Masai Mara: In quest of The Great Migration & Africa’s Big 5

Apart from a 2 hour delay and constant turbulence during which I clutched Meha’s hand for a majority of the flight while chanting Hanuman Chalisa, the KQ 211 dreamliner from Mumbai to Nairobi was uneventful and comfortable, specially with Tusker as faithful companion!

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Kenya special

Before that Meha and Mika bonded in the reasonably comfortable Card lounge at the new and swanky Mumbai airport.

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Mommy baby time !

As a part of our world trip, we are on a 10-day visit to Kenya to fulfill a lifetime dream of visiting Masai Mara during the great migration, as well as Lake Nakuru & Amboseli national parks. The excruciating 90 minute wait to clear immigration queue meant we reached our airport hotel only around midnight. In a perverse way, we mentally celebrated the improving standards of Indian airports and immigration. The hotel foyer looks deceptively grand in this morning picture but the experience of lights not working at midnight was not funny at all!

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It’s nice and bright. I have forgotten the silly midnight experience

After a lovely breakfast next morning, we offloaded most of our dollars at Big Time Safaris (who have arranged our trip) office in Nairobi, and were on our way at 9:30 am. The lovely views of the Great Rift Valley emerged after an hour. It is part of the intercontinental ridge system that runs through Kenya and was formed when Mother Earth failed to rip Africa apart 8 million years ago!

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The Great Rift Valley

We cruised till Narok, with very Indian-like landscapes in between, and then the fun really began.

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Rural Kenya, just like India
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The omnipresent Kenyan veggie stall by the highway

Whoever in the Kenyan government decided to NOT tar the 40 km stretch between Narok and Masai Mara, must be one sadistic %$$#@. Bone-crushing, this road will easily win the world cup for the worst road in the world.

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Now we know why sensible people fly to the Mara

Under the expert driving of our guide-cum-driver Richard who handled a puncture with aplomb, we reached Mara Sopa Lodge by 3:45 pm with some lovely views of the surrounding Masai village.

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OMG. Are we gonna reach in time ?
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Kids in the countryside herding cattle
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Quintessential Masai male with the trademark red cloak

Tastefully done rooms with lovely food and appealing common areas, we immediately felt welcome at the Sopa lodge.

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I already love this lodge
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South of the equator for the second time this year

Masai Mara (northern half of Tanzania’s Serengeti plains) easily tops everyone’s safari wish list in Kenya – and has been described, along with Serengeti, as one of the top wildlife destinations in the world. With rolling savannahs interspersed with acacia trees, this magical ecosystem presents you with wildlife viewing opportunities like no other reserve. Open roofed safari vehicles jostle for space in search of the big 5 – lion, leopard, African elephant, black rhino and buffalo. The other noteworthy protagonists include wildebeest, zebras, giraffes, elands, impalas, waterbucks, warthogs, gazelle and many more, including multiple bird species.

Between July and October, one of world’s most wonderful spectacle unfolds here – the Great Migration. Driven by Masai Mara’s rains and greenery, millions of wildebeests, zebras and other animals flock north of the adjoining Serengeti into Mara in search of greener pastures. Crocodiles and other predators like lions and leopards join the feast, while the hapless wildebeest attempt the river crossings at Mara. It is the complete cycle of life, playing out in all its glory !

But I digress. It’s already 5 pm and time for our first safari. Richard, our guide, opens up the roof top and we stand up like eager vultures waiting to devour what lies ahead.

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Love the roof top

Suddenly the van races towards a hill and our hearts start to race. Surely Richard has spotted something. And lo and behold ! We are presented with the magical sight of a male lion basking under the sun, totally oblivious of the safari vehicles around. We click away breathlessly while self-congratulating ourselves for having made such a bumper start.

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The king of the jungle, with a modern radio collar !
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We heard him roar

After a few minutes, he stood up and started walking.

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Enough of these minions . I need to go

Richard continues to stay one step ahead, providing us vantage photo opportunities.

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A majestic walk

The lion is now getting uneasy with the circus surrounding him and decides to finally walk away. It is over as quickly as it started.

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See you later.

Just as we are digesting what we just saw, Richard violently turns the van around towards another grass mound and we are presented with the wonderful sight of a cheetah. In my nervousness, I end up spoiling all my pictures due to terrible focus. Mika comes to rescue with some super shots from her backup camera.

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How did Richard know he/she was lurking in the bush??

Every great experience in life comes at a price. We see a ranger pull up. In his over eagerness to please us, Richard has gone off track. A long conversation with the ranger ensues. Richard nonchalantly informs us that he has been fined. Suddenly we see a bunch of lions in the distance, with a lone buffalo guarding himself. Could it be a live kill ? We are not that fortunate, but we get to see a bunch of lovely lion cubs frolicking with their pride members.

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In anticipation of a kill that did not materialize
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With kids around, the buffalo isn’t worried anymore

It is now getting dark and a lovely impala appears as our smashing day 1 comes to an end.

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Lovely antlers of the male Impala

Day 2 begins with the chirping of birds and baboons right outside our room.

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Is it a mom feeding the baby ?

We are determined to make the most of the day with a full day safari, aided by a lovely packed lunch from the lodge.

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Here we go – long day ahead

A variety of wild life emerges as soon as we enter the park.

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Star of the great migration – Wildebeests
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An Impala male has an entire her of females to look after!
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Black-backed Jackal – has a lovely golden body contrasting with its back
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Topi – a medium sized antelope has fascinating brown and grey shades
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African Buffalo – a majestic creature that reminds us of the bison/Gour in Indian forests
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Zebras – the stripes never fail to fascinate!
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Africn Guinea Fowl
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African Grey Hornbill, we know from our Indian safari experience that their presence indicates a healthy ecosystem
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Grant’s Gazelle – lighter in shade than the Thompson’s Gazelle and missing the characteristic black stripe on the sides
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Hartebeest – another of the multiple ungulates that are found in Africa

We suddenly encounter a cheetah savoring its kill behind the bushes. We waited for half an hour but who wants to lift its head for silly humans while gastronomic delights on offer on the other side.

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This spotted beauty relishes her meal, oblivious of the cameras clicking away!

A lion quickly appears to the right, barely giving time for my aging eyes to focus.

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Where did His Majesty suddenly come from?

As we rue the missed opportunity, Meha points to another majestic male relaxing under the bushes to our left.

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Royalty!

After posing royally for us, he decides to take a nap and we move on.

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Siesta time!

The landscape has now decidedly turned lusher and we can see the migration unfolding in front of us. Thousands of wildebeests and zebras graze on the expanse of grass, as far as your eyes can see.

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Herds of wildebeest and zebra as far as the eye could see – this is the Great Migration!
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Wildebeest are all over the place
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Wildebeest are quite fascinating when you take a closer look
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They look like the MMM trio, that’s us!
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Thrilled to be right there in the thick of things!

We drive on towards the Mara triangle area with more magical wild life appearing on the way.

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An Olive Baboon locks eyes with us !
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The majestic Waterbuck
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This spotted beauty is the Serval
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That’s the Serval again!

It’s around 12:30 pm and we reach the hippo pool where an arrogant ranger demands a tip for no reason. We get put off and leave immediately after clicking the crocodiles and the hippos.

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Biggest congregation of hippos we have seen in the wild

We reach the Mara Triangle area around 1 pm with a welcome toilet break. Having spoiled by the World class visitor centers of the USA national park, we found the Mara one too lame to even describe !

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The Mara visitor center was a poor shadow compared to absolutely grand ones of USA. Come on Narok council !
Thank you Decathlon India for making us feel out of Africa

It is time to now turn back but not before clicking this rock at the Tanzania Kenya (TK) border. Very cool feeling to be in Serengeti and Masi Mara at the same time !!

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The border

The first African elephants appear and the contrast with the desi counterparts is obvious. They are shorter in height with wider ears, compared to the Indian ones.

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African elephants are shorter with much wider ears than Indian counterparts
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I love ellies !

Very soon, a very cute-looking African buffalo stares straight at us.

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African buffalo

It’s 4 pm. We are tired to the bone but as we head back we do not miss the opportunity to savor these gems.

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Brilliant colors of a superb starling . They were as ubiquitous in the park as the wildebeest !

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Secretary bird ! What an interesting walk he/she had !
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Ostrich in the wild

The day concludes with the classical view of the acacia trees in foreground of the savannah.

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The classical Masai Mara landscape view

Day 3 begins with clear strategy of looking specifically for lions and giraffes. Giraffes immediately appear with this one being my favorite.

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Looking straight at us. There were tons of them all around us !

A colony of baboon appears along with some buffalo-bird bonding.

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Olive baboon perched at atop a tree
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Barely clinging on to mom !
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A pair of oxpeckers help keep the African buffalo free of ticks

What happened over the next couple of hours would remain etched in our hearts and minds for ever. As the terrain became mountainous and with no other vehicles in sight, we knew something special was coming up. Suddenly the following emerges : a bunch of buffalos standing in defense against a bunch of non-interested lions.

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A most dramatic spectacle

It took a while to realize that this was actually a one-sided love story with the male in hot pursuit of the uninterested female.

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I am trying but she is not keen 🙁
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What a jerk. Leave me alone !

While the pair played hide and seek over the next hour, another female emerged right behind us. We have never been this close to a lion in our life and all this seemed too good to be true. We had lunch in the van with lions all around us and no other vehicle in sight ! For a change it was for real.

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This lioness was right behind us
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Giving us company while we have lunch. Absolutely magical !

Very soon Musafa and Sarabi decided to climb pride rock and this chase was straight out of a Govinda-Ravina starrer.

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Very difficult. Ladki hai ya chadi hai ?
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Reminded us of the pride rock from The Lion King
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Roothe rab ko manana aasan hai, Roothe yaar ko manana mushkil hai !
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Elephant decides to join the party. Did the lion succeed ? Only God knows.
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Can you spot the lioness behind us ?

As we left the amorous couple together, reality dawned on us that last 2 magical hours would count as THE topmost wild life encounter in our entire lives ! Still pinching ourselves, we were on seventh moon but destiny had more in store with a whole pride of giraffes presenting itself !

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Grace personified

By this time we are overwhelmed. If Richard was a corporate employee, his appraisal would have read “Over Achieved” along with employee of the year award. Its getting close to end of the day but some more cool stuff is in store.

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Warthogs; Really hilarious – they started running away from you the moment you get near
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The magical Topi with thoughtful eyes and brilliant shades of black and brown
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A young black-backed jackal scavenging a meal
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Part of the big 5, we loved the African buffaloes

As we say bye to Masai Mara, we are given a befitting farewell by this lioness.

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Snoozing in the savannahs

We get back to the lodge, cherishing the beautiful experiences of the last 3 days. The Masai dancers arrive at the lodge at 9 pm, giving us a great cultural experience. Tomorrow we head to Lake Nakuru National park looking for flamingos, tree-climbing lions, black rhinos, white rhinos and more.

Thanks for reading and see you at Lake Nakuru. Bye.

An Indian pilgrimage to Niagara Falls USA

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.

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Pilgrimage is coming true – the first view of the Niagara Falls !

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 !

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We started taking countless pictures as if there is no tomorrow

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.

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Yes I am going near the falls, care to join me ?

We were on the way and lady luck emerged presenting a beautiful rainbow over the American Falls and were already drenched !

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The first views of the American falls from the boat
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Unforgettable !
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Meha and I quickly joined the party !

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.

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Horseshoe Falls on the Canadian side – spectacular !
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By this time, all tourists are running for cover !!
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Before you know, the boat has turned back and it’s all over ! Last views of the mighty Horseshoe falls
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As we leave the boat, we take more pictures as if there is no tomorrow !

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.

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As we walk towards Cave of the Winds, the top view of the beautiful Bridal Veil falls (the second falls on the American side) emerge.

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).

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Parted with our dollars, we are ready to go !
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Last dry picture before the water hits you !

Here is how you feel during the walk. You are soaked to the bone but boy it is fun !

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Errr… shall I go ahead and get soaked ? That looks torrential !
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So we go near the fall and this is the result. You can not stand beneath the fall beyond a few seconds- it is SO ferocious !
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Daddy is asking me to leave but I am having a ball !
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Bye Bye Niagara Falls
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Ok, one more before we leave
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What just hit me?
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Well Papa & Mama read it. I am happy posing !

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.

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Amazing view at 9:30 pm
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Can you spot two lovely moons in this ?
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Lovely Canadian side as seen from the American side
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I was spellbound – this is my favorite night picture
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It’s 10 pm. The party is over. Where is my pasta ?

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.

 

 

 

National Mall: The Amazing Museums & Monuments of Washington D.C

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.

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The tourist circus is not visible, we saw a guy being removed by secret service
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This is what the battle is all about !

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.

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Capitol hill – this is where National mall starts
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Lincoln Memorial – this is where the National mall ends
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Amazing view of the Washington Monument and the National Mall stretch, from the Lincoln Memorial. These are the steps from which Martin Luther King Jr gave his 1963 “I have a dream” speech !

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.

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One of the many treaties through with the Modern USA systematically marginalized the Native Indians
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This message resonates so much with our soul
The museum is beautifully divided into different tribes
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The lovely Quechua people – we saw their live dance near Machu Picchu, Peru !
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Lovely dresses of the natives

Next up was Air and Space Museum with popular exhibits such as Wright Brothers’ flyer & Apollo Lunar module. Mika loved the flight simulator.

