As our United flight landed in Buffalo at 1400 hours and the Best Western Van rolled in to pick us up, I glanced at my watch and reminded the family that this was the tightest project we had undertaken on this world trip. “No worries master planner, we are in safe hands”, quipped Meha; inflating my ego a thousand times. We had one hour to drop our bags at the hotel, grab a bite, pick up the rental car, drive to Niagara Falls an hour away, do multiple day time activities, see the falls during the lights too, and return. Then get up next morning for a day trip to Rock N Roll Museum at Cleveland. PHEW !
Hertz rental was kind enough to pick us up at the hotel. Paper work quickly done and we were upgraded to the next car category – I immediately wished we had been upgraded for our longer trips – this was only 1 day ! Never mind, we were on our way and reached Niagara by 6 pm, with plenty of day light still left. Prior planning had revealed that a nearby Casino would be a good FREE parking spot (ssshh!). All went to plan and a short walk later the first gorgeous views of the falls emerged.
If you ask an Indian tourist about their USA bucket list, Niagara falls would emerge on the top. Huge number of Indians at the falls was a testimonial to this fact, and we gleefully joined them in the pilgrimage !
Maid of the Mist is a popular boat tour which takes you near the falls in style. The last departure was approaching and we quickly got our tickets along with the blue rain ponchos.
We were on the way and lady luck emerged presenting a beautiful rainbow over the American Falls and were already drenched !
Past the American and Bridal Veil falls, we are now approaching the biggest of the 3 falls – the Horseshoe falls on the Canadian side. It was a breathtaking sight.
Pumped up by our first successful Niagara adventure, we made our way to our second and last adventure called Cave of the Winds, which is more exciting than Maid of the Mist.
Cave Of The Winds, a walk close to the Bridal Veil falls, is the ONLY (official) way to get VERY VERY close to the falls and stay as long as you want. We quickly signed up and donned our yellow ponchos and water shoes (included in the price).
Here is how you feel during the walk. You are soaked to the bone but boy it is fun !
I am deeply satisfied the project is going to schedule. We are done with day time activities and it’s already 9 pm. Niagara Falls under lights is a sight to behold – arguably more beautiful than day time.
So good old McDonald’s came to our rescue at 11 pm. Hundreds of unnecessary calories later, we are satisfied and hit the sack. Tomorrow is a big Cleveland day – Republican convention coinciding with Rock N Roll Hall of fame ! See you soon in the next Rock N Roll blog.
The San Jose – Washington journey involved two long South West flights -reminding us how HUGE this country is! As we left behind serenity of national parks and comforting company of Californian friends, we looked forward to Washington D.C’s contrasting offerings – museums and monuments capturing the history of USA. With Hillary and Trump battling it out in the presidential races, we cannot but feel that we are visiting the capital city at a special time.
It was interesting to note that the seeds of Washington D.C as a new city were sown due to a compromise between Northern and Southern politicians after the revolutionary war – they wanted a federal city situated BETWEEN the two power bases. Boston, Philadelphia and Baltimore were rejected by southern plantation owners as being too urban – leading to the formation of Washington D.C as a compromise formula.
The National Mall (no it’s not a shopping mall!) refers to a 2 mile long beautiful stretch anchored by Lincoln Memorial and Capitol Hill at the opposite ends, with reflecting pool, WWII memorial and Washington monument in between. It is reminiscent of the Raj Path and India Gate in Delhi.
The icing on the cake is world-class and free Smithsonian museums – each heavyweight in its own right! Visit the museums before they start charging for them!!
We started with the Museum of the American Indian which gave us a perspective on how land was systematically taken away from the natives and how young and circumstantial the existence of modern USA is, compared to organic, thousands years old civilizations of, say , India and Egypt.
Next up was Air and Space Museum with popular exhibits such as Wright Brothers’ flyer & Apollo Lunar module. Mika loved the flight simulator.
Too tired, we called it a day. The next day started with the Natural History Museum which is the most popular Smithsonian museum. To be honest, it was too MASSIVE for our feet. But we did enjoy the 3 hours that we spent here. Some snippets follow:
Next up was the National Museum of American History which gives a perspective on how this young nation was formed. However, since there are limited stories to tell, it pales in comparison to national museums of other countries.
My favorite museum, however, was the morbid Holocaust memorial museum. We got an identity card each – of an actual holocaust victim – and the museum takes us through the harrowing story past ghettos and death camps. It does make you wonder how millions got fooled by one lunatic (Are we seeing a similar story in America today ? Crazy stuff !) and how the world leaders were passive bystanders while millions were being massacred.
