Sunday, July 7, 2013

The 4th of July Fireworks Edition

Living in New York City, our apartment overlooks the Hudson River from 14 stories up.  As you can see above we have one heck of a view for the Macy's Fireworks show.  At the river's edge you can see the Intrepid aircraft carrier with the shuttle enclosure now finally restored after Super Storm Sandy.

It was set to be a hot and steamy day in the city so we were out early for a grocery run.  The streets were quiet and we seemed to be the only ones out.  That wouldn't last long surely.  Needing a couple other trips to the grocery later in the afternoon things gradually kept picking up.  More and more people out and about, traffic increased and streets were gradually closed off by the police as people made their way down to the river for the fireworks.

So what is one supposed to eat on the 4th of July?  We opted for hot dogs, mac & cheese, baked beans, cole slaw and watermelon.  Nutritious, no, but it sure did feel like the 4th. And to cap it all off we had a delicious homemade banana pudding.  Nice work Steph!  Now all we needed was FIREWORKS!

With the anticipation building we weren't happy with the window situation.  Great view, check, but the windows would only open about 5-6 inches.  That wasn't going to be good enough today.  Digging through the tool box I found a hex key that fit the window guard stop locks perfectly.  A big thanks to Steve for the comprehensive tool box!  With the guards off, the windows were wide open and the ambience streamed in along with the hot dense air. Hanging out the window you could see hundreds of people streaming down the sidewalk below all decked out in red, white and blue and trying to get to the water front before the show started.  Looking closer, we noticed that in all of the buildings around us party goers had filled every bit of prime firework viewing space on roof decks and outdoor patios.  There was an audible chatter from everybody nearby and the scene was set.

The show kicked off just after dusk and lasted about 25 minutes.  The blasts of light were followed by bursts of sound which made the windows vibrate. I took a few photos then hung out the windows like everybody else to enjoy the show.  What a way to celebrate the 4th!  I hope you all had a good one to celebrate this very special day!

Sunday, April 7, 2013

House keeping in Kumarakom

Fresh off a backwater cruise our taxi driver dropped us off at a gorgeous Colonial style hotel, the Tharavadu Heritage Home at Kumarakom, where we were going to set up camp for a few days to take care of a few odds and ends, namely our taxes.  Can you believe it, Uncle Sam doesn't care we are travelling?!

The last month or so we had been pseudo off-the-grid after all the diving and staying with the Ravindran's who didn't have internet access.  Not being connected was great but enough was enough.  Its the modern world and we are now dependent on the internet.

Up to this point in the trip internet was more easily accessible or at least we could justify being out of reach, but we were finding that more of a challenge in India.  While we hadn't been in too many hotels in India yet, we heard that internet was hard to come by.  They may only have a single internet connection in the hotel office.  With the weeks ahead we were going to be on the move quite a bit and needed to make research and comms easier so we decided to get a cellular internet connection - a 3G dongle.  They were relatively cheap and would help ensure we weren't dependent on hotels that had internet connections.  Since we had no concrete travel plans, it was high on our list of priorties.  But that's if we could work it out...

We were staying in a small area off one of the main roads in Kumarakom which only had a few vegetable shops, restaurants and a state run liquor store.  We needed a bigger commercial area to find a cell phone shop to see if we could talk them into selling us a 3G device without being a resident.

We flagged down an auto rickshaw to head down the road to a (slightly) bigger town.  After negotiating a good roundtrip fare we set off down the surprisingly well maintained two lane road.  There is nothing like an auto rickshaw ride - what a fun experience! It never gets old climbing in the 3 wheeled anomaly and whizzing off somewhere - especially in Kerala where the scenery is so picturesque - dense palm tree jungle coupled with the backwaters.

Now the fun begins...can we convince them to sell us a 3G device.  The backstory is that you really need to be a resident to purchase anything cell phone related because you need a permanent India address and contact info which we didn't have.

However, there was one loop hole we were trying to use.  The Ravindran's had been kind enough to give us a cell phone which came in handy more than I would have ever thought.  So with the phone giving us contact information we could use that as our stepping stone to an internet device.

The first store we tried wasn't interested saying we needed to be residents.  Even a little charm and extra payment didn't help.  At the next store the lady didn't completely turn us away so after a few questions we asked her if there was anything else she could do.  With that she offered to call her manager and ask if with the cell phone and our hotel as an address she could sell us a 3G device.  After a quick phone call she said it could be done if we could get passport copies and a signed letter from our hotel manager saying that we were staying there.  It must be from the manager she repeated.  Ok, we will be back.

