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Entries in travel (202)

Sunday
Feb172019

Vendudhal is a Vendudhal

The Tamizh word "வேண்டுதல்" crudely translates as "request". One meaning is a request to god with a caveat.
In other words, if God answers a request you make, you will do something in return. I still have a pending request. When my MIL got the cancer scare, and I was sitting with her for the bone marrow test, I prayed that if it came out negative, will go tonsure my head at Gunaseelam temple. The test came out negative... but I have not had a chance to visit Gunaseelam temple yet.. why I did that commitment, only god knows. The good news is that for most of these "vendudhals" there is no time limit or expiry date. I can do it when the opportunity comes.
A year ago, I visited the Jian'An temple in Shanghai and told the Buddha that if we got certain milestones at work, I will come visit again the following year and light an incense stick. That did happen and got 3 hours in an afternoon free. So off I went to see the Buddha.
My colleagues came with me and I told them it was my commitment.. so I will pay for the trip to the temple and they said "you don't have to but, okay!". 
This is one place in Shanghai that has not changed in the last year. The rate at which things change in China is mind boggling. A new highway becomes operational every 6 months. New train stations spring up. There is changes and experimentation everywhere on a large scale with people being willing to participate in these experiments. 
When you get out of the airport, if your license plate is linked to Alipay, you just drive out. It charges you automatically. The vending machines in tha airports are all cashless.. everything is using a QR code to dispense stuff. While it is forcing travelers who do NOT want to use Wechat pay or Alipay to find less options, it seems to work great for the locals. 
I still see these payment methods accepted in bay area restaurants.. but do not see the reciprocity in China. This is not new. Ever since Google pulled out of China, things have steadily become more difficult for any US technology company to compete with local copy cats in China. The people though don't care. I also don't think that shutting down these payment methods in US is going to change anything because the few people it will affect are not in a position to go do anything when they get back home. Chinese Americans might get upset.. but there is no such thing as an American Chinese.. maybe I am oversimplifying things.. 
where were we? yes. China changing at rapid pace.. 
In the middle of all these massive changes, this temple stands the test of time, with its golden roof, dragons and elephants lining up the corners..
After the trip got to ride back to the hotel area in the subway.. the last few stops, the train was almost empty. This was during my beardy baba phase.. my eyes were red from lack of sleep and jet lag, but I was glad to make that trip to see the big Buddha..
On my most recent trip, saw a lot more changes.. it was a mixed bag.. Teslas are hard to buy. There have been cut backs on electric subsidies as well as tariffs on imported cars. Folks were not that attached to iPhones.. it is seen as an anti China phone.. last year it was a status symbol. Today it seems to symbolize something else and that cannot be good for the US.  There is also a lot more security at train stations and airports, why I could not figure out. 
There is still a new crane on the horizon at a different place stacking up a high rise in record time..
The world keeps changing at a rapid pace, thanks to the people and their leaders. The net result of these changes on the world, we will see in the very near future. We don't have to wait even for a decade to see the impact of decisions made today. 
On the bright side, there is no anti American sentiment at the ground level. Folks treat you as nicely as they did before. Think that is a good thing!
Sunday
Jan062019

Pampering with a twist..among other things

The previous post on this Belize trip is here..

On the way back from ATM we had seen this ad for road safety with a vehile raised up on a billboard, but the vehicle seemed to have suffered a mafia type gunflight than a highway accident. So we asked our driver what gives and his response was "originally the vehicle was in an accident. but once it was put up there, the locals come out in the night and fire their guns at it as target practice when there is no one around!" .

The last full day (day6) of the trip was reserved as the "free day". Given the whole week was a vacation, it was kind of ironic that we had the kids call it the real vacation day. We got back from ATM and were itching everywhere. God knows how many different insects bit us on that trip. 

The Spa gave us Mosquito coils which brought back so many memories of lighting them up in India as a child. The kids had no idea what they were and we explained it to them. Don't think it made a difference in reality but it had a placebo effect with the kids. 

