Ohio, July 2017

I estimate I have made this trip about 50 times, roughly thrice a year since Fiercely was born, give or take. That’s a lot of miles!! Each trip has memorable and forgettable parts of course. We took a different route this time, a welcome change from the way I usually get there. I’m still not happy about having to drive at all after literally going around the planet with almost no driving, but we always have a good time once we are there. This time, we saw some Amish areas, did some Jazzercise, went packrafting, and had a garage sale and a surprise party. 

As for getting there, we took the turnpike, NOT recommended since it costs close to $40 and drivers are subjected to overpriced gas and food in the service plazas the whole way across Pennsylvania. On the positive side, it did lead us to some nice country roads as we meandered north and east after entering the Buckeye State. One was Middlefield, 4th largest Amish settlement in the world, according to the sign we passed. Horses and buggies sharing the road, laundry on the line, houses without electric wires, more buggies in driveways, and miles of pasture and cultivated fields. We saw plenty of non-Amish Ohioans on riding mowers on this sunny July day as we ambled along. We saw a lot of gardens bursting with flowers and vegetables. July is such a beautiful time of year in rural Ohio. 

This buggy was parked behind me at a store!

One morning, we joined my about-to-turn 76 year old mom at Jazzercise. This was a stark contrast to a quiet, contemplative yoga class I had taken a day or two earlier. Thumping pop music, relentless Midwest cheerfulness, bright and optimistic faces from our leader and us, sweating in the little Knights of Columbus building on Mentor Avenue. Here we are, three generations in spandex and sneakers.

Then we were back at the suburban subdivision. The heyday of the neighborhood garage sale seems to have passed for Concord Township, at least in my parent’s area. There weren’t as many sales or customers as in previous years, according to my Dad. We did, however, get to haul out a lot of stuff to the driveway and wear gorilla suits with the neighbor kid. Dang-can’t find the photo! Maybe later…

The surprise party turned into a reverse surprise party! Family dynamics being what they are, it happened that the object of the party had to be informed to make the timing work out and to keep the main party planner happy. There were still many surprises such as a homemade tiramisu cake and some friends who stopped by. And we got this family photo-so rare for us all to be together- my parents, siblings, and kids. Yes, I have the only grandkids unless you count pets!

So many parks! Hoping to go kayaking and packrafting with my brother, we drove back to Middlefield area to Headwater Park where there are free kayaks but no swimming. We passed at least three other parks on our way to Headwater. On this sunny July Sunday it was packed with a long waiting list so we headed to Fairport Harbor where we could take turns on Jonathan’s two packrafts and also swim and play at the beach. Kayaks there were also unavailable with so many people enjoying the beach that day. We took turns and enjoyed Lake Erie, watching the other kayaks, a sailboat or two, and the lovely sky. 

Bike trip part 3

Technically the biking part was over, but we had more traveling to do since we had to cross NY state to get home. We Fantastic 6, our bikes, plus dog Pippin (with wildflowers above!) rumbled and rambled in our overflowing car across upstate NY to Ithaca for a few days. It was all back roads of fields and forests until we reached ‘gorges’ Ithaca. 

We found a roadside ice cream place, below:

And we hung out downtown: that’s a mural on a parking garage, and the kids at the awesome Ithaca library:

And we spent time at the cabin and our property there, too:

Eventually it was time to pack us all back into the car and head home until next time!

Bike trip June 2017, part 2


More narrow historic locks to the left, wider modern locks to the right

We had to see the famous “Flight of Five” locks for which this town is famous. We had learned a lot about locks and even stayed in a lock house on our last trip, and I find the system of transportation interesting. The Lockport locks were actually in use, the historic five alongside the newer locks, and we watched a tourist vessel go through the modern side. It was so cool to see the locks operate as we remembered walking in the dry lock spaces on the disused C&O canal. We also had seen historic, rather narrow locks operating in Carcassonne, France when we were there last year. Those seemed to be for tourists as well. We heard that Lockport does host some commercial boats, I think it was under 20 per year and I could not find details, but I’m impressed that locks have any modern commercial uses after becoming obsolete at least 70 years ago with the rise of railroads and highways. 

We biked into the city from the east along the Niagara river. The path was right next to the water for a while near the city borders. We could see Lake Erie. We were briefly on Unity Island, from which we could throw a stone into Canadian waters if we chose. We were near several bridges into Canada, and this old iron bridge (below) on the island. It was a nice place with fields and wildflowers, but unfortunately the path was closed so we had to go through a more trafficy urban area. The Buffalo neighborhood called Allentown had a colorful progressive vibe and was full of unique older houses with varied architectural styles. We stayed in a large apartment there for the night. We walked around and had a nice dinner at a Mexican bar/restaurant. Mr. Fantastic and the Fantastic dog set out on their own and found a dog park and an open mike comedy place which allowed Dogtastic to sit on Mr’s lap! 

