Friday, November 28, 2014

Viva Chile!

Central Chile is at the same latitude as California’s, but on the other side of the equator. One overnight trip transformed my world from winter to summer. The sun was already shining bright early in the morning when I landed in Santiago. I purchased a prepaid taxicab to go to my hotel. I was so glad I did that; all signs at the airport were in Spanish, and hardly anybody spoke English. The taxi driver was quite friendly. He smiled and nodded his head for whatever I asked him. I settled my score with him very soon. For anything he asked me in Spanish, I did the same too. That was my first public encounter in Santiago, and it gave me an idea on how I would have to depend on voice intonations and sign language for communication in the coming days.

At Parque Arauco Shopping Mall

Las Condes, Santiago

Santiago was much bigger than I had imagined before. There were tall mountains in all directions. The mountains on the Andes range seemed to reach the sky. My hotel was in the posh Vitacura neighborhood of the city. I was surprised to see so many multistory buildings given how seismically active this part of the world was. No sooner I lay down on the bed in my room on the 8th floor than I felt a sudden shake of the ground. It was an earthquake - 4.8 on the Richter.

I got a chance to go around Santiago and experience a few things during my one week stay. The highlight was the soccer match between Chile and Uruguay. Watching an international soccer match in the soccer frenzy nation was an unbelievable experience. I went to see the game along with my friend, Pablo. The game was at Estadio Monumental, a soccer stadium with the beautiful Andes mountains in the backdrop. The game started at 9 in the evening. La Roja fans filled the stadium an hour in advance. They shouted “Chi chi chi he he he viva Chile” all the time - before and during the game, and that echoed in my ears even after the game and all through the night. Chile played better, but Uruguay won the game 2-1.

Chile vs Uruguay at Estadio Monumental

I roamed around the city center for a couple of days during evenings. The city had a festive look all the time. The street vendors sold clothes, toys, sun glasses, caps, electronics, and many more things. I tried bargaining for some stuff a couple of times, but the language barrier did not let the sellers and I understand each other. Understanding the conversion factor Chilean Peso was tricky. I solved the conversion problem in my own way: 1000 Pesos ~ 100 Indian Rupees. The most economical place to shop I found was just outside Patio Bellavista (not inside Patio Bellavista). I found Los Dominicos handicraft village the best place to window shop. The prices here were outrageous. Chilean Pesos were already multiples of 1000s. The sellers in this village had added a few more 0s to the right.

Near Patio Bellavista

Being a vegetarian, eating out was always challenging. I learned the basic Spanish phrases - “Vegitariano, no carne, no pollo, no piscado” - and repeated them a few times in every time I ordered the food. Some restaurants had one person who would know little bit of English, and that helped a lot. I found soon that they served sparkling water if you did not ask for water with no gas - “sin gas.” At one of the restaurants, I explained my food restrictions to the waiter. He seemed to have understood my requirements very well. He suggested me a dish that was on the menu. I wanted to know what one of the ingredients meant. He tried explaining it in Spanish. I asked him what was the “nombre in Ingles?” He went in, asked somebody, returned, and said, “Octopus”. Had I not insisted on understanding what the dish was made of, I would have probably ended up tasting an Octopus.

 Papas Duquesa

Vegetarian Platter

On the last day of my stay, I took a tour bus to Vina del Mar and Valparaiso. The two cities are on the Pacific coast, about an hour and a half from Santiago. Vina del Mar was good; Valparaiso was better. I wish there was a tour bus just for Valparaiso. The roads running up and down the hills, colorful houses, picturesque scenery with Pacific Ocean in the backdrop, beautiful murals on the buildings, etc. makes this place an artist’s paradise.

The streets of Valparaiso

Tuesday, July 01, 2014

Finding Blossom Trail

2014 has been the worst year for my blogging since I began doing it a few years ago. This is not because I have not much to share. I, in fact, have so much to write about that I am overloaded with a huge backlog.

March 1st, Saturday: We decided to explore this supposedly one of the most picturesque trails of California - Fresno's Blossom Trail. If not for Sierra Nevada, Fresno would be one of the most boring places in the state. On this particular day we would probably be the only folks from Northern California going all the way to Fresno for sightseeing.

