Thursday, July 30, 2009

Sinhagad - Sentinel of a Bygone Era

A pleasant, wintry afternoon in January saw us trudging up the steps to Sinhagad Fort, previously known as Kondhana. Stomachs rumbling with hunger is not exactly the right way to embark on a trek of any length. However, the fame of the authentic Maharashtrian cuisine served to visitors at the ‘Fort of the Lion’, courtesy the locals, was too tempting to resist.

A variant of the ‘dhabas’ that have now become popular all over the country, these small makeshift eateries are the place to visit if you like the traditional ‘Jhunka-bhakar’, ‘kanda-bhaji’, and other mouthwatering delicacies accompanied by ‘matka dahi’!

Having satiated our hunger and rejuvenated ourselves with the refreshing buttermilk, curds, and the sweet water which is a specialty of the region, we made our way to the top of the fort. Located amongst the Sahyadris at more than 4,400 ft above sea-level, Sinhagad is a former bastion of Chattrapati Shivaji.

He won the fort in an epic battle due to the valour of his general Tanaji Malusare, who lost his life in the battle. On hearing of Tanaji’s death, Shivaji said "Gad aala pan sinha gela" meaning "We gained the fort, but lost the lion". Thus, the fortress was given its current name in honour of the war hero.

Looking back down the way we had come, I could see the Mutha River winding its way in the distance. The Khadakvasla dam is built on this river. Making our way into the fort through one of the two main entrances, the first things we came across was the tank used for storing the sweet drinking water which we sampled earlier.

All along the way, the views were simply breathtaking-the windswept, striated rock and sand formations that stand tall and still.

Peeking over the guardrails, it was easy to see why the fort was considered impregnable. The steep cliffs had all along safeguarded the fortress except when Tanaji and his men decided to scale the rocks with the help of a giant monitor lizard in their successful attempt to take back the fort from the enemy!

Gazing upon the ramparts, some in ruins and others still standing strong, I could picture in my mind’s eye the gallant warriors in battle gear, and horses’ hooves clattering upon the stone walkways and steps.

And beyond the walls of the fort were the spectacular peaks visible in the distance, and the valley far, far below. It was east to guess that they would present a magnificient sight when viewed in the monsoon with greenery greatly enhancing the vista.

On our way back, we also came across the house used by freedom fighter Lokamanya Tilak who had spent summers here writing. The fortress also has temples and a memorial to Tanaji.

As we walked down the steps, the sun had lost much of its vigour and a gentle breeze wafted across bringing an adventurous day to a peaceful end.
(Photos By Upendra Nayak & Chandana Nayak Shenoy)

Mind Boggling Mystery Spot !

A place with a name like “Mystery Spot” is sure to arouse your curiosity even if you are not the inquisitive type. Nestled among magnificent redwoods, down narrow winding roads, about three miles from Santa Cruz, California, this attraction has baffled visitors for more than six decades. Here, everything you see appears to defy gravity and the principles of physics. Mystery Spot has also been featured in several prominent travel magazines.

The tour begins at a white line with concrete blocks on either side. Measuring it indicates that the two blocks are on the same level. But when two people stand on either side and change places it is evident that their height differs depending upon which side they are on! This is just a precursor to the various other phenomena that can be found here. As we walk up a small incline towards the central point of the 150feet diameter area, we can feel the strong push backwards.

The mysterious force is at its strongest inside a log cabin at the head of the incline. The cabin itself is tilted since the foundation supposedly refused to stay in place during construction. At the entrance to the cabin it looks as if everyone is slanting to one side though our feet are perfectly straight and level. Newton’s law of gravity is definitely missing at this place where a ball rolled downwards returns to its original spot with no help whatsoever!

A pendulum behaves contrary to its name and stays stationary in one direction. As we pass through the central room of the cabin, dizziness settles in and it becomes necessary to hold on to the side rails to avoid sliding towards the facing wall. In this room, you can even walk straight up the wall and experience first-hand what it is to be Spiderman!

As you leave the cabin and walk towards the exit, it takes a moment to get a bearing on your surroundings and return to normalcy once again. Many theories have sprung up over the years as to why gravity seems to run amok here. Some attribute the phenomenon to carbon dioxide seeping out of the earth whereas others insist that “cones of metal were secretly brought here and buried in our earth as guidance systems for” flying saucers.

