Northern Lights in Fairbanks

We wrapped up with New York in 14 days, read and see all about our New York Experience here. Our next destination was a bit adventurous. Each time we told people, the response was, “wow, good luck” or “gosh, it will be cold”. Our stop was Fairbanks, Alaska! Yes, that part of the world which you see on the globe and be like, “that’s far man!” or “I wonder what’s up there”. We went there, and it was amazing.

Fairbanks, Alaska

Before moving forward, another post about all our Alaskan Adventure coming soon with an awesome video. Watch this space.

Introduction to Northern Lights

Aurora Borealis or the Northern Lights are a natural phenomenon that appears closer to Earth’s North Pole. It is visible when the sky is dark, thus making new moon winter nights the best time for viewing. It is highly dependent on solar winds, weather of the location and the lighting and air pollution in the region. As the solar winds cannot be predicted, it is tough to say when and where will the northern lights be seen. Sometimes going up too north can be good for you, and at times, it can be bad. General areas good for viewing are Alaska, Northern Canada, Greenland, Iceland, Northern Norway & Sweden and Russia. If you need scientific answers, I recommend reading about it Google / YouTube it.

Aurora Borealis, Northern Lights, Fairbanks, Alaska

But one thing is for sure – viewing Northern Lights is high on most people’s bucket list. Thanks to social media, most people are familiar with this phenomenon and want to watch it for themselves. We understood all the dependencies very early on and so gave ourselves enough time in Fairbanks, Alaska. We spent 5 nights in Fairbanks because one night is never enough. Think of it as going on a safari, you don’t always see the wild cats or beasts in the 3-4 hours you are out in the jungle.

Here we outline our experience and also provide some tips.

Research & Preparation

Northern Lights has been on our minds for quite sometime. In fact, Shruti and I might have even discussed it on our first date. I can’t be too sure about it though. Anyhoo, our initial plan was to travel to Scandinavia and see the lights in Sweden or Norway. Abisko in Sweden is meant to be one of the best places to see the lights, but we didn’t end up going there.

As our trip unfolded and plans changed, we decided to try our luck in Alaska. Northern Lights can be viewed anywhere in the Arctic Circle Region and nearby latitude. So after doing some initial research, Fairbanks was the ideal town to head to.

We mentioned earlier about Shruti’s uncle spotting use some flight tickets. We looked up the airline and there was a YES moment. Delta flies to Fairbanks! Double Win!

First Sight

Our first sight of the Aurora wasn’t actually expected at all. While sleeping on the flight to Fairbanks, we were woken up by the Captain at around 12am. He spoke through the mic, “Hi ladies and gentleman. Sorry to wake you up but for those interested in the Aurora Borealis, it is visible on the right side of the plane”. We were wide awake just then, luckily on the right side of the plane and there it was! The colors were not bright as we were above ground level, but we could see the glow against the vast expanse of darkness.

Trip to Chandalar Ranch

Understandably for a place where Northern Lights are visible, there are a few tour companies and lodges for the viewing. Shruti had been following the weather conditions in Fairbanks and the days we were supposed to be there, were forecasted as cloudy. I went through various TripAdvisor reviews and decided to head for our viewing with Alaska Northern Lights Tours. The main reasons why we picked it was because of Ben Boyd, the owner and tour guide, a member of Indian tribe and amazing reviews.

Ben Boyd, Alaska Northern Lights, Fairbanks, Alaska

At 11pm sharp, Ben turned up at our hotel with a van full of people. Money changed hands and a few pleasantries were exchanged with people in the car while we got on the road. We must have driven for about 20 minutes after picking up the last passengers when Ben spotted the Aurora. We stopped the car on the side of the road to take a few pics before we got to the ranch.

Aurora Borealis, Northern Lights, Fairbanks, Alaska

At this stage no one was sure if we would see the Aurora again, not even Ben. It is so unpredictable that no tour guide would take the risk of lying to his/her customers. It is a natural phenomenon after all.

Anyhow, he showed us around the lodge, introduced us to the owners and took us to the photography area. However, we must have picked a good night because we never stopped seeing the Aurora during the night.

