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Entries in photography (305)

Saturday
Jan052019

A Zoo unlike any other 

The previous post in this series of the Belize trip is here..
When we were waiting in line for the Ziplining on day 3, I overheard another family talk excitedly about the Belize Zoo. They had come to the cavetubing / ziplining place from a cruise ship and were complaining about how they didn't get a chance to pet a Jaguar.
Had I heard it right? Did that kid actually say "pet a jaguar?" . On our way back I asked our guide and he said "yes, we have a Belize zoo. In fact we will be crossing it on our way back to the resort. This is not your typical zoo. It has only Belize animals in it which were mostly rescued or abandoned by the parents. I also believe for an extra fee you can pet a Jaguar but you have to book it ahead of time. You can ask the guide who takes folks to the zoo when we get back"
The first thing we did after going back to the resort was to find out if we could squeeze in the Zoo, the next afternoon. Altun Ha was a half day affair so we could technically do both the Zoo and Altun Ha in one day if we left early. Lucky for us, the only other family there with kids who happened to also be from California heard this and said "count us also in" . There was still some juggling to do for the resort manager. 
A couple from Rhode Island who were with us for the Altun Ha visit had to be dropped back before we left for the Zoo. As luck would have it, they also changed their plans and said "we would like to go to the Zoo as well with this group!". So we had a 10 people group going one shot and that meant more time at the Zoo.
The resort packed us lunches as well. We went straight from Altun Ha to the Zoo on day 4. 
On the way we saw prisoners to the Hattieville prison being transported in open lorries. Belize was weird. They call the prison the Ramada Inn. The prison had a gift shop! 
The Zoo had a simple entrance. 
The place was started quite accidentally by this lady who suddenly ended up having to take care of 20 animals! We met the lady and she was walking slowly through the zoo. Her story is truly inspiring! 
The thing that caught my eye near the Zoo entrance was this mural..
We paid the 50$ extra to meet the Jaguar and were told that there is a time window for it. Our guide went with us to the Zoo and he knew the place very well. He knew what we wanted. See every animal in the zoo within the 3 hour window. We also had to wait for the Jaguar encounter. He said "No problem". He also gave us details about the animals that was not there in the exhibit notice and that was interesting.
The highlight of course was the Jaugar. 
Indians : Cows :: Belizians : Jaguars
If there is a term "holy cow!", there is a "holier Jaguar!". They revere this cat! It is a god there. 
This one was a cub raised in the zoo. It was abandoned by its mother. The villagers caught a Jaguar hunting their dogs and brought it to the Zoo and they did not know she was pregnant. The cub was raised in the zoo and kids could hold it, but that was 11 years ago. Now the cub is a fully grown Jaguar and the term "petting" is not fair.. or so we learned. What happens now is that you go into a cage within the Jaguar enclosure and while the rest of the zoo visitors watch, the Jaguar jumps on top of the cage after doing somersaults and you get to touch its feet and tail. 
You also get your forehead licked by the Jaguar through the gap in the cages, should you choose to do it and can also feed it Chicken pieces. Jr and me did get our foreheads licked by the Jaguar. It was like a sandpaper scratch! Did not expect a cat's toungue to be so rough.
When the Jaguar was called back, we got up and I promptly hit my head on the cage. It is still recovering.. 
The video of the Zoo below starts with the Jaguar enounter..
This Zoo also had a baby Tapir which was incredibly cute..
and a few other Tapirs. It is interesting to see that Tapirs are found in Malaysia and Belize.. they look different.. kind of like the Indian vs. African elephants. 
There was a sad story behind every animal. This one's mom was shot.
They had Toucans, which is a bird local to Belize. They were beautiful.
The other thing that was unique to the zoo was an albino Coatimundi.. which was very rare. Coatimundi's are a very local animal.. 
There were many other unique local Belizian animals and birds (vulture, Jabiru stork etc.) and a lot of them were too far away or were sleeping in the afternoon. 
These were not my best animal photographs given they were taking with a zoom on an iPhone X and edited in Photoshop (which did not work at all) or were taking with the 24-105 lens on the Canon at 105mm. Those actually turned out much better! 
Next time, I will haul my 70-200mm and the extender on long trips. My family said "what is the point of having a 2000$ lens and leaving it at home?!".  
The rest of the pictures are in the picture galleries..
We had an amazing time at the Belize zoo and would strongly recommend it as one of the "not to miss" activities in Belize. Go and get the Jaguar encounter booked ahead. They allow a max of  4 people at a time into that enclosure and the wait can be long, but it is worth it!
Tuesday
Jan012019