The letter shouldn't be a problem, but passport copies, hmm.  The lady at the cell phone store pointed us in the direction of an internet cafe that should have a copier, but they turned out to be closed.  We went into shop after shop asking where else we could get copies.  Nobody seemed to understand what we needed.  Xerox, photo copies, copier, scanner - all lost in translation.  Then finally we went into a pharmacy where the daughter of the owner spoke good english.  Oh you mean "photostat", she said. Then she told us that their Photostat was broken and to go across the main road, over the bridge to a small shop which should be marked.  We've gotten farther on less so we headed for the bridge.

Bingo, next to a beauty parlor was a shop sign that read: Photostat.  The shop was empty and locked but after a few hellos somebody came over from the beauty parlor who agreed to make copies of our passports.  She went in the back room, turned on the copier and made our copies.  Now, back to the hotel to try and convey to the manager who was no doubt gonna think we were crazy for asking him to sign a letter saying we were staying there.

We whizzed off in the taxi back to the hotel.  After a new fare agreement for another round trip with a wait in between I headed into the manager's office who was luckily a very friendly and helpful man.  He understood and hand wrote a letter on hotel letterhead in English cursive.  His handwriting was very neat but agonizingly slow.  I had to surpress my western world hurry up mentality but he finally finished.  One more addition, "Manager", under his signature.  That should do the trick.

Back in the town, the
lady honored her agreement as we presented the photostat copies and letter.  Reading it carefully she made a final approval call to her manager.  Her assistant activated the 3G device and that was that.  Score!  We thanked the lady and quickly left the store before she changed her mind.  It was a few hoops to jump through but it felt good to skirt around the system and be the proud owners of mobile internet.

We spent the next few days catching up on admin things during the heat of the day and exploring the area in the mornings and evenings.

Since we were staying in a rather unpopulated area we ate entirely at the hotel but it made for some tasty food.  Our particular favorite was a breakfast dish called Puttu.  You get a large serving of steamed rice flour and coconut, served warm.  Then they also give you a couple steamed ripe small bananas and a hefty bowl of sugar.  The bananas aren't as sweet as the large ones you generally have in the US so sugar is often needed!

The best part of this breakfast is that there is no other way to eat it than with your hands.

The rice flour and coconut is incredibly flaky so you unwrap a steamed banana, pour on some sugar and begin mashing it all together like a kid playing in mashed potatoes with their hand!  It was definitely awkward the first time we did this, but you get the hang of it.  Once you mash it all together you have a sweet, warm cakey mixture which goes nicely with a pot of coffee!

One afternoon I was talking to my manager friend who mentioned that if I wanted beer the liquor store would be open tonight.  Evidently it has regulated hours and was only open every few days.  So, around sunset I headed down to try and get a few Kingfisher Beers for the evenings.  After crossing the main road I encountered a surprisingly frenzied scene.  It was pretty much dark and there were only sparse street lights and the glow from inside the liquor store set just off the main road.  It wasn't really a store but more a service counter.  A delivery trunk was parked out front and a big congregation of people had formed.  It was an unorganized system with only partial queuing but there was a clear entrance and exit.  People had lined up but there was still a lot of pushing and shoving.  Keep in mind that there isn't the concept of personal space here and this situation was no exception.  In line you find yourself right next to everybody else; you get used to it but its still fairly uncomfortable.

Anyway, there were about 40 men in front of me when one of the guys working waived me down and gestured to the exit.  Taking the hint I climbed under a rail to skirt the line and placed my order.  It took a few minutes and I got a few dirty looks and people pushing and shoving past me but I emerged with a box full of beers and avoided the unruly line.  Nice!

The beers helped make the task of getting our taxes and some of our onward journey planning a little more bearable.  Chores done, its time to head to a hill station!

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Kerala Backwater Cruise

Our driver picked us up early in the morning for a short drive to Kumarakom, the departure point for the ever popular Kerala backwater boat cruises.  Saying goodbye to our hosts, all we really knew was we were scheduled to stay overnight on a boat that would be exploring the "backwaters".  Knowing India this could mean anything from a luxury 5 star cruise to a raft floating on a polluted river.  It came highly recommended and The Ravindran's were kind enough to make the arrangements for us, so we just went with it.