Aurora Borealis, Northern Lights, Fairbanks, Alaska

It showed up in all directions, giving us various ribbon forms, green glow in the sky and the reflection of the colour make the snow look green. It was sublime, unbelievable and larger than life. It almost seemed like the universe was out there to mesmerize you. The funny thing was that the display wasn’t even the best according to locals. However, for us it was one of the greatest things we had ever seen.

Aurora Borealis, Northern Lights, Fairbanks, Alaska

We photographed it faint, medium and strong moving across the sky and checked off the item from our bucket list gladly! We were out so long that both of us were a bit under the weather the next day. But hey, it was worth it.

Winchester Dome

In Alaska, dome means a mountain. Our Arctic Circle Trip involved seeing the Aurora on the return journey. However, apart from seeing it for 15 minutes after we left the Arctic Circle, we had cloudy skies the whole way. And because of the fierce wind on Finger Mountain, we couldn’t stop the car and get off. But our guide, Randy, wasn’t one to give up.

Aurora Borealis, Northern Lights, Fairbanks, Alaska

Randy kept a lookout and we eventually saw it in the sky 40 miles out from Fairbanks. We stopped at Winchester Dome and were able to photograph it yet again. In fact, we were even able to see the ribbon effect right above us. It was surreal!

Aurora Borealis, Northern Lights, Fairbanks, Alaska

Tips for Aurora Viewing

Aurora happens at least 80 kms (50 miles) over land and there’s a few things which make it hard to see.

  • Solar flares (or lack of) – As mentioned earlier Aurora is entirely dependent on solar activity. Therefore, a weak solar flare and you may not see much. There are plenty of apps and websites that forecast aurora viewing. Do remember to check them out. PS, do not be disheartened by 2 or 3 forecast rating because that means, there is better chance to view it up north. If the forecast is more, the aurora gets pushed little south so it may cause issues if you are too up north.
  • Clouds – The biggest hurdle for the aurora. If its non-moving clouds, the chances of seeing anything is zero. Make sure you discuss clouds with your tour guide because most times, the viewing lodges are out from the city and the weather forecast can be completely different there.
  • City lights – City lights also make it harder to see the aurora. The further out you are from the city, the higher the chances of seeing the aurora.
  • Cold and remoteness – While these don’t affect the Aurora per se, they affect your ability to go out and see it. Being in the north in the middle of winter and being away from a city means you must know how to drive in the icy conditions and have all the winter gear. Tours cost a bit but they usually save you from danger.
  • Luck – Even with all the conditions mentioned above going right for you, its a matter of luck. A 5 on the aurora scale has been known to push the Aurora further meaning you may see nothing in Fairbanks.
  • Other activities – As I wrote above, seeing the Northern Lights is plain luck for the most past. Therefore, always research other activities in the area, in case the aurora does not show itself.

Tips for Photography

Two most important things for Aurora Photography are:

  1. Low shutter speed – make sure your camera allows you to control the shutter speed, aperture and the ISO. Without having control over these settings, capturing Aurora can be close to impossible.
  2. Tripod – to ensure you don’t end up with a shaky picture, you need a good tripod. It doesn’t have to be a giant tripod, but good enough to ensure your camera is still while you capture your photo. Our tripod goes up to 39″ in height and that was sufficient for our photos.

Although Shruti and I were discussing buying a night lens, we ended up not doing so. We used 18-55mm F3.5-5.6 lens with our Sony a6000 camera. The settings that worked wonders for us were:

Shutter speed – 10 seconds (low)
ISO – 5000 (high)
Aperture – f3.5 (low)

Shutter speed – 15 seconds (low)
ISO – 4000 (high)
Aperture – f3.5 (low)

Do try various settings because you will not know what works the best till you take hundreds of photos.

Also, try and focus on a closer object. That makes the photo sharper (see all above images). This may be difficult considering you are out in open, but a tree could work as well. The below image could have been one of our best, but unfortunately it turned out blur.

Aurora Borealis, Northern Lights, Fairbanks, Alaska

Good luck crossing Northern Lights off your bucket list!

