A Magical dreamland

I was recently thumbing through an old copy of a book entitled “1000 places to see before you die” . Buenos Aires seemed to have more places in that book than the rest of Argentina combined but fortunately it did mention the Southern hemisphere’s version of a Glacier  park , Parque Nacional Los Glaciares . The park is not merely a national treasure but a treasure for the world . It is located in the Patagonian part of Argentina (though the locals might say that it located in Argentinian part of Patagonia) . If you are coming from Puerto Natales in Chile , they have a number of buses which frequently ply between El Calafate (of the Berry fame) and Puerto Natales . It was amusing for me to watch one of the immigration officials drinking mate . Our bus driver and the other bus driver joined him and to my surprise , one of the passengers from my bus also joined in. I watched in quiet morbid fascination as the cup with the straw went from hand to hand , mouth to mouth.  The border crossing was painful where the Argentine guards come in and pick anybody who looks even remotely unkempt for a random check , in this case I found that if one had dreads they were subjected to a random search. Once the bus crosses into Argentina , we soon end up on the famed Patagonian highway Ruta 40. Ruta 40 covers over 3000 miles across high desert,  highlands , rivers , national parks . I could not help but notice that in the bus stations , there are prominent signs displaying the various attractions , be it parks or cities but almost all of them feature Ruta 40 as an attraction . To get to the Los Glaciares , one needs to go first to El Calafate . El Calafate has a small airport and is a decent sized town . Los Glaciares is huge national park with El Calafate at the southern tip of the park and El Chalten giving you access to the northern side of the park .As soon as I landed in El Calafate , I booked tickets to the Perito Moreno Glacier for the next morning, El Chalten right after I returned from the Glacier, the return from El Chalten to El Calafate a day later and the return to Puerto Natales the next day

El Calafate is beautiful in its own right , this was the view from my AirBnB of Lago Argentino when I woke up the next morning .

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They have planted lavender everywhere , smells yummy .I noticed a fascinating thing about the tea pot , it had a mate setting !!!

I was excited to see the Perito Moreno Glacier  .The glacier is the only one that is actually growing . Considering that the South Patagonian icefield feeds dozens of glaciers in both Argentina and Chile and this is the only glacier that is actually growing , I imagine it has more to do with some hydraulic and geological pressure that we are not privy too .

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They have a boat that takes you pretty close to the Glacier and you can actually see huge chunks of the glacier calving off and floating around

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There are also options to actually put on crampons and hike on the Glacier(it is 6.2 miles and considered strenuous by AllTrails) but I had to get back to El Calafate and get on the bus to El Chalten so I did a quick 2 mile hike on a trail that lets you view the glacier from multiple angles .

I reached El Calafate and I was surprised to find some compadres from the O circuit in Torres Del Paine . They were couple of young kids and I had never chatted with them before but here we recognized each other as fellow sufferers on the great O circuit , they talked with me in almost flawless English , they were Danish , just graduated high school , decided to take a year off hiking across South America and then go to University . I wish I had these ideas at their age!!! Just amazing!!! explore the world when you are fit , without responsibilities and young enough to let the experience mould you effectively . They told me they were going to to the base of Fitzroy the next day and were also planning on doing the Huemul circuit.

El Chalten is a magical place , it is extraordinarily beautiful . It reminds one of the fairy tale villages that we saw in our books which as we get older seems to join the realm of the imaginary . The tourism folks helping out tourists at the bus station are fantastic . They switch between so many different languages that it boggled my head . Finally when it was my turn, I fumbled in broken Spanish about Fitzroy and he smoothly switched to flawless English and told me what my options were, given that I had to be back here by 7 PM the next day. He advised me on a couple of hikes and then when I told him I wanted to go up to Fitzroy ,he tried to dissuade me because it would be too dark but I insisted so he then informed me about two camps and I could set up camp at either place and I could not use open fire but could use my stove  and told me that I don’t need to take any water. I started walking across town to get to the trailhead and once I go there , I started climbing  . The first camp was 4 KM away and the second was 8 KM away , in town I thought I could do 8 KM before dark , once I started ascending (I realized I could not do 8 KM) , I decided to stop at the first campsite . Unfortunately in Argentina , nobody tells you when you should be off the trail  . In Chile , Rangers patrol and get people off the trail , in part due to safety concerns and in part so as to not disturb the nighttime fauna.  I kept going until I found the first camp . It was by a large lake and it was remarkably creepy for me when my flashlight shone onto the dark lake , the lake beckoning like a dark void. The camp was right next to the lake , so I pitched my tent , set my alarm for 3 AM and drifted off to sleep instantly .

Once I woke up at 3 , I wondered if I should sleep but finally I got up , broke camp and headed off into the cold trail . Made steady speed but if I had planned on getting up to sunrise on the Fitzroy, I overestimated myself . I was very far when I managed to capture this

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It is a long tiring slog uphill

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At the top , it is hard to believe that a place as beautiful can actually exist.

 

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and walking around the ridge provides more opportunities like this

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It had just snowed but the radiance of sun was warm enough to put me into a deep slumber . I woke up after what seemed like forever and the place had become real busy, time to head back to town and maybe get a bite to eat before heading to El Calafate. Again descent is hard on your knees so get hiking poles or sticks (and good hiking shoes with a lot of cushion) . It took an inordinate amount of time for me to get down the first KM , then I ran into a girl from Colorado who was a Cisco Engineer but she had decided to take a break , she had just finished the O circuit but she had taken 15 days to do it . I was taken aback , I thought I was too slow with 7 days and would like to do it in 5 .

Finally I took leave and headed on down

The landscape never ceases to amaze me !!

One of my favorite activities in a new town is to walk into the super market and look at the various edible items on sale . El Chalten’s supermercados are picked clean!!! At one supermarket , I found oil , water ,soft drinks,  onions and one solitary apple!!! I got luckier at the next one , I found some granola bars , candy bars , a bag of yerba mate (yes , I am a caffeine addict!!) and I also ended up buying a calabash which is the cup that you drink mate from , it is so hard that the owner just bounced it on the counter and it bounced right back . I also had to get a bombilla or a steel straw . The owner was used to dealing with foreigners , he spoke fluent English and informed me that his son had spent some time in India . There is an excellent bakery next door where I picked up cheesy bread balls , several pieces of what looked like dulce de leche pie and also some El Calafate jam cookies . Interestingly I am yet to find a single place where I had seen the berry in Argentina.

I love this town and love those mountains in the back . I will be back !!!

I have no memory of the bus ride to El Calafate, I can only speculate that I must have passed out .

Once back in El Calafate , this was my day to chill , get candy and stuff and also find some fine Argentinian steakhouse . In El Calafate , they have this restaurant called El Viejo and lot of folks recommended that I go there . I got a rib eye and a half portion of lamb and bottle of local cabernet . I cannot remember the last time I had a steak this delicious!!! They also have this relish which seems to have pickles , onions , sweet peppers and vinegar that was simply amazing . The meat and the relish is a delightful combo and I cannot recommend it enough!!!

The next day was my trip back to Punta Arenas . Now I was expecting that it would take me all of 3 hours to get to Puerto Natales , I had booked the ticket for the 7 AM bus. However instead of reaching Puerto Natales at 10 or 11 as I was expecting , we reached at 2:00 PM and I squarely blame the Chilean immigration authorities!!! Compared to this , my ‘painful’ trip coming over from Chile was a dream!!! I did not get back to Punta Arenas until past 7 PM that day . I had spent 12 hours for a journey that should not have taken more than 6 hours.

I was in a rush to get to Punta Arenas because I had scheduled a 12 hour cruise through the straits of Magellan looking for humpback whales , penguins , seals the next morning. The bus sets off at 4 AM and before sunrise , we are on the boat , cruising through . This is the southern cross

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The southern cross is the end of the continent of South America , only islands south of here until we reach Antartica . In South American nobody mentions the albatross but for us in the northern hemisphere , especially if one was acquainted with the rime of the ancient mariner (and also popularized by Iron Maiden in their longest song for 30 years) , the bird has achieved mythical proportions for me.  I was fortunate to capture this

It reminded me of a sea plane taking flight except the albatross is much more elegant to watch .

The humpback whales are always a treat to watch

The interesting thing about whales is that once they have come to the surface , they take many short breaths before one long breath and then they go back to the bottom . When you see their tail , this is when they have taken their long breath and will be down for up to 15 minutes before coming back up for air.

and the seals / sea lions

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And finally the big prize , penguins (the Magellanic kind)!!!!

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And my last glacier for now

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The biggest surprise was the cormorants , they look more like penguins than cormorants.

 

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Around 3 PM or so , I was tired enough that I was ready to beat it . The cruise lasts another hour and then the bus drove us back to Punta Arenas .

To my great surprise , I found a Hindu temple in Punta Arenas.

with statues of Mahatma Gandhi ,

Rabindranath Tagore (who was idolized by Pablo Neruda)

and Mother Teresa

This year is the 500th anniversary of Ferdinand Magellan circumnavigating the world. And in Punta Arenas which is the biggest city located in the straits  ,there is a lot of ongoing work to celebrate this monumental event.

Magellan did not survive the voyage, he was killed in a battle with natives in the Philippines  . Eventually only two ships reached the spice islands , loaded up with spices and tried to come back home only to find out that only one was sea worthy. Magellan started with 270 men , it returned with less than 20 men . But the booty that they had loaded in the one remaining ship was apparently enough to turn a profit . The booty was cloves . I went to a supermarket in Punta Arenas and went to the spice aisle and bought myself a commemorative packet of cloves , 5 gms for 350 chilean pesos, roughly 40 cents. Amazing to think that so many men died for something as small and trivial as cloves .

A Glorious “Paineful” Trek

Preamble

Flights from the bay area to Patagonia seem far and in between . I started my trip with a long layover in Mexico city and two red eyes , one to Mexico city and the other from Mexico city to Santiago . I debated visiting Santiago but I was more in a rush to get to Punta Arenas and start my trek . The only odd thing that I did was when the Chilean immigration official required my address for the duration of the stay , I simply put in Torres Del Paine and the Immigration officer did not even blink when he saw that .

Having researched Patagonia in terms of treks , I had conjured up an aggressive plan to finish my O Circuit in 5 days and then go to El Chalten for the Huemul circuit so that required me to start the O in Torres Del Paine as soon as possible . So I ended up in Punta Arenas a day earlier and dropped off clean clothes at the AirBnB that I was going to stay before I came back home .  This AirBnB turned out to be an extraordinarily convenient location because it was located two blocks from Buses Fernandez and 4 blocks from Bus Sur , both of which make frequent runs to Puerto Natales , the gateway to Torres Del Paines . As I walked into the Bus Fernandez office and asked for a ticket to Puerto Natales , they had a bus leaving in 5 minutes so off I go . The buses are extremely comfortable and it was a 3 hour trip where I kept seeing guanacos but it never occurred to me to click any pictures , primarily because I was expecting to see them inside the park and I could not take my eyes off the trees .  I do not think I have ever seen trees grow in such an odd and misshapen manner .They were so bent as if almost beaten to the ground , probably the famous south winds that I had always heard of but would now experience .

