At the end of our India and UAE trip, we returned to New York City to spend some more time in the US before returning to Ecuador. We spent a couple nights with long-time friends Zoya and Vladimir, and their parents, in New Jersey. We had wanted to take photos of the lower Manhattan skyline, which has been on our photo bucket list for some time. I had saved images of the Brooklyn Bridge that I showed to Vladimir. He also enjoys photography, and offered to drive us to Dumbo Park, at the base of the Brooklyn Bridge, where the images were shot.
The secret to capturing good images has always been about searching for the right locations to shoot from and waiting for the best light. None of us knew for sure where Dumbo Park was located, nor what it had to offer, beyond that one view we had discovered in our online search. The day had been completely cloudy, but it cleared up enough around twilight to capture the sunset, and we ended up with the images shown above.
For the last two nights, we stayed at the Holiday Inn in Long Island City. The hotel was surprisingly good (OK, I was skeptical of "Holiday Inn," but this really was a top-notch hotel). The above images of the Manhattan skyline were all shot from our room balcony.
I happened to open my eyes around 3AM the first night. About to roll over, I glanced out the window, saw the moon (upper image) and immediately woke up, to set up the tripod and catch that shot. It was s-o-o-o-o-o cold (32 deg F, which is quite literally, freezing!) that I actually shot the photo through our hotel window instead of outside on our balcony.
One of the latest tourist attractions in Manhattan is the National Geographic Virtual Aquarium. We often go to the larger aquariums in cities we visit, so I decided to get tickets to visit this one. The video technology was interesting (all the above images are actually of video screens), including one 3D section at the end (lower right is a father and son watching the show). However, it felt gimmicky, and left us disappointed after less than half an hour for the entire tour. We cannot recommend this to adults, particularly not at the sky high prices charged.
The second night in Brooklyn, the skies were clear, and we decided to return to Dumbo Park for another run at the bridge photos. As you can see above, the weather made quite a bit of difference in the result, and we are glad we returned to capture the blue hour.
Our return flight to Ecuador left at midnight, making it seem like a waste to pay for a hotel room that night. As such, we stored our bags at the hotel and wandered the neighborhood for awhile. We finally decided to go to the airport around 5PM. Wow! If we had known what was waiting for us, we would have gone earlier!
We were flying Business Class back to Ecuador. Being over 65, all flights to and from Ecuador are half price for us, and we had a lot of bags. The result was that the difference between Economy (pay for extra luggage) or Business (3 bags free) was tiny. This also gave us access to the American Airlines VIP lounge at the JFK airport -- which turned out to be a real treat! Starting off, we found a wide selection of wines and champagne (good stuff too, not cheap brands) that was all free. The food bar was also free, and had some really great food -- in fact, some of the best we have had on this entire trip. That included scallops to die for -- some of the best I have ever tasted.
And to top that off, the best internet connection I have ever had -- 100 Mb/s download, 200 Mb/s upload (yes, twice the upload than download) with only 6ms ping. Sorry for the tech-speak, but for those who understand these terms, that is 5 times better than we had in California, and 100 times better (yeah, we only get 1Mb/s in Cuenca...) than here at home in Cuenca.
We considered just skipping the flight and living there... However, I have to admit, it is nice to be home again now, with our own bed, shower, and home cooked food. ☺
After a couple days in Dubai, we decided to go the capital of the UAE, Abu Dhabi for one day and night. Barti (our local guide) suggested that we might enjoy stopping at the camel race track. He told us that they were not racing today, but would be doing some training, and we quickly agreed to this side trip. Camel racing is an important part of the culture, and was known in the past as the sport of the sheiks.
We arrived at the camel racing track, and watched the unfolding scenario. Some trainers were arriving in groups (upper left). Some ran their camels on foot (upper right), while others exercised their camels in small groups, riding one while others without riders (2nd from top, both left and right). Still others ran a single camel (lower right).
