Mumbai – Culture Shock and Immersion

September-October 2018

Can your own culture give you a culture shock?

Does it count as cultural immersion if it is your own culture?

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It was the little one’s (LO) first ever visit to India. The day we landed in Bombay (Mumbai), we took our year-old daughter to see a Ganpati idol immersion procession. It is Hindu belief that once year, every year, the elephant headed god Ganesh or Ganpati visits earth for a period of eleven days. On the eleventh day he is sent off with great pomp. Ganpati idols worshiped over the past eleven days are immersed in water bodies. I grew up with this festivity. I have been a happy part of it, yet my first thought was that the noise and chaos might overwhelm our daughter. I thought the noise and general chaos might overwhelm our daughter, but she pushed my hands off her ears and danced. I thought I would be swept away, and she would be overwhelmed, but she was swept away, and I was a little overwhelmed. A couple of days later, we had a traditional Hindu prayer service to mark our daughter’s first birthday as per the Hindu calendar. The priest and the baby both did much better than expected. In fact, they were both champs. Not only did the priest actively include me in all the proceedings, he even pacified well-meaning relatives who tried to stop me. Our daughter dealt with the heat, smoke and attention overload like it was just another day.

The LO dealt with the sensory overload that is Mumbai like a pro. Her favourite pages in her little book on Mumbai are Ganpati Bappa (always gets a moriya out of her), Cricket (enthusiast clapping for Sachin cheers) and bad Bollywood songs (she even got her cousin hooked on to one of her favourites). Noisy toys that would have scared her back home were inspected with curiosity and accepted with equanimity. Our daughter dealt with the sensory overload that is Mumbai like a pro, but for me it was somewhat of a shock. I always thought it would be the other way around. Afterall, even after all these years, this was still home.  But coming back is never the same as not going. It’s not just everything around you, it is also about how much you have changed. That’s the real shock. Suddenly the streets look smaller, traffic seems worse, familiar faces look older, fewer people recognize you instantly, you recognize fewer people, you clutch your baby close and hope the auto rickshaw won’t overturn… There are good changes too – no more plastic bags. Change is natural, but what hurts is that the change has happened without you. I was stuck in a time warp. It was not exactly where I left. Sometimes it was a little ahead, sometimes way back in time. It took me an entire day to process everything. India can be overwhelming. Coming back, even more.

 

 

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Paris- for the Romantic Soul

October 2018

Paris is not the world capital of romance for nothing. You won’t see people kissing at every street corner; you can see more action in Bombay, if you know where to look.  While you won’t see people kissing at every street corner, I love how the local markets are all filled with fresh flowers – and men with a bagful of them.  C’est trop charmant, don’t you think?

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The local markets are everywhere. Every locality seems to have its own little market. The food is fresh, and so is the produce if you are interested. We bought our first meal in Paris at Marché Monge – the city market. We wandered into it looking for Marché Mouffetard. Sundays are flea market days.

The flower market at Île de la Cité has attracted avid gardeners and curious passersby since 1830 and converts into a bird market on Sundays. Canaries, budgies, lovebirds, parrots, doves… It is heartbreaking actually.

Broken hearts rejoice, all the locks on the “love lock” bridge – aka Pont des Arts have been taken down and it is now illegal to attach locks to the bridge. You can still bring your baguettes, cheese, wine and blankets and camp out on the bridge while musicians serenade you as the sun sets in the back. Book lovers can walk along the Siene and browse the little bookshops that line both banks, while admiring the views. The Seine is often described as ‘the only river in the world that runs between two bookshelves’. The bouquinistes of Paris are booksellers of used and antiquarian books. Sit down at any of the numerous cafes around for a bite and a glass of wine. I had a wonderful vegan meal at Le Grenier de Notre Dame.  Or take your book, a baguette and a bottle of wine* to any of the big and small parks around. Find a bench and picnic.

 

“A book of verses underneath the bough.. A Jug of Wine, a Loaf of Bread—and Thou.”

*Don’t hold me on the wine. It might be illegal to drink in a public place. Please do your own due diligence.

Anantya

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Anantya Resorts is an unusual choice for travelers. It’s not your regular beach vacation. It’s not the iconic backwaters of Kerala either. It is a tranquil spot hidden in the heart of the Kanyakumari district. Someone drew a line and decided that God’s this creation was not to be part of God’s own country, geographically speaking. So here it lies, on the Tamil Nadu side, among lush landscapes and in an idyllic setting. Getting here is a comfortable 2 hour car ride from Trivandrum airport. One cannot help but let the crowd of thoughts in the mind fade away with the city as the landscape gets greener and lusher with every passing Km.