Day 0

Puerto Natales is a small town and I made quick inquiries after landing at the bus stand and found out that all the buses leave for Torres Del Paine at 7 AM . Apparently that is the only time of the day that they leave (I am not convinced that is true based on my latter experiences but I don’t speak Spanish and they dont speak English and I can only get so far with a phrase book and Google Translate) so lot of scope for miscommunication.  I booked an 7 AM ticket and decided to go find food given that it was almost 11 PM and everything in Puerto Natales is shut down . I was in a mild panic because I need alcohol for my alcohol stove , I had bought two small bottles of hand sanitizer which I could use in a pinch but I needed alcohol or gasoline or anything that was portable and could burn , fortunately I found one store who seemed open and could speak a little English .It seemed to be a general store with fruits and confections and an enormous amount of liquor . I looked around and did find Bacardi  151 which could be used if I could not find anything else but fortunately after I explained what I needed , he had exactly two small 250 ml bottles of cleaning alcohol both of which I purchased immediately!!! Luck was definitely on my side , I land at an unknown place at 11 PM and found the one thing that I desperately needed for this trip . He also directed me to a Cantina nearby where I could eat . I found the cantina deserted and asked for a burger with a fried egg and onions on top . The burger was oddly reminiscent of what I am used to in India  . The bread is flat and enormous , so is the patty . I gobbled it down and started looking for my hostel and again turns out that my hostel was a mere 2 blocks away and crashed after a shower , no idea when I am destined to have another shower.

Day 1 – From Paine Grande to Mirador Valle Frances ~10 miles

The next morning , I find a bunch of people in the breakfast area including a girl and her dad who were speaking English . I introduced myself and found out that the girl Talia was from Oakland and her dad was from Harrisburg,PA . Not even a few days have passed and I am already running into folks from the Bay area.

The bus ride to the park from Puerto Natales was uneventful and we reached Park HQ after what seemed liked an eternity . The Park ranger  grilled me in English as to what my plans were and asked me what camps I had booked . Fortunately I had read on blogs previously that you need to print all your camp permits and take it with you so I showed him my stack of papers . He then asked me how many days was I planning to stay and the camps that I had the permits for (he did not want to look at my permits after seeing the size of the stack), but as soon as I pointed them out on the map , he was satisfied and asked me to go the Fee counter and pay the park dues . The park had multiple choices 1 day  and 3 days or more . I ended up choosing the more than 3 days option and the fee was 35000 CLP . I was also told to bring cash but they were accepting credit cards as well as US dollars but I paid in pesos  . They also have a bunch of rules especially “no fires except in designated spots inside the camps”

My plan was based on the 7 day trek from this site . So I had to take the Pudeto boat ride  across Lago Pehoe to Paine Grande which is my starting point . The boat was crowded !!!  and everybody wanted to take pictures of the gorgeous scenery . This was also where I first set eyes on the famed Cuernos de Paine ( Horns of Paine).

Apparently the W also starts around here and there are a lot of chartered group hikes , majority of which happen on the W which actually gets almost 60-70% of the highlights of the O trek . As soon as the boat docked , I made a beeline for the trail head and found a guide who told me to look for the French valley and always keep that to my left . Turned out to be a lot easier , the trek was beautiful with gorgeous views of  Lago Skottsberg .

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I walked by several people but then I ended up pacing myself with a local guide who kept talking in English, pointed out an enormous spider to everybody around and some edible berries called Murta , I needed no further invitation . Asked for advice as to what I should go and see . She asked me how far I was going, on finding out that I was doing the O , she recommended that I either go to Central or Chilleno and definitely not Seron (which is what I told her mistakenly) . She told me in no uncertain terms that I would be crazy to miss the Base Torres which is actually the climax of the park (that was the whole purpose of my trip so I had no intention of missing that). She also suggested that I should drop off my backpack , take a water bottle and go up to Mirador Britanico . The entrance to Italiano is quite dramatic , you cross a hanging bridge across a rather gusty river. Only one person is allowed on the bridge at one time . It is a series of 2×4 tied together with metal cables and the bridge tends to sway precariously at times so definitely a fun crossing .

I registered with the ranger (very very important !! they take this too seriously so don’t mess with their rules) and headed off with my bottle towards the Mirador Valle Frances and the Mirador Britanico . The views at the Mirador Valle Frances are spectacular , it is a massive glacier and if you are lucky , you can witness an avalanche every now and then.

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It was essentially my first glacier in the park , my first in Patagonia . One of the things that I realized that I forgot to bring was my dayback or a fanny pack so I had to carry my water bottle which meant no hiking poles . The trail is extremely rocky so painful on the knees , poles would have helped greatly . After the Mirador Valle French , Mirador Britanico is a mere 0.5 miles away but for reasons that I am not sure , the ranger was quite insistent that I do not have time for it (it was about 3 PM and the sun does not set until past 10.00 PM). And to add to the confusion , I lost my way on the trail , my AllTrails app failed to load , so after a few frustrated detours in the wood , I chanced upon a familar part of the trail in the distance and made a beeline for it and headed back to Campamento Italiano.  I set up my tent and made my way to the designated area for cooking . It turned out to be a pile of stones and sheets of wet wood covering it from 3 sides . I lit my alcohol stove and heated water for my dehydrated meal and tea . I promptly turned in for the night and drifted off to a tired sleep.

Day 2 – Italiano to Chilleno ~10 miles

The next morning , I woke up to cold winds and rain , I decided to sleep in and wait out the rain , eventually I decided that I needed coffee and ventured out in the cold windy rain and heated up more water for a Starbucks Mocha and proceeded to pack up my tent and head on towards Campamento Frances which was about 3 miles away . I decided to set down my pack and look around , they had some odd offerings like an entree “Salmon and hummus” for what seemed like an exorbitant price . They were selling Peanut Snickers for 2000 CLP (~$3 ) but then I found they were selling internet access , I paid $5 for 30 minutes of internet access and managed to start up AllTrails . Rest of the trek to Campamento Chilleno was a long tiring uphill slog .

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This was the most spectacular visual treat of the day , though it was actually quite disheartening to actually have to descend all the way to the river and then climb back up!!

Once I reached Chilleno , I was grateful to use their pre setup tents rather than set up mine one one of these platforms .

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The clerk who was checking me in was named Alejandro Arun and turns out that his mom was infatuated with all things Indian and had named him Arun . He also informed me that after I checked out in the morning , I could leave my backpack in the restaurant and head on to Base Torres and pick up my backpack on the way out , a fabulous piece of advice that nobody should neglect.

Day 3 – Chilleno to Mirador Base Torres to Seron ~20 miles

My sole regret is that I did not get up at 3 AM and go see the sunrise on the towers . But otherwise it is a magnificent (and extraordinarily strenuous) trek and the top is a visual treat nonpareil. These are the famous Towers of Paine (Torres Del Paine)

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The hike back from the towers to Central and then to Seron is a painfully long one and I quickly realized why the majority of people start from Central , this is perhaps the most mundane portion of the trip and here I was  on this section after having experienced the ultimate spectacle of the trip. The highlight of this part of the trip was running into a father and son duo,  Don and Peter . I also ran into a Ukranian hiker who will feature again in a rather dramatic fashion .  Thankfully after about 6 or 7 miles, things started looking spectacular again, ‘Torres Del Paine’ style.  Campamento Seron had a warm shower option with a line of folks lining up for both the western style potty and the shower . The shower lasts exactly 5 minutes after which the water turns freezing cold but this was my first shower after 40 miles and 3 days , needless to say I was delighted!! There were strange hawks that seemed to hang around the camp the whole time , looking for food.

I could not help but reflect that animals and birds seem to develop a sense of danger or safety fairly quickly . The geese around the bay area have no trouble chasing away humans who venture too close to them but any other place they would take off in an instant . Ditto with the seals and sea lions in the bay area , thundering trucks overhead on the Bay Bridge don’t even elicit a sleepy eyebrow raise.  These hawks seem to know that they are the center of attention and revel in it. I ended up eating dinner with Don and Peter and I noticed a block of Tilamook cheese with Don, Don saw my look and proceeded to tell me that when he had done a section of the Pacific Crest trail , one of the staples was Tillamook cheese and Summer sausage . It sounded  very yummy to my very hungry tummy .

Day 4 – Seron to Dickson ~12 miles

Starting from Seron , the sights do not disappoint .

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Something that changed about halfway through the trek , lot of signs on the trail that warned hikers to turn back if they did not have reservations . It was definitely puzzling but I did not pay much attention until I stopped at the CONAF ranger station at Coiron which explicitly stated that I had to register before proceeding and the ranger came out and attempted to chat with me in broken English and me attempting to respond in broken Spanish. By this time my Brazilian buddies Roberto and Ariel also reached and Roberto pulls out a flask and a packet of Yerba Mate and proceeds to make Mate , all the time chatting with the Ranger in fluent Spanish . The ritual is an interesting one , Roberto prepared the mate and set the bombilla (steel straw) inside the mate gourd in a particular spot and then poured hot water from his thermos and proceed to hand it to Ariel who drinks it and hands it back to Roberto who calmly proceeds to fill it with hot water again and give it to me. I did exactly what Ariel did but also proceeded to adjust the straw which is when I was informed that if I attempted to do this in Argentina , they would cut my hand off !!! Suitably chastened , I finished the drink and handed it back to Roberto who proceeded to fill it again and hand it to the ranger who by now had managed to attract a second ranger . The ritual continued until we had emptied the thermos . I also learned that to say Gracias in this scenario was an indication that you do not want mate any more so I asked how do I say Thanks . I was informed that you do not .  The idea of sharing a straw among 6 random people seemed like a recipe for getting sick . but I knew better than to bring that up right now. Suitably refreshed , we got up and proceeded to head on towards Dickson which was still another 9 KM away. As I kept walking , I keep eating the Murta berries every opportunity I got but I could not stop fantasizing about the block of Tillamook cheese.

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Rest of the trip to Dickson was a slog and I started realizing that my big plan of going from Dickson to Grey the next day might not materialize . The terrain is not easy and what makes it harder is that there are no switchbacks here . I have not figured out why there are no switchbacks , I can only speculate that it has been a conscious decision to forego switchbacks because creating switchbacks takes a far greater toll on the landscape and is definitely more expensive . Once I reached Dickson , I promptly registered with the ranger and then proceeded to the Vertice Patagonia office where I had to show my reservation . Apparently my reservations for Dickson , Los Perros and Grey  were all off by a day (I arrived a day earlier) which caused them no small amount of consternation. But they told me to go ahead and get my tent set up and I could come back in 30 minutes to get details . I did as instructed and by the time I was done setting up my tent , I was starving and decided that I was going to treat myself to an Almond snickers that I had seen and also a pound cake and maybe even some chocolate cream cookies . As I walked back to the store/registration , I saw the Ukranian hiker who looked despondent , I waved but he seemed too distracted .  The almond snickers was 2000 CLP (~$2.50) , the pound cake was 5000 CLP (~$7) . I presume there are two reasons for the extraordinary premium that we are paying , a) They have a captive audience , I am not going to find a supermercado (super market ) in a radius of 50 miles and b) the cost of bringing in these goods by mule . I have experienced the same issue in Phantom Ranch at the bottom of the Grand Canyon and in Glen Aulin in Tuolomne Meadows , Yosemite where they were charging $4 for a Clif bar. I shared the pound cake with my Brazilian buddies and I mentioned the Ukranian hiker which is when Bruno , the third Brazilian who had been hiking with him mentioned that apparently the Ukranian had not reserved any camps except for Seron so they had confiscated his passport and told him to collect it from park headquarters near Central , a distance of almost 31 km (~20 miles) and thats when I also found out that the Ukranian had not packed any food or tent or sleeping bag . How does one embark on a 7-11 day hike without bringing any of these ? I was astounded !!! My alcohol stove now seemed to have caught everybody’s attention , I have to thank Andrew Skurka for that idea . Finished another tasteless dehydrated meal and went back to my tent and ate my Almond Snickers for dessert and promptly went to sleep

Day 5 – Dickson to Los Perros ~9 miles

I woke up to a beautiful morning , I had two choices , either I follow everybody to Los Perros or I continue onwards to Grey . If I wanted to make it to Grey , I should have woken up a lot sooner , it did not take too long for me to talk myself out of that option and then somebody mentioned that there was a beach behind the camp . Curious I decided to go check it out . I was mesmerized , I was all alone on this gorgeous beach , the lake was an inviting turquoise teal that all Glacier melt lakes seem to have , with mountains and glaciers in the background . After about an hour of delightful reverie,  the Huemul circuit all but forgotten,  my Brazilian buddy Ariel joined me and kindly agreed to take my picture.