Perhaps the most interesting... and perplexing... were the camels that ran with no person on their backs, but instead had a small dummy attached (3rd from top right). We later discovered that these were robot jockeys (bottom left, where Pauline is holding one), used to simulate a whip giving stimulation to the camels to speed them up at the proper times. Jockeys from age 9-10 years old were used in the past, but in 2004, these robots were developed to eliminate human rights abuses. Indeed, when it was pointed out, we saw some camel owners in their SUVs running alongside the track with their remote controls, activating the robots as part of their training.
Again, we used Barti Rajan to arrange this portion of our trip. He is a private tour leader that we heartily recommend -- Dubai 1 Tours, can be contacted at email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org, URL: dubai1tours.com.
Another stop along the ways was the large fish market in Abu Dhabi. We often enjoy seeing these around the world. As we began to realize was typical of UAE, this was one of the largest -- and the cleanest (no "fishy smell" here!) we have seen in our many travels around the world.
Nearby the fish market was the pier where fishing boats docked and brought in their catch. We arrived too late to see the fish offloaded, but still enjoyed walking the pier and watching the fisherman putting away their nets.
We also stopped in to see the Louvre, simulating the famous museum in Paris. The museum blended art from the west and the east. However the most remarkable aspect was the architecture, where there was a beautiful use of shadow and lights.
While I am not a fan of visiting hotels just to see their lobby, we made an exception for the Emirates Palace hotel. The lobby is supposed to reproduce the feeling of a Royal Palace, and is the closest non-royalty (like us...) can come to seeing how "the other half lives."
We also visited Ski Dubai, in the Mall of the Emirates, one of the largest shopping malls in the world, located just outside of Dubai. This was an indoor ski resort, including a toboggan run (lower).
In Abu Dhabi, we stayed at the Shangri-La Hotel, where we had a magnificent sunset view of the Sheikh Zayed Mosque (center). This is an amazing mosque made entirely of white marble, which can hold up to 41,000 people during prayers. As with everything else here, this grand mosque was just completed in 2007, yet felt like an iconic site that had been here since ancient times. The design and quality of the construction exceeded expectations.
Construction cranes prevailed throughout both Dubai and Abu Dhabi, as the UAE races to become a world center in finance, media development, tourism, and many other arenas.
There were already two videos in yesterday's blog post, so I moved this one here. It is a 90 second clip showing the Dubai Fountains, starting from ringside at the Dubai Fountains and finishing from our hotel balcony in downtown Dubai.
This concludes our time in the UAE. I must admit that I had expected to be disappointed by a gaudy environment. Instead, I found that everything, while huge and over-the-top, kept an air of elegance, cleanliness and quality. If you focus only on the shopping malls, then this would be disappointing place to visit. However, looking beyond the shopping, it is a photographer's delight. Personally, we hope to return at some point, to capture images that we missed, and to see how the skyline continues to evolve.
THE BIGGEST! TALLEST! THE MOST GRANDEUR! Over-the-top in everything!
That is our first impression on entering Dubai -- and that feeling never leaves you as long as you are here. The tallest building in the world is here -- the Burj Khalifa at 163 storeys high ("Burj" means tower in Arabic, so there are a lot of buildings with name Burj in town), seen top-left and center. And the skyline puts any other city in the world to shame. This is not a city of straight blocks soaring into the sky. Rather, the Dubai government gives preference in building permits to any structure that is unusual with envelope-pushing architecture. That gives you the twisting towers (lower-left and upper-right), the crazy offset, stacked buildings, soaring beacons, as well as the elegant shape of the Opera House (lower-right), among many others.
Dubai is known as a shopping mecca, and many wealthy people fly in from other countries for quick trips to the many malls. There is an entire shopping souk just dedicated to gold jewelry, with gold pieces that could only be worn in parties of the wealthiest circles in the world (lower row). There is even a diamond so large as to be listed in the Guinness book of records.
Visiting the local golf driving range not only gives you a chance to improve your game, but also provides a impressive panorama of the city skyline (center).
