Welcome to this travel blog which is inspired by the wandering clouds effortlessly gliding through distant lands. Sometimes almost still as if watching the beauty of the earth below and at times rushing to some place far away – as if on an endless travel mission. This is where I share my observations, experiences and thoughts gathered during my travels

Sunday, August 28, 2011

The Blue Ghost at Corpus Christi

Located in Southern Texas, Corpus Christi in Latin means ‘body of Christ’, however, the city has no particular significance in the celebration of the Catholic feast by the same name. Corpus Christi is actually well known for its Naval Air Station and its museum ship called USS Lexington. The ship was used in the Second World War and is said to have served for the longest period of time and set maximum number of records than any other US navy aircraft carrier. The Japanese called it the “Blue Ghost” because they thought they had managed to sink it several times but it shockingly kept showing up. If one visits Corpus Christi, one has to visit this historical museum to get a sense of what this nation used when it went on wars in the last century and also to see how it now evokes a sense of pride and nationalism among the visiting Americans.

The museum ship at Corpus Christi bay

After reaching the museum, we collected a museum map and brochures and went on a self guided tour. The volunteers and guides were available for answering queries at every corner. The ship has multiple decks, each with interesting exhibits. We first went to the flight deck from where the aircrafts took off and landed and were struck by its size. A number of decommissioned aircrafts were kept on display on the deck, each with a description of when it was used and its technical details. We then went to the forecastle-the part where equipment for anchoring is stored and were stunned to see the giant chains and machinery that was showcased. The lower deck had interesting exhibits on how the crew lived when on duty, where they ate, where they prayed and where they rested when they got sick. The hangar deck, where the aircrafts were kept for maintenance and fueling, also had some interesting exhibits. This included flight simulators where one could actually get a sense of being part of a war and a display of some of the aircrafts used during Second World War for bombings. Although some modifications have been made to the ship in order to make it accessible to the visitors, most of the places required walking through narrow openings and winding pathways and ducking one’s head from being hit by the low ceilings. Closer to the exit, a large US flag was pinned up which also served as a backdrop for clicking group pictures.

As I stepped out, I wondered if such a museum built on the foundations of patriotism and warfare was not only preserving histories and memories but also laying ground for its continued legacy.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

A bicycle ride under blooming Sakura

In early April, when the Cherry Blossom trees are in full bloom in Japan, it is a common practice to go out for flower viewing called ‘Hanami’ or hold lawn parties under fully blossomed trees. Since I did not have anyone to party with, I decided to go around enjoying the Sakura on a bicycle. It was not very difficult to rent a bicycle at the local train station. I just had to cross two hurdles- one, filling up a Japanese form which I managed to do with some help from two kind-hearted elderly women who barely knew English and two, after being given the key to the bicycle I actually managed to find the right bicycle from hundreds parked at the cycle stand. I knew the route I had to take, but once I got on the road, I decided to keep the maps away and wander aimlessly under the Sakura.

The weather was beautiful. Bright sunshine passing through thick branches of blooming Sakura created a play of light and dark on the pathway. Every now and then, the cool breeze nudged the petals to leave home and carried them delicately as they twirled and danced to silent music till they rested on the earth. Every time I passed through this rhapsody, I stood there with my face turned upwards and my palms stretched out so that I could feel the petals falling on my skin. Can there be anything more flattering than being showered by the Sakura petals or the ‘Hanafubuki’ as the showers are called in Japanese? I rode through the Tsukuba University campus and found many people merrily stretching out on the lawns- some were playing music, some were reading and some were even barbequing! It seemed like no one could turn down the invitation extended by bright sunshine and the pink hued-cloud shaped Cherry Blossoms to come outdoors and have a nice time.

