday we will traverse the Sahara Desert on camels, but till then, this will have to suffice. Afreen!Afreen!!

dsc_0528A short drive later, we are at the Mosaic canyons. Mosaic Canyon is part of the north-western mountain face of the valley and is named after a stream-derived breccia sediment. Breccia is the Italian word meaning “fragments”. This formation is composed of angular fragments of different kinds of parent rock, and it can be seen on the floor of the canyon in certain areas.

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wildlife spotting

The canyon follows faults that formed a few million years ago, when the rocky crust of the Death Valley region began stretching. Running water scoured away at the fault-weakened rock, gradually carving Mosaic canyon. The entrance to Mosaic Canyon appears deceptively ordinary and a short and  easy walk leads into the canyon narrows, where the surrounding rock walls are composed of smooth, water-polished marble. We didn’t go too far, as the husband forgot his shoes in the car (he was wearing sandals). The smooth ledges and narrow passages woke up my long dormant and rusty cat personality. I tried a few jumps. Nothing big, little leaps.

Death Valley Camping and Zion.jpgAfter a leisurely lunch at the Badwater Saloon, we decided to take a break and pick up souvenirs at the Furnace Creek resort gift shop.Before we knew it, we were running short of time again. We had to cut short our hike at the Red Cathedral, and drop the Devil’s Golf Course so that we could make it in time for sunset to Badwater Basin. We did not want to miss it two days in a row.

A Morning in Death Valley

November 7, 2016

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Desert sunrises are supposed to be spectacular. We had checked the time with the ranger when we checked-in. We set our alarms and float away. When we wake up it is so bright outside, it is impossible to believe that the sun is yet to rise. We rush to Zabraskie Point. Zabraksie Point  is probably the most famous view point in Death Valley. This overlook offers a spectacular view of the vibrantly coloured Death Valley badlands. If you stand facing the valley, the sun does not rise over the Panamits directly in front of you. It comes up, over your left shoulder slowly lighting up the mountain peaks. As the light works its way down the mountain range and into the Valley, shadows move across the insanely fantastic formations. We got there in time to catch the shadow play across the rugged landscape. We watched till the golden light turned bright and sunny, and then made our way back to the parking lot to break our fast on bread and cheese.

dsc_0424We drove through the absolutely stunning twenty (20) mule canyon, whose only purpose seems to be to remind us that beauty can be masculine too. The bright blue sky rests on the muscular shoulders of broad chested mountains. The landscape is bare and rocky. Dull pastel  ores break the monotony of the sandy browns, like a man so manly that he is not afraid to wear pink. So rugged is the beauty of  this place that at some point the husband remarks, “We don’t need to go to Afghanistan now.” We don’t have to go to Tatooine either.

DSC_0443.JPGThe road itself is like a rollercoaster ride, full of dips and turns. It feels like off-roading, without really off-roading. When we come out of the canyon, we head towards Dante’s View, a viewpoint terrace offering one of the most dramatic panoramic views of  the southern Death Valley basin –  more than a hundred miles of desert ranges and salt flats flanked by weather beaten mountains.

The beauty of this vast barren landscape is hard to describe in words. It is like that emptiness you feel when you lose someone dear.  The Portuguese have a word for it – Saudade.It is thought to be the one of most beautiful words spoken. In Portuguese, it means yearning for something or someone that you love and which is lost.

*“Could fulfillment ever be felt as deeply as loss? Romantically she decided that love must surely reside in the gap between desire and fulfillment, in the lack, not the contentment. Love was the ache, the anticipation, the retreat, everything around it but the emotion itself.”
Kiran Desai, The Inheritance of Loss

When the Stars Line Up

November 6, 2016

We drive through the barren landscape of Death Valley, past towering cliffs, stunted plants, and nothingness. Shortly after turning into Artist’s Drive, we see a car parked and a small group of people waiting atop a little hillock. Not wanting to share their space, we drive on, in search of our own till spot. Crazily enough, instead of going higher up, we found we were descending lower and lower. Panic starts to set in. We are going to miss the sunset.  The roads a narrow, windy and go up and down and the husband is determined to make an amusement park ride out of it. We hurtle past the painted cliffs, pausing momentarily at the Artist’s palette to sigh dreamily at its myriad hues. Once we are back on the main road to Badwater Basin, we race towards its. We get there just in time to catch the last rosy streaks across the sky.

dsc_0297-001Badwater Basin is 282 ft (86 m) below below sea level and is the lowest point in North America. It holds a small spring-fed pool of “bad water”. The accumulated salts of the surrounding basin make the water undrinkable, and give it a “bad” name.  Adjacent to the pool, where water is not always present at the surface, repeated freeze–thaw and evaporation cycles gradually push the thin salt crust into hexagonal honeycomb shapes. The salt flats extend as far as the eye can see. You would think that miles and miles of unbroken white expanse would create a sense of liberation, but what you get is a mild feeling of claustrophobic. I thought it was just me*, but the husband acknowledged it too. Badwater basin lies at the foot of the Black Mountains (a southern range of the Amargosa Range System) and when you turn to look at the imposing cliffs they seem to bear down on you. I have been in deeper gorges and looked up at bigger mountains, but never have I felt their weight like this.

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long long ago.. in a galaxy far far away

As we drove back, velvety black blanket covered our tiny planet. Another planet shone brightly in the distance. Venus, perhaps? Slowly the sky filled up. At first there were a few, and then there were a million gazillion stars overhead. I saw my first ever shooting star.  I would have made a wish, but I was so awestruck that I forgot. As I ponder on what I could have or should have wished for, I realize beyond health and happiness for all I love, I couldn’t think of much. Camping in Death Valley has been a big thing on my bucket list, and I guess checking that off had momentarily overwhelmed me. The husband breaks my thoughts, “Do you want to go straight to the Mesquite Dunes for star gazing? It is too early for dinner, anyway.”

On we drive, till we reach the parking lot for the Mesquite Dunes. The road is fairly simple, but try doing it in pitch darkness. The signs are few and far in between and it is hard to tell if you missed them. There are not too many cars/people in the parking lot. We pick a spot and start setting up our cameras. For some reason, it never occurs to us to step out into the wilderness beyond. It doesn’t matter. We saw the most gorgeous sight ever, right there – a glimpse of the Milky Way. We may have seen more, but we have no idea.  Now the core, the brightest part of our galaxy is visible in the northern hemisphere only between June and September, so that was not visible but this was our first tryst with this wonder and we were not going to let anything spoil it.

 

*there are enough people who will vouch for my need to open windows in rooms because I feel boxed in.

Death Valley – Setting Camp

November 6, 2016

Our flight reached Vegas an hour early, but we reached our campsite a hour later than we planned. On the way from Vegas to Death Valley, we first stopped for surprisingly good lunch at I am Thai.They gave me  glass noodles, when I asked for pad thai, but it was spicy and well made, so I didn’t bother even pointing it out. We then stopped at a drugstore to fill up on drinking water and to buy the husband a toothbrush. Next stop Walmart, to stock up on bread cheese and instant foods. We went from there to Home Depot, to get portable lights ( a hand held lamp or lanterns, a flashlight and glowsticks). Last stop – Visitor’s Center to get, well information. We reached our campsite at around 3 p.m.

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We got campsite 100. Every campsite had a little tree, to give it some shade. Our’s was sadly dead and gone. After pondering for fifteen minutes or so, we asked our neighbours and set up tent at the back of their tree. We have our tent up in less than ten minutes.It is simply crazy how tightly packed the campsites are! You can reach over and touch your neighbour’s tent (almost).  With everyone there, it truly felt like a camp. People, tents, cooking, laughing, singing, drinking, brawling. Okay, so that last part is not true, but you get the picture.

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We have the sunset (today) and sunrise(tomorrow) timings from the ranger at the check-in station. He suggests Artist’s Drive  for the sunset. I am really keen on catching the sunset at Badwater Basin for two reasons – 1.  it is a shiney white salt flat, so the heat and glare there is going to be really bad during the day, making early mornings and evenings the ideal times to visit. 2. pamphotography has a lovely tutorial blog on photographing sunsets at the Badwater Basin. We decide to go to Artist’s Drive first and the head down to Badwater to catch the last light. Later at night, we plan to go the the Mesquite sand dunes for some star gazing.

Death Valley and Zion

October 2016

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Death Valley National Park

How did this happen? How did it come to be?  I need to pinch myself to be sure.  It all started with being too late plan a Thanksgiving and/or Christmas vacation for which we wouldn’t have to sell our house. Then came the school holidays for the elections. The timing was perfect. The husband is not particularly keen on either camping or Death Valley (blazing hot in summer and below freezing in winters), but he is keen on using up his leave. When I suggest Death Valley, he quickly  runs a fact/weather/temperature check ( I’m sure he did) and agrees.  Since the temperatures are extreme in summer and winter, the transition seasons are a great time to be there. We got the last campsite available at the Furnace Creek campground ( the only shaded  = most desireable campground), and I think that’s what sealed the two night camping deal. The husband hates letting a deal pass + he knows how badly I’ve been wanting to do this. Also, we didn’t camp or barbeque all summer, so we kind of made a big deal ( deal again) of fall camping a little earlier.

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Death Valley National Park

The husband has the logistics sorted. He’s booked us on Southwest Airlines, so we get to check-in 2 bags each. This means we can carry out tent and comforter. We threw away our old mattress topper,  our tent bed, or we could have taken that too. He’s rented a car to drive down from Vegas to Death Valley and back. He’s also squeezed in a day at Zion.

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Zion National Park

I call the parks department and find out that to hike the Wave – the coolest and most famous formation in Zion, we need to apply through an online lottery four months in advance. There is a walk-in lottery as well, but you need to be there one day in advance. Not happening. Next, check with friends and find out that the Narrows are super cool too. I’m super kicked about it, but it’s an eight hour hike and needs river sandals and sticks (can be rented).  The husband is sure we don’t have that kind of time either, so we decide to wing it.

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Death Valley National Park

We’ve packed a little pan to cook in and burger patties and buns. I have steel plates, spoons and glasses for us, so as not to increase landfill (lol). In a ziplock bag, I even have a sponge with some dishwashing liquid on it (the environmental conundrum!). We’ve packed layers of clothing.GPS – check. Camera+ charged batteries – check. Phones and chargers – check. We are all set to go!

 

Bus Tour Staples

August 26 and 28, 2016

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Hoovar Dam from the Mike O’Callaghan-Pat Tillman Memorial Bridge

There are certain staple items that every Chinese bus tour thinks it needs to cover – a university, a chocolate factory and a shopping outlet mall. I am not being racist, it’s a genuine observation based on my experience.

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I understand the shopping bit. Most people love shopping. People want to buy stuff they may not be able to buy back home. People want to buy gifts to take back. Shopping, I get. What’s with the other two. Why do people need to be bused to a university they don’t go to? I know I’m supposed to be all awed and inspired at these great centres of learning, but one part of me just doesn’t get it. Why exactly am I walking through this campus? What am I supposed to be doing? I find the mandatory chocolate factory tour even more baffling. I like chocolate, but what’s with the tours? This is not Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory and they don’t even let you into where plain ‘ole chocolate is really made; that would be a quality control issue.

summer-20168This tour took us U.C. Berkley, a chocolate factory that was shut and to an outlet mall that barely had any shops. There was a cactus garden next to the chocolate factory, but it was quite pointless driving all the way for that. At 9 a.m. they took us to an Asian buffet, with instructions to eat enough to last till the end of the day. This was brunch. There would be no lunch. We decided to take our chances and skipped it, breaking our fast instead on some bakery items we had stashed away. We reached the shopping outlet around lunch time. We were given around two hours to get back to the bus. What are buying, groceries? To be fair, there wasn’t really much to shop there. We spent our time grabbing pizzas at the cubicle sized food court.

Grand Canyon

August 27, 2016,

Grand Canyon – West Rim

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Last time we went to the South Rim. This time, for logistical reasons, we opted to go to the West Rim. The West Rim is privately held by the Hualapai Reservation. Though not as vast as the South Rim, I was more impressed. The shuttle bus makes three stops. The famous glass Skywalk (or infamous toilet seat) over the Canyon is at the second stop. There are no railings or barriers at the West Rim. It is a safety concern, but it also gives you a feel for the unfettered beauty and grandeur of the canyon. The rush you get when you stand on the edge and look down is incomparable. Be careful, for here you can hear l’appel du vide* and it will have you believe that you can soar like the eagle.

* l’appel du vide – call of the void, the crazy urge to jump from a great height

What Happened TO Vegas?

August 26-27, 2016, 

Las Vegas

We are traveling with the family and are on the bus tour that just doesn’t get the whole Vegas nights things, but even if I take those externalities out – what happened to Vegas?

The streets are less loud and the crowds are thinner; the drunk groups of young adults staggering around with oversized drinks have been replaced by families and hand holding couples. Is Vegas getting gentrified? Or is it just a reflection of how the economy is doing?

I vividly remember my first time here. It was electrifying. The strip was buzzing and bursting – jazzy lights, dancing fountains, fake monuments! Colorful characters jostled about, laughing and chattering loudly. It was like stepping into a decadent fantasy fiction.

The glamour seems to be wearing off. What happened?

Monterey Bay

August 25, 2016,

Monterey Bay

summer-20166While we did not go whale watching in Monterey Bay, the when-will-this-end bus tour took us to the aquarium.  We were given instructions on which exhibits to check out, in what order and how to get there.  The best part of this excursion was the feeding. Unlike Seaworld, you don’t get to feed the animals, you instead get to watch them feed. The big guys first, then the little ones. If you are wondering why the big fish don’t just eat the little fish, after all this is no Zootopia – the aquarium throws in lots of feed and fed food is easier to get than chasing after prey. The small fry stays out of the way till the big fry is done eating. Then comes the sardine tornado.   Hundreds of sardine swarm towards the food, like a mini silver tornado moving under water. This is the coolest part of this exhibit.

summer-20165The tour then took us along the scenic 17 mile drive, much of which hugs the gorgeous Pacific coastline.  It’s incredible, when you contrast this with the man-made and manicured beauty of the fabulous houses that line it. The bus took us to Bird Rock and allowed us savour its wild beauty for a few moments.

Should we make that desperate bid for freedom?  Before you know it, it’s too late and we are again trapped in the metal cage and shunted away.

