World

Disney Magic

Cinderellas Caslte

What kind of superheroes will an Indian a la Disneyland have, I wondered, when I visited Disneyland in Orlando, Florida.  Some friends of mine instantly recalled our very own Chacha Chaudhari and Sabu.  Instead of the simulated launch on to Mars in the ‘Mission Space’, we could go to Jupiter ofcourse after traversing the planets that come in between. We could have a 3D movie with Sabu throwing off evil villains off peaks.

Or how about a Rajani ride…It would ofcourse include rides which would flout all laws by Newton, Einstein or any scientist!  If Disney had an Epcot World Showcase, our Bollypark could have all the locales which SRK spread out his arms and sang to his heroines. That would pretty much cover all the gorgeous places there are in the world.
Instead of delving into the fairy tales of Snow White, Cinderella, we can always dig into our treasure trove of popular mythological characters like Ganesh, Hanuman, Bhim, Ram, Krishna who have already been animated too.

Anyway, I guess, there is no point in me speculating about what can be, when I have just returned from a trip to this truly magic kingdom…a kingdom for the kids actually.  It was fun walking through the Main Street, Adventure Land, Frontierland, Fantasyland, Liberty Square, Mickeys Toontown and Tomorrowland in this fairyland.  It certainly made me wish I was back there as a kid.  However as an adult, I did enjoy the two Parades, the one in the day time and the electric parade at night, which were fabulous and I enjoyed watching them and calling out to my favorite characters swinging by me.  The electric parade was a dazzling display of illuminated floats and wonderful lighted up costumed dancers and characters.  The shows ended with a spectacular display of fireworks with the backdrop of Cinderella’s castle. Unforgettable. Amongst the rides and shows, I did enjoy the 3D movie with the popular Disney characters, the jungle cruise on the boat, and the Space Mountain rollercoaster ride.

But as an unfortunate adult in the world dominated by kids in this magical land,  most of the rides such as Winnie the Pooh, the Magic Alladin carpets, Peterpan, Snow-Whites adventure etc, were for ages 2-8.(we read to  our consternation after enjoying them earlier!). The lines were long and winding and the waits were intolerable 30-80 minutes for each ride.  Though after the first crazy wait, we discovered using our ‘Fastpass’ to beat the lines. And this was supposedly in the off-peak season.  I reckon, the lines would be even worse in the vacations and summers.
Epcot was the other Disney Park I visited, and though the Rain Gods spitefully tried to dampen our spirits and us all day, we still managed to have a great time, especially as the crowds thinned and there were no lines as compared to those in the Magic Kingdom!  Epcot was certainly one targeted to adults and teens and was an educational as well as a fun experience that helped kids and adults alike learn about a variety of burning issues.  It taught environmental consciousness through the ‘Circle of Life’ short film through the eyes of Simba, Timon and Pumba. Another show explained power and energy sources with the Ellen DeGeneres dream that took us through a journey from the Dinosaur jungles to the nuclear age today in a vast moving theater. The fun rides were the space mission ride to Mars, the fast paced drive on Test Track, the entertaining 3D video by the King of Pop Michael Jackson as Captain EO and the Soarin’ ride to California. However, the best part about Epcot was the World Showcase with its miniature country pavilions.  Dining at an Aztec temple in Mexico, riding a Norse boat in Norway, seeing miniatures of the Teracotta warriors, and learning about the various other cultures of France, Germany, Itay, Japan, Morocco, France, UK and Canada through short films in huge theaters were highlights.  I particularly enjoyed the China video that was very well done and was projected in a 360 degrees absolutely humongous theater. All in all, a wonderful experience for people of all ages.
How I wish I were back there as a child! Some snapshots of my trip here.

Walt Disney- The Man behind it all.
And the fun started with the Parade!
The Genie to grant wishes with Alladin
Dancing with the stars
Lighting up the day at night!
Dazzling lights and illuminating memories
Hola! At an Aztec Temple
A German Square
A Japanese Pagoda
A spectacular show at the Magic Kingdom
The Epcot dome
Categories: United States | Tags: , , , | 19 Comments

Architecture at Muscat, Oman

Buildings and architecture are a part of every visit to a city. The charm of a city is in a way defined by the beautiful buildings it has. If New York is remembered by its towering buildings, Chicago is all the more beautiful in its stately but tall buildings.  Victorian architecture is well recognized in many countries where the British ruled. Europe is renowned for its distinctive Greek/Roman and several other forms of architecture which make its towns and cities such a visual treat indeed.

The Middle-eastern countries have their own flavor of Muslim architecture which sets it apart from the rest of the world. Muscat, in the Sultanate of Oman showed me examples of some lovely architecture in its fine mosques, homes, forts and office buildings.

I am no expert on this topic, but the simplicity in fine lines, arches and curves defined elegance for me in all its buildings. Fortunately, His Majesty, Sultan Qaboos, the ruler of Oman, apparently was not in favor of the high rises that abound the neighboring prosperous UAE.  With a few high-rises only in the city, one never feels cramped as compared to being in modern day glass and cement cities. The shorter buildings here are not just square brick structures, but a medley of arches, and graceful straight lines at the right places. What also helps is the fact that surroundings are sparkling clean adding to the aura of the buildings.