Every person on this planet should visit this museum or concentration camps in Germany – it has huge lessons in the modern context – unfortunately we are not learning from the past.
We kept the last day for all the memorials – FDR was my favorite but Lincoln, Martin Luther King Jr, Jefferson & Vietnam war memorials did not fail to impress either.
Thanks to college buddy Rajesh Nair, we also had a chance to travel south to Richmond (Virginia), where we had a mini college reunion with him, Sridhar & Siddhu. What fun !
We also get to taste the legendary southern barbecue at the local authentic joint.
As we drink our beers in Rajesh’s sprawling house, the situation in Istanbul (our destination in a couple of weeks) gets from bad to worse. We decide to cancel. Turkish Airlines does not pick up the phone. Nightmare. We head to their Washington office where the job is not done. Anyway, we head to the airport for our flight to Niagara falls where thankfully the Istanbul tickets get cancelled with full refund ! Thanks for reading and see you at the falls and the Cleveland convention!
The natives who inhabited South Florida for many centuries, the Calusa Indians, certainly understood and grasped the beauty of the blessing we now call Everglades. They called it “Pa-hay-okee” which means “grassy waters” / “river of grass”, a most apt description for this complex wetland and forest ecosystem dominated by expanses of sawgrass through the slow moving Shark River. So slow is the movement of water that it appears still and could be mistaken as stagnant water to the uninitiated.
The original inhabitants had a lifestyle based on estuarine fisheries rather than agriculture, which was in tune with the natural ecosystem, thus conserving it for centuries before the 20th century pressures of agriculture and urbanization hit. Only ~20% remains of the original expanse remains conserved in the Everglades National Park, now declared as an International Biosphere Reserve, a World Heritage Site, and a Wetland of International Importance, one of only three locations in the world to be covered under all three conservation lists. We learnt from the rangers of the park how the damming & channeling of water of the Okeechobee lake following hurricanes and flooding in the late 1920s, resulted in cutting-off of the life blood of the Everglades (the slow moving fresh water from Central Florida), and the $8+ billion dollar plan now in place to reverse engineer and restore the natural flow of water to the extent possible.
We explored this beautiful area that hosts a myriad of habitats – mangrove forests, prairies, hardwood forests and pine forests – starting from its western fringes on the coast of the Gulf of Mexico.
A boat tour of the mangroves was a visual treat with both large expanses of water and narrow canals with the rich mangrove forests all around.
We looked at shell mounds built by the Calusas and learnt about their unique fishing technique using the tidal highs & lows to trap fish in the shallows created by the mounds! A brown pelican flew by as we watched.
We got to see some more birds though it was midday – an egret, a double-crested cormorant and a beautiful pair of Osprey in their nest.
The real treats were sightings of two endangered species – a sawfish (critically endangered) and a manatee (vulnerable). In the below pics we were able to capture the fins of the sawfish (you should be able to see 3) and the nostrils of the manatee as it surfaced for air.
Satisfied, we headed onto explore of the Big Cypress National Preserve on the scenic Loop Road with fingers crossed to find some American alligators in the wild. Pretty soon Manish spotted the first one, right beside the gravel track! See the beautiful eye through the leaves?
Mika was thrilled, her wish was to see 10 alligators and her counter had started! Hovering around this fascinating creature, we soon realised there was a another alligator in the water with only its eyes visible. Over the next hour we found a dozen alligators (Manish has mastered the art of identifying spots to find them!), most of them snoozing in the shallow fresh water streams and some basking in the sun on rocks.
They appeared blissful in their beautiful environs. The water was so clear, we could see many different shades of red, yellow, brown and green. With cypress trees on both sides of the streams and their reflection in the water, it was a mesmerising scene!
We also spotted this majestic heron, later identified as a Little Blue Heron.
As we drove on, the scenery changed with different colours on the two sides of the road – almost like fall & spring at the same time!
On our way out from the Loop Road to join the Tamiami Trail, we came across many houses of the Miccosukkee, a surviving tribe of natives, who came to inhabit the area when they were driven south by the European invaders.
As we headed towards Homestead, our base to explore the area, we were amidst the large farms and nurseries on land which may have once been part of the Everglades. Coming from Orlando, we found the place had a very different look and feel to it, almost as if we had left the US and entered Mexico or Cuba!
The next part of the Everglades we explored was the eastern side that begins with the Ernest Coe Visitor Center, named after the gentleman who worked had to have a national park setup to preserve the Everglades. There were four trails that we covered here, starting with the Anhinga Trail which derives its name from the American darter birds that are commonly found here.