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The resort is cozily nestled on the banks of Lake Chittar, amidst rubber plantations. The cottages and rooms emerge from the greenery, like they belong there. From the open doors, outdoor seating, hammocks, lily ponds and even the outdoor badminton court- it all has been beautifully laid out to blend seamlessly into its surroundings. The outdoor showers at the Siddhi Villa we stayed at were reminiscent of an age we have left behind. The ever smiling staff, always greet you when you pass by and are happy to assist with anything you might need.

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With an infinity pool that backs into the lake, cycles to explore the vast grounds, board games for the family, amazing Ayurvedic experiences to avail of, the resort has ample to accommodate tastes of a variety of people. We were a party of adults, grandparents, and children and there was not a person who was not at peace, doing something that they enjoyed. That harmony is the essence of Anantya.

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There is much to be enjoyed outside of Anantya as well. The plantation walk with knowledgeable staff who regaled us with stories and patiently answered questions was fantastic. The untouched forests surrounding the area have several walking/hiking trails which the staff are always happy to arrange upon request. There are cultural sites of interest that make very do able day trips with Anantya as your base. We were most content to enjoy all the resort had to offer- use the bicycles on the premises to cycle over to the Chittar Dam, walks through the plantations, nearby forest, unlimited pool play time and simply unwind for the 4 night, 3 days we were there. We made an exception and ventured out to visit the 6th century AD built Jain temple late one evening. The 800 step climb to the cave with views and music carried by the wind from afar alone was breathtaking.

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As nourished as our souls were, so were our stomachs. The chefs are top notch and able to whip up a whole variety of food. The buffet spreads and live tables were visual and culinary delights. The Kerala dishes, especially the fish were stand out winners with the adults, while the kids could never get enough of fresh hot south Indian fare like dosas, puttu and aapam. It would be an incomplete description if I did not mention the fantastic “Hot toddy” drink mixed by the bartender – a perfect companion to sultry south Indian winters.

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The term eco-lodge carries with it a responsibility towards nature and a promise of an experience that is immersive but not disruptive.  If you are looking to get away, find India outside what you know of India and the hashtags on pictures, to switch off and rejuvenate, this hidden gem of place is your spot.

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For bookings and other information: http://anantyaresorts.com/

 – Ragini Murugan – My dearest and very talented sister. Daydreamer, full time engineer, sometimes writer @www.ragzzmatazz.com.

Favorite hobby includes reading and being a mother.

 

Prague – Part I

2018 has been a year of many firsts and coincidentally many seconds. After having spent 11.5 years as an accountant in the UK, where the most interesting work place I’d been was Malta (that too for just one meeting),I got the opportunity to travel to Prague for work. Not once, but twice last year.
My first visit to Prague was a short 2 day trip in April 2018 with two of my british work colleagues who drank beer quicker than water. We had two evenings for ourselves after work and whilst I thought we wouldn’t be able to do much, I was pleasantly surprised. We stayed at a random boutique hotel slightly away from the town centre, but hailed an Uber after work to get to the centre of town. Whilst in Prague, you must Uber. It’s cheap, reliable and there’s never ever any traffic! Quite unlike any other European city I’ve been too. We headed straight to Old Town Square –
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Old town square is exactly as it says on the tin. It’s a big square in the middle of the city centre surrounded by architecturally beautiful buildings on all sides.
“The most significant square of historical Prague, it was founded in the 12th century and has been witness to many historical events. In addition to the Old Town Hall and the Church of Our Lady before Týn, the square is dominated by the Baroque Church of St Nicholas, the Rococo Kinský Palace, the Gothic House at the Stone Bell and the monument to Jan Hus.” – Prague tourism website 
 
It was evident that the square would be a popular for all sorts of gatherings and possibly public executions in past.The areas around old town square are mainly pedestrianised. It was hard to not notice lots of groups of young boys dominating the city centre. It felt like the stag-do capital of Europe and why wouldn’t it be? Beer in Prague is cheap. My colleagues and I had meal at Staroměstská Restaurace. This place was recommended to us by the hotel as one of the most traditional Czech cuisines. I wasn’t expecting much for myself being a vegetarian. As long as it looks appetising and is moderately tasty, I have conditioned myself to eat just about anything vegetarian.  Needless to say it was all about the beer there! My colleagues were on their second helping of a large pint whilst I was sipping my first (half pint!).
 