Wright brothers section is most popular
These early beauties must have been fun to fly in
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The space section nostalgically reminded us of the NASA
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We paid tribute to Kalpana Chawla – who perished in the Columbia tragedy
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That would make Mama and Papa mighty proud !

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:

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That is one hell of a jaw !
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Jurassic Park memories coming alive !
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In Cairo Museum, we paid top dollars to see mummies; here it is free !
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Entrance to the fantastic Natural History Museum

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.

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The entrance
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4 black students had dared to sit on “Whites-only” seats – reminded us of Mahatma Gandhi. Very cool.
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The African American section has a fantastic Music sub-section
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It is hard to believe USA was behind in Women’s rights . Now I understand why Hillary is finding it so difficult !
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Having taught this on guitar a thousand times , I am attached to the USA national anthem
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This was a fascinating, “ahead of the times” car displayed in the invention section. Pity it failed.
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Teaching gender equality to our darling daughter !

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.

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The day after
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What can humans do against a degenerated monster ??
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Perhaps this came too late ?
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Unbelievable !
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Jewish people look so stylish !
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Lesson: The warning bells for the supporters should start ringing when leaders self anoint themselves as prophets
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This is one of the horrible ways it happened
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If you are fit, you live and work before perishing. If unfit, you go to gas chambers instantaneously. Either way you are doomed .
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Entrance to the dreaded concentration camp
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This should put the whole humanity to shame. What were other countries doing while this was on ?
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This is how it actually happened 🙁 Shed a tear.
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Very poignant – couldn’t agree more
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That’s the only place they could go

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.

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Jefferson memorial remembers USA’s 3rd president, also the drafter of the declaration of independence.
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Reminding us of Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr fought for justice and equality. The first black memorial on the National mall, this memorial opened only in 2011 .
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Democrat Franklin D Roosevelt, is my favorite of all US presidents. A towering personality stricken by Polio, he was the longest serving US president for 4 terms. He played a key role as a statesman during the depression and war days. He has a befitting memorial spanning 7 acres.
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The longest serving first lady of USA, Eleanor Roosevelt was a politician, diplomat and activist in her own right. She also served as USA delegate to the UN General assembly. It would be difficult to find a power couple like the Roosevelts.

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 !

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A college reunion of sorts at Richmond, Virginia.

We also get to taste the legendary southern barbecue at the local authentic joint.

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Awesome ribs

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!

A Californian Summer – with awesome friends !

After successfully concluding our 21 day marathon American road trip, it was time for a much deserved 10 day break, at buddy Jagdeep and Vipin’s lovely abode in Saratoga, California. While jogging in lovely Californian weather, we gawked at the million-dollar villas in the neighborhood and thanked Adarsh Developers in Bangalore for giving us an equivalent Palm Meadows with its amazing clubhouse – a consolation prize for those of us who got left behind 🙂

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Humble to the core – Jagdeep and Vipin are epitome of Indian values in the west

I generally slept and did nothing most of the time while Meha bonded with Jagdeep,

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They met 28 years back and the bond continues to grow

And Mika did the same with Jagdeep and Vipin’s lovely children Riya and Sachi.

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This is called instant chemistry – the kids hit on like fire !

Kaddu’s (as I fondly call Jagdeep) gorgeous food and the existence of a lovely pool in their villa meant we felt entirely at home and for a moment forgot that we were on the road. Never become too comfortable with life!

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We are training for Olympics!
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The tan speaks for itself – gorgeous backyard pool of Jagdeep & Vipin
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Happy faces but we have to leave soon 🙁

A visit to an amazingly vast San Jose Gurudwara, followed by prayers and langar was a great testimonial to the Indians in California balancing their traditional values with their adopted country.

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Very cool Gurudwara – a city in itself
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After the lovely langar – Jagdeep was happy she did not have to cook !

Looking at our sloth-like behavior and complete lack of interest in going to San Francisco, Jagdeep announced after a week that we were the worst visitors ever – staring at the dubious distinction of going back to India without a pilgrimage to Golden Gate bridge !

Arun & Sunita, another set of cool friends from Palm Meadows, saved our skin by taking us to SFO.

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It was REALLLLY windy !
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What a view !

The blustery winds at the golden gate bridge were compensated by the awesome Bhel Puri and beer that Arun had come prepared with.

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Arun ROCKS !

Before we left the bridge, it was time for the last snap.

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It’s time to leave the bridge

Next up was the Pier 39 with its lovely sea lions, the classic Alcatraz view and a lovely carnival atmosphere.

I love Pier 39 Sea lions !
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Unfortunately Alcatraz was sold out – the views were the consolation 🙁

A very cool Arun uncle took Mika to the coolest chocolate store.

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I love Arun uncle !

Lombard street, with its winding roads and views, is dubbed as one of the most crooked streets in the world.

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Hey I am not crooked, the Lombard street is !

Arun uncle also helped Mika tick off one of her major bucket list items – having ice cream at one of SFO’s coolest joints !

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I wish this day never ends ! Uncle where were you all my life !!

My simple bucket list included paying homage to this rock music joint !

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Whatever you do in life, don’t forget to ROCK

We then went off to see Arun-Sunita’s new mansion with jaw-dropping views. Smitten by jealously, I forgot to take pictures but stuck a deal for the next holiday. We finished off the day with a lovely chinese dinner at their about-to-leave-house and bid good bye. SFO done !!

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With Arun, Sunita and their lovely kids

The festivities with (other) friends continued the next day with a reunion with close college buddies Jeetu and Puneet. I now believe in destiny otherwise why would God ordain a Singaporean-Puneet to be in California!

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Jahan teen yaar mil jaaye !

And before that we had visited Tamilian-turned-Punjabi-radically transformed (biwi ka asar hai!) – college buddy Mouli and his lovely family for barbecue.

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Mouli is a completely changed man from college !

Shamed by our sloth behavior, we reluctantly agreed to come for a Silicon-Valley trip with Jagdeep and Vipin a couple of days before departure. Boy am I thankful!

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During this trip, you are the main connect with friends/family: we love you Facebook!
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Being horrible at electronics, I envied all my classmates who did silicon, wafers and all that…
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That’s right, that’s why I am foolish to leave IT, do music and waiting to succeed for 7 years now !

But Facebook is our Silicon valley favorite!

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Very cool and thoughtful Facebook, you rock !

People over places. Relationships. As we leave California for Washington D.C with heavy hearts, we will cherish being with friends more than anything else. Thanks Radhika, Vipin, Jagdeep, Mouli, Jeetu, Chandra, Arun, Sunita & the rest for your crazy hospitality.

Thanks for reading. See you in D.C.

The Great American Road Trip

A much awaited part of our world trip, our longest road trip (yet!), was finally around the corner – 21 days in the Southwest of US starting in California on 13th (that’s the family’s lucky number!) Jun 2016. Certainly called for a pit stop after Yellowstone and what better than friends, food and fun to get us all set! Manish’s long-time friend Chandra, a classmate from school going back some 36 years and his wife Arundhati graciously hosted us at their San Jose home. A visit to the wine district of Napa Valley and wine tasting at the Castello de Amorosa, a meet-up and dinner with Manish and Chandra’s schoolmate Sujit & his family who were visiting the US (ironically we never met in India in all these years!) at SFO, and a visit to the haloed institution Stanford University were all part of the package.

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Chandra takes us to Napa Valley, that’s one more off the bucket list!
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A view of the vineyards of Castella de Amorosa, Napa Valley
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With buddies it is always Beer – Manish, Chandra & Sujit get-together in SFO after nearly 30 years

We met and caught up with our college friend Radhika & her lovely family after 24 long years. And in the process got invaluable inputs on some beautiful additions to our itinerary.

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Meeting after 24 years! A lifetime to catch up on with our college buddy Radhika Madhavan

On the morning of 13th Jun we set out to the Yosemite National Park located in California’s Sierra Nevada mountains. Yosemite has the distinction of being the first instance of land set aside by the US government to be preserved and for public use through the Yosemite Grant in 1864 and setting the precedent for the establishment of Yellowstone as the first National Park in 1872. Yosemite itself acquired National Park status in 1890 ensuring the natural beauty and wilderness of this area is preserved for us and the generations to come to enjoy, thanks to the concerted and tireless efforts of selfless people like Galen Clark, John Muir and Frederick Olmsted.

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Yosemite National Park’s Arch Rock Entrance

The granite arch entrance is an apt gateway to Yosemite’s world of granite and water. The landscape as we see it here is the result of millions of years of geological and glacial activity that sculpted the granite rock into amazing formations, gave birth to deep canyons, multiple streams, cascades, waterfalls and lush meadows.

After a stop for a picnic lunch by the Merced river under tall cedar trees, we headed to the core and most visited area of the park, the Yosemite Valley. We were not quite prepared for the traffic jam we found ourselves in, so decided to park at the nearest possible spot and walked to the Visitor Center. Great decision as it gave us the time we needed to browse the exhibits and watch the documentary on Yosemite. We came to highly value the (usually) 20 minute capsules in all the National Parks which are an excellent brief on the history and geology of the park. We then headed off to check-in to our tented cabin accommodation in the Half Dome Village, until recently known as the Curry Village.

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Our tented accommodation in Yosemite at the Half Dome Village

That night (and the next 2) turned out like being in a freezer! It was so cold despite the month of June and we sorely missed heating in the tent. Needless to say we were up early the next morning and quick to walk across to the warmth of the coffee shop! Could not but wonder why we were paying so much for non-heated tents with shared shower and restroom facilities, no coffee or breakfast and housekeeping limited to change of towels 🙁

We set out to explore the sights of the Yosemite Valley using the park’s hybrid shuttle, an eco-friendly transport option with value-added commentary by the knowledgeable drivers. First stop for us was the Yosemite Falls with a short hike to the lower falls. With spray blown in multiple directions and bright sunshine it was a wonderful sight that inspired Mihika to try and capture the beauty on paper. As we walked further we started seeing the upper and mid-sections of the waterfall that were hidden from view earlier and could appreciate how tall it is.

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The Yosemite Falls inspire the young artist in Mihika
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The Yosemite Falls consisting of three parts, the Upper Falls, Middle Cascades and Lower Falls, is considered to be the highest waterfall in North America
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A brightly coloured Western Tanager perched near the Yosemite Falls

Next stop with a change of shuttle was El Capitan, one of the two most famous granite formations in Yosemite, the other being the Half Dome located next to our place of stay. We first admired the two Sentinels that stand across from the El Capitan before walking through the grassy meadows to get a view of the gigantic El Capitan.

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The majestic Sentinels of Yosemite
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The awe-inspiring El Capitan, a 3000-foot tall monolith, a dream to scale for many rock climbers
Winged Beauties - a couple of Swallow Tailed Butterflies in the meadows near El Capitan
Winged Beauties – a couple of Swallow Tailed Butterflies in the meadows near El Capitan

The afternoon was spent on two activities. The first was a Ranger-led walk and talk on the Black Bears of Yosemite. It was quite shocking to know that 37 bears, a little over 10% of the park’s population of ~350 bears, had been hit by vehicles on the park roads in 2015. And in 2016 there had already been half-a-dozen accidents even before the peak traffic & tourist season of Jul-Aug. The second activity was an exploration of the traditional Ahwahnechee village exhibit at the Visitor Centre. In a recurring pattern across the national parks we had visited so far, we learnt that native American tribes inhabited the Yosemite Valley for thousands of years, living in harmony with and an initimate understanding of the complex ecosystem that supported them, before European settlers discovered the place and ultimately displaced them. The evening saw us watching a documentary on the life and work of John Muir besides catching up on social media with the limited internet connectivity at the village reception.

The next morning we started early to drive up to the Glacier Point that offers panoramic views of the Half Dome, canyons, waterfalls and the valley. A couple of stops along the way at the Tunnel View point for its photo opportunities of the valley.

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Amazing vista from the Glacier Point with the Half Dome in the centre, Tenaya Canyon on the left and Liberty Cap, Nevada & Vernal Falls on the right
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A Stellar’s Jay enjoys the sunshine at Glacier Point

On the way down, we stopped by the Bridal Veil Falls vista point to see this fascinating waterfall up close and could see why it was given its name.

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The Bridal Veil Fall that sends spray in different directions

In the afternoon we decided to brave the Yosemite Valley traffic to drive to the Tuolomne Grove off Tioga Road and not on the shuttle route. The attraction here were the ancient Giant Sequoia trees that are endemic to the region and found in 3 groves in Yosemite. The main and most visited Sequoia grove, Mariposa, is closed for restoration until 2017. Giant Sequoias are amongst the oldest living trees in the world, outlived only by the Bristlecone Pines, and many of them have lived through the most significant milestones in recorded human history! Here is another example of a tree that has adapted to its natural environment prone to forest fires – like the Lodgepole pines in Yellowstone, the Giant Sequoias also have cones that are opened up by fire to release seeds. The 1.6 mile walk to the grove was easy being downhill, the groans of uphill walk back were all but forgotten on sighting an Acorn Woodpecker that was tirelessly pecking away at the bark of a mammoth tree!

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The tall trees dwarf us
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The Old Red – Amongst the most mature trees in the grove
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The Dead Giant – a dead Giant Sequoia with a stagecoach passage carved through as a tourist attraction in the 1800s
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An Acorn Woodpecker catches our attention with its persistent pecking that made a distinctive noise

The third morning at Yosemite saw us departing the park (happy to escape the cold nights!) through the scenic Tioga Road, the last road to be cleared of snow for the Tioga Pass to be opened up to traffic in the summer. We stopped by the Olmsted Point to take a look at the “lunar” landscape, a peek down the deep Tenaya canyon and a glimpse of the Tenaya lake that lay further ahead. Another stop at Tenaya lake to admire the serene blue waters with its mirror-like reflection of the surrounding mountains and snow caps and we were on our way out of Yosemite and soon looking at the expansive Mono Lake as we neared the town of Lee Vining.

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Tenaya lake in the distance seen from Olmsted Point
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A Golden Mantled Ground Squirrel in the Lunar Landscape of Olmsted Point
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The serene blue waters of Tenaya Lake provide an ideal setting to reflect
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Mono Lake comes into view as we leave the Tioga Road and Yosemite

The places of interest for the day (4th of the trip) after leaving Yosemite were the Bodie State Historic Park and the Mono Lake. We drove along the Mono lake to Bodie, an abandoned mining town from the Californian gold rush era. It started as a mining camp in 1859 with the discovery of gold here by a group of prospectors including W.S. Bodey after whom the town is named. It grew and witnessed its peak between 1877 – 1880 before its decline in the late 1910s and eventual abandonment. It was fascinating to walk through the streets of this ghost town which has preserved the houses, shops and community hall in the state they were left in, including some furnishings and contents. The small museum contains family photographs of residents, tools used by the miners and payroll registers of some of the mining companies with beautifully handwritten (almost calligraphic!) lists of the names & roles of workers among other artefacts. The town witnessed a fair share of violence we learnt with brawls, shootings and murders not being uncommon!

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The short-lived ghost town of Bodie
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Walking the streets of Bodie
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Interior of a house in Bodie
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A truck of the gold rush era
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Seen inside a shop in Bodie – chocolate is an all-time favourite!
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The gas station in Bodie – note the bullet holes in the “Shell” sign

We then descended down the Bodie hills and stopped by Mono lake, a huge saline soda lake to admire the hundreds of California Gulls along its shoreline and the curious formations of limestone called tufas. The tufas started emerging when water levels in the lake reduced following diversion of water to serve the needs of Los Angeles! The fall in water levels has adversely affected the ecosystem supported by the lake, in particular the migratory birds that nest here. Fortunately the Mono Lake Committee, an environmental organisation has taken up the cause of preservation of the lake and made significant progress over the last couple of decades.

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Mono Lake with the Sierra Nevada peaks in the background
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Tufas, limestone formations, visible in Mono Lake
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California Gulls by the Mono Lake

Driving along Hwy 395, we headed to our destination for that night’s halt – June Lake village. The next morning we enjoyed the views and calm of the picturesque Gull and June lakes before heading off to the Earthquake Fault in the Inyo National Forest near Mammoth Lakes. We spotted a mule deer on the highway, the first one with antlers that we had seen. He quickly retreated into the forest.

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The Gull lake, Mono County
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Mama duck with her little ducklings enjoying the morning in Gull lake
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The beautiful June Lake
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A stroll along the “beach” at June Lake turns out to be more chilly than we thought!
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A beautiful mule deer sporting antlers in the Inyo National Forest

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The fissure believed to have resulted from a system of fractures a series of strong quakes centuries ago. The native Americans are known to have used this for food storage at times when it had ice trapped in!

Next up on the itinerary was the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest, a detour from the town of Big Pine, added last minute as it was too tempting to pass by without looking at the oldest known living organisms dating over 4000 years in age.

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An old Bristlecone Pine

Bristlecone pine trees do not grow very tall, unlike what is normally expected especially after knowing about the Giant Sequoias, but they thrive in higher elevations under harsh conditions where other plants cannot grow. They have shallow and highly branched roots and extremely durable wood that is highly resistant to rot and insects. The exposed wood of Bristlecones, on living and dead trees, erodes like stone due to wind, rain, and freezing, which creates unusual forms and shapes.

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Sculpted appearance of a Bristlecone resulting from weathering action of the elements

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A squirrel peeps out from a fallen Bristlecone Pine

Leaving the windy slopes of the White Mountains where life has adapted to harsh climate, we descended down to the valley to visit a place where humans were forced to adapt to harsh climatic conditions during World War II. The Manzanar National Historic Site located between the towns of Independence and Lone Pine on Hwy 395 represents a little known part of American history. It is one of ten camps setup following the attack at Pearl Harbour where over 100,000 Americans of Japanese ancestry along the Pacific coast were incarcerated for stated reasons of suspicion but with no evidence ever found against any of them it is natural to wonder if it was just the face of racism showing itself. Acknowledging the wrongs and preserving the site with its story narrated candidly in the documentary screened every half-hour are great steps forward indeed.

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The Manzanar site located in Owens Valley, harsh sandy winds blow through most of the year in this barren land

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In 1988 President Ronald Reagan signed into law The Civil Liberties Act which acknowledged the injustice and granted reparations to the Japanese Americans interned by the US Government during World War II

After the dusty scorching winds and admiring the spirit of the Japanese community that had during its stay here altered it from barren land to little gardens and fruit orchards, we were ready to call it a day. We headed to the town of Ollancha with a tiny detour into Alabama Hills near Lone Pine to catch a glimpse of the locale that has seen the making of many an old Western movie.

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The Rustic Oasis Motel, Ollancha – a comfy rustic experience complete with rabbits hopping around the garden!

The dawn of day 6 on the road saw us witnessing one of the most beautiful sunrises at just past 5 am as we woke up to get going to the Death Valley National Park.

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Fire in the sky – what a sunrise!

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A couple of black-tailed jackrabbits (aka American desert hares) sprinted across the road as we drove in as if to prove the abundance of life in the desert. Pretty soon we were looking at such beautiful shades on the mountain sides, it got us wondering if this was painted or real!

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Is it a painting or a real mountain side?

First stop was the Mosaic Canyon with a short walk into the canyon to see the beautiful marble like polished surfaces. It was difficult to imagine water flowing through the canyon in the heat though it was just about 8 in the morning!

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Too tired to walk at 8 am!
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The Mosaic Canyon

As we drove down getting lower in elevation, the temperature reading continued to steadily inch up. We were soon at the point where we were at sea level and set to continue below sea level as we proceeded to Furnace Creek.

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The Mesquite Sand Dunes from a distance

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The mesmerising Mesquite sand dunes with a perfectly formed crescent!
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Bothered by the heat or worried about rattlesnakes?
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The temperature continues to soar quickly!
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Quite an appropriate name!

Next stop was at the Furnace Creek Visitor Centre for our intro and orientation on the park’s history and ecology. The documentary in its honest style included an emotional narration by an elderly lady of the native Timbisha Shoshone tribe saying they believed (like native Americans all across) they had been put in that particular place by the creator to look after and care for the land and how strange it was to be allocated a “reservation” to live on in their own land was theirs.

The landscape as we see it today is the result of a whole host of geological activities over millions of years, the last of which was a stretching of the Earth’s crust creating the slanted rock layers of the mountain ranges (that look very different from the fold or uplift mountains we are more familiar with) and the valley in between. The valley is starved of rainfall being in the “shadow” of three mountain ranges on the west which result in depletion of the moisture content of air as it crosses the mountains. And so we have the driest and hottest place here in the continent.

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The Golden Canyon
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Having learnt about the desert ecosystem and importance of preservation, Mika takes her oath as a Junior Ranger to do her bit to protect and preserve wilderness

The much awaited highlight for the day was the fact that we could look at the highest & lowest points in contiguous US within an hour of being at the lowest point! At Badwater Basin we stood at the lowest at 282 feet below sea level with extensive “salt flats” stretching out and water vapour visible over the shimmering white surface in the distance.

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So bright, hot and windy, cannot look up or let go of cap! At the lowest and hottest point in mainland USA, 282 feet below sea-level
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Braving the heat of 43 deg C! The Salt Flats of the Badwater Basin where water evaporates leaving behind salt cyrstals
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There still was some water flowing through in the Badwater Basin despite the burning heat

And then it was time to head up to Dante’s View after a brief colourful journey through Artist Drive and taking in the amazing vistas from Zabriskie Point both of which give one the feeling of being in a gigantic 3D canvas.

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In the Artist Drive, it is a delightful palette of colours come alive in 3D paintings!
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In black & white – the mountains sketched & shaded across the landscape!
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Mika excited at seeing “Badlands“, the namesake of a locale a favourite singer of hers grew up around!
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Stunning formations seen at Zabriskie Point
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Another view from Zabriskie Point

From Dante’s View point one can see the lowest (Badwater Basin, 282 feet below sea level) and highest points (Mount Whitney, 14505 feet above sea level) of US on a clear day. Relieved at the perceptibly cooler temperatures here we spent some time walking around and admiring the views from different angles, spotting lizards and some birds before departing the park.

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Panorama from Dante’s View – of the lowest point in the US!

Day 7 – time to head to Las Vegas for a relaxed couple of days, especially considering that we had just entered a heat wave gripping parts of California, Nevada and Arizona for 4 days. ‘Finding Dory’ at the legendary Brendan theatre and the cool environs of some of the famed casinos of Vegas like Bellagio were the perfect getaway from the heat outside, but we did need to steel ourselves to go and see the Hoover Dam on day 9.

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The Bellagio, Las Vegas
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Sights and sounds on the Vegas strip

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The Colorado river at Hoover Dam

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View of Hoover Dam from the Mike O’Callaghan–Pat Tillman Memorial Bridge

Day 10 was a long day with an early start as we had a lot of ground to cover before catching the sunset at the Grand Canyon. Our first destination situated in the state of Utah was an addition to our original itinerary based on our friend Radhika’s strong recommendation.

IMG_6961The Zion National Park is an amazingly beautiful place, it looks like a series of sandstone temples chiseled by a master sculptor! We learnt that water in the form of the Virgin river, a tributary of the Colorado river, working its way through the Colorado plateau after its near vertical uplift millions of years ago is that accomplished sculptor.

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Fascinating striated sandstone formations that define Zion

A shuttle bus tour through the Zion scenic drive saw us deciding to come back here to walk through the Narrows some day. We headed out onto the Zion – Mt. Carmel Highway to enjoy the scenic drive and saw some of the most spectacular formations including the Great Arch, the East Temple and the Chequered Mesa.

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The Great Arch, Zion National Park
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The East Temple stands tall behind the beautiful red sandstone
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The Chequered Mesa is a marvel of nature with its array of colours and perfect chequers

The drive outside the park heading towards the town of Page in Arizona continued to be scenic through canyon country with landscape alternating between the colourful hill formations of Death Valley and red sandstone formations of Zion.

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Sandstone formations on the drive along Lake Powell

Crossing Lake Powell we continued past Page and as it was past 4:30 pm we knew we were too late for a tour of the mesmerising Antelope Canyon. So we drove straight to the Horseshoe Bend trailhead. We walked through the sandy stretch of 1.2 km to arrive at one of the most beautiful sights we have ever beheld, created by the meandering Colorado river.

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The Colorado river takes a 270 degree turn at the Horseshoe Bend
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Stunning colours of the Glen Canyon at the Horseshoe Bend
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Contemplating the vastness

A most satisfied lot, we were on our way to the Grand Canyon National Park with our fingers crossed to make it there in time to catch the sunset. And we made it to the South Rim of the canyon in time to watch one of the most beautiful sunsets we have ever seen while trying to fathom the width and depth of the Grand Canyon! At its widest the canyon stretches 29 km and just over 6 km at the its narrowest!! And it is 1.6 km deep.
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Sunset over the Grand Canyon, 24 Jun 2016

As darkness fell we drove into the heart of the park towards Yavapai Lodge where we were to stay and on the way were delighted to stop to let an elk cross the road with her little calf. The next morning we made our way to the Visitor Center and from there hiked the stretch along the canyon rim to the Geology Museum. We stopped at various places to admire the sheer grandeur, immense size and seemingly infinite stretch of red monuments. I must say we were disappointed at the haze hanging around which as we learnt soon enough, is not uncommon here due to air pollutants carried by the winds from the nearby urban centers and industries.

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The Grand Canyon is not a single but a multitude of gorges & canyons carved by the Colorado and its tributaries

At the Geology Museum we learnt about how the canyon is a geologist’s dream with its visible historical record of the earth’s layers of rocks, the oldest (called Vishnu Schist) of which date from nearly 2 billions years ago and the youngest 200 million years. It was fascinating and frankly quite mind boggling to try and comprehend the formation of this landscape which has been a shallow sea at some points in time and a swamp at others, the movement of the earth’s tectonic plates, earthquakes, volcanoes, ice ages and all that have resulted in what we see today. It is so much more than just erosion by the Colorado.

We used the South Rim shuttle service to visit various vista points like the Mohave, Hopi and Powell points, sometimes walking through the trails connecting them. We admired the “Battleship” formation which we learnt had caves that were a favoured nesting place for some of the California Condors in the park and caught glimpses of the Colorado river flowing deep down in the canyon. Later that afternoon we attended a ranger-led talk on the critically endangered California Condors. These huge scavenger birds had come to the brink of extinction with only 27 surviving birds in the 1980s. Fortunately their numbers are now slightly healthier at over 425 after an intensive recovery program and the Grand Canyon has around 80 of them in the wild.

