Saturday, January 31, 2009

Awesome Alaska

This was a trip we made in May/June 2003.

We decided to go to Alaska for the Memorial Day weekend partly to visit the place before the crowds and mosquitoes begin to swarm the place, but mostly because once the idea hit my head, I couldn’t wait to go there. As usual, I visited all the travel websites on Alaska, read every single book I could lay my hands on, and talked to all my acquaintances that had been there before. I planned the trip to the last detail. None of that helped in the end, because we canceled some plans, made new ones and still ended up having a fantastic time. Here is the trip map.

On our flight to Anchorage, we met Tim, a local guy who studied on the mainland. He was very nice and hospitable, told us all about the must-see sights in Anchorage, showed a bunch of his pictures. He even gave us his phone number, just in case we ran into trouble. Talk about Alaskan hospitality!

The flight was about to land and it was then that we first experienced the “Land of the Midnight Sun”. To read the rest of the report (I promise it is good!), visit the Club Mahindra blog.

I sent this travelogue to Lakshmi a month ago to post on their blog. It just got published there, so this elaborate setup is to direct you to the Club Mahindra blog to read about the first leg of our trip.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Beer and Bones in a Church

If you have gone to as many European cities as I have, then at some point, you get tired of visiting Churches. I remember the first European Church I visited – Notre Dame in Paris. I was stunned by the art, the architecture, the stain glass windows, the gargoyles and just about everything. My appreciation for Churches grew multifold when I went to Italy. St.Peters Cathedral and the Sienna Duomo were magnificent. The Mesquita in Spain blew me away, but the interest started fading somewhere between the Gothic church of Barcelona and the St. Nicholas church in Prague.

Vam: I hate to admit it, but I am bored of visiting churches.

Saru: Thank God!! I have been bored for years now, but you keep dragging me there.

Vam: Years? You never liked St. Peters Cathedral or Notre Dame?

Saru: Notre Dame? Where is that? When did we go there?

Vam: Arggh. For our honeymoon!!

Saru: Oh! Notre Dame!! How do you expect me to understand your fake french accent. Anyway,this is why you should write travelogues, so I can remember names. What is the plan for tomorrow?

Vam: We are going to Kutna Hora, a small mining town an hour away from Prague. The big attraction there is this church…..

Saru: WHAT? Pinch me..... I think I am imagining conversations!

Vam: No, no, this is not a traditional Church.

Saru: Oh! Come ON!!

We took a train to Kutna Hora the next morning. It was a pleasant ride through beautiful mustard fields. We became friends with a Czech couple, George and Vlatica and exchanged stories about lives in our countries. They helped us take a local train to the town center. We had a leisurely lunch at Restaurant Donna which served authentic Czech seafood and then went to the biggest attraction of the town – St Barbara’s Cathedral (sigh!). My plan was to spend 10 minutes in this and then move on to the other attraction that inspired the title of this post. But sometimes you find a hidden gem when you least expect it! The exterior of the cathedral was stunning. It looked like a fairytale castle from outside. Kutna Hora was a rich silver mining town in it’s hey days and the merchants showed off the wealth by constructing this Cathedral. Interiors were quite blah just like the zillion churches we saw….nice frescoes, oil paintings, stain glass windows and a nice pipe organ.

We then walked around the town a little bit and took a bus to Sedlec to visit the Bone Church. When I say bones, I don’t mean bones like they were digging and suddenly found human bones in the area. You see, European Churches double up as burial grounds of popular saints, artists and even some rich merchants. Early Christians believed that burial could only take place on sacred ground. Saint Peter is believed to be buried under St.Peter’s Cathedral in Rome, Michelangelo in the Santa Croce Church in Florence and Sir Isaac Newton in the Westminster Abbey in London. I remember the last from the “Da Vinci Code” movie! Most of these Churches had crypts where these influential people were buried.

Interestingly enough Hindus think the exact opposite. Vastu Shastra dictates that a temple can be built in any piece of land except where bones are found. My soil mechanics professor, a very handsome (sigh!) man once told a story where Hindus were fighting for a piece of land to build a temple in the Charminar area in Hyderabad, but gave up when the soil analysis showed bones.

The Church/Ossuary looked very normal from outside. We paid the entrance fee of 5E and entered into the church and were immediately treated to the spookiest of views ever to be seen in a church. The doorway was adorned with a garland of bones and a skull as a center piece!

While normal churches are decorated with frescoes and paintings and mosaics, this one was decorated with bones and 40,000 of them!! Monks in the fourteenth century built this church to impress upon the fact that the church was an abode for the living and dead. Later on, bone stackers elevated it to an art form. It is said that a monk went to Jerusalem and brought back holy earth and sprinkled it at the site of the church. Word spread and this site became a popular one for burials. During the Black Death (black plague) and famine and wars thousands were buried in the neighborhood. Later on, a chapel was build and some monks were commissioned to arrange the bones. These monks took their work very seriously and the result was this:

This chandelier is supposed to contain every bone from the human body!! Yikes!! The monk clearly knew human anatomy. Nobody was in a religious mood in this church, we even saw a guy with a beer bottle!