Roaring Camp

August 25, 2016,

Roaring Camp Redwoods

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The one thing I was really looking forward to on this why-did-we-take-this trip, was taking the steam train through the Californian Redwood forest. We have seen and loved the Giant Sequoias, and the Californian Redwoods are supposed to be even bigger than their southern cousins. I’ve seen pictures of my parents driving through one of the tree tunnels, and in my head I see a train chug-chugging through a tree. In that sense, the Roaring Camp train and Redwoods are a disappointment. A gentle fog runs its tendrils through the dense foliage and early morning light dapples through. There is a slight nip in the air. The open wagon of the train is equipped with blankets which we help ourselves too. The conductor cum guide talks about the history of the camp. The train winds through the forest, giving an occasional soft toot and not billowing enough steam to make me happy. The trees tower over us, but are not enormous, not yet atleast. They are still young, and have a long long time to live before they become the giants I was expecting to see. The route is charming, but has no tunnels.  

Given a choice, I think I’d prefer a walk through Muir Woods, where I’d be able to press my left ear to the trunk of a giant tree and listen to secrets from a thousand years ago.

San Francisco

August 24, 2016,

San Francisco

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It’s a cool morning and San Francisco’s famous fog is all around us. The tour covers the usual suspects – the cable car (aka tram), Golden Gate Bridge park, crooked street, palace of fine arts, soup in a sourdough bread bowl at Boudin’s, Grace Cathedral and City Hall. The bus went up the twin peaks, to give us a panoramic view of the city. It even took us on the mandatory cruise. All must-do’s in SFO.

 At the foot of the crooked street, across the road on the left (if you have your back to it) is a tree and at its base is a memorial for a child called Achoo. I don’t know anything about this child or family, but the name is imprinted in my brain. Every time I go to SFO and the crooked street, I go and look at it. I know it is terrible to say something like this about a child long dead, but I do hope Achoo means something beautiful in whichever language, otherwise it is just mean to name a child after a sneeze. You have to take the left (back to crooked street) at the intersection and it is on the right side, at the very beginning of the road. Sweet child, rest in peace.

Summer 20169.JPGSummer is a great time to get married, and no place says take a picture here like a grand staircase. There’s sometime about grand staircases that just makes you feel like royalty – strong, poised and elegant. Sure enough, there was more than one couple getting their pictures taken on the grand stairs of City Hall. The streets of SFO are full of photo-ops, but the Palace of Fine Arts is another great place to pose.

Solvang

August 23, 2016,

Solvang

Have you heard of Solvang? We hadn’t, till the very terrible West Coast bus tour we took the family on halted very briefly here. After stop just long enough for a bio-break and a view of the gleaming white yachts anchored at Santa Barbara, the bus made its way to SFO. The Pacific Coast Highway, or Calif-1 is one of the most scenic coastal routes, with the sparkling ocean on one hand and the rugged mountains on the other.  Along the way, our guide mentioned, we would pass through the heart of California’s “angry-culture”. Not sure if I had heard him correctly, I shot the husband a quizzical look. The husband simply shrugged.  Right before this, the guide had been talking about Native Americans, Spanish missions and Mexico, but before we could form to any conclusion on this strange culture, he went on to add that 80% of America’s grapes come from here. The husband and I had a field day pointing to vineyards and laughing.

summer-20162We stopped for lunch at Solvang. Solvang, is the dream-come-true of three Danish gentlemen, who wanted to set up a village for Danish immigrants in California.  In 1911, they Danish-American Colony corporation bought almost 10,000 acres of prime land in the Santa Ynez Valley and named the new colony Solvang, meaning sunny fields.  Though originally built in the local style, the town got a Danish facelift in the 1940’s. Today, the Danish heritage is visible everywhere, in the half-timbered architecture and bakeries offering a taste of Denmark. The town even has windmills!

In recent years, Solvang has gained popularity as a wine destination as well.

While we found some pretty good vegetarian food at the only/biggest restaurant in town, we did not have enough time to explore.  We missed out on the replica of the Little Mermaid statue, the bust of Hans Christian Andersen, the wine and pastries but the old world charm hangs thick and we did get a taste of that.

City of Angels

August 22, 2016,

Los Angeles

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As we drive the family from San Diego to Los Angeles, I finally spot the Hollywood sign. The sign was originally made for a local real estate developer and read HOLLYWOODLAND. Somewhere down the years, the land got sold and the LAND from the sign got dropped. While the husband drove the family around Beverly Hills and Rodeo Drive, I went and got me some highlights. If I’m going to get my hair done, what better place than Hollywood land?

Tip – If you need a restroom on Hollywood Boulevard, try LALA Land, the souvenir shop.  

San Diego – Zoo and Sea World

August 2016

Summer 20161.jpgWe are taking the husband’s parents around San Diego. Zoos are a common favourite with both grandparents and grandchildren, so we load the lot into two cars and go to one of the best loved zoos – San Diego Zoo.

After sulking through most of the bus ride, because we could not sit on the upper deck,Akash finally comes around. After lunch, we go on the gondola. It is Lara’s nap time and Raga heads home with her. Akash gets to skip is nap and spend the day at the zoo.

We started with the polar bears, checking out the exhibits on the way. The polar bear swam right up next to the glass, and plonked down in front of us, giving us a very accurate idea of its size. We get icecreams and then  walk over to the panda bears. We wanted to take the bus, but it is going in the wrong direction.   Down the hill from the restrooms, and almost halfway to the next ones, Akash suddenly says he needs to use the toilet – urgently. We hurry on the the next ones which are luckily near the pandas. The panda habitat is undergoing some renovation, so they have been shifted temporarily. The new enclosures do not afford as much privacy and we are able to see both mommy and baby napping.

Next we take the escalators to the orangutans and gorillas. On the way we walk through the aviary. The orangutans are gorillas are also napping close the the glass. The orangutans wake up. One shuffles lazily like a carpet rug being dragged, while the other decides to roll along the perimeter of the enclosure. Our last stop for the day is the reptile house. As we enter, we see a green mamba shedding its skin. It is the most disgusting, yet fascinating thing to see. We hurry around the exhibit so we can come back and see the progress. The husband opts to wait and nap.

Homeward bound- tired and sleepy. What a successful day this has been!

Sunny San Diego

August 2016

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At Balboa Park, where we rode the train, saw ducklings, tried to get touch the fish, saw some art, admired some plants, dipped our feet in the fountain, went on the carousel and in all had fun

I’m spending my break between jobs at our holiday home in San Diego. People often ask me, if I’m not weary of the east coast winters and would I not like to move to California? My answer is, that’s where I go to holiday. Everyone needs a getaway spot. A place where you can bury yourself under the covers and pretend the rest of the world does not exist. My is sunny San Diego. Could it get better? Under the covers there, there exists a world inhabited by giants and jedi; lorikeets are our friends, eating from our hands and carrying messages. A world that’s constantly changing as the years go by, but magical nonetheless.

This visit was supposed to be a surprise for the kids and for amma.The surprise was broken, but the thrill and joy was intact.

Cape Cod again

Aug 6, 2016

DSC_0593Our first big trip with the family, this year, is to Cape Cod. We get off to a bad start with a flat tire, followed by crazy traffic. It’s early evening by the time we reach. We have 4 items on our list – beach + lighthouse, sunset, whale watching and Martha’s Vineyard. We are too late to catch the last whale watching boat, so that gets pushed out to tomorrow. If we can make it to the first boat, we might still be able to do Martha’s Vineyard. When we reach the Race Point Lighthouse, there is a wedding ceremony in progress. The family is highly amused. We head to the beach, where we dip our feet in the ice cold waters. Seals froliking the ocean as we stroll along the shore.

Cape Cod 2016We arrive at the Rock Harbor beach twenty minutes before sunset. Dark clouds, low on the horizon have obscured the sun. We are disappointed, but wait it out all the same. Good things come to those who wait; we were rewarded with the most unexpected spectacle. The sun slowly slid out under the clouds and slipped into the ocean.For a moment it stood perfectly suspended between the cloudline and the horizon, like a dot of kumkum. The throat of the ocean shimmered as it swallowed the orange ball of fire. We waited till the last sliver of light had been consumed. As we walked away, the water greedily lapped up the leftover pink from the sky.

Aug 7, 2016

The first boat is too early for us. We miss the second because we got stuck in a cycle rally to Provincetown. Martha’s Vineyards is now off the cards. Trivia – the first family reached Martha’s Vineyard today for a sixteen day vacation. I did try suggesting, we switch whale watching with Obama spotting, but.. siigh!!

Cape Cod 20161Whale watching is a smashing success. Very soon, there are all kinds of whales, all around us. We get to witness some feeding behavior. The ocean is calm and the dramamine is really helping. I’m having  a whale of a time.

On the way back, we again get a truckload of traffic. Where is everyone going this weekend!

As crazy as it was, the family is happy and the weekend was well spent.

Akashardham, Robbinsville, New Jersey

31st July 2016

The family wants to visit the Akshardham temple; the husband is mainly interested in the food. We plan so that we get there around lunch time, so we can visit the temple, have lunch there (not necessarily in that order) and then head out peach picking.  When we get there, the temple building is open, but the sanctum sanctorum is closed. God is resting. The doors will open again in about three hours.  The temple, situated on a hundred and sixty two acre plot in Robbinsville, New Jersey  is in itself an offering of  adoration, reverence, and gratitude. This exquisitely embellished marvel, with ornate pillars and panels was carved piece by piece in India, assembled to make sure everything fits, disassembled and shipped halfway across the globe and reassembled here. The Carrara marble used imparts a soft, heavenly glow to the edifice. The intricately carved, high domed ceilings, artistic arches, and ninety nine pillars, each made out of a single stone, give it stature and magnificence.  Each of the hundred and forty four figurines in the temple celebrates the Hindu faith of the sect.  Ninety one elephants are carved on the outer walls of the inner sanctum and each elephant is decorated differently. The husband tried his hardest to find two similar ones. The main dome rests on an octagonal bay surrounded by windows allowing natural light to seep in through the stone latticework – a little bit of modern in this confluence of traditional northern and southern Indian architecture. The inlaid floor contrasts the opulence of the marble and adds a quiet elegance. In winters, the temple is heated by pipes that run under the floor, as opposed to heating the space above. This ensures that the floors stay warm. As hot air rises through the building, it warms the occupied spaces and gradually loses heat as it moves into the unoccupied above. Given that it is considered disrespectful to wear footwear inside Hindu temples and is strictly prohibited, and that devotes like to sit on the floor and pray, this is a necessity. It is also a neat touch of energy efficiency.

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The mandir was inaugurated and opened to the public on August 10, 2014, but parts of the building complex are still under construction. We walk around admiring the carvings – deities and devotees, saints, sages, dancers, musicians, peacocks, elephants and processions. The husband has been given a veshti, with elastic and Velcro to cover his lower body. Shorts not allowed.  Sleeveless shirts, skirts and dresses are also not allowed. Please dress respectfully. This applies to both men and women. A small victory for gender equality – DING! We get lunch at the tiny cafeteria cum shop at the back. The food is good, but the fare at the Guruvayurappan temple was far superior. We are done eating and shopping, but the Lord is not done resting. Dark rain clouds looming overhead make the decision easy. Peach picking is cancelled, we wait inside the temple. Photography is not allowed inside the temple. There are volunteers carry plaque cards to remind you this. They also remind you to remain silent, so as to maintain the spiritual atmosphere and to not touch the carvings. You cannot lie down and nap either. God is resting, why can’t devotees? It is now pouring outside, which means we cannot go catch a few winks in the car. There is an eight minute audio-visual on the temple and its making, which we watch twice.

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The raised platform on which the gods in our prayer nook stand was bought from the temple store

I am telling the husband what fun it would be if they were to blow conch shells and ring bells to announce to opening of the doors, when we hear the conchs. The doors open to slowly reveal the beautiful faces of the idols inside. That first glimpse is absolutely magical. If you can, time your visit to experience this. Each idol is painstakingly adorned. The wooden throne like canopies they are enshrined in are gilded with beaten gold. It is all very grand. This is also the time when parts of India celebrate the Hindola festival. Gods and Goddesses are seated on seated on swings and the faithful move the swing for their enjoyment. The temple has an idol of Swaminarayan on a swing, and we pull the string attached to rock it.

We  prostrate ourselves on the bare floor and offer our ego to the great ones before we head home.

 

 

Montreal – Au Revoir

2nd to 4th July 2016

 Today is our final day in Montreal. The plan is to get some breakfast at l’Avenue du Plateau, head to the Basilica and finish up with shopping at the underground city.

2016-07-08-PHOTO-00001771The long line we saw outside l’Avenue yesterday and people’s obvious willingness to wait to eat there has piqued our curiosity.  B and J, our early risers, head out to reserve spots in the queue, while the husband and I stay back to hand over the keys to our Air BnB owner. When we get to the restaurant half an hour later, B and J are still in queue. We all wait for another twenty minutes to be seated. The restaurant owners have the sense and decency to offer patrons, who have spent close to an hour standing in line outside, complimentary fruits once they are seated. A hungry customer is an angry customer. We place our orders and wait. The fruit is long gone.

Montreal 2016The three South Indians with me cannot do without their morning coffee. Et moi? I’ll have a mimosa, s’il vous plait. Orange juice for breakfast + Champagne for lunch.  Blame it on New York, if you will ❤

When the food comes, the portions are large and beautifully plated. We dig in eagerly. Nom nom!! I got the scrambled eggs with mushrooms and truffle oil, which was so-oh good, but J’s burrito with quinoa in it was even better. The husband and I have enough left over for dinner. We don’t know it yet, but boy will we be glad for it later!

2016-07-08-PHOTO-00001761Next stop, Basilica of Notre Dame. The plaza is packed. There is not a parking spot in sight. We drop B and J off and go looking for parking. When they were done marvelling the stupendous interiors, we had still not found parking, so we simply pick them up and make our way to the underground city, Montreal’s shopping haven. The name underground city conjures images of Palika Bazaar and Heera Panna. Palika Bazaar is New Delhi’s literally underground bargain market, popular for grey goods. Heera Panna is Mumbai’s above ground version of the same. We park and make our way through a labyrinth of buildings, stations, shops and cafes, only to reach a humongous shopping mall. What an anticlimax!