I cycled through the small lanes finding spots where I could enjoy the Hanafubuki and then rode through the boulevards that were graciously lined by Sakura on both sides. As it started getting dark, I realized that I had to go back and return my rented bicycle. I handed over the keys and told the lady at the counter that I would need the bicycle again the next day. I had enjoyed the Sakura show and wanted to experience it once again. You see, there are some things in life that one can’t get enough of.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Unresolved conspiracies

On November 22, 1963 President John F Kennedy was declared dead at Parkland Memorial Hospital, Dallas. As per official sources, his death took place due to bullet injuries after being fired by Lee Harvey Oswald from the sixth floor of Dealy Plaza. Oswald was himself shot dead two days later by Jack Ruby. JFK’s death has been a subject of conspiracy theories all these years and the interest in finding explanations to the mysterious circumstances surrounding his assassination continues even today. Questions have been asked about the investigations carried out by various official agencies and about the conclusions drawn by the Warren Commission’s report and subsequently the other official reports probing the assassination. Much has been written but several questions still remain unanswered.

Sixth Floor, Dealy Plaza
During my visit to Dallas, I went to see the place where JFK was assassinated and the spot from where the shots were fired. The window from where Oswald fired the shots is located on the Sixth Floor, Dealy Plaza which is now converted into a museum. Located towards one end of downtown Dallas where three streets converge (Main, Elm and Commerce Streets) and go under a railroad bridge, the place sees hundreds of visitors curiously looking from one end to the other, trying to visualize the scene and ponder over the conspiracy theories. The JFK memorial is not located at the assassination site itself but a block away. The last remains, however, are buried at Arlington cemetery, Washington D.C.

JFK Memorial, Dallas

I was gripped by the conspiracy theories for several weeks after the visit to Dealy Plaza. I tried to read about it and even watched Oliver Stone’s controversial film ‘JFK’. But the most fascinating part of being bitten by the conspiracy bug was grabbing an opportunity to attend Dr. Robert McClelland’s lecture at the Dallas Public Library. Dr. McClelland was one of the six doctors present in the Trauma Room One where JFK was brought on the stretcher after the gun shots and perhaps the only person from among the six doctors who is still alive. Dr. McClelland stood at the head of the table while assisting the other doctors performing tracheotomy on JFK and was in a unique position to observe the head damage. During his lecture, he shared in detail what happened in Trauma Room One, what he had seen and heard, about his depositions before the Warren Commission and his statements during investigations. He also pointed out that the account of Ed Hoffman, a speech and hearing impaired eyewitness is the most crucial one in shedding light on the assassination.

As years go by, it is going to be more and more difficult to piece together the puzzle and find out the truth about JFK’s assassination. And that is indeed a perfect scenario for conspiracy theories to hatch and abound. 

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Hugs to Paro

The Japanese are well known for their advanced contribution to robotics, engineering and technology. The Science Square at the National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology (called AIST) at Tsukuba, Japan showcases a stunning range of state-of-the-art robots that have been designed to serve various purposes. There are the HRP 2P and HRP 3P humanoid robots that can carry out various tasks like humans; they can walk even on slippery and uneven surfaces, dance, sit down, get up after falling and pick up objects. They can do useful chores like sorting and stacking plates of difference sizes and bowls. They have robots that can detect and anticipate movement of objects in the surroundings and respond accordingly. There is also a robotic version of the Tyrannosaurus which walks and is meant for commercial use in the entertainment industry.

However, the biggest attraction at the Science Square is Paro, a robotic baby harp seal, which has been recognized as the world’s most therapeutic robot. With a pacifier in its mouth and having the most vivid and expressive eyes, Paro can evoke soft and tender emotions in any person. Under the soft white fluffy body are fitted numerous sensors that allow Paro to respond to auditory, temperature, tactile, light and postural stimuli. Paro can recognize when it is taken on one’s lap and is patted and is programmed to make certain kinds of sounds. It turns its head, waggles its tail, and blinks with its long eyelashes. It loves to be cuddled and talked to and responds in various ways when it is shown affection. Paro has been effectively used in therapy with children and the elderly. For developing Paro, scientists used research in psychology and animal therapy and studied how stress and depression could be reduced in patients, especially in situations when use of real animals may not be advisable or possible.