Whatever be the reason for these strange occurrences, there is no disputing its
entertainment value. Though certainly not the only such place in the world (there is one other similar place in Wisconsin that I have been to), a visit to Mystery Spot is definitely a one-of-a-kind experience!

Aloha! From Hawaii (Part 2)

Time seemed to fly by and soon we found ourselves back at the harbor making our way towards the venue for the ‘luau’. A luau is a Hawaiian feast characterized by island food and entertainment and it begins after sunset. The ‘imu’ ceremony, which involves taking out the cooked pig from an underground pit, takes place first. Then, the start of the festivities is heralded by the sounding of conches.

The buffet dinner has a variety of dishes for vegetarians and non-vegetarians alike. Interestingly, the taro plant, which is popular in Mangalore for delicacies such as ‘patrode’, is a major feature in the diet of the Hawaiians. In fact, taro forms a significant portion of Hawaii’s agriculture. Poi is a paste made from taro roots and is used as a kind of sauce with various dishes. But its taste does not appeal to many, including me!

As the dinner crowd began thinning, the evening’s entertainment began with a performance of the traditional hula dance. Young men and women dressed in grass skirts danced to the foot-tapping music of drums. A variety of performances representing the Polynesian islands as well as Hollywood’s version of the hula and fire dancers from Samoa followed. All good things must come to an end and so did the evening.

Maui’s spectacular beaches were our next destination and it was soon evident why they attract so many water sports enthusiasts and sunbathers. The color of the ocean and the sand varies from beach to beach. But each one of them has crystal clear visibility and smooth, clean, sand. Snorkeling is a popular activity on most beaches and there are some dedicated exclusively to wind surfing. Wailea, Makena, Kapalua, Ka’anapali, and Kihei, have all the popular beaches.

For lunch we decided to sample the seafood at one of the many local eateries. Unlike on the US mainland, the food here was more suited to the Indian palate. Over delicious fish kebabs and grilled ahi fish, we made the decision to explore Iao Valley State Park in north Maui. This park is known for its spiritual value to the islanders and the lush greenery that draws in visitors.

Iao means ‘supreme cloud’ and refers to the clouds that are often seen over the peaks around the valley. The valley was the site of one of the famous battles in the history of the islands. The focal point here is the Iao Needle which towers to a height of 2,250 feet. This stone pinnacle was believed to have been used as an altar in ancient times and later as a lookout point during war.

The Iao stream winds its way through the park and is fed by rain water. The valley and the surrounding mountains receive over 400 inches rain each year making it the second wettest spot in the state. Many easy trails are found in the park helping visitors explore the area with great ease.

Our last day in Maui was set aside for Haleakala Crater and the Maui Ocean Center. Haleakala is known as the ‘House of the Sun’, and viewing the sunrise from its summit at a height of 10,000 feet is an opportunity that is not to be missed. That is how we found ourselves on the winding road to Haleakala around 4 am on a Monday morning! The drive took us 90 minutes and then it was a chilly wait looking for the sun to show up.

But when the sun rose, everyone agreed that the wait was definitely worth it. The changing hues of the horizon and the carpet of clouds that lay in front of us made for spellbound viewing. As it became light, the whole of Maui was visible from Haleakala. Many of the adventurous choose to bike down the crater on the way back after viewing the sunrise.

Our final sightseeing trip on the island was to the Maui Ocean Center which is said to be the largest aquarium and marine science center. Located near Maalaea Harbor it has a wide variety of marine life including coral reef habitats, sea turtles, eels, and sharks. Interactive exhibits and presentations make it an interesting, exciting, experience for people of all ages.

It was with a heavy heart that we boarded our flight back to the Bay Area. As we reached the clouds, I made up my mind to come back and explore the rest of the Hawaiian islands some day in the not too distant future!

Aloha! From Hawaii (Part 1)

‘Aloha’ and ‘Mahalo’—these are the two words you will get to hear the most during your visit to the Hawaiian islands. The former can mean ‘hello’ or ‘goodbye’, while the latter means ‘thank you’. The state of Hawaii consists of six major islands—Big Island, Maui, Lanai, Molokai, Oahu, and Kauai. Seeing all these islands and experiencing the various attractions that each one has would take weeks, even months. So, most visitors choose to visit one island or two islands at a time.

