Friday, December 19, 2014

Ceramic Painting

I have done ceramic painting once many years ago. So this time when a friend asked me to join her and others for a morning of ceramic painting, I wanted to give it a try. 

Cranberry Hill Mercantile in Sunnyvale is a craft supplies store. They have a ceramic painting room which was reserved for our group of ten girls. They charge $4.50 per person which covers the cost of paints, brushes and glazing of the piece that we paint. The ceramic room has a huge collection of ceramic items of different shapes and sizes-animal figurines, plates, bowls, napkin holders, salt and pepper shaker, vases etc. We were asked to pick an item that we wished to paint and once we paid for the item along with the sitting fee, we were good to go. 

Paint Supplies
There is no instruction and you basically start painting whatever you want. There are a few stencils that you can use for creating designs. I chose a star shaped plate which would be perfect to hold tea light candles. I googled to get an inspiration for designs and then started painting. There is no time limit so you can paint for as long as you want. I wrapped up in about two hours as I had a lunch appointment with friends after that.

The original plate

It was a fun and creative experience. I enjoyed the process of converting a plain white plate into a colorful piece of art. I was quite happy with the final outcome. The store then took about a week to glaze the plate and here is the completed plate. 

Plate Before Glazing
Plate After Glazing
It is a perfect activity to do with your girlfriends, kids and I think even by yourself. I was totally absorbed in my artistic pursuit and at the same time happy to have the company of friends to experience it with. 

Me absorbed in painting
What: Ceramic Painting
Where: 1014 W El Camino Real Sunnyvale CA
When: Mon, Tue, Wed, Fri and Sat: 10a-6pm, Thur: 10a-8p, Sun: 10a-5p
Fee: $4.50+cost of the ceramic piece

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Death Valley National Park

Thanksgiving is time for our travel. This year we headed to the Death Valley National Park which is around 500 miles from Sunnyvale. We started the day before Thanksgiving, encountered heavy traffic, stopped overnight at Bakersfield and continued the next day until we finally reached the park.

Stovepipe Wells Village Hotel
It is the largest national park in the US and is also the hottest and driest place in North America. The park is located in the valley between several mountains. Winter is the best time to visit as the temperatures are bearable and not too harsh. The hottest month is July where temperatures can rise up to a sizzling 47 degrees Celsius! During the day the sun heats up the land and the air and at night, the mountains recirculate the hot air as a result, temperatures do not drop much at night unlike most deserts. 

Death Valley is the size of Connecticut so you can imagine how many points of interest there must be. A lot of the sites do require a vehicle with 4 wheel drive and high clearance as they are accessed only by unpaved roads. This meant that our sports car will not be able to take it so we stuck to the sites with easy access. Over three days, we covered quite a few places. Here is is list of places we visited:

Badwater Basin: This is the lowest place in North America-about 500 ft below sea level. The basin is in the valley between the Black Mountains and the Panamint Mountain ranges. Erosion from the mountains causes minerals to be deposited in the basin as a result there is a crust of salt crystals on the basin. There is a small pool of undrinkable water in the basin but it doesn't last long due to the high rate of evaporation due to the extreme heat. It is said that the mountains continue to rise at the same rate as the basin continues to sink each year. However, the erosion of soil from the mountains into the basin offsets this change.

Badwater Basin

Salt from Badwater Basin

Devil's Golf course: These badlands have such a rugged topography that only the devil could play golf on it :)
Devil's Golf Course
Artists Drive and Palette: This is a wonderful loop through which you can drive to see some really beautiful vistas. The rocks on the mountains are colored due to the presence of minerals in them. It actually looks like someone has sprinkled color powder on them-like an artist's palette.

Artist's Palette

Golden Canyon: This is one of the many canyons in the park. A short hike through it leads to the views of the Red Cathedral rocks. Water once flowed through this canyon and into the valley. Observing the rocks provides indication of this. Now, it is barren, hot and dry.

