Archive for November, 2007

The Eye of The Volcano

Friday, November 30th, 2007

White Island 059 New Zealand is an active volcanic region, and has been for millions of years.  The North Island was largely formed through volcanic activity.  Its biggest active volcano is White Island, about 50 kilometers off the east coast near Rotorua.  We had a chance to visit White Island by helicopter, including landing on the small island and exploring it by foot.  We then flew over a chain of volcanoes in the area, including Mt. Tarawera, a large crevice volcano on the main North Island.

White Island 068 The day we flew by helicopter to White Island was quite windy, so I was reassured when our helicopter pilot said it was his second full week on the job and, so far, so good.  The Kiwis have very good senses of humor (or at least I hope he was joking :-) ).   We took off and in no time were hovering above the most interesting geology.  You could see all of the patterns of mountains, caldera lakes (lakes that fill in the top of a volcano that’s caved in), and valleys.  We then crossed over the Pacific, heading for White Island. 

White Island 074 Our visit to White Island might as well have been a visit to Mars.  It bears no resemblance to life on Earth.  At the center of the small island is a small, bubbling pool of sulphuric acid.  Needless to say, none of us were tempted to go in for a dip in the 60 degree (Centigrade!!) acid bath.  Surrounding the pool are some of the weirdest rock structures, many of which are oozing hot sulphuric gases.  We were equipped with gas masks, and put them to serious use!

White Island 081 Years ago, there was a sulphur mine on White Island, the remains of which are still in place there, barely.  The last major eruption on the island was in the year 2000, wiping out most of the structure.  As the price of sulphur collapsed, the mine ceased to be economic and was shut down.  The island was viewed as a wasteland and sold — for two pounds (British).  Now, though, it’s an active area for tourists, who come by boat or helicopter, and pay ten pounds per person.  Given that some 20,000 people visit a year, that initial purchase is looking pretty shrewd.  The next time someone wants to sell me an island for a couple of bucks, I’m a taker!

White Island 108 Well, as much as we were all hoping for a major eruption while we were on the island :-) , it stayed dormant, and we whisked off to the mainland.  But not before braving the sandy winds that whipped across the island, and we were all feeling lucky to make it back to the chopper.  And we felt even better when the helicopter made it back safely, especially Elizabeth (who is not a big fan of helicopter travel, to say the least!).

White Island 123 We got a good overhead look at Mt. Tarawera, which is another volcano in the chain around Rotorua.  It doesn’t look at all like a volcano, though.  No cone, no crater, no symmetry.  It’s more like a nasty cut in a mountain where the volcano erupted and oozed out its lava.  It last erupted in 1886, killing hundreds of people.  Before it erupted, there were world-renowned pink and white terraces around Tarawera that drew visitors from all over the world.  They, like much else in the area, didn’t survive the 1886 eruption.

White Island 132 We then spent a couple of very nice days at the Treetops Lodge in Rotorua.  The Treetops is set on 2,500 acres forest acres, and is incredibly well run.  We did a whole range of things, including getting a geology and natural history lecture from a very interesting local expert.  We also did a night hike, seeing glow worms, brush-tailed possums, and wild hares.  We toured an interesting museum in Rotorua, and got a great tour from the curator.  And on our last morning at Treetops, Elizabeth and Sterling went horseback riding, and Gibson and I took a photography class from a very talented local photographer.  We hope his expertise rubs off on our photos!!

Feel free to check out our photos of White Island, Treetops, and Rotorua.

The City of Sails and the Bay of Islands

Thursday, November 29th, 2007

Kauri Cliff 005 We flew from India to Auckland, and the transition couldn’t have been more dramatic. We went from camels in the middle of “highways,” cows roaming the sidewalks of major cities, and young children smiling and waving to us everywhere, saying “Tata,” to . . . a beautiful and civilized, yet unspoiled, country. New Zealand is one of the few places on our trip that Elizabeth and I have both been to before, but we loved it so much that we were anxious to return.