We navigate our way back through the maze to where we have parked, miraculously managing to find Anthea of AntheasChronicles and Rohan in there.  The trip back is uneventful, save for a strange man at one of the rest areas. I wish I could remember which exit we took. This janitor stood outside the restrooms with a broom and a pail, staring vacantly into empty space. He didn’t move a muscle or blink or in any way acknowledge our coming or going. He just stood there like a wax statue, absolutely motionless. Freaky!!!

 

 

 

Montreal on Bicycles

2nd to 4th July, 2016

We are not going white water rafting like I wanted to, instead we are going cycle around Montreal. I think it’s a fair compromise. I have always wanted to pedal my way through a city. We choose to use Montreal extensive public bicycle sharing system – Bixi, but first some breakfast. Yelp shows us a 5 star rated brunch place around the corner. When we get there, there is a line outside extending almost all the way down the block. Too hungry to wait, we keep walking. Ever since the Canadians told us about Paris Crêpes, crêpes have been on our mind. Montreal is full of cafes and restaurants that serve crêpes. We walk into the first one that comes our way; let me tell you, we are not disappointed. These are by far the best crêpes I’ve ever eaten. Satiated, we go to the nearest bixi stand and hope to figure out the system. It ain’t no rocket science and soon we are on our way to Mont Royal Park. Mont Royal- Montreal..

DSC_0548We cycle through by-lanes and main roads, past what we assumed are the infamous  tam-tams and a short way up the hill. Somewhere near the hospital, we drop our bikes off, knowing that the system allows you to take a bike out for only 30 minutes. After 30 minutes, the bike has to be returned and taken out again if you still want one. That, and the fact that the slope ahead is too steep. We walk the rest of the way and up the stairs in the park to the Belvédère Kondiaronk.  A refreshing breeze cools us down as we take in a panoramic view of downtown Montreal.   This scenic overview is named after the Petun chief Kondiaronk, whose influence led to a major peace accord between the French, Iroquois and other First Nations in 1701. There is a  small public piano in the semicircular plaza outside the chalet. Visitors take turns to play and pose.

DSC_0588We walk down to the cemetery, from where we need to take a bus to the Oratory of Saint Joseph. A kind fellow passenger helps us with directions, while the bus driver gives us free tickets that are valid on any public transport for the next two hours. I must have over-hyped the heart at the oratory, because everyone wants to see it. In my defense, it is kinda  creepy to preserve someone’s heart like that! On a side note, while B and J, the husband and I are cycling around the city, Anthea  of Anthea’s Chronicles and Rohan  are attending mass at the Basilica of Notre Dame. The plan is to catch up at some point.

2016-07-08-PHOTO-00001782We use our tickets to ride the subway, to get to Vieux Montreal. From the subway station, we take bikes again and cycle along the old port. We stop here for sunset drinks. We are, after all, on vacation. After wandering around the narrow cobble stoned  streets of Vieux Montreal for a while and picking up souvenirs, it is time head to the Jazz festival for dinner. What better way to work up an appetite than cycling there! We are able to get 3 bikes out, but when B and J try to pull out their second bike, the code doesn’t work. After some trial and error, a phone call to the Bixi people confirms our worst fears, one bike did not get logged back into the system when we returned it.To return a bike, you need to push the front wheel firmly into an empty bike dock and make sure the green light comes on after docking the bike. If not, you start getting fined after the stipulated loan time (30 minutes) is up.  After twenty four hours, the bike is considered stolen and a fee of $1,000 may be charged to your credit card. OUCH!!

We hurry back to the docking station we left our bikes at and frantically try pulling out every bike to find the improperly docked one. Luckily, we had docked close to the end of the line and find the bike in just a few tries.

2016-07-08-PHOTO-00001769While the others a pedaling furiously to beat the rain, I am merrily singing songs in my head and  reminiscing cycle rides in the rain in Rasayani ❤ At our destination, we all  make sure the green light comes on and then double check by pulling the bike. We’ve learnt our lesson. Once inside the Jazz festival, we need to find a place to eat. After some hemming and hawing, we settle on a Thai place. We go in and order. Anthea and Rohan join us. Wherever we go, we seem to find decent ( and occasionally exceptional)Thai food. Through dinner, I’ve also managed to dry my wet shoes with paper towels and the hand drier in the wash room. We are now all set for the Casino. I make a measly $27 profit this time and the husband gambles it ( and more) away. Hey, we are at a casino! The whole point is to gamble!

Montreal Again

2nd to 4th July, 2016

” Why are we going to Montreal when we have a house to set up?”

“..because YOU don’t get too many days off. The house can keep getting set up, we can’t waste the long weekend.”

(how do I love thee, let me count the ways)

Montreal in summer is a very different experience from Montreal in winter. Montreal with 20 friends ( and friends of friends) is an experience in itself. With B&J’s last minute visa and Anthea of antheaschronicles eleventh hour decision to get her own bathroom, our whole trip is balancing on a fine point. As always, everything works out and we are on our way.

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We are going to find you Canadians and give you Big Hugs

Once we reach Montreal, our first task is to find parking. Task 2 – find the Canadians; our Canadians. The bestie and troop are in Montreal too. We have a day’s overlap and are determined to make the most of it.  A few misses later we embarrass them outside a sports bar with our exuberant hugs and loud exclamations. Some might think it nearly impossible to find place for such a large group in the tiny bars of Old Montreal, but the menfolk manage that less than ten minutes. Where there is a game, there there is way!

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Let’s go for a Walk

Some are happy to watch the game; the rest of us are happy to get our drinks, only the drinks take forever to come. Midway through the game, the husband leaves with Rohan and Anthea to get our Air BnBs. The game goes past penalties and somebody finally wins. B & J and I make our way out.  The husband, Anthea and Rohan, with their terrible directions give us an opportunity to explore the city by foot. We walk through leafy lanes, cut through parks and saunter past hippie stores till we eventually find them.

Our Air BnB  is a lovely little apartment with 3 bedrooms, on the first floor of a walk up. Catnap; wake up; yawn; stretch. It’s party night!  We get dressed and head out to where the Canadians are, to pre-drink, and ahem! We are also supposed to meet SS and SM, who are in Montreal separately with their parents. They are at the Jazz festival, we need to cut through it to reach the hotel. We are not allowed to due to the capacious  amount of alcohol we are carry for the Canadians and end up having to walk around the block with it.

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BFFs

We’ll need a bus if all of us have to go to the club together. We don’t have one, so we call multiple Ubers. B & J, the husband and I and denied entry because the boys are in shorts; the husband in military shorts. No amount of pleading gets us in, and the others having paid to get in are in no mood to get out. The four of us hop into the pub next door and the head out grab so grub  close by. We were tired enough to contemplate heading back and would have  if our Canadian Sheth,  Rahul had not come out and coolly walked the husband into the club. Problem, now the bouncer wouldn’t let the rest of us in. Rahul to the rescue again. That is how we clubbed the last 15 minutes of the night in Montreal – boogieing away to 80’s music. Don’t you love it when you know the words ❤

Buttermilk Falls State Park

Memorial Day 2016

It’s the first weekend of summer; that beautiful time of the year again. How quickly time flies! This time, last year we were in Maine, torn between the majesty of the mountains and the ocean. This year, the husband has been hustled into another camping trip. He somehow convinces the universe that there is no way he can spend two days in a tent and we get the last spot in the campground, but for only one night.

Buttermilk Falls State Park and Binghamton ZooThe hike up Buttermilk falls is a more like a pleasant walk uphill. The day is hot and I am sorely tempted to drench my body and soul under the falling waters.I almost give in, going as far as the edge of the waterfall, but am scared away by the slippery rocks under it.

When we get to the top of the gorge trail, we have two options – we could either go back down via the rim trail or we could go further up, along the bear trail. A few steps into the bear trail and we spot a wood pecker, hard at work. A few more steps and we are joined unexpectedly by rain. We shelter under a tree for a few long minutes before deciding that if we have to get wet, we may as well walk. We shelter again in a shed at the Rim Trail parking lot. Then the sun comes out and we slip and slither our way down.

 

Buttermilk Falls State Park and Binghamton Zoo1

Halki phulki si hai zindagi, bojh to khwahishon ka hai

Camping in the rain comes with it’s own challenges. In a small window between the showers we struggle to set up our tent. No matter how hard we try, we just couldn’t get it to stand. Once we had ours up, setting up the second tent is a breeze. While the others feel that the rain is ruining everything, I am the sort who can see the rain dragons.  Remember those days when you loved to run barefoot, mud squelching between your toes? It does make it harder though, to cook outdoors or set up camp or even just stay dry, and it sure helps if you have a way to clean up before you get into your tent.

 

Note to self – unless there’s gale and you’re pitching at the end of a cliff, forget the stakes, just lock the pins into the frame and the tent will stand. Easy-Peasy!

Second note to self – carry two bags of coal. We always run short of coal for breakfast.

Blast from the Past

 

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Today’s post is a blast from the past.When I was working in Delhi, I took my parents on a trip to Jaipur and Udaipur. Amma was keen on the architecture. They were flying in from Bombay. I was flying in from Delhi. Their flight landed before mine. I had reserved  rooms for us at heritage stays. When I reached the hotel, I found them having breakfast on the roof. The look on their faces when they saw me, was priceless. Their joy,  excitement, and pride was so evident that the German (I think) couple on the next table broke into smiles. “You must be their daughter.”, they divined.

Later the same friendly gentleman enquired,” Is he a strict father? Is he compelling you to get married?” ( or something on those lines). It was my turn to laugh.

Sakura Hanami

Of all the festivals, Holi was my favourite growing up. Holi celebrates celebrates the coming of spring with all its beautiful colours. When I was a not so little girl, we had a  tradition. Every year, my mother would take a picture of me before I washed off all the colours.

Branch Brook Park - Cherry Blossoms2Here in the United States, I have appropriated the Japanese tradition of welcoming spring by going “cherry blossom viewing”. If we can’t go anywhere, I make it a point to stand under a cherry tree and admire the pale pink clouds. Washington D.C. hosts a very popular cherry blossom festival, but I have always maintained it’s nicer to go locally. The D.C. festival is great and can be done once, but it feels like everyone in the country has descended on tidal basin.

Collages15This year, we went to the Branch Brook Park in Newark, a twenty minute drive from home. At first it seemed like the rapid weather changes in the past week had destroyed  all the blossoms. Walking around a bit, we saw other groups headed to the other side of the water. Crossing over, we found Spring had not been completed routed. It had fallen back and held it’s lines here.

Branch Brook Park - Cherry Blossoms1In Japanese culture the short life of the delicate sakura (cherry blossoms) is considered symbolic of the fleeting nature of life.The blossoms fall around two weeks after they peak. Hanami literally means “viewing blossoms” and the tradition can be traced back to the last millennium. During the Nara period (710–794), in a  more ancient form of the tradition, people admired the transient beauty of ume (plum blossoms). In was only during the  Heian period (794–1185) that  hanami became synonymous with sakura. Today, a thousand years later and an ocean away, people still enjoy picnicking under the trees.

Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge, Maryland

I don’t say je t’aime and je t’adore as often as I should, not aloud atleast, but always remember that I am saying it, that I go to sleep thinking of you.

… the words are stolen, but the feelings are true.

February 6 and 7, 2016

Black water national refuge (2)This year, we decided to celebrate our anniversary with the national  animal and bird of America  – the bald eagle. Our original plan was to shack up in an adults only resort, but Valentine’s day and the President’s day long weekend put an arrow through that plan. Every single room with a Jacuzzi or heart shaped bed was booked out at astronomical rates. This gave us an opportunity  for some early celebrations at the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge in Maryland. This wetland  is a popular destination for migratory water fowl and the only place on the east coast,  north of Florida where the bald eagle can be spotted. Much like the birds, we’ve flown a long way to build our nest so what better way could there be to mark this momentous day!

Collages13It was almost closing time when we got there, but we drove through the refuge before going to the charming  B&B we had booked. Keen to be a part of our celebrations, the sky slowly changed  from blue to warm rusty orange as the sun set. We could have watched forever.  Even though it is illegal to consume or carry alcohol into the refuge, we sorely regretted not have a bottle of bubbly and two flutes at hand.

Black water national refuge2We were staying at the Mill Street Inn Bed and Breakfast, a beautifully restored Victorian house in the heart of the Cambridge’s historic district. This house  was built  in 1894 and remained in the family until 2004.  In 2006 Skip and Jennie Rideout restored it as a B&B. We were absolutely charmed by  our room.  It wasn’t just the tasteful room decor, wine and chocolates, there were maps and brochures by the bedside and makeup removal wipes in the bathroom. Very thoughtful!  The house has 3 common fireplaces, a large wall to ceiling bookshelf, a piano, a chess table and more. Every corner has a small surprise. Did I mention the pineapple leitmotif? I found it a little out of place, but heck it’s cute!

Black water national refuge1Jennie and Skip are both great  hosts and their age belies their enthusiasm.We wanted to be at the refuge early, so Skip was  gracious enough to wake up before us and make coffee. He even gave us muffins to take with us. It was the kind of morning where you want to wrap your arms around yourself and  walk even if you have no place to go or be. Cool, quiet and peaceful. The beauty of the landscape was in its simplicity. There were no majestic mountains or vast expanse of sea. The trees didn’t tower tall and proud, nor were they gnarled and twisted into fantastic shapes as testimony to  the power of the wind. The refuge glowed softly in the first light of day. The water was still as a mirror. Brown rushes fringed its edges. Flocks of ducks and geese dotted the marsh. We saw snow geese with their black tipped wings, tundra swans who as their name suggests had flown in from the arctic tundra, stately great blue herons and the king of birds – the bald eagles. The bald eagle has a white head and a white tail and  is easy to identify even at a distance. With a wingspan of 5.9 – 7.5 feet, it is an impressive sight in flight. It’s beak, talons and eyes are a fierce yellow. When perched, the hard glint in its eyes and strong beak give it a striking appearance. You don’t want to get close enough to look into its eyes, but here’s a secret – the king is actually a coward. Bald eagles rarely hunt dangerous prey on their own. They target creatures much smaller than themselves. They obtain much of their food by scavenging carcasses or by stealing prey away from other predators. Not very kingly behavior, eh?

Another fun fact – Female bald eagles are usually a third larger than the males.