Inside the Golden canyon

Dante's view: This was my favorite place in the park simply because of the breath-taking view. It is located about 5485 ft above sea level and gives you a view of the valley. It was very windy, cold as well as closer to sunset which meant no proper pictures. If I were to pick one place to visit in Death Valley, this would be it.
Dante's View

Zabriskie Point: One of the most popular spots of the park, this has some stunning view of erosional landscape. It is composed of sediments from an ancient lake which dried up millions of years ago. We visited it at both sunrise and sunset-both absolutely gorgeous.

Zabriskie Point
Ubehebe Crater: This crater is relatively newer (that is a few thousand years old as opposed to millions of years old) and was formed due to volcanic eruption. It is half a mile wide and about 500 ft deep. One can see black soil and rocks all around the crater which is proof of the eruption. One of the Native American tribal legend has it that this was the place where humanity crawled out of the earth and spread in all four directions. Best time to visit this crater is when the sun is directly overhead so as to get the best lighting for photographs.

Ubehebe Crater
Mesquite Sand dunes: These were located about a mile away from our hotel and are quite popular (read crowded) due to the proximity. These are pretty to look at but was difficult on my injured knee. So I did not walk all the way. Both sunset and sunrise are good times for some beautiful pictures.

Mesquite Sand Dunes
Owen's Lake: On the way out of the park, we saw this lake which was dried up but gave the illusion of having water due to the high quantity of salt accumulation. The area is extremely windy and we had difficulty even open the car door due to the wind. The view was gorgeous.

Owen's lake
It was a very hectic trip mainly due to the long driving distance but I would say it was worth all the effort as the vistas and the landscape stole my heart. 

Monday, December 1, 2014

Escape To Alcatraz

Alcatraz-one of the most popular tourist spots in San Francisco. I have visited the island during one of my previous trips to the Bay Area. However, it has been a while so I decided to plan a trip there. It was supposed to be a group visit but one by one everyone dropped out and in the end it was just the two of us.
Pier 33

Alcatraz is an island about a mile and quarter away from San Francisco. It was built as a fort to protect the SF port during the gold rush period. After which it was converted into a high security prison. Some of the most dangerous and notorious criminals of those days were housed in the prison. There are quite a few very interesting stories about escape plans from the prison but none of them are believed to be successful. Although, the island is so close to the SF coast, the cold water made it impossible for any one to survive while escaping.

Prison cell block

Individual cell

Tickets get sold out months in advance so one has to plan well in advance. We gathered at Pier 33 from where a twelve minute ferry ride took us to the island. Luckily for us, we did not expect the fog and cold breeze that is so often associated with SF weather. Once on the island, the tour guide took us to the Cell blocks and have us a brief history of the place. We were then given audio tours which we could listen to at our own pace. This is the best part of the tour. The narration is superb and engaging. It gives you an idea of how life was in the prison and also about the famous criminals and their escape attempts.


An art exhibition by the Chinese artist Ai Weiwei was being showcased in the prison. It was political art work and so had a very strong message against oppression and supporting freedom. Due to the exhibition, some parts of the prison which are generally not open to the public were accessible. We got to tour the hospital wing with the x-ray room, hydrotherapy room and operation theatre.

Room where inmates were handed out clothes

We spent about two hours exploring the place through the audio tour as well as the short lectures by the guides. It is a fun outing at the same time makes you appreciate freedom.

What: Alcatraz Island
Where: Ferry from Pier 33
When: Throughout the year
Fee: $30 for day tour, $37 for night tour

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Chocolate Tasting Tour: Part 2

My last chocolate tasting tour was as part of Bay Area OlderAdults and I had thoroughly enjoyed it. Around the same time, I bought a groupon for a chocolate tasting at Alegio Chocolates in Palo Alto.