Auckland 215 In Auckland, called the City of Sails, we got together with dear long-time friends, Greg Neil and Jayne Tankersley. Some of you may remember them from Beacon Hill, where they lived with us for several years. Well, now they’ve returned to their New Zealand homeland, and now have a good-sized family of their own — a four Auckland 219year old son Harry, a two year old son Oliver, and a new two-month old daughter Juliet. Wow! It was fabulous to see them again, and their children are adorable. It reminded us of how quickly children grow up (ours were three and one when we first met Greg and Jayne), and how fortunate we are to have this magical year as a family!

Auckland 221 I was in Auckland in 1989, and it has changed dramatically since then. I spent very little time in Auckland on that trip, focusing on the South Island, but had the impression that, apart from the airport, there was little to do or see in Auckland. During this stay in Auckland, we went to the Auckland Museum and the Auckland Zoo. The Museum had a Maori show, which we took in and really enjoyed. If you’re curious about Maori dance, check out our video (or one or two more) from our visit to the Museum. The country of New Zealand has done a fairly good job of integrating the original Maori inhabitants with more recent immigrants, although I’m sure there’s room for improvement. But the situation seems much better here than for the Aborigines in Australia.

Auckland 233 As we walked around the Auckland Zoo, Greg and Jayne observed that zoos will probably never be the same for our family. We’d see a caged peacock and say, “Gee, they were everywhere in the wild in India.” Or we’d wait in a big crowd for the tiger feeding and we’d be thinking about the Bengal Tigers of Ranthambhore. And it was fun to watch a hippo bathing in the zoo, but all of us are thinking forward to Africa. I’ve always loved zoos, so I hope down the road the magic will return to a visit to a great zoo, but for now we’ve decided to skip them for the next while or so.

Baseball in New Zealand 039 After a brief, but fun, visit to Auckland, we flew up to Kerikeri, the largest city in the Bay of Islands. We were able to start the visit off with some baseball with a group of twenty kids who play regularly in a neat little town called Russell. We then headed to our hotel, at Julian Robertson’s Kauri Cliffs, which we used as a base for exploring this particularly beautiful area on the east coast of the North Island of New Zealand.

Kauri Cliff 085 If you’re from the U.S. and are looking for a metaphor for this area of New Zealand, think California, before many people lived there, but with warm ocean water. We went to some beaches here that were among the most beautiful I’ve ever seen in my life. Honestly, I think I could spend months just watching the deep blue ocean collide with the spectacular rocks and sandy beaches here. We met many people who emigrated here from other parts of the world, and it’s easy to see why.

Kauri Cliff 137 We got a real education in sheep shearing while we visited Kauri Cliffs. If you want to see how a sheep gets sheared, check out this video. We learned that the world record in sheep shearing had been set by a Kiwi (their word for a New Zealand native) earlier this year. He sheared 721 sheep in nine hours. If you watch just one sheep being sheared, you quickly realize how back-breaking and demanding the job is (and it’s lent itself to little inKauri Cliff 140 the way of automation). The pay is around $1.50 per shorn sheep in New Zealand (more in other countries, like Australia and the U.S., but not much above $2.00). All I can say is that if my family depended on my ability to shear sheep to provide for them, we’d be a DEEP SHEEP DO-DO. I have a feeling I’d be the one ending up with no hair!

White Island 031 The next day, we went out sailing in the Bay of Islands with Don and Marilyn Logan, a fascinating couple. They designed their own katamaran, working with mast designers for some of the America’s Cup teams (but, unfortunately, didn’t work with Scott Ferguson from Jamestown!!). They had taken the television crews out during the last two America’s Cup races held in the Auckland area, and had amazing stories about the challenges of working with the crews to televise the competition. Anyway, Eliazabeth and I are hardly knowledgeable sailors, but their design seemed brilliant — lots of comfortable living space, a very stable boat, and quite fast. We hit 13 knots that day, and they often go above 15 knots.

