Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Challenging India

 This adventure did not started right and continued with lots of challenges.  Departed in the middle of March and returned the beginning of April.  The original flight to Delhi via Boston was delayed and was moved to another flight going via Atlanta.  This was also delayed due to a damaged tire; no more connections available this day.  So the next morning were flown to Kennedy connecting to Air India.  Finally, after 13 hours direct flight arrived in Delhi but lost two days in the field due to internal flight and land travel connections.  Arrived on a Sunday, all the tourists’ sites were closed but the flying carpets stores were not. I got to see the cobra dancing to the sound of flute player as well as other sites.

 Departed Delhi on a Monday and flew to Bagdogra where a driver was waiting to drive to Manybhanjung to spend the night.  Next morning drove to Tumling in Singalila Park in an antique Land Rover via extremely difficult stone roads climbing to up to around 12,000 feet, where home was to be for 5 days.  Home was split between Tea Houses at Gairibas and Kalapokhri.  The accommodations were spartan the nights cold and the food simple; drank lots of tea…which I really don’t like.  But the people compensated for all the travails; all friendly and willing to assist despite the communication challenges.  Entering Kalapokhri there is a lake with the shoreline lined with flags and not far from it, a Buddhist praying wall.

 Below is the main drag in Kalapokhri and the red house was my home and just across the street, the kitchen.  As I walked for lunch the first day, I saw this plastic chicken hanging in the wall.  The cook came, took it and say that was going to be lunch. It was a real chicken that was embalmed with special oil for preservation.  Well, the chicken appeared in a sauce but they prepare it by chopping the whole thing into small bites.  There was no much meat so I gave up because feared getting choked with the tiny chips of bones; did not want to risk the rest of the adventure.  They also use a strange design terracotta fireplace.  At this altitude there are not many trees so the firewood came from the lower elevations of the protected Park forests.  There is/was a communal water faucet in the village that appeared that was no longer working.

 The daily routine was to wake at day break and hit the bamboo forest in the search for the elusive red pandas.  In the early mornings it was cold but after walking the steep trails for ½ an hour, it was time to remove some layers of clothes.  The trails were going up and down the trails in the mountains; we did this for most of the days with not a panda to be seen, in fact, no wild animals at all.  As you know, cows in India are everywhere, and to my surprise, occasionally I will run into a cow in the forest trails, they just stood there and watched this stranger walking by.  The absence of furry and for that matter feather ones too, was compensated by flowering trees.  Rhododendrons were numerous exhibiting a variety of colors, but in the USA these are small bushes but here they grow into huge trees.  The magnolias were also flowering with huge white, and sometimes with a slight pinkish color flowers. The ground was covered with bunches of pink flowers.

 After roaming around the Himalayas, it was time to descend to the lowland and drive back in the antique Land Rover to Maneybhanjung to catch a train to Guwahati where the next saga will begin. About these old Land Rovers, they were made with aluminum bodies that were usually painted green.  As you can see below, now these vehicles had the paint removed showing the aluminum metal that is kept clean and shiny.  Most of the mechanical parts and the instrument panels are not original ones but of mixed ancestry.  But they still work and wondered how those tires held together riding over those stone roads. More about this trip coming soon.

Tuesday, February 16, 2016


 I first visited the land of the Vikings in 1984, and returned regularly until 1994.  Back then you could walk around the capital and see the sights in half a day.  No more, I found during my recent visit that the city has grown with high rise apartments and businesses sprouted where there was nothing. There are expressways and most of the former country roads are paved.  Back in the old days there few places to eat or a room to spend the night in the back country. Now you cannot travel more than 3 miles without seen signs for a B&B.  The roads are fenced and trees have been planted when no trees were to be seen before. I do recall driving during whiteouts always afraid to run into wild ponies but they no longer roam free.

I maintained contact throughout the years with my Viking friends; they regularly visited the USA mostly to go to Disney World and for shopping sprees. I also served as a depot to have their vehicle spare parts sent for forwarding to Iceland.  It was time for me to collect; they treated me like loyalty, drove around, and most important, facilitated for me to go to places where tourists seldom set a foot. For example, we drove to the caldera of the volcano that recently disrupted airline flies over part of Europe; is the second image below of a snow drift tower taken at night time.

There are basically 2 seasons in Iceland, winter and summer.  I prefer winter since with an all-terrain vehicle one can go anywhere because the ice/snow, not need for roads…and there is the thrill of falling into a crevasse.  Yes, there are geysers, fumaroles, hot lagoons and other formations of tectonic origins, but don’t go there just for just that, since you can see bigger and more active ones in Yellowstone. Travel cross-country requires powerful vehicles and hardy Vikings to break the ice as seen in the video below.  We were able to drive to the caldera of the volcano that caused flight cancellations over Europe in 2012.

 In the early 80’s when I first visited, alcoholic beverages were not allowed in Iceland and beer was a smuggled commodity. Now you can have a Viking with some typical Icelandic delicacies…if you are brave.  You can have whale meat, puffins as well as other seabirds and Hakarl, fermented shark meat.  Hakarl smells and tastes like formaldehyde, a reaction from a brave taster is below.  Images taken with an iPhone so the quality is not the best but illustrates the point.

 Winter offers the best opportunities to photograph the aurora borealis (northern lights), ice caves and just landscapes in general; several images are below.  Note that in the first ice cave there is a frozen alien towards the upper right side. Back in the old days, you could have a cave all to yourself, no more, now the tourists come by the busload and one have to wait until they leave and hurry up before the other arrives. Iceland is not a tourist mecca.