Our awesome guide

Alegio chocolates is small chocolate store located in downtown Palo Alto. They conduct these chocolate tasting tours throughout the week except on Tuesdays. The tour was conducted by one of the owners whose name I forget.

There were 8 of us doing the tasting. We were made to sit on stools around a table and the 45 minute tour began. Starting from bean to bar, we were given samples of the cocoa bean, 100% pure chocolate bar and a variety of different flavored bars. The guide promised us that once we finished the tour, our idea and expectation from chocolate would be completely changed. And it was true. What we have come to know as chocolate has so many other additives like vanilla and soy lecithin which alter the taste of the real thing. The bars we tasted did not have these and I could experience chocolate in its true form.
Roasted Cacao Bean

Different chocolate bars we tasted

We were also given a brief history of the islands of Principe and Sao Tome where the chocolate we tasted came from. Short video clips from youtube helped us visualize the chocolate making process. It is fascinating how much effort goes into making chocolate. No wonder authentic chocolate is such an expensive affair.
Alegio Chocolates Store

Some of my favorites from the ones we tasted had sugar crystals, coffee beans and raisins. Each one had a distinct flavor and one can actually taste the ingredient without it interfering with the chocolate.

It is hard to put into words the actual experience. I can confidently say that this tour will change your life. Ordinary chocolate will no longer satisfy your craving. You will appreciate chocolate better, I certainly do.

What: Chocolate Tasting
Where: 522 Bryant Street Palo Alto, CA
When: Wed-Mon
Cost: $15/person. Buy a groupon if available

Friday, October 31, 2014

Point Reyes Lighthouse

As mentioned in the bioluminescence kayaking post, on our way to Tomales Bay, we stopped at Point Reyes lighthouse.

Point Reyes Lighthouse
It was a two hour drive from Sunnyvale and the parts along Highway 1 are an absolute treat to the eyes. The Point Reyes National Seashore Park has a lot of different beaches apart from the lighthouse. As we were short on time, we could not stop at any other points. Point Reyes is the windiest place on the West coast and the second foggiest place in North America. Luckily for us, it was a clear day and the wind wasn't too bad!

This is the view from the parking lot.

A short walk leads to a small gift shop and restrooms. From there, 300 odd concrete steps take you downhill to where the lighthouse is located. It was a lot smaller than I had imagined it to be. The view from the lighthouse was no different from up top. If you want to avoid the walk up and the down, you can totally skip it.
300 Steps
The interiors of the lighthouse were bare except for a massive instrument with the clockwork mechanism, glass prism and lens that is housed inside. A guide inside gave us a brief overview. The lighthouse was built in 1870 and it warned mariners about rocky shores for hundred years before it was decommissioned in 1975. The guide also explained the mechanism of the equipment but I wasn't too keen on it.

Lighthouse from up close

Guide explaining the Lighthouse mechanism

The climb back up was the toughest part and made me huff and puff! I did not enjoy that at all. As you can gather, I wasn't too impressed by the trip so I wouldn't recommend it. Honestly, I liked the lighthouse at San Diego much better than this one.

What: Point Reyes Lighthouse
Where: Point Reyes Lighthouse, Inverness CA
Hours: Thur-Mon 2:30pm-4:00pm
Fee: Free

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Bioluminescence Kayaking At Tomales Bay

In continuation to my resolve to try my hand at different adventure sports after my last white water rafting trip, I decided to explore kayaking. I have kayaked once in the past so the activity itself was nothing new. However, this was bioluminescence kayaking. I had never heard about it and would have missed out on this had a friend not told me about it. It was a marvelous experience, one that is hard to describe and leaves you at a loss of words. I was completely awestruck by this amazing natural occurrence. Unfortunately, I do not have any pictures of this as both my hands were busy paddling.

Scene for the movie 'Life of Pi'

Bioluminescence is the phenomenon of organisms producing chemicals that emit light. In Tomales Bay, single celled organisms called dino-flagellates are present in the water. When we paddle through the water, the disturbance causes them to produce chemicals resulting in the water to glow. The effect is magical and it felt like a scene out of 'Life of Pi.' One can see this only when it is pitch-dark. Moonlight, vehicular light and any other strong lights prevent bioluminescence from being viewed.

I booked my trip through Clavey Paddlesports a month in advance as September-October is the peak season for it and tickets get sold out pretty quickly. We kayaked in the Tomales Bay (north of San Francisco) which is about two hours from Sunnyvale. On the way, we stopped at Point Reyes to visit the lighthouse which I'll cover in a separate post. We reached the designated place at 5pm. The guides gave us the gear namely personal floatation devices, a waterproof jacket and a skirt to wear around the waist and the kayak to keep the water from entering inside. A quick demonstration of how to paddle and operate the kayak was given and we were in the water at 6pm.

All the kayaking gear
 Luck was on our side as the weather turned out to be extremely pleasant. No chilly breeze or biting cold to take away from the fun. Fearing a cold and windy night, we had packed multiple layers of clothing but it was not needed. Until the sun set completely, we kayaked around the bay for an hour. We then stopped on an island for a short break. Hot cocoa was served which was very refreshing after the physical activity. The guide took a few minutes to explain what bioluminescence is and what we can expect.

Once we started paddling, there was a glow on the water along the paddles and the kayak. I dipped my hand into the water, and as the water trickled down my palm, it was glowing like silver-white pearls. It was a lovely sight. Occasionally, when big fishes passed by, they emitted a much stronger and bigger light which disappeared in a flash. One hour of this spectacular show was truly enjoyable.

You do not need to know swimming to enjoy this activity. All you need is to be in reasonable good health to paddle for two hour. Make sure you plan ahead and book tickets in advance. Camp sites are available if you wish to stay overnight.

This trip has made my love for water even stronger. I hope to someday enjoy scuba diving to explore more of nature's delights.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Papua New Guinea Sculpture Garden

Volunteering with Bay Area Older Adults is always a fun experiences and this one was no different. Anne arranged a tour of the beautiful Papua New Guinea Sculpture Garden in Stanford Campus.


It was an hour long docent led tour of the gardens. This garden was created in 1994. One of the master students from the anthropology department at Stanford, Jim Mason, after returning from a trip to Papua New Guinea, proposed recreating their art work on the campus. His proposal was approved and ten talented artists from Papua New Guinea were brought in to work on the project. The group consisted of five youngsters who did all the hard labor and five experienced artists who did the actual carving and painting. It took them five months to create all the 40 wood and stone sculptures. Plants in the garden complement the sculptures and were specifically chosen to mimic the look and feel of Papua New Guinea.

Kura-Mythological character
The country has two main tribes namely Kwoma and Iatmul who live along the Sepik river. Representatives from both these tribes were brought here. One of the tribes is a  master of carving wood while the other excels in painting. The art work is very distinct for each tribe and both are very intricate and beautiful. The sculptures depict the various founding legends and important mythological characters. The docent told us quite a few amusing stories from the art work.

Painted sculpture
There are some sculptures which are inspired from Rodin's work from the Cantor Art Museum. The artists used their creativity and presented their take on the master's work. Interestingly, the artists were only used to carving wood. When they asked if they could get some local material other than wood to try their hand at, they were given pumice stone and the artists took an instant liking to it. This resulted in a lot of stone sculptures being produced.

'The Thinker'

Stone carving
The garden is free and open throughout the year. Free docent led tours are organized every third Sunday of the month. If you want to get a glimpse of the fascinating world of the Kwomas and the Iatmuls, I recommend taking the tour. Parking is free on the weekend and the garden is completely shaded so there is no reason not to visit the garden and take in the gorgeous sights.

What: Papua New Guinea Sculpture Garden
Where: Lomita Drive Stanford, CA
When: All year round
Fee: Free