Collages14As the sun started to rise higher and the early morning mist faded, we made our way back to breakfast at Mill Street Inn. Jennie had quite a spread ready. She even accommodated my vegetarian diet.  At breakfast, we met the lovely couple staying in the other room. They had a local connection and advised us to try Old Salty’s on Hoopers island for lunch. Old Salty’s did not have anything vegetarian apart from a salad, so we drove on to their second suggestion. We went up and down the island twice but could not find it. As we gave up and were driving out of Hoppers, our new acquaintances called to inform us that the husband had left his wallet to Old Salty’s.

Lunch happened at a taqueria in the next town. The husband ordered shrimp diablo and boy was it HOT!!! On the way back, we stopped for ice creams at our old haunt – U-Dairy Creamery . As we drove home the sky turned into an unbelievable pink, like a tent of multi hued silk.  The world seemed determined to remind us that the celebrations were not over.

 

The Day before Christmas

December 24, 2015

Norway7Today is our last day in Oslo. RP has taken the morning flight back. Our flight is much later and we have half a day to explore the city. Last evening we strolled past the Christmas gaiety and had dinner in the “ethnic” quarter of  city. Today we will walk the tourist attractions.The husband has seen some of it on his day alone in the city and is my walking guide for the day. The Norwegians are not great church goers, but we discover that almost all of Oslo has shut down for Christmas and will reopen only on January 4, the first Monday of the new year. On the bright side, we have the city all to ourselves. We walk to Akerhaus Fortress and wander around inside. The ramparts offer a wonderful view of the harbour and the Oslo fjord.   Every year on 10th December the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony is held in the Oslo city hall. Note the date; what a remarkable coincidence!

Norway4The city hall is closed, so we walk around the entrance admiring the beautiful wooden friezes depicting tales from Norse mythology.We wander along the harbour, and pause by the Nobel Peace Center and a troll shop. It’s lunch time. Since I didn’t get RP and the husband the promised “dal” in Svalbard,last night I had to make up by having so-so dinner at an Indian restaurant that turned out to be  owned by our brother-turned-mortal-enemy-neighbour (country). Today we are going to have to pick up something from a local deli near the Christmas Market since all restaurants are closed and also because we want to catch the afternoon mass at the Oslo Cathedral. By the time we reach the cathedral, people are pouring out. I mentioned that the Norwegians are not great church goers, but clearly Christmas mass is a BIG thing! We enter once the crowd thins. The cathedral is beautiful and felt quite alive. Inside we met a wonderful  lady dressed in traditional Norwegian attire. She gladly posed for us and even sat down and explained a good deal about the attire. These days few people dress in traditional clothes, but on occasions like Christmas it is not uncommon. She recommended that we stay for the choir as it is one of the best but we have a flight to catch.

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Soon we are on our way to the airport –  to the BEST CHRISTMAS EVER 🙂

 

 

The Return to Oslo

December 23, 2015

We have our flight back to Oslo today. I never did finish the story of how we got our new Schengen visas, so I’m tell that first. Who has ever heard of getting a visa at a police station, but we told we would so we dutifully turned up at the police station. The policeman authorized to issue visas was out on avalanche duty and we were asked to return the next day. We went to the police station the next morning but the man still wasn’t there. He had gone to pay his respects at a funeral. We were flying out the next day and this would have been a very good moment to PANIC, but in SVALBARD there is no reason to panic. The man at the police station collected our passports, and promised to call us once our visas were ready. When we hadn’t heard from him by 4 p.m. we simply turned up at the police station again. The man handed us our passports, new visas in place, and  application forms which he asked us to fill based on the visa. That’s it, we had our Schengen visas issued in half a day. Just like that.

Too good to be true? Here’s the glitch. When we arrive at Oslo, I clear immigration but the husband is asked to step aside. It seems his visa has been cancelled. He shows the lady both visas. She checks again and sure enough the old one has expired and the one is cancelled. He tells her our story and she figures they cancelled the wrong visa when they gave him the new one. The husband is ushered into a room, while I wait outside for a little more than a hour. In the meanwhile, RP  has collected our luggage and been shooed out of the luggage hall for hanging around for suspiciously long. When the husband finally comes out, the situation has been sorted and the officer is apologizing profusely for the inconvenience. It’s two days to Christmas and the immigration office is understaffed. Even so, they managed to resolve the issue in a relatively short time and were very polite and respectful through the entire process.  I am floored.

Svalbard – Northern Lights and Polar Nights

December 21, 2015

It’s dinner time. We decide to walk down to the Radisson. This seems to be the only place serving vegetarian big plates. We are carrying our cameras and tripods, well just in case. The vegetarian pizza is pretty good, the husband and RP enjoyed their meal just as much. After we clear the bill, the husband as always cannot wait for me, so he’s gone while RP and I are still bundling up. Just as fast as he went out, he rushed back in shouted, come fast, come fast.. The diners on the next table look at us quizzically, as though unsure if they should run out too or not. RP tries to hurry them on by saying, ”Northern Lights!!!”. I try to shrug it off as nonchalantly as I can, while one diner calms his alarmed partner with a dismissive it’s the lights.

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Aurora Borealis

We don’t know what to expect, but as we step out and look up we see green streaks across the dark blue sky. We set up our tripods and click away like people possessed. We peeled off our gloved and hats to better see and operate our cameras. It’s freezing, but none of us seem to feel it. There’s an overdose of light pollution, but we are too scared to move to a darker place, lest the show ends before we get there. The show however went on for the next 3 hours or so; lights dancing all from mountain to mountain, all over the little town. A few cars passed by, as did a few locals. None but one stopped to look up and admire this magic. We wonder how it was even possible to take from granted something so special, so rare, that people travel across the globe just from a glimpse.  We would find out soon. We finally decided to call it a night and head back. Now we realize how cold it was. If we didn’t keep walking, our toes would surely freeze in our woollen socks, inside our well insulated snow boots.

When we got back to the hotel two girls clad unbelievably scantily for so cold a night, step out hearing us, to ask if we truly saw the lights.  Seeing how their faces fell, we assure them that we would be hanging around outside the hotel for some more time and would let the front desk know if the lights came on again. Sure enough, we soon saw some green flitting across the sky, like a post-credits roll. RP is now jumping up and down outside the hotel, waving his hands randomly shouting “ Hey!! Heyy!! Hello!! Lights!!”, to catch the manager’s attention. A short while later the girls came out. This was nothing like what we had just seen and knowing this, the girls are clearly still feeling a little cheated. Even so, they still got to see something.

December 22, 2015

 

DSC_0403.jpgI have described to you our experience of the Northern Lights, but there is yet another phenomenon that we lived through here – the Polar Night. A Polar Night is a night that lasts for at least 24 hours. For six months a year, the sun stays six degrees below the horizon all day long and the night reigns supreme. The darkness is not absolute, yet it is complete. The summer, the opposite happens – the sun never sets. I wonder how much toll it must take on the physical body to adjust every six months at first gradually and then rapidly to such drastic changes. When there is no light ( or dark), there is no way to tell the time, save by looking at your timepiece. Ten a.m. or ten p.m. it is all the same to us. We’ve staked out a great location for pictures. The lookout outside the police station provides a panoramic view of the town, cradled in the lap of the mountains. Our eyes have learnt to discern the faint green blobs, from starlight and city lights. We now have the perfect location, but not the same luck. We see faint streaks but nothing compares to yesterday. We spend the rest of the day walking around the tiny town and shopping in it’s only store. Svalbard is a duty free island and alcohol is incredibly cheap. Residents are issued a card based on which they can buy only a certain amount every month.We buy some beer and wine for the night and after a lot of contemplating and debating we buy local cognac, and aquavit and a bottle of high end whiskey to take back home. In the evening, we are treated to yet another small show – this time right outside our hotel. At dinner, we discover the true reach of  the Gujarati-

 

Aabhar

 

 

 

 

The Global Seed Vault

December 21, 2015

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Photos Courtesy Rahul Pagey

The first thing we do when we get off  the plane is to get directions to the police station. At this time of the year, only 6 taxi are operational in Longyearbyen, so the shuttle bus agrees to drop us off. RP continues to the hotel with our luggage. The police station has a sign asking us to leave our shoes outside. We see others walking in nonchalantly leaving their coats and boots in a room to the side and follow suit taking care to discreetly hide ours. Inside we find out that the person authorized to give us new visas is out on account of the avalanche . There had been an avalanche just the previous day. The friendly man we spoke to assured us there was that there was nothing to worry, and to come back the next morning.He even called us a taxi. With no other option, we left, after explaining how  we were flying back to Oslo the day-after and how critical it was for us to get the visa tomorrow.

On the way to the hotel, knowing how my heart (and his too) was set on seeing a polar bear, the husband asked the taxi driver if any polar bears had been seen in the vicinity. “No.. but if one were to come, the police will be there instantly and take care.” “So, they can be seen here?”, the husband persists. ” They could, on occasion, come down the slope, but the police  secure the area immediately. ” ..but they can be seen here?” The taxi driver finally gets the husband’s drift. ” You wouldn’t  want to see them here. They are dangerous. “, he says gravely. “They have killed in the past and will kill again.” he continues.” You DON”T want to see them here.”

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We reach the Spitsbergen hotel. Here we find out, it’s Svalbardian culture to leave shoes outside. There is a board that says so and an antechamber with cubby holes filled with boots. Inside we sign up for what we think is the Northern Lights tour, but turns out to be a city tour. It’s the same taxi and driver that brought us here. The driver assures us we will be going around the city and to the same place the Northern Lights tour goes. He has an app that shows we have a good chance of spotting the lights. The skies are clear to boot.Our driver points out landmarks and important buildings in the city –  the polar bear sign, the Governor’s office, the police station, the church, Santa’s post box…. The avalanche prevents us from going too far out, but we go as far as our driver dared. As we paused to look down at the dog kennels, we looked up to see if we could spot the Lights, but no luck.

We drive further to the Global Seed Vault. The Seed Bank was established in 2008 and is fully funded by the Norwegian government. Also known as the “Doomsday Vault,” this seed bank contains a seed of just about every known crop in the world. It is meant as a backup for crops, against catastrophes. 300 kilometers beyond the Arctic Circle, embedded in the side of a mountain, the vault is considered to be perfectly located. The location is as remote as it can get, yet perfectly accessible. The area is geologically stable and has low humidity. The vault is well above sea level so safe from flooding and the permafrost offers a natural and cost effective fail-safe method to preserve the seeds. Recently, the first significant withdrawal was made from the vault. The conflict in Syria has forced  scientists at the Aleppo gene bank to abandon their research  there. With the situation in Syria showing no signs of improvement, the scientists have begun recovering their inventory  from the vault and resuming their research at new facilities in Lebanon and Morocco.

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Svalbard Reindeer (Photo Courtesy Rahul Pagey)

 We wait here for a while, hoping the lights would show up, and when they don’t we turn back to the hotel. On the way back we spot Arctic reindeer, a breed that is only found in Svalbard. These reindeer are smaller and tougher than the ones we petted in Tromso. If one we to bring the Tromso reindeer to Svalbard, they wouldn’t survive the harsh climate.

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Funken Hotel

The hotel has a history of its own. Situated on a hill-top at the far end of the town, it  commands a spectacular view. It was built in 1947 as a mess for white-collared employees, living quarters for unmarried office personal and official residence of the Store Norske Spitsbergen Kulkompani als., a mining company. Funktionær is Norwegian for white-collar worker and so the hotel is locally known as ‘Funken’. In 1985, the last employee moved out, and the building became a guest house of sorts for important travellers and guests. In 1989, the Spitsbergen Travel a/s is formed and in 1993 they purchase the building from the Store Norske  and in 1994 Funken becomes Funken Hotel. Over the years the hotel has been extended and renovated multiple times and today it is a full service hotel with 88 rooms.

Reaching Svalbard

December 21, 2015

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Photo Courtesy Rahul Pagey

Svalbard. I first came across this place while reading the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and the name has stuck in my head since. I came across it again while researching Norway and the Aurora Borealis and I knew I wanted to go there. Svalbard is the northernmost settlement in the world with a permanent civilian population. It sits in the  Arctic ocean, about midway between mainland Norway and the North Pole. Unless you’re a scientist or a researcher, this is the closest you can get to the North Pole.There’s only one flight a day to and from Oslo, and if that got cancelled for weather or other reasons, all our careful planning would go for a wild toss, but to tell the truth, we were all quite excited about it.

This time we’ve triple checked our tickets and make it to the airport well in time for our flight. Past security, one level down, we join a queue to two doors leading to what we assume is the waiting area at the boarding gate, but is infact the boarding gate. There are two booths before the doors. When it’s our turn, the husband hands over our passports – mine first. The man looks at it and asks me to please step aside, to the other line. My passport is riddled with issues that demand a post or two of their own, so the husband hands me my passport with a look that’s a mix of AGAIN!!!, I am leaving you here and going,  and why don’t you just get the darned thing fixed? Then the man hands him his passport and motions him to step aside too. “Me too?, the husband asks incredulously. I am quite besides myself with glee. By the time he joins the line, I’ve figured out what’s wrong. “Where is your return flight from?” the lady on the other side of the box asks. ” Oslo.” “You’ll need a Schengen  visa to go Oslo.” “It’s right here.” I reach for the passport, but before I can take it she patiently explains,” This is a single entry visa. Svalbard is not part of Schengen.When you go there, you will be leaving the Schengen region and will  need a new Schengen to return to Oslo.”  But wait…”Svalbard is a part of Norway, isn’t it?”We’re not leaving the country, so why do we need a new visa to re-enter. How can we re-enter when we are not leaving? Turns out Svalbard is (as the husband puts it) the Kashmir of Norway -the northern most region, mountainous, gorgeous and has special status.

Unlike the rest of Norway (including Jan Mayen), Svalbard is a free economic zone, a demilitarized zone, and is not part of the Schengen Area nor the European Economic Area. All citizens and all companies of every nation under the Svalbard treaty are allowed to become residents and to have access to Svalbard including the right to fish, hunt or undertake any kind of maritime, industrial, mining or trade activity. The residents of Svalbard must follow Norwegian law though Norwegian authority cannot discriminate against or favor any residents of any given nationality.

Aaha!! By now RP has joined our queue, but when he shows her his EU temporary residence permit, she clears him to go. What about us? “When you reach Svalbard, go to the local police station. They’ll give you a new visa. There won’t be a problem.”