I felt like bringing Paro home. Perhaps I may have to some day, if I end up getting old and lonely. 

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Man and animal

Have you ever witnessed a bull race? It is a sheer display of exhilaration, heroism and raw energy. A few years ago, we watched a local bull race near Ullal, in Dakshina Kannada district of Karnataka and it was quite an experience. 

 As we approached the venue, we saw huge hordes of people from surrounding villages making their way to witness the event. We didn’t have to ask for any directions for we simply followed the crowds. The local villagers had already taken the best spots and the VIPs were seated in a temporarily erected shamiana. We managed to find a place for ourselves close to the VIPs so that we too could enjoy a great view. It seemed to be primarily a male sport as I could hardly find any women among the spectators. There were two tracks covered with ankle-deep muddy water and separated from each other and the spectators by red mud embankments. We realized that the contestants would have to race in pairs in perhaps a dozen heats. Soon the contestants flaunting their bare chests, turbans and bright coloured folded veshtis and shorts paraded with their respective pairs of bulls. The bulls were also decorated with bright ribbons, woolen flowers and bells. Each contestant was accompanied by a couple of men- perhaps their coaches and strategists - helping them to keep their nerves. 

The spectators were in complete frenzy when the race started. The contestants raced amidst complete cacophony of cheering crowds, village drums and whistles. We were sure this egged the bulls and their men to get into the zone and sprint through the muddy waters. The bulls ran like crazy and the men tried to keep pace by not letting go off the rope that connected the two. It was not clear who was controlling whom, if the men were racing the bulls or if the bulls were dragging the men at a speed beyond their limits. The men who got the prizes became instant heroes bringing glory to their families and villages. The bulls got their share of indulgence and the spectators went back charged contagiously with the raw energy that filled the air.

In my mind's eye

When I was nine years old, my dad had visited the US and had got us a ‘View-Master’ with reels containing pictures of some attractive tourist destinations in that country. One of them carried pictures of stalagmites and stalactites making amazing formations. That was the first time I had seen such a natural wonder and I had no clue what it was called or how it was formed. More than awe I remember experiencing sheer disbelief that something like that could exist on this planet. It seemed so unreal and straight out of a ghost story.

A few years ago, when I read about the Natural Bridge Caverns near San Antonio, Texas, the images from the View-Master came right in front of my eyes.  I was staying at Houston at that time and the caverns were only three hours drive away. I could not wait to see how it looked like in real life.

The King's Throne
The Natural Bridge Caverns sees many tourists combining this with a visit to San Antonio or New Braunfels. Outside the caverns, there is a nice park with huge dinosaur models that one can climb on. I took a tour of the caverns which lasted approximately one hour and took us about 180 feet below the ground. The pathway was wet and at some places quite slippery. Although there were railings all along, one had to watch every step. I paused to observe each formation along the way and found that every single one of them was absolutely unique although they had generic names like soda straws, chandeliers, etc. Each chamber has an interesting name based on the patterns and meanings drawn from the abstract structures that are formed. As I went deeper and deeper inside the cavern, it became darker but the lights placed at strategic spots gave a brilliant orange hue to the formations. 
Pluto's Anteroom

We were told that the caverns were discovered in the early sixties by a group of local college students who made repeated expeditions to the naturally formed limestone bridge that lies above the caverns. Thanks to these college kids who were adventurous enough to crawl through the small openings and discover the spectacular caverns, we now have a site that showcases what underground water flowing through cracks in the layers of limestone can create over millions of years. The stalagmites and stalactites are still dynamic and growing with water silently passing and dripping through the formations.

I tried to take a few pictures but I don’t think they can ever match the quality of what I had seen through my old View-Master. I clicked them nevertheless, not to showcase the unbelievable wonders hidden in the caverns to others but to remind me of the joy of actually seeing it after preserving its image in my mind’s eye for years.        

Monday, August 8, 2011

Not just dirty laundry!

