Friday, December 25, 2020

2020 - Year of the Pandemic and (Almost) No Travel

I started writing this blog post in July 2020 but was not motivated enough to finish it.  It's now almost the end of the year.  I want to document what happened in this unforgettable year.

2020 has been a unique year that everyone hope will never repeat again.  It's the year of the pandemic, with the COVID-19 virus ravaging around the world.  It froze all normal human activities - businesses, schools, recreation, travel, etc.  Travel, especially international travel, is pretty much frozen, due to social distancing guidelines.  Every country and every state has their own rules regarding outsiders coming into their territory.  Air traffic came to a halt.  It is a very sad time for the world.

I was lucky to have traveled to Singapore and Sri Lanka at the beginning of the year before the crisis started escalating.  In March almost all travel, both domestically and internationally, shut down.

Because of restrictions for international travel, most Americans decided to stay home and travel domestically.  Even then, you have to make sure you don't go to crowded places and hopefully, most people wear face masks.  One type of travel that became popular during this time is traveling with a Recreational Vehicle (RV).  In some countries this is called a caravan but in the US, it is commonly know as a RV, whether it be a big motorhome, a trailer, a 5th wheel, or just a camper van.  The reason being that you are isolated from others most of the time so that you won't be infected with the COVID-19 virus.  

Doris and I decided to take our Casita Travel Trailer around the southwest for three weeks in July when cases in Arizona were spiking.  We did not have any planned itinerary but mostly, we'll travel to Colorado and Utah.  Our first stop is at Mesa Verde National Park (NP).  Although I've traveled through this area many times I've never felt the desire to stop here.  I found a nice campsite, Mesa Verde RV Park.  It is only about a mile from the entrance to the Park and provided all essential amenities - water, electricity, and sewer hookup.  It's a very well-run and clean RV park.  In normal times this place would've been fully booked in July.

We visited the park after we arrived.  It is not as grand or scenic like the Grand Canyon or Zion but it holds some ancient Indian ruins.  It was not crowded but some of the ruins were closed.

 Cliff Palace where the Ancestral Pueblos lived in the 1100s'

The next day we drove about 1 1/2 hours to Durango.  We walked around the downtown area, then drove about 30 minutes to where we took the Durango-Silverton Narrow Gauge Train.  Normally, we would've taken the train from the downtown train station but because of road construction we had to board the train at a different station.  This railroad was built in the late 19th century to transport silver and gold mined in the San Juan mountains.  It was about a 2-hour train ride one-way through some beautiful mountain scenery.

    Durango-Silverton Narrow Gauge Train

We took a side trip to Telluride where I ski almost every year.  It's a very different look in the summer, the ski slopes being used for mountain biking and golf.

We then spent 2 nights at friend Sally and her husband Greg's beautiful ranch property just outside of Durango.

Following Durango we started heading north towards Gunnison.  On the way we stopped briefly at Silverton, then Ouray, sometimes called the Switzerland of the Rockies.  Having been to Switzerland several times I'd say it's not even close.

    Stopping in Ouray
It was a beautiful climb through the Rockies, passing through Montrose and finally camping at the Mesa Campground just outside of Gunnison.  The next day we drove to the beautiful town of Crested Butte and spent the day walking and enjoying the views.

    Downtown Crested Butte

Next we drove north towards Breckenridge to meet with my IBM friend Felix and his wife Sharon in Dillon for lunch.  That night we looked for a nice place to park our RV but ended sleeping in the parking lot of the Walmart at Frisco.  It's the first time we camped at a Walmart but the experience was very pleasant.  Of course there was no hookup but for 1 night it worked very well.

    Lunch with Felix and Sharon in Dillon    

Since we were so close to Rocky Mountain National Park (RMNP) we decided to head that way.  It was a little over a 2-hour drive and we booked 3 nights at the Spruce Lake RV Park, just outside the entrance to the park.  The first day we drove into the park and stop at many of the view sites to enjoy the scenery.

    One of the beautiful views at RMNP

Estes Park is a town just next to the RMNP.  I've heard a lot about how beautiful the town is and it sure was.  We took a shuttle bus from the RV park to town and found a Farmers' Market.  We also strolled along the river walk and through the downtown area.  Normally, at this time of the year, Estes Park would be very crowded.  Not so this year.