 

 

Dashing Through the Snow

December 20, 2015

We did get a glimpse at the Aurora Borealis last night, but it was just a glimpse. The clouds parted just enough for us to say we saw it, nothing more. Not ones to give up easily, we’ve booked an evening dog sledding experience with Lyngsfjord Adventures.  I am adamant about choosing a company that allows participants to mush. We are going to be driven to Vass valley, which is an hour and a half or so away from Tromso. If the Northern Lights are to be seen, this is as good a place as any.The husband cannot understand why wouldn’t all companies allow let you do it, if one company does.RP  is desperately trying to reconcile us. What is mushing? I’ll come to that soon.  

IMG_9769We meet the bus at the 5:00 p.m. outside the Ishavshotel.   There’s not a star to be seen in the skies. It is pointless going chasing the lights today. As we take our seats, we silently hope the clouds decide to take a break and we see more action than we’ve paid for.  When we reach Camp Tomak, where we are given thermal suits and boots. Our bus load is split into smaller groups and assigned guides. Our guides lead us past the kennels to the sleds. Here we are given a short briefing on how to mush or drive the dog sleds. Each sled is to pulled by a team of five huskies. Each sled is to have one driver and one passenger, with opportunity to switch places half way. The instructions are very simple, press down on the break to slow or stop and lift the break to go. Sometime when you come to a complete stop, you need to give the sled a slight push or pump the ground like you are on a skateboard or a scooter to let the dogs know it’s time to go. The sled has no reins and there’s no way for us to direct the dogs left or right. Our guide assures us that’s not needed because the dogs are all trained to follow the lead team and she would be guiding that team.

DSC_4559Our guide is assigned us, and a group of six women. It turns out only one of those six wanted to be a musher, the rest were happy to be passengers. Our guide asks if one of us would be willing to mush for one them. The husband gallantly volunteers, leaving RP once again as my partner. Once the ladies have all been found mushers in other teams, we set off. Our guide is in the lead, followed by the husband and we are in the rear. RP is mushing first. I have never been sledding and don’t know anything about sled construction, but a dog sled seems more suited for carrying cargo than passengers. There’s no seat belt or  bar in front to hold on to. I’m nervous at first, but our guide sets a very easy pace and I quickly settle down.

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As we make our way through the valley, the only word that comes to my mind is dilfareb. I don’t know if this word even has an English equivalent. Literally translated it means something that can trick the heart and make you fall in love –  truly, madly, deeply. Alluring, enticing, mesmerizing would all come close enough, but none would completely capture the essence of the word. Mountains rise gracefully from the valley floor and ring it like indulgent big brothers. The white landscape is broken only by sled tracks. Had there been a moon, the light would have transformed this seemingly ordinary scene into something ethereal – pure, unattainable and worthy of worship. The kind of scene that would want make you throw back you head and howl like the lone wolf, perhaps with the lone wolf.

IMG_9799At mid point we take a short break, set off again. This time I am mushing. This is not hard at all. My dogs are rearing to go, but the husband’s team is too slow for us. My dogs are soon at his feet and I’m getting dirty looks.  I keep one foot on the break to keep my team the stipulated three meters behind his. Sometimes we stop. The snow deep and is starting to ice. Breaking is easy enough, but lifting the break pedal out is harder. I get off the sled, to give it a little push. The dogs are quick to pick up the signal and go dashing through the snow.Then next thing, RP is shouting for me to break, “Vidya, break. BREAK!!”The dogs are at the husband’s heels now and he’s yelling too,”STOP! BREAK!!” How could I? They didn’t know it, but I wasn’t even on the sled. The dogs took off without me. Our guide hears the commotion and races to the rescue. She stops her team, topples her sled over and runs towards us through  knee high snow. The lead pair of my team by now are getting into a fight with the rear pair of the husband’s team. She grabs the  dogs  by the mussel and smacks them into obedience.

All mushers have been given headlamps. Later RP tells me, he didn’t realize I was not on the sled, since he could still see the light from the headlamp. Ofcourse he could! I was still behind him, just not no the sled! I’m back on the sled and the remainder our 15 km round trip is smooth. The dogs now look back to me before they start running instead of depending on my signal. What is more, the guide even finds the lens cover we had dropped somewhere in the snow. We end the night with hot chocolate and a hot stew in a  lavvu (Sami  tent). We didn’t see the Aurora Borealis, but we did get more adventure than we signed up for.

 

 

Kaldfjord

December 20,2015

The tour companies don’t seem very optimistic about spotting the lights tonight, due to the cloud cover. Instead, we are going dog sledding this evening. If luck will have it, we may have a good sighting of the Aurora Borealis.

DSC_0136-001This leaves us with an entire day at our disposal to do as we please. We look up a few fjord photography tours and decide to DIY it. There is a bus that will take us to Kvaloya island. From there we need to take another bus to get to Ersfjord. We stop at the visitor’s center for more information on bus timings and directions.”Everyone seems to be headed there today”, the lady at the visitor center informs us. “You’ll are the third set of people asking for the same direction since morning.” They have just opened, so that does say something if not a lot. She proceeds to give us directions to Kaldfjord. We would need to take a bus to Kvaloya island and from the bus stop, we could either walk or hitchhike.” There a a lot of whales this year.” ,she gushes. “It’s a big thing for the locals too. Many of them will be headed that way to see the whales. You can try to hitch a ride.”

DSC_0138We are not sure if we have understood correctly. “Can we see the whales from the shore, or do we have to book a safari at Kaldfjord?” “Oh no no.. you can see them from the shore.” The lenses on our camera are not right for this new plan and the next bus is after 30 mins, so we head back to the hotel and grab our zoom lenses. When we get to Kaldfjord, literally translated as cold fjord, I want to hitchhike, the boys want to walk. By time we resolve our dispute, we’ve reached the waterfront. As we walk along the scenic shoreline, we ask passing joggers about the best spot for spotting the leviathans. One shakes her head regretfully and says usually they can be seen all along the coast but she hasn’t seen them at all today.Just then an Asian couple comes up behind her and says they’ve seen whales five minutes away. It’s amazing how easily distance can be measured in units of time.

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Photo Courtesy – Ganesh Sankaran

To our absolute delight, we see pair of whales frolicking in the distance. We chase after them up and down the shore. Soon it’s time we head back so that we don’t miss our evening adventure. We walk back to the bus stop. When the bus arrives, it is the same driver who dropped us off.

We were completely prepared to drop whale watching from our itinerary since the tour times were not fitting in with our plans, but this worked out to be much better. Taking public transport and walking around  has made the experience so much more real.

The Chase

December 19, 2015

The sky is a little clearer than it was yesterday. Today’s tour has not been cancelled and we take hope from that. It’s a six hour trip.  Arctic Guide Services is going to be drive an hour and a half or so outside Tromso, and from there we start our chase. Our guide sets all of us to the task of looking out for stars. Our first spot was occupied by a rival tour, so we drive a little further. We get out of the bus and fumble to set our cameras on our tripods and get our settings right in the cold dark night. Our guide is very particular that we use headlamps and torches discreetly and sparingly so as to cause minimum light pollution. Lesson learnt, step into the bus to set up. Ofcourse no one wants to do that and miss even a second of  the celestial spectacle  we were all looking forward to. Alas, there was naught to be seen.  We drive further. There is a tour at our next spot as well, but these are a sister tour so we join them.

DSC_0088This time we have wisely set up our cameras inside the bus. I never took mine off when we got back in at the last stop. The parking lot is slick with ice. Our guide advises us to take penguin steps, so we shuffle along till we reach the snow. As I try to make my way down the little slope, camera, tripod, et all, RP shouts, “I saw it. I saw it. There is is.” I scan the skies but see little more than a hopeless smudge. Everyone starts clicking furiously. Few are lucky enough to capture it. From here we drive further north and stop close to the Finnish border. Our guide leads us down a small path cleared through thigh high snow. It is pitch dark and impossible to see without her headlamp. Her co-guide is leading the way and is a good 50 meters or so ahead of the group. He suddenly stops and hollers out to her. He thinks he’s seen an arctic fox. Before anyone else could catch up, the owner of the eyes he had seen shining in the snow had vanished, preferring to observe us hidden.

DSC_0114We hung around and scanned the skies. We couldn’t see any lights with our naked eyes, but amazingly a smudge showed up in one of my pictures. It wasn’t even a picture I was taking of the sky. I was taking a picture of the husband and RP taking pictures and they got photobombed.

We were the last to get back to the bus. Our guide was handing out cookies and hot chocolate. On realizing he had dropped a glove, the husband and RP went back into the dark to look for it and surprisingly found it. It’s time to head back. It’s heartbreaking to have come all this way and not seeing the Aurora Borealis in all it’s glory. From the little that we could catch, it seems like the lights had put on quite a show but it was not in our luck to see it. Even so, we did get a glimpse and a picture not just of the lights but with the lights. It is an experience to be cherished.

Of Reindeer and Snow Mobiles

December 19, 2015

“We’re late!We’re late!We’re late!”

RP has gone ahead to hold the bus. Much to the husband’s consternation, I’m packing breakfast at the buffet.We walk, run, skid and our to the waiting bus and off we go. Arctic Guide Services is going to be drive an hour and a half or so outside Tromso to a place where we can see and pet reindeer and go snow mobiling. We doze past soaring mountains and icy fjords. Occasionally we open our eyes to marvel the beauty that surrounds us. Each time I open my eyes, I wonder how I can bring myself to shut them but the flesh is weak.

When we reach our destination, we are greeted by our Sami guide. He directs us to a little building where we change into the thermal suits provided by Arctic Adventures. The husband cannot find a helmet that fits so he is asked to ride with the guide, while RP gets me and more adventure than he bargained for.

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The first part of our ride is pretty smooth. We ride out to where the reindeer are. The reindeer are part of a herd that belongs to our Sami guide.  The Sami are the original inhabitants of northern Scandinavia, spread out over four different countries: Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Russia’s Kola peninsula. Like most indigenous people, they have suffered discrimination and proselytizing and as a result their numbers have been considerably decimated. Today, to qualify as a Sami, a person must have atleast one Sami grandparent.  There are around 30,000 Sami in Norway , out of which only 2 -3 % of the Sami people still follow their traditional occupation of reindeer herding. In Norway, the Sami now have their own parliament which promotes political initiatives and manages missions and laws delegated to them by national authorities.

DSC_0039It is considered rude to ask a Sami man how many reindeer he owns. Honestly, it never even occurred to me to ask him that. Reindeer are like small donkeys with enormous antlers. After we pet and feed the them, we set off once more on our snow mobiles. When we get to a flat patch of snow, our guide demonstrates what a snow mobile can really do.  Each person gets a turn to sit behind him, while he flies past the rest.

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Photo Courtesy – Ganesh Sankaran

Now it’s time to change drivers.  I start the machine and here we go. Okay this is not so hard. Eeeasy. Now turn a little – use your body. “Turn the handle.” Huh! “The handle”, RP shouts in my ear.  I’m trying, but it’s stuck. This is hard. The snow mobile is not a toy. It takes considerable arm strength to turn it. You can’t use your weight, like I do on a motorbike. In fact you need to turn one way and throw your bodyweight the other way, to keep the mobile for toppling. It’s not that hard, but it takes some getting used to and you need to be a little strong. I struggle along, and bump into a tree. Tree, mobile, riders are all unharmed.After this, I somehow get the hang of it. Up, down, right, left and  back to the reindeer  herd. This is the scary part. Anyone with road experience in India knows not to trust cattle. Thankfully, the reindeer decide to keep out of my way and I park.

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We enter the little cabin and find ourselves in a Sami home of the yore. We are offered hot chocolate, cookies and a hot meal. While we munch ans slurp, we are educated on the ways of the Sami. Traditionally, the Sami lived in a community of families called a siida.  The menfolk went herding, hunting, trapping, and fishing, while the women stayed back to tend to domestic chores like cooking and stitching.The reindeer-herding Sami were traditionally semi nomadic. They maintained a permanent dwelling in the valley and spent the summer living in tents in the hills.Their permanent homes were either frame buildings or sod huts. The Sami tent or lavvo  is  in conical in shape. It has a circular framework of poles leaning inward  and a floor of birch twigs covered with layers of reindeer fur. Both tents and huts are arranged around a central fire. In the days long gone, the Sami followed a shamanistic religion. Now most follow Christianity.  Some Sami still wear the group’s brightly colored traditional clothing with distinctive bands of bright red and yellow patterns against a deep blue background of wool or felt. Their traditional shoes are hand stitched from reindeer hide and fur and most ingenuous.

It’s time to head back. In a few hours, we will set out to see the Aurora Borealis.

Tromso – Above the Arctic Circle

December 18, 2016

Green and pink dreams morph into orange and green; this must be the most cheery breakfast room I’ve eaten in. We take a cab to the train station and then a train to the airport. RP’s is on the flight after ours, but he decides to come with us anyway, because you never know with airports. We are flying SAS this time. We have to check ourselves in, get baggage tags from the kiosk and check our bags in ourselves as well. RP’s done with his, but our tickets just won’t read. Then RP says “Hey, I’m not on the next flight. My flight’s at 11:45.” The husband is sure that’s not possible. He is positive that RP is flight is after ours. Since RP has his boarding card, with the time printed on it in his hand, it can mean only one thing. We missed our flight.

I can’t say if it was the holiday spirit or the lipstick magic or if it really just our lucky day as the customer service agent put it, SAS accommodated us on the another flight free of charge.

“Everything is AWESOME!!”

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We reach Tromso close to four in the afternoon. It’s dark as midnight. We check-in at the Thon Polar and head out to look for tours. The Northern Lights tours are cancelled due to cloudy skies. There is no availability for dog sledding and it’s too cold to go whale watching. What do we do? We go get pizza at Pepe’s. This seems to be a popular option; we see it everywhere. At $16 a pizza it sure is expensive and no way gourmet, but it’s good and we are on vacation. Some food, some wine and some research cools my irate mind. We will go reindeer petting and try our hands at riding snow mobiles tomorrow. Tomorrow night, weather willing, we will go chase those lights out. We have found a company that still has spots open for dog sledding the day after and tonight – tonight we are going for what promises to be a mesmerizing midnight mass at the Arctic Cathedral.

“Everything is AWESOME!!”