White Island 017 We feel fortunate to spend time in Jamestown, Rhode Island, and are big fans of the scenery there. But, boy, the Bay of Islands is just amazing! Everytime you think you’ve just seen the most beautiful island you can imagine, you come across something even more spectacular. We saw a few good birds (including this Australasian Gannett) while we were out, including the Little Blue Penguin, but were hoping to see some dolphins and killer whales, which didn’t work out. Nevertheless, it was a terrific adventure.

Auckland 271 Kauri Cliffs is a very distinctive place, complete with hiking trails, beaches, and a great golf course. It’s over 2,500 acres in all, and it’s been designed brilliantly. We had a great stay there, and would highly recommend it for anyone visiting the area, especially golfers. I didn’t get on the course, but did hit some balls at the driving range. While it was the first time I played in four months, I was surprised that not a whole lot had changed about my golf game — a few decent shots in a sea of lousy shots! But it did feel good to get a club in my hand again, and made me think fondly of all my golf buddies!

Feel free to check out our photos from Auckland and the Bay of Islands.

Baseball in New Zealand!

Sunday, November 25th, 2007

Baseball in New Zealand 045 We had a great afternoon playing baseball in a scenic town called Russell, New Zealand, on NZ’s North Island.  Our point people were Ric and Kitty Martini, who moved to New Zealand 3 1/2 years ago from Hawaii.  Their son P.K. is an excellent player (barely missing an out-of-the-park homer!), and more than twenty kids in total turned out for a fabulous Sunday afternoon practice game.

Baseball in New Zealand 031 The team practices on a nice grass field in Russell that is used for all sorts of sports, including football, soccer, and — believe it or not — a golf driving range.  They don’t have fixed bases, a pitcher’s mound, or a backstop.  But the grass is very well kept and quite smooth, and the field sits nicely on one end.  The program was started by the Martini’s three years ago, and until this year, less than ten kids would play regularly.  However, they’re doing a great job with the program, the enthusiasm for baseball is spreading, and now well over twenty players participate, and they’ll be able to field two full teams for a tournament in three weeks!

Baseball in New Zealand 058 The age range of the children was roughly 10 through 14, with a mix of boys and girls.  The coach brings a great, positive attitude to the field, and combines terrific advice with lots of encouragement.  And the kids are very athletic, so I can see why the interest in the program is growing so fast. 

Baseball in New Zealand 039 Gibson got to pitch and play third base during the game, which was a close contest between the Expos and the Marlins.  We brought them Red Sox hats, and they looked great in them.  They said that the only baseball hat that the local sporting goods’ store carries is for some second-tier U.S. team called the Yankees (I think I’ve heard of them, but seem to recall they folded the franchise a few years back) :-) .  

Baseball in New Zealand 064 My wife got a chance to catch up with several of the parents while I was on the sidelines of the game, watching and occasionally helping to retrieve foul balls.  And I had a particularly interesting conversation with a woman whose family had moved to NZ from the Netherlands, and another New Zealander who settled there after sailing around the world with her husband for eleven years!!  (And we thought ten months was a long time :-) ).  My wife and I concluded that life in Russell, New Zealand, is amazingly great.  The weather is gorgeous allBaseball in New Zealand 076 year long, the scenery in the area is spectacular, the people are super, and the schools are good, but flexible to readily accommodate families that are away for months at a time (often sailing).   Plus, the people of New Zealand just seem to have their heads screwed on right when it comes to what’s important in life.   Such a great combination, and now it’s emerging as a center of baseball excellence!!

Feel free to check out our photos from this great baseball day.

A Turkey of a Day

Friday, November 23rd, 2007

IMG_1686 We love Thanksgiving!  But this Thanksgiving won’t be all that memorable for us.  We started the day at Nimaj, which is located just outside of Nowheresville, India.  After a short morning hike, we drove two hours to Jodhpur, flew 90 minutes to Delhi, waited in Delhi for seven hours for next flight, flew five hours to Singapore overnight in remarkably uncomfortably plane seats, laid over in Singapore, and then flew another XX hours to Auckland.  Ouch!  We did manage to get in phone calls from India to our families, and that will be about it for our 2007 Thanksgiving.  When you travel, you’ll have days like this.  At least we met one family in the Delhi Airport who also knew what Thanksgiving even is!

