Birding in Florida

A recent trip to Marco Island and Key West in Florida during spring break was a short but wonderful (and much needed) getaway for the family after the forced stay-at-home for a year. We thoroughly enjoyed the warm weather, beautiful sunrises and sunsets, relaxing on the beaches, swimming, snorkeling, kayaking and even paddle boarding near the Florida keys.

For me, an added plus was the variety of wildlife, especially birds, that we got to see on this trip. Spring is mating, nesting, and migration season for many birds and we happened to be in the right place at the right time. We took a boat tour to the white sandy beaches full of seashells on Marco Island, and then hiked into the Everglades where we spotted so many colorful and unique species of birds along with dozens of lazy alligators tanning themselves out in the sun.

Though I have been photographing birds for a while now, bird photography for me has been typically restricted to my back yard where I have put up some feeders with bird food to try and lure pretty birds into obliging me with their portraits.

The biggest constraint for me is carrying around the size and weight of the super telephoto lens that are typically used for making bird photos. Another constraint is my fear of everything reptilian 😨 Typically bird habitats also include other wildlife and my absolute fear of stepping on snakes, frogs and other rodents and reptiles frequently overcomes my great desire to explore wildlife refuges and nature centers to photograph birds. This trip though, accompanied by family, I was able to bravely step foot into bird sanctuaries, and put my Canon RF 100-500mm lens to a lot of use.

On a boat tour near Marco Island, we saw osprey nests with baby ospreys, colonies of brown pelicans and royal terns besides ruddy turnstones and reddish egrets wading in the waters (click on images to view larger size).

The hike into Everglades was even more magical – enroute to Miami airport we stopped for a hike into a North Cypress mangrove that led us to a pond surrounded by teeming wildlife. There probably were 6-10 alligators in those marshy waters and several species of birds (little blue heron, great blue heron, american black vulture, barred owl, great egret – check out the slideshow below). The light was just right to capture a clear reflection of the birds and the whole atmosphere was one of peace and tranquility even though we were surrounded by wild predators!

After the North Cypress hike, we stopped by the Oak visitor center and right upfront we saw a dozen alligators lying around in the sun; seemed like a great idea and would have loved to join them but alas, we had a flight to catch to perennially cold Cincinnati. (P.C. Abhi Goel)

Sunrise Over Tea Estates in God’s Own Country

In November 2016, our trip to Kerala was a wonderful distraction from a series of major events that took place that month β€” we were witness to the initial chaos caused by demonetisation that had just been announced in India, were asked to comment on the “surprising” U.S. election results (that were announced on the same day as demonetisation), and experienced first hand Delhi’s deteriorating air quality amidst the worst air pollution in its history caused by burning of crops in neighboring states.

Empty Agra Expressway and toll booth in the initial days of demonetisation β€” I have never seen an empty road in India…let alone a highway that connects the Capital to one of the seven wonders of the world!

Kerala was a wonderful experience β€” we visited Munnar and its beautiful tea plantations, took an elephant ride and tour of the spice gardens, enjoyed a Kathakali classical dance performance, cruised on the famed backwaters of Kumarakom, lay on hammocks to catch the beautiful dawns and dusks, and swam in clear, meandering pools to shake off the heat.

My favorite part of the trip was a jeep safari to the top of a mountain in Munnar, that only my husband and I went on, to catch the sunrise over the tea plantations. The best (and the worst) events in life are rarely planned – they mostly catch you unawares. And so my husband and I sat in the jeep at 4am to start our 1.5 hour journey towards Kolukkumalai, the highest tea estate in the world, not knowing that there was practically no road, and it would be a 1.5 hours of rickety, bum and back shattering ride to the top!

But we made it, and watching the sun come up above the horizon, over the tea plantation, above cloud level, remains one of the most beautiful travel experiences of my life.

Tea estates of Munnar from Kolukkumalai

We spent a good amount of time on top of the tea estate clicking pictures and were about to head back, when we ran into a group of young folks, probably in their twenties, heading over with their guide/driver from the other side of the mountain. They urged us excitedly to head in the direction they had come from and to not miss seeing the tiger’s head before we left. So we told our guide that we wanted to see it too. He took us there but wasn’t too thrilled about this idea and we could soon see why. Viewing the “tiger’s head” , essentially a rock carved as the head of a tiger, involved dangerous navigation through narrow ledges and steep rocks and the actual tiger’s head, while gorgeous, was a straight fall down the mountain incase of any mishap.

Tiger’s Head at sunrise in Munnar, Kerala

We made it back safely, and were glad to experience this beautiful sight, but in hindsight I feel that the walk to see the tiger’s head was an unnecessary risk that we took β€” just the gorgeous sunrise over the tea estate was sufficiently worth our early morning tortuous ride.

Cruising the Inside Passage in Alaska

Alaska’s Inside Passage is lined with stunning glaciers and fjords, and lush scenery. My family and I took a Princess cruise along the Inside Passage, starting in Vancouver in August 2011 as part of our Alaska travel itinerary with two very young kids. It was one of the most magnificent (and expensive) trips we had taken till then.