I could not believe that I could actually be here taking all this in . I swore to myself that the next time I am here , I am going to spend two nights at this camp , this is one of the most beautiful , serene places that I have ever seen.  Finally I decided to leave and head for Los Perros , no way was I going to make it to Grey , the rangers shut down the trail at a certain time and they will not let you proceed once they have closed the trail . The trail is beautiful and can be treacherous at times , I crossed a hanging bridge , went through some interesting micro eco systems before I encountered the famous southern winds . I saw people lose their backpack raincovers , even ones that were clipped in . The wind was so dreadful at one point that I was forced to take shelter behind a rock, I cannot recall ever encountering winds like this . I cannot imagine being on a ridge trying to fight these winds which is exactly what happens near the Paso John Gardner , now I also understand why the rangers will not let you pass if the winds are too high . Once it calmed down , I hurried and finally reached the Los Perros Glacier which is another beautiful lake crowned by the Glacier, spent some time admiring the lake and the chunks of ice floating around and some wild birds nearby who seemed oblivious to the humans around who were gawking at them.

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I tried in vain to see the dog(s) (Los Perros) in the glacier form but failed .

Dinner at Los Perros was a quiet affair , everybody knew that we had to get up early and cross the pass as early as possible since winds pick up later in the day. So after a quick dinner , everybody retired to their tent.

Day 6 – From Los Perros to Grey ~12 miles

The day started off with a rambling trail in the woods on rocky ground , finally after a couple of miles , it leveled off but that was only a brief respite .

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Before too long , we started climbing on rocky terrain , on the way I met a doctor from Pensacola, FL. Spending extended time in a country where one does not understand the local language renders you extra sensitive to any familiar language and when I hear English with an American accent , I do not need an invitation to pepper them with questions  as to where they are from . I have always found it fascinating that when I am abroad  ( England , Italy , Japan ) people know where I am from based on my accent , however Americans in general seem oblivious and they would invariably respond “I am from the US” but this gentleman recognized my accent  and responded with “Pensacola” .

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Trekking across an ice field!!!

And then as we got closer and closer to the summit, we started seeing the Grey Glacier . It is a magnificent sight .

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I cannot get over how blue the ice is

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Lago Grey and Grey Glacier. The Grey glacier melts into lago Grey , big chunks of blue glacial ice float around . I could sit here and watch this for hours .

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Lago Grey

And then the descent starts ,  in typical Torres Del Paine fashion , it is brutal on your knees . I was grateful for my hiking poles. At some point , I ended up being solo again and then I entered Campamento Paso which is the second camp that CONAF manages so it is free but it has no facilities . But you have to register so do not forget to register even though you are merely passing through. The cooking area was a shed where I found another bay area buddy , Adrian who had been hiking for the last several months and was heading north to Argentina and then onto Brazil and eventually Bolivia, he planned to get back to Oakland around May or June . After exchanging pleasantries , I wished him all the best and hurried on towards Campamento Grey which is still a good 8-10 KM away . As I was walking , I suddenly felt an eye on me and startled I looked up to see an Andean condor not a 100 feet away ,gliding and giving me the eye . I was in such rapture that it took me a few seconds to gather my wits and grab my camera and take a picture of his rapidly disappearing form .

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Having lived in California for 6 years , I have vainly tried to see if I could locate Condors but have never seen them , 6 days in Chile and I see this amazingly graceful bird  , what a treat!!  If I could pat myself on the back , I would!!! Every mirador sign that I saw , I made it a point to check it out , at one mirador I ran into a bunch of  CONAF rangers , one of them was cordial and even though I could not speak Spanish and he could not speak English , we managed to have a fairly long interesting conversation about the South Patagonian Ice field, the Dickson Glacier , the Grey glacier and he even identified several of the berries that I had been chomping down , most notably the El Calafate berry .

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Legend has it that once somebody eats a Calafate berry , he will come back to Patagonia . Just for good measure , I grabbed a few more handfuls and gobbled it up just in case the superstition has some truth to it. It is quite tart and tasty . There were some ripe Murta bushes nearby and I helped myself to those as well and then proceeded onwards to Grey . This was the first time since the towers that I would be venturing back into the W territory and I was in for a rude shock . It was so crowded (at this point 20 people is a crowd) , I saw a sign for the ranger station and I started walking towards it even though it was taking me away from the camp . When I reached it , there was no ranger in sight and some helpful women told me that I do not need to register at the ranger station here so feeling a little grouchy (that extra 10 minutes was painful!!) . When I entered Campamento Grey , I was awestruck at the number of people and tents . I went in to register at the Vertice Patagonia store / register . They checked me in and told me to pitch my tent within the camping area and there were showers next door . At this point , I ran into Peter and his dad Don who informed me that they were doing dinner at the Cafe . Sounded like a great idea but the need for a shower seemed to precipitate every other instinct in me so I decided to take care of business first . Along with showering , I also washed my clothes . The winds in Patagonia ensure that all your clothes will be dry in a few hours , and you also have to make sure that your clothes do not fly away so I ended up using duct tape which worked admirably well . I had made some new friends , Kendall and her brother Stephen and I ate dinner with them . Dinner was a treat , a 3 course meal with soup , steak and potatoes and a lemon cake dessert . The service crew were very conscientious , checking constantly if everything was ok and anybody had food restrictions or allergies. 

Day 7 – Grey to Paine Grande ~8 miles

A slow start , generally reluctant to get moving and I ended up skipping breakfast and got coffee from the cafe and then bidding adieu to my new friends , headed on to Paine Grande .

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One last wistful look at Lago Grey and the Grey Glacier

It is a short trek with some of the scenery reminiscent of what I am used to in the bay area . Saw several condors and then finally laid eyes on the turquoise teal of lago Pehoe.

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When I reached the lake , I saw a sign that had an arrow sign with “Italiano” , I was puzzled and looked around and realized that I had almost walked past Paine Grande and I was seized by an intense emotion , just sadness swelled up inside me  . I am done with my trek and I am going to leave this beautiful park!!

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I decided to go inside the cafe and celebrate . The cafe had a deal where you could get two beers with a pizza , sounded too good to pass up . The pizza was made fresh but tasteless so I asked the clerk if he had any spices , he pulled out a tray that had 3 sets of spices , I promptly dumped a spoonful of what seemed like the spiciest onto my pizza , his eyebrows rose , I took another bite and ended up dumping another spoonful and it still tasted bland!!! A very anti-climatic celebration to what was easily one of best trekking experiences of my life.

I could not help but reflect that the sole reason why the trip turned out to be so much easier than expected was the fact that I did not carry any water (for the Grand Canyon, I carried 3 liters and had to be replenished at the bottom , an extra 6.6 lbs!!!) . I drank water unfiltered from streams (always get it upstream) , glacier melt is delicious!! Almost decadent!!! Never pass up a chance to drink Glacier melt.

The boat finally showed up and I sailed off to Puerto Natales and onwards to Argentina (just to clarify , the boat takes you across the lake , rest of the trip is on buses) .

Once I got back to Puerto Natales , I promptly booked a ticket for the next morning to go on to El Calafate , gateway to Parque Nacional Los Glaciares , reconciled to the fact that I am coming back to Patagonia to do the Huemul circuit.

Week 2

Crown of the continent

The best care-killing scenery on the continent – beautiful lakes derived straight from glaciers, lofty mountains steeped in lovely nemophila-blue skies and clad with forests and glaciers, mossy ferny waterfalls in their hollows, nameless and numberless, and meadowy gardens abounding in the best of everything ….

John Muir

When I watched the National Geographic video on Glacier National Park. I was griped with a sense of urgency almost akin to that of answering nature’s call except this was a call of the wild, from the depths of the soul. As the commentary ran toward the unnerving statistic that the park had over 150 glaciers in 1910 when the park was formed, but there are only 20+ left today , there is a sense of impending doom and foreboding, the days of the glaciers in Glacier National Park are clearly numbered. While one does have a tendency to show a marked bias towards Yosemite when one is living in Northern California as can be evidenced by the last several names of the Mac OS releases, I was overwhelmed by the sheer beauty of the Rockies . It has always been a little disappointing that the name of one of the most spectacular mountain ranges should be so unimaginative(Did the first man who looked at them look and mumble to his woman , “it does look a little Rocky?”) but then life is full of little disappointments .  Being a road warrior at times , I had managed to spend enormous amounts of time on the road in the eastern part of the US , never had the chance for that in the western US and this was a great opportunity to view the western US . The alternative was to fly to Kalispell which is interestingly an international airport though a really small one.

 

It took me the better part of the day to cross Washington State and Idaho , it was late afternoon when I entered Montana  .For the majority of the last 20 years , I had been hearing this myth that Montana has no speed limits . Here is evidence to finally put that stupid myth to rest

I was struck by the isolation that one encounters as soon as one enters Idaho and Montana , I had never seen anything like it . But things were about to get worse as I exited I 90 to get on the state roads . It was already dark and I could not see any evidence of any civilization . I realized if I hit an animal or had a breakdown , I was in deep doo doo.  MT 135  is  a windy road , passing over several rivers and letting us peek at scenic vistas , so no fun to drive after dark but I did not want to camp outside and I definitely was not about to park my car on the side of a road with no shoulder. After what seemed like eternity , I saw some lights . Coming closer I realized quickly that it was a tiny town with one bar and just a few houses. I imagine I must have driven through over 150 miles in the dark before I finally came upon Kalispell . The last part of the drive into Glacier included a drive on Going to the Sun road which promises to induce motion sickness into the most hardened road warrior and definitely meant to be seen during the day.

Kalispell (my Indian origins made me wonder if I was meant to be under the spell of Kali , the fearsome goddess that chomps up demons and other undesirables ) but it is just a sedentary little town whose name actually means “Flat land above the lake” . For an outsider , its sole claim to fame is Glacier National park. The town is utterly forgettable , it has the all the usual suspects that make up a small American town including the motley crew of fast food chains, motels and  all other amenities which leave every small town indistinguishable from every other small town.Grabbing a quick breakfast and coffee , I romped on . Before too long , I entered the Western entrance of Glacier National Park which housed an incredibly large number of curio shops , a small store selling sundaes and milkshakes , I keep seeing references to Huckleberry everywhere  however I do not spy any Huckleberry with my little eye!! After eyeing everything , I take off and before too long I end up on going to the Sun road , it is a two lane road with lot of traffic which means I have to drive at the speed limit of 30 MPH!!! Before too long the pain vanished as I was lost in the scenery around me, the road winds up through a series of switchbacks  and I managed to pick up some hitchhikers before too long and it turned out to be one of the more fortuitous decisions that I made . I found out that my hitch hikers were a married couple from Missoula and they came here at least 5-6 times a year , I chatted with both of them about Glacier , the wife had been coming here since she was 5 or 6 , and her mother was still working up at the Sperry Chalet and last year was the first time she had laid eyes on a Pika . Needless to say I was a little jealous and concerned , wondering if I could be so lucky as to lay eyes on one. I was to drop them off at Logan Pass which is on the continental divide and the highest point passable by a car. But I was also thinking that I would try some quick hikes . The husband asked me if I was planning to hike, I promptly said “Yes” to which he responded that there would be an enormous number of people trying to park so I should take up his spot as soon as he pulled out . Needless to say I was extremely gratified when we did get to Logan pass and saw all the vehicles trying to get a parking spot. I took him on his offer and went off to my sojourn . The views from the Hidden Lake trail were spectacular to say the least

Little can this picture depict the tumult of gushing emotions that envelopes one so completely when one looks upon the sheer majesty of these mountains , the glaciers and the lakes that are fed by the glacier melt.  After I came back down from my 3 mile hike , I was suddenly accosted by a car as I was walking to my car in the parking lot , this woman asked me if I was leaving , I nodded and she promptly got down from the car and started walking along . So far I did not find anything odd , she is just staying close to me so she does not lose me . But then after I got in the car , I realized she was not about to let me leave until her son had bought their car over to park , I had to wait for a good 10 minutes during which time I started making conversation and found out that she had been driving around in a big gas guzzling SUV for the last 45 minutes waiting for a parking spot . I wanted to tell her that she was one of the reasons why glaciers are melting at the rate that they are but good old fashioned courtesy and manners can be a handicap in matters like these. She was apparently moving her son from Seattle to Washington DC so they were taking the scenic route . Finally she let me escape and I took off driving through going to the Sun road . The road is extremely narrow in spots and if I happened to see a SUV or a truck barreling down the other way , I would wait until they passed before I proceeded through one of these narrow spots. One is inclined to be extremely prudent in cases like these simply because you are between a cliff and a ravine.

