Two lovely weeks touring northern India with Dartmouth Alumni Travel. Magical! More stories, and photos, in this blog post.
I’ve just returned from India, where Pam and I had the opportunity to host a Dartmouth Alumni Travel group for a two-week tour of the history, architecture, culture, and arts of northern India. We joined a wonderful group of 12 interesting individuals, and an outstanding tour guide from Odysseys Unlimited, for a bustling tour of Delhi, Jaipur, Ranthambore, Agra, and Varanasi. I think what struck me most about the agenda was its fascinating mix of the sights (palaces, temples, mosques, etc.) with the culture (villages, markets, families. religion) and arts (dance, music, weaving, pottery, jewelry, stonework, carpets, and even paper). Read on for a summary of our journey, and for a sampling of the many photos!
In stark contrast to my recent posts from the verdant New Hampshire summer (or its recent snowy winter), I’m embarking on a series of posts summarizing our outstanding 17-day trip to the American southwest. After a couple days in the broiling sun and steamy nightlife of Las Vegas, we spent a week rafting the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon, a reprise of a trip with my father and uncle twenty years earlier. We then toured some of the other outstanding parks of the region: Mesa Verde, Grand Canyon North Rim, Zion, and Bryce Canyon, before heading east to celebrate my 50th birthday with family in South Carolina. [I’m back-dating each post to the last date covered by the post.]
Thankfully we only had one day in Las Vegas, because the temperature hit 100 degrees and was forecast to reach 112 in the next few days. It’s the nights that matter in Vegas, anyway. We explored the craziness of the Strip – jammed with drunk pedestrians and hawkers of every vice imaginable – and strolled through a few casinos without pausing to play. Vegas represents excess in seemingly every regard, from gambling to its outrageously flagrant waste of water in the middle of a desert. For us, the highlights included a visit to a tasty Brazilian barbecue and an incredible David Copperfield magic show. We jammed everything into a rental car and headed east.
Sunday morning I woke at sunrise to poke around the scrubby desert wash near Cliff Dweller’s, enjoying the opportunity to photograph this radically different terrain in the warm sunrise light. See more photos. In the next post: the Grand Canyon!
The kids were on spring break, and John was touring with the Footnotes in France, so we decided to take a long weekend. Weeks earlier, we had selected the weekend and were planning to spend it in Boston, but on Friday morning the news of the manhunt in Boston made it clear this was not the weekend for a visit. [Indeed, we later heard that the city went into ‘lockdown’ all day Friday, at the request of the Governor.] So we drove the opposite direction, to Montréal, for our own little taste of France.
Wonderful decision. Montréal is a beautiful city, and despite the windy gray weather (and a few snow flurries) we had a nice time. We stayed in the neighborhood known as Vieux Montréal, with cobblestone streets and old buildings, part of the original city enclosed by fortress walls. We were two blocks from Notre Dame Basilica, and two blocks from the St Lawrence River. Because of the chilly weather, we sought out indoor activities. We explored a series of simulated ecosystems at the Biodome, including a tropical forest then a series of temperate and arctic settings. We explored the underground city for a little shopping, and checked out some stunning pieces at the Museum of Contemporary Art. And, my favorite part, we took in some excellent French cuisine and Indian food.
I was fortunate enough to be in Washington DC last weekend, for a meeting at NSF. I have always heard about the beautiful cherry-blossom season, those magical few days in April when all of the cherry trees blossom together in an incredible display. On Sunday, a beautiful afternoon, I drove downtown, thinking that it would be easy to park somewhere and walk around the National Mall. Hah! With over a million visitors each year, the Cherry Blossom Festival is very crowded. I did manage to find parking near the Capitol and photographed some beautiful tulip trees.
I returned by metro on Monday afternoon, another day with beautiful spring weather. I headed straight for the Tidal Basin, a lake anchored by the Jefferson Memorial on one side and the National Mall on the other. The cherry blossoms were at their peak, with hundreds of families and office workers and tourists strolling underneath. Absolutely perfect weather, perfect trees. I’m so glad I finally got to see it. Check out the photos.
I had the good fortune of attending a conference and meeting at the historic Jekyll Island Club on Jekyll Island, a barrier island on the coast of Georgia. It is rich with history and wildlife, has a beautiful beach, and a wonderfully preserved set of historic mansions. Cool tidbit: this is the site of the first transcontinental phone call.
Check out my favorite photos, all shot on Thursday, except for the first shot of the clubhouse itself. Perhaps my favorite shot is of the osprey landing on its nest, at right.