We met a guy Chang, from Hong Kong on the way to the train station. He was on an 82 day trip in Europe. I love it how serious travelers count every single day of their trip. He didn’t round it down to 80 or up to 90, it was eighty two days. Our 13 day trip paled in comparison. We met Chang again in Cesky Krumlov, a small town in Southern Bohemia in a couple of days.

Coming Next: Cesky Krumlov – Most romantic town in Eastern Europe.

For more stories from around the world, visit

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Hot Lava from a live Volcano!

The reason we chose the Big Island of Hawaii for our trip was the once in a lifetime chance to see a live volcano. The Kilauea volcano has been active since 1983 and there are only a few times when lava is visible. Volcanic activity changes every day and I was monitoring it on the US geological survey website for a month and hoping that we would be there at the right time. The Kilauea volcano in Hawaii is not your typical volcano where there is a tall mountain and lava flows out through a crater on the top. Read on to know more about it.

We started driving towards Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. While we were driving what struck us was the variety in tropical plants and flowers. The rain forests here were amazing!! We were so enthusiastic; we bought a book about tropical plants and flowers, and started identifying them as we passed them.

Our next stop was a black sand beach. Big Island is known for its black sand. Black igneous rock from the lava flow gets disintegrated into sand particles and forms these beaches. This beach was supposed to be a rest area for turtles. We went, spread our mat, and sat down on the beach. Immediately we saw turtles popping their heads out of the water. There were a few green turtles that came and slept on the beach. It was wonderful.

We reached the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park at 5:30 PM and started driving on the Chain of Craters road. On the way we saw old craters, fuming vents - proofs of past and current volcanic activity.

We reached the end of the road and immediately realized that we should have come an hour early. Cars were parked at least a mile away from the rangers office. The radio told us that lava was visible after a 2 mile walk from the office. After we reached the rangers office, we noticed that there was no road anymore. Lava from a few months back had closed a vast stretch of the road.

The trail was marked, but most of the hike was boulder hopping!! We keep walking on huge lava fields with the ocean on the right. We walked 3 miles when the trail ended. The ocean breeze kept us cool and we kept walking beyond that as were a few other people. After a while, we noticed that the lava below our feet became a little warm. The park ranger told us that we were walking on active Lava Tubes! There was a mountain there that was feeding this lava and was transporting it through a 11 km long lava tube into the ocean. I am sure it was very foolish to be walking on active lava tubes, but the chance to see a live volcano kept us going. We could see glimpses of the fire and smoke, but not the real thing.

We finally reached a place where there were hundreds of people sitting on the rocks and watching something like they were in an amphitheater. This was it!!

After a 3-mile hike, we finally saw hot red lava flowing into the ocean in 3-4 channels. It was awesome. We were speechless. It was one of those incredible sights that you only get to see on the National Geographic Channel, except this was happening live in front of us. The sun had set and we saw the bright red lava and the red glowing smoke it was creating.

We spent over an hour there and turned back only when it started drizzling. Night had set it, but luckily for us it was a full moon day. Even otherwise we had come equipped with flashlights. The rest of the hike would have been lackluster except that in the mountains, another vent became active and lava started flowing out. What started as specks of light became a flow of at least mile lava flow by the time we got done. It was an amazing sight that would remain etched in our memories forever.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Hawaii Big Island - Got Balls?

I hated writing. At work, if I had to write a proposal or documentation, it would be the longest day. I would work on everything else and get to writing only if I had the gun to my head. One day, I was bored and started writing our Hawaii travelogue. It was a simple account of what we saw and did. My friends loved it and encouraged me to write more. The more I wrote, the easier it got and it also helped me with technical writing. So, I kept at it and now it has evolved into a hobby that gives me immense joy. Here is my very first travelogue.

This was a trip we took in 2004 and I will have the readers know that I am no longer that timid person. Read on to find out what I mean.

We were looking forward to sunny beaches, exciting snorkeling trips, tropical rain forests, and waterfalls and of course the biggest attraction the active volcano. After several days of anticipation, we were on a flight to Kona. My husband Saru, slept very well as usual, while I struggled to find a comfortable position to sleep. As soon as I found that position, the captain announced that we were landing. With images of sandy beaches and lush greenery in mind, we looked out of the window to take a glimpse of this beautiful island and were shocked. There was nothing but miles of black lava fields!! They built the Kona airport in the middle of black lava fields.

We landed, picked up our baggage, and started driving towards Kona. Soon things got spectacular. After a few minutes of driving, the black lava fields turned into beautiful vistas all round.

We were in the middle of a rain forest and true to its name it started raining. We stopped for coffee. There is nothing like having hot coffee and cake (especially when it has rum in it) while watching the rain.