When we searched for the blossom trail on our little smart phones, they took us to a sleepy town of Sanger in the Fresno suburb. After driving for about 3 hours we ended up at this town that had all but cherry blossom trees; there were acres of land waiting to be watered in the drought ridden California. I stopped my car at a gas station to enquire about the famous blossom trail. The attendant showed me the direction to a place that turned out to be Blossom Trail Inn. The next few minutes my wife and I scrambled our smartphones to get more information about the trail.

My wife found something in Reedly, which was a few miles south east of Sanger. Perhaps that place had the so called "Blossom Trail", but we landed there in despair. There was no Blossom Trail anywhere. There were a few private cherry orchards with a big sign, "Private Property. Trespassers will be prosecuted." I once again pulled over at a gas station in Reedly (Why do I always stop at a gas station? That's because that was the only place where I could find people. The roads were empty, otherwise.) The lady at the gas station pointed me across the street and said, "That's the Blossom Trail." I looked outside the window and asked her, "There? But there are only some warehouses?" She said, "Yes, that's it." We were duped once again. We drove next to those big warehouses and just made a U turn. Kids showed signs of restlessness after sitting in the car for more than four hours. The gas station lady also told me that there was a sign board for the Blossom Trail. I drove up and down the same road a few times searching for the sign. That frustrated the kids and their Mom even more.

After being behind the wheels for five hours, we gave up looking for the so called, world popular, beckoning Blossom Trail. We decided to go towards Fresno, and then head back to San Jose. On our way back we stopped at a private cherry orchard where an old man was strolling inside the orchards. I asked him about the Blossom Trail. He was extremely rude. Whatever he said sounded like, "Just get out of my property." We went a little further to find a small patch of cherry trees. There was nobody in the orchard. It was indeed a private orchard, so what the heck, we got out of our cars and took some nice pictures with the kids. I also took this picture, the one below, which puts me in awe. The orchard looks grander and more beautiful in the picture than it really was. Somethings really look good in the pics.

Saturday, February 01, 2014

Ranganathittu Bird Sanctuary

Ranganathittu Bird Sanctuary deserves more hype than it gets today. Full credit goes to the Forest Department of Karnataka for maintaining the park so well. The park is visitor friendly – has good parking space, a restaurant, an information center, and boat ride services. There’s not much one can see without a boat ride. The boats take visitors close to the small islets that are crowded by trees and shrubs. Nature has designed these islets as perfect places for the birds to breed.

The boatmen who take the visitors around the river know everything about the birds. Their eyes are sharper than that of the birds: they locate the tiniest bird camouflaged in bush by even closing their eyes. They show all the birds – pelicans, storks, spoonbills, hornbills, terns, egrets, darters, herons, cormorants, and also explain their characteristics and behavior in great detail. They also give some good tips to amateur as well as professional photographers about what makes a bird’s picture a great one, and how to capture such pictures.

Ranganathittu Birds Sanctuary

I got a chance to visit Ranganathittu last December. At first, I settled myself for a short 10 minute boat ride. That was around 4:30 in the evening. The boatman saw my excitement and gave me a few tips. First, he suggested that I go for another boat ride at the time of sunset as that was the time all the birds returned home. Second, that the 10 minute wasn’t good enough and that I took the more expensive personalized ride for about an hour. He assured me that it would be one of the most memorable boat rides of my life.

My second boat ride was way more expensive – Rs. 1000 for half an hour. I thanked my stars for being an Indian national at that moment; it would have cost me Rs. 2000 if I were a foreign national. (It’s unbelievable and also deplorable that foreign nationals are given differential treatment at almost all places of tourist interests around Mysore). Siddu, my boatman steered the boat to every interesting corner of the river showing me some of the exotic birds. Then he parked the boat for about 10 minutes at a place that would show me the nature’s celestial dance. It was at this time of the day all birds return home in flocks. Hundreds of birds – mostly egrets – returned home in flocks. This was indeed the best experience of the day.

These are some of the pictures that I could capture with my lens.


Spot-billed Pelican

 Spot-billed Pelican

 Spot-billed Pelican

Spot-billed Pelican

 Black-crowned Night Heron - Juvenile

Black-crowned Night Heron
Black-crowned Night Heron

Asian Openbill

Asian Openbill

Asian Openbill

River Tern

River Tern

River Tern

Large Egret

Little Cormorant

Purple Heron


The Celestial Dance of Birds Returning Home



 Little visitors

Price Board

Friday, November 22, 2013

Light Painting

I had always wondered how some of the night shots published in the photo magazines were so catchy. I tried taking pictures at night, but after a few attempts I was convinced that night photography was not just about mounting the camera on a tripod and setting the shutter for a long exposure. My pictures had very little contrast, and the subject didn’t stand out. There was something special about taking good pictures at night that I did not know.