I then proceeded to a short trail which had Mary Falls

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and then onto Virginia Falls

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On the way I saw a lot of burnt trees , victims of an old forest fire and here I could see evidence of a how a fire causes sap to heat up, at some point the life giving sap becomes akin to napalm and the tree can explode or in cases like the one I found , it splits the tree vertically and kills it. I kept wondering if the parks service simply did not have funds to clear the forest of this extremely flammable tinder in case of another forest fire , so convinced was I of this hypotheses that I could not imagine any other scenario.

After exiting the trail I found several scenic spots on going up the Sun road

Finally reached St Marys and then proceeded onto Many Glacier

Needless to say the sheer beauty of the Montana landscape was bewitching to say the least , a taste that is enough to get one addicted for life.

The following day was a walk with a ranger to Two Medicine and she told us that Huckleberries grow no higher than 8 inches off the ground so knee level but Fool’s huckleberry spreads tall and wide. The most interesting part of this was learning that the dead trees that I had so wanted to get rid of , plays an extremely important part in the forest ecosystem , providing shelter to some , food to others , organic material back to the soil , definitely not the reason that I had in mind .

Two medicine lake is a blissful view

Another interesting aspect that I learnt was about geology

Blithely unaware , I was admiring the colors but the colors tell a story of a time long ago when Earth was covered in acid rain and the predecessors to the Rockies were broken down by acid rain . The colors themselves reveal what geological age they belong too . Red colored rocks indicate the existence of rust and thereby the presence of oxygen ,a relative new comer to the game but the green precedes the red by several millennia. But nonetheless all of these rocks predate us , they predate any creature on earth that needs oxygen to survive and so the ranger made a joke by pointing to the rock and saying that these are our ancestors .

The third day was a trip to the Grinnell Complex /  Glacier .

It is a round trip hike of 7.6 miles with some elevation gain  . In the picture above , one sees the Salamander glacier at the top , it is called a salamander due to the crevasse that shows up in the middle which makes it look like a line on the salamander.  The other is the Grinnell glacier named after George Grinnell.  The glacier melt is amazing to drink ( filter it), works as a wonderful ice pack too as I decided to soak my injured calf

The return hike back and rides back over lake Josephine and lake Swiftcurrent passed by and I could not have been more happy to pay a visit to the famed Two Sisters cafe , ready to take in everything Huckleberry . The huckleberry milkshake was delicious beyond belief , my sole regret is that my appetite did not allow me to partake of a Huckleberry pie as well.

The return sojourn from Glacier back to California took me through the beautiful flathead valley and the home of myriad rivers . The scenery is so bewitching that I had to stop at regular intervals just to take more pictures

With a heavy heart , I finally commenced on the long drive back but Montana keeps pull at my heart strings, I even stopped at a lot sale to inquire about the price . Stopping at a Jiffy Lube just outside Glacier National park in Columbia Falls , I struck up a conversation with the local pastor who had come for an oil change as well. He was curious as to where I was from , after he found out that I was from California , somehow the conversation seamlessly moved to politics though Politics and religion tend to be two subjects that I rarely converse about . He wanted to explain to me why Montana was red , it was everything to do with guns . I looked at him in mute surprise . He explained to me that the average salary is about $30,000 which means for most people , to be able to provide meat for the family is synonymous with hunting.  I nodded sagely , my old boss in Ohio who had imported me long long ago informed me that the salary that he was paying me (which was not quite subsistence level) was more than what an average American family made so I believed it without ever bothering to verify the same. Further more he proceeded to educate me, guns are like investments to folks out here , I looked puzzled so he proceeded to educate me “Buy low, sell high” with a querying brow. I grinned and he proceeded “Hunters buy these guns at the beginning of the season and once they had hunted for the seasons, they would sell them and gun prospectors buy them on the cheap so essentially they have had their meat for nothing”  . I listened quietly , he seems to have forgotten about the investment credo that he was preaching a few minutes ago or perhaps he is just an amazing good salesman. Regardless of whether he is peddling god or peddling guns to his brothers, he is turning a profit whichever way he looks. He certainly tried his damnedest on Montana and their need for weapons that I would never acquiesce for , in most other places.

As for selling me on Montana , he need not have bothered

Glacier National park is indeed a magical place , a Disneyland for kids and adults alike

A sojourn through Ancient , Roman, Saxon , Norman , Medieval and Modern England

In 54 or 55 BC , Julius Caesar long before he said “Et Tu Brute” landed in Britain to punish them for their collaboration of the Gauls . He said “Imagine the gaul!!” and that phrase has caught on with us . He decided that since there was no name for the island , he would name it Britannia (whose biscuits are still sold and consumed in India and the Indian diaspora) . Some years later , a small village called Londonium was set up on the banks of the river Thames . Apparently the city was so popular with the Romans that they built a wall around the city to keep out the riff raff . They got this idea after they had their first fracas with Boadica , Queen of the Iceni who insisted on equal rights for women and gave them a good ol whooping . Embarrassed they put up a wall whose fragments survive to this day , one can be seen just outside the Tower hill tube station even today . However soon the Romans got tired of the cold English weather and found out that all roads lead to Rome except for the one in Britain which led to wet pants and shoes so promptly left . This was followed by was general good cheer among the natives who said “Mr Caesar ,tear down that wall”  .They liked the name of their little village except that they decided to expunge all roman influences like “ium” and called their city London instead.  Centuries later , the state of California and the city of Berkeley would do something similar , they would take their names from the elements called Californium and Berkeleyium and drop the oldish “ium” to sound totally modern and hip . Fast forward today London is a bustling metropolis of 9 million people.

Preparations

Other than the customary plane ticket , I decided that I needed more help so I asked some of the folks around , watched several videos by Rick Stevens (most of which I dont remember except for a admonition not to visit the strip clubs) , finally I decided to pose the question on Facebook to a group called Medieval British History and while they offered excellent suggestions as to places I should visit and places that I should skip , the most valuable suggestion turned out to be to get a British rail pass and a English Heritage Overseas visitor card . Somebody also suggested that I read 1066 and all that which turned out to be a hysterical summary of English history. I had decided to stay in a YHA and I ended up finding one at Earls court which is on the District line of the underground which connects all the sites in London as well as to the locations which serve the National Rail services. Avoid getting the mobile pass , most locations outside of London do not have a reader that can read a 2D barcode off your phone , so there is a lot of grumbling from the rail employees about their inability to read a 2D barcode from a phone when I would show them the pass to allow me to pass through their pearly gates.It costs an extra 2 pounds to have the ticket in paper form mailed to your home , I would gladly pay just so that that I would not have to listen to all the grumbling.

Day 1 at St Pauls , Westminister and Tower of London

I decided that I would do the big attractions today , namely St Pauls Cathedral , Westminister Abbey , Tower of London and Benjamin Franklin’s house on Craven St (the last is a big one for me personally) . Scheduling them turned out to be an ordeal , finally I settled in on going to St Pauls first since it opened at 8:30 AM and went to the crypt which hosts a number of luminaries in their after life . The Napoleonic battle heroes like Wellington and Nelson are accorded honor here and of course the Architect himself , Sir Christopher Wren himself. There is an exhausting climb to the top which not only narrows to very tight proportions (especially for us Americans) but also seems extremely short but you are rewarded once you get to the top with an amazing panaroma. St Pauls was built in 604 AD and the current building was rebuilt by Sir Christopher Wren after the great London Fire of 1666.  It is a remarkably beautiful building even to my uneducated eyes

 

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Then it was a 20 minute trip to Westminister Abbey on the underground from St Pauls .

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Westminister Abbey was started by Edward the Confessor and has been the site of every coronation since 1066 i.e starting with Duke William of Normandy or William the conqueror as he is known today and there are several monarchs buried here including Edward the Confessor who is accorded a place of honor. But as I walked around there are an amazing number of luminaries buried here including Geoffrey Chaucer , Charles Dickens , Thomas Hardy, Laurence Olivier in what is called the Poets corner . Everywhere that you walk, you seem to be walking on the graves of great men and women , I saw Charles Darwin , Isaac Newton , Ben Jonson . It is literally a whos who of British greats. Between the architecture and the people buried here , it is a remarkably humbling experience to walk through here.

And finally another short ride via the underground to the Tower of London .

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The Tower was built by William the conqueror and is witness to countless executions including 3 queens , two of whom had the misfortune of marrying Henry VIII who was always looking for a reason to divorce. The most tragic of all the murders is actually a mystery , the murder of two young princes  aged 12 and 9, sons of Edward IV . It is suspected that Richard III , their uncle was behind these murders but never proved. There is a part of the tower that is dedicated to them

 

The biggest attraction inside the Tower was for the Crown Jewels ,the lines snake impossibly and quite frankly it was a letdown for me . Growing up in India , I had read about the KohiNoor diamond . But after seeing it I realized that somebody could give me a kohinoor and I would not know the difference from a cubic zirconium.  The one thing that I did not expect to encounter inside was the famed Ravens , they are fed a ration of 150 gms of meat along with biscuits every day. Talk about pampered Ravens!!

 

The amount of walking that was involved seemed like a lot but according to Google , I had only walked about 2 miles but I have a sneaking suspicion that if I had started my Strava , I would have had a far more accurate number .

Day 2 at Covent Garden

I started off with visiting the Royal institution where Michael Faraday worked for the majority of his life . Michael Faraday along with Benjamin Franklin are two auto didacts that I admire immensely

 

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Saville Row is the street for expensive London tailors . I found out that if I worked my whole life in Silicon Valley then maybe I could afford to pay for one Saville Row suit , like the ones that James Bond wears.

 

Bond street has a similar reputation for fine jewelers and similarly if I work two jobs in Silicon valley , I might be able to get myself a decent watch from this place.

 

It is a short hop to Covent garden which has a massive market and a Freemasons Lodge

Along with being a shopper’s paradise , I was told to check out the Apple store , it was a little novel compared to other Apple stores .