A bucket list item to check - Belize

This is the first of a series of posts on our trip to Belize to round up 2018. . . 

It all started with me getting a mail from some guided tours and such, addressed to the previous owners of our house "or current resident". Most of the time San throws those out in the garbage on her way into the house. This time by some miracle it made it to the table. There were many places on that list and one of those was Belize. I did not know much about Belize. There were two places that were touted as must see. 

1. The Sacred cave or Cave of the Stone Sepulcher also called ATM (Actun Tunichil Muknal)

2. The Great blue hole which is a UNESCO world heritage site

Belize has been a bucket list item for at least three years now. This year we had a shutdown between Christmas and New Years and San made the plans. The Great Blue hole was a helicopter ride off Belize City and it was ~1000$ per person. So the original plan was for me to see the hole while the family relaxed. That would have still been too hectic, so I cancelled that. Would rather go with the family. 

ATM was on the plan for sure. I did not give the family details and they did not go to the Wiki pages or read other peoples account of their trips or they would have never agreed to come. Good thing they just took my word for it that it is "just a short hike to see a crystallized skeleton". 

There were other things to see in Belize as well and we had to balance out the fact that the kids wanted a "relaxing vacation". Their idea of a vacation is to sit in bed and read books, or sleep, and they definitely don't want to wake up "early". Early is relative... so we stuck some kind of compromise.

We got to stay in the Belize Boutique resort and Spa. How San found this place I have no idea, but it was worth what we paid for it. It was amazing! In the middle of forest land, a small group of accomodations, maybe 30-40 people at any time staying there, food that is freshly made for every meal from stuff grown right there, a guy who puts ladders up coconut trees and cuts up cocunuts for you to drink, it was pampering.. 

My friend has a Wellness place close to Chennai that we visited last year. This was very similar.

It was close to most of the sites or activities we wanted to do. They had guides for everything except ATM (those guides are locals at the ATM site but the Resort made the arrangements for us ahead of time). 

We had a great experience where we did things for four days, then had a day "off" to make the kids happy and flew back. There were massages on the day "off" at the Spa, which was an interesting exprience in itself.

Just watching the reefs and the shallow green waters as we landed, set the expectation high for Belize!

One thing that hit us after we got to the resort was that everything had a hibiscus on it..

The welcome drinks had it, the table in the room, the pillows, the slippers, even the restoom and toilet were decorated with a single hibiscus leaf and a flower. It was the Spa's theme or something.. 

We were all encouraged to eat hibiscus and were told that it improves memory. Given we have lots of hibiscus in our house but we never ate one, San was the only one brave enough to eat the flower petals. She declared them tasty and started eating one a day. Not sure if her memory has improved yet.. The kids and me were content to admire the flowers and watching her like young experimenters in a biology lab looking at a petri dish.

The place was amazing. An air conditioned stucco hut with a tatched roof (covered by a corrugated tin sheets). We did not use the air conditioning, except as air circulation. It was pleasant outside. There was non stop noise from animals, birds, frogs and lizards, but we slept peacefully. 

Every little thing was well decorated, with things you would not think of as decorations.. door latches, thumb tacks etc.. 

The dining area was also very nicely set!

Then there was the stone and wood artwork that were all around the place..

did I mention coconut trees already? 