Thanks to my wife for presenting me the best birthday gift ever. I got a chance to participate in "Light Painting Night Photography Workshop" conducted by Tim Baskerville, the director of The Nocturnes group. Tim specializes in night photography and has many decades of experience in the field. He gave participants some great insights about night photography. The gist of his presentation was: First, night photography gives you ample opportunity to control the light on your subject as there is little or no external light. Second, long exposure allows you to be creative – it allows you to paint your subject with light.

In the picture below, the anchor is hardly visible even after a 5 minute exposure. The second picture is light painted. One of the workshop participants walked near the anchor,  and waved a flashlight pointing at the anchor for a few seconds.One could notice some light streaks toward the left of the picture. That's because proper care wasn't taken not to point the light source at the camera.

The picture where no light painting was done

Anchor and some areas around the anchor are light painted using a tungsten flashlight. The wall on the back was also light painted, but with little light when compared to that on the anchor.

In these pictures we painted the graves with colored lights to give it a spooky effect.

The grave with a 5 minute exposure. 

The picture with the same exposure setting as the previous one. Tim got his colored flashlights and painted the graves with different colors

More rows are painted in this picture. So are the trees and the tall grave in the background. 

This is an example of light drawing. Tim used one of his flashlights that had a low luminosity. He pointed it towards the camera and made the hand movements to write these words. Of course he is not visible in the picture because he didn't stay at one place for long enough to get captured, and he did not reflect any light. Also, he switched off the light when he moved from one letter to another.

Overall, it was a great experience to participate in the workshop. It is a workshop every photography enthusiast living in the San Francisco Bay Area should consider to attend.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

El Yunque National Forest, Puerto Rico

Puerto Rico is an amazing place. I was there last week for my third business trip. I had no time to go out of San Juan during my first two visits. I was fortunate to explore this gorgeous island this time. I asked the hotel manager at the front desk, "Tell me something unique that I can experience in Puerto Rico." She said, "You should hike LUK forest." I googled LUK, LUK forest, but found no results. It took a while for me to discover that it was not LUK, but El Yunque. An online review suggested that one should go early in the morning, and finish all activities at the forest by 11, because it starts raining around that time every day of the year. That makes El Yunque a tropical rain forest.

I got up early in the morning and drove through the deserted highways towards El Yunque. The road was easy until Route 191. Then it got tricky despite signs to go the forest; the road was narrow, and it went through a residential neighborhood for the first few meters (yes, meters. They follow meter and liter system in Puerto Rico. However, the speed limit signs are in miles per hour. Couldn't resist this digression.).

There was not a single soul in the forest. I parked my car near La Mina trail, and started descending towards La Mina falls. The trail was steep at places, and a bit slippery too. The only sound I could hear was that of the La Mina stream. The birds, crickets, and el coqui all seemed to have disappeared. There were many types of trees and shrubs - palms, bamboos, ferns, tall trees, dwarf trees, flowering plants, and so on. I wish I were a botanist to name them all. There was nothing spectacular about La Mina falls, but what made it interesting was a nice little pond just ahead of it. I got into the water, jumped and played like a monkey, and there was nobody to bother me. I stayed in the water until I got bored, and then made my way up to the parking lot. The hot, humid weather, and the steep, slippery trail made the uphill trek a bit challenging.

Finally I saw humans when I reached the parking lot. They were all there at once scrambling to find a parking spot. No sooner I sat in the car, than it started raining cats and dogs. I looked at my watch, and it was exactly five minutes past 11.

It's a custom that every visitor to El Yunque forest visits the Luquillo Kioskos on the way back. This small stretch on the side of highway 3 has about 50-60 food stalls. I stopped at a Peruvian restaurant and had Pina-colada, and Veggie Paella. The food was refreshing.

 The trail map
 The parking lot

La Mina Trail

The forest


La Mina Falls

La Mina Stream

La Mina Stream

 La Mina Stream

 La Mina Stream

 The trees

The trees

 The trees

 A spider

 A Flower

A Flower

 More Flowers


 Parasite Plants - there were there on all trees


 A view of the forest

 El Yunque Peak

 The view from my table at the restaurant

Pina Colada