Tuesday, September 28, 2010

First impression of Mexico City

Landing at the Mexico City airport past midnight, all I wanted to was reach my hotel and not get robbed or shot in the process. Not so fast, as the immigration guy kept staring at my passport for a while, flipped over the pages repeatedly, smelled it, made a little mark with his pen and wiped it off, and finally disappeared asking to "wait me". A more senior looking official emerged and and asked if I have another form of ID. I guess they were just confused why an Indian looking guy residing in Germany is holding an US passport. Strangely though, they never asked me why I am here.

The city is huge, and remarkably like any big Indian city. It is not just the crowd, or the crazy traffic or the tasty streetfood, but the character and smell of the city, so to say. It took us over an hour to come to the university from the center of the city, a distance of barely 5 km. The university apparently has 300,000 students, which is about 6 times that of a large public university in US. Overwhelming, to say the least.

Large crowds everywhere, be it at the metro or at tourist attractions. Everything from (cheap) spicy food to handicrafts being sold on the streets, or in the little carts. People singing or playing musical instruments and asking for money, or asking for money anyways. Mexico City is as lively and vibrant place as I have ever been to. The museum of Anthropology does a remarkable job of portraying the unique amalgamation of "Indian", Mayan, Aztec and Spanish culture that the present day Mexico is, apart from having an amazing collection of sculptures and relics recovered from the ruins.

I read all these scary things about the country. May be that is true elsewhere, but here in the city, I never felt unsafe. You do see armed cops and blinking lights literally in every corner, but no hint of any danger lurking.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Latest national park traveled: Yellowstone

National parks are quintessentially American. Ever since landing up in US in 2003, I have been to a small fraction of them:

Cuyahoga Valley (spring break, 2005)
Smoky Mountain (summer, 2005; fall, 2007)
Grand Canyon (Winter, 2005)
Shenandoah (fall, 2007)
Everglades (winter, 2007)
Yosemite(winter, 2007)
Petrified Forest (summer, 2008)
Acadia (summer, 2010)
Yellowstone and Grand Teton (fall, 2010)

When we think of natural attractions, mountains and seas are usual suspects. However, these national parks are unique in the sense that many of them present totally unusual vistas. Everglades certainly comes to mind - it encompasses the huge swampland of south Florida, an unique but fragile ecosystem. It is not terribly attractive if you want to travel marking the attractions on a map and then connecting the dots, but if for a few hours or days, you want to escape the "civilization", and just enjoy the vast wilderness and nothingness, that should be your next destination.

Yellowstone happens to be the first national park, where it all began, and no less unique. I have been up, close personal to a live volcano before (Mt.Etna, Sicily), but the sheer natural activity in Yellowstone is unlike anything I have ever seen. Spotting animals, (we did have some luck with seeing a bear and wolf/fox) hiding in the vast meadows or wilderness, is a favorite pastime, and whenever we would see a bunch of cars pulled over to the side of the road, we would slow down and ask, what do we see here? Easier to find are the Elks, we saw a herd of those relaxing in someone's front-yard. Bisons are omnipresent, often lazily crossing the roads holding up traffic.

However, you need no such luck or persevere to enjoy spectacle nature has laid out. Not only you have the geysers of all sizes sprouting hot water skyward in regular intervals, but also you have the strikingly colorful pools dotting the landscape. The old faithful is perhaps the most known, "faithfully" erupting at predicted intervals, but we were told that it used to go up higher in older days. Was not everything better back in the days when gas was 10 cents a gallon, airlines served food and immigrants did not flood the country?

That is just one of the countless geysers though.They seemed to pop out from everywhere, even from under a river or lake, a clear manifestation of the unseen activity underground. And when they subside, they form those pools. Combined with the metal particles, teeming microbe life renders surreal colors to those. At dusk, in the fading sunlight, the whole landscape transforms into something magical, the veil of smoke magnifying the colors. There are also some stinking muddy pools full of sulphur, bringing back memories of chemistry labs.

The pictures are in my facebook profile (apologies for not cross-posting them into picasa, but I am running out of virtual estate there).