    Strolling along the river walk in Estes Park

We decided to drive through Utah on the way back to Arizona, stopping at Arches, Bryce and Zion National Parks.  Our next destination was Grand Junction, which would put us less than 2 hours from Arches National Park.  We had a very nice experience camping at the local Walmart. There is a Texas Roadhouse restaurant right across the street, where we had a nice dinner.  The store was closed and the parking lot was empty by 8pm.  In the morning we went into the store to buy some essentials and breakfast from the McDonald's restaurant inside the store.  

    Camping at Walmart

We parked our trailer at the Arches National Park Visitor Center and drove around the park for about 2-3 hours.  It was enough to give Doris a glimpse of what it looks like and take some pictures.  We didn't have time to hike and even if we did, we wanted to social distance from others.

    One of many arches at Arches NP

From Arches we drove to Bryce Canyon National Park where we were lucky to find space at the Ruby's Inn RV Park for 2 nights.  The RV park is literally just outside the entrance to the park.  We took the park shuttle to different viewpoints around the park.  Surprisingly, the park was not very crowded.

    Hoodoos at Bryce Canyon No Problem

About 2 hours from Bryce Canyon NP is another very popular national park - Zion.  It is always crowded and even with the pandemic it was still very crowded.  The shuttle buses were running in the park and masks were required.  However, they were not enforced so many visitors after getting on the shuttle buses took off their masks.  At the shuttle stops many hikers congregate together without wearing masks and no social distancing.  We quickly decided to leave the park.

    Zion National Park

Our next destination is the north rim of the Grand Canyon National Park.  Most visitors going to the Grand Canyon go to the south rim, which is more accessible and open year-round.  We had a choice of camping in Kanab, UT, or Jacob's Lake, AZ.  Not knowing what time we'd leave Zion NP I made reservations at the J&J RV Park so that we can set up camp before it gets dark.  We were hungry when we go to Kanab and had one of the best Mexican meals at the Escobar's Mexican Restaurant nearby.  

It looks us about an hour and a half to drive to the north rim of the Grand Canyon.  In the past you could see bisons grazing along the highway into the park.  However, this time there weren't any.  They have probably gone to graze somewhere else.  We hiked to some viewpoints and had excellent views of different parts of the canyon.  The lodge and most of the restaurants were closed and the park was not very crowded.  We left after about 3 hours and started driving towards Flagstaff.

    North Rim of Grand Canyon NP

We gained an hour driving back across Arizona and arrived at the J&H RV Park in Flagstaff early enough to check-in.  This is a small family-run RV park just outside of Flagstaff.  We've stayed here previously and like the cleanliness and amenities it provides.  This includes wifi, cable TV, clean bathrooms and showers, full hookups and friendly service.  I always need help from Harvey, the owner, to backup into my trailer spot.  We spent 4 nights here enjoying the cool weather and some hiking.  We were in no hurry to go back to Phoenix, where it had been over 110F almost every day.  

    Enjoying a hot-pot dinner in Flagstaff

After 3 weeks of travel we were ready to head home to Phoenix.  Certainly we were not looking forward to the heat.  2020 is not only the year of the pandemic but also a year of record heat for Phoenix.

In spite of the pandemic I traveled to NYC to see my kids and grandkids in August.  I had to quarantine for 2 weeks when I got there but it was well worth it.  I went with my daughter, son-in-law and granddaughter to Vermont for a week and spent the rest of the time in Manhattan.  Restaurants were opened for take-out or outdoor dining.  Things were started to get back to normal but everyone followed the rules, mainly, they all wore masks.  I went to Chinatown several times to buy dinners or groceries.  We even went to Costco, a treat for my son's family, who have never been there.  

    A Family Dinner in NYC

In November Doris and I took our trailer to Silver Strand Campground in San Diego.  We camped for 3 nights then drove to Monterey Park to visit her parents.  I took the trailer to Yosemite by myself and was planning to stay 3 nights but ended up staying 2 nights.  Camping at a RV site in Oakhurst it was a longer drive to Yosemite Village then I expected.  Although the distance was not long, around 20 miles, it took an hour to get from Oakhurst to the Village.  The road was winding and you can drive at around 25mph most of the way.  Some of the popular spots were closed for the season.  It was a disappointing trip.

    Yosemite National Park

In late November the number of COVID-19 cases started to spike again and it's time to stay home.  I am finishing this post on Christmas Day.  The next few months look bleak.  About 330,000 have died and cases are rising all over the US and the world.  Two vaccines have been approved and vaccinations are starting.  I am hoping to get my shots by March.

2021 should turn the corner - with a new Biden/Harris administration.  Trump's influence would be dying and hopefully, will disappear from American politics forever.  America MUST NOT have another president like Donald Trump again.  It's been a rough 4 years and a disastrous 2020.