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We take a bus to the cathedral and are there a little before midnight.  Architect Jan Inge Hovig’s masterpiece is unlike any church or cathedral I have seen before. The form seems to mimic the majestic mountains in the background. In front, the tiny city of Tromso flickers across the water. We are awed. We pick our way up the slippery slope, expecting  to be swept away by moving Norwegian folk songs and traditional hymns in a sublime candlelight atmosphere. We try the door. It is locked. We knock and we try again with no avail. After a quick round of consultation we shuffle around to the back. Here we meet the artist Victor Sparre’s interpretation of the building’s soul – a  fantastic glass mosaic depicting his vision of the return of Christ. There seems to be no activity anywhere in or around the cathedral. Another quick consultation, this time with google shows us that the midnight concert happened at eight p.m. We are disappointed, but the views from up here some what make up for it. We decide to walk across the bridge, back to our hotel. A midnight walk over the Arctic Ocean -what a way to end the day!

“Everything is AWESOME!!”

 

An evening in Oslo


December 16 and 17, 2015

I have packed all that need. The house has been tidied. The fridge and pantry stocked up for the family. Keys and instructions been given. Paper submitted. Each item triple checked. I fly to Tromso this evening. Everything is going so smoothly, it seems unreal. I’m sure I’m missing something important, but I’m not. I make it to JFK (airport) without a glitch. I have allowed for more time than the husband deemed required. I am at the correct terminal. I have my passport and what the husband said was my boarding card. This is where I think I willed a potential nightmare in. The security line is winding all the way to the back of the terminal. Some people are nervous fliers, I’m a nervous boarder. A lifetime of missed trains and planes has left me with acute boarding anxiety. I ask someone to hold my place, while I try to find a boarding agent to help me jump the queue. When I find an agent, she tells me what I have on the airline app is not my boarding card and I need to get into line to first get a boarding card. I look at the looong line and she looks at me; she asks me to join the relatively short premier customer line.  When I am finally handed my boarding card, I ask the boarder if there is any way she can get me past security in time for my flight. She smiles and points to the long line I had skipped and says, “A lot of these people in line are waiting to board the same flight. You’ll make it.”  In the meanwhile, my place holder seems to have gone so far ahead, that I can no longer spot him. I make it to the flight with 4 minutes to spare for boarding.

 We flew Norwegian. Since the husband handled all the logistics, I didn’t know till I boarded that this is a low cost, no frills airlines. What that means is you pay for each additional service like food, blankets and even headphones. I have a stopover at Stockholm and since there are no clear signs or people to give any directions, I am quite lost about how to get to my connecting flight.  I make it to and past immigration and to Oslo. At Oslo, I walk straight out, without having to clear immigration or customs.  I am genuinely surprised and so is the lady at the tourist information centre, till we realize I was in Schengen zone and I had already cleared immigration at Stockholm. Smooth! Now, a train to the city centre. I’m not sure if I should use my card to buy a ticket, so I change some money. Did I mention, the train station and trains have FREE WiFi? When I get off at my station, I pull up the hotel address and the husband’s directions “It’s a very short walk from the station. I took a cab and got ripped off” Okay.. I put Hotel Thon Munch in my google maps and start walking.  Since the husband took a cab here’s what he didn’t realize – a. the cobblestone sidewalks of Oslo are not meant for stroller bags. b. there’s ice on the sidewalks which makes them slippery and grit thrown in to keep people from slipping, both of which add to the challenge. Low battery alert on phone. Low battery alert on phone. Dead. Thankfully a helpful stranger points me in the right direction.

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The big plan for the evening is to go to a Christmas Market, get dinner and attend a Christmas concert by the Oslo Symphony. The Christmas market is tiny compared to the holiday markets of NYC, but it is charming nevertheless.  It has a little fire place, a talking reindeer head, an ice skating rink and a Ferris wheel.  I try the glogg, which tastes like spiced apple cider. Since it was being sold in a Christmas market it had no alcohol I guess, but it warmed me up all the same. We return to the hotel to pick up RP and then all of us head to the concert hall. We eat some surprisingly good deli fare as we walk to our destination.

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Photo Courtesy – Ganesh Sankaran

We are late, but in time to sneak in during applause. The programme includes folk melodies, classics and show pieces. The music was soothing enough to lull a baby to sleep. It wraps around us like a cocoon. Music has no language, but the concert is presented in Norwegian.  Herborg Kråkevik sings most hauntingly. We do not understand a word of what is spoken or sung, but the concert touch a chord. The highlight of the evening was Tine Thing Helseth’s trumpet solo. It transports me to the world of dreams. Dreams filled with sonorous sounds and multi coloured lights dancing across starry skies. Perhaps tomorrow this dream will come true.

 

The Boreal Dream

Sometime in Fall 2015

 

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Every person I know has the Northern Lights on their bucket list and we are no different. The husband has a chunk of leave to take before year end and is badgering me about taking it around Thanksgiving. My work and school schedule clash badly and that is not possible, so I push it out to winter break. Here’s the problem – every warm place is as expensive as Mars and there’s no point going to someplace cold from someplace cold. He sulks. I suggest the Northern Lights. I suggest it just to make things brighter, but he lights up.  Next thing I know is, he has finger paused on “book tickets” and I’m being pressurised to commit to travel dates. This is crazy. I have always dreamt of going to Finland, seeing the Aurora Borealis and meeting Santa because everyone knows Santa lives in Finland. The husband has something different in mind. Somehow the tickets are way cheaper to the destination of his choice and that’s where we are going, provided my leave gets approved and we get our visas. Luck is on our side. Everything falls in place.We even manage to coordinate dates and tickets so that the family is here when we get back, making it a super Christmas and an extended holiday.

 

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Rahul Pagey aka RP

The husband’s friend (RP) will be joining us in Oslo, from where we begin our great Scandinavian adventure. Thanks to my massive bungling in dates, the husband will now be reaching Oslo one day before I do. Since it’s winter, there is only so much that can be done and I want to do it all. I make grand plans and the men coordinate. We decide to drop the Bergen Rail ride from Oslo to Bergen in favour of an extra day to chase the lights, but we squeeze in Svalbard, the closest you can get to the north pole.

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Someday my Dream will come True

The final plan has a Christmas Market, a concert, a Viking Museum, an art gallery, a sculpture park, dog sledding, snowmobiling, snowshoeing, polar bear spotting, aurora chasing, reindeer petting, polar nights and eating in  a Sami tent. I can’t wait to get there.

 

Half the Story

We are back in the new year with a new name. When I started this blog, I couldn’t think of a name I liked enough so I decided to keep it plain and simple. It took me two years to come up with two titles I loved. After a lot of mental debate, I finally zeroed in on “Half the Story”. I’m not telling what the other title was, though there is a hint hidden somewhere in here.

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Photo Courtesy – Ganesh Sankaran

What’s the story behind “Half the Story”? Well, one beautiful morning it suddenly dawned on me that everything that I record here is just my version of what happened – my half so to speak. If the husband had to tell the story it might sound different. Then there are all the other versions – the friends we travel with, the strangers we meet. I have an active imagination and I picturize everything as I read. Sometimes I even reimagine movies. This means there is also a reader interpretation of these stories that floats around in your heads. Lastly, there are all those little bits that I leave out in an effort to keep a tight storyline. So what you read here is really only half the story.

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Photo Courtesy – Ganesh Sankaran

Leave me a comment to let me know what you think of “Half the Story” – the title and the blog. I love hearing from you.

Here’s wishing all of you a very joyous and prosperous 2016.

P.S – Keep reading, we have plenty of exciting posts coming up

 

 

2015 – Recap

ice hotel1We started 2015, freezing our toes in Montreal and Quebec. Both cities are perfect summer destinations, but winter has its own charm! Next we stopped over at Istanbul on our way to India. London was our first choice, but Turkish Airways offered us such a sweet deal that we had to take it. As much as we would have loved to see more of Turkey – Cappadocia, Pamukkale; we had just about  enough time to cover Istanbul – one city; two continents. Shortly after landing in India, we rushed off to Kutch for a spot of bird watching, and to enjoy the white expanse of the salt flats under an almost full moon.

Vermont -Leaf Peeping1Back in the United States, summer started in the mountains of Maine and ended on the beaches of Cape Cod. Every weekend in between was spent grilling and chilling. We managed to squeeze some kayaking, row boating, hiking, wine tasting and two camping trips including our camping debut before we went leaf peeping in Vermont. We saw bears (and elk, and other wildlife) in the Great Smoky Mountains. We ate soul food in Charlotte. We learnt to fly an airplane. Summer saw the bestie take over the house for a few days and the husband’s bestie make himself at home. Fall was little slow as the husband was upto to his eyeballs  preparing for a competitive exam. By the time he got done, I was swamped with work stuff, school and project work. No complaints; we had our grand finale trip coming up in December. December saw us in Norway chasing the Northern Lights in Tromso and  finding them in Svalbard. We missed the polar bears, but we experienced the  unending polar night. When we came back we had family waiting for us. A darling friend made us Christmas sweets because we couldn’t find the ones we grew up with in the market. Nosiest, craziest, BEST Christmas EVER!!

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Svalbard – Polar days, Polar Nights and the Aurora Borealis

In other news, I kept my word about publishing one post every week. I even got published in the Cape Cod Daily. Thank you 2015, you’ve been simply spectacular! Thank you everyone for following along!

 

“I’m sharing my #TalesOf2015 with BlogAdda.”

Ahmedabad – The Night Food Market

April 2013

ahmedabad2At the end of the heritage walk, I took an autorickshaw back to The MG House. My *rickshawala recommended I get dinner at the nightly food market at Manek Chowk. Following his advise, I returned my audio-guide/walkman and took another *rickshaw straight to Manek Chowk. When I got there, the day stalls had packed up, hustle bustle of the (day) market had died down and the place looked deserted. I wondered if I had come to the right place. I asked a lone foodcart. “Just wait and watch.”, he laughed enigmatically. Sure enough, right in front of my eyes, the place began to transform. The day stalls were moved. Shop fronts morphed into street kitchens. Fires were lit, electric lights strung and lit, tables and chairs were set out; clang clang! bang bang! sizzle, smoke and the transformation was complete.

ahmedabad3The tantalizing aroma of street food filled the air. At first I was the only one there. I sat down and ordered a pav bhaji. Slowly, people started to trickle in and before I could finish eating the place was buzzing with life.

*autowala/rickshawala – auto-rickshaw driver

Ahmedabad – Walking Tour

April 2013

DSC_0278 Finally I reached The House of MG, the starting point of my heritage walk. The House turns out to be a heritage property converted into a contemporary hotel. MG is Mangaldas Girdhardas, a 20th century leading businessman and philanthropist who started his career as a storekeeper in a textile mill and from there built an empire mills and other related businesses. I collected my walkman/audio-guide and headphones from the front desk and set forth with all the confidence of Amelia Earhart.

ahmedabad4The first location was very easy to find, since it was right across the road.It is said that the Nawab of Junagad once went to Africa and there he fell in love with a woman. He married her and brought her back, along with thousands of slaves.Eventually  a number of them rose to positions of power and influence in the 16th century. One of them, Shaik Said al-Habshi Sultani built this mosque, which is now known by his name. The Sidi Saiyad Mosque is famous for its magnificent, delicate stone carving of the ‘tree of life’ motif  jali, or lattice-work.

ahmedabad5I walked round this lovely building and finally spot the pink facade of the The Ahmedabad Electricity Company – or AEC Tower Art Deco building. I followed the audio instructions and started walking towards Bhadra Fort. A few wrong turns later I found myself at the street market that has sprawled along the external wall of the fort.  It is believed the fort adopted the name Bhadra after a temple dedicated to Bhadra Kali housed inside.It is also said that the place called the Bhadra after an ancient Rajput citadel of that name at Anhilwada-Patan (Baroda State), which the first three kings of  Sultans of Gujarat had held before Ahmedabad became the capital. Sarsenapati Umabaisaheb Khanderao Dabhade  the only woman Commander-in-Chief  of the Marathas  fought a war and defeated Mughal Sardar Joravar Khan Babi at this very fort! The audio instructions were confusing and there are no big boards or prominent plaques to indicate historical structures. I walked out of another exit, somehow made a circle and found myself back at the fort.

ahmedabad6I had started getting a bit of unwanted attention. A tiny girl, with a big camera and a walkman, looking around confusedly , walking in circles – what else could I expect! I made another brave attempt to find my way. Soon I realized that I was not seeing things in the order listed on the audio, but there were all there. I was not lost, I was just finding a different way.The day is hot and the ice cold nimbu sherbet I had from a street cart only made me thirstier. I finally spotted the statue of Sri Chinubhai M. Ranchodlal, the first Baronet of city, the man who introduced pipes to carry water to each home and also laid gutter lines in the city, only that the green oasis supposed to be surrounding it is now a mass of broken concrete pavement, cordoned off for safety. After this, I was back on track with the audio guide. We walked to Teen Darvaja.During the reign of Badshah Ahmad Shah, these gates would close at sunset and open only at the next day at sunrise. The story here is that  once, Laxmi, the Goddess of Wealth, entered the city and by the time she wanted to leave, the sun had set and the gates had closed. The *kotwal at the gate, Khwaja Siddique begged her not to leave fort until he obtained permission from the king. The Goddess obliged. He then went to the king and beheaded himself. People say that from then till now Goddess is waiting for the kotwal and his sacrifice has ensured that  prosperity would never leave the city of Ahmadabad. Adding to the lore, there is a lamp at Teen Darwaza  that has been kept burning continuously for more than six hundred years (by a Muslim family).

ahmedabad7I made my way through the market at reached the Jami Masjid just in time for evening prayers. I took my shoes off at the entrance and went in. It is only when I stepped in that I had never been inside a functional mosque at prayer time before. The last time I went inside a functional mosque was last year in Srinagar, but there was no one else there except us and our guides. For a few seconds I was intimidated, but no one said a thing. I don’t think anyone even noticed me and my camera. They just went about their ablutions and prayers in the most routine fashion and slowly my confidence returned. When I switched my audio guide back on, it said I was to leave from a different exit. Problem – shoes? I simply picked them up in my hand and walked across the courtyard like I saw some others do. When I got out, I put them back on. At the back were goats, and little boys playing cricket, and also the tombs of Badshah Ahmed Shah and his queens. I somehow spotted the Old Stock Exchange. The audio-guide took me inside Mangaldas Market. Colourful traditional outfits and dry fruits and spices galore, this bustling market seemed to be the perfect place to do some gift shopping,except I had no time for that. I still had a few more points to cover on my walk and the day was rapidly coming to an end.

ahmedabad8I followed my audio guide into muhurat pol or the first pol. A pol is a housing cluster which comprises many families.  A typical pol has one main street, with crooked lanes branching on either side, and only one or two entrances( with sometimes secret entrances known only to residents). These entrances are closed at night to safeguard against thieves. The facades and brackets of the wood and brick havelis are decorated with richly carved wood ornaments. I walked through the first pol and reached  a Jain temple.This meant I was close to the second pol, and sure enough, a few steps later I was at its gate. I backtracked, vainly looking for Harkunvar Shethani’s haveli. Unable to find it, I decided to explore the Jain temple instead. By now my throat was parched, so I entered a shop and requested the shopkeeper for some water and gulped it down in great big swallows. From the Jain temple, I followed the audio guide down some stairs and up some stairs and found myself totally lost. Just as I was about to give up and skip the rest of the walk, I miraculously found myself back in the pols.

ahmedabad9As I went up and down the pol now looking for Bholanath Divetia’s haveli, I saw a small plaque by a richly carved house that I must have walked past twice.  This turned out to be Harkunvar Shethani’s haveli – the house I was looking for earlier.  Harkunvar Shethani was the wife of a noted wealthy merchant, Seth Hatheesing Kesarisingh. She was a religious lady, and a philanthropist and social reformer in her own right. Way back in 1850 AD when talks of women’s education still raised eyebrows, she built  Maganlal Karamchand Girl’s School, the first institution of its kind in Ahmedabad. Her house is an outstanding example of architecture and wood carving. Bholanath Sarabhai Divetia, on the other hand was Gujarati poet and religious reformer.He was born in orthodox  Hindu family and believed in idol worship but adopted belief in formless god. He founded Prarthnasamaj and Dharmasabha for religious reform.

ahmedabad10I continued down the narrow path dotted with old havelis and possibly past Bholanath Divetia’s haveli and reached a cul-de-sac of small modern buildings. The old women, enjoying their evening gossip were quite surprised to suddenly find a stranger in their midst. A young girl however correctly informed them that I was probably on the heritage walk. I confirmed this.

