Packrafting the Schuylkill River, Philadelphia, May 2017

This was the most amazing thing I have done in Philadelphia, maybe ever! I’ll include specifics in case anyone wants to do this trip. I kind of want to go to other cities and do this- floating on a river in the middle of a bustling city on a beautiful day with my brother. My little brother, I am proud to say, is an Ohio-based journalist and outdoorsman and wrote this article about a packrafting/biking trip he took last fall. Being in the water, of course, is a new perspective on any city, even one that I think I know so well. And it is peaceful and fascinating as you float downstream looking at the urban landscape and the natural world,  invisible from the roads and buildings, tucked in along the riverbank and along the roads and bridges. Here’s a little turtle and its reflection in the center below:

What is a pack raft? The American Packrafting Association would be glad to tell you about it! Here’s another link about the history of this portable, strong, flexible form of water travel. It’s basically an inflatable kayak. Clearly I’m smitten. Here is what my brother’s packraft looked like in my dining room:

It rolls up to the size of a tent, weighs only five pounds, and inflates easily with a cleverly designed fill bag. The fill bag fills with air at one end then has a rolltop closure that traps the air and pushes it into the raft through a valve at the other end. It inflates quickly and easily this way. 

We rafted from the Art Museum to Bartram’s Gardens, both excellent places to visit in Philadelphia. We began by parking ($15 flat rate until midnight, not bad) in a surface lot in front of the Art Museum and its famous Rocky steps and we walked to the riverside park there- Schuylkill River Park. Look how portable the gear is! We were just downstream from a waterfall called Fairmount Dam- apparently there are eight such Falls on the river near downtown but we were able to raft for several hours without encountering any of them. Below the skateboard area of the riverside park, we went down to the river and found a flat spot to inflate the rafts and launch. Minutes later we were floating downstream admiring the views. 

We tried to figure out a launch site from the internet beforehand, and we read about one at Locust Street but I expected parking to be a problem there. Also, we wanted to start further upstream than Locust for the skyline views and the bridges. As we passed that area, the launch appeared to have a locked fence, so it doesn’t seem to be a public option. We merrily floated along on a cool, sunny day along interstate 76, under the 676 bridge, and past several large construction projects next to the river. 

Our route took us downstream, but the current was not strong and we felt we could have gone the opposite direction as well. The launch at Bartram’s Garden is public and I believe parking is free, so that may appeal to some as a starting point. 

We went under the Walnut street bridge (above), and had a nice perspective on the skyline and 30th Street Station (below). It was so quiet and peaceful there on the river. We saw only one motorized boat, a small city of Philadelphia boat going upstream. We also passed one kayaker near the end of our trip who was paddling upstream and gave us a wave. Overall, it was about 8 miles and 2.5 hours. Here is a link my brother found later that describes our journey. We put in near the Fairmount Dam near Philadelphia Waterworks (and the Art Museum as I mentioned) and we took the rafts out at Bartram’s Gardens Boat Launch

We paddled and floated down the river and eventually came to our take-out point. One could continue and reach the confluence of the Schuylkill and Delaware rivers, but I’m not sure of the conditions there. We passed this iron bridge just before reaching Bartram’s. 

We deflated the rafts, took apart the paddles, and packed everything into our backpacks. It was maybe a half-mile walk up through the fields and small parking lot of Bartram’s up to the fairly busy Lindbergh Boulevard. There we caught the #36 trolley back downtown. We got off at 19th and Market and walked about a mile back to the car. We also could have taken a cab, but it was such a beautiful day and we liked the idea of taking the streetcar and walking. I just loved the portability of the rafts; I couldn’t believe we went from river to trolley. It was also fun to notice that when the #36 went underground, we actually went under the same waterway we had just rafted down! Here we are shortly after leaving the banks of the river:

And that was the trip! So awesome! Thanks to Jonathan and to whoever was in charge of the weather that day! And to the “hidden river”, as its name translates from the Dutch, the urban Schuylkill. 

Mahabalipuram part 2

With the Elephant Wall on my left, I walked up a hill and saw the large round boulder known as Krishna’s Butter Ball. 