There was this spiritual meditation chalet made of colored bottles and it did make some amazing light effects during sunrise and sunset, but I did not use that room. Just sitting outside our little Villa was calming enough with the gentle breeze!

We stayed at the Opium Villa.. there was no Opium involved.. They have interesting names for the various huts. Fertility suite, Honeymoon hotel, Viper, Mayan Loft etc.. Most of them were isolated single storied structures with the exception of two double level buildings.. It was mostly couples staying there.. there were three families at most times and we met some fun folks over the week which was an added plus! It was like an extended family!

It was just beautiful. Have stayed in lots of places over the years, but the Opium Villa is one to remember! There was a giant Chess set in a cute setting right outside our hut. The kids did not offer to play chess with me.. I sat there for a few seconds to admire the setting.. 

There were pretty birds outside our hut working on their own honeymoons.

Sometimes a video does justice to things pictures don't.. so here is one!

It did rain on and off the day we landed. So we just relaxed, walked around the place, got adjusted to the time difference a little.. and went to bed early.. They were going to knock on our door at 6:30 in the morning. We pre-ordered breakfast (they make everything fresh starting at 6.. so we had to preorder) and we were going to leave at 8AM sharp for our first activity on Day 2...

We did realize one thing on day 1. There were plenty of things that bit us. The Spa gave a special spray made of natural stuff that was to repel the insects, but the smell of it shut down my nose and lungs instantly. So I did not spray that on.. it was going to prove a costly mistake over the coming days.. The kids used DEET.. which also suprisingly shuts me down.. Maybe I am an insect myself?!  was what I was thinking..

In any case, use the Deet if you go there, or the organic herbal spray. Don't be like me! 

Will continue the blog posts over the next few days...

Sunday
Sep162018

What's comin' will come, an' we'll meet it when it does... 

This is the last post on the Europe trip. The previous post on the series is here..
The last day (day 13) of the Europe trip was spent on two things. Most of the day was an Evans and Evans trip to Hogwarts.. let's just call it that. It was actually the Warner Brothers studios shooting location for all the Harry Potter movies over 10 years that is now a Studio tour. 
As usual we had to go from Kings cross station to Victoria, then board the bus which took us to the studio in a little over an hour and we were handed tickets and told that we had a little over 4 hours to come back to the bus. We will be back in Victoria Station area at 5:15-5:30 PM. 
We also had tickets for the London Eye that evening. We wanted to see the views of London as the sun set so I could get some pictures with the daylight and some with the buildings lighting up.
First it was almost our last day and this would be almost the last time leaving the Kings Cross station. The kids were eyeing Lola's hand crafted cup cakes two days straight.. so today was their day! 
Then we were off.. 
Full disclosure. I had not read a single Harry Potter book to date. Have only watched the movies as they came out in theaters. Missed the Order of the Phoenix in theaters and caught bits and pieces of it at a later date in someones house but that was it. Was and still am a big fan of the whole series of movies. Who can resist magic?
Don't think there is a picture of me and San being happier in this trip! 
We had four hours to spend at the place and we walked through every room, exhibit and hallway and when we came out of the place it was exactly 4 hours. This included a 20 minute break to have lunch before going into the studio. 
The kids were given little Hogwart's passports and they had to find the 7 secret Horcruxes in the place.. so they were busy searching for those in the various rooms.. 
Then there was the butterbeer, which can give kids a brain freeze, has unknown health effects on muggles and gives dads wallets a cold.. 
The whole experience was amazing.. our 4 hours is condensed into the video below.. 
The skies were brilliant and my hopes for great pictures from the London eye were already high..
We reached the Victoria station, walked towards the London Eye and realized that the entire area was a circus. Apparently there was a large protest for DJT's visit to London and the wife and kids had heard about it through social media and our tour guide from the previous day's trip.
The whole place was crawling with people who had signs in their hands. 
It had become hot and a little on the "about to rain" side and I removed my jacket to avoid going into one of those dangerous "avalanche sweats" as I call it. Was also proudly wearing my 60 day Challenge Bikram Yoga San Jose T-shirt to announce to the folks on the street that I was American. 
Given the generic anti-American sentiment on the streets that day, was thinking if I should buy one of those London T-shirts.. then we realized no one cared.. The London protesters were an interesting bunch.
We got some great views of the city from the London Eye after we saw a 4D show at the basement that was part of the ticket.
A video of the London Eye experience ..
Got two pano shots from the London eye..
One from either side as our little carriage made it up and down over 40 minutes.
Slide shows of pictures from Hogwart's and the London Eye 
When we came out it was about to rain, the streets were extremely crowded with protesters and we wanted to find dinner.
San's classmate had recommended a Chat place which had 8 branches in London and was very popular, but based on the 1 hour 20 minute wait time (there were 100+ folks standing in line knowing the wait time) we decided to take his second recommendation. A place called Shapur's in Strand area.
We went to Shapur's and had a nice dinner.. 
We walked to the train station from there past the Royal Opera house which was beautiful..
Then it started raining and we realized (were actually told by someone) that this is the "typical" London weather and we were really fortunate to miss it over our three day trip. 
Apparently that is what London looks on an average day.. "like Seattle" is what we all said at the same time and walked down the steps to the train station.
The next morning we were going to take one last train ride on the Europe trip to Gatwick airport and it was going to be back in the US.. 
We thoroughly enjoyed this 14 day trip. It took a lot of planning from San and the kids and San pretty much arranged every little thing. I was happy to be on package tours so I could also play tourist and enjoy the sights with the lens or my eyes.  
It was also a blessing to be able to meet San's Sister and her family during this trip, not to mention two of her classmates and one of our family friends.
We would definitely recommend the tours we took and the Air B&B's we used in various locations. 
I also loved writing about this trip.. even though it has taken two full months to finish writing about a two week trip.
This blog is my pensieve! 
Sunday
Sep092018