Anyway, during this most unusual past few months, we’ve gotten so many great e-mails from friends and family, and we just want to let everyone know how important your communications have been.  We wish you a great Thanksgiving!!

For the Birds!

Friday, November 23rd, 2007

Pushkar 202 We made a sizable detour to stay overnight at a tent lodge in Nimaj, which is in the middle of nowhere.  It’s a camp run by a family, and they do a great job with it.  The tents sit on a ledge overlooking a beautiful pond.  We weren’t able to stay long, since the following day we were off to New Zealand (a long, long trip!).  But we did get in a great early morning hike, and were joined by two naturalists at the site.  They know they birds like no one I’ve been with before, and brought a scope and field guide, which helped all of us on the hike.

Pushkar 178 We got some great views of a bunch of different animals and Nimaj, including a pack of jackals playing on the shore of the lake.  On our hike, we came across a herd of wild Nilgai Antelopes.  We also saw some great birds, including a Eurasian Eagle Owl.  That bird is particularly special for our family, since at age five, Gibson was reading a book on birds, and asked me about the Eagle Owl.  I thought he was mistaken, and told him I didn’t think one existed, at which point he showed me the book.  Well, I got a chance to eat crow again, as we saw an Eagle Owl in the wild (sorry, no decent photo).  We also saw the beautiful Green Bee-eater (photo) and the Indian Roller (not a religious sect, but a great bird).  It was a great hike on our last day in India.

Check out a few photos from our time in Nimaj.

Hey, You, Wanna Buy A Camel?

Friday, November 23rd, 2007

Pushkar 111 We had Pushkar high on our list of places we wanted to see during our India visit, since we heard great things about it.  It’s not easy to arrange, but our travel guide in the U.S. pulled it off.   And, truly, it’s like nothing we’ve ever seen before.  But, for me, the first day and one-half of Pushkar was spent lying in bed in a tent.  Ouch!  I came down with something and, for a while, felt like I might never make it out of India.  But, the symptoms cleared, thankfully, and I got out to the fair grounds our last morning at the camp.

Pushkar 073 Pushkar is an annual gathering of people and animals from all over India.  They meet almost entirely for the purpose of bartering livestock, especially camels.  It’s hard to put into words what it’s like to see acres of fields covered by all sorts of camels, many dressed quite festively.  There are camels of all sizes, ages, and personality.  I mean, if you want to learn a lot about camels in a hurry, this is your fair!

Pushkar 109 I suspect the big questions on everyone’s minds these days are things like . . .  How to get out of the mess in Iraq?  How to begin to address global warming?  How to make the world a safe, happy place for our children to grow up in?  Well, our trip sheds no light on these pressing issues, other than to encourage everyone to support Barack Obama.  But lurking just behind these questions, and what many people in the U.S. wake up each morning wondering about, is “Just how the heck does a camel chew?”   And we’re here to provide you with an answer in a video, fresh from the grounds of Pushkar!

Pushkar 094 One highlight of the Pushkar was seeing, at very close range, a pair of cobras.  We are pretty sure these snakes were de-fanged, much to my kids’ disappointment.  We can hardly count them as sightings in the wild, no matter how wild Pushkar seemed to be.  But, despite the temptation to buy a cobra or two as “stocking stuffers” for our kids for Christmas, we resisted that urge, and I am sure my in-laws in Seattle (where we’ll be for Christmas) won’t be too upset with this decision, although they may change their minds after viewing this snake video.

