Cancun – Day 2

Continued from here.

We woke up at 6.30 and were all set to leave by 7. We had already booked the tour and our driver waited for us in the hotel lobby. We packed our cameras, go-pros, swimwear, sunglasses, snacks and water bottles and left for Chichen Itza. It was almost two hour drive. Our driver knew enough english so communication was not a problem but he was a quiet person. We were just chit-chatting and S & S were giving us account of their day at X-caret. They had a great time and watched some spectacular shows.
On our way, we stopped at a rest area where we got some more snacks. There was a big shop by the rest area, laced with beautiful hand-crafted things. I felt like a kid in a candy store; I wanted to get everything. Most of the stuff was pertaining to Mayan culture which is the ancient culture of this part of the world. Some of it was Aztec culture inspired. There were hand painted leather tapestry with paintings of Gods from Mayan culture. Beautiful sculptures of these gods in wood, in limestone, in porcelain were in display. Also there was a lot of pottery items and knick-knacks from that culture. There was a lot of color around. Everything was bright and beautiful. And cost a bomb. Even tiny fridge magnet was 5-7 bucks. The assistants in the shop would tell you about the piece in broken English, talk about what is the meaning of the piece or its significance, and tell you that such art took so many hours/days for the artist and question that don’t they deserve a good price for their effort. I agreed and I had my heart set on so many things already. Finally S-man and I decided to get a beautiful Mayan calendar in stone that was 27 bucks after little negotiation. Both of us are bad at it and I think it shows. but I didn’t mind. It is a beautiful piece and adorns our house as one of the showcase item. S and S didn’t buy anything since everything they liked was super, super expensive.
We reached Chichen Itza after another hour drive and all of us took a small nap on the way. Our tour included the entry tickets but not the guide. Our driver got us the tickets and asked us to see meet after two hours or so. We decided to skip the guide and roam around on our own.

Chichen Itza is one of the main attraction in Cancun. This archaeological site is considered as ruins of a major Mayan city. It has fascinating architecture with a huge central temple, a huge court for Mesoamerican ballgame, a wall with sculpting of speared skulls implying the sacrifices, a temple of columns, an observatory, a palace for nuns and other buildings that I can’t remember anymore. There was also a central platform that seemed like a place for conducting sacrifices. We overheard groups with guides a few times and gathered some history. Like how serpents had a great significance in Mayan culture. Or how the people abandoned the hut if someone died in it, literally leaving the dead to rest in peace. And other interesting facts. One of the interesting things that I encountered there was that when you clap your hands in from of the Kukulcan temple (the main building in the city), the echo returns as a chirping bird. It was so much fun-clapping and hearing this amazing echo. People from ancient times were no joke. They were able to construct these huge buildings with such strong foundations and walls that stand tall till this day and also add architecture with such acoustic effects.
There was also a market area as you would walk from one building to another. The market had a lot of hand crafted items- sculptures of serpents and serpents heads, jaguar heads and a lot of masks and skulls. And these weren’t as expensive as in that shop but the quality of these pieces was not at par with that from the shop. Still pretty good stuff. There were colorful shawls and tapestry. There were these wooden pieces that when blown in correctly would make a jaguar’s howl. Only vendors were able to do it though. The vendors actually recognised us as Indians and were trying to attract us by calls of ‘Namaste’, ‘Modi’ and ‘acche din’. It was so funny. Their favorite phrase was ‘Almost free’ and ‘Only a dollar’. When asked they would show a tiny piece in super bad finish. We did get a mask and a fridge magnet from the market. I wanted to buy more stuff-everything was so beautiful but we were short on cash and S-Man didn’t want our house to look like we were Mayans so we didn’t buy anything else.
By the time we were done, it was super hot and sunny and we were hungry and little tired after this long walk. Our driver met us in the parking lot and we drove to Ik kil cenote.