There was more water than usual for this time of year we were told due to the higher than normal rainfall in Nov-Dec 2015 due to the El Nino effect. So the expected congregation of wildlife around waterholes wasn’t really there. We did not see any Anhingas unfortunately but got to see beautiful views, a lot of fish, quite a few turtles, an alligator, a cormorant, dragonflies, butterflies, a very bright coloured insect, a swamp-hen and a bird with bright red on its wings. This we learnt is the Red-winged Blackbird, also called locally as the “warrior of the Everglades” due its fearless nature in chasing away larger birds.
Next was the Gumbo Limbo trail, a hardwood hammock (a shady, closed canopy forest), that derives its name from the Gumbo Limbo tree, a native of the region. The tree which is extremely useful for its medicinal properties is comically referred to as the “tourist tree” because it’s bark is red and peeling, like the skin of sunburnt tourists!
This is a different habitat – no water here, it is at a slightly higher elevation than the adjacent Anhinga trail area though this is imperceptible. We learnt how very small changes in ground elevation result in different habitats each with its own types of flora and fauna in the Everglades. After the trails, we attended a ranger-led session on alligators and crocodiles and learnt how to differentiate between these two often confused reptiles. We learnt that the alligator is the only reptile in the animal kingdom that cares for its young starting with aiding the hatch and going on for 2-3 years! We also learnt that the Everglades is the only region in the world where the ranges of the American alligator (which lives in fresh water) and the American crocodile (which prefers brackish / salty water) overlap.
On our third trail we explored another hardwood hammock, the Mahogany Hammock and then headed to the Pa-hay-okee Outlook which provided us with a vantage viewing point for the defining expanse of sawgrass that gives the region its name.
All of the activities for the day got Mika interested in becoming a Junior Ranger of the Everglades and started her preparation to receive a badge and certificate by the time we completed our Everglades exploration!
The last part we covered on another day was the Shark Valley, in some senses the heart of the park, named so as it is a valley (again imperceptible) situated in the Shark river between the slightly elevated areas of the Big Cypress on the west and the hammocks on the east.
We took the tram tour on which we learnt interesting facts such as the origin of the river Shark’s name, the lone incident of a human injury by an alligator in an “accident” in the park’s entire history, as well as some disturbing facts of how humans are endangering the Everglades in more than one way. A very real danger for the flora and fauna of the region comes from “exotic” and invasive species that have been released / introduced into the national park by people. The biggest of these threats is the Burmese Python, which some people kept as an exotic pet and when any became unwanted, the easiest way to dispose them was to release them into the wild. While the Burmese Python is itself classified as a vulnerable species in its native habitat of South & South-eastern Asia, in the Everglades they have overrun the endemic species of the region. It is reported that over 90% of the mammals in the park – white-tailed deer, rabbits, opossums, raccoons, Florida panther – have disappeared over the past decade or two. A number of captured pythons have had these in their stomachs. Attempts to capture the pythons have met with very little success and it is estimated that over a 1000 remain in the park, continue to multiply and pose a threat to the native species.
Back to the interesting sightings we had on this two-and-a-half hour tour. Baby alligators to begin with – they have yellow stripes for camouflage to help with their survival to adulthood.
We came upon a Green Heron, a Great Egret, a Great Blue Heron, a Red-shouldered Hawk, Black Vultures and finally an Anhinga!!
A soft-shelled turtle bearing the marks of a recent alligator encounter was spotted right next to the track.
But the best was saved for the last – an alligator (a mother as we figured later) with a kill of a smaller alligator and getting defensive of her food. We learnt that adult alligators are cannibals. While watching this rare sight, we observed 4 to 5 baby alligators that kept swimming and surfacing near the adult and that was how we figured the adult was a mother.
Thus ended our rendezvous with American alligators, creatures that we learnt are fairly shy and unlike the often believed notion of being human attackers, only ever consider humans as food when humans start feeding them! The park has warning signs all over that feeding animals in the park is illegal and carries a fine!
With all this learning and park activities done, Mika qualified as a Junior Park Ranger!
In between our Everglades exploration, we took a day to drive down to the Florida Keys to see the picturesque view of the Atlantic ocean all around on the Seven-Mile Bridge and stopped at Key Largo to visit the John Pennakemp Coral Reef State Park. Manish and Mika went snorkelling but I chickened out as the water was choppy & called for strong swimmers. I caught up with some of the local inhabitants meanwhile 🙂
Next destination was Miami and its famed South Beach.
Thanks for reading. We look forward to your feedback.
We are privileged to be posting this article on a rich ecosystem from the mega-diverse Ecuador, the most biologically-diverse country on the planet – the subject of another post!