Tuesday, February 18, 2020

Sri Lanka, Part 6 - Galle, Colombo

We are down to the last 2 days of the tour.  Our next destination is Unawatuna, a coastal town just before Galle.  Leaving the countryside means we are heading to more traffic along the coast.  This is a heavily touristic area.  Many tourists come here to enjoy the beautiful beaches of SL.  Businesses that cater to these tourists are everywhere.  The highway gets choked with cars, scooters and motorcycles ridden by these tourists.  Mohan stopped at a roadside stand and chatted with a woman who was selling roasted cashew nuts.  I bought a small bag from her for 1,400 rupees.  Definitely more than what I pay for at Costco but I am helping her make a living.  I love cashew nuts.  Here is a video on how they are picked from the tree to being processed for consumption:   Cashew Nut Processing

Woman selling cashew nuts on the roadside

A raw cashew nut

We inched our way through the coastal highway to get to our destination in about 4-5 hours.  We were supposed to tour Galle but it was late.  We checked in to the Rockfort Hotel at almost 5pm.  I was tired and took a short nap.  The back of the hotel edges up to the beach.  It was already dark when I took a short walk on the beach.  It was lit but I did not go far.  There are many European tourists, maybe Germans, staying at the hotel.  They were part of a family or in a big group.

I still had some remnants of the upset stomach.  I was hoping I could eat but I took a few bites and stared longingly at the dinner.  I went back to my room and worked on my blog.

In the morning my stomach was feeling a little better and ate a little more food.  I walked on the beach and took a few pictures.  Mohan came to pick me up at 9 and we are headed to Galle.

Rockfort Hotel in Unawatuna

View west from the hotel deck

A Paradise View from the beach

Another beach view near the hotel
The road we took to Galle hugs the busy coast.  Lots of activities going on:  tourists swimming on the beach, shops catering to them, and fishermen and customers mingling at makeshift fish stands.  We stopped at a few of these places to take pictures and I even participate in the hauling-in of a fishing net.

Fishing boats after the morning's catch

Helping fishermen hauling in the net

Lots of fish to sell

Catch of the Day

A fishmonger showing off his catch
Galle is a major city on the southwestern tip of Sri Lanka.  Because of its strategic location on the seagoing route between Europe, Middle East and Asia it has long been a stopping point for Persian, Arabs, Greeks, Romans and Chinese merchants.  It was occupied by the Portuguese in the 1500s', who then lost to the Dutch in the 1600s', and was finally occupied by the British starting in 1796 until Sri Lanka's (then Ceylon) independence in 1948.

We walked around the old part of Galle and saw many remnants of the colonial days.  Most prominent is the Dutch Fort, a World Heritage Site.

All Saints Church, built by the Dutch

A Clerk with his Olympia typewriter at the Archaeological Museum

Corals and limestones were mixed to build the fort

Galle Lighthouse

A Mosque next to the Fort. Malays were brought to SL by the Dutch

A Muslim Association Building

A College Marching Band practicing next to the Fort

Clock Tower in the Rampart

A watchtower in the rampart

A Plaque showing when the Galle Lighthouse was built

Part of the Fort
Statues on the Rampart
At about noon we took a 2-hour drive north towards Colombo.  Like any major city the roads are choked with traffic.  Colombo is a city of almost 6 million.  It is the capital and financial center of Sri Lanka.  As we drove around we see many high-rises and high-end hotels like Shangri-la, Hilton, Cinnamon, etc.  Having been occupied by the Portuguese, then the Dutch and finally the British, there are a few historical landmarks but it's just another bustling city.  We took a few walks around some notable places and streets.

We stopped at a few pharmacies to look for medical masks.  All of them were sold out.  This is during the height of the corona virus pandemic in China.  SL had only 1 case but there are several in Singapore.  Masks are sold out all over the world.

Dinner with Mohan and his family at the Cinnamon Hotel

A former lighthouse

Independence Monument

A Bustling Street in the Heart of the City

The Red Mosque

Street Vendor Selling Pickled Fruits
I ended my visit to Sri Lanka with a dinner with Mohan and his family.  It was Valentine's Day so most of the restaurants were packed.  We were lucky to find availability in the Courtyard Restaurant in the Cinnamon Hotel.  It was a beautiful and generous buffet dinner that all of us enjoyed.  Mohan and his family gave me a memento - a picture frame of photographs that we took together.