The Grand Mosque in Muscat that was built after a competition for its design is one of the most popular destinations for worshippers and tourists alike.  However, my favorite mosque in Muscat, was the one I saw frequently by the main road. A gleaming off-white color, the Zawawi mosque in Al-Khuwair with its gardens around was a treat to see in the day and delightfully illuminated by night.  Some pictures are below.

Zawawi Mosque, Muscat

The Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque, Muscat

A quick walk in the neighborhood left me spellbound as I saw the homes around me, each more beautiful than the other.

Local residence, Muscat

 

Local Residence, Muscat

Local Residence, Muscat

Another notable point was the uniformity in coloring of the buildings. As compared to the peeling reds , greens, blues and yellows found rampantly in the buildings in most Indian cities, most of the colors used were pale –with shades of white or sand being the most common. Perhaps it is the hot climate of the city which is the deciding factor. I wish such uniformity were present in Indian cities too.  There was no graffiti in the city and walls were spotless clean. A few rules (that were obeyed) such as not drying clothes where they would be visible to outsiders was a balm to eyes used to seeing garments of all forms in India!

If you get a chance to visit Muscat, and love seeing buildings, do try and visit some of the famous landmarks such as the Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque, the old area of Corniche, old forts – the Sohar fort is my favorite and one of Muscat’s neighborhoods (preferably near the sea, that is where I went!). I am sure you will delight in the various forms of buildings you see.

Categories: Oman, World | Tags: , , , | 20 Comments

Inca Land Explorations – The Classic Inca Trail Trek

Now for the final part of my blog on the Inca adventure and the highlight of our trip, I chronicle the much looked forward to or dreaded trek which was called the Classic 4 day Inca trail or Pilgrimage that we had booked way back in February.

Map of trail: courtsey traveltocusco.com
Off we go!
The first day, we were still happy and had smiley faces in our photographs, as we started out from Ollantaytambo on the Inca trail. Here are some pictures from the first day of our trekking. It is certainly amazing what nature presents when out in the open outside of the din of the city. These photographs are certainly barely representative of the sights we did see there. Mountains, rivers, Inca ruins, Clouds and forests live in a 360 degree view is really quite difficult to capture on a lens. But well, this is what we have to do with once we get back to the city! We tasted Chef Caramello’s food for the first time starting with lunch which was an elaborate affair starting with an avocado starter, going onto a soup and entree of Pasta, Creamy Potatoes and Rice followed by some chocolate pudding for dessert. We certainly didn’t want to hike after that sensory meal! We fortunately did get a few moments of rest though after that before we started off again rejuvenated.
Day 1
Llactapata ruins
During the course of our trip, we got to know our fellow trekkers who were fortunately a wonderful bunch of people including Americans, Australians and other Indians! For 12 of us trekkers, there were 17 porters, one chef and two tour guides. I must say they all did a wonderful job despite how difficult it really must be. In fact, things like food which are a luxury during camping, actually became a highlight as we received full elaborately prepared three course lunches and dinners as well as breakfast and snacks. All we had to do was really, just climb, as all our food was cooked for us, stuff carried up for us! Even that was not easy I must say. Especially, since I conveniently missed the step of training in the gym forever before that! It was quite incredible, that while we climbed up, the porters cleaned up our lunch, washed up, scurried up with the tents and all those other hundred things, set the tents all up, cooked our dinner and we arrived only much later.

Porters scurrying up
Lunch!

The second day was the toughest part of the trek having to climb to a high elevation of 4.200M to the Dead Woman’s pass as it is called. Was that the high point otherwise for me? Well, honestly, it was the most difficult thing I must have ever done physically! I had to break after every 10 steps when I was some 100 steps away from it! The air being pretty thin at this altitude affected many of us in the group attacking us with migraines, nausea, sickness and the like. But well, we still grinned when the photo was clicked! :)

Dead woman’s pass

What goes up has to come down, and the next phase of the trekking was just down down and more down till lunch! Even that was tiring! And to think, while climbing up all we wanted was to go down! Going up is more work, but coming down is scary and makes all those muscles really ache! I had almost given up hope of ever making it through the day after which we not only made it to the camp for lunch but revived by Chef Caramello’s food, we hiked up the mountain for another 3 hours before we finally could celebrate the end of the toughest part of the trek with coca tea, popcorn and crackers!
Ruins at Phuyupatamarca – Don’t I love the names!
The third day of the Inca trail was personally my favorite, since there was less climbing up, and less steep steps although there was a lot of climbing down. We went through a lot of verdant jungles and took in breathtaking vistas every few steps. But then, it started raining. And rain it did, …it rained right till the moment and possibly beyond the day I took my taxi to the Cusco airport to depart Peru! The positive side of the rain however was the fact that everything looked far more mystical and magical with the floating clouds as we traversed through the hills and vales. We almost felt in the middle of an Avatar movie or an Indiana Jones movie amidst all that beauty. We reached the campsite early in the day and in time to visit a beautiful Inca site known as Winaywayna. Our chef made a special farewell cake for dinner as it was the third dinner together. Well, he certainly kept his high standards of food right till the last meal at the camp!
Runkurakay ruins
Mystic clouds
Rain Trek
Flowers on the way
Winaywayna Inca site
Happy travels to Machu Picchu!
On the last day, we had a short trek to our final destination Machu Picchu. Unfortunately it was still raining, and there was little hope of really seeing sunrise. But we all started off at 4:30 am to beat other hikers at the gate that opened at 530 am. Wasn’t an easy hike again as was expected. Plenty of climbing, and a lot more urgency to make it to the lost city soon. We crossed the Sun Gate, and there it was… Machu Picchu, in all its glory. The clouds that enveloped it, made it all the more ethereal, and we were enchanted.
 