We only visited two shopping malls(out of 90), and found it as magnificent, and over-the-top as we had come to expect by this time. One entire floor was dedicated to stores catering to children and expectant mothers. A very small portion of the lower floor held a skating rink, where we saw a team practicing, along with dozens of families enjoying themselves. (The rink was actually quite large, but only occupied a tiny portion of the floor -- the mall is that big...!) Then, another mall had an enclosed ski slope, with ski instructors from Austria.
The Dubai Fountains came to life each night around sundown, and continued with a different show every half hour until midnight. This is very similar to the fountains at Bellagio in Las Vegas and in Yerevan, Armenia (our review of that fountain here). The entire show could even been seen from our hotel balcony. A video of it will be included in tomorrow's post.
As the night fell, the lights of the buildings came on, giving the city an entirely different look. The upper image was taken from our hotel balcony, while the lower one was at the Dubai Marina. Another iconic building in Dubai is the Burj al Arab, which is shaped in the form of a sail (middle left), which we enjoyed at sunset.
Surprisingly, very few locals seemed to know the details of the nightly Burj Khalifa light show. This was created for New Year's Eve last year, and originally scheduled to end in January of this year. We had heard rumors of such a show, and asked various hotel concierge, waiters and guards, but no one seemed to know, though one insisted it would not be on Monday nights. We were therefore surprised when the music started, and the tower began to light up, as seen above.
On weekends, there was an even more elaborate light show, that almost none of the locals knew about. Evelyn was having dinner with her sister at a restaurant across from the Burj Khalifa, and the waiter told them to wait until 10:00 PM for the grand show. Sure enough, a far more elaborate light show started, as seen upper-left and lower-right. Evelyn's iPhone captured those laser images.
Along one construction wall are a series of historic photos. Above is a scene that not only captures some kids having fun off a boat, but also shows the Dubai skyline as it existed in 1990. The entire city was comprised of only five highrises, plus many older single story homes.
In 1989, the government of Dubai decided to create the city you see today. Every building you see on the skyline of today (lower) was built within the last 25 years! There is still construction going on everywhere, and they seem nowhere near done. The city government has long term plans to complete all major construction by 2021 though, so the pace may slow down soon.There are more than 1500 skyscrapers now, and more on the way.
This is a rather long 3:20 video, which shows the entire laser light show that was first shown New Year's Eve from Thursday to Saturdays. "Light Up 2018" Laser Show set a world record for the largest light and sound show on a single building, the Dubai Burj Khalifa.
It caught us off guard, as nobody seemed to know the details. We were told this show would stop being shown by the end of March, so were glad to catch it while still active.
Here is a shorter 2 minute video showing the "standard" light show of the tower.
If you visit Dubai, we highly recommend contacting Dubai 1 Tours, led by Barti Rajan, who can be contacted at email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org, URL: dubai1tours.com. He offers customized tours, like the one we took, as well as unique pre-packaged tours to see the camel practice facility.
Our next stop was Hubli Airport, which was the end of our India trip. Along the way, we passed through many villages. Many appeared to be a step backward in time, with very few motorized vehicles and no tourists. People are living much like they did hundreds of years earlier.
The architecture of the buildings we passed along the way were purely functional, with the block apartment forms being rather depressing, after seeing the creative forms of Hindu temple architecture elsewhere in the country.
Ox carts were even more common here than in other parts of India, with the ox horns often dyed blue or decorated (center).
In fact, all forms of transportation were decorated. Be it tuk-tuks (upper row) or tractors, (center, and lower), or horses (bottom-center), people festooned their vehicles with flowers and other decorations to add color to their life.
As always, we love photographing the people wherever we go. Here are a few parting shots of the people at the Badami market enroute to Hubli. India is now behind us. Next stop, Dubai, UAE.
The first stop was Aihole, built between 4th - 12th century, a historic site of ancient Hindu, Jain, and Buddhist monuments. It has great cultural significance as the cradle of Hindu temple architecture, with more than 125 temples.