When one returns home from any travel, one is usually confronted with the question- what have you brought back with you? The question is as standard and predictable (and sometimes as indifferent) as the safety announcements on the flights. The question can come from your family and friends or even from distant acquaintances that somehow get to know that you had traveled to a particular place. Some wise and veteran travelers (like my hubby) think of this in advance and plan methodically such that they have more than an adequate response to offer to the question – both verbally and materially. But I have not managed to learn this trait from my better half and I often scramble for an answer on the way back home. I think it is far too expensive to buy anything at the airports just to be able to give an answer. A few days ago, I was listing all the things that I have actually brought home, besides dirty laundry of course.

Once when my daughter was in pre-school, I just got some interesting maps of the city I had visited and we spent days after that trying to find places, check distances and learn about co-ordinates. Once it was a sling that she could use, once it was a nice smooth round stone that she used as a paperweight. Once it was maple leaves of different colours that we laminated when I got back and now use as bookmarks. I usually end up visiting a grocery store wherever I go and it is easy to buy some food items, although there have been times when I have purchased something simply because the packaging looked interesting and I had no clue what was written on the label. Pictures of the places visited and local currency is always easy to bring home. Sometimes, I have even bought utility items like stain removers and storage boxes. It is not that I have not purchased local souvenirs – like Matryoshka dolls or local silks, but I have always preferred to look around than spend my time in shops.

I have sometimes shopped under compulsion and sometimes under pressure. Whenever I have visited smaller villages or towns, I have felt compelled to purchase local products and contribute to the local economy. It could be honey, spices, textiles or even baskets. I remember once shopping under pressure-I had only one hour before leaving for the airport, I had limited luggage space but I had loads of local currency left with me which I wanted to exhaust as I was not interested in re-converting. Once I had shopped so many big and heavy things like books and glass items that I had to buy two large bags just to carry back the new purchases. Sometimes, friends and colleagues whom I meet have been generous and have made matters easier for me by giving things that I can carry home. I have received mounds of organic jaggery, books, cosmetics, crockery sets and paintings.

Bringing home African braids 
Sometimes, I have brought home surprises. Once, some African colleagues spent two hours braiding my hair and I came back with over thirty braids and a pattern resembling tortoise-back on my scalp. The expression on the faces of my loved ones was simply priceless, something I would never have managed to see after presenting them items from the duty-free shops.

When I look at the list of things that I have brought back, I feel that I may not have always brought back the expected souvenirs, but I have always brought home plenty of stories and memories that I have recounted and relived around the dinner table. I have come home with stories about new friends I have made, new places I have seen and new cultures I have explored. When I come home, my family does not search my suitcase for shopping bags, they know there is likely to be nothing other than dirty laundry. They often ignore the bag and just look at me and wait for me to start talking. 

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Grand Prix de Monaco

The principality of Monaco is an amazing place and there are many things to see and do. There is the Palace, the Cathedral with beautiful stained glass paintings, gardens, interesting museums (like the museum of arms, museum of automatons and dolls) and of course, the casinos. Located on the French Riviera and an attractive destination for the wealthy because it levies no income tax, it is a perfect place for a permanent holiday. Monaco is also known for its famous Grand Prix Formula One race event and that is what I think of when I remember my visit to Monaco.

I was visiting a few days before the Grand Prix weekend some years ago and although I was not staying on to witness the exciting race, it was fascinating to see the principality getting ready to host the grand event.

The circuit stretches over 3.3 kms along Monte Carlo and Le Condamine municipalities and even includes a stretch under the tunnel.  Being one of the most demanding street circuits with hair-pin bends, narrow lanes and inclines, it is an ultimate testing ground for strategy, technique, skill and speed. The narrow lanes do not give much room for overtaking and at some bends the drivers have to slow down considerably. The sight-seeing tour which I had taken took us along the race circuit and one could see the preparations being made in full swing. This included newly resurfaced streets and marking them especially for the race by erasing all the earlier road markings, placing advertisers’ billboards, welding the manholes so they do not get thrown up with the speed of racing cars, and setting up viewers’ stands along the route. The amount of preparation and work that goes behind the scenes to make the race both smooth and thrilling is enormous. Although the circuit does not meet the safety standards, it is still the most spectacular places to race and hence the event continues with the backdrop of the harbour.