I chatted a bit, said my goodbyes and hurried on. Not having the time or the inclination to walk back, I took an autorickshaw back to The House of MG.

Ahmedabad – Sabarmati Ashram

 

April 2013

DSC_0274My driver helpfully got me a confirmed ticket on the train from Ahmedabad to Bombay. He has also most helpfully advised me to take the bus from Junagadh to Ahmedabad, as opposed to driving down through Rajkot as I originally proposed. On the bus, I made a new friend and saw Saheb Biwi aur Gangster Returns. It was a pleasant diversion as any, nevermind that I had not seen Saheb Biwi aur Gangster.  I wanted to hop off the bus somewhere along the highway and then take another bus from there to the Harappan excavation of Lothal and from there take a bus to Ahmedabad. My plan never materialized because my bus driver deemed it too risky and flatly refused to drop off a lone young woman at an isolated spot.

DSC_0241The first thing I did after getting off the bus was to lock my luggage and check it into the cloak room at the railway station. The old fashioned charm of the Indian railways! From the station I took a *sharing rickshaw to Sabarmati Ashram. “Bapu Ashram?” the possibly underage driver confirms and I nod my head. It was only when we were halfway in the wrong direction do we realize that he was talking about Asaram Bapu and I wanted to go to Gandhi Bapu’s ashram. It is quite telling of our times when Asaram Bapu gets more recognition than the Father of the Nation!

DSC_0236The flabbergasted **autowala dropped me off at another ***autostand with very specific instructions on how to get to my destination and the long and the short of it is that I somehow managed to get myself to Sabarmati Ashram. This ashram, on the banks of the river Sabarmati, was one of the residences of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi. The Father of the Nation (India) lived in this very ashram for around twelve years, with his wife and devoted lifelong companion, Kasturba Gandhi, and other followers. It was from here that Mahatma Gandhi led the historic Dandi March and defied the salt tax imposed by the British. This simple act led to large scale civil disobedience. Thousands of freedom fighters went to jail and subsequently the ashram was seized by the British. When Bapu set forth for Dandi, he vowed that he would not return to the ashram until India got independence, and return he did.

“De di hame aazadi bina khadag bina dhal

Sabarmati ke sant tune kar diya kamaal”

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The Ashram is remarkably quiet and clean. The museum at the ashram is designed by the very talented and highly respected architect, Charles Correa. Typical of his work, the design places special emphasis on local resources, energy and climate. The museum has a number of exhibits and personal artefacts chronicling the life of the Mahatma and the India’s struggle for independence. The charkha used by Gandhiji to spin khadi and the writing table he used for writing letters are a few national treasures one can see at the ashram. One can also peek into Hridaya Kunj, Gandhiji‘s own cottage in the ashram or if you choose to, pray where he used to pray.

DSC_0259Off late it seems to have become fashionable to run down this great man and his contributions, but he was a great leader and I am at the ashram because I believe in a lot of his values like non-violence, self-sufficiency, and secularism. I am no moderate liberal. I am a rabid secularist. The State has no religion, and the country comes before religion. Not before God, but before religion. Each person is entitled to their own interpretation of religion as long as it doesn’t harm another, so don’t force your beliefs down someone else’s throat. It is high time India has a uniform civil code. If your ideologies, personal faith or religion are not in line with the law – well, too bad. The law is the law, and you gotta follow it.

I also find that being assertive of your religion being confused with intolerance.  You can be a staunch (enter religion of your choice here) and as long as you respect another man’s right to do the same, you are not being intolerant. Similarly, you don’t have to be against other religions to keep your own faith. You can be religious and secular.Yes indeed it is possible! Gandhiji was a practising Hindu. He worshipped Hindu gods and even conducted mass prayer meetings, but he deeply respected all other religions too. So let’s celebrate our differences and all live in peace.

 

*sharing rickshaw – a rickshaw version of carpooling where all passengers pay a fixed amount

**autowala/rickshawala – auto-rickshaw driver

***auto stand – a place where passengers queue up for auto-rickshaws, much like a bus stand.

Junagadh – The New

April 2013

DSC_0025The main town of Junagadh is very different too. Junah – old, is the right word for it.  The houses, the clothing, the shops, the language; the old way of life continues here. Crumbly mansions with central courtyards, afternoon siestas, men in their huge red turbans and old ladies in backless cholis; frankly, I was quite taken in.

junaghad7The Darbar museum is a quaint old place with a suitably old caretaker in charge. The museum is not very elaborate but it allows you a glimpse into the life of the rulers of Junagadh.  This used to be the place where the last Nawab conducted his daily meetings – his darbar.  Don’t be surprised if the museum suddenly loses electricity, like it did when I was in the textile section. It adds to the experience and is part of the charm. The caretaker was as fussy as the old royals might have been, and insistent that I follow a particular path and not backtrack between rooms.

junaghad8As a child I loved the zoo, but as I grew up I realized they were not the place of happy memories I imagined them to me. They were places where animals were held in, often tiny, enclosures against their will. As an adult, I have been to some excellent zoo facilities like the San Diego zoo and the Singapore zoo, yet I thoroughly enjoyed the zoo at Junagadh.  Sakkarbaug Zoological Garden, also known as Sakkarbaug Zoo or Junagadh Zoo a 200-hectare (490-acre) zoo housing mostly big cats in big cages. They do have some other interesting exhibits, but the main draw is the big cats. Going by the standards of modern zoos, where the enclosures are spacious and mimic the natural habitat of the animal the house, this zoo should be immediately shut down. Yet, I feel this is one of the best zoos I’ve been to. The enclosures may be small, but they are clean, shady and there is water. They animals look fit and well cared for. They have the expression of royalty, resigned to their fate as prisoners. It brings you up and close with the animals, shows you magnificent they are, and makes you realize that they do not belong in these cages.

DSC_0155The other fun part at the zoo were the people. Couples, families, children – all happily posed for me. Not just that they even came up to me and asked for their picture to be taken. I wish I had some way to send those pictures to them!

Shhhh – I touched the underside/pad of a tiger’s foot.

Gir- The Forest

April 2013

The Gir forest is  unique in many ways.  It used to be the private hunting grounds of the Nawabs of Junagadh.  They initiated the protection of the forest and its lions. Today, Gir has been protected for more than a 100 years.

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It is the last home of the Asiatic Lions.The forest is also home to nomadic herdsmen, known as the Maldharis. There is plenty of conflict between the herdsmen and the lions, but by and large they co-exist.526533_10151583219862922_1135626172_nIt is early April. The landscape is brown, but the heat is not brutal. Dust does not rise as the jeep trundles along well worn tracks. Trees shade us from the gaze of the late afternoon sun. There is no breeze to rustle leaves and the forest is quiet. The silence of the forest is broken not by the chirping of birds but by the occasional, oddly harmonious toot of a train horn.  A train runs through the forest, neither bird nor beast, nor tree shows concern. The metallic snake with people peeping out of its belly, has made itself at home.

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Sleepyhead

 

Water in the reservoir of the Hiran river is low, but still blue as the sky above.  A few crocodiles bask on its banks. The harsh Indian summer is yet to set in. When it comes, the muddy reservoir will be a popular spot with both the thirsty inhabitants of the jungle and the eager tourist hordes that flock to see them. Today, we travel deeper in the hope of spotting true Nawabs of this land.

Every year tourists flock here to get a glimpse of the lions. Some are lucky, like me – I saw around 10-11 different lions, plus repeat sightings of some. Some are not so lucky and return home disheartened.

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Nilgai

The forest rangers’ strong focus on showing off the lions is partially responsible for the frustration of not seeing one. Gir is a forest diverse in flora and fauna. Unfortunately, none of this was pointed out to me. The ranger accompanying me was actually surprised when after seeing more than half a dozen lions the first day, I expressed my desire to go another safari the next day. Compare this with Bandhavgarh. At Bandhavgarh, we saw fewer tigers than we expected to. We were a little disappointed about that, but on the whole the trip was very fulfilling as the rangers introduced us to various other species of  plants, animals and birds.

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Gir could take a lesson or two from them.

The National Bird

The National Bird of India

Gir – The King; up and close

April 2013

Roar

We reached a dusty clearing close to sunset.  I was filled at once with awe and terror. The late sun has turned the clearing into a field of gold. Less than five feet away, basking in that golden light, was a full grown lion, looking every inch a sovereign. The light had turned his tawny skin into burnished gold. His great sinewy body was languidly stretched out under a thorny tree. He must have been a good six feet long. Under the calm exterior, I sensed a ruthless hunter; calculated and swift. This was no hotheaded prince, this was a king! A king whose exploits are so well know that he seldom needed to bestir himself and go accomplish anything anymore. The slight evening breeze ruffled his magnificent mane, as he deigned  to look at us –  petty humans; unworthy of his attention. It was easy to see now, why a group of lions is called a “pride”.

He yawned, as though only to display his ferocious maw.  His amber eyes shone as they catch the light and he squints, with the faintest sign of annoyance. We knew it is time to leave when a deep throaty rumble, reverberated through the clearing. The open jeep offered little protection against his might.My driver  laughed!!  I let the glorious forest of  Gir  and its royalty sink into me as we drove back to the jungles of man.

 

Gir – The day I startled a Lion

April 2013

How many people can truly claim to have startled a lion? Read on.The Gir forests are the last refuge of the Asian Lions. We had seen the majestic African Lions in Kenya last year. I was keen on seeing the Asian cousins. It seems rather strange, that even though I am was a resident Indian all my life, I should see the African kings before their Asian counterparts. I had always imagined it would be the other way round.

Marsh Crocodile at the reservoir

Marsh Crocodile at the reservoir

I reached Gir at around lunch time and checked into Sinh Sadan, a Government run guest house. This place used to be the hunting lodge of Kings of Junagad.

I was booked for an evening Safari. I was pleasantly to see that the ranger accompanying me  was a girl.  A  pleasant drive through the forest, took us to the reservoir created by damming the Hiran river. Taking in the panoramic views from the watch tower, we continued our quest to see the royal beasts.

A lioness feeds off the kill

A short while later we came across a lioness guarding a fresh kill. A cow had strayed from the settlement and had been brought down by a pride.  Knowing that the rest of the pride would be close, we decided to go look for them. At the turn, the driver slowed down to a stand still and whispered,” There he is…the LION”. I spun around, and at the same time the lion also turned towards us. I cannot tell you what it feels like, to turn around and find yourself staring into the face of a full grown lion, a few feet away from you, with no protective barrier in between. Believe me when I say this,  the lion was equally startled!!

As both of us regained our composure, he moved towards his group and we followed. A few more lionesses emerged from the thicket. Having already satiated their hunger, the eating session that followed was nothing like the feeding frenzy I had seen on TV. The beasts would go one at a time to the kill, grab a bite or two and return.

Edina! Scotia’s darling seat!

July 4, 2017

Day 4

Stansted is a very small airport. For such a small airport, they sure have crazy security procedures and a very long walk to the gates. Also, what’s with the carry-on bag sizes? It’s like the world of flying shrunk overnight. I feel ridiculously out of place with my regular sized carry-on. The husband is sent back to check his in. When he gets to the counter, he realizes he has no cash or card, because his wallet made it through the scanner and is with me on the other side of the security barrier! Finally, they just let him through with the bag. In all this, we make it to the gate just about in time to board our flight. A short nap later, we land in Edinburgh.

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“But Edinburgh is a mad god’s dream.”

-Hugh MacDiarmid

 The second leg of our adventure is about to begin and boy, are we excited about it! Excited and hungry. We head into town, check-in and almost immediately head out to grab lunch. I ask the girls on GirlsLoveTravel FB group for suggestions and reviews and ultimately head to pie maker. Now while two or three pies did fill me up, I would recommend this place more for a late afternoon/early evening snack.

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 Almost as soon as we step out, we see a hop on hop off tourist bus turning into the street. We happily hop on. We complete the entire loop, napping between the dignified old stone buildings on either side of narrow streets, before we hop off at the Edinburgh castle.