The second stop was Pattadakal, which was designated as a UNESCO world heritage site in 1987.The village lies on the banks of the Malaprabha River in Bagalkot district of North Karnataka region. The town displays both Dravidian (Southern) and the Nagara (Northern, Indo-Aryan) styles of temple architecture. What struck us most was how well preserved the sculptures were, even with the thousands of visitors and nothing preventing people from touching the stone with their greasy hands. The stories that were carved into the stone of the many Hindu gods were at times hilarious, and some appeared to be ancient soap operas.
The final stop was Badami, the home of the famous cave temples of India, which consisted of four caves, which were each carved from a single piece of granite. The sculptures became more ornate and elaborate as we progressed from cave to cave, each created a couple centuries after the earlier one. The above images are all roughly life-size or larger, and depict various Hindu gods in various mythical stories.
The amazing part was just looking at the caves in their entirety. They are carved out of granite stone. The artists had to look at this mountain side, envision a complete three-dimensional scene, and then start carving from front-to-back, and from top-to-bottom. The technology to dig the cave was impressive enough, with no power tools, but adding the artistic element made it truly mind-boggling.
Among the larger life-size images were also hundreds of smaller bas-relief carvings of gods, dwarves, animals in still more mythical stories. These were seen at every turn.
Of course, we always value the interactions with the people whenever we travel. There was a small group of school children who quickly latched onto us as foreigners, and requested to have their photo taken in one cave (lower-right). There were very few monkeys in this area, though one consented to have his portrait take (upper left). Our guide offered to take a photo of the three of us (Pauline, me, Evelyn left-to-right in center image).
After exploring the caves and temples, we drove to the local village for Pauline to purchase more sarees, and where we observed how everyday life continues. Our driver informed us that this saree shop was the best.
It was also fascinating to see the various forms of transportation in town. From tractors (upper-left) to motorcycles (upper-right) to families sharing a single bike (center-left) to tuk-tuks overflowing with an extended family (center) to ox carts (lower left) to simply walking (lower-right), people were always on the move. Gasoline is quite expensive relative to wages, so cars were rare.
We took several little side trips during our three weeks of traveling through Southern India. One was a visit to Munroe island, located in the Kollam district in rural Kerala, India, and well off the beaten path. We had expected to drive to the island and then walk around. Instead, we were deposited on the side of the road, where a small wooden boat with stand up paddler was waiting for us. We then proceeded to tour the small canals of the island.
Perhaps the most memorable part of the visit was the very low bridges under which we passed. There were a few that we could simply duck to pass under, and one bridge even had bats clung to the bottom. Many others, though, required us to lie down flat in the bottom of the boat, with the bridge still brushing our backs when passing under.
As we passed one small home, we saw a group of women spinning fiber with what looked like bicycle wheels on a handle, rolling back and forth on a wheeled platform. The sisal making machine looked like a hand-made twisting mechanism. The boat driver let us off the boat, and told us that the Indian people are very resourceful. Every part of the coconut is used, including the short fibers from the husks of the coconuts (called coir). We discovered that this family was spinning the fibers to make natural sisal rope.
We realized that we have used rope made from natural fibers for years, but never given much thought to how it was made. They took packages of strands of natural fibers, wound it into long strings approximately 1/4" thick, then twisted the strings together to create a rope. The final product (bottom-right) can then be used for rope, rugs, and other products.
During our ride, we came across a man who was diving for clams (top-left). He swam over and gave us three of his clams as a gift, then swam away, smiling but never uttering a word. At another stop, a man sold us a coconut milk drink, a common thirst quenching drink of the region (lower-left). As always, we also found a local temple, complete with colorful sculptures (lower row). This is another sample of village life in India.