That is what we decided to do as well. Our choice was Maui, the Valley Isle, the second largest island in the group. The island is approximately 48 miles (76.8 km) long and 26 miles (41.6 km) wide. Known for its long stretches of beautiful beaches, pristine waters, and Haleakala Crater, Maui has been voted the best island in the world by many travel magazines over the past decade.

While our flight circled the Pacific Ocean, awaiting our turn to land, I could not but help compare the surrounding landscape to the one in good ol’ Mangalore. The lush green fields, the cloudy skies, and the lolling waves, all made it seem as if we were back home! As we stepped out of the terminal and headed towards the rental car office, a strong breeze blew making the weather warm but pleasant. What a relief it was to leave the cold, dreary, winter of the Bay Area far behind !!

Rejuvenated, we set out for our rented condominium in Kihei which is on the south side of Maui. One look at the view from the ‘lanai’, or balcony, and we were sorely tempted to just sit there looking out at the shimmering sea and the mountains beyond. However, we did manage to spend the rest of the day familiarizing ourselves with the island and planning out activities for the rest of the vacation.

First on our list was the picturesque drive to Hana, on the eastern coast of Maui. This 60-mile drive is known for its spectacular ocean views, numerous waterfalls, and 56 narrow one-way bridges. Visitors to Maui are warned that this particular stretch of road, being narrow and winding with a couple of hairpin curves thrown in, can be stressful for the driver. We set out on the drive not knowing what to expect.

Soon it was evident that none of the authors of those numerous travel guides had ever been on the notorious road connecting Mangalore to Bangalore!! Though much narrower than the roads on the US mainland, often without the dividing center lines, the route to Hana was a pretty decent one. Frequent stops to take in the views and have a picnic lunch, made it a three-hour drive one way.
We stopped at Twin Falls, passed through tropical rainforests, glimpsed a lava beach and came across quaint cottages and farmhouses in lush settings before culminating the drive at Hana Bay. The beach at Hana Bay is also of black sand which is actually eroded lava. There is a pier here though the beach is primarily a popular venue for activities such as canoeing and family picnics. Bathed in the light of the setting sun, the glistening bay and the cloud-enveloped hillocks made for an ethereal sight.

The following day, we set out for the former whaling town of Lahaina on the west coast of Maui. In the early 19th century, under the Kamehameha dynasty, Lahaina was the capital of the Hawaiian kingdom. Today it is a center for culture and arts. Front Street, which faces the ocean, is lined with shops and restaurants catering to all budgets.

As we passed the town square we could not but marvel at the ancient banyan tree which has a height of about 50 feet and is over 200 feet wide. This tree which was originally brought here from India, when it was only eight feet tall, is now the central point of Lahaina. Art and craft shows, meetings, and the like often take place in the shade of the expansive tree.

Soon we were at Lahaina Harbor, just in time to catch the shuttle-boat that would transport us to the Atlantis submarine for an underwater adventure. Since the dive site was about two miles from shore we got to enjoy spectacular views of the Maui coastline from the ocean. A sudden intensification in the motion of the sea and a change in the hue of the water indicated that the submarine was about to surface.

Descending to a depth of 125 feet in an air-conditioned sub, and watching schools of fish pass by with a few curious ones pressing in against the glass is definitely a unique experience. Our guide made every effort to identify each of the passing species of fish and pointed out the different kinds of reefs and marine life that were found in these waters.

(To be concluded)

Viva Las Vegas !

It is my personal opinion that one’s first view of Las Vegas, the gambling capital of the US, should be at nightfall. Irrespective of whether it is your first visit to Sin City or your hundredth, you cannot fail to be mesmerized by the grandiose casinos lit up with hundreds of thousands of multi-colored lights, blazing neon billboards, and glittering facades. Throngs of humanity pour in and out of the various casinos and restaurants, and spill onto the pavements and the streets.

The city is a popular adult weekend getaway through the year and sees millions of visitors from all over the world. Situated like an oasis in the midst of the Mojave Desert, Las Vegas literally means ‘The Meadows’, in Spanish. This railroad town has come a long way and has been featured in numerous movies and television shows, both domestic and international. All the famous casino-hotels are located along a four mile stretch of Las Vegas Boulevard South, popularly known as ‘The Strip’.