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Dinner was quickly followed by a long walk along the cobbled streets of Prague. It was lively and buzzing with youngsters who all seemed to enjoying the light breeze and chill in the town. We were determined to find the Beer Museum. This place came up as the top most visited places at Trip Advisor. With over 30 different types of Czech beers, this place didn’t disappoint. As we walked outside the beer museum, we got a night view of the beautiful Prague Castle on the other side of Charles bridge.
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Prague is pretty my night. Its got lovely looking restaurants /cafes along these pedestrianised walkways that serve food and drinks with a warm blanket. Another thing the city is famous for is the Trdlo – it’s like a sweet come shaped pretzel with ice cream. In all honesty, it’s perfectly missable. We did it just because it seemed to be selling  in just about ever Street we walked. That pretty much concluded the first evening in Prague!
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The second evening after work we decided to head over to New Town. New town is on the other side of the town centre and possibly only about 20 minutes walk from
Old Town. Wenceslas square is at the top end of New town. We managed to grab a couple of quick cheeky pints at one of the street cafes. It was still evening and we were able to appreciate a bit more of Prague’s architecture. The street that joins old and new town boasts of a number of multicoloured buildings in pastel shades. A bit like Manish Malhotra’esque. It’s gorgeous. New town is upmarket Prague with all designer shops
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This time we had dinner a place I have completely forgotten the name off. It was a quaint looking place, almost felt like we entered a cave. They had nothing vegetarian on their menu however the chef tossed up some couscous with red kidney beans curry! It was the tastiest rajma I’ve ever had. He seasoned it well and garnished it with coriander!
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This dinner pretty much concluded our second evening in Prague. The city by night surprised me with its beauty, culture, food and atmosphere. I wanted to come back… and I did, only this time with my family. A sneak peak pic attached with the family. If you thought Prague is all about it’s booze wait for part 2 of this series! Thanks for reading.
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-Nitin Kumsi – I’m not a born traveller, accountant, dancer, chaat-lover,reader or writer. l’ve just picked some of these habits along the way and stuck with some of them as I seemed to enjoy them more than others.

The Olympic Adventure

We visited the Olympic Peninsula in our trip to Pacific Northwest this past fall (Fall 2018). The Peninsula is huge, and has lovely lakes, waterfalls, mountains and beaches that can take up to a whole week to explore. We only had four days here, but we made the most of it. We visited the Quinault Area, the coastline (Ruby Beach and Rialto Beach), Hoh Rainforest region, Sol Duc Valley and Lake Crescent Area. The Olympic National Park is definitely one of the prettiest national parks I”ve been to (the other ones being Smokey Mountain National Park and Denali National Park) and would highly recommend making trip to this Peninsula if visiting the Northwest! Here I’m describing the first two stops on our visit there.

We entered the Olympic Peninsula at night from its southern end- from the Quinault Reservation, closer to the Washington-Oregon Border. Lake Quinault is the very first lake we saw the next morning and it was simply mesmerizing. Peaceful and pristine. Since we were in the Peninsula (and the Olympic Park) in the weekday, there were no crowds and we had the lake to ourselves. There are no motorized boating activities allowed in the lake, only kayaks and canoes were allowed in some areas of the lake. Bordering the lake is the Quinault Rainforest trail, a mile-long trail that takes you through the temperate rainforest and gives you a glimpse of how lush green the scenery can be. And of course, since it’s a temperate rainforest, there are waterfalls pretty much everywhere. It was fairly enjoyable hike. Behlul carried Abir in his hiker backpack, and of course Abir enjoyed the trees too, wanting to touch all of them! Near the Quinault Area, there are maybe 3-4 restaurants and cafes to choose from for breakfast/lunch/dinner, so not much of a choice here. We were aware of this and had carried plenty of snacks/quick foods/munchables when we left Portland and started driving northward. Of course, my almost 1- year old son Abir had his food bag at his disposal- his fruit and vegetable purees, cheese sticks, cottage cheese, baby cookies, teething wafers, water, etc. We weren’t sure where all we would find grocery stores, and a hungry baby is the last thing you want on a trip!

Our next destination in the Peninsula was on the Washington Coast-Ruby Beach. Ruby beach is one of the most visited beaches in the Peninsula, due to its rock structures, tidal pools and a lovely hike to get to the beach. Here we saw the mystical Northwest fog that everyone talks about- the entire beach was pretty much covered in fog! We could hardly see more than 5 feet ahead. We had to pull out our jackets, beanies, scarves, and mittens to get down to the beach. Being ex-Californians and now Texans, any temperature below 60F is cold for us and it was about 50F at the beach at the peak of summer! There were quite a few tidal pools that we saw, and due to it being low tide, the rock structures were accessible by foot. We spent about 2 hours on this beach. The first one hour was fun, it mainly consisted of taking pictures, exploring, being amazed at nature’s abundant beauty. The second hour- not so much. We ended up wetting our shoes in one of the streams/pools, Abir also lost his pair of shoes on this beach (he loved wiggling his legs and toes, and letting go of his shoes back then!) so we spent a good chunk of time walking around looking for his lost shoes. Luckily, we found them (soaking wet though), and then hiked back up to the car. By the time we got back, all of us were cold and hungry, so we headed to the town of Forks for a warm meal and our stop for the night.