The story goes that as a child, Krishna liked butter so much that he would steal it from his mother. There are many stories about this in Hindu mythology. Here is a link to a cartoon in English about baby Krishna and butter. The rock  is famously lodged in place despite many attempts, including the notable 1908 one that involved seven elephants, to push it down the hill. Here’s another pic from a different angle with people nearby for perspective:

My guidebook was not too useful as a map at this point. I meandered around the largely unlabeled park to see if I could find  the structures from the book. I think the next place I saw is called Tirumurthy Cave, carved into the hillside rock.

Note the lingham below. Incense and candles were recently burned here. I also saw visitors praying at some sites. These temples are still used! 

The terrain was dry and the day was hot and sunny. I kept going, despite being confused on exactly where I was and what I was looking for. My map insisted that there were many structures here and I found several. It is very possible that I missed some, too, but I really enjoyed walking around and not knowing what was around the corner. It was not very crowded and if it hadn’t been for the scattered litter I would have felt at times like I was discovering the place. 

There were goats and monkeys, too!

I climbed up a hill and many steps to see this temple, perched up high and with a view of the ocean. 

I went back down to the driver and we headed to the next site a short drive away.

Chennai and Mahabalipuram, India, March 2017

Back in Chennai we went to a fancy movie theater. We watched a great movie based on a true story – Lion. A young boy in India gets lost, becomes adopted by an Australian couple, and goes back to India to locate his biological family 25 years later. Details from the ornate theater:

We also went to the beach. It was  ten minute tuktuk ride from MB’s place. Despite what I had heard, it was a clean beach with people swimming and anti-litter announcements on a loudspeaker. I was excited to see the ocean from India, since I had spent the previous visit mostly in the desert. We were at the Bay of Bengal, across the water from southern Myanmar.

The last big thing I wanted to do before leaving Chennai was see the ruins of Mahabalipuram. This is a UNESCO world heritage site 50 km south of Chennai. It has gorgeous ruins from the 7th and 8th centuries when it was an important commercial and cultural center and seaport. I stressed out about how to get there and back- I am so programmed to take the frugal option (local bus) but I ended up hiring a cab for the day. The bus station was far from MB’s apartment and the bus ride was three times as long as the car ride. The cab would take me to the various sites and cost under $30 for the entire day. It felt indulgent to have an air-conditioned car and driver all to myself, but I splurged. It was my last day of this excellent trip, and I would be back in plenty of time to meet MB after work for a last evening hanging out. The driver picked me up at the apartment and off we went. The drive had some rural parts, but was almost completely through commercial urban streets. It felt like the city of Chennai stretched on and on. There were occasional glimpses of the water. Eventually we came to the first stop, the Shore Temple. 

According to the guidebook I bought here, this is the only surviving of seven original temples built on these shores in the 7th and 8th centuries by the Pallava Dynasty kings Mahendravarman and his son Narasimhavarman I. This southern India dynasty ruled from 275 CE to 897 CE and introduced influential script and architectural styles in the region. This particular temple has UNESCO World Heritage status and is known as the best example of Pallava architecture. It was awesome to see, especially with the Bay of Bengal so close by. 

The next stop was the Elephant Wall, which seemed to be at the main Mahabalipuram site and town center. The driver took my photo by the impressive carvings, then I was let loose to wander the ruins of the main park. 

The wall is called Arjuna’s Penance, referring to the trials endured by the Mahabharata hero in order to obtain Shiva’s weapon. It also tells the story of the birth of the Ganges river though actions of the sage Bhagiratha and the Hindu deity Shiva. My guidebook describes “the triple world of Gods and demi-Gods, of human beings, birds and animals and of Nagas and Nymphs- all fitting harmoniously”into the 100 feet long by 45 foot tall bas-relief. It is stupefying and stunning and gorgeous. 

The middle structure above is a few feet away from the Wall. It is carved into the rock and has lovely columns and more wall carvings inside.

More in next post!

Bangalore part 3

Shrine on a busy street around the corner from our hotel. It was open in the mornings and evenings for people to pray and offer flower garlands to the dieties.