On the bright sunny Florida morning of Earth Day 2016 (22nd April) we set out on our maiden drive on the “other side” to the Kennedy Space Center. A few navigational hiccups and acclimatisation with the “other side” later, we were comfortably cruising down FL-528 E (state road/highway 528 heading East) towards our destination.
As we entered the NASA Causeway, it was a breathtaking view of shimmering water of the lagoon Indian River on both sides of the road. We crossed over to the NASA Parkway and were delighted by our first sighting of an American alligator in the adjoining stream! We later were told by our guides that the Space Center prides itself for being a haven for the resident fauna comprising alligators, bald eagles and many others, including some endangered species.
We started with the bus tour that took us around the massive facility to see some of the massive equipment used to move the rockets and shuttles for launch and the rocket assembly building, before taking us to one of the major highlights – the Apollo/Saturn V Center.
Here we were invited into the actual Command Center that was used for the launch of the Apollo 8 to view a film on the history of the NASA space program from its start until Neil Armstrong’s small step that was a giant leap for mankind.
It was so overwhelming to sit there and watch history unfold, we were close to tears. The insecurity of the US at Russia’s launch of Sputnik 1 in 1957 (which triggered the establishment of NASA) followed by the successful space mission of Yuri Gagarin in 1961 at the height of the cold war, the challenge of “We choose to go the moon” set by President John F Kennedy, the tragedy of Apollo 1 and the perseverance of so many people in the years that followed leading to the success of multiple Apollo missions until Apollo 11 landed on the moon on 20th July 1969.
As we stepped out of the command center, we came face to face with the massive 363-foot Saturn V rocket, the largest ever made, used to launch the Apollo vehicles and others over a 20-year period. Simply awesome!
We then walked around admiring all the memorabilia from the Apollo missions that are exhibited here – lunar rock samples (one of which can be touched), a moon buggy, space suits of various astronauts including Alan Shepard (the second human & first American in space), Kitty Hawk (the shuttle/command module) of the Apollo 14 mission
We learnt that the shuttles were named by the commanders of the mission, so Kitty Hawk was Alan Shepard’s choice for the Apollo 14 command module and Neil Armstrong had christened the Apollo 11 command module as Columbia. The lunar modules which detached from the command module and actually landed on the moon had their own names too – “Eagle” was the first one. We watched a simulation of the tense moments preceding the landing of the Eagle on the moon when communication was lost with the Houston Mission Control (which takes over from the Kennedy Center after launch and manages NASA missions until reentry back into the Earth’s atmosphere when Kennedy takes over again) and Eagle had to change course and choose a different landing spot from the originally planned one. Eagle ran into a low-fuel situation and all mission controllers could do was hold their breath and cross their fingers until they heard Neil Armstrong say “the Eagle has landed“! Heart-stopping!
After all this excitement, we headed back to the bus to get back to the main visitor’s complex to see the next highlight for the day – the Space Shuttle Atlantis exhibit. On the way our lady guide (& driver) pointed out the huge nest of a bald eagle that has been an inhabitant of many years. A huge fuel tank (a real one) with solid rocket booster replicas make for a dramatic entrance to the exhibit that covers 30 years of space shuttle missions from 1981 – 2011.
We were introduced to how the concept of a space shuttle orbiter that can take-off and land back like a plane evolved with many iterations on feasible design and years of hard work of multiple teams of engineers. Reuse was also a major consideration and so came the reusable solid rocket boosters that were separate from the fuel tank and retrieved after each launch for reuse. We learnt that the space shuttle does not take off vertically, rather it launches into a trajectory and reaches a velocity that lets it escape being pulled down by gravity but then orbit the Earth, much like the moon. After the introduction, its curtains-up and we gasped at the real space shuttle Atlantis that was suspended right in front of us!
All around it are the facts and figures as well as some simulators to help us get a feel for what the controls of a shuttle look like and what it could be like for astronauts to work in space.
But the best of all was the chance to actually experience the Space Shuttle Launch Simulator to get a feel for what it would be like to be inside a space shuttle during its launch! We got to experience being vertical in the shuttle for launch position and then “zero G” in just a few moments as the shuttle accelerates from 0 to 17,500 mph (28,175 kmph) in 8 minutes!! Definitely a once-in-a-lifetime experience for me, could be more than once for my daughter though!
We were fortunate to have the opportunity to hear from and meet an astronaut, Bob Cenker, about his actual experience of being in space. He spoke about the physical challenges and his own experience of “space adaptation” and “re-adaptation” which is often termed as “space sickness” by the media. His most beautiful memories he said are of “going through a rainbow” every sunrise and sunset, which happen once every 90 minutes while they orbit the earth!