We spent one day relaxing on a houseboat on the backwaters of Alleppey in Kerala, India. This area is also known as the "Venice of the East." Our houseboat reminded me of a Hobbit Home, whereas Evelyn thought we were on an armadillo fleet floating on the brackish canals. The original houseboats were primarily deployed for transporting spices, rice and other cargo. Now, 1500 boats a day carry tourists along the waterways, and has become quite a tourist draw.
Our boat was built with elongated wooden planks (no nails), with the thatched roof covering, framed with bamboo over a wooden hull. When moving, it provided a slight breeze, making the otherwise hot air very pleasant. The chef on board stuffed us with gourmet meals, while we relaxed and watched the world go by like royalty. In fact, the three of us had our own staff of three in our boathouse... one staff member for every guest. We even bought a kilo of large tiger prawns for the chef to custom grill just for us for dinner, while stocking the boat.
In the late afternoon, we went on a motorless canoe tour of some of the smaller waterways of the backwater area. As we passed through the village, we found that most homes had someone out front with a simple bamboo pole stuck in the water, catching dinner for their family.
The people living along the canals provided endless fascination, with an occasional monkey (middle-left) to break up the scene. Upper-left shows Pauline (Evelyn's sister) taking in the day-to-day life of the villages.
Just as we were about to embark on our canoe tour, the skies opened and the rain started falling in earnest. Umbrellas came out for most people on the water, but by the time we had loaded the canoe, the rain had stopped, leaving the air pleasantly clean and cool for our journey.
After we finished our houseboat stay, we headed to our next destination. Enroute, we stopped at a local temple (top-left), and came across six men going from home to home with a god's statue in a litter (middle-left), where each home would pour grain in a ritual to invite the gods into their homes (lower-left and center). Along the way, we also stopped at a bridge to check out the fishing boats parked at the local marina.
We also came across a school that was in recess, and several boys rushed to the gate to gawk at the foreigners (upper-right) then watched a fisherman repairing his nets (middle-right). We encountered plenty of photographic opportunities everywhere in India.
While in Munnar, we watched a classical Indian Kathakali dance drama and traditional Kalaripayattu martial arts at the Punarjeeva Cultural Center. By arriving a couple hours early, they allowed us behind-the-scenes access to watch and capture actors dressing and putting on their makeup. The male lead is wearing 80 pounds of clothes, and requires 3 hours to put on his makeup. He does this every day, for a performance that only lasts about 30 minutes, and then removes all the makeup using coconut oil in less than 15 minutes.
The dance itself involved only two characters, and there are no words spoken. One was a god, while the other (also played by a man) was a jealous wife. In the myth being portrayed, this wife was unhappy because she was not the #1 wife, and thus her son would not inherit the throne. We see her fangs come out, which symbolize her jealousy. In this version of the myth, the wife is then killed (lower-right), though the version we had been told about days early ended with the wife's banishment, rather than death.
After the dance, two men gave a martial arts demonstration in a pit between the dance stage and the audience. It was dark enough down in the pit that we could not really see very well, and it was only in processing the images that we even realized the high jumps used during the simulated fights (center).
Temples lined the roads. Every village had its own Hindu temple, and many times, one served a small village of only a few families.
We started our exploration of Madurai with a walking tour that started at 6AM. This gave us a chance to see the old town wake up, since dawn was at 6:30. Every home had the woman of the house creating an elaborate design using a rice powder, using two fingers and thumb to pick up a large pinch, then disbursing it in a steady, controlled stream. These patterns (upper-right and entire lower row) were meant to welcome the gods into their home, with the various designs being passed on through the generations.
We noticed that all the cows seemed to be walking with a purpose. A little after sunrise we came across a man (upper-center) milking them as they arrived. They knew where and when to go, with no need for any human guidance.
Since we were here on International Women's day, one woman came out, and placed forehead decorations and a string of jasmine flowers on both Evelyn and Pauline (center).
The wholesale market is open 24/7, so there are always people negotiating for product day and night.
As the town woke up, other shopkeepers and street food vendors laid out their wares and got ready for the day's business.
