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Saturday
Aug112018

Reduced expectations are a good idea

Of all the days in the Europe trip (last post on series is here..) we had the most fun on Day 6. We left Zurich in the morning by bus (different tour guide this time but same Viator tours) and reached Interlaken. The views on the way were amazing, but it was raining non stop. 

After our adventure the previous evening at Mt. Titlis, we decided to not make a last minute option change to add 500+ bucks per person to go to The top of Europe .. aka JungFrau. We also had accomodation at Interlaken for the night. So we would not be returning to Zurich. So we said our byes to Zurich, tried to co-ordinate things with the guide, explained the situation and were on our way. The lakes were blue and clear and the reflections were beautiful. We had a restroom stop at Interlaken. It was interesting. Most folks had only Euro coins on them. To enter the restroom was 1 swiss frank. Most of the people were elderly and were desperate to get to the restroom. Some good samaritans stepped in and made sure that folks were able to get in. The whole thing was ridiculous. Finally after a lot of stress from a collective crowd the bus was boarded again and we were on our way to Grindelwald. 

Grindelwald is like the base for the train that goes up to the Top of Europe, but there are plenty of activities at this place. It is like a sports park of sorts with lot of mountain related adventure training places. One thing I always wanted to do here was go on a sled ride on the edge of the mountain after seeing some pictures of this posted by my friend Jessica a year ago. 

Many of us in the group were not going to JungFrau. So we were given a return ticket by train to Interlaken. We were to meet the bus at Interlaken... everyone else to go back to Zurich while we pick up our luggage from bus and leave the group. It was a good deal.

We were amazed by the scenery at Grindelwald, a river that cuts through the village, a gondola to go up another 3000 feet to the sled ride place, a restaurant at the top with a view to the Glacier and mountains, flower lined roads, cute houses.. it was like being in a fairytale! 

The only downside was the rain and low visibility of the mountains. The sled ride was also closed (it is called Pfingsteggbahn). We still had lunch at the restaurant and the food was good! Then we let the kids play in a little zip line for kids and got back down. 

We wandered around the main street in Grindelwald and asked about things that were unique to the place we could enjoy in 2 hours. The lady at the gondola told us about the Rope park which was built into an ice skating rink. The kids and San saw the advertisement and really wanted to check it out and we did.

It was a series of rope walking, climbing sets, set 80 odd feet above the ground. They had to go through a training session for 30 minutes and did 2 of the 3 courses. As soon as they were done, we went to the train station, got some ice cream and boarded the train to Interlaken.

Think the worse swiss ice cream is better than the best US ice cream. Local stores in villages are selling ice cream that is bringing me back memories as I write this post! If there is one thing that might make we want to just stay in Grindelwald inspite of the weather, it is the quality of the ice cream. 

By the time we reached Interlaken rail station, it was pouring down. We had to walk in rain for almost 25 minutes to reach the bus stop luggage drop off and we were almost an hour early. The only restaurant close to this stop which had food we could eat was a Hooters! I am not a big fan of Hooters (have been to one in Minnesotta many years ago) but the hot chocolate and TV playing the soccer game vs. the pouring rain outside was a no contest. We sat there and kept ordering fries, onion rings, more hot cocoa and eventually walked out. 

It was like magic. The rain stopped. The clouds moved out. We got a beautiful view of the glacier right from the park area in Interlaken.

Then the bus showed up and we asked the folks who went to JungFrau how it went. They said they could not see anything in the bad weather and it was a wash. We were very proud of our decision to stay and have fun at Grindelwald and started walking towards our Air B&B in Interlaken.

Given all the stuff they had eaten, the kids decided to skip dinner. So San and me left them in the house and took another walk back to the park to take pictures.

We stopped at an amazing chocolate store called Laderach and spent time there.

We also saw an advertisement for the place ... apparently it was a bond movie shooting location.  

Took more pictures and Panos..

 

bought some Chai to go at an Indian restaurant (there were 4 within sight at one intersection!)  and walked back to join the kids. 

We had a great evening in Interlaken once the rain stopped. It was so pleasant and nice and the colors came out as did all the people. One minute the place is deserted and next minute it was festive! 

Slideshows of pictures from Interlaken and Grindelwald ...

If you go to Switzerland, stay at Interlaken. Make that the base. If we go back, we will do just that. 

Here is a video of the days trip..

The next day we walked 20 minutes with our suitcases to the main train station only to find the trains first stop was right outside our Air B&B in the 2nd little Interlaken train station! We did a facepalm and moved on. The kids would not stop talking about how we woke them early on the pretext of having to walk 25 mintues to the train station in the morning dragging our luggage only to cross the starting point. 

Hopefully they do better at traveling than we do when they get to this age.. 