Machu Picchu
Morning Haze
The lost city – Machu Picchu
The lost city nestled in clouds
Machu Picchu was indeed much bigger and far more different than the other Inca sites. It looked royal and awe-inspiring. There was an ancient aura about the place and amidst all the clamor of the tourists and the photo snapping din, it felt peaceful. Machu Picchu was surrounded by
mountains on all sides, and watching the clouds play hide and seek with it took our breath away.
 
Thus ended the highlight of our trip there, and we left with exalted minds thinking about all those who lived and fled there wondering how it must have been back then. I wonder, would it have been any different had the Spanish not forced them to flee? If they could create all these wonders in just a century, I wish I could imagine, the marvels the great Incas would have created had they ruled for longer. On a closing note, here are some beautiful words from a poem by Pablo Neruda that I read somewhere in Cuzco -
 
“Then on the ladder of the earth I climbed through the
lost jungle’s tortured thicket upto you, Machu Picchu.
High city of laddered stones,
at last the dwelling of what earth
never covered in vestments of sleep
Mother of stone, spume of condors
High reef of the human dawn
Spade lost in primal sand
This was the dwelling
this was the place
here the broad grains of maize rose up
and fell again like red hail
Here gold threads came off the vicuna
to clothe the lovers, the mothers
the king, the prayers the warriors.”
To read more about the Incas and Cusco, their capital city, do have a look at my previous two blogs.
To read more about Machu Picchu, here is a wikipedia link http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Machu_Picchu.
Categories: Peru, World | Tags: , , | 27 Comments

Inca Land Explorations – Cusco

I continue on my exploration of the Inca-world, in the second part of my Inca adventure blog, and this time for real and not through the million articles I waded through, the books I read and the documentaries I watched!
Why did I really choose Peru as a country to visit you may ask?  When I was in grade 8, I hated studying history said my mum.  But now that I am older and wiser (hopefully), I have actually developed an interest in our ancient world.  This, coupled with an interest in exploring a whole new country and wanting to step onto a new continent, made me pick Peru, the land of the great Incas for my trip.
Our trip started off rather well and having a consultant husband really helped in getting us upgraded to the Business class in the flight and hotel points got us to a five star hotel. Well, it was certainly getting pampered before our ordeal began!  By ordeal I mean, the 4 day arduous trek that we had decided to undertake in our week there!
Cathedral at Main square
On a bright sunny day, we arrived at Cusco. Cusco that I have spoken about already, back then was the capital of the Incas, and in the modern world is a teeming tourist town with vestiges of Inca Pride.   Cuzco is at an altitude of 3,400 meters above sea level and is the base location for several places of interest including the starting point of several important hiking trails. This city retains many colonial buildings, plazas and streets, Inca walls and ruins, which led to it being declared a World Heritage site by UNESCO
Main Square
Old Inca Palace walls
We undertook a trip to Sacred Valley of the Incas first where we saw our first Inca ruins at Pisac.  There is also a wonderful Sunday fair at Pisac where the local people come together to sell their handicrafts.   Everywhere in Cuzco too, we came across wonderful shops selling Llama wool rugs, woven cloth goods, purses of all sizes, symbolic souvenirs and super knick knacks.  I must say my husband had a really hard time pulling me away from buying everything possible in the shops there!  I certainly was far more interested in the fair rather than the ruins! We must have exchanged our dollars for Peruvian ‘Soles’ at least 10 times in 10 days at the many money exchanges at every turn, each time spending more than we anticipated!
Sacred Valley
Local shop
Pisac ruins
After Pisac, we went to Ollantaytambo which like I had described in my story earlier, had been established as a stronghold of the Incas and a raging battle took place there.  Ollantaytambo (don’t I just love the Quechua names!), was a gorgeous Inca site with walls so finely built and without the use of mortar that not even a knife could pass through them (as you can see in the picture). In 1950, an earthquake had occurred in Cuzco, during which a lot of modern structures including colonial structures came down.  However these Inca walls stood mighty and strong standing testimony to the engineering prowess of the Incas. This site also had well built terraces and granaries.   All the terraces were also wonderfully engineered with varying temperatures at different levels for different crops.  Irrigation was also done using a fine system of canals and aqueducts.  Our guide told us, that the holes seen in the mountain across from where we were were burial chambers for the Inca dead.
Fine Inca wall with niches
Ollantaytambo terraces