Gambling is of course, the chief attraction here and even the biggest miser cannot resist feeding the slot machines a few dollars just to listen to the tinkling music and see the spinning counters. But if you go there dreaming of walking out with a jackpot, be prepared to be disappointed. Vegas slot machines have the notorious reputation of rarely rewarding eager visitors.

The blackjack and poker tables, however, are a different matter altogether. This is where luck and skill go hand in hand. Many fortunes are made and lost here each day. The lowest bets in the major casinos start around $5 and keep going up depending on the tables you sit at. The high stakes tables are cordoned off and only the ‘real’ players dare go there!

A couple of days is too little time when visiting Vegas as there is so much to see and do. Each casino is built around a particular theme and these themes are reflected in the names of the casinos, which often represent entire cities. Circus Circus, MGM Grand, Caesar’s Palace, The Bellagio, The Venetian, Luxor, Paris, New York-New York, Excalibur and Tropicana are but some of the names that come to mind when one thinks of Las Vegas. Each of these are architectural wonders in their own right.

Caesar’s Palace is modeled on ancient Rome and looks like a Roman palace on the outside. Inside there is a multitude of fountains, paved roads, and blue skies. This casino also has a shrine dedicated to Lord Brahma near its entrance. The Venetian, as its name suggests, is a smaller version of the city of Venice complete with a canal along which visitors can take gondola rides. The gondolier’s songs echo melodiously all along the route. The Bellagio has a conservatory and miniature trains and models besides its musical fountains that entertain visitors throughout the day.

Circus Circus has circus performances going on through the day and night. This casino- hotel also has numerous games and shows targeted at children who go home happy with the many soft toys and other prizes that they win. Excalibur is modeled on an English castle and has knights in armor who perform in jousting shows. The Luxor has an Egyptian theme and the building itself is in the form of a pyramid.

The Stratosphere has a viewing tower which from a height of 1,149 feet, provides a magnificent view of the entire city and the mountains in the distance. This is said to be the tallest freestanding observation tower in the United States. As if this wasn’t exciting enough, there are a couple of thrill rides from the outside of the tower! Certainly not for those with vertigo, or a fear of heights.

The MGM Grand has the lion as its mascot and on the casino floor is a huge glass enclosure with a real, live lion striding majestically inside it! Mandalay Bay has an entire underwater aquarium known for its shark reef. All the casinos also have numerous shops with expensive merchandise from top designers such as Gucci, Cartier, Chanel, and Calvin Klein, amongst others.

Upscale nightclubs and restaurants dot the casinos. As the night progresses, pulsating music flows out of the various nightclubs with their flashing strobe lights. All these hotspots have their own dress code and if you are not appropriately dressed, it’s likely that you’ll be denied entry. Each casino also has at least one auditorium with famous personalities from various fields performing here. Britney Spears, Elton John, Celine Dion, Roy and Siegfried, Robin Williams, and Michael Jackson, are but some of the celebrities associated with Las Vegas shows over the years.

Las Vegas is also famous for the regular boxing matches or fights that are held in its casinos. A must see attraction are the live entertainment shows that take place in each casino at scheduled times every day. You get to see the famous Las Vegas showgirls and their dance routines, besides stand-up comedy, and various other acts.

Sin City is very visitor-friendly and transportation facilities abound here. A monorail connects all the casinos on the strip and visitors have the option of buying a variety of passes for travel depending upon their duration of stay and their convenience. Free shuttles also run between many of the casinos.

Walking in Las Vegas is a pretty good experience too, since there are numerous footbridges on the strips ensuring that you don’t have to cross the road in the midst of traffic. What makes these footbridges even more appealing are the escalators that give our poor, tired, feet a momentary rest. Many of them are interconnected with automated walkways thus ensuring that we stay out of the sweltering heat as much as possible.

When planning a trip to Las Vegas, make sure you are not on a tight budget. Accommodations range from modest to ultra luxurious. Staying in one of the casino-hotels, like most people do, is more expensive than staying in a regular motel. It is part of the experience and hence, justifies the splurging. Also there are usually added benefits like free passes to the casino’s live shows and discounts on meals. Irrespective of the manner in which Lady Luck treats you, be sure to make the most of your trip to this memorable place. For, as the ad slogan for Las Vegas tourism says, ‘What happens in Vegas….stays in Vegas’!
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