Pushkar 097 Camels aren’t the only animals at Pushkar.  Lots of horses show up, with the most unusual ears.  The ears are naturally curved and the horse is more highly prized if the ears curl in and touch each other.  I don’t know much about horses, but some are beautiful, as horses go.  With the free flow among all Pushkar participants, it shouldn’t be long before we see an animal that represents a cross between a horse and a camel :-)

Pushkar 077 Pushkar is not everyone’s cup of camel juice (or tea).  I didn’t think it would be mine, since I’m pretty unenthusiastic about markets (physical, not financial).  And being sick as a dog for 36 hours didn’t get me off to a great start at Pushkar.  But I have to say, Pushkar taught me a lot about India, its people, its culture, and its economy.  And, for the time being, the population at Pushkar is primarily animals and market participants — with tourists a distant third.  Very little of the focus there is on selling stuff to tourists.  It’s just wild to be in the middle of such bustling activity among people still going on much the same way as ancestors from centuries ago behaved. 

Pushkar 112 We stayed at a tent site put up by the firm Peirce and Leslie, which are probably the nicest you can find there.  Given that the “season” is just 15 days, it’s amazing they put such a functional site up for tourists.  Pushkar is a holy city in India, so no meat was available for meals.   But the tents were air-conditioned, and given the amount of time I spent inside them, I was quite grateful for that!

Pushkar 054 Words and photos — at least not mine — probably aren’t able to capture the feel of Pushkar.  The sad thing is that the number of participants is gradually declining as India becomes more developed.  Camels and other animals just aren’t as important to India in the twenty-first Century as they were historically.  And as people like me write about how fun it is to be at Pushkar, the number of tourists will mount.  I rue the day when Pushkar becomes overrun with tourists, all ogling a dwindling number of rural Indians who pack up their lives, march to Pushkar, and hope to improve their position through a few shrewd animal trades.  But, for now, Pushkar remains a magic spot where you can see centuries of India’s past in a morning stroll through the fair.

Feel free to check out our Pushkar photos.

In Search of the Tiger

Thursday, November 22nd, 2007

Ranthambhore 124 We spent three days in Ranthambhore National Park, in northeast India, home of 35 Bengal Tigers. Well, the old adage “If at first you don’t succeed . . .” comes to mind for our time here. There are a limited number of vehicles allowed each morning and afternoon into the park (hiking strictly not allowed), and each outing is a 3-4 hour exploration of a different part of the park. There are many, many spectacular sights in this park, but everyone’s focus is on just one thing — the Bengal Tiger. And, the estimated number of these beautiful animals (see Gibson’s photo above) still in the park is just twenty!

Agra 088 Our first afternoon in Ranthambhore was full of all sorts of new discoveries — Spotted and Sambur Deer, the Nilgai Antelope, the Ruddy Mongoose, the Wild Pig, and all sorts of great birds, including the endangered Red-headed (formerly King) Vulture. But, alas, no Bengal Tiger. We were thrilled with the day, though, and excited to explore the park further. The monkeys were particularly fun to watch, and so acrobatic. Watching them for even fifteen minutes makes it easy to be a believer in Darwin’s theory of evolution.

Agra 274 The next two outings into the park were geologically gorgeous, but the newness of things like the ubiquitous Spotted Deer had faded. We had a few close calls to tiger sightings, and learned a lot about how the guides key on the calls of Hanouman Black-faced Monkeys and Spotted Deer who alert other animals of an approaching tiger. And this Nilgai Antelope wouldn’t be quite so relaxed with a tiger in the area.

Agra 130 The birds we saw in Ranthambhore were spectacular. The Red-headed Vulture is nearly extinct, and we got good views of this magnificent bird. We also saw the Greater Painted Snipe (right) and the Brown Crake, both very elusive birds. Parakeets (Alexdrine, Plum-headed, and Rose-ringed) were everywhere. And we got some great looks at the Painted Stork, the Yellow-footed Green Pigeon, and Black-rumped Flameback and White-naped Woodpecker.

Ranthambhore 107 Just as we were preparing ourselves for the let down of not seeing the tiger, our efforts were rewarded our fourth time into the park (and second on that day), when we got good views of a 16 month old female Tiger cub. Even at that young age, this cub was impressive. It’s hard to describe why seeing an animal like this tiger was so much more exciting in the wild, but it was. We had seen the same type of animal in the Chongqing, China, zoo a couple of months ago, close-up, easily. Yet the challenge of tracking the tiger, and finally seeing her, was really fun. Our family is quite definitely not into hunting, so it was particularly great to see a magnificent animal, and then root for its long-term survival.