After stopping a couple times for our driver to ask directions we finally turned off the main road. Shortly after the boats started appearing as we drove next to a backwater canal on a narrow dirt road.  We stopped to ask for directions again because we were supposed to meet our contact to start the cruise.  The driver didn't know much more than that so after asking a few people we finally found the right boat.

So what are the Kerala backwaters?

In short, they are a set of canals and lakes that feed into the adjacent Arabian Sea that run along a big portion of the Kerala coast. The canals are filled with water plants on the surface and dense palms trees lining the shores.  The green brackish water is a combination of salt water and fresh water and is home to a unique eco system along with being a major irrigation source for the surrounding communities.

In this laid back setting only a boat of a certain nature would do.  Meet the Kettuvallam style of house boat - a more modern invention using ancient boat building techniques to  construct the living quarters out of bamboo, coconut fibre, ropes and thatched roofs.  They are a modern day adaptation from the old rice and goods carrying barges which aren't needed anymore.  Though many have the same general style, the local craftsman are creative so you see all sorts.

On board they have hotel-style rooms with en suite bathrooms and big beds.  The main area is covered but open on the sides with a few chairs, tables and fans all set for relaxation.  At the back is the full service kitchen and all meals are prepared on board.

We were introduced to our staff on board - a captain, a cook and a deck hand who welcomed us warmly. The cook said our welcome drinks and snack were almost ready so we grabbed two chairs on the deck to take it all in.  It turned out we were the only guests that night and had the whole place to ourselves.  You can see Steph enjoying, err, drinking her coconut with a straw.  Some are good and others can be more fun than good.

Before we knew it the deck hand was untying us from the shore and the captain was in his front-and-center captain's seat, a fancy plastic chair, at the bow of the boat.

The setting was so calm and peaceful.  Soon enough the cook brought out fried bananas which were a real treat.  Seems this is the norm around Kerala.  Thirsty?  Have a coconut.  Luckily, they know when they are ripe so they taste ok.  Our snack was the tiny sweet bananas found everywhere, fried in a crispy batter.  They were very tasty!

The plan was to cruise out to Kumarakom Lake, stop for lunch then cruise through a few more canals and find a place to stop for the night.

The scenery was fantastic.  As I mentioned the canals were covered in dense sections of hyacinths (lily pad type plant) almost making a carpet to walk on, surrounded by palm trees, mangroves and coconut groves.  There were a few other boats like ours and many of the locals out in smaller more traditional boats fishing.  We passed a few small villages with children out playing in the canals and a few sections of old school fishing nets.  They were a trip and must take quite a few men to operate.

While cruising on the wide open lake we caught this classic india moment.

After stopping on the lake for lunch we made our way back through the canals where we stopped for the evening.  The sun was starting to set when a storm moved in.  The captain and deck hand quickly scrambled to get the tarps out to keep us all from getting soaked.  Normally rain is a bad thing but the tranquililty and peace level went to an entirely new level.  Sitting on the boat tied up to the shore on a peaceful canal with the sound of rain gently tapping the lilies and water was amazing.  No sunset today but off in the distance we watched as the storm lit up the sky and soaked the canals.  We felt a millions miles from anywhere, it was surreal.

Surprisingly the captain asked us if we wanted any beer.  In this type of setting it would have been a nice treat but we didn't bring any.   He said the deck hand could "run" to the local shop to get it for us if needed.  Sure, we said.  The deck hand then took off into the trees down a small path.  About an hour later he emerged with the drinks we had ordered.  As the saying goes, ask and you shall receive, even if there was a small markup on the price of the beers.

One of our favorite things was the soundtrack they played in the evening.  It was an Indian and Malay soundtrack which set the scene for this amazing cruise.  Dinner was a spicy curry by candle light (they asked in advance if we wanted meat or veggie - we chose veggie - its what they do best!).  Kerala food is so diverse and so tasty!

Morning came and we were up early to experience the sunrise on the backwaters.  Overnight a huge section of hyacinths had engulfed the boat which attracted a lot of stalking birds and made for interesting bird watching.  They hunted for their breakfast then had to fight off the other birds to eat it.

After our breakfast we were offered the option to do some fishing of our own.  A small branch and a little fishing line with a hook.  We didn't have any luck but the cook had honed his skills and caught a few hand size fish.

Overall, it was an incredibly fast 24 hours and before we knew it we were heading back to the dock.  By this point in the India trip, we were starting to learn that things really did happen only at a certain pace...and that pace was generally relaxed and fairly slow.  But we were getting used to it!  The house boat was an extremely relaxing part of our trip and we would recommend it to anyone! 