This is a sink hole and is another famous attraction in Cancun. Our tour included the lunch and we had a nice meal at the restaurant buffet. After the meal we sat under shade for a short while and then changed into our swimwear. We also rented life jackets for everyone except S-Man. The place was bit crowded but not too bad. There were a lot of stairs taking us to the cenote and they were slippery. As we went downstairs, the air got cooler and was a great relief from the bright sun. And then we jumped in the sink hole. It was amazing feeling. This is like a natural swimming pool, inside a cave with huge cave walls all around you and only an opening over your head. It is really hard to explain how amazing the place is. We spent almost an hour in the water. S-Man fulfilled his wish of jumping off the cliff as usual and jumped from the highest point for about 8-10 times. I jumped 3-4 times from the height of 5 steps and that was enough for me. Most of the times I just floated and with the life jacket on I had to make no effort whatsoever. I was just relaxing.
We left the sink hole around 5 and left for hotel. Most of the 2-hr drive was spent taking small naps. After reaching our hotel, we freshened up and took a bus to the shopping mall. We just walked around leisurely and saw a spa shop that offered fish spa – the spa where little fish nibbles off dead skin from your feet. I was skeptical but also inquisitive so decided to try it. S and S walked around while S-Man and I had this spa. It felt scary in the beginning- the idea of fish nibbling my feet but I bravely placed my feet in the basin. All little fish rushed towards my feet and it was super ticklish but soon I relaxed. We also had our feet massaged as part of the package and it felt good, specially after the long walk we had in the morning. Then we grabbed delicious dinner at an Indian restaurant just by the lagoon. The ambience, the company, the food, our witty waiter, my mojito – everything was perfect.
Done with our dinner, we took another bus to our hotel and called it a day. Tomorrow was another day of adventure and it had an early start.

Cancun – Day 1

S-Man keeps an eye on travel offerings. He follows travel gurus on Twitter and gets notifications as soon as a great deal is offered. This time it was a notification about flight to Cancun to and from in just 6000 Southwest miles. This was a great deal and worked for us in many ways. One, we had a lot of southwest points. Two, we had a Southwest companion pass due to which S-Man travels free with me. Three, we wanted to visit Cancun for a long time. Four, what is better than a beach getaway when winter hits home. So, we didn’t even waste a second and booked our tickets for Cancun. Since we were short on leave days, we worked on two days of Thanksgiving and decided to use the two days for this Cancun vacation in mid-december. This time our friends S and S decided to join us. It is nice to see that our travels motivate our friends to travel more. S and S, specially, are high-maintenance people. Just a small step out of their comfort zone makes them weary and intolerable for the people accompanying them. I had seen how they were in our Zion trip but I hoped they will get better and open with each trip so I didn’t mind.
We left super early on Saturday morning to the airport. Though we were to be in Cancun for only two and a half days, I had stuffed my suitcase with 3-4 pairs of shoes, 3-4 dresses and tops and two pairs of jeans. S-Man’s suitcase was almost half-empty which was good as we got quite a few souvenirs from the place. We had a long flight, with an hour long layover. I mostly slept through the flight. It was around 2.30 when we reached Cancun airport. My first impression of the place as we stepped out on airport was ‘just like home’. A lot of guides and taxi drivers would gather around you and offer their services. There were a lot of tourist helpers on the airport who talked very pleasantly and politely and would ask common questions like Where are you from or How long are you here to personal questions like How old are you? Are you married? No, why not? Are you going to propose to her here? It was warm and funny. We had already booked a taxi service to take us from airport to the house we had booked through Airbnb. A scenic 40 minutes drive later we reached a beautiful resort. It turned out that the house we had booked was actually two suites in a beautiful resort. We checked in and the owner explained to us about the public transport and told us about good places to visit and eat. S and S had arrived a day before us and were at X-Caret which is an amusement park with lots of snorkeling and water activities and shows.
After leaving our luggage in the room, we changed into our swimwear and decided to spend the rest of the evening at the beach. Beautiful blue waters and white sand was so inviting. We went for a long walk on the beach but didn’t get into water as it felt cold. However, at sunset, we got into the swimming pool and sat by it. It felt so relaxing. A group of guys and girls was sitting at the pool bar, laughing and having fun. Mexican music was playing in the background and I was loving the feeling of being there.
After changing, we went to a restaurant that was half a mile walk away from our place. We ordered Spicy Beer and Bloody Mary with fish and chicken fajitas. This was the first time I was having Bloody Mary and also the last; it was awful. Like a cold tomato soup with a hint of alcohol and black pepper. S-Man liked his unusual spicy beer but I didn’t. I anyways don’t like beer much. The dish was nice but a little bland so we asked for salsa or sauce and the waiter gave us picante habanero sauce which was extremely spicy. Since our drinks were also salty and spicy, I had nothing to mellow the hot fire that was burning in my mouth. As soon as we were done, we went to the department store few steps away and got ourselves ice-cream. Such a relief that was. We also bought water bottles and some chips and cookies for next day.
While we were walking towards our hotel, we had dense bushes on our side and sea beyond that. The breeze was cool and we walked chit-chatting and enjoying our ice creams. Suddenly S-Man shrieked and asked me to stop. Good thing I stopped right there because just a step away from me was huge scorpion on the side walk. We quickly crossed the road and continued walking on the other side. After reaching the hotel, we sat for some more time in the balcony area that overlooked the beach. It felt relaxing and cool. Then it was almost 11 so we retired for the day. A long day of fun awaited us next morning.