First a bunch of insects bite you and once the blood comes out, a different set of insects come to grab it. It was interesting..

We got up later than usual at 8AM, had a slow breakfast, said bye to a lot of people who were heading to the airport after breakfast and went for a walk around the resort. The kids promptly went back to the room to read books and listen to music. 

There was a hookah lounge! 

and a shrine of sorts in a gym, which only had weights. Apparently the founder of the Spa was a world record holder power lifting champion.

The spa had a package for a family massage. The kids went for some face treatments which I promptly chose not to remember (one develops a skill to forget such details as time goes by) and San and myself were scheduled for a tea time massage. 

I sat in the mineral tub for an hour and realized that it dyed my poonal blue! It is still blue after almost a week. There was plenty of fresh coconut water to go around. We went for multiple walks and the kids thought something was wrong with us given we were restless and were walking around. 

Then it was massage time. They gave me a lot of names and options and I chose a mud massage. The lady said "we take a picture after we put the mud on".. given there is a blog and interesting pictures are always a good thing, I went back to the room and got my cell phone. I had no idea what I signed up for.

First they give you a disposable jatti which doesnt cover much. They should have a better designed disposable underwear for guys. Then the mud was put on. It was really cold. Later I learned that the mud itself is not cold but it saps the heat from the body. After 45 minutes of this mud / sand paper massage, which actually felt good, the lady says "I am now going to put some color mud on you okay? it is going to feel cold". I was thinking "I am already freezing here inside!". By the time I could respond, the coloring was done.. 

With moves that would have made Jambu sastrigal jump up with envy when he puts vibhuthi on his hands and chest, this lady had turned me into an aboriginal person of sorts.  For lack of a translation, she had "karumbulli sembulli" kuththied me.. only thing left was for me to be paraded around the village on a donkey... but that is what this blog is for!

She took three pictures, one of which ended up almost being R rated. The other two I present to you.. Noted this is a far cry from Sundarananda.. but it is an interesting avatar and makes you wonder what my life would have been as a jungleee in Belize!  I am actually wearing something.. it is just covered in mud. That is what we refer to as UNBELIZEABLE!!!

Then we walked to an open tub behind the spa which was just plain beautiful to wash off. The lady said "hold my hand and get up". I was like "I don't need any support to get up from this tub!" and in a second realized my mistake. My legs had no strength. Apparently normal for people after a mud massage. So with some help took the first few steps out of that bath and then things were fine. 

Slept like a snoring baby after that massage till the family woke me up for dinner. Apparently I had turned away all the critters around the villa making noises with my snoring. San was very happy as her massage did not involved any energy loss, R rated picture taking etc.. The kids were also radiant after their "treatments". 

We had a really good dinner and said goodbye to the folks we had been chatting with over the last week..

Still had the wet shoes to deal with from the ATM trip. Here is a tip. Take some crocs or water shoes with you if you do all these cave adventures. I spent a good hour trying to use a hair dryer to get the shoes to some level of dryness. Eventually two of the shoes were thrown into garbage bags and put in the check in baggage. 

We flew out on day 7 back home.

Ate my "usual lunch" as breakfast.. Roti with Aaloo curry.. They make pooris too.. but call them flatjacks.. everything had a different name.. but coconut rice, roti, aaloo curry was my staple. 

We were on our way to our gate for the SFO flight after clearning Immigration and customs at Houston when we bumped into family! We told them of our trip and their story trumped ours by a long shot. Apparently a person died on their flight shortly after take off and their plane ended up back at the starting point. By the time the flight left again and came to Houston, everyone had missed connections and there were 45 people waiting on standby, just to go to SFO for an entire day.. trying their luck on every flight.. We thanked our stars for not encountering issues like that, and made our way home. 