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Kerala Banana Plantations and Paddy Fields

After all the diving another country was calling, this time India.  Since our first visit back in 2010 we had been itching to go back and now was our chance.  This time we were starting in the southern state of Kerala and were going to work our way north with no planned agenda.  Adventure was certain to follow.

As most of you know we were welcomed to India by our friends, the Ravindran Family.  They were our gracious hosts for the first week of our trip.  From picking us up at the airport, to the welcoming ceremony with incense and water on their doorstep to fabulous meals and great company we were instantly a part of the family.  You can look back below at a few of our posts along the way.
One morning after breakfast we set out for a walking tour of the area around Kollam where we were staying.  Kerala is a picturesque place and we wanted a first hand look.  Summer was in full swing and the afternoons were hot, so the walk wasn't going to be a long one.  The plan was to take an auto rickshaw a few minutes down the road to a local temple then walk back to the house exploring the banana plantations and paddy fields and meet some of the neighbors along the way.

Walking outside our ride awaited along with our guide, the family friend Babu who had gone to the main road to bring a taxi back to the house.  We also had the company of Madhov who was staying with his grandparents, our hosts, and was on his school break.  He was fun to have around plus his english was good and a big help translating at times throughout our stay.  We all piled in the auto rickshaw and with a buzz of the engine we were off.

Cruising through the small village we took a left and headed into the fields following a rough little road down to a small temple.  After a quick look around Babu started leading us to a local temple down a dirt path when he turned and yelled at a man walking behind us.  I figured it was just a friend but as we continued he joined us.  His english was good so we had some light conversation and it turns out it was Babu's brother.

After exploring the outside of the temple, we stopped at at one of the palm trees and the brother proceeded to hike up his dhoti and climb the tree.  A little surprised, we watched him climb using small wedges cut into the trunk to slowly work his way up where he cut down a few coconuts that tumbled to the ground.

Nearby was a little shelter which the field workers use in the summer to get out of the sun and eat lunch.  Then with a few swift hacks of his machette he opened the coconuts and handed us each one.  It was a refreshing morning drink.  While taking a break we were joined by a few other guys who were hiding from the sun too. After a group photo op with our coconuts we then headed further into the fields winding along the irrigation path where water was flowing into the fields.

Coming up on a house a man waved us down and invited us onto his property.  For some reason the man was very excited for us to meet his daughter and then to have her sing for us.  I'm sure Mrs. Ravindran warned them we were coming.  Anyway, it took a little extra encouragement since she was shy around the funny looking Westerners, but she sang a lovely tune for us.  After a good chat, we then carried on again further into the fields.

Next we stumbled on a very curious man with goats.  He was taking one to the stream for a bath but stopped us to say hello and shake hands.  Then he graciously posed for a photo.

By this time of the morning, it was starting to heat up and we were thankfully nearing the house.  We weren't sure of the exact temperatures, but in trying to be conservatively dressed, Steph was now feeling quite warm in her jeans and t-shirt.

We continued to follow the path through paddy fields with white herons stalking and others with cows grazing, through banana fields that open to more paddy fields.  There were also plenty of rubber trees.  Kerala is actually a big supplier of natural rubber and all the trees had big swatches cut out of them, many with bags to collect the rubber.  We hadn't seen rubber being farmed so that was very interesting.  It seemed hard to imagine how it gets from tree to tire.

The countryside in this area of Kerala was stunning albiet a long way from the horse farms, rolling hills and bluegrass we were used to.  But the palm trees, paddy fields and banana trees were a gorgeous combination and in hindsight, some of the best scenery in India.

We even found a dragon fruit that we'd heard great things about.   True to form, the family had one cut up (apparently a messy and hard process since its so big) and served it to us later in the day.

Our days were very relaxing in this lovely village.  And I couldn't pass up this shot of Steph in the umbrella which is a little ridiculous but she was a good sport in jeans.

Sunday, March 31, 2013

Final thoughts on live aboard diving

Cruising back after Richelieu Rock we didn't realize it at the time but we had hung up our regulators for the last time on this trip.  In the short span of February we had racked up nearly 50 dives.  Quite a feat for new comers on the diving scene!  We had gone from inexperienced divers to more accomplished and confident divers.  Deep dives, wreck dives, strong current dives, wall dives. shallow dives and swim through dives to round out the variety.