Travel Thursday – Lake of the Ozarks

Fall of 2015 was bidding farewell and evenings were getting cooler. Almost a month had passed since Mom, Sis and Bro left. And I was, as usual, yearning for a break. Monotonous work life was starting to take its toll on me and I was desperate for a trip. However, we had no more long weekends until Thanks giving and no more vacation days; we were on zero after that 10-day trip with family. So, we decided to go on another budget trip, like the Colorado one, earlier in May. It was Thursday night when we made an impromptu decision to drive to Lake of the Ozarks on Saturday, which is almost 4 hours drive from my place and then camp for a night and come back by Sunday evening. As we always do, I asked our group of friends if anyone wants to join and as it mostly happens everyone either had other plans or were not interested in camping or thought it was too cold to go on an outdoor vacation. Also, it was on short notice and it wasn’t like people were free or interested to go next weekend, so S-Man and I decided to go alone.
Then I got a message from my friend S on Friday morning asking if we were still going camping. She and her husband had never done camping before so they thought it would be a good idea to accompany us; we were more than happy to have them. Friday evening, after work, all of us went to different sporting goods store and bought tent and mattress for them. Also got an air mattress for ourselves since we wanted to try how comfortable it would be compared to our mats. Planning to leave around 10 next morning, we dropped Coco off to pet hotel, packed our stuff and had a good night sleep.
Next morning A and S came to pick us up since they have a bigger car. We loaded our tents, comforters and pillows and 4 chairs along with our bag of clothes and left for the weekend getaway.
As usual, the drive was great. I enjoy S’s company a lot; we are almost the same age, and both of us like to talk a lot. Talking about jobs, our other friends, our trips and future travel plans, we reached Ha Ha Tonka State Park. This was a small detour from our camping ground. This state park has a beautiful old castle and surrounding it breathtaking scenery. There are several hiking trails around the area leading to sink holes, waterfalls, natural bridges and each trail offers a beautiful view. We started from the main castle building, walked to the huge water tower and other big and small ruins. The sign boards around the area gave the history and geography of the place and was quite interesting. The architecture of the ruins was fascinating with huge windows and lots of steps and had a charm of its own. We walked to several overlook spots and clicked pictures of the beautiful lake below. It was Lake of the Ozarks.
After spending almost hour and a half there, we drove to Niangua campground. It was little confusing- there was no proper sign board on the road and we drove past and around it a couple of times before we found the correct place. Once we had identified the place, we drove back to the city, around half hour drive away to get stuff for dinner. We were planning to cook on fire and picked patties and sausage and burger and hot dog buns along with Southwest Chipotle sauce and ketchup. What is camping night without drinks; and S is my drinking companion after all, so we picked a pack of beers for guys and fireball whiskey shots for the girls. By the time we reached back to our campground, it was dark. There was not a soul to be seen around us. There were a few campers we had seen on our way in, but they were all in RVs and were parked far away from us. We pitched our tents just next to the lake. And filled in our air mattresses and set our beds. A and S were quick learners and were able to do all of it without much help.
Then we set our chairs around the fire pit and had a bonfire. It was cold, so we were sitting close to the pit, in our jackets and woolen caps and were enjoying the warmth of the fire. As we chatted and grilled our patties and hot dogs, we talked about how quite the place was and it was actually a little scary since there was only the faint sound of the lake and wind. We drank and ate our delicious dinner; it was a success. I was glad to see A and S enjoy the night; I want everyone to love camping just as I love it so much. At one point, S and I decided to go pee but we didn’t want to walk to far away toilets since it was super dark and scary. So, we walked hand in hand, away from where the guys were and peed in the bushes one by one as other kept the watch. The guys did the same when they had to go. It was hilarious. As we were wrapping up the night and packing our food and stuff in the car, we heard a rustle few feet away. It was so dark that we couldn’t see who it was. We called out but no one answered; only rustling leaves as if someone was walking towards us. We held our breaths as at that time we got super terrified. It turned out to be a dog; the smell of food had attracted him this way. Taking a sigh of relief we shooed him away and went to sleep in our tents. The night was cold and I would have liked another comforter but it was manageable and I had a sound sleep.
Next morning, we woke up and again lit fire. It was almost 9 but the sun was dim and it was cold. We sat next to the lake, enjoying the view and grilled the left over patties and had those for breakfast. Then quickly changed and packed our tents and beds and stuff. Today our plan was to visit Bridal Caves on our way back home.
One of our friends had spoken highly of these caves so we decided to take a detour and cover those before heading home. And it was worth it. We booked a tour and had almost an hour to kill before the tour. So we just spent time in the souvenir shop, or sitting outside basking in the sun. The tour had a guide and almost 15 people including us. The tour lady told us about the history of the caves and pointed out different geographical aspects as well. She would guide us through a passage to a dark part of the cave, and then suddenly lights would lit up and light up beautiful segments of the cave.  It was so dramatic. It was one beautiful place to be. Such places remind me how fascinating nature is. I was as excited as a little kid watching those patterns of stalagmites and stalactites. I always get confused which one is which so she gave us this easy formula- stalactites are the formations that hang from the roof of the cave; since they need to hang from the roof, they hang tight and hence stalactites. I don’t think I’ll mix these two ever again. She instructed us not to touch the walls or deposits as the dust or oils from our skin would deform their natural progress. There were a few places in the cave that were too slippery and some where we had to duck and pass through. It was almost an hour long tour and she gave us ample time to watch, to absorb the beauty and to ask questions. It was great fun.
After the cave tour, we drove back home.