Memento from Mohan's family
Early in the morning Mohan picked me up and took me to the airport.  Security here is not the most efficient.  I had to go through four screenings before finally arriving at the gate.  I checked into the Lotus Lounge and had some breakfast.  It will be a 3 1/2 hour flight to Singapore.  A few of the passengers wore masks but most acted normally.

It was a wonderful and educational trip to SL.  I knew but didn't know much.  Seeing and experiencing first-hand the country gave me a different perspective and understanding.

Saturday, February 15, 2020

Sri Lanka, Part 5 - Horton Plains NP, Nuwara Eliya, Ella, Buduruvagala, Yala NP

It's day 10.  Today we are taking a hike in Horton Plains National Park to the famous World's End.  It is a sheer cliff with a drop of about 4,000 feet.  Several visitors have fallen off the cliff and died here. When we visited there was barb wire at the edge to discourage visitors from getting too close to the edge.  We had to have a jeep operator to take up to the National Park because the drive up was too steep for our small Prius.

At the World's End
Barb Wire at the Edge
Sign to Baker's Falls

Baker's Falls

The trail to and from World's End

A Wild Sambar Deer
 We were to visit Ambewala Farm that afternoon but it was closed.  It is a dairy farm with milk and yogurt production on the facility.  We ended up going to town again looking for an ATM.

That night I woke up in the middle of the night getting a bad upset stomach.  After taking some medication I finally threw up.  In the morning I threw up again and had to skip breakfast.  Fortunately, we didn't have to start early the next day.  I rested most of the morning until it was time to go.

It was a late morning as the train from Nuwara Eliya was not supposed to leave until around noon.  At about 11am we left for the train station.  The crowd slowly grew.  Fortunately, I was able to buy the last first-class ticket when we were in Kandy a few days ago.  I did not want to be in third class and stand for about 3 hours.  I want to have a comfortable seat, preferably window.  The price of the ticket was only 1,000 rupees.

Nanu-Oya is the name of the train station in Nuwara Eliya
Ella Gap - View from my hotel room
At one of the stops

It was a slow but comfortable train ride through the mountains.  You look on beautiful lush valleys with tea plantations and other farms.  Mohan drove to Ella and met me at the train station.  He beat me by only 5 minutes.  We drove straight to the Ella Gap Panorama Hotel.  From the hotel balcony you can see the Ella Gap, which is a beautiful valley below.

The next morning we drove to see the Nine Arch Bridge.  We had to take a short hike down to the bridge as there are no roads.  There were many tourists milling around.  Part way down a train came.  On the way back up we were caught in the rain and had to take a tuk-tuk up to our parked car.  It was 300 rupees.   

Ella, is my daughter-in-law's name
Nine-arch Bridge, with the tea plantation below
Next we drove a couple of hours to see the Buduruvagala Buddhist Temple.  This is not so much a temple as a few (seven) Buddha carvings on the side of a huge rock.  The carvings were done in the 10th century and showed some decay.  It reminds me of the Buddha carvings that were destroyed by the Taliban in Afghanistan.

Buddha Wall Sculpture

Close-up of the sculpture

Another sculpture
We arrived in Yala in the late afternoon and checked into the Elephant Reach Hotel.  Early next morning we are to drive to Yala National Park (YNP) for a safari.

I met Mohan and the jeep driver Sampat outside the hotel at 5:30am.  We rushed to the gate of YNP to pay for our tickets, then wait in line to get in.  The gate opens at 6:00am and already there was a long line of jeeps waiting.  The jeeps are mostly converted 4x4 pickup trucks.  They are slightly smaller than the ones used in Africa.  There must have been about 30 jeeps waiting to get in.  Everyone tries to get in first to see the animals.  They are most active in the morning.  Everyone is hoping to see leopards or at least elephants.

Seeing animals on a safari is a matter of luck and being at the right place at the right time.  The drivers kind of go to where they've seen certain animals before but there is no guarantee the animal will come back to the same location.  So what we did was criss-crossed the park and keeping our eyes open peering through the bushes and trees.  We saw a small herd of elephants, many buffaloes, crocodiles, iguanas, mongoose, different varieties of birds.  We did not see any leopards, not surprising because they are more nocturnal animals and the noise scare them deeper into the jungle.  I would say this was not a very successful safari.

Yala National Park


White-spotted Deer

An Elephant

Crocodile by the River
We left YNP at about 10am and drove back to the hotel to shower and checked out.  That afternoon we drove towards Galle but will be spending the night in nearby Unawatuna.