John Soanes Museum is a hidden treasure around here . Sir John Soanes was an architect who collected antiques , paintings , books and then managed to get Parliament to pass an act where it is guaranteed to maintain the house as a museum with free access to the public . Unfortunately though it was the first time I saw a Sarcophagus , one of the early editions of Shakespeare’s 1st Folio and a ton of amazing stuff , it is not allowed to take any pictures inside this marvelous place so nothing to share except a recommendation that this is a must visit spot. IMHO it is far more interesting than the London Zoo, London Eye, Madame Tussaud’s and hordes of other popular tourist destinations.

Day 3 in Oxford

It was a sedate trip to Oxford

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Anybody who has seen Yes Minister or Yes Prime Minister , this is the Bailey college that Humphrey went to

Day 4 at the British Library and the British Museum

It was quick stop at the British Library where I got to see one of the 4 surviving copies of the Magna Carta . There were several other treasures including Shakespeare’s first folio , a Gutenberg bible , an original of Alice in Wonderland , recordings of James Joyce reciting passages from Finnegans Wake , one of Da Vinci’s notebooks .

I moved onto the British Museum where I spent all day until they closed at 8:30 PM . One gets to see so many artifacts from so many places around the world that it becomes very easy for comparative analysis . The British Musuem is a treasure trove for folks who enjoy Greek epics , there is so much pottery depicting scenes from the Iliad and the Odyssey and various other Greek plays and mythology .There was one memorable one depicting the murder of Priam by Neoptolemus using the baby Astanyax as a weapon , that was horribly gruesome by any standards , to kill the grandfather using the dead body of his infant grandson .

On a happier note there were sections that shows you clearly how a mechanical watch works which was truly fascinating . Amazing things that I had always heard about and got to see were the Rosetta Stone , the Parthenon Frieze , the Elgin Marbles , Easter island statues , Sarcophaguses , bust of Rameses the Great , an actual mummy

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Day 5 at the Museum of Natural History

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After umpteen trips to the Smithsonian and NYC , I had yet to make a trip to the Museum of Natural History so I had go across the pond to view a museum of Natural History . It was an auspicious start given that Charles Darwin argued his case here . The amount of information presented becomes overwhelming even though they have taken great pains to present the information in small easily digestible formats . I suspect that they spent a lot of time with psychologists to reduce information fatigue.

I went over to the Science Museum next door but was quickly disappointed , they have one wing for Information Technology , I am spoilt by the Computer History Museum in Mountain View . I was expecting more mechanical marvels , I got to see a giant steam engine but very little details on how things work .

Day 6 in Hastings and Battle

I went over to Hastings which is a long train ride from Charing Cross. Hastings is the location where William the conqueror landed and quickly setup a fort.

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When I posted on the Facebook group for Medieval British history that I was going to Hastings , several people frankly asked me if I was planning on feeding chips to the sea gulls . I was appalled at the time. But having visited it now  , I have to agree . The ruins are present but give you absolutely no idea . For a 5 pound fee , you are allowed to go into a dungeon which is about 10 steps deep and then watch a movie which briefly shows the motivations of the characters involved . King Harold who was a powerful man and took an opportunity to take the throne for himself or William the conqueror who claimed that promises were made on account of the fact that he was Emma’s (mother of Edward the confessor) nephew.  Tragically for Harold who was incidentally the last native English king of England, he got stuck with an arrow in the eye . This also ended the Anglo Saxon rule in England

This is the scene showing Harold with an arrow in his eye . It is a scene from the Bayeux Tapestry which was commissioned by William’s half brother Odo.

On 14th Oct , barely 3 weeks after landing in England  William  marched 8 miles north to meet King Harold’s men in a place that is known today as Battle.

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Battle is far more interesting than Hastings. This is a well maintained historical place and the ruined abbey inside it. The abbey was built by William who apparently did it as penitence for the blood that was shed on this ground . The high altar of the abbey was the place where King Harold fell.

Day 7 in Canterbury and Dover

This was a sojourn to Canterbury . In a way visiting Canterbury was as important to me as visiting Battle . To see the place where Becket was killed ,

to see the street where Henry II walked on his bare feet. To contemplate and marvel at the monks who having watched Becket get murdered helplessly flogged their penitent King.

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After visiting Canterbury Cathedral , I walked out to see the ruins of Abbey of St Augustine (no relation to the St Augustine of Hippo who wrote the City of God) . Legend has it that the pope Gregory saw some fair haired slaves who looked like Angels or Angles (which is the root of the word English ). After he learnt where they came from, he sent the Benedictine monk Augustine in 595 AD to convert this pagan nation to Christianity and save all their souls from eternal damnation.  There is a statue dedicated to Geoffrey Chaucer and another dedicated to Ben Jonson

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It is a 20 minute train ride to Dover from Canterbury . Unfortunately I did not get enough time to view the Castle which is a magnificent piece of work ,  built by Henry II. Dover is also home to the best preserved Roman built structures shown below

This was the best shot that I could get of the White cliffs of Dover

 

Dover castle has been gateway to the realm for almost a millennium. During WWII It  was home to Operation Dynamo which saw the safe evacuation of 400,000 British and French troops from Dunkirk . There are wartime tunnels which also served as hospitals for the wounded . Unfortunately I reached too late to actually do the full rounds of Dover Castle and go all the way to the top. The only solace was that I had a full English breakfast with two pints of bitter for dinner. While I could identify most items , there was one in particular that I could not identify at all so I made brave to ask the owner /bartender and he burst out laughing . He told me it was black pudding. The texture is closer to a granola bar and the taste is extremely savory not sweet . I have no idea why it is called pudding . He proceeded to inform me it was pigs blood .

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Day 8 at the Imperial War Museum

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Day 9 at the National Gallery

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This is my first Da Vinci , The Virgin of the Rocks

It has Monet , Cezanne, Rubens, Michelangelo , Murillo , Van Gogh and more paintings and artists than I could remember . One of the paintings on my to see list was the Wilton Diptych

Day 10 in Bath and Stonehenge

Visited the city of Bath which was highly developed by the Romans who believed that this was a sacred place and dedicated it to Athena or Minerva

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Then onto Stonehenge . Words fail me as I try to understand how they set up these stones 4500 years ago . It is an elaborate site , amongst other purposes it is known to identify the Summer and Winter Solstice just by viewing the sun from particular locations around the stones.

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Unfortunately I missed going to Salisbury cathedral , I was too late coming back from Stone Henge . Next time I will drive rather than take the trains for long distance journeys. The cathedral is beautiful , it is the tallest spire in the United Kingdom . It houses the best surviving copy of the Magna Carta . There is an interesting anecdote about the Cathedral from World War II . During the battle of Britain , every part of England was bombed but not Salisbury . After the war, the interrogators asked the Luftwaffe pilots as  to why Salisbury was spared . The German high command had issued strict orders that Salisbury was not to be bombed . The spire was so tall and so distinct that German pilots would use that as their landmark and once they reached Salisbury then they could proceed to their respective destinations comfortable with the knowledge that their bearings were correct.

Day 11 at The Victoria and Albert Museum

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Day 12 in Greenwich on the Prime Meridian

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Majority of the museums are free , these museums are magnificent houses of creations of humanity over the centuries , they take exceptional care of these artifacts , far more than these great pieces would have received in their homeland . One only needs to look at the Parthenon pieces which are preserved here or remember the Babri Masjid incident in India or the Bamiyan Buddha destruction by the Taliban or listen to fundamentalist regimes talk about destroying parts of their heritage which preceded their particular sets of beliefs  . So I was grateful to see these beautiful sculptures , carvings , paintings preserved and available to see for free . I dropped 5 pounds every time I entered these museums , bought books , bought over priced scones with butter and jam and cream tea or cakes . The experience of watching this was priceless so I would recommend everybody who has an opportunity should see it and if you can donate , please do so . We need to keep this alive for the sake of future generations

A Rev Evolutionary Edu Vacation

Shantiniketan is the home of a unique University Viswa-bharati , India (and Asia)’s first Nobel Laureate , Rabindranath Tagore used the money from the Nobel prize to further his father’s vision of a place of higher learning , one of the instances when the Nobel prize money was actually put to good use as was hoped for, by Alfred Nobel. Einstein actually used it to pay his alimony .

This is an open air school where each classroom has a tree and a podium for the teacher

Rabindranath Tagore as a child hated the traditional concept of a school and played truant on the banks of the river Kopai . I imagine the river looked more scenic in his day. Legend also has it that he wrote Gitanjali on the banks of this river

I found a vendor of date palm jaggery on the banks of the river

This is a date palm tree .

They use coconut shells to shape the jaggery.

The villagers use the dried leaves of the date palm tree as fuel. The sap is tapped and collected into buckets which is then heated on a fire . It reminded me of Maple syrup from Sugar Maple trees in Ohio and Canada. The process is very organic , natural , vastly different from the manufacture of any of our sweeteners . I don’t know but I am willing to bet that the Glycemic Index of this is substantially below industrially manufactured and bleached white sugar.

Viswa-Bharati has several different schools but the one that I could visit was called Kala Bhavan or the art school . Getting around in Shantiniketan is done via Tuk-tuks , an improvised contraption on wheels that runs on natural gas

Our guide told us that we could get to the school after classes were over at 1:30 PM so we ended up visiting a museum nearby which housed cultural artifacts and models of homes in several of the nearby states

The one that fascinated me most was the dwellings of the aborgine people of Andaman and Nicobar islands

These are supposed to be stilts and the house is built on a raised platform

The floor is made of bamboo and incredibly uncomfortable to walk on . I hear that they sleep on this . Mind boggling!!!

This was my first view of Shantiniketan

The grounds are immaculately maintained

These are works of the Sculptor Ramkinkar Baij

What is remarkable about these sculptures is that he created them by putting up a wireframe and then throwing gobs of concrete and plaster from a distance . I could not but draw parallels between this technique and Jackson Pollack

Walking in further lead to more amazing scenes like these murals

 

A painting in stone

Amazingly these murals were made with tiles

 

 

Watching this reminded me of Frank Wright LLoyds Fallingwater. A harmony of architecture with Nature !!!

Watching the Banyan vines made me nostalgic

 

This was an amazing artifact to me , the artist had created a bug with the gas tank of a Yamaha motorcycle , motorcycle mirror holders and other odd artifacts . In fact at the open air market outside the school were a variety of handicrafts , handloom textiles and curiosities as the above made beetle , all made from household materials . The artist had clearly seen regular every day items with a creative eye and produced something all of his own .

I loved the concept of this school , the idea of applying what you know while you are being taught . Unfortunately I could not quite see how the other schools in Viswa-Bharati were conducting their classes . It would be quite interesting to see the science schools

Education as a subject has always fascinated me . The current model of education all over the world which has pupils memorizing and regurgitate for the sake of the exam encourages a behavior where the student is rewarded for memorizing meaningless facts and promptly forgetting after the exam is over .

I have heard numerous arguments for allowing kids to drop subjects that they dislike . Math seems to be a popular choice for dropping . Plato had a quote outside his Academy that anybody ignorant of math should not enter  and if the ancient Greeks thought so highly of a well rounded education in those simpler times, this day and age simply demands it. I believe that not being exposed to the core ideas in all subjects is like going through life with your hands cuffed behind your back. I have learnt from personal experience as well as very interesting reading that exposure is what allows us to recognize patterns and exploit them .