This is probably the first time I managed to blog about the entire trip within a week of coming back. Thanks to editing and downloading the photos while we waited at airports and while flying. 

It will be sometime before another family trip. The routine starts full swing with school starting tomorrow and navigating traffic without access to the carpool lane. Got a notice from DMV saying the "white carpool sticker" is not valid starting Jan 1. Last week was okay as there was no school and lot of people were still on vacation. All that changes tomorrow.

Belize was fun. It was thrilling, relaxing, an almost near perfect vacation. I did not have to drive anywhere and that makes me less grumpy and the overall mood of the family is better.

We are slowly getting better at vacationing.. there were zero fights on this trip. Skirmishes between the kids.. kids and parents .. yes.. Fights, no! 

In short, LOVED BELIZE!

Saturday
Jan052019

The stone sepulcher aka craziest thing we have ever done!

The previous post on this Belize trip series is here..

The main attraction we were going to see on this trip was ATM (Actun Tunichil Muknal), a hidden cave created by an underground river which the Mayans used as a sacred place. 

We had heard that the Indiana Jones movie was inspired by this place. Not sure if that is true. Even after reading accounts of other people going through the 4 hour wading/ swimming/ hiking through this cave system to see the large sacred chamber where there is a crystallized fossil, we underestimated how challenging it was going to be!

ATM is in Western Belize. So it was not the usual 1 hour drive from the resort. It was a 2 hour drive to the meet up point for ATM guides. We left the resort after a breakfast at 7. The kids had just done the Altun Ha climb and walked the Zoo the previous day. So it was no surprise that they complained about a 5:30 wake up call. The resort staff are not used to folks going from there to ATM. Apparently most folks who visit ATM stay in San Ignatio, another small town in Western Belize with a population of almost ten thousand. ATM pick up point (called Pooks hill) was 45 minute from there.  The resort staff were up and ready for us and served us breakfast. Then off we went. 

The area was called Belmopan and was full of crops. Reminded us of driving towards Monterey when we see lush green fields and similar landscapes.

Once we reached the pick up point, our driver handed us off to an ATM guide. This guy Manuelo or Manny spoke 5 or 6 languages, had a mix of Polish Jewish, Mexican, Mayan, etc. etc. mixed ancestry and was born and raised in Belize. For some reason he spoke with what sounded like a Ukranian Russian accent! 

To the kids, he remined them of Madras thatha (my dad) because of his jokes. He had to tell us he had just cracked a joke!

It was only 7 miles from the pick up point to the Tea Kettle Village (there is no village as far as I could tell.. it is two sheds where you could sit and have lunch and a parking space with one really good restroom with changing rooms and a shower) and the road was not paved.. there was 3 to 4 feet of water at places and the vehicle had to cross it. Manuel joked "don't worry, this vehicle knows how to swim. if not, tourists know how to push!". 

A video of the bumpy ride... the TKO plantation was all teak and Mahogany introduced by the British. On one side was Valencia oranges. 

The Belizians call the Teak and Mahogany an investment for their grand children. It apparently takes 50 years to 80 years for these trees to mature and their wood is extremely sought after. The kids in Belize are also taught to carve these woods.. you see wood carvings sold everywhere!

We had two other couples on the trip from that leg. One from Spain (where the lady was a swimming instructor!) and another from Colorado.. the guy was 6'4" and that had its advantages and disadvantages on the tour. 

Manuel informed us that there was no photography unfortunately at ATM because many years ago, a tourist dropped his lens on one of the skulls and broke it! So some idiot had to spoil it for the rest of us.. I cursed that guy on sacred ground and moved on.. 

We got our safety gear (we were used to the lifevest and miner helmet combination by now) and got a crash course on what we were to expect. Most of Manuels don'ts ended with "you will die!" and much later we realized he wasn't joking!

The the couple from Spain suggested we at least take a picture before the start, given the cameras were going to be left in the vehicle. We got a good picture! Think after this the next smile was 4 hours later..