To be continued.. 

Saturday
Aug112018

Colgategate

You would think that after 58 trips to Asia, you have seen it all. Then you come across something new..

The hotel has the usual stuff on the bathroom sink. 

Except now the paste and brush are in a box labelled "Dental Kit". Okay, I think. Someone new in marketing trying to copy things from a fancy hotel to a local China hotel. 

Then I open the box and in there is a paste that I don't give a second thought to. The usual is a Colgate paste and a simple toothbrush. This one with a white cap instead of the usual red but for some reason it doesn't raise a flag.

There is always a small Aluminum foil seal that you have to open before accessing the toothpaste. Still groggy and jet lagged (it is 3:30 AM and I want to brush my teeth before eating San's Ziplock packed Idlis), I pull out the Aluminum foil and then press the tube, but nothing comes out!

Turns out the entire mouth of the tube is sealed in plastic, kind of like the shaving kit in other hotels. So I try to poke the plastic out by pressing the tube into the other side of the red plastic cap which has a sharp point and in the process, the cap cuts my finger!

I was swearing about the degrading quality of Colgate and how monopolies create bad quality eventually etc. etc. in my head and look at the paste.. and realized it is a local Chinese toothpaste. It did say on the tube to use the pokey end to open. But it was not easy to open. The same thing with the brushes.. The Colgates are being replaced by local no name brands. 

Another hotel now just has "toothpaste".. that looks like Colgate (same colors, similar packaging) but it is just that we dont have anything more on the tube. God knows what is in it!

In past trips, I have brought back the brushes and used them for two weeks and throw them before going out on next trip. One thing about international travel every three weeks is that I am finally following my dentists advice on getting new toothbrushes on a regular basis!  which brings us to..

yes.. combs as well. I get a new comb every three weeks. It is something of a joke as on the recent trip, this was found in the hotel room in Italy just when I was doing a final check before checking out..

Have started looking at the paste to see what it is that I am putting into my mouth first thing in the morning and have been surprised.. 

These are all clever disguising strategies but if you cannot open the thing easily, it is not a good product, marketing and copying of the red and blue colors not withstanding.

It is time to check the bags and take my own toothpaste or take my own travel paste going forward! 

Friday
Aug102018

We made a "final family video"

This is part of the Europe trip posts.. The previous post on this series of the trip to Mt. Titlis is here..

Our adventure on top of Mt. Titlis deserves a post by itself.

We had reached the top, and started walking to the "glacier walk". That meant going up the Ice Flyer. 

The kids wanted to go on their own and we said "NO". That actually turned out to be a good decision.

A lot of people were turning back because there was no visibility. The traveling Narayanans were not going to turn back. Not when their leader was wearing shorts and a T-shirt to Mt. Titlis. 

So we went, sat on a ski lift type thingy with a pull down plastic cover that comes almost to the waist and the operator gave a tap on the plastic shield and off we went..

We settled in and took this picture.. we were all smiles..

It was a fast steep climb and after just a few seconds on the thing, hail started hitting our feet and the shield. The noise level was unbelievable. When we reached the top, we could not even put our foot down because everything had frozen and the operator at the top told us "you are not getting down here. the ride is closing and you have to keep going down". So we sat on it as it turned around and started coming back down. A flash of lightning and boom, the transformer was out. 

We were just hanging in there for a good 15 minutes with hail and snow coming down. I slowly stopped feeling things below my knees.. then after a few minutes below my waist. My reproductive system I could not care less about, but my ankles and knees and hips.. how will I do yoga? lots of thoughts going through my mind.. when the family started thinking out aloud.. 

one girl started praying to Vembadi Vinayagar (the local Chennai temple favorite) and another girl started talking about her last days on the planet.. we made a video while being stuck on the lift.. and then the backup power came on and very slowly we got down to the stop. There were folks stuck in the operator room (almost 40 of them) and all of them cheered when we came down. Then two more lifts came and we cheered. Apparently four lifts were stuck out there for some time and they were working very hard to get everyone down. 

The view below from the stuck lift.. blue glacial ice!

The organizers of the place told us they did not expect the storm to move in so fast and that usually they will close the ride the minute they see a storm like that move in. We told them we were good and got an adventure and will remember this for a long time. The lady smiled and said "unfortunately none of you can walk back to the building because there are still lightning strikes. please wait till we get an all clear"

We joined the crowd in a small room at the base of the lift and waited for almost 30 minutes before we were all escorted at a slow pace to the main five story building. 

We were badly in need of some warming up. A hot cocoa had never looked so appealing in my entire life. After a few minutes and a realization that we were about to miss the ride down, we ran. 

We were the talk of the bus as everyone had heard about the four lifts that got stuck. At least we made it up and came down.. most folks just ended up spending the entire time in the five story building with restaurants and shops watching the hail pound on the glass. 