Growing up in India and watching snow in movies made me believe that snow was white fluffy stuff that was good for skiing (which I thought was a risk less sport) and making snow balls and hitting your friends. I moved to Ohio in December and before the winter was out , I had recognized several kinds of snow , the fluffy ones , the heavy slushy ones . the ones that were overly slippery. I read that the Inuit living in the Arctic circle had 17 different words for snow . When your life depends on recognizing whether the snow / ice can handle your weight , I suppose it makes sense to be as specific as possible . It also makes sense to have specific words for it so you can hang your experiences on those words and thereby make it easy for recall.  Another  anecdote is about this tribe living deep in the Amazon rain forests who do not know the color blue . They know the color green and can discern minute difference in shades of green that most women would envy and yet when they were given a color wheel with shades of green and one blue and asked to point out to the color that stood out, none pointed at Blue. It is actually not too outlandish , first time I read Homer , I was baffled at his description of the wine dark sea . I could not imagine a sea that was the color of any wine that I had drunk . It made sense later on after I found out that the ancient Greeks had no word for blue . One could offer countless examples where one starts to recognize patterns only after one is taught to recognize the pattern or at least the principle behind the patterns .

The idea behind letting kids choose their future is an attractive one but to be able to do that , they need to be aware of all the choices and tools at their disposal. Paul Graham had an interesting essay , fair warning it is lengthy .

How to do what you love

In this playhouse of infinite forms I have had my play and here have I caught sight of him who is formless.
My whole body and my limbs have thrilled with his touch who is beyond touch; and if the end comes here, let it come—let this be my parting word.

This fragment from Gitanjali seems to refer to god but it could very well refer to that spark of creation that lies within each and every one of us , a spark that needs the tools that schools provide . This school is a testament to that spirit and to the vision of some great men who made it possible.

 

In praise of the City of Joy

The author  of Geography of Genius  makes a strong case for the fact that Genius tends to be clustered in space and time . Ancient Athens is the first known example when we had brilliant minds like Socrates , Aristotle , Plato , Herodotus , Aristophanes , Sophocles, Euripides,Euclid , Archimedes , Hippocrates  co exist within 200 years of each other . Moving forward , we can see the time of the Renaissance where we have Da Vinci , Michelangelo , Machiavelli live around the same time in Italy , fast forward a hundred years and we have the Enlightenment in Scotland that had Hume , Smith , Paris with Voltaire , Rousseau , Lavoisier, Montesquieu , Kant in Germany and our own Founding fathers in America , similarly between 1840 and 1920  Calcutta (Kolkata) experienced the Bengal Renaissance where we had Nobel laureates such as Rabindranath Tagore , Biologists / Physicists such as Sir Jagdish Chandra Bose . The book is very readable in spite of being only a subset of the different places and times (it skips Paris in 1920s).  So here I am in Kolkata , wondering if I can see what made the city so special in that time .

Kolkata had an interesting mix of populations during the British rule, while on the one hand , the most educated and Anglophilic existed here but co existing with them were the most fervent nationalists who were opposed to the British rule . The Indian national anthem comes from Rabindranath Tagore , there has been some rumblings that we should focus on”Vande Materam ” written by Bankim Chandra Bose (another Bengali) which is a fervently patriotic song that rouses one’s spirits even one such as myself who does not understand the language.

The people are reputed to be extremely friendly and helpful. I got my first taste of that when I was trying to get to the famous Kalighat temple. A rickshaw driver actually took a detour  to guide us through the narrow alleys to get us to Kalighat . I was touched. I had never ever experienced anything like it. Kalighat is an old Kali temple in Kolkata

Early morning street markets getting ready to open

The main temple dome

Inside the temple , I saw a streak of fresh blood across the floor and following the streak led me to the beheaded carcass of a baby goat. I suppose that was the sacrificial offering for the morning . I saw offerings of purple radishes  , I had never seen offerings of vegetables in temples before , asking the priest led to some incomprehensible mutterings in Bengali , after grilling him in Hindi , he responded curtly that I would not understand. I took the hint and moved on

A tram – relic of days bygone was certainly a sight to see . Though I see it routinely in San Francisco and find it mundane , somehow seeing it in Kolkata was different,  watching it amidst the crazy traffic is like watching a thriller .

This is a replica of the Big Ben in London.

These are the pictures of the famous Park street

I found some interesting fruits on Park street , I searched for them everywhere but could not find any

This fruit reminded me of starfruit, the texture is similar and just like starfruit , it is bland and juicy.

While this one was a total mystery

I learnt from Google that it was called a Rose Apple and apparently it is grown in Oregon and California but the ones in North America does not look anything like this. The texture is like a pear and it has a delightful rose fragrance. This particular variety grows in South East Asia

This is the iconic Howrah bridge on the Hoogly river

The Hoogly is a tributary of the Ganges , the holiest river for the Hindus . Hindu myths dictate that a dip in the Ganges washes away all of ones sins . Today the Ganges flows into Bangladesh where it meets the Indian ocean in the Bay of Bengal but every tributary is considered just as sacred so one finds a lot of Hindus bathing in the Hoogly

Kolkata is also the home of Sri Ramakrishna Paramahansa , an 18th century mystic highly revered in Bengal and also the home of Sri Vivekananda who travelled to America in 1890s and introduced a new spiritual movement in America . Sri Ramakrishna had his divine visions at the Dakshineshwar temple.

This is a view of the bridge from the temple

One has to take a ferry from the temple to get to Belur Math which is where the temples are dedicated to Ramakrishna, his wife  and his disciples and one gets to view where the old co-exists with the new

A fisherman in his canoe getting ready to launch his fishing tackle

As can be expected , the entrance from the water is quite scenic

The main temple

Feast for the eyes for Flora lovers

Dedicated to the wife of Sri Ramakrishna .

Just outside Belur Math was a street vendor selling something that looked like potatoes , and they call “Sweet Potato”, it turned out to be Jicama (Mexican Yam) my sister insisted on tasting it so we had the street vendor cut it up for us . He added some rock salt-spice mixture to the chopped pieces . The texture was more like  a pear and it did not taste at all like a raw potato or even the Jicama that I have eaten before. Just last month , I had encountered a book called the Botany of Desire which deals with 4 plants ; Apple , Potato , Cannabis and Tulip. The author reiterated was that these plants have been artificially moulded by our desires . Apples as sweet as a Red Delicious is an anomaly as is a Russet Burbank . We do not let these plants attain the vast potential that their genes are capable of . In the Andes is a purple potato that I have never heard about.  Kolkata showed me an apple that did not look or taste like any Apple that I had eaten before . A touching incident here was the interaction itself , my sister asked the vendor to add more of the salt spice mixture , he insisted that his concoction was the best but just to satisfy us , he gave us a packet of his precious spice mixture which he said we could add if we wanted but he assured us that we did not need to. I looked at him marveling at his torn clothes , extreme poverty had not affected his pride in his craft . His pride to me was touching and inspiring.

My tryst with history as I expected it did not materialize . There is a lot of history in this place including the Battle of Plassey which led to the first British stronghold on Indian soil in 1757 . Modern Kolkata owes a debt to Job Charnock who not only saved a young Indian woman from Sati , a dreadful practice of burning widows alive with their dead husbands but married her and sired 4 children and adopted Indian ways of smoking cheroots or Indian cigars and drinking arrack , a harsh palm brandy. I saw a hospital named after him and I presume that there are more memorials to the man .

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The Grand Trunk road connects Chittagong, Bangladesh to Kabul,Afghanistan via Kolkata , Delhi , Amritsar and Lahore. Reading about Sher Shah Suri who ruled India in 1540  , I had discovered the Grand Trunk road .However I was to learn later that Chandragupta Maurya  had built large sections of it.  This was my great opportunity to ride on the section of the Grand Trunk Road west of Kolkata and retracing the steps of those brave travelers so many centuries ago. While thrilling , most of it is slow progress . Like most highways in India , they tend to go through the hearts of small villages so one can expect a small crowd in the middle of the street drinking tea , a herd of buffaloes crossing the road and other interesting sights so dont speed , you never know what will show up in front of you on the road.

I found the culture to be charming and interesting , the city shuts down come 12:30 PM and does not re open until 3:30 – 4 PM . They take their time for lunch and a much needed siesta after the delicious meal . The sweets have been reputed to be the best in India as long as I can remember , I consumed them like a glutton who knows no tomorrow and I have to admit that just about everything that I tried there was delicious . The pale imitations that I had eaten earlier in other cities do not come close . They have an amazing variety of sweets that I did not know existed . On the flight there , several of my co passengers after learning that I had never been to Kolkata heartily recommended several sweetmeat shops and I fortunately took them up and indeed the sweets did not disappoint. The Bengalis love their meat and fish and indeed so much so that I was introduced to an amazing sight , one that I had never seen before . Vegetables , fruits , meat , fish , chicken all sold in the same market place with no separation .

Here one sees the goat carcasses alongside the fresh vegetables and moving further one sees a sea of fish . The Bengalis love their fish and call it the vegetable of the sea .

Bangur road is a tribute to their artistic capabilities

Here one sees a lawn sculpture of the famous Dandi march statue in Delhi

A horde of elephants

Bangur street is covered with street posts that have been created by artists , one finds a lifesize clown loitering around and a roadside snack vendor and only close inspection reveals that these are sculptures . The traffic is horrendous and parking is impossible so I could not get out of the car to take much needed pictures

Turned out that my trip to Kolkata was far shorter than what I should have planned for . Also turned out that there were far more sights to see including the Sunderbans which is the home of the Bengal tiger , Ganga Sagar which is where the Hoogly meets the Indian ocean .Time to plan a return trip!!

Riding a 180 mile national park

To check out the ride on the GAP click here

Day 1 – From Cumberland, MD to Hancock, MD

The Chesapeake and Ohio canal national historical park has its terminus at Georgetown (about 30 miles  away from the Chesapeake) but the other terminus is Cumberland , MD which is almost 160 miles away from the state of Ohio and 100 miles from the city of Pittsburgh where the Ohio river comes to life . So in my opinion the name  is a tribute to optimism , optimism that the railroad would eventually reach Ohio. Today it is a wonderful national park , a park to ride horses in and ride bicycles …. as long as they have trail tires.

Cumberland , MD is the meeting point of the C&O and the GAP.

We left Cumberland early and this is what it looks like .

Leaving Cumberland

Within no time , we were in deep wilderness . This is what the trail looked like (mostly) on day 1

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The canal was dug up and the towpath(or the bike trail) divides the canal from the Potomac river . Today the canal hosts a large number of turtles ,among other fauna

I got to see this lil bugger on the road .

I decided to pick him up and put him aside for safety . Most of us would believe that the hard shell of the turtle would protect him from crazy bicyclists and I would have believed that too until I saw one where the shell was split open . If you ever decide to save a turtle , make sure to wash your hands , they do carry salmonella.

I got to see an old fashioned water pump , had not seen one of these since the mid 80s when I would travel to my mother’s hometown, Chennai . The water is pretty rank , ok to shower or wash but definitely do not drink . Some would say the same for the water in Chennai as well .

 

About 30 miles in , we got to see  the Paw Paw tunnel . The tunnel is 3/5ths of a mile long. It does not seem like much unless you walk through it ,it is pitch dark so maneuvering the trail while walking with the knowledge that there is quicksand 20 feet below does not inspire confidence even in the bravest of hearts.  For its day and time , it was an engineering marvel .

Paw-Paw

In spite of the ghost that you hear in the video , we emerged unscathed on the other side

The village of Paw-Paw seemed to be the only place between Cumberland and Hancock for getting food . They have a gas station and an ice cream shop . The gas station sells chicken salad sandwiches and fresh cut watermelon (which tastes divine after a 30 mile bike ride) . About 20 miles from Paw- Paw starts the Western Maryland Rail Trail which is paved and goes all the way into Hancock,MD.  Day 1 ended in Hancock , MD .  We stayed in a small motel and turned in for an early night after dinner

 

Day 2 – From Hancock,MD to Harpers Ferry,WV

The Western Maryland Rail trail ends in Big Pool which is about 10 miles from Hancock. This is also where one gets to see Fort Frederick , a Civil War fortification .