Celebrating New Years in New York

Being in New York for New Year celebration is a dream and this year we managed to fulfill it. There is lot more enthusiasm on New Year’s eve and we could see everyone getting ready to welcome the new year. We did a bit of research on where we wanted to spend NYE. Well, wasn’t very easy. The city has a few options ranging from extremely touristy to local and extremely expensive to the usual bar expense.

But first, a photo of us.

Arranged Travelers

Time Square Ball Drop

When we told people in New York that we would be here for New Years eve, the usual line we heard was “oh! You’re going to the ball drop?”. Shruti and I had never heard of the ball drop until we came to New York. We knew there was always a massive crowds in Times Square on NYE but weren’t familiar with the ball business.

After talking to people, we found out that there is a big ball on top of a pole which slides down the pole. Of course, it’s not that simple. There are huge crowds controlled by the NYPD and it is almost a lockdown. This event is free but like the Sydney fireworks back home, people here get up early, find a good spot and hold on to it throughout the day. We decided to check it out, after all, we wanted to be part of a massive party.

We did our research and found out that usually the massive crowd starts getting there at 3pm and there are no public toilets and food options in the area. So basically once you get in, you stay there till 12:15am. If you move or get out, you lose the spot. And to be honest, there is no where to move or go too. We prepared ourselves to stay out in the cold, avoided any water and decided to carry some food with us too. We left home at 3pm and got to the closest subway before 4pm. Walking out, we realised what we were getting in!

7th Av was a complete lockdown. Even the side streets were closed and had police standing at all barricades. On 42nd St we were told to go 46th St to get access to the area but upon reaching there the police recommended 53rd St. After walking around the crowd for good 30 mins, we finally managed to reach a spot where police was letting people in. We queued up for security check and were told that back packs are not allowed!

Times Square on New Years

We were aghast. We had read the police website and done our research but nowhere did it say that backpacks were barred. I have see the show COPS and fighting with the American police wasn’t an option. We discussed other options such as depositing our bag at Penn St station cloak room, throwing it away and even going back home to leave it. None of them were feasible so we had no choice but to look for alternative location for NY celebrations.

Tip: Times Square gets extremely packed. To see the ball drop up close, get there as early in the day as possible, stay away from fluids and wear warm clothes. And, most importantly, don’t carry any bags!

Central Park Party and Fireworks

We googled NYE locations and Central Park was another good location. Central Park has a midnight run and an open air concert from 10pm onwards. As we were in the city early, we decided to head to Central Park straight after being rejected from Times Sq. It was around 7:30pm by the time we got there and had to wait in the cold. Being in a park in December weather (note: it was one of the warmest NYE in New York), it was absolutely freezing! There were not many people and we figured it work be a quiet event.

Central Park on New Years Eve

At 10pm, the music came on and we couldn’t wait to start dancing to warm up. We worked our often terrible moves but we couldn’t care less as we felt quite cold earlier. The crowd kept building up but we only noticed when we tried to move out of the moshpit to photograph the fireworks. It wasn’t easy and we didn’t get far but when the midnight hour hit, we saw amazing fireworks over Central Park.

Perhaps, the ball drop wasn’t meant to be for us but we saw the next best thing. In the end, it was a great experience! We ended up celebrating New Years in New York at the next best known venue.

Central Park on New Years Eve

Other Options

Brooklyn Bridge Fireworks

Brooklyn Bridge has fireworks over it which can be seen from the Brooklyn Bridge Park in Dumbo and other areas in Brooklyn close to the water. People generally get there as early as 4pm to get a good spot.


Williamsburg is the hipster part of New York and has some cool bars with NYE parties. Being outside of Manhattan, the places are good value and you can enjoy good music as well as cocktails for the midnight hour.

Clubs & Parties

Lets face it: Time Square is full of hustlers trying to get you into clubs for NYE. They will promise anything to get you to buy the tickets like seeing the ball drop on the street, free drinks and entry to Times Square. While some of this may be true, most of them are touts conning you into a club for a high price while you won’t see the ball drop and end up queuing behind the bar or for toilet.

A couple of friends visited a club near Time Square. Their experience sounded terrible and costly. If you really want the club experience on NYE in Manhattan then its best to get early so as to avoid the last minute rush.