This hilarious video pretty much caught the whole thing in bits and pieces.. wish I could have subtitles for it.. 

All said and done, Vembadi did his job.. we were back and had an interesting family adventure! 

This definitely helped change plans for the next day. We were to visit Grindelwald and possibly go to the "Top of Europe" or "JungFrau" but given the weather, we decided it was pointless to do the same thing again the next day and pay 500+ $ / person to go up that mountain on a train... 

turned out to be a wise decision. We actually ended up having a great time in Grindelwald.. that will be tomorrows post..

Thursday
Aug092018

To Shahrukhland and Kajolberg

This is a post on the Europe Trip day 5 afternoon. The previous post in the series that covered Lucerne is here..

After lunch in Lucerne, we were off to Engelberg. It was like a small town (maybe Village) on the base of Mount Titlis. A few people who could not climb high altitudes were dropped off by our guide to spend the afternoon there. The bus started climbing after that brief stop and we were treated to some amazing scenic views and we reached a parking lot of epic proportions. 

This was the gondola ride up the mountain. The Gondola takes you up to 10000 feet. Then there is a five story building with multiple restaurants where you get out of this ride. It is a rotating Gondola and that means amazing views of the mountains and everything below as we go up.

There were 8 people to a carriage and we were joined by another Desi family from Chicago and made pleasant conversation. They had grown up kids, with the youngest just finishing college and when we got out the guide promptly said "okay. We have fixed time here. There are many activities here. you can go through an ice canyon, go to an ice flyer to 13000 feet and then go for a walk on the edge of the ice. we will wait here. The last gondola down for you to make it to the bus on time is at 4:15 PM". 

Given how the traveling Narayanan family had done with such hectic schedules over the last 4 days, we accepted the challenge and walked to the ice flyer. On the way to the ice flyer, we saw a cutout that made Mt. Titlis a household name in India. 

I knew what had to be done. Gave the camera to our tourguide who was Swiss German and she goes "yes of course. you have to take a picture in front of Shah Rukh and Kajol!".. she said it so matter of factly as though they were local Swiss names. The world is full of wonders I thought and asked San to pose.. She was happy but for some reason, could not bring out the inner Kajol on time! Eventually for some strange reason she was doing that pose in front of the Hogwarts Express in UK and I was doing a facepalm! Where were we?! Yes.. Kajolberg..

We walked to the ice flyer. There were snow flurries falling pretty heavily... and then we had an adventure of a lifetime.. which is a post in itself. So we will skip the ice flyer for now and move on. 

We barely made it back to the five storied building again and were greeted by the sight of Pav Bhajis, rice, pickles, papad etc.  

While the family went for it, I grabbed a hot cocoa and while we were eating there was a realization that we were about to miss the ride down. So we scrambled and made our way back to the parking lot. Our guide was nice. She said "you can get some Chai and Samosas and other Indian snacks at a restaurant outside the ticket counter. We are still waiting on some folks.". So off we went and got Chai Samosa.

Life comes full circle I thought. Many years ago, we had Maggi noodles at ~10000 feet in the Himalayas at Manali and that was a Swiss company product. Now we were having Chai Samosa in Switzerland!

The panoramic view of the mountains from the parking lot was amazing..

Then the bus filled up and we were back on our way to Zurich and were treated to more scenic views.

The bus dropped us at 7PM. We went to a mexican place after going to our new Air B&B and dropping off the luggage. We had booked one walking distance from the bus terminus for the night. We went in at 7:20 and the waiter was nice enough to let us eat as long as we were out by 8 as it was a reservation only place. The food was amazing, the wall decor had some kind of masked wrestler photograph everywhere.. and were back in the Air B&B. On the way back we went to an Indian grocery store run by a Sri Lankan Tamil, saw a Sari Store, a bunch of Indian restaurants and realized we were in Little India in Zurich!

There was laundry to be done.. using a German washing machine in the basement that looked ancient and some precious sleep to be had before another all day adventure the next day. 

Here is a tip. Air B&B laundries are not reliable. After making multiple attempts to dry the clothes after washing, the thing promptly gave some fatal error. There was no one to help in that place at 11PM and I had to translate using google translate to find that it was a fatal error. 

While the family was sleeping, I hauled a bunch of semi wet clothes (practially half of our luggage) and put a cloth on every possible exposed surface in that Apartment. There were bras on the kitchen cabinet hooks, jattis on the TV.. think you get the picture.. I created surreal art and went to bed praying. Set an alarm for an hour earlier than we had planned. San woke up and I gave her the bad news.. 80% of the clothes had dried completely! 20% still needed some help. So we used the iron box and ironed out the moisture for an hour and were all set! 

Back to pictures and videos..

A video of most of the afternoons trip..

We were not coming back to this place the next night.. it was going to be another all day trip that ended in a different city! 

Sunday
Aug052018

Breathtaking country - Switzerland

On day 5 of the Europe trip, we were in Switzerland. It was the beginning of three hectic and interesting days. We flew in from Venice to Zurich on day 4. 

The previous post in the series is here...

We had an interesting time at the Venice airport. One of the downsides to having status on United and Star alliance is that they allow only yourself and one guest to go into the Lounge. I told the family that it did not feel right for me to take one of them in and have the other two sit outside and I would rather have all of us sit outside together. The rest of the family unianiously called me an idiot and said if they were in my shoes, they would go with whoever was most eager to come. Wish they would have a system where they could take more of the miles or money and let two extra people in. Given my food allergies and the fact that I dont even drink Coffee or Soda, that whole lounge thing is wasted on me. The little one did come in with me for a few trips and got some dessert cakes "to go" for her mom and sister.  Then we mostly spent time in the regular gate area and wandering around the shops till we realized that the France Argentina game was on. There were huge shouts and cheers and the entire airport sounded like a football stadium. 

We watched the game almost to completion before it was time to board. It was a small "rinky dinky" flight to Zurich and the gate agent forced us to check in our bags. We were greeted in the flight with some soccer ball swiss chocolates ..

and a wonderful view of the Alps though the clouds. We watched the sun set over Zurich as we landed (see timelapse in the video.. one of the most memorable landings we have seen recently) and waited for almost 90 minutes to get our baggage! There were 11 flights listed on one baggage carousel. We almost gave up and were in tears because that was pretty much all our bags. Finally the bags came and we got an Uber to our Air B&B close to the airport. 

The kids and San ate some sandwiches purchased on the flight. I made MTR instant Upma after reaching the place. The next morning we took our luggage (yes, we were literally in a different place every night) and went to the Zurich bus station. We had an all day tour 8AM to 7PM which covered Zurich (on the bus), Lucerne in the morning to noon, a lunch break at Lucerne and onwards towards Mt. Titlis..

 Zurich / bus train station area was interesting in itself. People seemed to move at a leisurely pace and were generally happy. Have never seen that many smiling faces on a work day morning in any city. It is not just the cows in Swiss that are happy.. even the people seem to be all chirpy and cheerful! 

We went on to Lucerne to see the giant Lion carved on a mountainside. It was almost lunch. We saw an Indian restaurant in Lucerne and were yearning for some Chai and Samosa. Then the bus loaded and stopped after 5 minutes in front of a shopping area for watches, on the other side of the river (apparently they were tour partners, this watch place) and the guide said "you have 50 minutes to eat lunch and come back. the bus will leave promptly". I was pissed. If she had told us this we would have just stayed at the Lion parking place, ate a nice lunch and walked to the bus. It was a 15 minute walk to the Indian place from where they parked by crossing the bridge. In any case, we walked around (I missed a turn and lost another 5 minutes) and we ended up at Kanchi.. 

while in the middle of this walk/run we still managed pictures and videos.. 

Lucerne is breathtaking. Vibrant colors (it had just rained on our entire way to Lucerne) and fresh air! 

Here are two panos from one of the two bridges we crossed..

We had 20 minutes to eat and 10 minutes to run back. The kids were not happy with the plan. We begged the guy to bring us a minimum set of dishes and he obliged. We gulped it down in 8 minutes (the fastest this family has ever had a meal) and raced out. 

Then the mother of all mixups happened. The little one had declared her intent to go to the restroom before the run back to the bus, but given the time had decided to come out following me and Jr.  San stayed back to pay the bill and decided to wait for the non existant little one outside the restoom. We are in the street.. she is waiting and the clock ticks. Finally after some tense looks without any words being spoken we all ran towards the bus only to find that another family was trying to buy Pizza at a store last minute and were trying to finish the pizza before boarding the bus. There was no food allowed on the bus. So we watched them eat pizza for a good 5 minutes while catching our breath.

During the run, I started sweating Bikram Yoga style and was completely drenched. The wife and kids said "they will kick you out of the bus" so we asked the guide and driver to open the luggage compartment and I changed in front of the entire bus with some curious onlookers giving me the "who sweats in Switzerland?" look. 

Slideshows of pictures from Zurich and Lucerne.

and a video that hightlights the first half of day 5..

We were then off to the next stop..

It has not been easy catching up on memories to write these posts. Have already spent a week in Asia. Came back and had a great day only for my luck to change. Got sick last night with an allergy attack that has left me gasping for breath. Yet to identify the root cause.. hopefully I will recover in a day or two and get back on track.