Diving has been such a fantastic experience and hopefully a new life long hobby.  Picking up and honing new skills was such a welcome challenge and a live aboard cruise was the perfect way to take it up a notch.  Once on board it was full focus on diving with little room for anything else short of brushing up on your aquatic life knowledge and afternoon napping.

One major difference between live aboard diving and land-based day trip diving is the service.  The deck hands were amazing!  Not having to put on your fins was a real treat.  They took care of everything.

After sunset and a quick bite for dinner I'd climb up to the sun deck to relax and enjoy the peaceful surroundings.  Here the memories of the awe inspiring underwater came flooding back.  Gazing out at the twinkling stars and glowing moon off in the distance was a truly rewarding feeling of relaxation and accomplishment.  The physical exertion coupled with peaceful surroundings was a perfect combination.  Times like this happen occasionally but are too few and far between.  All was right in the world for that short spell.

One of the many things we learned is that electrolytes are a must!  On Koh Tao we didn't realize it at the time but we were run down, literally dead tired at the end of each day from lack of proper hydration.  We were only drinking filtered water so weren't getting the minerals to replenish after the days activities.  After being strongly encouraged to drink them on the live aboard we quickly found ourselves feeling more energetic and alert at the end of the day even after a 4 dive day.

However, the diving picture isn't all that pretty.  Our oceans are under threat from over fishing, pollution and sadly, tourism.  Sitting on the deck at night counting the glowing lights in the distance from the fishing boats in the area was staggering.  75+ glowing squid boats in my 360 degrees views of view.  It was no different in Koh Tao where boats were fishing the bare minimum from the dive site even while the dive boats were around.

Reflecting on it, its hard to blame the locals that are doing the fishing.  We'd probably do the same in their spot, but the overfishing is taking its toll.  The dive instructors say that the first dive of the season at Richelieu Rock is spent cutting fishing nets off the delicate corals.  The volume of fish life across the waters was also in decline according to their experience over the years.  All of the bigger predators, sharks included, have moved off the reefs which is a worrying sign for the delicate eco-systems.

As for our part, the only thing we could do was try to be responsible divers.  Look, don't touch.  Learn our buoyancy well so we're not bumping in to delicate corals.  Learn about the amazing underwater world and the challenges it faces.  And share where we can to educate others.

I remember being surprised by a sign in our bathroom in Thailand talking about looking at the ingredients of your shampoo - ingredients that are toxic to the underwater world.  Not so surprisingly, we later found an article about P&G carefully planning ingredients of products distributed in certain countries where such cleansers were likely to end up, untreated, back in the water supply.  As a company, they realized the potential harm to humans and animals alike.  Another reason travel is so eye opening...

Our live aboard experience definitely wasn't on a backpacker budget but the diving was amazing and its the only way to see some of these world class sites.  

A big thanks to our friends at Khao Lak Scuba Advenures.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Say hello to my little friends - the fish of the Andaman Sea

As I previously mentioned, the dive sites on our liveaboard trip kept getting better and better.  The variety and volume of marine life was stunning and we *tried* to capture some of that beauty by renting an underwater camera.  To save you from a detailed account of each fascinating dive I have compiled a set of photos and little stories about some of our favorite fish.  Say hello to my little friends...

Boxfish - one of our favorites...maybe because of their funny boxy shape and mis-match color patterns as babies. But don't touch, they secrete a toxic liquid that is poisonous to other fish.

Nudibranch - there were numerous varieties and colors of nudis - weird little slug-like things, but we came to love them.  And they are the size of your thumb nail! A challenge to find but rewarding!

Juvenile Angelfish - our favorite! A strikingly attractive little fish and hard to find!

Harlequin Shrimps - These shrimps are tiny, less than an inch long but AMAZING!

Octopus - this guy was hard to spot, but I happened to see him as our group went by because his color changing skin reacted as he moved to reposition on his rock.

Seahorse - these famous little guys are HARD to find.  So small and delicate.  What a treasure to see him!

Porcupine fish & Mappa Pufferfish
We saw these guys often although the shipwreck site we visited really brought them to a new level - they were all over the place and I found out they charge at paparazzi!

Stone Fish - Camouflaged and poisonous.  We steered clear.

Moray eels - Freaky - We only saw a couple of them swimming in the open. Most of the time these scary creatures were lurking in holes in the rocks.

Trigger Fish - Infamous, just look at those coral busting teeth.

Coral trout, I think - hiding where they do.