Tip: If you really want the ball drop experience for a lot of dollars then consider booking a view room at the Marriott Marquis close to Time Square or paying for dinner table at close by restaurants.

Peru visa for Indians

Based on our change of plan #2, we decided to visit South America before Europe. So that means, applying visa for South American countries. Having said that, we lost lot of our time trying to renew Shruti’s passport.

We read about the visa application processes for various countries and their leniency when a non-resident applies for visa from another country. That means, as an Indian, Shruti has to apply for Peru visa from Colombia though She’s not a resident there. There are lots of people who have tried and shared their experiences. After doing initial research, we gauged that Peru is one of the toughest countries to grant visas overseas.

So we decided to get Peru visa in India before flying out. And here we share our experience, applying Peru visa for Indians. Hopefully it is helpful.


Peru embassy in New Delhi is located at D2/5, Vasant Vihar. There is no public transport close to the embassy. The closest metro stations are Hauz Khas and Chattarpur. It costs around Rs100 to get there. Once at the end of Vasant marg or on Paschimi Marg, there are signs for embassy of Peru. Its not a big building and is a bungalow next to a park.

Documents needed

The visa form and the documents needed are standard for any visa

  • Photo graphs
  • 2x Filled application form
  • Valid Indian passports for one year
  • Photocopy of front and back passport pages
  • Proof of financial capability
  • Itinerary for Peru
  • Hotel and flight reservations

However, please note that we were able to provide bus tickets from Cruz del Sur and into another South American country as proof of ‘flight’ reservations. Our plan was to travel overland and Peru embassy accepted these.

In addition, Shruti also has a USA B1 visa which helped with the application. We had called up several times to check for details and the embassy was readily available to answer questions.

Processing time

We were told that the application would be processed in 5 working days.


We received no calls in 6 days. Upon calling them, they told us that the application was neither rejected nor approved. Their ‘new’ system could not accept our arrival date being more than 90 days though we had everything else in order.


We had given all the right paper work and everything was in order. However, our arrival date in Peru which was based on the bus ticket was longer than 90 days. It was a grave mistake on our part.

What now?

As stated in the change of plans, We will fly to Colombia and then cross into Ecuador. At both places, we will apply for Peru visa in various consulates. If received then great otherwise Machu Pichu will have to wait til when Shruti gets an Australian passport.

Change of Plans #2

Current status

If you have been following the blog you would know that we have been traveling around India. This was after spending 4 days in Hong Kong and Sri Lanka.

Europe next or last?

While we were in Australia, we have envisioned going to Europe in the peak of winter. We bought winter clothes accordingly and were aware of how cold it can be. And, we wanted to experience Northern Lights as well.

However, Shruti’s uncle in Hong Kong made a very valid point. While we were prepared to brave the cold, we had not taken into account that a lot of Europe’s lesser known towns and tourist destinations may be shut for the winter.

One example of his drove the point home. In the summer, many streets in Paris or squares in Italy have open air bars with people mingling around creating a holiday atmosphere. However, in the winter the cold wind and possibly the rain or snow would drive people inside. Therefore, while there would still be people around the Eiffel tower, Brandenburg date etc, the fun of Europe would be lost.

Hence, we chose to put Europe to the end so we could enjoy the summer in Europe.

So what now?

We discussed lots of options such as going to South America or Africa but our bucket list items were left out. There was a bit of stress and we were trying really hard to crack it.

Till one fine afternoon, Manish spoke words of wisdom – hey, we can go to Alaska to see the Northern Lights. BAM! We hit jackpot. After we finish from India, we could head to USA and then South America. And once we completed our journey in the American Continents, we could head to Europe.

Problems with the passport

As we wrote in another post, Shruti and I had a long procedure trying to get her passport renewed. This left little time to do other things namely getting visas for South American countries. Having said that, the visa application is usually accepted at least 3 months in advance to planned travel. So our Peru application (post coming soon), for instance, was not accepted because we applied too early, almost 4 months in advance.

Luckily we managed to get USA visa, so that is a big yay! Now, even if getting visa for South American countries is an issue, we could fly to Central America and spend time in islands :)

What’s next?