Pushkar 036 On our last morning in Ranthambhore, we joined a park ranger for a hike in a non-tiger area of the park, where you can actually walk around. After a lot of time in a jeep driving through the central area, we had a great time just being out and walking around. It’s really quite beautiful, and our preferred way (by far) of seeing a park. A highlight was seeing the Indian Gazelle.

If you’re looking for ideas for where to stay in the Ranthambhore area, we had a great experience at Aman-I-Khas. It’s very small, and you stay in tents. But the tents are exceptionally comfortable,, while still making you feel that you’re right in the Indian countryside. It’s a very well run facility, and was a great place to stay. The manager there, Gerhard Wiehahn, was particularly helpful to us. My other observation on Ranthambhore is that there is so much interest in the seeing the tigers, that they assign each vehicle a distinct zone (and there are five) and it has to stay in the assigned area. So if tigers have been sighted in zone 3, and your vehicle draws zone 1, it’s a much lower likelihood that you’ll see tigers that day. It’s supposed to be a lottery system, but somehow the better guides seem to be able to “work the system” and get the zone where the most recent sightings have occurred. So it’s worth doing all you can to get a top guide.

Feel free to check out our photos on Ranthambhore.

The Taj

Sunday, November 18th, 2007

Ajarbagh Valley 443 It’s hard to imagine coming all the way to India from the United States, and not seeing the Taj Mahal. It’s arguably the most beautiful building ever constructed, any era, any location. And on a clear day, with no crowds, it must be an unequivocally awe-inspiring experience to visit this building. But as we were crushed as we made our way through the mausoleum, the experience was somewhat dampened.

Ajarbagh Valley 447 The Taj Mahal was constructed over a fourteen year period and completed in 1648. It was built by India’s Emperor Shah Jahan, in memory of his favorite wife, Mumtaz Mahal. She bore him 14 children, but died giving birth to child number 14 (who can blame her?). Her last request was that her husband build her a fitting monument. The result was the Taj Mahal, a spectacular memory to this woman. And from the sound of what happened later with that family, she might have been better off with a few less children. One of the sons ended up imprisoning the father, taking over the country, and killing some siblings.

Agra 086 We flew into Agra, a city that will quickly slip from memory. Our hotel was the place to stay in Agra, the Oberoi Amarvilas, where the rooms have great views of the Taj Mahal. The hotel also had great grounds, including the nicest grass field we’ve found on our trip to date — perfect for some diving catches in baseball. The picture at left is pretty much the view we had from our room, although the foreground includes a great swimming pool. As I said, this is the place you want to stay here.

Ajarbagh Valley 445 When you get to the Taj, you wait in a long security line. Once someone mentioned how perfect a target it would be for a suicide bomber, the wait seemed pretty darned uncomfortable. They segment the line into threes — one for Indian citizens, one for female tourists, and one for male tourists. You can’t bring a whole lot into the premises apart from cameras and cell phones. Once inside, you join the other 657,481 people visiting the Taj for the day, all of whom seem adept at pushing their way in front of you for a slightly better photograph.

Ajarbagh Valley 467 After doing our best to take in the Taj Mahal from a distance, we walked down closer to the mausoleum (the room under the dome). India has lots and lots of very smart people, but none were involved in designing the traffic flow for this the complex. There are some narrow steep stairs that you take to get up onto the level with the mausoleum, then a small door (just one) to get inside the room, which is almost completely dark. We made it up the stairs fairly easily (little did we know), then felt like something under a steamroller as we tried to make it through the door. Since it’s the only way for people to both enter and exit, it’s a complete mess, and people just bulldoze through. Ouch!