Man holding mountain and burial holes in there
Near Cusco, we also visited the South valley to see more sites.  We stopped at Piquilacta or the ‘town of flies’ which was a pre Inca site. I do wonder why it was called so, it certainly would not attract many people to stay there, if it really were full of disgusting flies! This town was a large town, and what remained today were the huge walls they built around the city and the houses.  There even were entry gates to this city and everyone coming in and going out was monitored.  We also visited a few churches around Cusco.  Although, honestly they did not interest me as much as the old Inca structures did, for the sake of memory, we visited the Chinchero and the Andahuaylillas church which is called the” Sistine Chapel of South America.
Piquilacta ruins
Gates at Piquilacta
We began on the next part of our trip, the four day Classic Inca trail, but I will chronicle our journey there in another blog.  When we returned from our trek, tired and with exalted minds more fun was in store for us without our knowing it!  1911 being the year Machu Picchu was discovered, 2011 was the centennial year of its discovery, and we were perfectly in time to be a part of the festivities. We were able to witness a grand spectacle of a military parade and a cultural celebration.  The whole square and streets were full of mirthful dancers and musicians in their eloquent costumes of lions, clowns, traditional Peruvian, colorful flumes of birds, elegant Spanish dancers and masked jesters who swirled about gracefully around us in a parade.  Ah! I can almost hear their lilting melodies and the beat of the music they danced to.
Machu Picchu discovery centennial celebrations
Machu Picchu discovery centennial celebrations
Machu Picchu discovery centennial celebrations
Machu Picchu discovery centennial celebrations
Machu Picchu discovery centennial celebrations
Before I conclude this post on the picturesque town of Cusco however, I would certainly like to make a special mention of our tour agency Llama Path who had made all the bookings for us and were our trek operators.  I have certainly never ever seen the exceptional level of service that they provided at the trek and outside of it.  They did goof up on not booking our hotel, but certainly made up for it by going the extra mile and we had no grouse whatsoever.  At the trek of course, the service was indeed superlative.  Every day, we even had hot water and soap in front of our tents to clean up, tea served on our waking to our tents, warmed plates to eat from and our every need tended to. The guides and porters were courteous and knowledgeable and the chef Caramello’s food couldn’t have been finer in taste or presentation.  I almost feel sorry for our guide Jose, who accompanied us and patiently encouraged the battered miserable us in difficult moments with ‘My champions – you can do it!’ even though we were taking breaks after every 5 minutes, after everyone else in the group were at the top of the mountain already! Llama path certainly was a very commendable and enterprising tour company and I would certainly endorse it to anyone who would be interested.
Like all good things come to an end, our trip did to and it was with a heavy heart that we walked away from the welcoming city with warm people and back into the world of work and humdrum existence.
If I haven’t tired you enough already, do stay tuned for the next blog on the exciting four day trek that we undertook from Ollantaytambo to Machu Picchu. The pictures will certainly not disappoint you!
This post is re-published from my other blog Richland Talk.
Categories: Peru, World | Tags: , , , | 16 Comments

Inca Land Explorations – The story

Travelling in history is a wonderful thing.  As I hiked down the Andes, in the highlands of Peru, I could not help, but wonder how it must have been during the Inca times.  The Incas were the Romans of the South Americas. Brilliant builders and engineers, they created Machu Picchu, the most sophisticated road system in Americas and masterpieces of gold.
Inca terraces
What I write next is a pre-read to my next blog on my visit to Peru. Most of the information here is from a wonderful documentary I saw namely ‘Conquistadors’ by Michael Wood which was featured on PBS and insights from the book ‘Inca land Explorations in the Highlands of Peru’ by the discoverer of Machu Picchu, Hiram Bingham.


During their short rule from Peru from around 1400 to 1525, the Incas built a 40,000 km road network, wonderful cities and monuments, and converted steep wastelands on mountains into terraced farms. They used a variety of methods from peaceful assimilation to aggression to incorporate a large portion of western South America including large parts of modern Eucador, Peru, Bolivia, Argentina, Chile and Colombia into a large empire

Inca Empire – courtsey google
 
In the winter of 1527, a boat arrived at a lonely island on the coast of Peru. Its leader was an old conquistador called Francisco Pizzaro. He had come to seek the gold from a previously unknown world, not knowing he would lead the conquest of the most powerful kingdom in South America, the conquest of the Incas.


Atahualpa who was the king of the Incas was proceeding with his army towards Cuzco. He met Pizarro at Cajamarca. Being a band of 150 people Atahualpa did not consider them a threat. Atahualpas army was 30,000 strong. The Spanish told the Inca ruler Atahualpa that they would help him against his enemies. However, in reality the Spanish were plotting to kill everyone then. An accompanying priest made a speech on the cross and the pope, and asked Atahualpa to convert to Christianity. ‘I follow my religion’ said Atahualpa and threw the Bible he had been handed on the floor. Pizarro was waiting for just this provocation and attacked. Crude Inca weapons of sticks and stones were no match for Spanish guns and steel. Blood ran freely and some say 6000 people were killed. Atahualpa was captured alive. He made an offer to the Spanish. If they set him free, he would fill the room with gold. He thought Pizarro would simply go away if he did so not realizing it would make the conquistador even greedier. Atahualpa filled his ransom room with 7 tons of gold. He kept his word, but what would Pizarro do? Pizarro put Atahualpa on trial for treason. The jury was the Pizarro brothers and their friends. The verdict- the Inca must die. After his execution, Pizarros men, went across Peru looting the greatest shrines of the Peru. Pizarro marched his army on the royal road to the capital- Cuzco (modern day Cusco).  In November 1933, they reached Cuzco. The streets were grand, and the palaces wonderful.  Pizarro looked at the ceremonial squares and palaces and set about systematically ransacking them all. 
Inca Ruins
As news reached the shores of Europe, Spaniards flooded Peru in their gold rush. Pizarro brothers were exalted as they tightened their grip on Peru. They appointed a puppet Inca king Manco, Atahualpas half brother to placate the local population.
 