I still had two days more in Bangalore! I felt satisfied with the sight-seeing and decided to hang around Kormangala, the neighborhood of our hotel. I walked around quite a bit, went to a hyper-modern mall called The Forum, and a kind of dated cement building, “the BDA complex” that was a sort of mall. BDA was very local with food stalls, bus ticket vendors, fax services, and guys with typewriters sitting outside ready to type documents for locals.  Up the unlit staircase, though, were three tourist shops and no western tourists to be seen. Two of these shops were unremarkable but I liked Tribes India. I enjoyed shopping there and at the modern mall, and looking at the shops in-between as I walked around. I also got a Thai style foot massage (yes, I was on vacation!), had as many coconuts as I could handle from the street vendors, and ate great Indian food. With MB, we went out for excellent Italian food, and to one of the many dessert places afterwards. 

Fancy dessert above, street coconuts below

Our last day was only half a day since we were leaving on an afternoon train. This was to be one of my favorite events of the trip. I love India Rail. My family and I had ridden many times last year but never in the Business Class Express like we were to do today. We had an adventure getting to the station, since the taxi dropped us off at the subway entrance and a station employee had to walk us, laden as we were with our luggage, across a scorching hot field to the back entrance of the train station. It felt a little desolate and strange but we found the train platform after a short walk. 

We were early so there was time to savor the vibrant milieu of the large train station. We saw women in every type of sari from the sequined to the basic, all with unexpected combinations of color and pattern. Many women had ankle bangles, bilateral nose rings, and other adornments. Men, some with hennaed hair, wore skirts or suits or buttoned shirts with dress pants. Some children had startlingly elaborate outfits of shiny fabrics and more bling than BeyoncĂ©. Often, people were carrying suitcases, even the wheeled style designed to be pulled behind, on their heads. Hand painted wooden signs marked the platform numbers. A loudspeaker informed of arrivals and departures in several languages with a musical trill before each announcement. A shrine and food vendors filled the cement area where people awaited their trains. I sighed happily into one of my favorite things in the world: travel, more specifically train travel, and even more specifically, an India Rail station waiting for my train. 

It got better as our train arrived on time and we were able to negotiate sitting together. We had assigned seats that were bought separately and weren’t together, but fellow travelers were pleasantly accommodating. We had padded, upright seats unlike the benches and beds of my previous experiences. Then the five-hour trip began. 

We were given about four snacks and one large meal by attentive servers rolling serving carts down the aisles. Welcome drink, evening tea, dinner, snacks. No vendors in he aisle, just uniformed ‘meals on wheels’ guys bringing us treat after treat. Outside the window: fields, farmers, sheep, a rocky hill, a deep round stone-lined well with floating stairs spiraling down, trash, parrots, cement buildings, coconut trees, so much to see out the window. 

And the sounds: the rhythmic clacking of the wheels on the rails, the tinkling of tea cups on saucers, people talking in Tamil and Kannad and Hindi, the food cart rolling by, random pop music from a cell phone, and the background rumble down the tracks as we went back to Chennai. 

Bangalore, India, part 2

After the Cave temple, we went to the Ganesh temple, known for a Ganesh statue made of 90 kilos of butter and for the Bull temple next door. Maybe I shouldn’t have, but other people were taking selfies next to the ‘no cameras ‘ sign, plus I had to document the scene, so:

Ok that’s what I get for taking a selfie at a holy site. Here’s a slightly better photo of the butter elephant god with his shirtless caretakers:

The statue reminds me in a big way of the Ohio State Fair Butter Cow, the pride of Ohioans everywhere and which I know about because I lived in Ohio for many years. Only of course, this is India, and this is Ganesh and the American Dairy Association is nowhere in sight! There were people lined up at the railing getting blessed. It was also a bit of a tourist scene with vendors lining the sidewalks outside. Here is the outside of the temple:I followed a fellow bus tourist to a set of steps next door, which we ascended to find the Bull Temple. And there it was, a 14-foot tall sculpture of Nandi, the bull vehicle of Krishna. 