ATM is a "shock and awe" trip. You walk for 5 minutes from the parking lot and you see a river that is going quite fast and there is a rope tied across it. You can swim across, but if you are not a good swimmer.. you have to hold the rope and pull yourself to the other side as you float. I managed to do that after gulping some water at the deepest point. San was lucky. She declared "I no swim" to Manuelo and he literally pulled her across to the otherside as she was floating facing the sky.  It should not have been that difficult for me.. but the water was very cold and the thermal shock is what got me. The kids swam, the tall guy mostly walked and had to swim for maybe a few seconds. 

Then we kept walking through the jungle and reached antoher river, this time it was 2 to 3 feet deep but was slippery. So we held the rope and walked across. The little one swam across!

More walking and a third river crossing.. by now we got used to the routine. Then some more walking and we came to a stop. We were at the cave entrance. But there was a catch. You have to almost go underwater to reach the cave entrance. How the Mayans figured this out itself was beyond me. I got some help from the guide this time as well and once we reached the cave entrance, it was pitch black. The lights came on and we were told that given our swimming grades were F for San, D- for me and an A- to A+ for the rest of the folks on the team, we will be following Manuel and everyone passes on the information from him to the person behind as we move along. 

It was the most challenging thing we have ever done. You walk, wade, swim against the river as you go into the caves and there are some places where there is barely enough room to squeeze through rocks. To add to this, you are not allowed to touch the walls on some places because they have stalagtites or stalagmites growing and sweat from our skin will make those stop. So we would get instructions like "right side only" or "left side only"  and in some places the water level would go from 3 feet to 8 feet abruptly.. so we would get warnings for those. 

After going through this for an hour and a half, we reached a point where there was a near vertical rock climbing. Then we knew why socks was mandatory. You are not allowed to wear shoes and go up as it was a "sacred place". You were not allowed to go barefoot as it would damage crystal formations. So you go with wet socks. There was a ledge where all 9 of us assembled and removed our shoes. We had to wait for the previous group to get down and then we climbed up. 

Once we were up, there was this dome the size of a football field with crystals everywhere.. there was mist particles dancing in front of us with the miner helmet lamps, the ceilings were full of crystals left behind by the eroding river and the whole thing was like a natural Cathedral with Stalactice columns reaching down to their stalagmite counterparts.  On the floor were beds (naturally formed by the water).. think little pits 8 feet by 3 feet with ridges and skeletal remains in each of those pits. 

We walked for five minutes to the other side of this dome and it was time for the grand finale. There was a ladder tied to another ledge on the top with a rope. Again we waited for another group of 8 people to climb down and we went up. There was not much room up there in that litle cave within a cave but there was a crystallized skeleton there. Think of an old pickle where the sugar or salt comes out in needles.. the entire skeleton was like that. 

We saw that, got a lot of interesting theories on what "possibly" happened there... actually the whole place is fascinating, given all the artifacts and skeletons we saw there.. infant skeletons, jaguar skeletons, older people , people who were literally "offed" with a blow to their head with their hands tied behind their back and kneeling down..  you get the idea?! 

Then it was time to climb and get down. This was again challenging with the wet socks. So we come down literally on our butts by going from stone to stone. 

After having been out of the water for a good hour, we forgot how cold the water was.. so when we jumped from the last rock to the water below.. that was interesting.

Then the wading and swimming and tip toeing in neck deep water started. This time we were going with the water flow. So controlling the speed with which we went was challenging. Almost all of us had cuts and bruises on the return as we hit sharp rocks under water or got our hands cut as we tried to hold on to the walls (again sharp rocks) to slow us down. 

Finally we came to the ledge where the cave entrance was. Manuel took San and walked out. The rest swam out. I froze. My confidence level in getting out of this was low. Luckily he came back and said "you can do it. I will be here" and I managed to half swim, half wade through. Apparently things were not this difficult till 2013. Then the river flooded and water level rose a good 10 feet higher than what it is today and it also eroded and cut the path to the cave to be a good 6 feet deeper. 