Barely 10 miles later, we arrived at Dam 5

 

Shortly after I saw this board and was happy to see it , our conservation efforts, meager as they are ,  do seem to be paying off  .

 

Shortly I was stopped by a a half hysterical female biker, I wondered if she wanted my phone number  ,  it turned out that there was a baby bird and it needed to be saved. Apparently she could not bring herself to save it!!!

Not too far we saw this unused magnificent structure .

This is a  lock . This is where ships from one water level are raised or lowered to another water level . The Panama canal is probably the best example of how important navigation locks are to us . Without the Panama Canal Locks, ships would have to go around the Cape of Good Horn around the tip of South America .

Soon we were riding alongside the Potomac

Riding with Don on the Potomac

Eventually we reached Dam 5

We finally got to Shepherdstown where we had lunch along with a West Virginia beer . I saw this cool picture and decided to get a pic of it

Should be everybody’s motto!!!

 

About 10 or so miles later , we ended up in Harper’s Ferry , our destination for Day 2.

But we had to walk across this bridge

Walking across the bridge with Mike

This was the only marine that was killed in John Brown’s raid .

This is the building that John Brown attacked .

 

Harper’s Ferry is where several national trails meet . We ended meeting some folks from Georgia , well they had walked all the way from Georgia on the Appalachian trail and were headed to Maine , over  500 miles away . They walked about 20-25 miles a day.

 

This church can be seen for miles and miles.It is built on a hill and looks simply majestic

 

We passed within a mile of Antietam , reputed to be the bloodiest single day battle in American history. Unfortunately we could not figure out where we needed to get off so we missed it. We passed a lot of historical spots that had been hot beds of activity during the Civil war but today they seem to be sleepy little towns . The day’s ride was extraordinarily beautiful in a trip that was laden with amazing sights

Day 3 – From Harpers Ferry, WV to Washington,DC

About 20 miles from Harpers Ferry , we saw the Monocacy Aquaduct

 

Turtles sunning on a log in the river

We had seen close to 50 locks but this one seemed to have some water

And on the other bank , we had a curious visitor

And a beautiful sight

 

We saw the Edison Power plant

and nearby was the location where the Olympic rowing athletes practiced before the Barcelona Olympics , sponsored by the power company.

We finally reached Great Falls

 

We tried to enter Goat Island but were told by the volunteers that we could not take our bike on the island , I am sure it is an amazing place to visit

Goat Island

 

That was our last majestic view of the Potomac wilderness before we entered Georgetown

We found some stragglers to welcome us to DC

Got a taste of DC traffic

Inside DC with Dan

And finally the grand finale . Tried to meet the MAN

DC is a gorgeous place and tons and tons of things to do for everybody. We ended up near Chinatown

This brings to an end , a magnificent bike ride.

Riding the Great Allegheny Passage

 

For several years , my friends and I do a annual long distance bike ride . The whole process was started by Mike and he has christened this ride as the Bear Paw Soap Company (my that’s good soap TM) . This year we decided to do the 147th 8th Annual bike ride from Pittsburgh to Washington DC . Happily the two cities are connected completely by bike trails , a rarity by any standards.

Pittsburgh is connected to Cumberland by the Great Allegheny passage and it is 150 miles of gravel /crushed limestone .  I prefer wider knobby tires on trails like these

We started early and headed out to Pittsburgh where Mike’s brother had left us a bike for me to ride . Then we headed to West Newton where I drove off while the other 3 rode . West Newton has a great bike shop and a restaurant and a CVS in case you decide to do some last minute shopping .

We planned to meet in Connellsville. As I reached Connelsville , I found out that today was the historical re enactment of Gen Braddock’s crossing of the Youghigheny river.  Before the colonies were free , General Braddock was summoned from England to help in the French- Indian wars. The campaign ended in a disaster with General Braddock ending up mortally wounded.

 

After everybody showed up , we decided to go check out Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater which is in a town called Ohiopyle also on the trail but it was 20 miles away from Connelsville. We needed to be there by 2:00 PM because they close at 4:00 PM and it takes an hour for the tour of the house, so we ended up driving to the place.

He designed the building so that the waterfall would go through the house , just mind boggling . One of my favorite books “The Fountainhead” written by Ayn Rand,  had  the lead character, Howard Roark  supposedly based on Frank Lloyd Wright . I personally dislike Ayn Rand intensely and more so for her bigoted views but the book delivered an unmistakable message to me when I was all of 16 years old and something that I strive to , even now . Shakespeare puts it more eloquently “This above all: to thine own self be true”. Her message in the book was simple , that one must be original in their thinking. If you happen to be in Ohiopyle and not had enough of Frank Lloyd Wright , you can also go check out Kentuck Knob. Also Ohiopyle is a fair sized town to do any shopping / eating if you need to . I have managed to make some friends in Ohiopyle who inform me that they have some white water rafting tours . They drive you to a point upstream and let you loose and then drive down to meet you downstream after you have had your fill of white water .

But moving on , my friends were done and I had not ridden any yet so I decided to ride the 12 miles from Ohiopyle to Confluence by myself .

At Ohiopyle in the Youghiogheny river , I see people playing water volleyball

So I start riding and this is what the trail looks like for the most part

but since we were riding alongside the Youghiogheny and then the Casselman , it is punctuated by scenes like these

owl

I saw this owl just chilling . Unusual to catch an own during the day .

I noticed a board which proudly declared that the Casselman river was  healthy  enough that fish , worms , insects and snakes were coming back so the Pennysylvania game commision had  re introduced the  American river otter into the Casselman after 75 years and the otters were thriving . I was gladdened to see that . I reached Confluence in less than an hour and we ended up staying at the Rivers edge cafe . It is a small cafe right on the rivers edge and one can hear the river bubbling by at night , it is a soothing rhythm that I could probably listen to and never get bored. Rivers edge cafe is a delightful place for dinner as well .

We had a sumptuous breakfast at the Sisters Cafe early morning and and got an early start on the ride and our first big sight was the Pinkerton tunnel

Bridge before Pinkerton

 

After that we stopped briefly in Rockport , PA where you see this beautiful bicycle sculpture. The smoke rings are bicycle wheels . There is also a bike shop nearby and a bed and breakfast which serves lunch.

Our next sight of wonder was the Salisbury Viaduct, an engineering marvel by any standards . The viaduct now runs across rail lines , a river , a freeway and fields and it is 2/5  of a mile long and 101 feet tall

Salisbury

Our next stop was Meyersdale , for shopping for biking merchandise and for lunch

For some reason  , this church caught my eye . In California , the churches tend to be oriented towards the Spanish Mission style so the Gothic architecture is a pleasant change.

Our next sight to see was the Eastern Continental divide . This is the dividing line for water going to the Chesapeake or  to the Gulf of Mexico

This picture gives us a good idea of the elevation involved.

continental divide

The next sight after the continental divide is the Big Savage Tunnel . Scary movie makers , take notice!!!  here are two dark dungeony tunnels , the Pinkerton and the Big Savage Tunnel,  that hare brained cyclists routinely enter without lights  , I see a wealth of opportunities for Slasher flicks .

But just outside the tunnel is this

Tim tried to fly here (or fall off the cliff )

 

It was barely  5 miles before we ended up hitting the Mason-Dixon line

 

and a super inquisitive deer that would not take its eyes off us

From here Cumberland was a mere trifle away (it is all downhill )and there ends our sojourn on the Great Allegheny Passage.

The Great Allegheny passage is a wonderful bike trail with a wealth of sights to see including wildlife and landscapes , experience riding on an viaduct , alongside rivers and in at least two dark and scary tunnels . It is generously dotted with bicycle shops , places to eat and stay . If you are a bike aficionado , obviously add it to your bucket list

Don’t forget to collect your certificate

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To check out the remainder of the trip on the C&O , go here

Viva Las Vegas

Untitled My first encounter with Las Vegas was the classic Mafia novel  “The Godfather” when I was 15 . I fell in love with the book , the characters and the places that were depicted in the book ,wandering through the villages of Sicily ,the streets of Brooklyn and Long Island and lastly but certainly not least Las Vegas . Las Vegas is probably the only place on earth which revels in its appetite for sin so much so that its nick name is Sin City and is proudly displayed everywhere . I have never taken  a census but I imagine it has more casinos , restaurants and options for entertainments than anywhere else that I have seen or read about. This last trip to Vegas was several firsts for me , first time that I had come to Vegas on a work trip , it was also the first time that I came to Vegas being single . What on earth would a married couple want to do in Vegas ? in Sin city?  Well interestingly Vegas has tons of entertainment options for normal married couples who are not gamblers . Every celebrity chef has a restaurant in Las Vegas , we saw restaurants owned by Bobby Flay , Wolfgang Puck  , Emeril , Giada De Laurentiis, Gordon Ramsay , Thomas Keller’s Bouchon … there are only 3 other locations for the Bouchon, one across from Central Park in New York, one in Beverly Hills and one in Napa but luckily for tourists in Las Vegas there was one in the basement at the Venetian . The macaroons at Thomas Keller’s Bouchon are literally to die for . On Paradise Rd is a Japanese restaurant called Musasashi Japanese Steakhouse presumably named after the author of the “Book of 5 rings” . The food is Hibachi style or Teppanyaki depending on your choice . But the draw for me was that he actually serves Japanese Kobe . It is hideously expensive but it is the most delicious piece of meat that I have ever tasted.

And every casino has multiple shows , rich in variety; stand up comedies, Cirque , Magic , you name it . The Cirque du soleil probably had a different show at each casino , some I was astounded to see were still playing since my last trip in 2011. David Copperfield is a regular at the MGM and every time that I have tried to see it, the tickets are sold out , and if you have a strong stomach then the duo of Penn and Teller is a must watch .Jerry Seinfeld is a regular at Caesar’s palace .

I walked down the strip , slowly admiring the buildings . The strip has a unspeakable hold on me Untitled

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The Casinos have themes that they stay faithful to throughout the casino. The Luxor is filled with Egyptian memorabilia , New York New York has miniatures of the Chrysler building , 30 Rock and so on . Paris has the Eiffel tower . Bellagio has italian artifacts . The Venetian has a mini canal inside and sculptures of Machiavelli and other notables from Venice  .

These are the world famous musical fountains at the Bellagio

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Also at the Bellagio is this magnificent ceiling sculpture of over 2,000 hand-blown flowers by glass artist Dale Chihuly 

At the end of the strip is the Stratosphere which probably has the scariest roller coasters in the world . Scary because they are mounted on top of the building and the rides consists of going off the side of the building and coming to a sudden stop 30+ feet from the edge of the building looking 300m straight down

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The top shot shown above is the tallest thrill ride in the world

This is the view of old Vegas from the top of the Stratosphere

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The stories that I have always heard is that at the casinos , drinks are cheap and so is the food . I don’t gamble so I have never experienced it but I have checked out the buffet sections at every casino and they are extremely reasonably priced and yet the selection is mind boggling and will cater to every possible taste and needs.

Las Vegas is one of the last places in the US where smoking is allowed indoors . So walking into a casino , one is hit with the smell of cheap air fresheners that the casinos  use to get rid of the stench of stale cigarette smoke . It always looks like night time inside a casino , they are carefully engineered to keep all daylight out , presumably to help people drink more alcohol so that they can make judgement impaired decisions , the pretty cocktail waitresses with skimpy dresses exaggerate the above mentioned effect.

We then move on to Fremont St in the old downtown

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Fremont St is the old downtown in Vegas before they decided to create the “strip” . This is where Bugsy Siegel came in and helped create a city in the desert . The old downtown looks rundown in places or perhaps that is an effect that they try hard to maintain . Accentuate the disparity between the old and the new . But Fremont St does have some really cool attractions such as the world’s largest video screen and open air bars and bands playing out in the open , various entertainers performing strange acts on the streets.