Here is the outside of the Bull temple:

Our next stop was a diner for lunch near Lalbagh Botanical Gardens, which goes back to 1700’s royal gardens and is now run by the government horticulture department. After lunch, we walked through the park and saw some of its sights: a bonsai garden, large lake, many trees, flowers, and this rock area said to be 300 million years old. I liked the small temple and the view of the city from there.

large tree, topiary trees, bonsai tree:

Many flowers!

It is 240 acres and I could have spent more time here. But it was hot, and the air-conditioned bus awaited at the other end of the park. We walked through and got on the bus. We next went to see two government buildings that face each other. We couldn’t enter the buildings but we admired them from the road. The red one is Attara Kacheri and houses the high court of Karnataka. By the way, we were in Bangalore in Karnataka state now, not Tamil Nadu, the state of Chennai. The white building is Vidhana Soudha and houses the Karnataka legislature. It had a carving that tells us ‘government work is God’s work’ and a golden central dome supported by four lions back to back. Wow!

I’d love to see inside, but it is restricted. The day was getting on and we were headed to the government museum. As we rode on the bus, I spoke with the other passengers and we saw Bangalore life out the window:

We made a brief stop at a silk store, which sold garments of famous Karnataka silk. Several fellow passengers mumbled complaints about high prices and I don’t think any of us bought anything. We were ready for the museum. The building was as lovely as the photos I had seen- red with red columns and white accents. There were prehistoric articles in simple displays inside and many sculptures inside and outside.

Next door is the Venkatappa Art Gallery, named for a noted court painter from the early 1900’s. The friezes and paintings by the eponymous artist were beautiful, and as a court artist born in 1886 to a family of court painters, he surely led an interesting life. 

On the upper floors were displays of wood carvings by a man named C. P. Rajaram and paintings by an artist named Hebber. 

I wasn’t allowed to take photos of Hebber’s works, but here is a screen grab from some search images for his name.

He lived until the mid-1990’s after a life of international study and accomplishments. His work was colorful and bold and focused on his home country. 

Leaving the museum, I was struck by the contrast of the historic museum building and the modern construction nearby.

That was the end of the bus tour. I found my way home from the museum area, since the bus driver told me it was closer to my hotel than the bus station where we had started and where the bus was headed. I was tired and happy to meet MB for dinner. That was day one in Bangalore!

Bangalore, India, March 2017

Our taxi driver took us from Bannerghatta to the Shiva temple, then to our hotel in the Kormangala section of Bangalore. Here MB had to work for a few days because it was exam time for the students learning to be Montessori teachers. 

I was told repeatedly that Bangalore is not a tourist place, but rather it is a corporate city with many IT companies. Looking online, the things to do here are heavy on team building i.e. Escape Rooms, ropes courses and the like. There are also, of course, several spots of interest to the traveler such as myself. The state sponsored KTSDC tour boasted that all the Bangalore hot spots could be visited in a day in their air-conditioned bus for about $6 USD. The pickup point was an hour from our hotel, per the internet. I would find me a tuktuk and get myself to the Kempegowda bus station and join the tourist brigade. What could go wrong?

Hindu statues outside the cave temple 

There are many bad reviews online about this company, but damn the torpedoes, I thought, how bad can it be? For one thing, I just can’t go wrong with the story. I either have fantastic material for an entertaining cautionary tale, or I have a great time and enjoy it again while writing. For another thing, MB was teaching for 3 days in Bangalore and I was being a solo tourist by day and hanging out with her in the evening. 

Bull temple in Bangalore 

I am pleased to report, dear reader, that it was awesome!! I saw the best of Bangalore, and I met people and had such a great day. I was the only foreigner on the bus, rather make that the only European descended foreigner because we were all visitors to Bangalore. I met two families with children and an older couple. I saw at least seven places during the eight-hour day, much more than I would likely have managed on my own. I felt I had enough time at each place. The guide made announcements in English for me. We stopped at an affordable diner type of restaurant for lunch and my fellow travelers helped me get back to the bus each time we stopped. 

Lunch above, free food from the Krishnas (Dahl in a leaf bowl with yellow jalebi I bought) below

Back to Kormangala. It’s a rather affluent neighborhood with the Montessori school, many restaurants and large mansions. There were street cleaners whisking litter into piles with a branch broom in each hand.