But the Spanish treated the Peruvians with contempt. Gonzalo Pizarro raped Manco’s wife the queen. Discontent rumbled around and word spread of war of liberation. Manco summoned his subjects in 20 days to attack the Spaniards. Above Cuzco, a vast Inca army surrounded the Spaniards. Spaniards were outnumbered, one Pizarro was killed, but in the end, the Incas were outgunned. It was a heroic battle and is still remembered as the great rebellion.
 
Pizzaros rule took savage reprisals against the civilian population for their revolt. A massive exodus followed into the Sacred Valley in the footsteps of the fleeing Inca king. The Sacred valley was the Inca heartland. Here they built their finest palaces and terraces to grow maize and coca leaves. Here Manco could call on for help of the ancestors. Manco built more houses and terraces to feed the many pouring in. These terraces can be seen at Ollantaytambo. Here was where the Spanish attacked next. The Incas rained down the walls everywhere. For the first time, the Incas beat the Spaniards in a battle. Manco planned to build a new Cuzco in the Sacred Valley. But he knew, he needed to flee further as Spaniards continued to pour in. He decided to retreat into the valleys and jungles of Vilcabamba. It must have been a heart breaking moment for the young Inca as he made a moving speech to his followers. He asked them to remember his ancestors had been good rulers. ‘I know’ he said, ‘One day in the future, a time will come, when they will force us to worship their Gods. But in private, do what you have to. If they destroy our shrines, keep them forever in your hearts.’ With that, Manco with his army began their long march into the Andes and the jungles demolishing the road behind them. Pizzaro went in search of him into the jungles. The road was weary with high altitudes, dense jungles, and landslides. When Pizzaro reached Vilcabamba, Manco had retreated further into the jungle. Gonzalo Pizzaro searched for 3 months till sickness and starvation threatened them. In his fury, Pizarro took revenge. He shot Manco’s wife and sent her down the river to be found by the Inca king. Manco was grief stricken. However, he fled further and made his capital at Uiticos. The Spanish described this place on high mountains with wonderful views. On top there was a substantial flat area, where majestic buildings were built with great skill and art. Manco held court here for 7 years but in the end they got him. With him, the supreme reign of the Incas ended as his descendants were either mere puppet kings or executed.  
Ollantaytambo terraces
Thus the mighty Inca empire came to a fall as the political structure ended. However what lasts still today is the long lasting tenaciousness and deep rooted culture of the people. The Inca people survived, and beliefs survived just like Manco Inca had said they would. Nearly 500 years on, the people of the Andes still respect the ancestors of the Incas and worship the sun. Every year in June they go to the glaciers in the mountains. Like their ancestors, they still greet the rising sun.
Categories: Peru, World | Tags: , , , | 13 Comments

A trip to Washington DC and the Shenandoah National Park

With family visiting us in May 2011, when I was in the U.S. , we set out to shortlist all the ‘touristy’ locations on the East Coast to show them around.  Most itineraries of people visiting the east coast include New York, Washington DC, Niagara falls, Boston and if budget/time permits Orlando theme parks. Throw in an Atlantic city, and the US visit is complete!..rather if they don’t go for a ‘Tirth yatra’ to any of the above places, they have seen nothing at all in the US!

We were on our way!

So, as Memorial Day (the day to honor war heroes and veterans) dawned, we packed up our bags and our assortment of snacks of sandwiches, gobi parathas, pickles, ketchup, cheese, chips, laddoos, bananas, oranges,strawberries, water, frooti, ‘fast’ snacks, halwa, cake and chocolates!  Yeah, I can’t believe we actually finished all of that! It took far more time to make and buy all that than gobble it up!