We will be flying to USA next week, spending Christmas and NYE in New York. That fulfills our bucket list for White Christmas and New Year.

In addition, we will be flying to Fairbanks Alaska, to try our hand at seeing the Northern Lights. After this, we will be traveling to Colombia and then to Ecuador. From there, it’s que sera sera with plenty of options…..

Renewing Indian Passport in India

A Big Mistake – Dealing with Indian Government 101

While traveling, its sometimes the little mistakes and events that cost you dearly. For us, it has been a smooth ride but we finally had to deal with Indian Government for a passport renewal and it was like peeling an onion!

First Mistake

While planning our travel, we did a quick check of our passports to see the validity. Both of us had passports valid for over 2 years. We didn’t check anything further. It was only while in India that we realised that Shruti’s passport did not have enough pages for all the visas and stamps. Bummer!

Therefore, like pilgrims going to Vaishno Devi, we decided to go to Mother India barefoot to climb the mountain. In the process, both of us and our parents had to cry to get the boon.

Go back to where you came from

Our initial questions from government officials revealed that we had made a mistake of coming to India and wanting to get a passport in India. The Indian government does not provide extra copies of passport for exhaustion of pages. One has to go through the entire process of getting a new passport. We were told “Why did you not do this in Australia? It would have been much easier”.

The pain we went through for renewing Indian Passport in India is combination of applying for a new passport and requesting for a visa for country. You need to be a resident for more than 1 year or if not, you need to get a high ranking government official to sign a document stating that you are of good character. As we couldn’t prove the former, we had to go with the latter option. Additionally, we had to make sure we had ALL the documents, including the ones that are not listed in the checklist, ready because they could ask for anything.

Second Mistake

While preparing for travel, we got all our documents photocopied and signed by the JP. However, we didn’t bring the original marriage certificate. This proved to be a real problem as a govt. official told us “How do we know you’re married based on a photocopy”. In addition, my being Australian also proved to be a hassle as there is a problem of fake marriages between Indians and foreign citizens especially UK, US, Australia, Canada etc.

What Hague Convention?

At this point, we had to contact my mum in Australia to send us the original marriage certificate signed by Australian DFAT to say that our marriage is valid in Australia. Once mum had this, she had to take it to Indian Consulate for attesting. However, they refused to attest saying that it was already apostilled by DFAT and was legal in India.

On the other hand, the passport office in Mumbai told us that they would not trust an Australian Document unless it was signed by the Indian Consulate. Now, this created a problem for mum as she couldn’t send us all the documents until attested and Indian consulate would not attest.

At this point, mum did the Great Indian Mother Tantrum at the Indian Consulate and told them her kids (Shruti!) was not able to get a passport until they attested the documents and she won’t leave until they accepted the application. It seemed to work as the document was attested in 2 days!

Jobs for the people

Once we had all the documents in hand, Shruti filled in the application and once again went to the passport office to try our luck. Different officials asked Shruti for different documents and she was ready for this. However, one official asked her to present the husband. Therefore, I had to go show myself.

However, it was still not over. More officials asked for different things including changes in the application, passbook (remember these – a written record of money transactions in the bank account) and more documents. She left at 9AM and we returned at 4PM after submission.

We realised that unlike in Australia, each official in the government offices only has 1 job, like checking the documents, entering the details in the record or scanning documents. It was quite inefficient as the applicant is forced to go from table to table and present themselves to each official.

Mistrust within government

Once the application was submitted, we had to do a police verification. A senior officer visited Shruti’s parents place to see that we were living there. Then, we had to go and show the documents at the police station to a junior officer. This was again inefficient. It seemed as if the Indian Government has a mistrust within itself. Ministry of external affairs has already seen and accepted the documents but Ministry of Home Affairs, through Maharashtra police, had to check the same documents twice. Learn from Germany, Modi Sarkar!

Final Thoughts

To be fair, Shruti’s case was a bit unique from the start. We should have renewed the passport in Australia itself but we made a mistake of not counting the empty pages. We are thankful to the officers who helped us as well as our parents. Although most of the passport application process is now online, there were still some inefficiencies within the process which can definitely be improved.

Shruti with new Indian Passport