Vegas is one of the few cities that has Machine Gun ranges and the variety of guns is mind boggling . They also had some amazing handguns most notably the Desert Eagle which apparently is familiar to gamers . I saw a reference to it in one of my favorite movies “Snatch”, it is amazingly loud for a hand gun and packs a punch. One can even fire the M249 (The Saw) here .With the exception of the Uzi , all the other guns were American , Russian and German. The range that I tried out was called the Gun Garage and they had awesome Groupon deals.

On this last trip , I stayed at the Luxor which has the permanent exhibition of Bodies and Titanic . Bodies was a magnificent experience . It has real cadavers that are sliced and displayed in several different views . The human circulatory system was a delight to see , they had actually used chemicals to harden the arteries , veins and capillaries in a cadaver and then chemically removed the muscles and skins . Viewing the whole body as a web of intricate interconnected parts was an eye opener and I could not help but think that something like this in school might have sparked a greater interest in Biology but that might just be an elaborate excuse for my laziness. Some of the exhibits does require some caution especially the fetuses in various stages of development and they have clearly marked the path so that if one was to be offended then they could skip it. If Bodies happens to be in your neck of the woods , then I highly recommend that you do pay a visit.

The Titanic was interesting as well , I gained a new appreciation for the research that James Cameron would have done researching the Titanic to come up with the details that he did in the movie .  I was sorely disappointed when I came to the main deck and could not find Rose and Jack!!!

The folks in Vegas have a sense of humor , I was eating lunch at a small Mexican restaurant on Paradise Ave and I caught sight of this mural and had to take a snap

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The food was exceptionally delicious and I did feel some religion coming onto me after the meal

Long time ago, I read the Geek Atlas which is 128 places for a geek to visit , one of those is the Atomic testing museum in Las Vegas . Nevada was the testing site for thermonuclear weapons and the museums lists pictures , some interesting memorabilia . It is a must visit for every geek.

Not too far from Vegas is Lake Havasu city which houses the famous London Bridge from the beloved nursery rhyme “London Bridge is falling down”

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The story goes that a Real Estate developer imported the London Bridge that was going to be demolished . Every brick was labelled and the bridge restored in Lake Havasu city. The road system was designed by the designer who designed Disneyland . Take it from me that it is not nearly as much fun as Disneyland

This is the entrance to the London Bridge

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And the surface

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Also close to Vegas is the famous Hoover Dam on the Colorado river

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and the enormous man made Mead Lake
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One can also see the Mike O’Callaghan–Pat Tillman Memorial Bridge that allows people to bypass the Hoover dam .

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We all have the rubber necking desire to stare out at the Hoover dam but nobody wants to stop , the net effect is that everybody is slowed down . The government wisely decided to put up the bridge that US-93 now runs on. It is proudly displayed on the bridge that the pitons that were used to drive the foundation of the bridge utilized the same technologies that were utilized while building the Hoover dam in the 30s. A testament to physics that has stood the test of time.

The western rim of the Grand Canyon is a close drive . You can see the skywalk in the picture , it is called the skywalk because the floor is glass  and we can see straight down a mile or so. The glass is tempered to hold the weight of 10 elephants and since Elephants are not allowed on the skywalk , it are safe for us to venture out . They do not allow cameras on the skywalk , not for safety reasons but so that they can charge $40 for a picture but it is well worth it .

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One can also see the Colorado from the rim

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So next time you suggest Las Vegas to somebody and they retort with a scornful “Lost Wages!!! Never” , you can remind them of the zillion other things that are available for the rest of us.

West Side .. Market

The West Side Story is an American staple , a innovative take on Romeo and Juliet with the gorgeous city of New York as the backdrop . A musical which is a feast for the eyes and ears and indeed the the beating heart of any human being . I believe that even the English language is not a necessity for enjoying the movie or the play . But today , we are going to visit the West Side Market , Cleveland’s open air market on W25 street , not too far from the Cleveland Hopkins airport and yet close enough to the vibrant western suburbs of Cleveland.Supposedly the market dates back to 1840 . Astonishing considering that the city of Cleveland came into existence in the late 1700s .

Like most kids , growing up I looked up to my dad , anything that he said was gospel and sacrosanct . Proving my loyalty to him seemed more important to me as compared to my friends . I have wondered about it as time has passed by , I hypothesize that it was because he was a single parent or perhaps that is the prerogative of the elder child . His tastes were faithfully mimicked , his love of Shakespeare and Milton and Dryden has invoked the same in me,  his favorite foods seemed to become my favorite food irrespective of what my tastes told me. I had always had a sweet tooth but he loved fiery spicy food and I faithfully followed the dictum that spicy food is for real men and sweets are for wimps . I even adopted his favorite music , music that he had listened to as a teenager , music tastes that I defended against my contemporaries to the point where we would come to blows  . When he was diagnosed with diabetes , he was forced to stop taking sugar in his tea . Being deprived of the simple pleasure of sugar in tea was probably the worst punishment that providence could have inflicted on him . Tea in India is served with sugar and milk , sweet and syrupy , a delicious concoction of caffeine and sugar; the killer combination that the Coca Cola company has leveraged for the last 100+ years. So when he stopped taking sugar in his tea , I stopped as well . Part of me was stricken by his plight, the tea that he loved so much , that he could not do without was suddenly something that he seemed to hate and I wanted to experience his pain. Looking back at my experience, it is perhaps a tad bit ironical that I have completely switched to black tea and black coffee for no other reason other than realizing that to truly enjoy the taste of coffee and tea, one has to avoid the trappings of sugar and milky fats . Coming back to my father, everything that he said was gospel to me. Whilst growing up , he would tell me stories of his youth , when I was younger , I used to find it entertaining , now I realize that he was reliving the days of his youth. I also understand now that my mother’s death was harder on him that I realized at the time and I was his only channel at semi adult conversations or the only one who would listen to him reciting Shakespeare sonnets or verses from Milton or Dryden or reliving his childhood in Chennai. My sister has no recollection of any of that , but she likes to remind me that she is a whole 5 years younger than me so she has been deprived of all the wonderful memories bequeathed to me by our parents . He loved to tell me these stories of him shopping as a kid , and how he loved to bargain with the shopkeepers when he was not even 10 . The shopkeepers considered him a mini terror and hated bargaining and wheedling with him ;it is perhaps another one of the great ironies of my life  that I absolutely hate bargaining . I don’t even bargain in places like China where I am expected to bargain and leave the shopkeepers disgusted , bemused and presumably richer. One of the stories that he liked to tell was about the size of prawns that he would get in Chennai . He claimed that they were as large as his fists and he also said that these days , according to him those prawns are exported so we never see them in any marketplace in India. I had bought into that hook , line and sinker but as time passed , scales fall from our eyes and realization sets in that perhaps parents are human and have feet of clay. The realization that there are no damned prawns the size of fists and my dad was exaggerating firmly took root.  Dont get me wrong, I loved my dad and had the greatest reverence for him and some of the same loyalty was still lurking not too far from the surface but I also imagined that a lot of his stories were just that, stories.

I had moved to California from Ohio two years ago .  Ohio was a wonderful place to live , settle down . People like to poke fun at me , especially in the Bay area and in New York where there seems to be general condescension for the rest of the country. But I had a great time and if I have any regrets, it is that I did not soak in everything that Ohio had to offer more enthusiastically. I did not travel to see the museum of Aviation in Dayton , nor did I hang around the riverside in Cincinatti or check out what used to be the glass capital of the world , Toledo nor did I spend any great length of time in what used to be the Rubber capital of the world , Akron. It was only in the last few months that I went to see the Rock and Roll Hall of fame . It is a tad bit sad considering how much I love hard rock and metal . The Rock and Roll hall of fame is designed like the Louvre in Paris , inside it lists the history and etymology of music . One of my cousins who is extremely talented in terms of music , explained to me how the layout and etymology made perfect sense to him , how the gospels did inspire soul and R&B and eventually Rock and Roll and hard rock . It was a fascinating and delightful journey into the world of music .

But I have always had a delightful time at the West Side market on W25 st in Cleveland . I have looked at the West side market as a  one stop shop for fruits , vegetables , cheese , spices , meats , pasta , oils and pastries and snacks.  Not too far from the Westside market is another Cleveland treasure that one should not miss . The Great Lakes Brewing Company !! it is a microbrewery with very high quality beers and a restaurant that serves delicious American fare. One of the primary advantages of visiting a micro brewery is that you get samplers . A sampler platter of 6-9 beers served in shot glasses . An elegant way to sample all the deliciousness that the brewery has to offer without getting drunk.

While I was living in Wooster , the nearest Indian grocery store was in Cleveland which was 60 miles away. When I would go to get the so called essentials , I would swing by the west side market . Sometimes I did not even buy anything , just indulge in the pleasure of browsing . Growing up in India had me accustomed to open air markets and Singapore and the US had no parallels . The West Side market had an open air vegetable and fruit market and then inside a immense building was a treasure trove of culinary shopping . Mind you, I hate shopping with a passion even today with the exception of shopping for food , the more exotic, the more I delight in it . After shopping for fruits and veggies , I would go inside and talk to the pretty girl who was selling flavored Italian oils and learn how to make it myself , the Lebanese butcher who sold lamb and goat meat , the local farmers who would sell choice cuts of veal and steaks and porkchops. The sausage store that sold kielbasa , Chorizo ,Andouille , Bratwursts , Italian sausages flavored with sweet fennel and just regular sausage flavored with sagebrush . meetandcheeseThe cheese store was a delight , Gouda with its smoky sweetness , Havarti with the delicious astringent crunchiness of caraway seeds, soft Brie that one could spread like butter on toast, delicious English cheese like Stiltons , goat cheese , mozzarella , Parmigiana – Romano and many many more . There were several bakeries with more pastries than I could name and recognize . One of my regular stops was the Italian pasta shop where I would buy fresh Fettuccine and fresh Ravioli for my stepchildren , they loved my Fettuccine Alfredo and Zuppa Toscana and Chicken Marsala.  At the center was a spice store that one could find just about anything that one craved for , no matter what the origin was. The proprietor loved spices , spices were her life and the intimate knowledge of what ties in with which entree was something that she could effortlessly calculate in her head , it reminds me of accountants who could effortlessly calculate interest rates and calculate what your PMI is or what you would pay over the course of 20 years, most people would find it boring but I find the ease with which they proceed to be a delight. This woman was like that , she was the London cab driver of spices . She was white but she could correct me as to what I would need for Indian recipes . One could spend a whole day here and not get bored . Away from all of this hustle and bustle was a vestibule that led to a small section of the building . In here was the fish market , one could find grouper , Mahi Mahi , Freshwater bass , trouts , eels , even Pomfret from India . The first time that I was here , I looked at each fish and grilled the Russian proprietor  at length . However I was puzzled about this hunk of meat that vaguely looked like a prawn but it was enormous , probably bigger than my fist . The texture was slimy , reminded me of prawns and shrimp . The color did too . After admiring it for a few minutes , I asked the Russian proprietor again as to what this mystery animal was . He looks at me with a sly grin and says in a thick Russian accent  “Prawns” .  I wonder where they could be getting these enormous prawns from so I ask him “Where are they from ?” . His sly grin grew broader and he said “Well from India , of course” . To say that I was stunned would be an understatement . As I walked back to my car with my fresh fettuccine and Ravioli and lamb chops .  I silently apologized to my dear departed father for doubting him in the first place , an apology that was perhaps 10 years too late to matter .

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