It was a short and sweet trip, but still enough to break that monotony that was depressing me.

Some pictures from Ha Ha Tonka state park hike.   


Camping by the lake  
Formations from the Bridal Caves  

Aarya’s Kitchen – Chicken Gnocchi soup

I don’t think I’ll go to Olive Garden anymore. For the uninitiated, Olive Garden is an Italian restaurant chain in US, may be outside the country as well, I don’t know. I have been there a few times and never returned unsatisfied. They have this concept of unlimited soup/salad with breadsticks with an order of entrée. And while the entrees are no less, I am in love with their Chicken Gnocchi soup.

So when I found recipe for that online, I had to try it. I tweaked it a bit to reduce the calories like replacing half and half  with combination of cream and milk, adding more veggies, skipping the cheese, less cream more broth.

The soup turned out delicious. According to S-Man, it was same as from the restaurant. He said it would be hard to tell which is which if he tasted both alongside; I agreed. And the best part is that it is very quick to cook and so filling that it was enough for us as dinner. We didn’t even have to pair it with breadsticks. I am sure it’s going to be one of the quick-fix-comfort-foods in this household.

Here’s the link to the recipe. Try it and I promise you won’t be disappointed.

The Valentine Gift

The weekend trip to Florida was a perfect mixture of fun, adventure and relaxation. We left on Friday evening and watched the movie ‘Tamasha’ on our laptops during the flight. I liked it in bits and pieces – loved the performances by the lead pair and the story was also good, but some of the portions were boring, may be too intelligent for my simple brain, too metaphorical. It was upsetting to see a movie that could have been a great watch turned into something that was, at times, hard to tolerate. The beginning itself was so haphazard that we felt like shutting it down. But I am glad we continued and we were full of praises for Ranbir after we were done.
We landed in Orlando around 10 and picked our car from rentals and drove to the hotel. We saw ‘Chilies’ right by our hotel so decided to get food from there. We ordered southwestern rolls, chicken enchilada, and cheesecake to go. At Chilis, southwestern rolls and molten lava cake is our staple order. But since this was to go and you need a microwave to set the molten lava cake, we decided to switch dessert to cheesecake. While we were waiting, a waiter went by us with a molten lava cake in a plate- one look at it and S-Man and I were drooling. We decided to eat one while waiting for our rest of the food to get ready. After we were done, we picked the dinner, went to our hotel, had the dinner and slept.
Next morning, we were to drive to Jupiter for our standup paddle-boarding appointment. After having the left-overs from the night before as breakfast, we left for Jupiter which was around 2-2.5 hours from Orlando. The drive was fine- we just chatted about this and that and listened to songs and before we knew we were there.
It was quite windy and also cold. Our first instinct was to cancel the booking because looking at the wind it seemed paddle-boarding will be hard. Also the idea of getting into water in such cool breeze wasn’t very inviting. But this was a non-refundable booking and 40 bucks each so we braced ourselves and decided to at least give it a shot.
This was our second time paddle-boarding. First time was almost 4 years ago. We did pretty well then and not once did we fell into water. We were able to balance ourselves well and did not have any problems. But we had an instructor that time while this time we decided to go on our own. A quick revision of strokes and paddling later, we landed into water. It was windy and the moment you stop paddling the wind would push you in other direction. Initially I struggled to keep distance from the big anchored boats and yachts since the wind would push in me their direction. Also I would get confused and paddle in the opposite direction and then sweep closer to danger but gradually I got the hang of it and figured it out. We paddle-boarded for about two hours. Sometimes I stood up and few times I sat cross-legged and rowed. At one point when the breeze wasn’t as strong, I actually lie down on my board and gazed into the sky above; it was perfect. We saw turtles swimming by. When a big boat would pass by us, the waves would make the board all wobbly and we had to work on balancing better. Good news, none of us fell into water. We also took turns in clicking pictures and shooting videos of each other.
After an exciting time on water, we decided to grab lunch. It was almost 3.30 and we were super hungry. Driving around different restaurants, we finally landed on Tikki Bar. It was getting colder now so we had to put on our jackets. Amidst live music and right next to the lake, we had a mahi-mahi sandwich and fries, beer and blue tide cocktail.
Our next stop was Miami. It was almost an hour away and our hotel was in the center of downtown. Our room was an upgraded suite and was super pretty. Being on 21st floor, we had an amazing view of downtown. S-Man was so tired that he slept as soon as we reached the room. I took a bath, watched different things on TV, got stuff ready for next day and slept around 11.
Next morning we woke up late. Our only plan for the day was to checkout one of the beaches and then drive back to Orlando. We dragged ourselves out of bed and left around 10.30. Driving to the beach, we got hungry so took a diversion and went to an Indian restaurant. Food was great, one of the best butter chicken I have eaten. We went to Haulover Beach. It was a bright sunny day with cool breeze. The almost-white fine sand and lovely blue waters were beautiful. A part of the beach was clothing-optional. We walked around the beach and then relaxed on our beach towels by the shore. I actually took a small nap. After a while sun got too strong so we left.
Almost two-and-half hour drive later and watching ‘Main aur Charles’ movie on the go, we were back in Orlando. We checked in and had dinner that we picked from another Indian restaurant. Next morning we woke up and worked for few hours before leaving for the airport; we wanted to save the vacation days. Flight home was uneventful- our seats were not together so I watched the movie ‘Jazbaa’ while S-Man watched something else. Back at home around 7, not in the mood to cook or go out, we ordered pizza and ate it while watching our pictures from the trip.
It was a short and sweet trip. The first of this year. A perfect getaway.

