Friday, March 27, 2015

Bioluminescent Bay - Fajardo, Puerto Rico

The most incredible thing I experienced in Puerto Rico was the Bioluminescent Bay. Before I start explaining what it is, let me clarify that I didn't click any pictures while I was there. We went kayaking in the bay, at night. I had never kayaked before so I didn't want to risk taking my camera with me in case I fell off the kayak. Unfortunately, I didn't have those plastic cases to carry my camera in. Next time I go on a tropical vacation, I'll have to figure out a way to waterproof my camera. I really really wish I had my camera that night but we were soaked by the time we got back home. I'm just going to borrow some pictures off of google images to explain what I experienced. 

There are two main areas to see the bioluminescence in Puerto Rico. We visited both places (Vieques and Fajardo). We were in Vieques for a day but didn't stay the night to see the Bio Bay there. However, we did the kayaking tour in Fajardo.

This is the kind of place you can expect to go kayaking in Fajardo. Imagine kayaking through this canal covered with mangrove trees, except you can't see anything. It is pitch black. All you see is a tiny glow stick on the kayak ahead of you and that's all you have to follow. You'll probably end up hitting other kayaks and get stuck in the large roots of the trees. Trust me when I say, you will not be able to see anything. Some people get lost in the dark. Ankit and I got lost in the beginning because we started following another tour group that was on its way back to shore. It was pretty crazy. 

Check the lunar calendar before booking the tour because you want to make sure you go on a no-moon night; the darker the better. Moonlight is usually too bright for the first 6 days prior to a full moon. Normally, the darker sky, the more desirable watching conditions are. The intense neon illumination happens to be more noticeable with least light pollution. Also, book well in advance because it's really hard to get a tour. It's always always over-booked. 

Here is another picture to give you an idea of what you're getting yourself into. Sometimes your kayak will get stuck in a shallow area. Luckily, we didn't get stuck. We did row into the roots of the trees. That was pretty spooky. You see those branches hanging from the trees? Those look like snakes at night. When you're rowing, you end up getting seaweed thrown at you and it feels like worms. I wouldn't be stressing about snakes if a woman hadn't told me that she saw a boa on one of the branches. She even said that she saw a barracuda. Just that thought freaked me out but we didn't encounter anything creepy. And about the barracudas, our tour guide was swimming in the bay. I highly doubt he would've done that if there were dangerous creatures in the water.

Here is what the water looks like when disturbed. "The water luminescence is triggered by dinoflagellates, oceanic plankton which is able to generate an emerald green and ultramarine illumination when water is physically disturbed. Dinoflagellates are incredibly delicate microorganisms and are very sensible to the environment conditions such as balance of salt in the water, local climate, deepness of lagoon, air and water pollution, etc. Each one of these the aspects make bio bay a one of a kind, vulnerable ecosystem. Unique light is an ordinary chemical response forced by tiny creatures which typically respond by giving off the light collected in the daytime. As a result, the best possible view of bio-luminescence comes after a sunny day."

Whoever this person is, thank you for your picture. I can't seem to find the link to where this picture is from. It shows exactly how the water glows. It really is amazing. You must experience it yourself. If you can't swim, don't worry. You'll be just fine. If you've never kayaked before (like me), don't worry. You'll come out feeling like a pro by the end of the tour. If you have a waterproof camera, by all means, bring it with you! When you see glow in the dark fish swimming in the bay, you'll wish you could have clicked a picture for memory. 

If you've never kayaked before, you'll learn if you and your partner make a good team. Ankit and I rocked. Kayaking in the dark could be a team building exercise. Bio Bay should be in your bucket list. 

I don't remember which tour group we used but if you google Bio Bay tours, there are a bunch that will pop up. You just need to remember to book in advance.

I hope you'll make it a point to visit one of the few bio bays in the world at some point in your life.

Live it up!

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Old San Juan, Puerto Rico

San Juan (pronounced sahn hwahn) is the capital of Puerto Rico. San Juan is known as La Ciudad Amurallada (the walled city) and is one of the biggest and best natural harbors in the Caribbean and is the second oldest European-founded city in the Americas. The metropolitan area known as San Juan has 3 distinct areas: Old San Juan, the Beach & Resort area, and other outlying communities. Old San Juan has become one of my favorite places in the world. This place is the perfect example of festivity, vibrancy, fun, Puerto Rican culture, history and absolute gorgeousness. I would strongly recommend putting Old San Juan in your top ten places to visit.

Here I am on the streets of Old San Juan
Colorful buildings on one side and the ocean on the other side. Just beautiful.

Here we are enjoying fresh sugarcane juice. Very refreshing.
Ankit and I taking a break and relaxing like many other tourists here.

Amazing weather in a beautiful city. Perfect for strolling. Don't even think about driving here. The roads are too narrow and there really isn't much space for parking. We walked around the whole city and drank piña coladas.
 Aren't the colors just amazing? The city looks so beautiful and colorful because of these homes.

Old San Juan attracts many tourists, who also enjoy the gambling casinos, fine beaches, and tropical climate. More tourists visit San Juan each year than any other spot in the Caribbean. Driving here is not recommended so if you don't think you're into walking, there is a free trolley service to get you around the city.

There are several forts in Old San Juan if you're interested in history. We visited the two most famous ones: El Morro and Castillo de San Cristóbal. 

View of El Morro from Castillo de San Cristóbal

Castillo de San Cristóbal

El Morro
El Morro is a maze of tunnels, dungeons, barracks, outposts and ramps. It is studded with small, circular sentry boxes called garitas that have become a national symbol. The views of San Juan Bay from El Morro are spectacular. The area was designated a National Historic Site in February, 1949 with 74 total acres. It has the distinction of being the largest fortification in the Caribbean. El Morro Fortress is a National Historic Site administered by the National Park Service. The fort is open to the public everyday from 9am to 6pm except on Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Day and New Year's Day. Admissions: $3 for adults and children under 15 go for free.

We met this iguana in the fort who was thirsty, I guess. Some brave tourists fed it water.

Castillo de San Cristóbal is El Morro's partner in the city's defense. Built in 1634 (completed in 1771), was considered the Gibraltar of the West Indies. San Cristóbal was supported by a massive system of outworks which provided defense in depth and is is one of the largest defenses ever built in the Americas. It's a World Heritage and National Historic Site, administered by the U.S. National Park Service and is open daily from 9am to 6pm.

Paseo de la Princesa

Raíces Fountain

Paseo La Princesa is a broad promenade that stretches from near the docks at the foot of the city and leads to the lovely Raíces Fountain. We saw all kinds of stalls lining the road. On weekends, they have free cultural performances as well. Paseo La Princesa hugs the old perimeter wall of the city, and beyond the fountain continues around Old San Juan to the San Juan Gate, the only remaining of five entry points into the old city. The best time to enjoy the walk is during sunset, when you'll have gorgeous views of the bay from the fountain and you'll escape the heat of the day.

Papa at Parque de las Palomas
The photo above was taken at the pigeon park located next to Capilla del Cristo at the end of Cristo Street. It is only a small park but offers a sanctuary from the hustle and bustle of Old San Juan and provides the pigeons there a great place to find shelter and food. As is typical in cities around the world, where there is a large gathering of birds, there will be someone selling bird food. For $1 you can continue this worldwide tradition. We did. 

And I made a friend :)
Cathedral of San Juan
Cathedral of San Juan
We also visited the Catedral de San Juan Bautista. If you like visiting cathedrals like I do, this is a nice place to stop, appreciate the architecture and also thank God for this life and the opportunity to be somewhere this beautiful.

If you like Piña Coladas and getting caught in the rain, come to Old San Juan
    I loved the fact that there were these stalls all around selling piña coladas. These were so refreshing after a long day in the city. I would also suggest checking out the souvenir shops in Old San Juan. They are all over priced but the stuff they sell is hard to resist. Hammocks are very popular in San Juan and we bought one, too. You'll also find these brightly colored masks called Vejigante. There is a very popular hat shop as well which is crazily overpriced. If you notice a farmer's market, do stop by. It is the best place to buy tropical fruits and vegetables and get fresh juice on a hot, sunny day.

    Me, drinking fresh coconut juice.

    Old San Juan is considered to be a generally “safe” place to walk around. You will notice a large Police presence. They’re there to help you feel safe, not because of any particular recent "problem". 
      That's all I have on Old San Juan for now. The next post will be about attractions around Puerto Rico.

      Have a beautiful day! 


Sunday, March 1, 2015

Luquillo's Playa Azul Condo Complex

Last year, in April, we went to Puerto Rico to celebrate our second anniversary. After the trip, I got pregnant and we had our son, Arjun, on January 9th, 2015. Maybe I should name him Rico instead, since I'm pretty sure he was conceived there. I got lazy to write during my pregnancy so I skimped out on blogging for the past year. But I'm back now and will share my experiences in Puerto Rico. This post is about where we stayed while we were there.

First of all, I'd like to mention that Puerto Rico is absolutely gorgeous. We were there for ten days with my in-laws and had the best time of my life there. Every single person we met there was extremely hospitable and cordial. This is my second trip to an Island (after Hawai'i) and I'm realizing that island people are so happy and chilled out about life. Maybe we should move to an island. I know Ankit would like to.

Just like Hawai'i, we rented a condo while we were there. After extensive research, we chose to stay at Luquillo's Playa Azul Condo Complex. We chose to stay at Luquillo because we didn't want to be stuck in the touristy areas of San Juan. We wanted to experience the culture and stay away from the capital. Luquillo seemed like a good place to be and the beach was quite popular, too.The condo had direct access to the beach and had a number of amenities like a swimming pool (which we obviously didn't use because the beach was right outside the gate), basketball courts, tennis courts, volleyball courts, a library, and more. 

We had the best time of our lives here. Words are not enough to explain the hospitality we received from the owner, Joe. He came to the airport to greet us and give us the keys. He also gave us a file which included directions to the condo, information about activities around the area and other papers. Not only that, he drove half way from the airport to guide us out of San Juan and put us on a straight route to Luquillo. He was super duper nice and extremely courteous. 

Our flat was 1904 on the 19th floor with a fantastic view of the sea and the El Yunque rainforest. From the balcony, if you looked right, it was a vast view of sea and on the left was the rainforest. Best of both worlds. Luquillo beach was one of the most beautiful beaches I had ever seen. Joe had kept the condo like a hotel suite and left us noodles, milk, water bottles, pretty much every thing we could need in the pantry to cook and all utensils, beer in the fridge, cereals, and the list goes on. There was 24/7 running hot water in the bathroom. He even provided us with beach chairs and snorkels, as well as a push cart to carry them to the beach in. The complex is gated and monitored 24/7. I was so impressed; I clicked lots of pictures.

The living room with two futons. TV had cable, DVD Player, Boom box and free Wifi.
Dining area
Sweet of Joe to keep snorkeling equipment for us.
The bedroom. Counting the queen bed and the two futons, I'm guessing six people could sleep here comfortably.
Extra pillows, tennis balls, volleyball, ironing table, etc.
Kitchen with Washer/Dryer
Stove with oven, microwave and cutlery

Saturday, March 8, 2014

How to Make Paneer at Home

After almost a year and a half, I finally feel confident of my paneer-making skills. Paneer is fresh cheese common in South Asian cuisine. It is an unaged, acid-set, non-melting farmer cheese or curd cheese made by curdling heated milk with lemon juice, vinegar, or any other food acids. Sometimes it is also called 'cottage cheese.'

In India, people just buy paneer from the grocery stores. Here, it is not only expensive but the Indian stores are a half an hour drive away. So it is usually more convenient to make it at home in bulk and freeze it in freezer-safe, zip-lock bags and then pull them out one at a time whenever needed. Here's the recipe:

Ingredients and Equipment:

1.75 gallons of whole milk (I buy the two 1-gallon cartons from Costco - cheapest option)
20 caps of vinegar
1 meter cheesecloth or muslin cloth
1 shallow colander
1 large pot


1. Take the largest pot you have at home, sprinkle some water into it (saves the milk from burning at the bottom) and pour all the milk you have in it. Now my pot only holds about 1.75 gallons of milk but if your pot can hold 2 gallons, go ahead and empty both your cartons. 

2. Let it come to a boil. This will take a while. 

3. While the milk boils, prepare the cheese cloth. If you have muslin cloth, you don't need to do anything but cheesecloth is a little different. I buy the cheesecloth at walmart and I try to put two pieces of cut cheesecloth together to make it more fine.

4. Then spread it in a shallow colander. 

4. You have to make sure you are there when it first begins to boil because as soon as it starts to boil, we need to turn off the heat and pour in the vinegar immediately. You'll start seeing bubbles on the surface when it's about to boil. Sometimes I like to remove the skin that forms on the surface because there were times when the milk was boiling under the skin and I couldn't see the bubbling.

5. Either ways, as soon as the first boil happens, turn off the heat and pour 20 caps of vinegar. I usually sort of splash vinegar around into the pot but I wouldn't be able to explain how much vinegar I used. So this time, I measured the vinegar by pouring it one cap at a time until the milk curdled. It took 20 caps. Below is the vinegar I used. Just plain, old, regular. The vinegar bottle's cap is what I used to measure how much vinegar was needed. You can use lemon juice as well. Whatever floats your boat. 

6. When you pour vinegar, make sure you pour it all around the milk and start stirring to see if it has curdled. When it separates, it'll look like the picture below. 

7. You should be able to see chunks of curdled milk and water separately. That's when you know it is done.

8. Now put your prepared colander in the sink.

9. Slowly use a ladle to pour chunks of curdled milk into the cheesecloth. I wouldn't suggest pouring it directly from the pot because 1. the pot will be heavy, 2. the hot milk/water will spill everywhere and you might burn yourself, 3. from the pressure of the fall, the cheesecloth might move and you won't be able to strain all the milk properly. Eventually, once the pot is lighter, you can slowly pour all the liquid directly into the cheesecloth. 

10. Now turn on the tap water and clean the milk. The reason we do this is to get rid of the sour taste of vinegar. Just pour some water, use your hands to clean the milk. Stir it around. If you have a shower tap, even better.

11. Now grab all corners of the cheesecloth and try to strain the water out as best as you can.

12. You may think that the water has been strained, but there is so much more. Lightly tie the corners of the cheesecloth. I always tie it too tight because I'm afraid it won't gain shape but my Mum-in-Law tells me to tie it lightly to avoid weird tie marks on the paneer. I haven't mastered that skill, yet. Put this cheese on a heavy flat surface. I used my marble that I make rotis on. You can use a plate or chopping block or whatever heavy, flat surface you can find.

13. Clean the pot you used to heat the milk and fill it with water to the top. Put the paneer and your plate in the sink and put the heavy pot over it.

14. This will push out all the water from the paneer and give it shape. To give you a better idea, I clicked a picture of it on my counter.

15. See how the excess water strains out? Do this is in the sink, though. You don't want liquid all over your counter. If you are using a plate, keep checking every once in a while and empty out the liquid from the plate. Let this heavy vessel sit on the paneer overnight or at least six hours for best results. When it is done, it'll look like a nice, solid block of cheese.

16. Carefully unwrap it.

17. See those tie marks? That's what you should be able to avoid if you wrap it lightly. I'm too paranoid to do that. Cut the cheese up with a very sharp knife. I think a bread knife works best.

18. Cut the pieces up to the size of your choice.

19. This is how much I made. Once you have your paneer pieces cut up, put them in freezer-safe zip-lock baggies in one layer. Don't overcrowd in one bag or the pieces will crumble.

20. I got five bags of paneer. Put the perfect cut ones in one bag and the crumbly misshaped ones in a separate bag. You can make paneer bhurji or paneer paranthha out of the crumbly/weird shaped pieces.

All done! If you plan to cook paneer the same day or the next day, put a packet or two in the fridge and put the rest in the freezer. Paneer out of the fridge can be used as it is. Paneer out of the freezer should either be cooked in a pan first or put in warm water to make it soft.

Homemade paneer tastes waaaay better than store-bought paneer. Try it!