Ajarbagh Valley 493 After not really seeing a whole heck of a lot in the room with the remains of Ms. Mahal, we walked around the deck area, and looked out over the river valley. We observed people going through a religious right by bathing themselves, clothed, in the river (a very polluted river, by all appearances). And we congratulated Gibson on losing one of his baby teeth, and suspect he’s one of the few U.S. citizens to have ever lost a tooth at the Taj Mahal. After losing a pair of teeth in the Outback of Australia, he’s working on covering all of the continents!

Ajarbagh Valley 492As darkness set in, we decided to leave. To our surprise, the stairs were completely gridlocked. A large number of people were trying to come up, urgently, to get a last look before dark. And an equally large, impatient set of people was trying to get down. The net was that no one was moving, and everyone was getting squished. The police stationed there seemed to be clueless about how to handle the situation, and you could sense a crowd close to panic. We finally made it out, and were thrilled to have survived the “Taj — Get Mauled.”

Agra 049 The next morning, we toured the Agra Fort, which was the home of Shah Jahan for ten years while his “loyal” son imprisoned him. This is one heckuva fort, and very impressive to visit. It has interesting design features for fortresses. For instance, elephants were often used to break down the wood doors of forts. So the Agra Fort has a curved approach path that ramps up to the door (keeping the elephant from running and getting momentum), and spikes on the door. Elephants may not be the smartest animals on earth, but you can bet they figured out that the assignment to break down the Agra Fort door was a loser. The room you can see through this portal was where the Shah Jahan was under house arrest for ten years, spending much of his time looking out at the Taj Mahal and undoubtedly wondering how this one evil son turned out so poorly.

Net, net, I’m glad we saw the Taj Mahal, and would jump at a chance to see it again under the right circumstances. But beware of the crowds, the visibility on the day you’re planning to go (at times it can be so foggy you can’t see the structure), and the abysmal foot traffic management there.

Feel free to check out our photos from Agra, including the Taj Mahal.

Paradise Found

Friday, November 16th, 2007

Ajarbagh Valley 269 I can’t imagine spending time in a more glorious place than the Aman Bagh Hotel in Ajabgarh Valley.  From the very moment our plane touched down, to the time we sadly departed, we loved every minute of our time in Ajabgarh Valley.  Our time there was outstanding in every respect, and we’d highly recommend it to anyone visiting this part of the world, or willing to make a special trip to such a great place.

Delhi 195 We arrived not long after meeting the Dalai Lama and then flying into the local airstrip with a big crowd waiting to see the plane land.  The enthusiasm and kindness of the people here affected our stay throughout.  It’s hard to describe what it’s like to have children everywhere run to see your jeep pass by, yelling “Tata” or “Hello” with huge smiles on their faces.  The people here are just so lovely, and it makes the stay here so memorable.

Ajarbagh Valley 260 The Aman Bagh wins many architectural awards, and it’s a marvel.  The staff are fantastic in every respect, and the building and grounds are extraordinary.  We had a great time here, and hope to come back as soon as we can.  They were particularly helpful to us in organizing our hikes and explorations, and their guide, Sita Ram, was quite knowledgeable about the area and its wildlife.

Ajarbagh Valley 169 While in Ajabgarh Valley, we explored several abandoned forts, as well as made several hikes in beautiful canyons or around gorgeous lakes.   We had so many great expeditions while we stayed at this great place, yet left feeling we had only scratched the surface.  Between the climate (warm, dry, and crystal clear blue skies), the geology, the hiking, the wildlife, and the people, we could stay for weeks at a time and not be ready to move on.

Ajarbagh Valley 082 While in Ajabgarh, we saw over 70 different species of birds, as well as some interesting mammals, including jackals.  These Collared Scops Owls on the right were a particularly fun sighting, but there were many more.  When we have completed our stay in India, Gibson and I will do a joint blog on the birds of India, and show our better photographs.  But there were so many great birds to see; it was a real highlight of our time here.  Stay tuned for this posting.