This sign is actually part of the Yukon territory, one of our day excursions, and marks entry into Alaska from Canada.

In Alaska, there are beautiful, pristine landscapes waiting to be captured as far as the eye can stretch, but two of my fondest memories are of daily sunrises/sunsets over the blue waters of the Pacific, and my first whale watching tour in Juneau, the capital of Alaska, and one of our ports of call during the cruise.

While I had been on cruises before, there must have been something about the Inside Passage that caused me to just sit and stare at the blue sky and water while cruising on our ship. I was mesmerized, so much so that, at night, I would leave the door of our balcony cabin open to feel the breeze and hear the sound of waves in the ocean.

Where heaven meets earth – cruising the blue waters of the Pacific along the Inside Passage in Alaska
Motor Boat Trail in Calm Ocean Waters

And then there were the simple sunrises and sunsets. They can only be experienced, not described.

Beautiful Sunrise over the Marina in the Small Harbor at the Port of Skagway in Alaska

It was a sunny 72Β° F when our ship halted in Juneau. According to our ship crew, this was the best weather they had seen in Juneau all season that year. We had two excursions planned at this port – a whale watching tour and a visit to the Mendenhall glacier.

Having never done a whale watching tour before, I didn’t know what to expect. It ended up being one of the highlights of our vacation, and enabled me to click one of my most successful stock photos. We were booked on a small private boat with another couple for company.

Our boat captain, an experienced sailor, told us that it was against the rules for a boat to approach whales at a distance closer than 30 feet; however, there were no rules if the whales decided to approach us! And it did happen! While I was expecting to see maybe a whale or two, that day we saw dozens of humpbacks playing in the ocean around our boat! There were so many whales nearby that, had they wanted to, they could have in unison easily toppled our small boat, and made a nice meal out of us. In between their playtime, the whales called out to each other, and the sounds they emitted reverberated like cosmic booms across the ocean. We learnt that humpback whales emit a tall spray before they surface β€” by the end of our tour we had become experts in spotting whales.

Humpaback Whales Playing in the Ocean in Juneau, Alaska

And a couple came so close to us , that I could only capture their fins with my telephoto lens πŸ™‚

Humpback Whale Dives in Blue Ocean Water, Juneau, Alaska

Midnight Sunset in Iceland

Iceland is one of the most beautiful countries I have visited. From the vast glaciers, stunning waterfalls, volcanic hinterland, natural hot water springs, interesting wildlife, and idyllic wilderness landscapes β€” everywhere your eyes look there is beautiful scenery waiting to be captured!

Idyllic Wilderness Landscape in Iceland with Mountains, Blue Sky and Water

My family and I toured Iceland end of May – beginning of June in 2017 as soon as summer vacations began for my kids. Having read reams about the different Icelandic seasons, it was clear to us that we would not be able to see Aurora Borealis or The Northern Lights during our trip. For that, a winter sojourn to Iceland is required. We were prepared to witness almost 24 hour daylight during our trip.

Top: Monochrome Image of Akureyri, Iceland’s fourth largest city ; Bottom: A Heart Shaped Red Light at a Traffic Signal in Akureyri

So it was with a pleasant surprise that the following incident occurred during our third night in Iceland. After driving along the Ring Road from the western part of Iceland, we reached our cottage in Akureyri, Iceland’s fourth largest city at approximately 11pm. Because of the long daylight hours, it is possible to sightsee in Iceland during spring / summer till pretty late. Exhausted, the kids ate quickly and checked into bed. The curtains were drawn in the bedrooms to simulate night time. Just out of curiosity, my husband and I peeped out of one of the curtains and were stunned to see a blood-red sky! We were witness to a spectacular midnight sunset.

Midnight Sunset in Spring in Akureyri, Iceland

I quickly grabbed my tripod and camera, and drove to an open parking lot nearby to capture this magical spectacle at 12 am. So glad that I did, because the next morning , as we were leaving Akureyri, the weather had reverted to default Iceland weather of gray, stormy skies with not a clue left of the magnificence of the previous night!

Monkey Business in Bali

Baby Long-Tailed Monkey in the Sacred Monkey Forest in Ubud, Bali

I have seen many monkeys in my life so far – in zoos, at wildlife safaris, and forests. In India and on the island of Bali in Indonesia, they are considered sacred by Hindus who consider them as representatives of God Hanuman on earth. Therefore, they, along with cows, have immunity from being confined to a space, and roam freely across the land. They are known to visit even homes on the sly, open refrigerators and help themselves to food etc. πŸ™‚ . In their lifetime, I guarantee that a good number of people in tropical countries have been picked on by monkeys and have had all sorts of stuff like food, and other personal items, snatched from them πŸ˜‰

Uluwatu Temple in Bali at Sunset – the temple is at the corner on a cliff

Gorgeous Sunset at Uluwatu where the famous Kecak dance β€” a dramatization of the Balinese Ramayana (Hindu epic) β€” is performed at the temple at dusk