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Edinburgh Castle

We join the free tour and get a short lesson in Scottish history. We didn’t get to see the changing of the guard at Buckingham, but we were in time to see it here. Nothing as grand and elaborate, but it still was the changing of the guard ceremony. We explore the old castle a bit and head out into the Royal mile. Back on the bus, we weigh our options – the Queen was in residence at Holyrood palace and throwing a tea party, which we could see from the bus, so it was pointless hopping off there. We get off at the last stop and take public transport to the library. “Which one?” growls the driver. I don’t know! The driver on the other bus said I was to take this one and ask to be let off at the library. The nice ladies behind us offer to show us. There are two libraries in the city, but only one on this route.

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Elephant House Cafe

Edinburgh is  associated with many writers, philosophers, scientists and academics. The one I’m interested in now is J.K. Rowling. We get off at the library, but our destination is not the library, it’s the Elephant Café – the birthplace of Harry Potter (the series, not the character!). Having fulfilled my fan fantasy*, the husband asks, “What’s next?” We hop back on the tourist bus and head to the End of the World.

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There’s no table available, but we squeeze in at the bar. The husband gets his fish and chips (finally!) and beer. When he’s done, we head out in search for a battered Mars bar and dinner for me. The server at the Tavern lets me order even though the kitchen is closing down, only because the battered Mars bar is the only thing I want, and I suspect mainly because of the bump. Satisfied we head towards the Nepali-Indian restaurant for momos (dumplings). We even give up the free ghost tour only for the server to forget – forget to put in the momo order! I was soooo hangry!! Luckily for her, I had ordered an entrée while I was waiting. That, and the husband’s let it go demeanor are what keep me from creating a ruckus. It didn’t stop me though from giving the girl (and her manager) such dirty looks, that she refused to come out of the kitchen the whole time after that.

We walked back to the tram station/bus stop taking in the sights of this old city, letting its character seep into our memories.

 

*  My true fantasy was to meet J.K. Rowling there and have her autograph the Harry Potter series for me and my fanmily.

Tennis Treat – Wimbledon

July 3, 2017

Day 3

Wimbledon. Oh how I’ve dreamed of this day! I found this from a few years ago –

Go watch a Tennis Grand Slam match

With the American Open right around the corner. I might be able to check this off this year. Ideally, I’d like to go for the Wimbledon finals or the French Open, but hey a grand slam is a grand slam right? It would make it even special, if I could see Federer play. It would be like watching Sachin bat, except every time I’ve seen Sachin bat he never it past single digits, lower ones that too.”

Wimbledon

For years, it has been my fondest wish to see watch the Championship live (that or the French Open). Today, we are going to try our luck. Tickets to the Championships get a sold through a lottery system almost a year in advance. A small number of tickets can be bought online on the previous day, but they go fast too. Our best bet was to turn up early and hope to get a grounds pass.  Wimbledon is just a short train ride from London, so we hop on and make it there by around 8:00 a.m. Our number in the queue is eight thousand and something. Here’s where being pregnant worked wonderfully to our advantage. We didn’t get to cut the line, but we are seated comfortable in the “mobility” pavilion till our number was called, as opposed to waiting for five long hours in the heat, in a two-mile-long line.

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It is almost one o’clock (1 p.m.) by the time we get in. We head straight for Court 18, where we know Ferrer is playing Gasquet. After waiting almost an hour in line outside the court, taking turns to wander around and catch bits of other matches, we give up. In the meantime, I also find out that Roger Federer was practicing on Court 10 at around noon, meaning we just missed him. Heartbreak! After spending an hour futilely waiting to get into Court 18, we decide to get some lunch with strawberries and cream after which we have a big decision to make – do we stay or leave; if we stay do we head up to the hill to watch Federer play on a big screen or do we pick a court a watch (relatively?) unknown players play live. We decide to stay and watch a live game. We pick Harrison versus Coric and it turns out to be a very interesting game. Again, the bump gets me a seat. Later, the husband gets to sit too. The game is replete with good tennis and drama, with Harrison lashing out at the chair umpire for what I think was a very valid warning. I am seated next to a little boy, who is cheering hard for Coric. His zeal is so infectious that I find myself rooting for Coric too. Down the game, we are joined by another little boy, cheering for Harrison. Too late, I’ve picked my horse. Too bad, he loses.

We walk around, catching the ends of other interesting games being suggested to us over Whatsapp. Technology, I tell you! Simultaneously, I am also trying to co-ordinate dinner with friends in London. However, it gets too late by the time we reach our hotel and we need to check out and check-in closer to Stansted airport from where we fly to Edinburgh tomorrow. Dinner plans are hastily re-written to grab something on the way.

We are staying at Holiday Inn Express tonight, and I have to say the service was simply not upto the mark. The room was matchbox sized; this is London, we get it, but there is simply no excuse for poor service. We spent the last two nights in a Best Western at Vauxhall. The room was tiny and windowless, but our stay was comfortable. 

Edinburgh, we are coming!

London Baby!

July 2, 2017

Day 2

Ganesh3N will be meeting us at Leicester Square. We have no data, so we are coordinating over (read surviving on) free wifi. Here, we start our tour of London. It’s a very pleasant day; no jackets or hats needed. We walk down to Trafalgar Square, where much to  our amusement there is a sign prohibiting people from feeding the pigeons, prompting the husband and N to comment that it probably put there because of and for tourists like me. Now, if you grew up in India in the 90’s, you must know, that’s what you do at Trafalgar Square!

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Buckingham palace is right around the corner. When we get there, much to my surprise and delight, we see the horse guard marching past. I so did want to see the changing of the guard at the palace, but our delayed flight had put an end to that dream. Unexpectedly seeing the horse guard absolutely made my day. Hereon, nothing could go wrong!

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We are now in  London’s tourist district (I think). One simply needs to stand in the centre and turn around to see most of London’s most iconic landmarks – Westminster Abbey, the houses of Parliament, Big Ben and the fake red phone booths scattered all over London for tourists to pose in. I want to go inside the abbey to see the graves and relive the climax of Dan Brown’s Da Vinci code, but the line is too long. We walk down to 10 Downing Street and then take the ubiquitous London tube to Borough Market. I imagined Borough Market to be a livelier farmer’s market sort of place, but it turns out to be covered marketplace, with designated stalls.  Strangely, many of these are shut. A joins us for lunch. The boys have been absolutely wonderful hosts right from finding us places to order food from late night to accompanying us around the city. They even called Scotland to see if we could try our hand at falconry and looked up last minute tickets to the game at Lords. I suspect they might have ended up seeing and learning more about London than they wanted to!

Ganesh4We stroll down  London Bridge to the Tower Bridge, where we get some amazing pastries while we wait for our boat cruise on the Thames. We can barely hear, much less comprehend what the captain is saying but it’s nice all the same. The new buildings juxtaposed against the old make the waterfront an interesting study. We pass Shakespeare’s Globe, the Shard, that crazy building that melted roofs of parked cars and go all the way to the London Eye. We hop off here and take the underground to St. Paul’s Cathedral. We reach a few minutes before the last mass of the day ended but cannot go in because I was dawdling along, taking in the outside. Next stop Kings Cross.

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We don’t have time (and the others don’t have the inclination) to head across the city to the Fortnum and Mason’s flagship store, so we visit the little one in St. Pancras station across the street from King’s Cross. My big belly gets us/me ahead of the winding queue of Harry Potter fans at Platform no. 9 ¾. Good thing too, as the husband is throwing up his hands at my willingness to wait in queue. The rest of our little group seems more done with the day than I am!

We head over to Dhishoom – the promised Mecca of Indian street food. This place is wildly popular to be prepared to wait. Again, my growing bump gets us place to sit while we wait.  The food surpasses my (admittedly low) expectations and sets a new standard in my eyes. Food is good. Everyone is tired, except me, but I suppose I could use some rest too.

Goodnight London.

London, London, STOP

June 30, 2017

Day  -1

I’m having a crazy day at work. We’re at a day long workshop, trying to understand two probably super big ticket solutions to a large looming problem. I receive a text from the airline (Norwegian, if you must know), which I missed. Subsequently I get a text from the husband that says “We can’t reschedule our tickets now and other airlines are too expensive to re-book.” I panic and call him as soon as we break for lunch. Turns out our flight is overbooked and the airlines is offering to rebook volunteers on another flight and 400 euros as compensation. That’s 400 euro’s each. Long story short, the husband has managed to get us tickets on a flight that leaves earlier the same day, but reaches Gatwick around the same time as our original flight. The flight is from EWR (Newark), which suits us so much better than the original JFK (New York). The only catch is there is a stopover in Iceland. We don’t care. We are super elated.

July 1, 2017

Day 1

We’ve boarded the flight and are waiting to take off – for the next three (3) hours. All flights out of this region are delayed due to bad weather.

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Result – we miss our connecting flight from Reykjavik and are forced to spend more than eight (8) hours at the airport. We can’t get out because we don’t have Schengen visas. We can’t even get to the only lounge here because it is on the other side of passport control. From 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. the terminal is deserted. The airlines staff has disappeared. We have food vouchers but the only two delis/shops are shut and will reopen only at 1400 hours. There are two other stranded passengers ( one desperately looking for a Dunkin’ Donuts!!) and occasionally, some cleaning staff. Thankfully, there’s free wifi and we can book our stay in London.

That, dear reader, is the story of how we’ve lost an entire day and ended up with half a dozen bars of Icelandic chocolate.

We reach London pretty late. By the time we get dinner and reach our hotel, it’s almost midnight. We’ve had to rearrange plans in the interest of making the most of our limited time here, so we won’t be staying with the boys as planned. This remains my only real disappointment.

London Dreams

May 2017

I’ve made Scotland/ London/ London-Scotland plans so many times and not followed through that people don’t even take me seriously about it now. Classic case of the boy who cried wolf. Honestly, it’s a little hard for even me to believe this is actually happening. It’s feels unreal.

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We’ve hatched a plan. We’ve blocked vacation time and applied for our visas. We’ve sent the embassy our passports and with great trepidation, our green cards. Our passports come back, green cards securely taped to the back, single entry visas stamped inside. It still doesn’t feel completely real. We book our tickets, and now I know we’re really going – YAAYY!! We still need to figure out our itinerary details and make reservations, but we’re going for sure.

I plan and re-plan, and drive everyone around me generally crazy. That’s too much you’re trying to do in too little time, they say. Slow down. You’ll be seven (yes 7) months pregnant, have you taken that into account? You’ll be big and slow, your feet will hurt and you’ll constantly want to pee…

To my credit, I did cut myself enough slack. Even though we were one day short (more on that later) and started much later than planned on other days, we did do 90% of what was planned. For everything that we didn’t do, there’s always a next time.

Zion National Park

November 8, 2016

 

We are headed to Zion. We couldn’t get reservations for the wave, but Zion has a lot more to offer. Ideally, I would love to do the narrows, but we may not have enough time, plus we need to rent out gear. Back in day, I have walked through and up several of streams, and never did I need river sandals and a hiking stick. Tops, a sturdy broken branch was used. Mostly, we just held hands for stability (think human chain).

 

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We lost an hour since we forgot to allow to daylight savings and reached the Visitor’s Centre only around 2 p.m. Wanting to make the most of our limited time, we did as the ranger suggested. We took the park bus all the way to the last stop, and worked our way back based on time and interest. Since we really wanted to do a hike and there was no time for the harder ones, we choose to start with the Riverside Walk – a simple walk on paved paths along the river. We are now down in the canyon. How different it is down here! Just as the landscape at the top is bare and barren, at the bottom it exudes life. The gurgling sound of water, the heavy green of the dense foliage, the dappled light, the gentle moisture in the air – life. The feeling is so palpable, that if you stick your tongue out you could probably taste it. The tall mountains that felt claustrophobic in the vast expanse of Badwater Basin, give a sense of protection in the narrow canyon.

dsc_0933Did you know, that the bottom layer of rock at Bryce Canyon is the top layer at Zion, and the bottom layer at Zion is the top layer at the Grand Canyon?

dsc_0949As we made our way back, we spotted little families of deer. The other walk we took was to the Emerald Pools. Here we found that Fall had followed us all the way across the continent to make an evening of it. The ranger had warned us that there was not much water in the falls, and there was just a trickle at the Lower Falls. The light was close to fading out completely. We decided to turn around as skip the chance of a moonlit stroll, as we didn’t want to miss the last bus back to the Visitor’s Centre.

Waiting for the bus, we browsed the gift shop and found out all about Kokopelli and more. Before we knew it, we were on our way to Vegas!!! The original plan was to hit the casinos, play some roulette (me) and some black jack (the husband), and end our trip city style. By the time, we got to Vegas we were knackered. After two days of sleeping on the ground all the husband wanted was to rest his back on the comfortable mattress. Also, after our last trip to Vegas, we didn’t feel like we were missing much.

A good night’s sleep and we were so ready for our long flight home.

Sunrise at Death Valley

November 8, 2016

dsc_0728If you wake up sometime a little before dawn, you can hear the coyotes howl. I unzip our window just a little bit a go back to sleep. When we step out of our tent the next morning, there is one constellation looming large over us, piercing bright stars on an electric blue sky – the Big Dipper*. In Hindu mythology, these stars represent seven (7) great sages. There is however, an eight star in this constellation. Hindu mythology calls her Arundhati, she is the wife of the star-sage Vashista. Together these two stars form their own twin star-system. This binary star has long been considered by Hindus, as the symbol of a perfect marriage. Unlike other twin star systems where one star revolves around the other, both these stars move around each other in synchrony. They stand for complete devotion, steadfast loyalty, and a union where two entities shine together as one for all eternity.  As part of the wedding, Hindu couples gaze upon this binary star (interestingly called Arundhati-Vashista and not Vashista-Arundhathi) and pray for a similar union.  The husband and I got married in broad daylight, so our priest asked us to spot it ourselves at night. All these years later, we finally got to it. We do not have the time to gaze and contemplate. We have a sunrise to catch. We hurry on to Zabriskie Point.

dsc_0780I opt to set up on the mound suggested by pamphotography below the view point, much to the annoyance of a few spectators up there. Hey, it’s not a perfect world and nobody stopped them from coming down. Just prior to sunrise, we see a pink glow above the tips of the Panamits. As the sun starts to rise behind us we see the mountains slowly wake up. As the golden light spreads across the valley floor, more rocks shake off the shadows. The red cathedral seems to glow, as though from within. This play of light and shadow is what all the early risers are here for. Once again, we breakfast on bread and cheese in the parking lot and this time head back to the campsite to pack up.

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* This is also the only constellation I can identify without help.