Ajarbagh Valley 098 While in Ajabgarh, we all took a whirl around the area on camels.  Even I was abe to ride without discomfort (not usually the case in riding on or in anything!).  Check out special edition videos of the girls and boys in our family getting off the ground on the back of a camel (to be posted once we get better internet access).   I’m now excited about the prospect of riding a camel later in this trip, since it’s not a bad way to get around, although camels don’t seem to be particularly fleet a hoof.

Ajarbagh Valley 018 When it came time to pack our bags and head out from Ajabgarh, we all felt considerable sadness.  This, though, is one place we definitely want to return to.  It’s hard for me to articulate the feeling we had in this region of India, but it made a big impression on us.   It was just scene after scene, and experience after experience, that made this such a joyous place, and so hard to walk away from. 

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For some of the very best photos we’ve taken on the trip so far, feel free to check out of Ajabgarh photo album.

A Day We’ll Never Forget!

Thursday, November 15th, 2007

The next time we have a day that’s not going to well at 11:00 a.m. and we’re tempted to conclude we’ve got a lousy day on our hands, we’ll remember November 13, 2007.

After a couple of days in Delhi, we were leaving for the Ajabarh Valley in  Rajasthan, India.  Given the choice between a 6 hour van ride, or a puddle hopper plane, we opted for the latter.  But Delhi has a “no fly” period for small planes from 9:00 to 11:00 a.m., so we wanted to take off by no later than than 8:30 a.m., meaning getting up early and battling traffic to get to the airport.  We were on time, but so was the fog, and we ended up sitting in our tiny plane for a couple of hours, doing homework and reading.  So at 11:00 a.m., we’re late, sleepy, and hoping to be able to fly out of Delhi soon.

Delhi 282 At around 11 a.m., our point person for our time in India, Vishu Singh and members of the firm Peirce and Leslie (who have done a fabulous job for us in India!!) approached us and asked, “Would you be interested in meeting the Dalai Lama?”  Well, in about .0003 nanoseconds, we said, “Absolutely!!!!”  His plane was about to land, and they were able to arrange for us to meet him just after he disembarked (and if you’re curious about how a Dalai Lama gets off a plane, take a look at this video).

Delhi 284 The Dalia Lama, and his representative Mr. Tempa Tsering, couldn’t have been nicer.  Our family had spent almost a week in Tibet while we were touring China.  So we could relay to him how heart-breaking we found it to observe first-hand what the Chinese have done to these kind and peaceful people.  We also congratulated him on his recent visit to the United States where Congress, over the Delhi 293 protestations of the Chinese government, met with the Dalai Lama and presented him with the Congressional Gold Medal Award.  While we only spent a few minutes with the Dalai Lama, it was an experience we’ll never forget.  His kind, calm demeanor was so apparent, and he was gracious enough to allow us to take a group photograph with him.   While this meeting was completely unplanned, our guide explained that, according to Buddhist philosophy, this was an encounter that was meant to be — and all of us believed that.

 

Delhi 302 Our flight to Ajabgarh Valley was quick and fairly scenic, but our landing brought us a huge surprise.  We were in an area of India that is so undeveloped that the landing of an airplane is a big event for the community.  So, imagine our surprise when over 200 people were there to meet us (well, actually, to see the plane land, but it’s fun to pretend!).  All of them were cheering and saying hello (or “Tata”), and we knew we were in for a special time in this gorgeous place.  We noted to ourselves the irony of a day in which we were almost the outsiders meeting the Dalai Lama upon his landing, and then when we landed an hour later, we were mobbed.

Ajarbagh Valley 418 We then proceeded to our hotel, the Amanbagh, which was fabulous.  I’ll cover the hotel and the area in my next blog posting, but this place is heavenly.  We checked in and they had upgraded us to a villa with its own swimming pool.  And then we went for an exploratory hike and jeep ride, seeing all sorts of amazing birds and a few interesting mammals, including jackals and antelope. 

In all, it was a day that we’ll never forget.  We had a great first experience with India in Delhi, but this day was the best of the trip for me.  And, as you’ll see in our next posting, we had a fabulous time in Ajabgarh.