It was cleaner than Chennai and, as everyone liked to point out, cooler with less humidity. I would miss MB as she worked but I was quite happy traveling on my own. 

First stop the ISKCON temple above, bus with our guide (standing) below.

My first day in Bangalore I joined KSTDC on their day-long tour of Bangalore sites. This excursion looked promising; I would be taken around the city in an air conditioned bus to major sites on a full day tour over about eight hours. Online reviews were grim, but it sounded great to me, and how bad could it be? The price was low and I had a couple of days afterwards to see the sights on my own if I didn’t like it. I made plans to get up early and go. 

Japanese garden with sculpture and bonsai trees

I found a tuktuk and went to the Kempegowda bus station. This took close to an hour from Kormangala. I loved seeing the city from the back of the tuktuk as people went through their morning routines: kids going to school, street sweepers with their two brooms each, prayers and offerings at roadside shrines, the jumble and color of people and traffic. 

The bus station was enormous. The driver seemed to know where I was going, though, since I had told him KSTDC. I got out and wandered, eschewing the advice given to me by a local guy to go ‘that way’. Turned out he was right as he directed me to an air conditioned waiting room for the bus tour. I paid and waited and watched a nature program that was on TV and happened to be in English. 

So what do you do on a whistle stop tour of Bangalore? The modern ISCKON temple was first. ISKCON, built in 1997, is the International Society Krishna Consciousness. We left our shoes on the bus as advised and followed a circuitous route past different information posters, donation areas, and places to leave shoes. It felt like a line for a roller coaster. Then we ascended the stairs into the temple. It was very large and had beautiful wooden doors and a very high ceiling. There were robed men near an altar at the front of the temple, and people lined up for blessings. A carpeted central space had many people sitting, praying, and enjoying the place. They gave us rice and dahl. No photos were allowed in the massive, modern temple, but here are a few of the door and outside. 

Next we went to Sultan palace. The foreigners price was over 12x the locals price, which we all agreed was exhorbitant since there wasn’t much to see and we would only be there a few minutes. Here is the view from behind the gate:The guide apologized and showed me the historic Vishnu temple next door. I wandered around. A monk gave me flowers. There were people lined up at a rail for blessings and a Chinatown style Hindi gate inside. I have seen these gates in Bangalore streets as well.  I bought a coconut to drink. I did this as often as I could on this trip because they are so good. The vendors will slice them for you after you drink the water so that you can eat the tender juicy coconut meat inside. They thoughtfully cut you a spoon from the coconut shell as well!

Next was the Cave temple. Sra Gavigangadharashwariswaml Temple, to be precise. It is an underground, rock cut temple going back to the 9th century. After descending the steps into the damp dimly lit cave, I joined the other able-bodied in walking the full circular path to the left in a statue laden tunnel behind the altar. It came out on the right side of the altar. It was damp and musty for sure but what an extraordinary place! Over a thousand years old and full of magic. I had to bend over to fit in places, passing statues with red powder on their faces from all the faithful experiencing this place. 

This post is getting too long, I’ll continue next post! 

Shiva temple, Bangalore, India, March 2017

We left Bannerghatta in a taxi and headed for Bangalore, but first we had to see the sixty-foot Shiva. We went to the RVM Foundation Shiva temple on Airport Road. Shiva is the creator and destroyer in Hinduism, also described as creating, transforming, and protecting the universe. The large temple was a place of worship and had definite funhouse vibe as well. We walked through the tunnel in the fabricated “mountain” below: 

Below is the outside of the tunnel. The rounded black object near the center is a lingam, a representation of Shiva that is found in natural and man made sculptures. 

There was music and chanting piped into the tunnel, which had dioramas of different Hindu sacred sites and was lit with black lights in some places. Many scenes depict the location of lingams throughout India. We bought a plate with items (below) which were thrown into a fire by a Hindu priest who blessed us with each item one by one.

There was a thirty-foot Ganesh there as well. 

A different Hindu priest tied red bracelets around our wrists as we walked through the temple grounds. Another area had 108 bowls into which people dropped coins, one coin into each metal bowl. It was an interesting place, a little commercial and fabricated perhaps, but full of colors and music and incense in the air.