Although our departure from Costa Rica was not until noon on Saturday, I decided it was risky to make the 3-hour drive from Monteverde to the airport on Saturday morning itself. There are few roads from Monteverde, all dirt, and only one that is realistically passable. (On our trip in 2004 we took a back road down from Monteverde and it was an unbelievably hairy trip.) Any sort of snag or snafu could happen to the road or the vehicle. So we called up Sergio and scheduled a return taxi for Friday afternoon. That left just the morning to capture one last exploration of Monteverde.
Kathy had also won – at the Friends School fundraising auction – a horseback-riding tour for two. So Pam, Mara and John headed off with Jim and Laurie and their two girls for a horseback outing through the pastural hills on the west side of Santa Elena, while Andy and I walked back to Bajo del Tigre in hopes that we might visit those trails again, this time in the daylight. It was another beautiful sunny day, and we had kilometers of trail all to ourselves. We followed the numbered self-guided nature trail, with the guidebook explaining the plant and animal life, history, and ecology of this non-profit forest reserve originally founded by Swedish schoolchildren (really!). Andy’s good eyes spotted a pair of black guan, huge turkey-sized birds up in the canopy.
Our final Monteverde meal (thanks Laurie!) was beans and rice and fresh salad, wonderful with the Costa Rican Lizano salsa that makes everything taste good – meant the end of a fantastic few days at Casa Hooke and with the our newfound friends, aka Jim & Laurie and their daughters. After a few fond farewells we were off again with Sergio, this time to be guided by his son Ricardo. There was a delay because the main road out this direction was being re-graded, and a couple of hours later another delay because the coastal highway was in use for a women’s bicycle race (circumnavigating Costa Rica). These are the kind of unexpected delays that triggered my instinct to move us close to the airport a day early.
We arrived in Alajuela, a small city next to the San Jose airport, about an hour before sunset, and quickly headed out to explore. The central park was only two blocks from the hotel, and was bustling with people relaxing on this late Friday afternoon. Next to the square was a large Catholic church, preparing for Friday mass. Just down the road was the central market, a large indoor series of stalls selling everything from meat and fish to vegetables and herbal remedies to cell-phone accessories. I always feel these markets are a great place to get a sense of the local culture. This one was busy with customers on their way home from work, buying the necessities for a weekend with family. As the sun set, the market and most other shops started closing, rattling their heavy-duty gates into place. Even our hotel had such a gate across the entrance at all times, making me a bit uneasy about the nature of this town after dark. We found a friendly Tex-mex restaurant nearby and settled in for chimichanga and nachos.
Overall, it was a great week. Costa Rica is a beautiful place filled with friendly people. We learned a little about a tropical ecosystem, sustainable farming, chocolate production, and a different culture; we spent time with old friends and made new friends; we got sunburned and ate good food; and we had a lot of fun.
Thursday was our last full day in Monteverde, and we set off for the Monteverde Butterfly Garden. (We considered heading to a fancy new facility outside town, which offered a bigger butterfly garden as well as ziplines and suspension bridges among the forest canopy, and other attractions, but it was outlandishly expensive.) With no transportation readily available, we walked the dirt road toward town and down a long side-road to the Monteverde Butterfly Garden – the original, I believe, which came strongly recommended by the locals.
There we met with a young intern from Denmark who had taken a six-week internship as a volunteer tour guide in return for room and board. She said she was studying toward a biology degree, and her love of insects and arthropods was infectious. She first gave us a tour of the spiders and beetles and stick bugs and other fascinating creatures inhabiting the indoor terraria, before leading us through a series of four butterfly gardens. Each represents a different Costa Rican biome, with a range of different butterflies. I pulled out my big lens and tried to capture some images of these beautiful creatures. The tour wrapped up with an exhibit of a functioning colony of leaf-cutter ants. Cool! the kids loved that. For more photos, check out the nature gallery and start on page 4.
We walked into town in search of lunch and groceries. The town of Santa Elena is small – perhaps four or five blocks in the commercial district. Riddled with touristy shops, we stopped into the colorfully painted Morphos restaurant for lunch. The blue morpho is perhaps the most famous of Costa Rica butterflies, with an electric blue color tantalizing all photographers; its image was painted on every wall. The food was pricy and yet unremarkable, as one might expect in a touristy town :-(.
The day was capped by another beautiful sunset and a wonderful dinner of beans & rice for 11 back at Casa Hooke.