The Hindu temples in this part of the country are different from any we have seen before. They are heavily adorned with colorful statues of various gods, displayed in a multitude of mythical situations. Center image shows one of the small temples that we passed in Southern India, while the right column shows some of the details of a few of its statues.
Unfortunately, the most impressive temple of them all, called Meenakshi, has no images. It has five massive towers, each of which has more than 1100 colorful statues. There was a bomb threat to the site, so security no longer allows anyone to carry a camera or cell phone, leaving it impossible for us to show the immensity and complexity of the temple. Inside, Evelyn and Pauline were blessed by the temple elephant, which took their 20 rupees, and used its trunk to make the blessing on top of their heads.
On the village tour from the Cardamon Homestay, Evelyn and Pauline found a potter making a vase on a potter's wheel run entirely by hand. (see video at the end to get a feel of how it works). The 84-year old potter seen here is the last one in this village, since his children chose not to carry on the craft.
They also visited a goat herder's village, and saw a site where goats were sacrificed to bring fertility, plus original homes that were more than 300 years old.
Kids are always fun to watch, and Southern India was no different. A pleasant surprise is that the kids in this area asked for ball point pens instead of money. It seemed that a group would form around us everywhere we went, as foreigners were not a common site in these locations. Pauline (Evelyn's sister) is seen in center image, posing with one such gang.
People here worked hard at whatever they were doing, but were always welcoming to both us and our cameras. Several people were washing clothes, accomplished by beating the clothes on rocks or concrete (bottom left). The top image showed a saree maker on her loom, where Pauline bought several. We also came across a funeral that was continuing for two days (bottom center), with drums and songs honoring the dead.
In two minutes, see how this potter in a small village of India makes clay pots entirely by hand, including spinning his wheel by hand.
After the excitement of Holi and Hola Mohalla, we embarked on a couple weeks of touring Southern India in a more sedate manner. Pauline (Evelyn's sister) joined us for this portion of India.
Our first stop was Kochi (also known as Cochin). Our hotel was a couple blocks from the beach, so we walked down to see the Chinese fishing nets(an ancient cantilevered fishing technique) at sundown, while the nets were idle.
We also watched the nets during the day, when they were being worked at high tide. The huge nets are lowered into the water, and then raised a few minutes later. The net is fixed to a pole on the shore. While fishing, the entire net is lowered by a primitive fulcrum mechanism using long bamboo poles. By the same mechanism the pole is lifted along with the catch. As seen in the lower image, it takes a crew of five strong men to handle the nets.
A first stop was for fresh coconut milk, which we later found was a mainstay drink for the area, as we had it many times over the next couple weeks.
We were given a tour of the area by Thomas (lower-center), our host along with his wife Ruby, at their homestay in Thodupuzha, just outside of Cochin.
We then went onto a rubber tree plantation (left-center, middle, left-bottom) and learned how the rubber is harvested from the tree. Unfortunately, the rubber processing plant was not in operation that day due to a labor strike, so were not able to see the processing of the rubber sap. Across the road from the rubber trees was a pineapple plantation. We learned that the rubber trees must be cut down and replanted every few years, and that pineapples are planted alongside the rubber trees until the latter forms a canopy.
As we drove by field after field of tea toward Madurai, we came across one being harvested, and stopped for a closer look (right-middle and right-bottom). We saw that the harvesting is done by hand using a special basket with a scissor-like edge allowing the workers to just off just the top, most tender leaves.
Evelyn and Pauline both wanted to see elephants, so we took a side trip to Elephant Junction, a wildlife sanctuary at Periyar, and fed one elephant.
Monkeys were everywhere, and here is a small sample of some of the photos we took of them.
When I was photographing the fishing nets that evening, a cruise ship lifted anchor and began sailing out to see. I was using a long exposure for the image, and rather liked the surprise result...
In this one minute clip, you can see tea leaves being harvested, and Evelyn and Pauling feeding an Asian elephant.