While we were driving, we a saw a big sign saying "GOT BALLS?" Our car of course came to a screeching halt. It was the "Bad Ass" coffee shop that was selling "Donkey Balls". Donkey balls are chocolate covered macadamia nuts. They are delicious and you can't stop eating until you see the calorie content. The restroom in the coffee shop had every "Ass" joke there ever was. I spent a good 15min there laughing my heads out until somebody knocked on the door. I came out and promptly sent Saru inside to assimilate (pun intended) all the humorous material.

We drove towards the area of Captain Cook to check into our Bed & Breakfast. The house, Areca Palms was sitting on an acre of lush green lawn and Palm Trees. We slowly walked up the stairs and found a couple (Nancy & John) enjoying coffee on the lanai (balcony in Hawaiian). The hosts Steve and Janice greeted us with great smiles. They had a huge living room with lots of books and games for the guests. In all these years of traveling we stayed in a wide range of budget to luxury hotels, but nothing beats the experience of staying in a Bed & Breakfast. You get to stay in a homely place, enjoy wonderful conversations with other guests, get restaurant/activity recommendations, and of course enjoy home cooked breakfast. Areca Palms was a very charming house with a lot of character and more importantly pleasant/interesting hosts and guests.

Based on our hosts recommendation, we went to Aloha Cafe for dinner and had excellent seafood while watching a picture perfect sunset.

Next morning, we woke up to the sounds of chirping birds. There were two other guests and by 8:00am, we were all sitting at the breakfast table having pleasant conversation. The 3-course breakfast started with fresh organic papayas and mangoes from their backyard. It was followed by macadamia nut short bread and a plate of Chili Cheese Souffle. That was the most sumptuous home cooked breakfast I ever had on a vacation!! We talked about the plan for the day and while we were eating, Steve called the Kayak rental place and booked a reservation for us. They also gave us free snorkels and fins and reef shoes.

Pretty soon we had the Kayak fixed on the car and were driving towards the Kealakekua Bay. The plan was to kayak in the bay for a mile to reach the Captain Cook Monument, which was known to be the best shallow snorkeling spot in all Hawaii. The tricky part here was to unload the kayak from the car, lower it 3 ft down into the water, and jump on the kayak before it wandered away. If Saru were doing this by himself, it would have gone smoothly. But here I was - the queen of timidity! We decided to pay a guy to help us lower the kayak. Saru got on to the kayak without batting an eyelid. I took some time and slowly lowered myself onto the kayak. Now, try to visualize this: Both my feet were in the kayak and my hands were holding the wall, when the kayak started moving away from the wall!! It was good stretching exercise both for my body and my vocal cords. I started screaming, "I am falling, I am falling!!!" and quickly grabbed the guy's leg with one hand. The guy was screaming, "let go of my leg", Saru was screaming, "Calm down Vam" and I was still screaming, "I am falling, I am falling!!" Bear in mind that I was wearing a life jacket and the water was only 4 ft deep at this place. But logic does not dictate every action of mine! I was very close to falling flat, face down into the water before I plopped myself into the kayak. Now, once I was seated comfortably, I was the epitome of courage (Alright, if you must have absolute honesty, then I did freak out one more time when I thought the kayak was going to topple).

The weather was great and there was a pleasant breeze. I was in high spirits. Just when we were thinking that nothing could have made the trip better, we spotted, if you can believe our luck - a dozen dolphins! These dolphins are called Hawaiian Spinner Dolphins. They travel in big groups and are very playful. It was a treat to watch them jumping and spinning and frolicking in the water. After the excitement of dolphins died down, we kayaked towards the Captain Cook Monument.

We parked our kayak under a tree. Saru, who was very impatient, jumped into the water with his snorkel gear. The water was pretty rough in that part of the bay. He got pushed around by the waves and wounded the middle finger on his right hand. Every time I asked him about his wound, he would show me his middle finger and get a kick out of it. Blood was oozing out of his cut, and we didn't have anything to tie around it, until I remembered my sarong!! We had a perfect Bollywood moment when I tore a piece of cloth from the sarong and tied it around his finger!!

We went to the other side of the monument where the water was calm and began snorkeling. We were immediately treated to hundreds of colorful fish and corals. It was absolutely amazing. We tried to keep a count of the different colors, but lost track. Every corner of the bay treated us to a rainbow of colorful underwater life. We snorkeled for a few hours and then went back to the kayak to eat our sandwich. We relaxed a little bit and I was very enthusiastic to get back into the water. Saru complained that the waves made him queasy and he wanted to relax for the day. I went back into the water and was having too much fun. Every time I saw some cool fish, I would pop my head out of the water and tell him. Finally I made him so jealous; he jumped back into the water despite his nausea.

We kayaked back, saw more dolphins on our way, and went back towards home. Fortunately I had no trouble getting out of the kayak. We went home and washed ourselves and exchanged stories about our day with Nancy and John.