The home of cricket

After saying bye to Paris (the ladies were emotional, I was happy to move on.. except for the Louvre I was not going to come back for anything.. well maybe the Laduree macaroons and that was it), we got up reluctantly on Day 11 to drag our suitcases along Parisian pavements for 30+ minutes to go to the Gare Du Nord station. 

There was a long line to clear immigration at a train station so we could board the Eurostar to London. We made it two mintues before the train took off. It was a pleasant ride and given we were hungry, we ate some of the desi snacks that had been in our bags all along for breakfast. 

The previous post on this series is here...

The train stopped at Kings Cross station, one place we wanted to visit. We didnt realize we will be visiting that station that many times as our hotel was right across from the station. 

We were told that the earliest we get our room is 2PM. That was a challenge because we were booked on a tour of the Lords cricket ground from 2-3:30PM not to mention plans after that. 

So we left our luggage next to the front desk and tried to find something to eat. It so happens that in England, the most common restaurant is Indian food. A word of warning.. the Indian food joints serve a version of Indian food that is not exactly Indian. Some restaurants serve you food that is frozen in pre-independent India times.. things that bring back vague memories of when your great grandma used to cook at family functions when you were 4-5 years old. Others make you question "what exactly is the Indian part here other than the color of the food and the Paneer in it?". Then again, there are some that hit the right notes and make you eat way more than you normally would..

Our first search (stepping down from hotel entrance) showed 3 Indian places just looking across. We found none of them opened before Noon. So we wandered around for some time, got the kids food at a 5 guys burger joint and went to a Tandoori place for the adults. Then it was time to hit the Lords ground.

I have more family portraits with smiling faces at this one location than any other place in the entire trip. Must have been the perfect English weather which happens so rarely..