The first such incident happened to me in Bali. I was visiting the famous Uluwatu temple at sunset, when this bugger quietly approached from a nearby roof and grabbed my sunglasses off my head. I shrieked while all the other tourists and my family watched in amusement and were busy clicking pictures πŸ™‚ The temple priest had to be called and the ape had to be bribed with a treat before returning those back! I was glad to get those back β€” many are not so lucky, including my husband, who was once deprived of his scientific calculator after his engineering exam when he was resting under a tree in Delhi πŸ˜€

Monkey with my Sunglasses

Presidential in Singapore

Sunset View of the Singapore Skyline from the Marina Bay Sands Hotel

In one of the numerous cab rides in Singapore, our Singaporean cab driver, upon determining that we were of Indian origin, proudly narrated to us that he had served as a butler to Dr. APJ Abdul Kalam Azad, former President of India , scientist and Bharat Ratna, when the latter was on an official visit to Singapore. Β Our driver, who had an opportunity to converse with India’s President, was full of praise for President Kalam saying that he was such a famous scientist and knowledgeable person, yet such a humble human being who didn’t speak like a politician at all. Upon leaving Singapore, Dr. Kalam gifted him with a tie on behalf of India. Our driver said it was one of his prized possessions. It made me very happy to hear praise for someone who so richly deserves it. Through his friendly act, Dr. Kalam fostered a legacy of goodwill between people of different nations.

Peru Observations

It happened, completely by chance, that my family and I made two consecutive international vacation trips in 2019 – Spain in March 2019 during kids’ spring break, and Peru in May-June 2019 at the start of kids’ summer vacation. Both ended up being amazing trips, but it was not till we landed in Lima that I realized that we had visited the colonial power, and were visiting one of its former colonies within a span of few months.

While touring Spain was an amazing experience, certain historical facts about Spain stood out for me, especially details regarding the Spanish Inquisition and how Queen Isabel of Spain sought to make Spain a Catholic country through promotion and imposition of Catholicism; this diktat was extended to all its colonies as well.

Panorama of Pisaq Inca Archaeological Site in the Sacred Valley in Peru

As we toured Peru, and visited site after site of Inca “ruins”, it became more and more clear what such policies entailed, not just for Peru, but for so many “third world” countries that were, once upon a time, colonies of European colonial powers. The crimes of colonialism are many β€” the looting of people’s wealth and resources, impoverishing an entire society, but most of all branding a far superior civilization as “savages”, destroying their indigenous culture and architecture to impose your way of life on them, advancing yourself at their expense – such intolerance!

Interior View of the Decorations of the Apsis of the Cathedral of Granada, Spain

The impacts of those policies carry on to this day. Spanish cities are beautiful! The Catholic churches, cathedrals, basilicas and monasteries are ornate and rich and extravagant. The source of most of these riches can be traced back to colonial loot. In the Inca capital at Cusco, rooms full of gold and silver were carted off to Spain from just one sacred temple β€” Coricancha – the Temple of the Sun β€” which was stripped bare by the colonials.

First Image: Coricancha – Sacred Temple of the Incas in Cusco – now it is the Church and Convent of Santo Domingo; Second Image: 3 such rooms filled with gold and 1 room of silver were initially giifted to the colonialists thinking that they would then leave the Inca empire alone… ; Third Image: The Moon Temple Inside Coricancha – the bare alcoves show the empty spots where centuries ago idols of the deities of the Incas used to reside. These walls were painted white with the Catholic imagery by the Spanish (white colored paint remnants can be seen throughout) but a few years ago the paint was washed away because of a storm and the Peruvians realized what was underneath!

Today, parts of Lima, the capital of Peru, look like an urban slum. Peru struggles with corruption and unstable governments. With the Spanish inquisition, the vast majority of Peru’s population capitulated and converted to Catholicism. Yet, according to our guide in Cusco, many have a hard time being 100% Catholic, especially in the highlands of Peru in the Andes. “I haven’t completely accepted it”, said our guide, “I kind of follow a mix between what I have inherited from the Spanish and what my ancestors used to follow – worshipping Mother Earth – Pachamama and other deities from the Inca and pre-Inca times.”

And so it is with all aspects of life in Peru these days – things can be suppressed for only so long – there is a cultural renaissance / nationalistic revival as people are going back to their roots. Increasing emphasis is being placed on learning and speaking local languages (such as Quechua) vs. Spanish and there is a deep desire to rediscover their heritage and traditions. According to our guide in Lima, “so much of this stuff was hidden from us, so much has been suppressed…the history that we learnt as kids about Peru and our ancient civilizations was a completely different history.”

These observations have struck a chord with me because I see many parallels between Peru and India. In many ways, India was worse off having faced repeated barbaric invasions from Islamic invaders and having suffered over 500 years of Mughal and British colonial rule. Yet, it is a proud testament to the forbearance and resistance offered by our ancestors that these invaders and rulers, while having successfully destroyed indigenous civilizations across many lands, hit a wall in India and were never able to eliminate Hindu civilization. More on this some other time. Adios for now.