I dozed off almost immediately in the car to wear out the weariness of all that food preparation and refused to wake up till lunch time at Maryland where we stopped for a picnic lunch.  That power nap did me a world of good, as I took up the wheel in the next leg of our drive to Shenandoah National Park. As we got on to the Skyline Drive of 105 miles, the cool mountain breeze and the scenic vistas greeted us all along.  Although we did not spend as much time as we would have liked to hiking and biking, I did enjoy the feel of wild grass under my feet, the bloom of the wild yellow flowers, deer peacefully chewing away in natural surroundings and the balmy breeze.
A short hike at Shenandoah
The sun peaking through the lush trees at Shenandoah
A Shenandoah wildlife sighting
The woods are lovely, dark and deep
Day two and three of our trip had been set aside for Washington, and we set forth after a heavy breakfast at the hotel.  Well, again, it being a purely touristy trip, that translates into getting off the car, taking photos and getting back to the car, we thought, we would do it in no time at all! But fortunately or unfortunately, the city had other plans for us!  Memorial Day is a big deal in USA, and I was hoping to witness something of this day in the capital city to reflect some of Americas traditional celebration.  I was not disappointed.  As we drove in, people with waving flags greeted us as we crossed overhead footwalks and bridges, several Harleys zoomed past us everywhere making us wonder what was in store.  As traffic moved to a snails pace, we pulled out and took the metro route.  Riding a city’s trains has always excited me, be it New York, Kolkata, Mumbai or Washington as it is something non-touristy, something that citizens use to go about their life everyday anywhere. The stations here were much cleaner and spacious and far less smelly than NYs stations.  Being Memorial day, well, only tourists clambered onto the train and took away the charm of the locals travelling! We got off at the station near the White House, and started our act of clicking away to glory in the usual silly poses. Barrack and Michelle must certainly be uneasy in that fortress with snipers patrolling its terraces and with all that security and tourists and even protesters constantly outside their windows. Never a moment of peace to enjoy those lush gardens outside!
The White House

The next halt was the George Washington memorial which is the tallest structure in Washington DC.  Here is the exciting part.  As we neared it, the vroom of motorcycles was heard nearby. As we recollected the many bikes we saw on the road, we hastened towards it.  It turned out to be a spectacular rally of 400,000 bikes (these huge mean machines- Harleys or look alikes) aptly known as ‘Rolling Thunder’ that was paying tribute to American war heroes in their own style.  That certainly was a super show!

George Washington Memorial

 

Rolling Thunder
The Capitol

For the remainder of the day we proceeded to visit the Smithsonian museums.  I went to the National Gallery of Art and tremendously enjoyed seeing master pieces of Impressionists as well as Modernists. I particularly enjoyed seeing the Chester Dale collection that included works of great masters such as Monet, Renoir, Picasso, Van Gogh among others.  I was also pleased to see special exhibits by Gauguin, who I was first fascinated by’ on reading Maugham’s ‘The Moon and the Six Pence’.  Apart from these that I admire, I also managed to find the ones I didn’t and took pleasure in rebuking Rothko’s and Barnett Newman’s modern (non!) art which I wrote about in a recent blog! I finally left the museum after it closed and dragged myself to the Air and Space museum to join the others and find out about their sojourn to the Natural History museum which I skipped seeing.  We ended the day with a meal at an Indian restaurant with a snooty manager and driving around in Washington , uh..driving around was not out of choice, but because our GPS kept taking us round in circles and all over the place!

The Air and Space museum
Our trip drew to a close the next day when we saw the lofty memorials built in honor of US Presidents Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson and the Vietnam and Korea war memorials. With plenty of memorial spots dotted across town, we had to skip most of them albeit with no regrets really!
Thomas Jefferson Memorial
Abraham Lincoln in his towering seat

Well, again, for people out to visit places for the sake of the photo, Washington DC was a pleasant place to be in.  However, as always, I always believe, cities are to be experienced by living there and a couple of days’ visits will never capture the essence or the culture. However, all in all, this was a lazy fun trip that kept everyone contented for all the things they saw.

Categories: United States | Tags: , , | 22 Comments

The Fourth Wonder – Wahiba Sands, Oman

It was a sunny afternoon when I discovered Beauty. I had considered three elements, the turbulent seas, the star studded unending skies and the imposing mountains as the most awe inspiring wonders I had ever known. That day I discovered the fourth. It was the hauntingly starved desert. I had seen the desert on television, the biggest it got for me was 32’’. When I saw the Wahiba Sands desert at Oman, I discovered another facet of nature previously unknown to me.

We were picked up at Muscat by our tour guide in a 4 wheel drive. I had no idea what was in store when we left the road and entered the sandy desert.

The Wahiba Sands desert was as vaster than I could see, more beautiful than I had imagined it to be. There was so much sand everywhere. Humongous stretches of ceaseless sand were interspersed with shrubs that looked ravaged by the blazing sun. I saw Sand that had built itself into mammoth dunes which looked more like mountains to me, Sand that was so fine that it felt like water in my hands, Sand that formed beautiful waves styled by the wind, Sand which changed colors from red to white to brown as we changed course in the desert and Slippery Sands on which Camels walked on with ease. I was enthralled completely by the beauty of the whole vista.

Entering Wahiba Sands

Waves of sand

The Wahiba Sands is a popular desert destination at Oman with several camping facilities and tours that organize camps deep into the desert. Many of these are even luxury camps with almost all with running water and some with even a swimming pool! To maintain the ethnicity though, a well thought out cultural program with dances, local cooking etc. is often organized too. We had booked ourselves with one such camp and thoroughly enjoyed the royal treatment.

As we entered, the camp, our senses feasting on the beauty in the bareness, we were treated to refreshing ‘zatar’ tea. We later went ‘dune bashing’ or ‘wadi bashing’ on 50–200 m high sand dunes which was quite thrilling.