Also please note that usually I am allowed to post one family portrait per post based on censor restrictions.. but in this post there are 4. If you note carefully, my hair actually is going through what the grass surface goes through during the first 4 days of a Test match at Lords..in just under 90 minutes... 

This was a much anticipated event for me on the trip. The kids were also looking forward to it, given all the IPL watching in recent times and the test cricket they catch glimpses of on weekend mornings with me.

They don't play but they know the game. San was also excited to see Lords although she wanted to see a game there. Unfortunately the game with India was just a few days away and we were leaving Europe that morning. The tour was actually great. The guide was great, giving us a fun fact filled description with enough jokes to keep us laughing throughout. 

Two slide shows of what we saw..

I did not know that the Lords board for hundreds does not have the names of Sachin or Lara but has Agarkar in it...also did not know that Stuart Broad is the only guy who has hit a 100 at Lords, taken 5 wickets in an innings and 10 wickets in a match at Lords. Always had mixed feelings about Broad because he didnt walk once after he knowingly hit a ball and was caught, but he is a damn good all rounder. Let's just say I did find some new respect for him after this tour. 

We walked the entire perimeter of the ground and went into the press box as well as the players rooms, and the pavillions. It was an experience that will be cherished for a long time.

Panos of Lords ground..

After this we got back to the Kings cross area and put our luggage in our room. It was actually as small as the room in Paris with only one bed. We had to change rooms in the morning or later that night. The next stop was south Wimbledon to meet San's childhood friend. 

We took the train again and visited her friend. We all had a great time at her friends place and after dinner we all sat down to watch the second semi final of the World cup. We had booked tickets for this trip almost 8 months in advance and if you had told me then that we would actually end up in Paris on the night of the France semifinal and in London the night of the England semifinal, I would not have bet on it. 

England lost the game and given the English history of reacting to loses in big matches, our friends told us to put up a sad face and stay quiet on the underground. It was a long ride from South Wimbledon to Kings Cross and there were a lot of drunk folks on the train, but they were trying to sing songs that still supported the English after the loss. 

Our family looked as though we just came from a funeral, maybe we over did the sadness part.. but all said and done we made it back to the hotel. Folks were all red eyed and crying as we watched a contrast to the previous night.. 

Day 11 was done. . it was a tale of two cities.. in a much different context!

Tuesday
Sep042018

When life takes you on strange Arcs.. 

Day 9 on our Europe trip had already seen the Louvre, Eiffel Tower, Sienne boat cruise, Notre Dame cathedral and we found ourselves at a boat stop ready to hail an Uber to go back to the Air B&B for a quick rest, wash and maybe something to eat.. before going on to the next stop I had been planning.

The previous post on this series is here..

The Montmartre area where we were supposed to go up the steps to another unique piece of architecture, watch street painters do their caricatures, art etc. and watch the sun set over Paris and see the Eiffel tower and all of Paris light up.. 

Many a friend had recommended this to me as a not to miss.. 

However, after all those staircases, sun in the face and head on open boats, walking through museums as fast as your legs could carry, wandering around cathedrals.. the family had.. how to say it? "HAD IT!"

So my plan to go to the hill was not materializing. If you are a photographer, you want to see the Eiffel tower light up .. not see it as just a steel monster towering above Paris.. but there we were, no one talking to anyone else, quietly sitting in an Uber and almost at the Air B&B. Was taking pictures of interesting streets and corner buildings on the way..

We went, sat in the Air B&B for a few minutes and decided to get out and do "something".. but first food!

When I am tired, hungry and cranky (if you lug a 30lb camera bag around your back the entire day you might be too.. especially with a corn in your foot that is getting worse by the day and you are practically hobbling), I usually gravitate towards Indian food.. no surprises there..

Even San, who works very hard to steer me away didn't argue. She had a slight cold and thought a milagu rasam would do her a world of good. The kids, were not for it. They wanted to have Crepes or anything French... given French food wasn't exactly the top on a Vegetarian families choice we had a conflict. 