Having watched F1 races only on television, it was terrific to walk on the circuit and get a sense of how electrifying the atmosphere must be with cars racing at unimaginable speeds, expertly negotiating the twists and turns without room for even a slightest error. I imagined the action that would unfold in the next few days- right from the pits stop to the circuit, among the rivals Schumacher and Alonso (Alonso went on win with Renault) as well as among the strategists and the spectators. More recently, when I read a little about F1 and what actually goes on with the driver and the entire team- before, during and after the race, my admiration for the teams grew immensely. I realized that it is not only about speed, it has much to do with technology, engineering, strategy, intricacy and sheer fearlessness. And what can be a better location to witness these in action other than the glamorous Monaco.

Saturday, August 6, 2011


When I landed at Moscow at four o’clock on a freezing January morning a few years ago, I first decided to forget about my nightmarish journey on Aeroflot and look ahead at what I could do in this historical city. I knew I had to work with three colleagues on a presentation that we were supposed to make at St. Petersburg after a couple of days. But since they were arriving at different times from different countries, I decided that I must go around before we sat down to work. It was bitterly cold outside, but I did not want that to affect my plans. I checked in at Hotel Budapest which is a nineteenth century building with beautiful interiors. The room looked a little too royal with red satins, golden wall papers and elegantly carved furniture. After having some hot chocolate, I played music on my laptop and dozed off for a few hours. I woke up, called my local colleague and took stock of the work we had to complete. We decided that since others were arriving later, we might as well begin work in the evening.

I had a hearty breakfast, picked up a map and a sightseeing brochure from the hotel lobby, asked the receptionist for some tips and set off to see the city. 

Statue of Karl Marx
Since the hotel was located close to the major attractions, I decided to walk. It was a busy working day, people walking on the streets, office-goers on their way to work, construction workers and civil engineers busy with road repair work and examining water pipes that were weak and could crack in winter - suddenly it did not feel so cold outside. I walked past a stone carved statue of Karl Marx at the Teatralnaya Square which had the inscription “Workers of the World Unite”. I found some elderly men sitting on benches and engrossed in intense discussions with newspapers on their laps. I wondered what they could be talking about- workers’ rights, fall-outs of reforms, party dynamics. I continued to walk and came to the Red Square. It was a huge square and standing at one end near the GUM store, I tried to imagine the interesting history of the Square- from being the site of bloody fights in the medieval times, to a place used for official parades and more recently even for rock concerts. A huge decorated Christmas tree in front of GUM conveyed that Christmas season was not yet over. 

St. Basil's Cathedral
The onion domes of St. Basil’s Cathedral stood out because of their architecture and colour. In front of the cathedral was a bronze statue of Minin and Pozharsky who saved Moscow in war with the Polish in early seventeenth century. The Kremlin wall was on one side, protecting Moscow Kremlin, the erstwhile royal bastion and currently the official residence of President of Russia. 
Lenin's Mausoleum

Lenin’s Mausoleum stood in front of the wall and the Kazan Cathedral on the other side. I had not come across so many important landmarks located in such close proximity and I think that is what makes the Red Square really unique. One can easily spend an entire day there absorbing the history and politics that are associated with the place. It was beginning to get dark and I walked back to the hotel taking another route so I could see a different part of the city.

By the time I reached the hotel, my colleagues had already arrived and we went to have an early dinner. The place had a nice warm feel to it with a Turkish flavour - hookahs, belly dancing and low divans to recline on. The next day, we went to our local colleague’s office, which was located in an old building and had many remnants of the Soviet era including Soviet style toilet blocks and a cafeteria with spartan mugs, plates and cutlery. I barely managed to find some vegetarian food. We worked until late evening. The temperatures had dipped further and I was glad I had managed to go around the previous day. Not sure when I would visit Moscow again, but when I do, I will certainly take a crash course on Russian political history before boarding an Aeroflot. That would help me better appreciate every street, every statue and every monument of this historical city. And perhaps also help me see the Aeroflot experience within a context!