The desert that is scorching by day is chilly by night. As the lights grew dim, we washed for dinner and settled in the open area for the cultural program. After dinner, we started star gazing and there were oh, so many stars! The city smoke and fog allows us to see hardly any stars. Deep in the desert, the dark velvety sky was bejeweled with these a massive number of these bright starry embellishments. We star-gazed for several hours trying to figure out the few basic constellations we knew. Far away from civilization, we could see nothing but pitch darkness outside the vicinity of the camp.

We awoke in the spacious tent-room in the desert to a very dewy and chilly morning. A quick breakfast later we were on our way home. It was fascinating to see so many camels out there in the middle of nowhere. We made a halt at one of the local Bedouin people’s homes at the fringe of the desert. Although the Bedouin people or the residents of the desert now have access to the latest amenities, many still lead their lives near the desert, owning herds of camels, or through tourism.

A dewy campsite in the morning

Cute little camel at Wahiba Sands

Serene camels

The way back to Muscat was another visual treat on the Sur-Muscat highway which is a coastal road for a long patch. With bare mountains on one side and the sea on the other, it was hard not to stop at every scenic spot we saw! All in all, a fantastic trip which revealed to us a new element of nature we were hitherto unaware of.

The coastal Muscat-Sur highway

Muscat-Sur higway coast

Categories: Oman, World | Tags: , , , , | 12 Comments

Capture the Color

I was excited when I got tagged by Arti to participate in the Capture the Color contest. All I had to do was post 5 photos that would bring out the five colors – Green, Yellow, Red, White and Blue.  The first thing I could think of when I thought of these colors, was ‘Trees’!

The United States of America is a large country with varied landscapes, geographies, climates and diverse vegetation. During my two years stay at the US, I was fortunate to experience the stark seasonal changes that took place with every changing season.

For the Capture the Color contest, to highlight the 5 hues, I have chosen a theme of trees that I saw at the U.S.  While in India, the only color I associated with trees was green or less green.  In the U.S., I witnessed beautiful phenomena in spring, summer, fall and winter.

I understood the joys of new budding fresh green leaves in spring after snowy winter that left trees utterly bereft of leaves. The North East part of the U.S. was particularly green with miles of roads in a dense green cover.  The large mass of green cover that was called Central Park in New York City was my favorite haunt and I spent many a happy evening bicycling in the verdant park in summer. The photo shown here is from Central Park on a lazy  summer day.

Verdant Green at Central Park, New York City

With Fall, the leaves started changing their colors, withering or falling off after giving in to the strong winds that had replaced the gentle zephyr.  I went to New Hampshire in the peak of the fall season, and was amazed to see the brilliance of the trees in shades of Red, Yellow and some Green. Never in my life had I beheld, entire Red colored or Yellow colored trees as I did there.

Brilliant Yellow at New Hampshire, United States

 

Flaming Red Tree, New Hampshire, United States

Winter came suddenly without warning after Fall, and we were into our coats, mufflers, sweaters and gloves. The days became shorter and evenings dreary with dipping temperatures. The trees had lost their leaves as though biding the snow to come.  Around this time, we planned a trip to sunny California where the winter was mild and the trees had leaves.   A road trip in California led us to the Yosemite National Park. We stayed at a lodge for the night, and the next morning, for the first time in my life, I opened my eyes to a snowy morning.  Snow is not something we Indians get to see, in most of India excepting the mountains and the northern most parts of the country, and I was super excited.

I could not stop marveling at the snowy sights I beheld. The large conifers had their leaves intact, and each of their leaves was laden with much snow, that almost made it look white. The purity of the fresh glistening snow had transformed the park into a magical forest.  It certainly was one of those WOW travel moments that I would never like to forget!

Pristine White at Yosemite National Park, California, United States

My tryst with the four seasons in the United States allowed me to understand the vagaries of nature. Each season is indeed beautiful in its own special way.

The contest wants me to enter a fifth color – blue. Since, I didn’t get a chance to capture trees in the blue or blue trees (if they exist!), I am entering a separate photo here for this.  The photo shows the centennial celebrations for the discovery of Machu Picchu in Cusco, Peru.  After an arduous four day trek on the Inca Trail, we were rewarded by seeing the home of the Incas, Machu Picchu in all its glory.  Machu Picchu was discovered by Hiram Bingham in the year 1911, and we were in time to witness the grand centennial celebrations in the form of colorful parades and cultural programs. The parades were wonderful with hundreds of colorfully attired swirling dancers swaying  to bands that played cheerful notes. Here is one of the photos from the grand parade.

Vibrant Blue plumes in the Centennial celebrations of the discovery of Machu Picchu, Cusco, Peru

‘May the odds ever be in your favor’ if you have participated in this very interesting contest. Some people who I would love to participate in this contest are –

  1. Umashankar of ‘One Grain Amongst the Storm’
  2. Sudha G of ‘My Favorite Things’
  3. Beli of ‘Beli Eats’
  4. Desh of ‘Being Desh’
  5. Srinivas of ‘Travel Tales’

 

Categories: United States | Tags: , , , , | 40 Comments

Lovely Landscapes of Salalah

The holy month of Ramadan is on here in Muscat at the Sultanate of Oman.  The days are somber and the evenings alive.  The city is sweltering in the August heat and it is cloudy now and then.  I had only heard of this cool city (literally cool I mean) of Salalah where the Sultan resides and which is supposed to be as green as Kerela in India.  With some preconceived notions in my head and how really (not) green can it be in this desert country, I assented to go on a reprieve to visit the tourist town of Salalah.