We still had a 45 minute trek back and three river crossings. This time the swim instructor from Spain was my savior. That couple stayed back with me and literally gave me a crash course on swimming with a life vest on.

Once we made it back to the parking lot, we showered, changed and had lunch (not from the resort) but provided by the guides. There was no veggie option really that worked for me, but I had granola bars. The wife and kids ate salad and some rice which did not look very appetizing to me. Quaker Chewy never tasted better! 

Then it was time to go to the main road. We said bye to Manuel and were back in the resort pickup truck. Two hours later we were tired and exhausted and happy to be back at the Spa. 

It was almost a little after 6PM when we reached the Spa. It was time to go shower, change again and have a nice dinner. A lot of folks we met were leaving the resort the next morning. It was a good dinner.

Before leaving for ATM, I had asked our Spa manager if she would see if there was any spots to visit Lamanai, another big pyramid burried within the jungles.. which was an all day trip. After ATM, I dropped the idea.

The last day was going to be a day of rest for the family, exploring the resort area and getting some much needed last minute pampering before flying out.

One thing kept coming back to me. I should learn to swim better. Would have enjoyed it even more if I didn't freeze everytime I saw a fast moving river or stepped into nothing while wading in water.

This years goal is to learn to swim properly and with confidence.

ATM is definitely the highlight of the Belize tour.. a jaguar licking my forehead being a close second. If you have health issues, check with the guides before you plan this trip. Learn to swim properly before you go. Also don't bother lugging a heavy camera bag or take gopros etc. No use. Always take extra socks with you so you can do the last climb easily. (we put the extra socks inside our miner helmets). We were lucky that one of the usual guides at the resort told us to take extra socks. He had been to ATM before. 

A must see and experience place if you visit Belize!

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!
Thursday
Jan032019

A pyramid.. finally!

The previous post about this series on the Belize trip is here..

It has always been a dream to see the Pyramids.. Given that might happen sometime, was going to see "a" pyramid.. Chichen Itza, Altun Ha or Lamanai.. 

The first one that came our way is Altun Ha!

We were staying 20 minutes from Altun Ha and were not going to miss the chance. Day 4 of the Belize trip started with Altun Ha in the morning.

Our guide took us to the modest Museum of sorts that explained the place and had a replica of the Jade head that was found in the tomb, that made the place famous!

On the way to the structure we saw a large beetle, a very large but hopefully dead tarantula (it was larger than my hand) and some nice flowers.. all of which amused the kids in the group.

we also saw a "love you to death tree".. which is a parasitic tree that grows around palm trees and engulfs the palm inside! (this is a vertical Pano) 

The pyramids are layered and sealed with remains. There are more questions than answers per our guide on why they built it the way they did. The carbon dating for this is all over the place as it was used by multiple generations and trying to restore the pyramids actually damaged it. 

The place is not fully excavated and they decided to stop. you can clearly see that the original stone work was way better than the current stone work or more recent stone work used to try and repair! 

We climbed up to the top of both the large structures and had a great view of the surrounding area. At one point this place must have had a 10000 people trading in the market below.. it is easily possible to visualize this from the top. (our guide was nice enough to say "give me your camera and I will take pictures when you are at the top". Really liked this guy as he made sure I was in a few pictures!)

Here is a slide show of the landscape..

and a slide show of the Pano's .. this place was perfect for Panos. 

Altun Ha is a must see if you visit Belize. 

After hanging out there for an hour or so we moved on directly to our second stop of the day..Turned out to be the second best highlight of our trip and was totally unexpected!  That post over the weekend. Was fortunate to have an extra day after the vacation to edit photos and videos in the middle of dealing with a broken washing machine. Work has begun and that means the posts slow down. 

Starting to like Wifi free vacations. It is a good reset.