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The Battleship formation on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon
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Mihika participates in a Ranger-led talk on the California Condor

After the talk we took the shuttle to get to the Abyss and Pima points to look at the canyon colours come alive in the rays of the setting sun.

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The rays at sunset reveal the rich hues of the canyon at Pima Point

Day 12 – we start out early to catch the sunrise at Yaki Point and walk down the canyon on the South Kaibab trail to see it from a little deeper. It gave us an opportunity to see the Kaibab limestone walls up close and an intermediate view of the canyon.

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Hiking down the South Kaibab trail
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On top of the world at Ooh Aah Point on the South Kaibab trail!

The hike was a good way to wrap-up our canyon experience and we headed out to Sedona, a desert town that features red sandstone formations and regarded as one of the energy vortex locations. My interest in spirituality was the reason for visiting Sedona. The town’s most unique feature, besides the sandstone formations, are its numerous roundabouts, something we associate with the UK and Europe but not the US. We visited three of the four main vortexes that evening – the Cathedral Rock, the Bell Rock and the Airport Mesa, the last being a common vantage point to watch colourful sunsets.

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Red sandstone formations at Sedona
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The Cathedral Rock group at Sedona
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The Bell Rock and Energy Vortex
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Sunset view point at the Airport Mesa

Day 13 was a relaxed start (maybe the calming effect of the energy of the place!) with a mid-morning visit to the fourth vortex at Boynton Canyon. On our way we met a gentleman who greeted us and offered each of us a heart-shaped stone to carry home the energy with us. We felt blessed!

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The Boynton Canyon at Sedona
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At the foothill of the location of the energy vortexes at Boynton Canyon

The agenda was the rest of the day was a drive through the historic Route 66, one of the oldest highways of the US, and an overnight halt at the old city of Needles before heading to our next destination the Joshua Tree National Park.

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In the town of Williams on historic Route 66

The Joshua Tree National Park would mark the culmination of Manish’s “U2 pilgrimage” starting at the ghost town of Bodie and through Death Valley in homage to their bestselling album “The Joshua Tree“. We were now going to see one of the largest congregations of the perennial Yucca that adorns the sleeve of the album in its natural habitat.

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The Joshua Tree – a fascinating member of the Yucca family that thrive in the deserts of southwest to central US

The Joshua Tree National Park is a transition zone between two different deserts – the Mojave and the Colorado and has features of both and supports a diverse ecosystem. There are two main varieties of the Yucca seen in the park, one ofcourse is the Joshua Tree and the other is the Mojave Yucca, a very beautiful looking plant.

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Mojave Yucca
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Yuccas of all kinds and sharp bends!
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I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For …
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Bright colours in this transitional area between the Mojave and Colorado deserts

We walked the Hidden Valley trail which is said to have been completely isolated for centuries and hence had distinctly evolved plant & animal species until one of the rocks concealing it was blasted through by cattle herders and the micro-habitat more or less destroyed by grazing and introduction of exotic / invasive species. It was very hot though it was still the morning and so the walk seemed longer than the one mile (1.6 km) it actually is. In the afternoon of day 14 we were en-route to San Diego on the Pacific coast and looking forward to the cooler days and nights ahead.

A major attraction for us in San Diego was the USS Midway, the longest serving aircraft carrier of the US (from 1945 to 1992) that has been converted into a museum. Docked in the Navy Pier at the San Diego harbour, this huge ship is extremely educational and carries many helicopters and aircraft used in the years of the Cold War and subsequent missions including rescue and relief. There are veterans who served on the ship at various points to explain the ship’s operations, aircraft launch and retrieval mechanisms on the seas using the extremely small airstrip, as well as the internal workings and a day in their life.

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The USS Midway Museum, San Diego
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The upper deck of the USS Midway with a huge collection of aircraft used through its life
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Trying to get a feel for the navigational controls of the huge ship
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Checking out the interiors and some controls on a helicopter
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The closest yet to being in command of a fighter jet
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Resting after a few hours of exploring and learning walking through the 3 levels and numerous passageways of the massive USS Midway

From the harbour we headed to the historic Gaslamp Quarter and onto the panoramic Coronado Bridge to cross over the San Diego bay to Coronado, the residence of many retired officers of the US Navy. Last stop for the day was at the Mission Beach before calling it a day.

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The icoinc gas lamps of the Gaslamp Quarter in downtown San Diego
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End of day 15 of our road trip – at the Mission Beach, San Diego

Day 16 was reserved for a visit to the San Diego zoo (and this possibly was our last visit to any zoo) that is celebrating its centennial this year and doing some pioneering work with various organizations across the world on saving species from extinction.

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A Giant Panda resting at the San Diego zoo
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A Pink Flamingo feeds its chick

The next evening we visited the La Jolla Cove to admire the congregation of sea lions, cormorants, sea gulls and pelicans who were basking in the warmth of the setting sun. And to watch a bunch of surfers riding / attempting to ride the waves.

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Cormorants by the scores on the cliff sides at the La Jolla Cove
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Well fed sea lions (judging by their size) snooze on the rocky shores

Day 18 was our departure from San Diego and arrival at Santa Clarita, our base for the Hollywood city Los Angeles. Thanks to inputs from an old friend of Manish, we made a very meaningful stop at the immensely peaceful Meditation Gardens of the Encinitas Retreat of the Self-Realization Fellowship established by Paramahansa Yoganada.

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View of the Pacific Ocean from the mediation garden at the Encinitas Retreat

Next stop was at the beautiful city of Laguna Beach in Orange County for a meet-up with my sister Thara and her family who had just arrived here for a road-trip vacation. Coincidentally they had planned to cover the same spots as we had done but in the reverse direction!

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Sisters meet across the globe!
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Sisters enjoying their little time together as only sisters can!

We were then on our way, negotiating the immense traffic of LA and making the most of the Carpool / HOV (High Occupancy Vehicle) lane reserved for use by vehicles with two or more passengers.

The reason for us staying in Santa Clarita rather than LA was the Six Flags Magic Mountain, a theme-park whose roller coasters were a must-do for Mihika.

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At the Six Flags Magic Mountain Mihika is all smiles

Day 20 was dedicated to LA starting with the Hollywood Walk of Fame and a look at the Chinese Theatre.

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Where dreams are made!
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Many a star adorns this Walk of Fame

We used public transport (buses & the metro) to get to LA and around LA. It was a Saturday and hence the frequency of the trains and buses probably was lower than weekdays but that meant a lot of waiting in between for us. Took us a while to get to Sunset Boulevard for another homage destination of Manish’s – the Rainbow Bar & Grill, the quintessential rock/metal hangout for rockstars and their groupies. It continued to fascinate by appearing in Guns N Roses classic videos including November Rain, Estranged and Don’t cry.

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A street made iconic by many a legend
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Finally here!!
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A dream to be standing here

Lemmy, the Motörhead frontman, was a daily fixture here when the band was not on tour. Rainbow, one of Manish’s favourite bands was named after this venue. Motley Crue, Alice Cooper, GNR, Poison, WASP, Ringo Starr, John Lennon – all were regulars here.

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Standing next to Lemmy!

With the celebrity salutations done, it was time for a visit to the California Science Center, with interesting and interactive exhibits that we all found very engaging and instructive. We could have gone on but closing time was upon us and so we strolled out to the rose garden admiring the blooms before heading back to the metro station. Our last place to visit for the day was the Griffith Observatory to peek through the telescopes for a glimpse of the wonders of the universe. On the shuttle to the observatory we came too know of extremely slow traffic on the way up due to a Ringo Starr concert in the Greek Theatre. As we inched along wondering when we would make it, Manish gauged that we would not be able to make it back in time for the last bus back to Santa Clarita and so took the call to leave the bus and head back. The right decision it turned out to be in hindsight an hence ended our day in LA.

And the 21st day arrived and we were finally on our way to the scenic Pacific Coast Highway or Hwy 1 as it is popularly known. We joined this state highway that runs across most of the Pacific coastline of California at the city of San Luis Obispo. It was a cloudy day and our stop at Morro Bay for breakfast wasn’t giving us too warm a feeling. But that was more than compensated by the sight of hundreds of elephant seals at a designated viewing area. They were stretched out on the beach sand, mostly asleep, but some of them making loud bellowing noises and a few frolicking in the cold waters. We learnt that these mammals had nearly disappeared from the Californian coasts following extensive hunting for their blubber and so it is heartening for environmentalists that their population has now reached a healthy level.

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Elephant Seals cover the sands on the Pacific coastline
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A younger one joins the group

We drove along the winding road as it wound its way along the unique coastline of cliffs and narrow rocky beaches. Little rock formations and isles were visible at many places not too far from the coast. We stopped at a number of vista points and admired the mystical look of fog hanging on the cliff sides with some flowers just beginning to bloom on the lower parts of the cliffs. The views especially around the area called Big Sur were simply beautiful!

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Fog hugs the cliffs as waves kiss the shores on the Pacific Coast Highway
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Cliffs & coast make this journey a memorable one
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A dramatic coastline

Eventually the road moved a little inland after the town of Monterey and we continued on it until the approach to Santa Cruz and then branched off towards Saratoga. We were happy to get back to our friends Jagdeep and Vipin and Mihika delighted to be back with Riya and Saachi. It was the evening of 3rd July. We had arrived in good time to rest and ready to enjoy the 4th of July celebrations of the Saratoga community.

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Riya, Saachi and Mihika accompanied by Vipin, get to learn some trivia from John and Abigail Adams
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Wearing the colours of the day!

A bright morning on the lawns of the Kevin Moran park with enthusiastic citizens, some dressed as eminent characters of independent USA and sharing snippets of history with the kids, a band playing and a choir singing, it was just the celebration we needed after 21 days on the road!

This has been an extra long blog post as we decided to keep this entire experience as one cohesive piece. If you have read this far, thank you for staying with us!

Yellowstone National Park: The Earth’s Giant Pressure Cooker

After a month of travel in South America it was a much needed restful stay and wonderful time with our old friends Jagdeep and Vipin at their home in Saratoga, California. Mihika found her much needed company of children and became good friends with Riya & Saachi.

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A warm, lovely welcome for us, handcrafted by little Saachi
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Old is gold when it comes to friends – Jagdeep & Vipin, our college and first-job buddies

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We were now ready for our next big destination – the Yellowstone National Park. We flew into Salt Lake City (SLC) on 2nd June 2016. SLC is not the closest airport to Yellowstone but the most reasonable one to fly into coming from California. At the car rental desk in the SLC airport we had to spend some time to get Montana included in the set of states we could drive in; the default rental agreement allowed us to drive in the states immediately neighbouring Utah and so Montana was not included. Yellowstone is spread across 3 different states – Wyoming (primarily), Montana and Idaho. While most of the park area is in the state of Wyoming, three of it’s five entrances (west, north & north-east) are in the state of Montana. We had chosen to divide our stay at Yellowstone in two, first half near the west entrance and second half near the north-east entrance, to enable us to explore the different parts of this vast park. With the car rental sorted, we were off on a long drive to West Yellowstone, our base for the first 3 of our 6 days at the Yellowstone National Park. Starting with the snow-capped peaks of the Rockies as we pulled out of the Salt Lake City airport, it was a scenic drive on the I-15 N through parts of Utah and Idaho. We passed by the town of Idaho Falls, made iconic (for us!) by our dear friends Mamatha & Sripathi for whom it was home for many years. We arrived in the quaint little town of West Yellowstone in the evening and checked into the cosy Alpine Motel located a stone’s throw from the Yellowstone park entrance.

The next morning we entered the park in anticipation of the wonders lying within the first ever National Park that was established over a century ago in 1872. In particular we wanted to see for ourselves what we had seen on videos of Yellowstone – the eruption of the Old Faithful geyser, the brilliant colours of the Grand Prismatic Spring and the terraces of Mammoth Hot Springs.

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It was a bright sunny day and we were completely swept away by the beautiful vistas as we entered the park – endless stretches of pines, shimmering streams, snow-capped peaks in the backdrop, bald eagles flying near the streams.

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Madison River flowing through the western part of Yellowstone

Here’re some things we learnt through various resources about Yellowstone that make it a very special place. The entire region of the park as we have it today has been shaped by the “supervolcano” or geological hotspot that lies beneath it. The Yellowstone volcano is not the typical cone-shaped mountain that comes to mind when one thinks of a volcano; it is a huge chamber of hot magma spread over a large area of about 3200 km² and at about 5 to 8 kms underground it is closer to the earth’s surface here than anywhere else in the world. For us it was especially interesting having recently visited the Galapagos Islands which owe their existence to a geological hotspot too. Differences in other environmental factors between the two mean they are very different from each other. The key difference is water (precipitation & ground water), abundant in Yellowstone but scarce in Galapagos. Like Galapagos, this region maybe old for us on a human timescale but on a geological timescale it is young and continuing to evolve. There have been three supervolcanic eruptions of the Yellowstone hotspot resulting in the formation of the Yellowstone Caldera and it is estimated that these have occurred every 650,000 to 700,000 years with the last one pegged at around 640,000 years ago. Which means the next one is just around the corner .. but at ~10,000 years it is definitely not going to be in history / geography textbooks any time soon! The magnitude of the supervolcanic eruptions are so huge that the entire landscape and life is altered …. it seems like a continuous cycle of birth and death or renewal by Nature. The combination of heat, earthquakes and water are responsible for the geothermal features (geysers, hot springs, fumaroles and mud pots) numbering over 10,000 in the park, the largest concentration in the world. It is like a giant pressure cooker that keeps venting steam and hot water while a lot is cooking inside. You can actually hear the activity beneath the surface! This region that remained undiscovered by the world until the latter half of the 19th century is home to four of the “big 5” of the North American continent – Grizzly bears, Grey Wolf, Bison and Moose.

Before we got into more of the wonderful sights of the Yellowstone National Park, we headed to the nearest visitor center to get Mihika enrolled for the Junior Ranger program, something she had enjoyed and had been a useful learning experience at the Everglades National Park. On our way to the Madison Visitor Center we saw our first herd of bisons grazing with many little calves prancing around!

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A grazing bison herd, the first we saw in Yellowstone!

At the visitor center it was a case of perfect timing with a ranger led intro & short walk starting just when we arrived.

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The ranger started with an introduction to Lodgepole pines, the most widespread conifers in the region, named so for their use by the native American Indians as poles in the shelters they built. These are easily identifiable by their needles that grow in groups of two. The tree has two types of cones, one of which remains tightly sealed by a resin until exposed to high temperatures that can open it and disperse the seeds within. The talk made us see forest fires in an entirely new light – the natural fires caused by lightning strikes or high summer temperatures help to open up the fir cones and pave the the way for new trees to grow after the old forest is cleared by the fires and the burnt organic matter enriches the soil to promote new growth. This in turn attracts grazing animals and the entire food chain that follows creating a self-sustaining and balanced ecosystem. Based on this understanding of the adaptation of the trees to fire, the National Park Service has in the past few years changed its approach to natural forest fires and lets the fires burn except where there is a threat to buildings within the park.

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Lodgepole Pines constitute about 80% of the trees in Yellowstone

We saw pretty white flowers on the ground that the ranger explained are wild strawberry which turn out quite small in size and that the larger strawberries we see in the grocery stores are the result of years of cultivation and improvements by humans. He added that we are free to pick and eat any berries in the park as long as they are all consumed within the park. As a rule no material found on park property is permitted to be taken out and any attractive finds like deer antlers are to be reported to the park rangers.

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Wild strawberry plant

The ranger then pointed out to us a tree whose bark was shaved off in places as a result of bisons rubbing themselves against it, something they do to help get rid of itching as well as to shed off their winter coats. The tree actually had some bison fur (hair ?) on it as evidence!

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A tree bearing the marks of bison rubbing against it

As we walked past a mountain called the National Park mountain, formed by the last lava flow that occurred here about 70,000 years ago, we learnt of the historic expedition in 1870 by Henry Washburn, Nathaniel Langford & Gustavus Doane that led to a geological survey of the region by the geologist Ferdinand Hayden in 1871 whose comprehensive report paved the way for setting up of the national park in 1872.

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Mihika concludes a session with a Yellowstone National Park Ranger

We then started off on our trip to cover the Grand Loop, the ~230 km roadway that runs around the park and is divided into the upper and lower loops. We had planned to devote a day each to the loops leaving the 3rd day to drive across the Lamar Valley, sometimes called the Serengeti of North America, that is a not part of the Grand Loop to the north-east end of the park.

We started with the lower loop with the Grand Prismatic Spring as the first major attraction. On the way we stopped by Firehole Falls and Fountain Paint Pot.

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Firehole Falls

Fountain Paint Pot was an excellent introduction to the four different kinds of geothermal features in Yellowstone – geysers, hot springs, fumaroles and mud pots. The former two occur in places of abundant groundwater while the latter two occur in places of limited groundwater accumulation. Geysers are formed when there is a constriction in the rocks above the accumulated water that results in a build-up of pressure as the water gets heated and eventually steam & hot water shoot up. Hot springs occur when there is no constriction in the rocks. Fumaroles are steam & gas vents. Mud pots occur when the surface is rich in volcanic ash and clay.

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Hotspring in the Fountain Paint Pot trail
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How many shades of blue!!

The many brilliant colours seen around the hot springs come from “mats” of different thermophilic microorganisms each thriving at different temperatures and extreme pH levels in the inhospitable waters. So fascinating!

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An unexpected sight – a small snake seen in the warm acidic water at Fountain Paint Pot

Next up was the Grand Prismatic Spring, the much photographed colourful “eye” of Yellowstone. To get to it we crossed the dormant Excelsior geyser which no longer erupts but continues to pump huge volumes of hot water into the Firehole river.

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Hot water flows into the Firehole river from the dormant Excelsior geyser
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The Grand Prismatic Spring

On our way back we were surprised to see a flock of birds apparently enjoying a spa in the warm waters of another spring!

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IMG_5306The most visited geyser in Yellowstone is so called for the regularity of its eruptions at about 90 minute intervals which guarantees visitors will see it in action. It was like show-time with people sitting all around from 10-15 minutes before the forecast time of the next eruption. And after a few bursts of steam and water, it finally went up about 13 minutes after the forecast.

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Old Faithful, the most visited geyser of Yellowstone, erupts at 16:37 on 3rd Jun 2016

We continued on the lower loop and passed by some spectacular views of lakes and snow-capped peaks before reaching Yellowstone Lake.

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Yellowstone Lake is a massive lake and a serene sight with it vast expanse of blue water meeting the horizon in the distance. Amazingly there are hot water springs next to the lake whose water is pretty cold. We read about the spot which was once called “Hook & cook” where fishermen would simply put fish caught from the lake into the hot water pool next to it and the fish was cooked! Now fishing here is banned. In yet another example of invasive species destroying endemic species, Yellowstone Lake has seen a sharp decline in its population of Cutthroat Trout following the (accidental) introduction of Lake Trout. This has affected the food-chain and ecosystem in the area.

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Yellowstone Lake with a small hot spring in the foreground

We had stopped to take the above photo when a fellow visitor tapped Manish on the shoulder and told us to turn around to see a grizzly bear in the distance. Not believing our ears, we thanked him and peered to catch a glimpse of this mighty animal. Sure enough we saw a bear a little distance from the lake’s shoreline, ran to wake up Mihika who was asleep in the car and excitedly went forward to get a better view.

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Our first sighting of a Grizzly Bear in the wild!

Imagine our excitement when the bear climbed up towards the road nd went on to cross it as we watched! And we continued to watch him forage on the other side for quite a while before he headed deeper into the woods and out of sight.

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Grizzly crosses the road near Yellowstone Lake

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Extremely thrilled and feeling super-lucky to have seen a grizzly bear at such close quarters on our maiden drive, at a time & place we didn’t expect to, we continued on our drive towards Hayden Valley where we were planning to be at sunset to see some wildlife. Beautiful scenery continued to emerge as we drove along the Yellowstone Lake.

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Yellowstone Lake shore at Pumice Point

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The sun was in our eyes as we drove up an incline on the road and so nearly did not see the bull Elk that was crossing the road. We stopped in the nick of time and he backed up to return. He went back to graze and it was a visual treat to admire him at close quarters for as long as we wanted.

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A bull Elk grazes in Hayden Valley

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We saw bison grazing on either side of the road as we drove further. Just around sunset it was a beautiful golden light on the valley and meadows next to Yellowstone river. We could see deer crossing the river in the distance and thought they might be Pronghorns.

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Sunset in Hayden Valley
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Deer crossing Yellowstone River in Hayden Valley

A little further up we were mesmerized by a huge herd of bison grazing right next to the road, quite unmindful of the cars around. It was soon an “animal jam”! These majestic, powerful animals are quite a sight from close quarters. Docile as they look, we heeded all warnings of staying at a safe distance from them to avoid any surprises.

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A herd of bisons at sunset in the Hayden Valley

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A bison calf

It was nearly nine in the night by now and past our planned return time. What an action-packed day it had been!

The next morning we headed on to the upper loop with the first stop at the beautiful Gibbon falls where there were dozens of swallows constantly flying around the rocks.

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Gibbon Falls

Next up was the Norris Geyser Basin, the most active geothermal area of the park that includes the Steamboat geyser, the world’s tallest. We first took the trail for the Porcelain Basin, whose name is inspired by the milky colour of the mineral siliceous sinter deposited here. The colours around the springs here are a little less dramatic here as microbes too find it difficult to thrive in its very acidic environment.

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Porcelain Basin in the Norris Geyser Basin

We then went up to the Steamboat geyser and a number of others on the trail. Of course no luck with watching any of them erupt. The Steamboat does not erupt on a schedule and there can be long periods ranging from months to years between two eruptions. The last major one was on 3rd Sep 2014.

We then headed to the Mammoth Hot Springs stopping by the Swan Lake where we spotted a pair of Sandhill Cranes.

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Sandhill Cranes near Swan Lake

At Mammoth we admired the terrace like formations created by the calcium carbonate deposited over years by the springs. Some springs have gone dormant leaving behind hardened cones to mark their existence.

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Lower Terraces at Mammoth Hot Springs

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We then stopped at the Albright Visitor Center and learnt about the park management history which had a chequered start in which little was / could be done to preserve the flora and fauna and there was a steady decline in the population of predators due to hunting, poaching and conflicts with humans. The Grey Wolf completely disappeared from here and it took many years and debates to put in place and implement a restoration program that reintroduced this species into the park in 1995. There is evidence that wolf restoration in Yellowstone has had multiple beneficial effects on the ecosystem and has demonstrated that perhaps ecosystems work in intricately complex ways that are not fully understood by us. Thanks to our friend Shastri for sharing this informative TED talk by George Monbiot that discusses effects on landscape as well.

Amidst all the action, Mihika had completed all the activities she needed to earn the honour of being a Junior Ranger and too her oath to preserve and protect. As our visit coincided with the centennial celebrations of the US National Park Service, she got an additional token to mark the event.

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Mihika joins the Yellowstone Junior Ranger club

We went on to join a Ranger talk on the wildlife in Yellowstone, bears being of most interest. Mihika used the opportunity to enquire about grey wolf spotting opportunities and we learnt of a place near the Lamar Valley where a den and the presence of wolves was confirmed. So we duly noted that for the next leg of our stay. All ranger talks included a set of exhibits such as furs and antlers. The furs all had tags citing their origin, typically these were animals killed in road accidents or had to be put down due to preying on farm animals outside the park boundaries.

IMG_5503We then headed onward to see the Tower Falls encountering Robins, a little Golden Mantled Ground Squirrel, pine trees that looked like ready decorated Christmas trees and a warning sign about Bears.

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Chipmunk or Golden Mantled Ground Squirrel?
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A robin watches as we pass by
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A pre-decorated Christmas tree!!
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Warning signs are placed at various places, needed more to keep the bears safe

As we drove towards Mount Washburn, we came across a traffic jam with people peering down the side of the road. We pulled up and found ourselves looking at a family of Black Bears, a mother with two cubs, moving away into the treeline. It was just a glimpse of the mother but we were entertained to the play of the two cubs on a tree branch for a long time! Wow!!

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Black Bear cub plays on a branch!

We had been told that Black bears and Grizzlies can be distinguished visually not by their colour (Black Bears can be brown, tan or black in colour) but by the hump on the Grizzly’s shoulder which is absent in the black bear.

We were in real luck again that afternoon – we soon came up on a second congregation of people and it was a second Black Bear family high up on a distant tree. It was a mother and two cubs with the mother curled up and done for the day we thought while the cubs were engaged in play higher above, nearly at the tip of the tree! It was quite remarkable to see how high they had climbed and how such a large animal was sleeping comfortably on what appeared to be rather thin branches of a pine!

The last stop on our route was planned to be the “Grand Canyon of Yellowstone” but we were out of time and energy. So we headed back and on the way saw a bunch of cars pulled up near a small turn-in. With no steam to keep us going, we decided to give it a pass but luckily spotted the object of interest – a Moose! So pull over we did and walked back to see this majestic herbivore, the only land mammal that can feed under-water while holding its breath.

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A Moose grazes at sunset, no care whatsoever for the gawkers!

On the last morning at West Yellowstone, we decided to pay a visit to the Grizzly & Wolf Discovery Center before heading into the park, just so we could see a couple of grey wolves in case we were not fortunate to see them in the wild. The Center located near the Yellowstone park entrance houses orphaned and “nuisance” grizzlies and wolves. Nuisance bears are those that have got habituated to foraging in garbage and hence humans and keep straying into towns repeatedly. Here we got to watch two grey wolves, who were not grey at all, as we learnt about how they are encouraged to fish and behave as they would in the wild with a non-contact policy for the animal keepers. Grey wolves we learnt need not be grey in colour, they can be black or white too.

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Grey Wolf fishing at the Discovery Center in West Yellowstone

At the bear enclosure we witnessed how bears look at alternative food sources when available. Below is a demonstration with a bird-feeder being targeted by a Grizzly. The message to the public was “no bird feeders in bear country”.

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No bird feeders in bear country – they become bear feeders!

There was a “Keeper Kids” program for the children that Mihika participated in to learn about the food habits of bears and help with hiding food in the bear enclosure also called “habitat modification” to encourage the natural instinct of the bears here to forage and look for food rather than have it dished out to them.

Post-lunch we headed into the park to cross-over to Cooke City, a small town near the north-east entrance. But first a stopover to see Yellowstone’s Grand Canyon carved by the Yellowstone river and the beautiful falls as the river enters the canyon.

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The Yellowstone Falls as the river enters a deep canyon
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The Grand Canyon of Yellowstone carved by the Yellowstone river

We drove through the Lamar Valley, referred to as the Serengeti of Nrth America for the large numbers of animal congregation seen here especially towards the end of summer during the rut season. We stopped by the place from where a wolf den could be sighted across a river. There were lots of people but apparently no wolf activity, so we went on to see plenty of Bison and some Pronghorn antelope, the second fastest land mammal after the Cheetah.

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Pronghorn in Lamar Valley – the second fastest land mammal
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Bison herds graze in the Lamar Valley
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Bison crossing the Lamar River at dusk
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Drive through Lamar Valley

We passed by a little village called Silver Gate at the north-east entrance before arriving at our destination Cooke City where we were greeted by the sight of dozens of Tree Swallows flying around the trees and buildings near our motel.

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Eye-catching name at Silver Gate near the North-East entrance to Yellowstone
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Tree Swallow

The next morning we made an early start to try our luck with spotting wolves and other animals around the Lamar Valley. A Mule Deer and some birds (not to mention the Bisons who were always there) later we arrived at Slough Creek, the location of the wolf den.

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Mule Deer
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Black-billed Magpie
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Brewer’s Blackbird

We were in luck as the adult wolves and nine cubs were active around the den. People pointed out the exact location of the den which was but a dot in the distance and after a peek through the scopes setup by some guides, we could spot the wolves through our binocs. It took a lot of focus as they were quite distant and very tiny even when seen with binocs / scopes. So no photos really, but we managed to get one shot in which a black coloured adult can be seen on zooming in – the tiny black dot just in front of the little bowl-like depression between two dry tree stumps.

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A wolf in the distance appears as little black dot between the two dry tree stumps

Satisfied, we drove on to Hayden Valley and then back through Lamar Valley before calling it a day.

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A Bison rests in Lamar Valley
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Flock of Canada Geese near the Lamar River

The next day was reserved for a drive through the scenic Beartooth Highway leading away from the park towards the town of Red Lodge. It started with some views from a higher elevation and spotting a pair of Pikas scurrying around the sagebrush on a rocky hillside and then the vistas expanded with snow in huge patches and frozen lakes! It was a high point for Mika and it was play time 🙂

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American Pika

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Play time with snow!
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Rock shaped like a dinosaur head! Seen on Beartooth Highway
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Biker’s Stop to refuel on the BearTooth Highway
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Snow all around in June! View from the Beartooth Highway
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Wild strawberry flowers by the Little Bear lake on Beartooth Highway

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The Bear Tooth – the pyramid shaped spire created by glaciation that gives the mountain its name

The next morning we set off for the Grand Teton National Park located at the south of Yellowstone. On our last day at Yellowstone we were fortunate to spot Trumpeter Swans and a Grizzly bear across the Yellowstone river and help a few others to see it too!

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Trumpeter Swan
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Spot the Grizzly amongst the sage brush?

The Grand Teton is like a little sibling to Yellowstone. We stayed in the town of Jackson just outside the Grand Teton national park to look through the sights here. It offers dramatic views of the Teton range of the Rocky mountains, reflections of the mountains in the quiet waters of its many lakes and flora that is more varied than the pine dominated Yellowstone.

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A reflection of serenity, the Grand Teton National Park

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Mt. Moran at sunset

The Grand Teton is considered a better habitat for moose but we weren’t able to see any. We saw plenty of Elk, some Pronghorn and Bison, but most valuable of all was the sighting of a Grizzly quite close to the park entrance as it sauntered away in the evening.

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A Grizzly at the Grand Teton
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Elk crossing river at Grand Teton
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A Mountain Bluebird, the state bird of Idaho and Nevada. Finally managed to get a pic of this beautiful bird in the Mormon Row at Grand Teton

We learnt of the “dude” ranches that had started up here before the National Park was established – dudes beings the well-heeled folks from the Eastern parts who wanted to experience the countryside and rural life. The visit would not be complete without a drive through the gravel track of Mormon Row featuring barns and homesteads established in the 1890s.

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A private ranch in Grand Teton, a few of these co-exist with the National PArk
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The Mormon Row with homesteads setup by Mormons primarily from Idaho

After a week completely immersed in the wonders of nature, it was time to return to SLC and head back to San Jose for a short pit stop before the next big undertaking – a 21-day road trip starting with Yosemite National Park and covering a whole lot of sights, all subjects of the upcoming posts!

Incas, Machu Picchu, Amazon & more: The unforgettable Peruvian Odyssey

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13.05.2016 & 14.05.2016

After a breathtaking 10 days in Galapagos Islands with sea lions, penguins, sharks, marine iguanas, land iguanas, blue-footed boobies and more, we embarked on our Peruvian journey with Machu Picchu and Amazon rainforest as the main bucket list items. 3 flights (Galapagos-Guayaquil, Guayaquil-Lima & Lima-Cusco) and 20 hours later, we landed in Cusco, the gateway to Inca ruins in Peru. We got a lovely glimpse of the Andean mountains from the plane.

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To avoid a potential sickness due to Cusco’s height, we immediately took a taxi and descended to Ollantaytambo (2 hour ride from Cusco airport), a picturesque town situated in the sacred valley of the Incas. With a four day local Quechua festivities of dance and music in full-swing we truly lucked out. Ollanta (as the locals call it), is where the Incas retreated to after the Spanish conquered Cusco. It has a lovely small town relaxed feel with a cute town square, narrow cobble-stoned streets, lovely view of Inca ruins, street food and gorgeously dressed Quechua people.

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The relaxed atmosphere just sucked us in so we decided to take it easy today and simply watched the festivities and enjoyed local food and beer at the town square. Oh, and Mika enjoyed the Choco museum where we learnt the fascinating process of how Chocolate products are made from.

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15.05.2016

The morning was spent in exploring the beautiful ruins of Ollantaytambo. This is where Manco Inca, the valiant native leader who lead the resistance against Spanish conquistadors, defeated the Spanish by building high terraces and flooding the plains. We were reminded of our Rajasthani fortresses from where the valiant Rajputs fought the Mughals.

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In the afternoon, we did a VERY steep but rewarding hike to Pinkuylunna, where the Incas built some remarkable storehouses. This hike is not for the faint-hearted and in the end we were rewarded with some breathtaking views of the Ollanta town and the valley as well as a fascinating meeting with a German couple (with 3 small children!) who were also on a 1-year world trip, just like us !! Our resolve grew stronger after meeting them – if they can do it with 3 SMALL ones, we surely can pull it off with a TEENAGER!

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By evening, the anticipation of visiting Machu Picchu the next day was building up and we spent our time calming ourselves down, praying to God for a sunny weather and requested our hotel owner for a breakfast takeaway at 5 am.

16.05.2016

The 4:30 am alarm reminded us that the BIG day has arrived. After picking up our breakfast bags, we began our stroll to the Ollantaytambo train station at 5 am.

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Getting to Machu Picchu is an logistical adventure in itself. First you have to take this train from Ollanta – this is a very busy gateway to Machu Picchu and train tickets are usually sold out months in advance. We had booked ours 4 months earlier so it was an easy boarding at 5:30 am in a VERY IMPRESSIVE compartment offering beautiful views over a short 90 minute journey. Wait a minute, you have only reached the foothill town called Aguas Callintes. We boarded a 30 minute bus from here to one of the top modern wonders of the world. The excitement of entering the monument means you are willing to forgive basic tourist facilities (water refill stations, toilets WITHIN the complex – there is one at the entrance only and eating options – there is ONLY ONE very expensive restaurant).

9:30 am: We had seen the picture post card view of Machu Picchu ruins against the Huayna Picchu backdrop, a million times but nothing prepared us for the first breathtaking view. As suggested (wrongly) by other bloggers we took a million useless pictures in the first 5 minutes (there were better pictures to come from higher viewpoints) but what the heck – this is a once-in-a-lifetime trip! As you walk to higher terraces, the views start to get exponentially better. Meha’s prayers had been answered as we had been rewarded with an embarrassingly gorgeous day 🙂 We spent most of our time sitting at various vantage points and gawking at the ruins (the best views are from the top) as well as analyzing and concluding that its the dramatic backdrop of Huyana Picchu mountains which gives Machu Picchu its awe-inspiring view, not the ruins itself. Mika loved playing with the llamas.

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As the scorching sun blazed, our bodies and energy started drooping around noon. We were glad that we had spent most of our time at the higher view points, since coming down to the ACTUAL ruins can be bit of an anti climax as the views are not as gorgeous. We pulled ourselves to see the Inca architecture including the sun temple and it was all over by 2 pm.

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Voraciously hungry (I could have killed and eaten a Llama), we immediately departed the complex and took the bus down to the foothills. Mika’s favorite pesto pasta was ordered and cold coca cola has never tasted better – I kid not. We utilized the free wifi and then argued with the restaurant over the astronomical 20% service charge which was immediately brought down to 10! It was difficult to believe that it was time to board the 6 pm train back for a day that we had been dreaming for years. The real adventure was yet to come. The train was delayed by 3 hours with a huge collateral advantage of befriending a bunch of Brazilians and Russians with whom we had animated discussions on politics, state of our nations, why we all are still underdeveloped nations and so on. Everyone was amazed that we as Indians had taken a year off to travel and we grinned. What fun. Anyway, we arrived back to Ollanta at 11:30 pm thanks to Peru Rail, and crashed.

In hindsight it sounds incredible that Machu Picchu went undiscovered till 20th century (till an intrepid American explorer Hiram Bingham discovered it). So cool, otherwise the marauding Spanish conquistadors would have destroyed it. What makes Machu Picchu so special is how they chose the perfect site and built a city so high up amidst the mountains ???

17.05.2016

We bid good bye to the Sacred Valley and headed to Cusco, a 2 hour taxi ride. Our first stop was the salt mines of Maras . The Incas built hundreds of salt pans and harvested salt from spring water. It is quite a sight. Mika tasted and found the salt a tad too salty for her liking!

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We then headed off to Moray where the Inca’s Agricultural laboratory is situated. They built concentric circles and planted different seeds at different levels in different micro-climates to evaluate the right developmental conditions of plants. Ahead of its times.

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We decided to have our lunch in Chinchero which truly was a ghost town with everything being shut, today being a holiday. We managed to find a Sukhsagar-style local eatery which offered us the best Peruvian local food of the trip at a princely sum of $7 for the three of us. With our tummies full, we wandered through the beautiful town of Chinchero – the streets, ruins, weaving ladies and an old church being the highlights.

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We reached Cuzco around 4 pm and called it a day. I also had to face Meha’s wrath as the hotel was the tiniest of the trip, our misery exacerbated by lack of windows and having to carry our suitcases over 2 floors.

18.05.2016 & 19.05.2016

After the laidback small town base of Ollanta, the big city feel of Cusco shocked and disappointed us. It was the capital of Inca empire from 13th to 16th centuries, so important enough to be explored. We visited the most famous inca ruin called Sacsaywaman (I know what you are thinking as all dirty minded folks do). Cusco was designed as the head of Puma with the Sacsaywaman being its head. The zigzag fortress walls of Sacsaywaman functions as Puma’s teeth. Very cool. Through readings and museums, we learnt that the Incas revered Puma. We were getting Inca overload by now, so we decided to skip Pisac.

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We also visited the cool and artistic San Blas area as well as the main square Plaza de Aramas which has a bunch of lovely cathedrals. A visit to the cultural centre yielded some great ethic dance performances.

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20.05.2016

To prep for our impending Amazonian jungle adventure, we decided to visit the famed Ccohahuasi Animal rescue center. We were fascinated by Condors, Macaws & Pumas to name a few.

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It’s time for our flight to Iquitos via Lima.

21.05.2016 & 22.05.2016

Iquitos is one of few cities in the world which can only be reached by plane or boat (no roads!). It’s the gateway to Peruvian Amazon. The city taught us the underbelly of the illegal trading of Amazonian animals, in the world (in)famous Belen market. We did not have the heart to see it so we skipped and focused on visiting 2 animal rescue centers – Manatee center and Pilpintuwasi Butterfly farm. It is heartwarming to witness some good samaritans spending their lifetime in educating the local population about the ill effects of animal trading and nurturing the rescued animals. The museum of the Native Amazonian taught us about their costumes and cultures. Wait… Indian autorickshaw-style “mototaxis” were literally everywhere !

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Our Amazonian jungle adventure began with Geyner , the affable guide of Libertad Jungle Lodge, picking us up at Iquitos at 9 am. A taxi ride later (2 hours), we reach Nauta, a tiny village where we boarded our boat. 90 minutes on the Amazon, and we reach our lodge, a community run project run by the local villagers. This will be our home for the next 4 days while we explore the Amazon.

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Amazon was truly an unforgettable adventure with some experiences we had only read in books – getting wowed by pink and grey dolphins, exploring and holding a Caiman in the dark of the night, getting frightened by Tarantula spider, spotting Macaws in the wild, eating a worm on the jungle trek, catching Piranha and then eating them, watching Amazonian waterlily (world’s largest leaf) and much more. The boat and guide were at our disposal all the time. Meha had, ironically, the best and freshest vegetarian food of the whole trip so far, here in the middle of Amazon jungle. We made friends with the villagers and felt completely at home.

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Thanks for reading. We now head to San Francisco to meet dear friends Vipin, Jagdeep and their lovely children Riya and Sachi, for a much needed family down time. See you in YellowStone after a week.

Las Islas Encantadas: The Bewitched Islands a.k.a Galapagos

“Getting to Galapagos is so difficult” – a sentiment echoed by many fellow-travelers we met on our much awaited visit to this archipelago 1000 kms west of the mainland of Ecuador in the Pacific Ocean. Logistically and economically it is a challenging destination which perhaps helps with the ecological preservation of this unique natural World Heritage Site.

Our journey to this dream destination began with having to change plans – our originally booked flight out of Quito was cancelled and we were put on an earlier flight. So we had to come back a day earlier from Mindo and book an overnight stay at Quito. At 5 am on 3rd May, we queued up at the Quito airport for an entry permit / “visa” to the Galapagos Islands costing $20 per person. We had to get all our luggage scanned to ensure we weren’t carrying any organic material and then each one was sealed, a process that was repeated on entry and exit out of the two islands we visited.

Our flight with a hop at Guayaquil, the largest city of Ecuador, was to the Baltra island (Isla Baltra) in Galapagos, one of the 18 major islands and is solely dedicated for the airport. Only 3 airlines/alliances operate flights to Galapagos.

IMG_2379At the Baltra airport, we were greeted by warm weather, a welcome change from the chill of Quito, and a desert like environment.

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As we entered the terminal building of the Aeropuerto Ecológico de Galápagos, the first things to catch the eye were the huge fans, two of them covering the entire “immigration” hall. These industrial fans with temperature and CO2 sensors to auto-operate them are part of the energy efficient design of this LEED certified airport.

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We went through the “immigration” checks to verify our passports and entry permits and paid the Galapagos Islands entry fee of $100 per person. After collecting our baggage we boarded a bus that took us to the dock for a short ferry ride across to Isla Santa Cruz, the second largest island and the one with the largest population.

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At the dock we were excited to see numerous birds, some of which we could not identify then, flying around and diving for fish. Pelicans flew by so close, it was breath-taking!

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We unloaded a second time at Santa Cruz to take a taxi to Puerto Ayora, the town that was to be our base for the next few days to explore Galapagos.

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45 minutes later we were at our hotel, finally! We freshened up and headed out to the Charles Darwin Research Station that was a 10-minute walk away from us.

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Here we were delighted to spot Marine Iguanas for the very first time as well as the brightly coloured Sally Lightfoot crabs, some Darwin’s finches, a type of cuckoo later id’d as the Smooth-billed Ani and a striking songbird later id’d as the Galapagos Mockingbird.

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Marine Iguana
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The brightly coloured Sally Lightfoot Crab on the dark volcanic rocks is quite a sight!
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Smooth Billed Ani – a type of cuckoo
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Ground Finch – one of Darwin’s finches, endemic to Galapagos
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Ground Finch – female
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Galapagos Mockingbird

All this excitement even before we entered the core area of the research station that hosts Giant Tortoise and Land Iguana breeding centres. And then we came face-to-face with the gentle giants that gave Steven Spielberg his inspiration for the visage of E.T.! These creatures at once evoked reactions of E.T., Anaconda and Voldemort 🙂

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Galapagos Giant Tortoise – the inspiration for the face of E.T.
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The largest species of Tortoise, now Vulnerable – the Charles Darwin Research Station has a breeding centre where eggs are collected from islands for safe hatching and later release into natural habitat
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A neck that can extend quite a bit to reach up for food, perfectly adapted to its environment and thriving on Galapagos islands until man struck here!

A few steps ahead and peep over the wall revealed the beautiful yellow shades of a Galapagos Land Iguana.

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Land Iguana – a Vulnerable species, endemic to Galapagos

We noticed the unique tree-like cactus growing all around, and later read that it is called Opuntia echios, endemic to the Galapagos islands and a very important part of the ecosystem as a food source.

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Opuntia echios – grows slowly in the volcanic rocky crust, provides food for iguanas, tortoises, finches

After a lot of time spent admiring these beauties, it was time to head back with Mika having learnt a bit about Charles Darwin and his Galapagos inspired Theory of Evolution.

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Mika with a statue of Charles Darwin

Let me share a little perspective on Galapagos that we learnt while here. The first recorded visit by humans to these islands was in 1535 when a Spanish ship on its way to Peru was blown off-course. It is possible that the the islands were visited earlier by the Incas but no records exist. The islands were initially named Las Islas Encatadas by the sailors who reached here; while today this is popularly translated as the Enchanted Islands in the “charming” sense 0f the word, the sailors meant it as “bewitched” because of the islands suddenly appearing & disappearing in the fog. All life originally found here arrived either by the ocean or aerial route and hence the marked absence of any land mammals. All arrivals had to adapt to harsh conditions to survive and significantly, the same species adapted differently in different islands in isolation from each other. As observed by Charles Darwin, this archipelago seems to be nature’s laboratory of evolution by design!

The islands are of volcanic origin resulting from an intense “hotspot” beneath the ocean on the equator. There is constant activity which results in the formation of new islands and disappearance of older ones. In geological terms, the current islands are described as young meaning just over 2 million years old! Contrast this to human history terms .. we view the 5000 year old Egyptian civilisation as ancient!!

The climate of the Galapagos islands is determined entirely by ocean currents, the major one being the cold Humboldt Current which brings cold south polar water to the shores of these islands. No wonder then that the water here is so cold despite being on the equator! While this makes it difficult for people like us to get into the water to get a peek at the aquatic life, it is what makes the ocean extremely productive by pushing up nutrients from the ocean floor to upper layers where life-giving sunlight reaches.

The name Galapagos translates as per different accounts to either a type saddle or tortoise. Any which way, the name is derived from the Giant Saddleback Tortoises that roamed the islands in huge numbers when they were first visited by the Europeans.

On day 2 we headed off to the Tortuga (Tortoise) Bay in the hope of finding marine iguanas in the wild and an opportunity to spot some sea turtles and fish while snorkelling in the bay. It was a 2+ kilometre trail to walk from the entry point – worked well for us serving the dual purpose of getting some exercise and enjoying the place in peaceful solitude.  At the end of the cactus and then mangrove vegetation lined trail, was the vast blue expanse of the Pacific with waves breaking on the lava rocks at some places and rolling on to the white powdery sand at others.

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Our first look at Blue-footed Boobies from a distance and without knowing what we were looking at!

As we walked across the beach to cover another kilometer to the bay, we saw a swarm of birds who were flying and diving from time to time. The dive was a vertical drop, like a rocket! We managed to capture some of the action. It was later we learnt that the diving rockets we saw were the clownish Blue-footed Boobies who we got to see and admire from very close quarters. Hordes of pelicans were “surfing” and flying, just having a wonderful morning!

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A circling swarm of birds with some diving in at regular intervals
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A Blue-footed Booby diving vertically to catch fish!
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Brown Pelican

As we neared the bay, we spotted a Great Blue Heron standing still and to our huge excitement we saw our very first set of Marine Iguanas “in the wild” with a 2-metre radius circle drawn on the sand around them. It is a standard instruction everywhere in Galapagos to keep a 2-metre distance from all animals.

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Great Blue Heron – seemed to be meditating
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Marine Iguana basking in the morning sun – Tortuga Bay, Isla Santa Cruz

The Marine Iguana, endemic to the Galapagos, is the only sea-going lizard in the world. We were entertained by the occasional “sneezing” of some of them – a mechanism to excrete brine. The bay ahead was a good place to relax and build a sand castle with Mika, something not done in a long time. But the water was not clear at all for any luck with spotting anything while snorkelling. But our day was made with the mutiple “clusters” of marine iguanas we saw on the beach as well as witnessing some taking off to the water and some swimming up to the beach and move across to find their own spot under the sun.

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A Marine Iguana swims to the beach to sun itself

As we left the beach, I saw this pelican which seemed extremely content!

Sand, Sea, Self, Shadow, Sun - Satisfied!
Sand, Sea, Self, Shadow, Sun – Satisfied!

Standardisation of services is always useful for visitors – in Puerto Ayora all taxis are Toyota Hilux / Pickups with a standard charge of $1 for a ride anywhere within the town. So after the 3+ km walk back out of the trail to the beach, it was a $1 taxi ride back to our lovely accommodation for a refreshing shower before heading out to what became one of our favourite places in town – the harbour. One just needs to stand by the pier and watch to see a whole variety of animals – sea lions swimming or resting on the benches, pelicans and herons on boats, marine iguanas climbing up the walls and sea turtles, golden rays and baby sharks swimming past!

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Animals have right of way and seating here!

The next few days saw us venturing out to the non-human inhabited North Seymour and Santa Fe islands. The former hosts colonies of the Magnificent Frigate birds and Blue-footed Boobies along with Land Iguanas that we got to see at just over an arm’s length. The latter provides great snorkelling spots where we got to swim with sea turtles, sting rays, baby sharks and watch a bunch of young sea-lions up close. We had just five people on the Santa Fe trip and our guide forecast correctly that it was a “lucky day”. He showed us a fantastic sight of hundreds, maybe a thousand fish forming a beautiful pattern on the ocean floor at one of the spots and in another (with truly freezing water) we saw the most amazingly colourful fish right out a NatGeo production!

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A Magnificent Frigatebird family nesting in North Seymour island – the father takes the responsibility of safekeeping of the eggs and upbringing of the chicks, the mother helps with the feeding of the chicks
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Male Magnificent Frigatebird with his scarlet throat pouch inflated like a balloon, common in the breeding season
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Blue-footed Boobies seen on Santa Cruz northern harbour
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A Blue-footed Booby family nesting in North Seymour island – what a lovely close-up view!
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Blue-footed Booby taking care of its eggs – the male and female take turns to do this
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The scrubby terrain of North Seymour island
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The North Seymour shoreline
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In the backdrop here is Mosquera island, a sand beach at sea level
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A sea lion stretches itself neck after a swim on the North Seymour shore!
Our guide for Santa Fe - the smiling Camillo who made it a great experience for us
Our guide for Santa Fe – the smiling Camillo who made it a great experience for us

Isla Santa Cruz has sights to explore on land as well. The ones we visited were the beautiful Las Grietas, Los Gemelos and the giant tortoise reserve and lava tunnels at El Chato.

Las Grietas - a volcanic fracture where the cool ocean water mingles with rainwater to provide a deep blue "swimming pool" with the colourful parrot fish for company
Las Grietas – a volcanic fracture where the cool ocean water mingles with rainwater to provide a deep blue “swimming pool” with the colourful parrot fish for company

At Las Grietas, we opted for snorkelling looking at the depth of the water and lack of “landing” places in between the length but our little mermaid was off swimming by herself and disappeared to explore the next two pools beyond!

Los Gemelos are an interesting feature in the highlands of Santa Cruz where the vegetation is completely different from the lowlands due to higher precipitation. On two sides of the road are two large sinkholes (not craters) created when the earth surface became unsteady and collapsed due to the hot magma underneath. Over the millenia, a lush green forest has grown here.

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Los Gemelos – large sinkholes where the surface sank due to the hot magma underneath, now covered with a lush Scalesia forest
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Tree covered in moss, perfect Halloween prop!

The El Chato tortoise reserve is privately owned and a large property where giant tortoises roam freely. The property also has a series of lava tunnels that one can walk through like an underground tunnel.

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El Chato Tortoise Reserve – where the gentle giants roam free
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Unique road sign – probably the only place in the world
This 100+ years old giant munches on grass
This 100+ years old giant munches on grass
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Lava Tunnels at El Chato, Santa Cruz island
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Lava Tunnels

Six days later we left to go to the Isabella island, the largest in the archipelago and the youngest at about a million years of age formed by the merger of 6 volcanoes of which 5 are still active. The last eruption on this island was a year ago in May 2015. Isla Isabella was our base for the next 3 days to explore and admire the rich wildlife in and around it. It was a 2-hour boat journey in the middle of the Pacific, both unnerving and calming at the same time. Unnerving when we looked at the expanse of water with some large waves and not a speck of land in sight making the power boat look quite powerless. Calming to stare into infinity and feeling the harmony in the interconnection between everything around.

At both Santa Cruz and Isabella islands, the bigger boats dock a little away from the piers and water taxis (smaller boats) are used to transfer people & goods to the island. It is a very systematic execution with perfect coordination between the boatmen in handling everyone and the biggest pieces of luggage for a smooth operation. And standard rates for the water taxis with no haggling for luggage. A very pleasant experience overall.

As our water taxi approached the island, the boatman pointed out to a penguin standing on the rocks, it felt like a dream to be seeing this! One of the reasons for coming to Isabella was to see the Galapagos penguins that reside here.