Wildlife is scarce since most birds have migrated and the only endemic mammal is the arctic fox that is hard to find but I was lucky again.  The old barn has an overhang of lava rock, although I do not how this happens I assume that the lava flow stopped and the barn was partially covered by it.

 Black Beach is where blocks of ice that calved from the nearby Myrdalsjokull glacier are deposited.  All kinds of sizes and shapes, one can spend days photographing here and most favorable time would be at sunrise so the sunlight can be caught going through the ice.  You can imagine giant diamonds (2 versions of the diamond ice block attached; choose the one you like best) as well as animals shaped ice sculptures carved by nature. By the way for those into photography, I used a Canon 5S for these photos; this camera has delivered disappointing images due to their high noise levels and slow buffer.

The Dyrholaey Nature Reserve offers great opportunities for walking starting at the lighthouse and descending the trail to the beach.  The famous sea arch is below and at Kirkjufjara beach one encounters interesting rock formations and caves of volcanic origin with ice stalactites of various sizes and shapes; the last image remains me of an octopus.

 (For those curious ones, the names of the black rocks in the horizon are Stampur, Miosker and Skershali from left to right).

 The Reykjanes Power Geothermal Power Station is near Keflavik and I had the opportunity to have a private tour of the facility.  Iceland generates 66% of energy from geothermal heat that it is used for heating as well as for generating electricity.  When I first visited Keflavik in 1984 I was surprised with how the thermal heat is used.  Ninety % of the homes are heated that way by installing the hot water pipes under the floor…no electrical fans to move the air.  Most intriguing was that home driveways are also heated meaning no need to shovel snow.  And in some areas, parking lots, sidewalks and streets are also kept clear of snow that way. About 40% of the thermal heat generated in Iceland is converted to electric power.  This cheap electricity allows for the location of aluminum smelting facilities in the Iceland as well as most recent for the production of silica used in solar generating power. Electricity is also generated from hydroelectric that take advantage from the rivers draining the various glaciers.  Below some images of the power plant which includes a visitor center.

Thursday, January 7, 2016

The Atacama Desert

One of the places I always wanted to go.  It is considered the driest desert on earth and as a result my lips were all cracked and my hands dried up too.  It is cold at night and I really did not suffer much from heat in the daytime but sunburned. Surprisingly there is water in the Salares, small salty lakes where birdlife is abundant as well as a few species of rodents.  The terrain is varied with flat rocky areas, volcanoes and as can be expected, lots of sands and salt in the dried-up lakes.  San Pedro de Atacama, a small tourist town was the place from where I departed for the daily adventures; usually left before the sunrise and returned by sunset.  Two weeks before I arrived there was a rare rain period during which the desert was converted into a colorful flowered garden but by the time I got there, they were all gone. There are not trees unless they were planted by humans around the small villages.

Probably the bigger reason to go there is the colorful rough topography among the canyons and rock formations.  These are better photographed in the early and late afternoon. It is difficult to capture a representative set of images to characterize this desert due to the variety of formations caused by erosion throughout thousands of years.  The alluvial fans and the canyons are geological formations resulting from the action of water during eons of years?  Waters shows up as torrential rains in with an average rain fall of less than ½ inch per year and not every year.  There is a Valley of the Moon and a Valley of the Death and interestingly, there are valleys with the same names in the neighboring countries of Argentina and Bolivia. I did not bother to identify most locations where most of the landscapes were taken because the topography as in music, variations in a theme. The rock tower below is at the Salar de Tara.

 El Tatio is a geyser field not as extensive as those found in Yellowstone or Iceland but still a worthwhile visit.  In 2009 there were attempts to develop geothermal energy that failed resulting in abandoned equipment ruins the views.  The geyser field name in Quechuan means oven; several tourist tours brought breakfast to the field and their major attraction was to boil the eggs in the hot pools. It is a good strategy to get there early in the morning before the geyser field gets full of tourist ruining the landscape.  Do not expect to see frequent or very high geyser eruptions. In the road to the geyser field to there were fresh water lakes where several species of birds were nesting. The giant coot was most active making nests and a bit lazy. Below, one coot going to the nest being built by a gull; when the later was gone looking for more materials, the coot will come and steal it; that is why the gull was attacking the coot.  After delivering the stolen material to its nest, the coot exchanged places with the nesting one that in turn went to eat the grass at the bottom of the lake. The church at the closest village of Machuca dates back to 1765 has mud walls and the doors closed...no visitors allowed.

At the Laguna Chaxa national park where various species of birds where I photographed the Andean avocet and flamingos. There are also a lizards not found in other areas as well as Darwin’s leaf-eared mice. In the way back I stopped and visited the church in the village of Socaire where the door was open.

 I had never seen a vizcacha before but I was told that these were rare in the area and not easy to find.  I was lucky…saw a friendly couple that were not too active; one sat at the entrance to its cave totally ignoring me, so I got some shots. There were also rodents that lives in colonies called tuco-tucos because the calls they made.  As soon as they saw me they ran into their burrows, I sat on the ground and waited for about 15 minutes.  They came out and just ignored me while grooming and doing their tuco-tuco talk. Any fast movement or bird of prey flying overhead and they dove back into their tunnels; I had a great time with them.

I was adventuresome and flew a South African Aerotrike Delta ultralight with a wing made in Ukranie with engine from Austria. The flight was smooth overall and got the opportunity to take some aerial photography of the Valleys of the Moon and the Death.  The white color is not snow but mostly salt. The helmet was sliding behind my back all the time; I was afraid that it will be dragged by the wind into the propeller behind me. But the pilot assured me that in case of engine failure, we could safely glide and land.  I will do it again.

 It is time to move on to another adventure to the other end of the world, where there also geysers but a frozen environment; stay tuned.