Just started
what a view!!
Standup-paddling like a Pro
Drive to Miami
Haulover Beach

Khul ja Sim Sim

I am sitting on the stairs of my house as I type this. And thanking God for so many reasons in this time of distress. 

I am locked out of our house. All of us actually-  S-Man and Coco as well. While they sit in our back patio, I am waiting for the maintenance guy, sitting at my stairs. 

Our patio door has this weird rod like lock. So when we are opening the door, we need to make sure the rod is upright or else it will block the sliding door to patio. You can get by it by not closing the sliding door all the way, which is what I usually do. So this afternoon, S-Man gave bath to Coco and then I took her to our patio so she can dry herself in sun and I sat relaxing on the chair. 

After 15 minutes or so, S-Man joined me after taking bath and with just a towel wrapped around his waist. We sat there for a while talking about lunch and dinner plans and then I decided to leave to take a bath myself. But the door wouldn’t budge. Needless to say, that S-Man closed the door all the way and the rod was now blocking the sliding door. 

Wishing that S-Man forgot to lock the main door after Coco’s walk that has happened a few times, I jumped over our make-shift patio boundary and went around the building and checked the main door. It was locked. 

To add to our voes, the apartment office was closed for renovation today. I called on the emergency number for maintenance requests and left a message. Soon I got a call that someone would come by but they were almost half hour away. So, I sat under a tree in front of my house and waited. I keep moving from shade to sun and then back because sun is too hot and shade is too cold. And as I am sitting here waiting, I am glad for so many things that could’ve been an added issue but aren’t. 

Firstly, I am appropriately dressed. I am wearing a decent pajama and a crop top, sans bra but my long hair helps. Thankfully unlike other days, I am not in S-Man’s checkered boxers and the soft, but a little torn, tee. Because S-Man in his towel can’t be seen sitting at our front door. 

Secondly, we have our phones. I usually don’t sit in the patio with my phone as I like to keep it a gadget-free zone, at least for me. But today both of us carried our phones and thank God for that. 

Another good thing is that I hadn’t started cooking lunch, although it is almost 3 and I was thinking if I should bathe first or cook and thankfully I decided to cook after the bath. So nothing was on the stove or in the oven. 

Also none of us had to use the washroom. I don’t want to introduce myself to neighbors by asking to use their toilet. 

Well, that’s when the guy showed up.  Almost 45 minutes after my call was answered and he very sweetly apologized for being late. The door was unlocked and first thing I did was to hide a spare key under a rock in our back patio so next time this happens we can go around and unlock ourselves. Then a bath, cooking lunch, a nap and other weekend chores took my time and this post waited to see the light of day till this morning.