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Entry into the little village of Isabella, solar-powered street lights in the background

A walk to the bay later that day offered us sights of numerous sea lions and marine iguanas snoozing near and on the walkways, benches, anywhere they wished! And penguins swimming around looking like ducks in the water 🙂

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Three sea lions snoozed peacefully with a larger adult on a bench nearby, completely unperturbed by the humans passing by within a couple of feet
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The largest single congregation of Marine Iguanas we saw in Galapagos was on Isla Isabella
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Penguins swimming near Isla Isabella dock

The next morning Manish & Mika decided to go snorkelling to Tintoreras just off Isabella; I opted to stay back and catch up on some writing as I am not too fond of being in the water and wanted to reserve my last bit of stamina for the next day’s snorkelling at Los Tuneles, the lava tunnels in the ocean. The under-rated Tintoreras turned out to be the most magical experience for Mika and Manish with close encounters with sea lions and penguins in the water and sighting scores of white tipped sharks from arm’s length while walking the Martian terrain. For the details of this day, you need to read Mihika’s blog on her experience!

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Galapagos Penguins at Tintoreras, off Isla Isabella
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White-tipped sharks resting in shallow pools at Tintoreras
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A sea turtle raises its head out of the water!

For all the action I missed in the morning, we compensated with sighting of dozens of brilliant Flamingos on another part of the island.

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American Flamingos in Isla Isabella

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The next day was the big day with a 45-minute boat ride to Los Tuneles, with a short circle around Union Rock where we sighted Nazca Boobies, another species of boobies, this one with black feet.

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Nazca Booby at Union Rock, off the coast of Isla Isabella
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Nazca Boobies

The snorkelling at Los Tuneles was a long, exhausting and fully worthwhile experience for the ability to see and swim with seahorses, full-sized white tipped reef sharks, different types of rays including the beautiful Manta Ray, octopus and giant sea turtles.

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A delicate seahorse
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Swimming with the Rays!
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White-tipped Reef Sharks rest here
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Mika at the Los Tuneles under water!
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Lobster on the head!!
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Los Tuneles – the lava tunnels off Isla Isabella
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A sea turtle swims by at Los Tuneles

The day ended with a relaxed stroll on the beach and watching a beautiful sunset.

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A colourful sunset at Isla Isabella

As we ended what we thought was a once-in-a-lifetime stay at Galapagos, we were quite sure we would be coming back here some day ….

Hope you’ve enjoyed reading this. Posting this as we leave for the Amazon rainforests with no phones, internet for 3 days and generated electricity for only 3 hours each evening! Good luck to us 🙂

In the Middle of the World!

Our maiden visit to South America had a very pleasant start at the Miami International Airport in the very comfortable lounge of Avianca, the oldest operating airline in the Americas and the second oldest in the world after KLM. We were welcomed by a very friendly lady from Colombia with the warmth of the hospitality services we are accustomed to in India and usually miss on our travels to the West. Rested and refreshed we were on our way to Quito, the capital of Ecuador, transiting through Bogota, the Colombian capital and hub of Avianca.

Ecuador literally means the Equator in Spanish, the official language of the country. We landed in the middle of the world in the middle of the night and were pleasantly surprised and happy to see that all the immigration officials, barring one, were women! I do not recollect having seen a single female immigration official in any of the airports in India and now I wonder why?

As we were being driven to our hotel from the airport, it felt like we were headed to a hill station. I didn’t realise then that Quito, at an altitude of 2,850 metres above sea level, is the highest of all national capitals. The next morning we could see just how many hills and valleys there were in this city.IMG_20160429_102845IMG_2033

We stayed in old Quito, the historic centre characterised by cobbled streets, monuments and colonial style buildings, that became the first UNESCO World Heritage Site (along with Krakow). Our hotel was an old bungalow with a central courtyard, a common feature of traditional homes in many parts of India. The Presidential Palace of Quito features this too. I am sure you can guess which of the two courtyards below is our hotel’s and which is the Presidential Palace’s 🙂

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We spent the day exploring the
monuments and sights starting with the central square, the Plaza de la Independencia more commonly known as Plaza Grande, that is flanked by the Presidential Palace and the Metropolitan Cathedral and the Archbishop’s palaceof Quito.

IMG_20160429_104312It was a bustling square with vendors selling a variety of fare – handmade shawls, hats, eatables and so on. An interesting feature were the shoe-shine boys on one end of the square.

The Presidential Palace
The Presidential Palace
Metropolitan Cathedral of Quito flanking the Plaza Grande
Metropolitan Cathedral of Quito flanking the Plaza Grande
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View of the Plaza Grande from the Presidential Palace
A Shoeshine Boy at the Plaza Grande
A Shoeshine Boy at the Plaza Grande
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A street food vendor

Next we headed for a guided tour of the Presidential Palace that was possible since the President was not in residence on the day. We had to handover our passports and go through expected security checks to enter the building that had no external signs of opulence.

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We started with huge murals depicting the discovery and conquest of the Amazon by the Spanish and walked through lavish meeting and banquet halls before stepping into the radiant “Yellow Room”.

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The Yellow Room

IMG_1981All gifts received by the various Ecuadorian presidents from different countries were on display. Samples here are from Peru and Saudi Arabia.

IMG_20160429_114643IMG_20160429_114406We then strolled out onto the cobbled street and headed to La Iglesia de la Compañía de Jesús (the Church of the Society of Jesus) known for its Baroque style architecture and ornate interiors with elaborate gold leaf decorations on its walls and high ceiling. The facade of the church bears no hint of the splendour inside.

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Iglesia de la Compañía de Jesús

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The next highlight was Iglesia y Monasterio de San Francisco (Church and Monastery of St. Francis) featuring twin bell towers. Notice the storm clouds gathering above the bell towers!

Iglesia y Monasterio de San Francisco
Iglesia y Monasterio de San Francisco

As we walked through this pretty part of the city, we noticed how well the traffic was being managed through these narrow streets by very committed traffic-police, most of them being women! No wonder there are no traffic jams here.

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We walked on to the La Ronda street which looked picturesque and right out of a European town with eateries lining the pedestrian-only cobbled street.IMG_20160429_132035As the street comes alive in the evenings, we decided to come back there for dinner.

And there were women constables patrolling the streets.

IMG_20160429_130257It was great to see so many women in law enforcement roles, more so because traditionally there has been a disparity in women’s status in terms of education and economic status.

In the evening we strolled around to take in the evening lights & atmosphere and stopped by a small eatery to taste our first Humitas, a traditional steamed corn snack. We saw many signs of “Cafe con Humitas” suggesting it was something like “Chai with Samosa” for the locals. Corn and plantains are a big part of the daily diet here. We returned to La Ronda and found a place with a guitarist playing & singing as a nice way to wrap up the day. Given the lack of an English menu, vegetarian food and English speaking folks around, it took some effort to choose what we wanted. Just when we sat back to enjoy the music, Manish realised the backpack he had placed next to him was missing! A frantic search around the place ensued and quite soon it was clear the bag had been taken. The usherer at the door thought a guy who just left the place had taken our bag mistaking it for his own and ran out to find him. We found another backpack neatly tucked away a little further from our table, but given the place & manner in which it was kept it became apparent that it was not a mistake at all by the person who had taken, rather stolen our bag. As we stood on the street quite shaken thinking about what happened and asked to restaurant to call the police, we recollected the contents of the bag. To our utter relief, the bag didn’t contain our passports and any valuables. Thanks to Manish’s research on safety during travel and his habit of preparing for the worst, he had our passports, cash and cards all on his person. We figured we had lost our rain jackets, a portable mobile charger & phone cable, some medicines & first-aid and a water bottle. The police arrived immediately and they called for an English speaking officer who also turned up pretty quickly. On hearing the details, they apologised for our bad experience, duly recorded our complaint and gave us a copy of the report. The restaurant turned in the backpack left by the thief who for sure would have cursed his bad luck at getting nothing of value in return for the loss of his own backpack! Not in the script as Manish said, but a briefly nerve-wracking experience to reinforce the absolute need for alertness in cities.

The next day dawned, we put the previous evening firmly behind us and headed right to the middle of the world – latitude 0°! Interestingly, before the advent of GPS, the location of the Equator near Quito had been wrongly marked and the official monument Ciudad Mitad del Mundo (Middle of the World City) is situated about 200 metres south of latitude 0°. So instead of IMG_2092this we headed to the Intiñan Museum that is closer to the right spot. Here we heard some interesting facts about the native tribes of the region, saw totems representing Inti (the Sun) from different countries, witnessed experiments demonstrating the Coriolis effect, tried our hand (successfully) at balancing an egg on the head of a nail and walked on the red line representing the Equator.

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An ancient tribal ritual of creating a pendant from an enemy’s head!
A burial mound
Replica of a burial mound – the dead were placed in fetal position in a pot that denotes the womb – tribal belief of rebirth

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Balancing acts, each one trying to centre ourselves!

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The below pics of parent and child on the two hemispheres are symbolic of the differences that exist (and always will!) between generations, despite our attempts to be “cool” parents. We’ve decided to just “mind the gap” and Mika is happy we finally accept the “gap”!

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The demonstration of the Coriolis effect helped us understand the difference in the directions of weather systems north and south of the Equator – hurricanes & tornadoes that hit North America move in an anti-clockwise direction while typhoons in South America have a clockwise circulation.

The tribal handmade crafts on display were a colourful visual treat and we also witnessed a demo of a tribal dance.

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From here we headed further up the Andes towards Mindo for a rendevous with the clouds in the cloud forest and an opportunity to see some of the hundreds of bird species that inhabit them. Needless to say, some of the bird species are in danger of extinction.

In our journey of about an hour & a quarter, we came across some scenes reminiscent of home – what car would you say is the one overtaking the cattle carrier?

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In our Mindo hotel balcony we found ourselves at an arm’s distance from Hummingbirds of so many different types with their resplendent colourings shining in the sunlight that we remained excited, mesmerised and clicking away for a long time! It was unbelievable to see so many of these tiny birds feeding with their wings flapping rapidly at the feeder placed by the hotel staff. We got to see from close up the backward flight that we had heard and read about. And various kinds of colourful Tanagers were frequenting the guava tree next to our balcony, making us wonder at the colours and types of the birds residing in the forest where we would be heading to the next morning!

FeedingRufous-tailed Hummingbird feeder

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Andean EmeraldRufous-tailed HummingbirdWhite-necked Jacobin - Female

Blue-grey TanagerLemon-rumped Tanager - Male

Palm Tanager

We strolled through the rather little main street in this quaint little town, more like a village actually. We loved the peaceful, laid-back atmosphere and had an enjoyable dinner of fresh handmade pizza at a local bakery. Mindo is not a typical family destination, it is a haven for backpackers and young travelers who are either nature lovers or adventure-seekers coming here for the thrills of rafting, tubing and canyoning.

It was an early start the next morning and a pleasant walk with our naturalist and guide Irman where he pointed out many Tanagers and small birds like Seedeaters quite early on. We were eager to see the bigger & brighter ones that are much harder to spot. We admired the streams and the view of the clouds touching the forest canopy on the way.

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Hearing the calls of toucans, our guide ushered us on. The first ones we got to see were the Crimson-rumped Toucanets, a smaller variety of the Toucan family and then the big Pale-mandibled Toucan. What a majestic sight!

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Crimson-rumped Toucanet
Chestnut-mandibled Toucan
Chestnut-mandibled Toucan

Then came a really beautiful call that got our guide all excited and soon enough we were rewarded with the sight of an amazing bird – the Masked Trogon, what a beauty & what a beautiful call!

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Masked Trogon

Another beauty that we saw a couple of was the Rufous Motmot.

Rufous Motmot
Rufous Motmot

We learnt that it is common practise for many of the residents to place food (bananas) in their backyards to feed birds. This attracts many colourful birds from the forest to come and feed, providing an easy opportunity to see them from close quarters. We did this at the end of our forest walk in one of the little farms and got to see the bright Red-headed Barbet, Toucan Barbet and Golden Tanager amongst many others.

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Amazed by the stunning colours and beauty, we spent many more hours admiring our own clicks of these wonders of nature and watching the thunderstorm of the late afternoon with the rain continuing through the night.

Having experienced the stunning diversity of mainland Ecuador, we were all keen to head out to the islands of Galapagos to see Evolution in action! Though part of our Ecuadorian Odyssey, Galapagos demands a separate post for it has way too much to offer and is truly a world apart.

Thanks for reading and being a part of our journey!

Pa-hay-okee: The River of Grass a.k.a Everglades

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.

Sawgrass stretches dotted by Cypress trees
Sawgrass stretches dotted by Cypress trees

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.

IMG_1416A 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.

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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.

Shell Mound

Brown Pelican

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.

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Double Crested Cormorant

Osprey

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.

Saw Fish

Manatee

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?

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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.

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IMG_20160423_153928They 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!

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We also spotted this majestic heron, later identified as a Little Blue Heron.

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!

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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.

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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.

IMG_1488There 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, IMG_1496quite 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.

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Warrior of the Everglades – the Red-winged Blackbird

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Dragonfly

Butterfly

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Swamp Hen – the American Purple Gallinule

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!

Gumbo Limbo Tree
Gumbo Limbo Tree

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.

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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.

Congregation of baby alligators
Congregation of baby alligators – how many can you spot?

We came upon a Green Heron, a Great Egret, a Great Blue Heron, a Red-shouldered Hawk, Black Vultures and finally an Anhinga!!

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Anhinga – American Darter

A soft-shelled turtle bearing the marks of a recent alligator encounter was spotted right next to the track.

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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.

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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!

IMG_20160426_122524In 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 🙂

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IMG_20160425_124808Next 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!

Please do read Mika’s blogpost on Everglades – http://www.iammihika.com/index.php/2016/04/28/everglades/.