Niagara Falls

We packed up the next day and headed to Niagara Falls. The cars were loaded with 12 bikes, 12 people, and a dog!

We stopped by the park next to the rapids upstream from the falls. Then we were there in the thick of it. I wasn’t excited to be heading to the tourist frenzy, but I was resigned to the plan. And I have to say, as uncomfortable as I am with large-scale, expensive tourist experiences, I concede that the Maid of the Mist was worth it. I have to report that it cost my family $95, or more than our daily budget in Thailand, for the 20-minute experience, but it was really neat. I’m particularly happy with my photos of the Falls from the boat.

And here are some from up top above the boat launch area:

After the boat ride, you can walk up these stairs (below) next to the Falls. I was mistaken in thinking 1.) we were walking back up all the way because 2.) we could and 3.) removing my raincoat because I was 4.)thinking it couldn’t be that wet. I got soaked and really couldn’t appreciate this view due to much spray and wet glasses! And then we took the elevator up.

The kids loved their raincoats and inflating them in the wind!

Erie Canal and Niagara Falls bike trip, June, 2017, part 1

It was fifteen miles on the Erie Canal, and then another fifteen, and another and so on with that old folk song ringing pleasantly in our ears (Pete Seeger version on link). The kids actually sang it after the first fifteen miles every day and we didn’t mind a bit! 

This trip was another dual family, 12 bike production by ourselves and the Wonderful family, with whom we have taken several similar trips over the years, eight trips over the past ten years to be exact. The kids have become more competent in biking as they age, though schedules have become more complex, so there was a late change to the schedule and I was not able to join in on the first few days. The group did the Erie Canalway Trail roughly from Lyons to Buffalo, NY, and then spent a morning at the US side of Niagara Falls. We were reluctant to do as much camping as previously due to one of the group becoming very ill with a tick-born disease on our last trip in 2015. We arranged to stay with a family friend east of Rochester, Red Rocks campground in Holley, a hotel in Lockport, and a rental apartment in Buffalo. It was about 125 miles biking in total. From Buffalo, we drove to Niagara for a trip to the Falls then parted ways.  My family went to Ithaca, NY and stayed at our cabin a couple of nights before heading back home. Below: roadside scenery and our bikes at the convention room at the hotel:

My story I was set to fly to Buffalo but it was not to be. After several delays in the terminal and out on the runway, my flight was cancelled. I was offered a flight that left almost 24 hours later-what?!-but was interested in making the 5- hour drive instead. With a few other passengers, I explored getting a taxi but things were not looking good. In the end, in another happy serendipitous travel event, I arrived in Buffalo via an all-nighter road trip in a rental car with a lovely young woman who was extremely motivated and willing to share driving and expenses. We were quoted by phone $600 (!!!?)from a popular rental company and after we recovered from that idea, we took a shuttle to a rental place and left with the vehicle for less than 1/3 that price. The whole experience made me feel great about trusting strangers and about the unexpected during travel and about humanity in general. And, how often does being over 40 feel like such an asset? It helped us get a better price for sure. Here we are just after we got the car:

Thank you, ML! I would not have done that all-night drive on my own! And, though a little sleep deprived and bedraggled, I returned the car and joined the gang. It was beautiful weather and there were many bridges and other things to see as we biked along. Check out the old swing bridge in the river below.

About this trail. It was not perfect, but there were excellent stretches. The locks were great, and there were some very nice parks and small historic towns along the way. On the downside, some stretches are not paved, there were often headwinds, we went on narrow shoulders on fairly busy roads at times, and signs such as the one above were rare so one could easily lose the trail. Below: enjoying a park east of Tonawanda, biking on a paved trail, bird sculptures on the Niagara River Corridor:The trail on Unity Island was closed for maintenance and so we had to bike through parts of industrial Buffalo. We used cellphones to navigate; in fact I wouldn’t recommend going on this trail without one. Overall, compared to the C&O trail we biked in 2015, the scenery was just as wonderful, it was less crowded, and many paths were better (more pavement, no large mud puddles) but the trailside amenities (campsites, signage) were scant. There were many beautifully landscaped parks and open spaces on the Erie, unlike the more shady and secluded C&O. These trails are all free to use and require maintenance, for which I’m sure budgets are tight, so I won’t complain, however I did want to compare these two Canal trails we have used. More to come. Below: a bridge with a counterweight and strange shape, biking close to traffic, kids on the trail near Buffalo city limits:

Leaving Chennai, March 2017

I caught a glimpse of myself in a mirror at the Frankfurt airport and saw the marks of India. I was wearing a brightly printed cotton tunic and an equally colorful shirt with a clashing pattern. The rainbow of fabrics continued on my woven, mirrored, camel motif purse slung over one shoulder. My little backpack was on my shoulders-I had packed most things into a woven plastic rice bag and sent it with checked baggage. I had a string bracelet on my wrist from the Shiva temple- four small beads and some sort of wrinkled nut. There was a red dot and a bindi on my forehead, my hair had a visible pink tint from playing Holi, and most of my fingernails still had a fuschia Holi stain. I had bags under my eyes and looked dazed from sleep deprivation and jet lag after leaving Chennai at 1:50am local time and a ten- hour flight here to Frankfurt, six hours behind. On top of all that, I was still dressed for 90 degree Chennai weather, but it was rainy and 50- something in Germany. I had a four-hour layover and was hoping for a nap. 

Thank you, sleepinginairports.net.  I took advantage of the free wifi at the Frankfurt airport and consulted this site from the comfort of a business lounge easy chair, accessible to any shmuck like me despite clearly not being a business traveler. With help from the site I located a quiet corner with a padded bench. I set an alarm, wrapped a scarf around my eyes as a sleep mask, used my backpack as a pillow and another scarf as a blanket, and settled down. 

Before I knew it (and luckily, because the volume was off on my alarm) I woke up and had about a half hour to get to my gate. Then I was boarding a thinly occupied cabin headed to Philadelphia. I’m not sure why the flights between Philly and Frankfurt were so empty, or how they can cover costs with so few passengers, but I was glad to stretch out on about four seats and enjoy the pillows, blankets, and on-demand movies as I had done on my flight out two weeks earlier. The 8-hour flight from Chennai had been packed full. And so I went, over the ocean, between vacation and non-vacation, suspended between my personal worlds and between earth and sky. Getting back to the family, work, grocery shopping, and the like would come soon but for now I was still at leisure, floating westward and back to ordinary life. I would consider all I had seen and done and the lovely long friendship I have had with MB. I would return to my family and to writing when I could. And to planning the next trip!

Mahabalipuram part 3

The driver next took me to Five Rathas, a site perhaps a mile from the main park. ‘Ratha’ means ‘chariot’and these structures, though massive, stationary, and carved from boulders, are shaped like mobile chariots and are positioned in a line as if part of a parade. There are gorgeous details in the rathas, and monolithic animals standing guard.

Next we went back towards the main park, I believe at the western end. There was an entrance here and a path to a staircase leading to a hilltop shrine. From there, I could see the lighthouse built in the late 1800’s, and the sea. The shrine itself seemed to rise from the rock. 

On the way up, there is Mahishasuramardhini Cave temple, another unbelievable structure carved from rock, with amazing carvings inside. My guidebook says that the scenes depict a battle with and defeat of buffalo-headed demon Mahishasura. You can see the demon holding a club-type weapon in the carving below.

Below, per guidebook, is “Lord Vishnu reclining on His serpent couch Adisesha”. Serpent couch!!!

And then to the upper structure. 

Here is the view with the lighthouse. I didn’t enter because it isn’t part of the ruins and I wasn’t interested, but one can go inside.

Beautiful!!! After this, we went to the town at the area with shops. Many sold rock carvings, from ones you could hold on your hand to some as tall as me. From there, the driver took me to a more modern temple, like many I’d seen in Chennai and elsewhere in India. I’m not sure why he took me there, but it was lovely. It is called Shri Vishnu Temple and it dates from the 14th century. I enjoyed walking around and noticing parallels with the more ancient structures.

Then we headed back to Chennai, me and my hired car. I enjoyed the air conditioning and watching, past the talismans on the dash, the chaos blooming around me.

That’s a giant load of hay in front of us, below:

Back in Chennai, we went out to dinner at this great restaurant in the mall near MB’s apartment. We did a photo shoot out front by the lions, of course. 

We ordered way too much food and enjoyed our time together until I had to get myself to the airport. And so this trip came to an end. Can’t wait for the next time, MB!! That goes for you, too, India!! I’ll close with a photo of this great plaque at MB’s apartment. It has the usual rules for apartment living, but the last line instructs “Live a happy life.” Yes!

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.