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:

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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. 

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.