Mihika had been asking us if astronauts got paid a lot and soon enough she had her answer when the question was posed to Bob who answered in the negative and explained how there were a huge number of applicants for the position of astronauts making it very competitive. Manish asked what disciplines should aspiring youngsters pursue if they wished to one day make it to space and happily for us his answer reinforced the importance of STEM (science, technology, engineering & medicine).
In very interesting 3D features, we learnt of the Hubble telescope repairs, the beautiful and intriguing images it has been sending, the discovery of galaxies, the setup of the International Space Station and the latest mission of NASA called “Orion” to send humans to Mars. That will be one lonesome mission for those who go – three years away from Earth, family, friends …..
Wondering if space travel will indeed become a reality in our lifetime, we wandered into the Rocket Garden to see the impressive display there before calling it a day. And what a day!!
Thanks for reading!
Next up will be a most wonderful experience of nature’s wonders at the Everglades National Park in South Florida.
The forecast was for rain on the afternoon we arrived in New York, guess we managed to borrow some sunshine from Egypt for we arrived to a pleasant sunny afternoon. Warmer still the reception from an old buddy of Manish, Sanjay who was meeting him after 28 long years!! We had a great evening and dinner together with him and his lovely girl-friend Rodica.
We took a day to recuperate before attempting a bite of the Big Apple, in which we explored the pleasant locales of Greenwich, a town in neighbouring Connecticut. The first to catch our attention were some pretty robins with a brownish-orange breast (later id’d as the American
Robin, the official state bird of Connecticut), squirrels darting up and down trees and the mynah-like but smaller Eurasian starlings.
Acclimatised with the cooler weather and temperatures in Farenheit, we set out to explore the core of the Big Apple – midtown Manhattan. The name Manhattan has its origins in the word Manna-hata which in the Lenape language (of the natives who originally inhabited the area) means “island of many hills”. The famed Grand Central was our gateway and seemed only too familiar thanks to SRK and Rani Mukherjee in the movie Kabhi Alvida Na Kahna.
Inspired by the bicycles outside the Grand Central and the lovely sunshine, we decided to explore as much on foot as possible.
We made our way to the New York Public Library’s main building established in 1895 in Bryant Park. The walkway leading upto the building has many quotes on knowledge and books by eminent writers, thinkers, poets and artists; one could spend an hour or more reading them.
Inside are large reading rooms and halls that present an oasis of calm for those who wish to escape the hustle of the big city to read, think and work.
Just beside the library is the Bryant Park, which seemed to be eagerly awaiting the arrival of spring. There were no leaves yet on the trees but the flowers had just started blooming. We enjoyed the sunshine and watched people go by while resting our feet.
Next stop was “the MET“, the Museum of Metropolitan Art, the largest art museum in the US. Planned to be the main destination for the day, it lost out in time & mind-share owing to the bright sunshine which kept us outdoors for longer. For a family that likes to pace itself, we surprised ourselves by the ground we covered before we hit the Met – Times Square, the Radio City Music Hall and the Rockfeller Center.
The MET is a real treasure trove with galleries dedicated to art from across the world and spanning ancient to modern. One needs multiple visits over days to do justice to the collections here. We browsed through some of the key exhibits in the little over two hours we had before closing time. It was then time to rest our feet again, this time in the beautiful Central Park just adjacent to the MET.
To wrap up the day, what better place than a second visit to the glitzy Times Square, which in the not too distant past, would not have figured on the list of places for a family to visit. Fortunately for us, Times Square has witnessed a transformation from “dazzling to dirty and back again” and the efforts of some of the NYC mayors in the 1990s have changed the face of the Times Square.
With the rest of Manhattan planned to be visited in our second visit a couple of months from now, the next day was spent in the company of another long-time buddy of Manish, Rajneesh and his wife Priti & son Ashwin at their home in Hartford, Connecticut. Priti’s sumptuous food had us licking our fingers for the next few meals!
Thanks to our wonderful hosts, we got the opportunity to enjoy slices of nature at the nearby Manchester. We spotted a pair of Cackling Geese and a Heron on a nature trail by a little stream.
Next pit stop was with family in New Jersey with my cousin Arun, sis-in-law Shweta and kids Atharv & Mira. It was a marvelous evening that was extra special for Mika for we dined at The Cheesecake Factory! The following day was a real treat with fresh home-made breakfast and lunch with filter coffee too!
Well fed & satisfied, we were all set to head south to sunny Florida for some tweeny attractions for Mika at the Universal Studios and the much-awaited Kennedy Space Center for all of us.
Thanks for reading this, hope you enjoyed it. The next write-up will be on our visit to NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida.