Saturday, June 11, 2011

Week 4 & 5: Adventure Caving in Jenolan + Luging in Singapore

The final email of the series. Week 4, I had just one Saturday in Sydney. Monday to Friday was spent at work as usual. Saturday, I headed to the Jenolan caves. These caves are approximately 340 million years old, thereby making this cave complex the world's oldest known and dated open cave system. After a 2 hour train ride from Sydney and another 2 hours by bus, I finally reached Jenolan.

The place has a lot of caves that tourists can visit. But I wanted to do something different and see those caves that other tourists don't go to. So I went for a rope climbing and adventure caving tour. Caving is the recreational pastime of exploring wild (generally non-commercial) cave systems and I had never done this before so wanted to give it a shot. We were first geared up with climbing gear and mining hats. We then proceeded to an area where we had to rope climb down around 100 metres to get to the entrance of the cave. Again, I had never done rope climbing and the rock climbing you do in malls and such is nothing as compared to real life. Unfortunately, I could not get the hang of it and while climbing down, I was unavailable to maintain my feet on the rock and cave surfaces resulting in me sliding down 100 metres of rope causing some serious rope burn to my hands. My hands were having a terrible burn sensation but I wanted to finish the tour and am I glad I did cause the next couple of hours were a lot of fun. 

We climbed and slid over rocks, squeezed through narrow tunnels, holes and crevices deep underground. And when I say narrow, I mean no space to move when crawling through and has to be done exactly in a certain manner. For example, one of the holes, we have to put our left hand in the front, right hand back and then crawl through. Any other way and you get stuck. In another hole, to get through, you had to kneel down then turn away from the hole and then put your legs through and slide down (think super man flying backwards). Now you must be wondering why we just can't do this straight. Because once you slid down backwards, when you reach the bottom, the next hole thats gets you out is towards your right, so you need to be facing it to be able to crawl through it. So if you go sliding down straight, you will find your face facing a dead end and the next hole exit towards the left of the legs and then you will find yourself stuck incapable of turning as there is no space. Most often, there is not enough space in the caves for you to be able to walk and you have to crawl all the way. I enjoyed caving tremendously and would love to do it again. It's a wonderful way to explore the caves nestled deep within mpuntains or underground, caves that have been untouched for millions of years and that no other tourists would visit.

I am glad I could do the above on Saturday. The long 8 hours travel journey was definitely worth it and I think I have done full justice to my weekends in Sydney.

Sunday, I flew out to Singapore and that too in an Airbus A380 for the time ever! I have nothing much to add except for the tick mark that I was fortunate enough to have now traveled in the world's largest passenger aircraft. The plane is the same inside as any other normal passenger aircraft.

Singapore is again a business visit and Monday - Wednesday was spent at work. I am staying on Sentosa island and on Thursday after working till late afternoon, I had so,e time on my hands so I went walking around Sentosa. I visited the 4D theatre which was all right but more importantly, I went luging (which by the way has been an official Olympic sport since 1964). To give some background, a luge is a small one-person sled on which one sleds supine (face up) and feet-first. Steering is done by flexing the sled's runners with the calf of each leg or exerting opposite shoulder pressure to the seat. Lugers can reach speeds of 140 km per hour.

I was doing luging for the first time and the track at Sentosa lets you slide downhill through sharp curves for 650 metres. First impressions? Luging is so much fun! I had a blast and tried out both the tracks they offered. I really want to go luging in other parts of the world. Its so much fun. Definitely recommend one try it out.

Friday was meant to be my day off but work came up so spent the whole day working. Saturday, I headed out to Universal Studios. The visit was fun and the most exciting ride for me was 'Revenge of the Mummy: The Ride,' which is a closed air roller coaster set in darkness. One thing here. I seem to enjoy roller coasters a lot less now. In the evening, I went to the Lion King musical at Marina Bay Sands. While the performance was great, I do get bored in operas and musicals after the first half. Prefer more action-oriented, suspense operas, musicals. For example, I loved Phantom of the Opera.

Two other points that just hit me: 1) Some parking malls in Sydney have reserved car spots for hybrid vehicles. Pretty cool way to promote hybrids. 2) When coming back from Melbourne, I went to Krispy Kreme to buy a doughnut but did not enough enough change, was around a dollar short. The cashier gave me a discount and let me have the doughnut at a dollar less. Just a pleasant experience so thought I would share it.

Back to India tomorrow. And so ends another memorable visit. Till we meet again!

Friday, June 3, 2011

30 Years of a World Living with AIDS

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To view the high resolution images,  click on the images above

On 3 June 2011, the United Nations Postal Administration (UNPA) issued three self-adhesive stamps in a ribbon die-cut shape in mini-sheets of four stamps to recognize 30 years of a world living with AIDS. This is the first time ever that UNPA has issued self-adhesive stamps.


On 3 June 2011, special first day handcancellations for the “AIDS” stamps were made available at United Nations Headquarters
in New York; the Palais des Nations, Geneva; and the Vienna International Centre.

The same can be seen in the scanned FDCs' above.

The ribbon die-cut stamps in denominations of 44¢,
F.s.1,30 and € 0,70 measure approximately 22 mm horizontally
by 38 mm vertically.

The horizontal sheets of four stamps measure 108 mm
horizontally by 72 mm vertically and have no marginal
inscriptions. The text in the upper tab of the stamp reads
“30 Years of a World Living with AIDS”. On the ribbon of the
stamp is the text “Protect Yourself” with the denomination
and UN 2011. The text on the upper portion of the sheet
reads “Your post office cares”. On the bottom of the sheet
is the text “To learn more about HIV visit:
prevent HIV”. One copyright symbol with the year 2011
appears in the bottom right margin of the sheet.

The stamps were printed in offset by Lowe Martin Group

The stamps were designed by Rorie Katz (United Nations).

A souvenir card on the theme “30 Years of a World Living with AIDS” was issued on 3 June 2011. The card depicts the
new stamps and carries a statement by BAN Ki-moon, the Secretary-General of the United Nations, and Michel Sidibé, UNAIDS Executive Director.

A quantity of 17,000 were printed. The souvenir card measures 203 mm by 152 mm.

The United Nations Postal Administration is part of a global initiative of participating postal administrations around the world who are issuing stamps on the topic of HIV/AIDS in 2011 in order to raise awareness of HIV prevention and to reduce the number of new infections. This initiative was organized by the Universal Postal Union (UPU), the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS), the International Labour Organization (ILO) and UNI Global Union. For more information, please visit

The UN General Assembly has called for a High-level Meeting from 8 to 10 June 2011 to undertake a comprehensive review of the progress achieved in realizing the 2001 Declaration of Commitment on HIV/AIDS. The meeting will also promote the continued engagement of leaders in a comprehensive global response to AIDS.

Thirty years into the AIDS epidemic, and ten years since the landmark UN General Assembly Special Session on HIV/AIDS, the world will come together to review progress and chart the future course of the global AIDS response.

UNAIDS data show that steady progress is being made towards universal access to HIV prevention, treatment, care and support. New HIV infections have reduced by nearly 20 per cent in the past 10 years. However, stigma and discrimination continue to be obstacles and services do not reach everyone in need. There are still 10 million people waiting for HIV treatment and for every person starting treatment, two others become infected.

The 2011 High-Level Meeting comes at a turning point in the global AIDS response. It will provide a critical opportunity not only to review progress made in addressing the epidemic, but also to identify remaining gaps and challenges and chart the way forward to sustain the response. It will also provide an opportunity to position AIDS firmly in the broader global health and development context, including the Millennium Development Goals.

The Secretary-General of the United Nations, BAN Ki-moon, has highlighted the need for global solidarity and partnership at this time. “The 2011 High-Level Meeting on AIDS comes at a pivotal moment in the history of the epidemic. Thirty years into the AIDS response, let us unite for universal access. Let us, once and for all, set the course for zero new HIV infections, zero discrimination and zero AIDS-related deaths”, wrote Secretary-General BAN.

Member States are expected to adopt a new Declaration at the 2011 UN General Assembly High-Level Meeting on AIDS that will reaffirm current commitments and develop new actions to guide and sustain the global AIDS response.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Week 3: Flying a L-39 Albatros Military Fighter Jet + Scaling the World's Tallest Steel Arch Bridge + Whale Watching on Choppy Waters

The L39 Albatros ex-military fighter jet that I flew in. Experienced dog rolls, g-turns, loops, cuban & a force of 6G.

Another week, another exciting weekend. Monday-Friday was spent entirely at work so nothing to add there.

Saturday began with me going whale watching. My whale watching tour had been canceled twice before due to bad weather so it was finally great for us to move out to sea. As we moved out of the harbour, I was able to get a great picture of the HMAS Vampire adjacent to the HMAS Onslaw that I had boarded last week. Picture attached in this email. Take note of the overcast sky (this at 2:00pm).

I had to choose between a normal high capacity ship (which gives a smoother ride, more amenities etc) and an ex-offshore rescue vessel. I chose the latter as it is faster and allows you to follow the whales more quickly. Before the start, the guide did tell us that waters were very choppy and the boat ride would be a bit rough. We were told the front rows would be the most bumpy so I promptly chose the very first row (also happened to be the only row with seat belts and I later will realise why). We sailed out to the Tasman sea and began our hunt to see the whales. We were lucky enough to spot two humpback whales. One of the whales did a fluke up dive and the other a tail slap. On the way back, waters were pretty rough and the boat kept bobbing up and down and if not for the seat belt, I would have been flying off the seat. The ride back was so much more fun than the whale watching itself! Short video of the ride back can be viewed by clicking here, the hand shaking is because of the boat and static noise in the video is the wind. After starting out, it struck me that I can use Google MyTracks to record my venture out to sea and activated it. The route we took can now be viewed on Google Maps by clicking here. Be sure to click on the end point (the one near Sydney Opera House) to see a cool elevation chart of the journey that reflects how choppy the waters were.

Now by the time we were back to Circular Quay, I had 10mins to get to my Sydney bridge climb event. So walked over (not too far, a kilometre if I take a shortcut). Now the Sydney Harbour Bridge is the world's tallest steel arch bridge and I wanted to get to the very top. If you see the picture by clicking here, you will notice the Australian flag right on the peak. Thats where we got to. So I took the 3 1/2hr guided climb for the same. Surprisingly, the climb is not at all tough as they have proper ladders and steps everywhere. It's just the fact that you will have to climb more than 1,700 steps to get there. The first hour goes in equipping you with torchlights, metal hooks and training you how to climb with the hooks. The next two hours are spent on the climb. The last half hour is back at base camp. Needless to say, the climb was amazing. The view from the very top is fantastic. Also, Sydney is currently celebrating 'Vivid Sydney,' which is a festival of lights. Since I took the evening climb, by the time we were on top, I was able to see the laser light show on the Sydney Opera House and the Customs House, the fire dances and other buildings being lit up. Too bad we weren't allowed to bring cameras along.

After the bridge climb, I walked down 'The Rocks' to the Guylian chocolate cafe to have some Belgian waffles with heated molten Aztec chocolate and seasonal fruit and then headed back home.

No time to sleep, another Sunday morning, another early day. While the sky diving last week was 2 hours from Sydney, today's adventure was 3 1/2hrs away. Woke up and caught the train to Hunter Valley for the ride of my life. I was going to fly the L-39 Albatros military fighter jet. This is the same plane that was equipped with the nuclear warheads that James Bond stole and flew in the movie 'Tomorrow Never Dies.' More than 30 air forces in the world still use this aircraft as part of their fleet. I have attached the picture of the plane I flew to this email. I got started by donning the flight suit and the parachute, followed by a blood pressure check and breath analyzer and then a small flight simulation followed by instructions on how to eject in case of emergencies.

Boarded the plane and did the initial flight checks. Seat belt warning light: Off. Rear cockpit locked: Check. Air pressure stable: Check. Radio working: Check. We took off and after take off I was handed over the controls of the plane. It's pretty simple actually once you are in mid-air. The flight stick is just like a video game joystick. I did a nose dive as if we were preparing to attack came low to the ground (not too close obviously) and then accelerated and took off again. After a few minutes of flying the pilot took over and this is where the fun starts. Hitting full throttle at a speed of over 900km/hr, we started performing acrobatics. This involved 360 degreeloopscuban eights, double rolls, g-turns, hesitation rolls, vertical spins (this is where he made the plane go speeding towards the ground) and to top the vertical drop, he kept double rolling the plane as if to send it in to a tail spin and then suddenly turned it up for vertical acceleration. At times, I was subjected to a g-force of 6G. Your whole body just freezes and you cannot move an inch when the force hits in. Its as if your whole body has frozen and the slightest attempt of movement will just result in your body parts snapping up. It was an extremely intense flight. While I enjoyed it while it last, I had body aches for the next 24hrs. A great experience to do it once and feel what our brave air force pilots would be going through. Would I want to do it again? A definite no. Just too intense. It will take 3 weeks for my in-flight video to be ready and eagerly waiting for it.

Took the train back and just crashed in bed.

So another exciting week ends. I just have one Saturday left in Sydney and am headed out Sunday. Lets see if anything comes up.