Where is Salalah? – Salalah is Oman’s second largest city in the Southern province of Dhofar in the Sultanate of Oman and attracts tourists from all over the Middle-east and the world.

How to get to Salalah? – Convenient flights from Muscat and Dubai are preferred options. There are also frequent buses which are quite cheap between Muscat and Salalah for overnight journeys.

What is this city about? – Well known for its green cover and cool weather, it is a welcome change from the oppressive heat around. This is the land of frankincense and history for the traveler.

What is the right time to visit Salalah? – Happily, the best time to visit Salalah is the ‘Kharif’ or the monsoon season in June to September. Few tourists visit in the holy month of Ramazan.

Although I had read about it being a hillstation like place and had some ideas, what I was totally unprepared for was the variety of landscapes that presented themselves in a span of a few hundred kilometers. Beaches, green mountains and valleys, and complete deserts all adjacent to each other were baffling to say the least apart from picturesque. Some snapshots on the landscapes before the full blown blog on this trip -

Desert Sand at Salalah

Coastal fishing village at Salalah

Peaceful green hills and chewing cows

Rocky seas

Observe the contrasting Green hills and desert plains beyond from one location!

Categories: Oman, World | Tags: , | 22 Comments

‘Scubadooing’, Louis and Nola

The little island country of Mauritius is an island country and a very popular destination for everything related to H2O and the sea. Swimming, fishing, scuba diving, snorkeling, water skiing, dolphin watching, sea food, sunset cruises are widely enjoyed by tourists and locals. Very very unfortunately, I don’t know how to swim and being a vegetarian, cannot eat seafood! So, from all the above, all I could attempt was a cruise, and that too gave me a headache! I was pretty sad that I couldn’t behold all the wonders that the sea world held below under a few hundred leagues under the sea, till technology intervened in the form of a ‘Scubadoo’ scooter that promised to take me down under without me know how to swim!

Driving along, we stopped by a little board on Scubadooing near the beach Trou aux biches where we first encountered Louis. This cheerful gentleman gave us an appointment the next day for going under the sea on the Scubadoo scooter without being able to swim.

We wore our watersuits to keep us warm in the water we were to enter in and away we went in Louis car to the beach for a little ride on a boat. The trained divers helped us on to the sea scooter and lowered us into the water. My heart rate certainly went up and I thought I would drown not being used to so much water! And once in there, it was a whole new world and the equipment let me breathe normally with the water not even going above my neck.  It was fantastic to see nature in a new setting and I marveled at the gorgeous fish that swam by. I do feel, the creative department of the Creator has crafted the most gorgeous patterns, colors and shapes in the sea world rather than on land (if one were to except butterflies). Fish with yellow polka dots, silver streaks, gold stripes and endless other unique designs flitted by as I watched in wonder and the 30 minutes went by without my realizing it.

True to his word, Louis, took us back to his home where his talented wife Nola had prepared a feast for us with delicious ‘wadas’ and samosas with chutney and coffee.  There our host started talking to us, and boy, was he entertaining and knowledgeable! Louis and Nola were originally South Africans we learnt, who had come to Mauritius when Louis quit his lucrative corporate job at an insurance company to start his own business. His love for the sea lured him to start a business around water activities. He proudly told us that he was one of the two or three service providers in the world for the Scubadoo which he had brought from Australia.  Being in the service industry for so long, he had realized that service quality was of utmost importance and that’s why the best divers, perks such as photography included in the fees, and even the snacks. He genuinely wanted to make people happy and went the extra mile to do it. In fact we were amazed to know how they customized even the snacks for their clients and even served Jain food!  There certainly were several lessons in importance of service quality learnt in our conversation with him.

Thanks to the Sunday being his weekend (Mondays being off for their service), Louis and Nola were relaxed and chatted on about their surprise that most Indians (even the migrant islanders) did not know how to swim and we had to shake our heads and mumble about bad infrastructure in India. But apparently he knew about India more than we did including histories of Manmohan Singh, the Congress party, the businesses, the culture, and problems! An islander he certainly was, but had his eyes and ears across the world.  It is rare to meet people as lovely and hospitable as Louis and Nola! I hope Nola gets to meet with her grandkids more often (again across the world in South Africa, France etc.) and Louis does really well in this business of his!

If you do visit Mauritius, do visit Louis and Nola for Scubadooing and a host of other services they provide.  I am sure you will have a great time! Check out http://www.scuba-doomauritius.com/ for more details and contact.

Louis and Nola

With the fish

Pretty fish – pic courtsey Scubadoo team

Sunset at Trou aux Biches

Categories: Mauritius, World | Tags: , , | 14 Comments

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