Friday, August 5, 2011

Dollar Factory

The Bureau of Engraving and Printing of the US Department of Treasury prints the Federal Reserve Notes i.e. US dollar currency at two locations in the country, Washington D.C. and Fort Worth, Texas. We visited the facility at Fort Worth to see how billions of dollars in hard cash looked like in times of recession. Actually we were quite surprised to know that the facility is open to visitors since we do not know if similar facility in India is open to the public.

After going through standard security checks, we entered a lobby where there was a huge glass cube with one million dollars of hard currency stuffed inside. Gosh, looking at all that cash made me feel a little dizzy. As we turned away and began looking at other exhibits, we were ushered into a mini-theatre where they were about to screen a video documentary. The video was very informative and showed the history of currency making, how currency is printed, the crucial role played by the engravers, how the designs are prepared, the kind of ink and paper used, the various tests the currency notes are put through (like the laundry test where the notes are put through the laundry seven times to check if they survive), how they redeem currency that is completely mutilated, the things that are done to deter counterfeiting, how defective currency is identified and removed and how the notes become ‘real currency’ after one final step that takes place in Washington D.C. We were then taken on a tour of the facility. Through the glass paneled elevated walkway, we saw that the place looked like any other printing factory, just that what was being printed gave it an extra value. The notes were printed, cut, stacked, bundled and loaded into boxes meant to be dispatched to the D.C. facility. There were very few workers and they seemed to be going about their jobs in a matter-of-fact way. One of the workers standing next to a huge pile of notes scribbled a fat number and held it up for us to read. I could not even count the zeroes- but that was apparently the value of those green bills stacked next to him. We were told that the new ‘purple five’ dollar bill was being printed at the facility and if we looked more closely, we could see the identity of the Fort Worth facility printed on every such bill available. The tour lasted for about 45 minutes and we were then brought into another exhibit area. We were really impressed with the way the entire tour was organized and also the manner in which all the information was presented to visitors through interactive and interesting exhibits. On the way out, we stopped at the gift shop which sold interesting items like uncut sheets of dollar bills, shredded dollar bills besides the regular souvenirs like magnets and key-chains. We purchased a few souvenirs by paying cash (somehow did not feel like paying with plastic) and asked for a ‘purple five’ to be given as part of the change due.

We wondered in whose pockets would the billions of Federal Reserve Notes we had seen getting printed finally land. Hopefully, in the hands of those who have a rightful claim. In God We Trust!

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Desi Flavours at Mt.Titlis

Located in central Switzerland and considered to be the highest excursion peak offering the best 360 degree view of snow clad mountain ranges, Mt. Titlis is one of the most popular destinations among Indians visiting Switzerland. This was amply clear to us when we were there last October.  We took a train up to Engelberg, a picturesque village from where one can take a cable car to reach Mt. Titlis. The huge hoarding meant for welcoming guests just outside the cable car station included ‘Swagatam’ on one side and ‘Alvida’ on the other side along with other languages. The first cable car we took was a small one that could accommodate four persons. When we started the ascent, we could barely see the peak as it was covered with thick low lying clouds but within a minute the car took us high above the clouds from where we got a great view of Engelberg. Amidst the absolute stillness we could clearly hear the non-stop ringing of the cow bells from the meadows below.

After reaching Trubsee, we got into a larger rotating cable car called Rotair which took us all the way up to Mt. Titlis, which is located over 3000 metres above sea level. Inside the walls of the Rotair, we found information provided in Hindi along with other languages. Just shows that they are catering to the needs of tourists from India, we thought. 