By the time we decided what to eat (I had already given up on Saravana Bhavan although we were not that far away from it) we just stopped the discussion and walked into the first restaurant that came our way. It was an empty but newly renovated Pakistani restaurant. 

The kids stopped talking to us, we stopped talking to each other and with enough hate to go around the table for years to come, we ordered a biriyani, nan and two side dishes. Except for one of the side dishes, the rest of the items were below par. The price was way cheaper than any other place though and we thought we got what we paid for. There was more silence as we walked out. It wasn't exactly dinner time yet and we were probably early and the fact that some food had gone inside and the family was willing to walk again was a plus. 

Then I suggested that we walk around the Champs Elysses as that was one thing we were planning to do on our last day in Paris. So there were some silent approving nods and shoulder shrugs and the Uber was hailed again. 

It so happened that we had to cross the Arc to go to the shopping part, so I asked the driver to just stop before we reached the roundabout in front of the Arc de Triumphe. The driver said "thanks" and I didn't know why he was thanking me..

History has failed to teach me in all its repetitive glory that when I dig my self a hole, I dig really well. The god Saturn was probably dancing at the tip of my tongue (at least my Grandma would have concurred with that statement) when I said "how about we just go up the Arc and see if we can catch the Eiffel tower light up from there?"

The silent approvals and shoulder shrugs that had gotten us that far evaporated and turned into "I hate you!" stares. Was pretty sure the family was putting silent curses on me. 

Then they realized that daddy was not going leave Paris without taking photos of the Eiffel Tower by night. There was deliberate shoe shuffling, feet dragging noises but we went through the tunnel and ended up at the entrance to the Arc's stairs. There was a freaking line to buy tickets for climbing the stairs and no one was at the counter!  

This was not helping my cause. After standing there for a good 20 minutes and going through security, we came across a board that clearly indicated how narrow the stairs were and how many steps had to be climbed to go to the top. That was not helping my cause either! 

Basilisks would have been scared of San and the kids after seeing them stare in my direction. We climbed, slowly and just before we started, the little one decided to turn all her anger at her mom. Sparks were flying and then silence. No one talks to anyone anymore. Given it was Paris and if there was one time I HAD to take my wifes side, I said something nice and at least the two of us walked together.  Jr. was trying to mediate with minimal results. 

Everyone was right and everyone was wrong at the same time for all the same reasons. It was 8:45 PM and we had reached the top of the Arc. The views from the top of the Arc were spectacular and we could see the Montmartre area and the hill from the Arc. This would top anything from that hill hands down, is what we all realized and there were some smiles. The family was together again, realizing that this was more comfortable and closer to the Air B&B and we could see the tower up close!

There was a lively crowd all jostling for space to catch the lights and we parked ourselves. Got a lot of pano shots from the top including the sun that was about to set..

We saw a glorious sunset at 9:54 PM and the lights were to come on in 6 minutes.

 

They did come on slowly. Unfortunately the lights were not making an impression as it was still pretty bright outside. 

Also the lights did not do the twinkling thing that was advertised earier in the day. We had to wait till 11 PM for that.. but the Arc kicks out people before 11 as it closed around that time. So we stayed there till 10:20 in the museum area..

Some photos from the 2 hours we spent up there..

Then something happened again.. no one knows what, maybe because the kids decided to go down without telling us and we kept searching for them between the two levels.. and silence returned. The kids would not sit with us to watch the little video that was on auto play at the gift shop level below the open terrace..

Again, by some strange miracle, we patched up and decided to walk around the Champs Elysses.. hunger it must have been.. the big golden arches were spotted and we ran in for some fries and Ice cream cones.. It was midnight at McDonalds and we had refueled to get back to the Air B&B...

Everyone was glad to be back on an Uber. Without saying much except "don't bother waking me up in the morning" , "me neither", "me neither" to me from different locations within that small apartment, the lights went out.. 

Day 9 came to an end! I was actually glad it did..