When we reached Mt. Titlis, we were surprised to see a huge cut-out of Shahrukh Khan and Kajol from DDLJ right next to a cutout of faceless skiers meant for visitors to peep through, pose and take pictures. We had no clue what the display of Bollywood stars in their Bhangra pose was meant to serve on top of Mt Titlis. But there it was, amusing all visiting Indians and puzzling others who had no clue about the characters on display. 

DDLJ on Mt. Titlis
The summit was covered with thick snow. From the top, we could see the Alp ranges, glacier caves and an interesting structure that resembled a sitting Buddha. This was discovered by a Chinese gymnast just before he won an Olympic medal in 1996. After taking loads of pictures and trying all stunts in the snow, we went indoors to see a film about Mt. Titlis and eat the local Mövenpick chocolate ice-cream. We got into the Rotair, then again in the small cable car, descending through the clouds, hearing the cow bells and finally landing back at Engelberg. 

We were in for another desi jolt. This time a mobile food joint serving vada pav, pav-bhaji, samosa, idli-chutney, gajar halwa and masala chai! As the only food joint serving hot food at the foothills of Mt.Titlis, it was doing good business and we were really impressed. The weather was just right to indulge in the spicy chaats and top it up with masala chai.

Hot desi snacks at foothills of Mt. Titlis

Our trip to Mt Titlis had given us a taste of Indianisation of Swiss tourism and we were really tickled by it. A few months ago, we read that the Swiss are trying to increase inflow of Indian tourists by 25% this year. What more can they offer to make Indians feel at home – an autorickshaw ride around Engelberg or ice-gola as an addition to the Mövenpick range?

Atypical Beauty

An uninhabited island in the middle of the deep blue Arabian Sea, carpeted with heaps of sea shells and decorated with various kinds of polygonal columnar geological formations - that’s St. Mary’s Islands near Malpe beach in Karnataka. A hidden treasure and an absolute must-see!

St. Mary's Islands
We took an overnight bus from Bangalore to Udupi and stayed at Malpe beach. The beach had lovely white sands and was ideal for swimming. Our travel book recommended an excursion to St. Mary’s Islands and so we decided to make a trip there the very next day. The ferry ride to the islands took over 20 minutes and we were told that although the name actually refers to a group of four islands, we would be dropped at the island which was most popularly visited. The ferry stopped a few metres away from the shore and we had to wade through knee deep water to reach the island. Although the travel book had told us what to expect, what we actually saw exceeded all our expectations. The island was completely uninhabited and the only folks around were those who had taken the ferry along with us. The sea was mostly deep blue with shades of turquoise.

Basaltic Lava Columns
The characteristic feature of St. Mary’s Islands is the presence of stunning polygonal column-like structures formed with basaltic lava, millions of years ago. Each formation is unique and it was fascinating to look at them closely- most columns were stuck to each other but revealed the joints, some columns stood with slight gaps in between. Some columns looked as if they were vertically bunched together and chopped at the ends smoothly while others seemed to be chopped leaving jagged, uneven endings.  Although the Geological Survey of India has recognized it as one of the geological monuments, we did not see any particular effort to educate the visitors about its composition, formation, scientific studies being conducted and so on. Thus, for most visitors, it remains only a beautiful sight to be enjoyed. Another interesting fact we gathered was that Vasco da Gama is believed to have first stopped at St. Mary’s Islands before reaching Calicut during his first voyage to India in 1498. That also makes it historically significant, but again, we did not see any signs or information on the island which supported this claim.

Heaps of sea shells
The island is also a shell-collector’s paradise as there are heaps and heaps of shells on the beach. The island has a small park for children with slides and swings and some benches to sit. There are no shops or restaurants on the island and we found this to be very unusual. On the way back in the ferry, we wondered if keeping the St. Mary’s Islands out of the regular touristy traps was a carefully considered policy of the authorities meant to actually preserve the local geology or if it was a missed opportunity of promoting geo-tourism or if it was simply a sheer indifference towards our rare and incredible wonders.