– Amruta Garud

2018 Recap

January 2019

For the first almost ten months of 2018, we did no traveling. We went to the zoo once and two beaches, but I’m not counting those. She loved the calm lake, but the ocean with it’s big waves scared her. At the zoo, she went mad petting goats, squealing and laughing the whole time. The LO made her first trip to Times Square and was enthralled.

I was saving up all my balance maternity time to go home. Home to introduce my baby to my family. To put her in my grandfather’s now frail but always proud arms. I had been talking about it all year, and I think I jinxed it. He passed away a month and a half before we travelled.

The first few days in India were hard. India can be overwhelming. Coming back – doubly so. I took my time finding my feet, but the LO dived head first. We had two birthday celebrations for her there – a traditional religious ceremony and a party with cake and balloons. She dealt with both like a champ.

Fam-jam in Goa did not turn out like any of us imagined. We spent most of our time between two rooms and the others came back insisting they needed a vacation to recover from that vacation. Yet, if I could go back I would do it again. This time perhaps with nannies.

The LO is a lucky kid – she went to Paris for her first birthday! It was as beautiful as I thought it would be and enough to change the husband’s mind. He had been a Paris hater for the longest time. He gave me twenty-four hours to be underwhelmed and hate it too. When that did not happen, he decided to give it a chance. I like to believe it was my presence that endeared Paris to him, but that would not be fair to the city. Paris is beautiful by herself. Plus, we had the best weather we could hope for. We needed neither sunscreen nor jackets. The summer hordes had gone, and the Christmas crowds were yet to arrive. It was simply perfect.

We spent Thanksgiving in San Diego which means we went home again. My sister had whipped up almost vegan feast, keeping me in mind. The kids had planned out a bunch of activities, including a visit to the tide pools. The tide pools are seasonal, so this was a first for me. Only in San Diego, as maybe Dubai can you have firepits, ice-skating, the sea and beach weather all in the same place. We had to do it. An early birthday celebration arranged by my sister.

I wanted to staycation in NYC over the holidays but that got overruled. We had friends over instead and it all worked out. Yes, I know what a staycation is, and I see the flaw in that sentence, but it is just a minor technical issue.

Travel in 2018 may not have been everything I wanted it to be, but it was good. With the good, came the bad and ugly, but we shall choose to focus on the good. Let’s raise a glass to 2018 and to those who watch us from above. Tchin Tchin!!

2019 Travel Goals

Big family reunion the Caribbean

Small family holiday somewhere closer

Paris – for Vegan-etarians

October 2018

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I am vegan, is Paris for me? Absolutely! Paris is a big city. I am vegan. I am not committed, I cheat without guilt, but I try. I found it really easy not to stray. Expect for the croissants I had for breakfast, a couple of crêpes, few glasses of wine and one pastry, all of which could have easily been avoided, I think I was very good.  Paris is a gastronomical delight. You can find foods from all over the world. We ate Lebanese, Thai, Indian.. all of which have vegan options. Pasta can be ordered without cheese and meat. Sandwiches can be made without cheese and meat. I had warm vegetable soups, which in addition to being good for my vegan soul were also very soothing for my sore throat. I have been told that outside of India Paris is the only place where Mac Donald’s serves vegetarian fare. Ask for “without cheese” and you are sorted. Paris has some lovely vegan restaurants and cafes. There’s Le Grenier de Notre Dame near Notre Dame, L’Abattoir Vegetal at Montmarte,  Hank’s Vegan Burger, Le Faitout… Happy Cow can give you the whole list. Head to the wonderful local markets and buy what you need. A baguette, some jam, fresh fruits and veggies. If local markets are not your thing, go to a supermarket. Learn to say no to those macaroons and pastries that look too beautiful to eat anyway, and you are safe. Paris is for EVERYBODY!

P.S. I used to think vegan was a dietary preference but it seems it has now evolved into a lifestyle choice.

Paris is a very good idea ❣️

October 2018

I don’t know French. Can I get by in Paris? Yes. A big resounding YES. I’ve said this before, I’m saying it again – most people speak some English. Between that, hand gestures and google (search, translate and maps) you will be fine.

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*cell phone photos. Please forgive the image quality

 

Paris and Parisians are so pleasantly different from the stereotype. Far from being rude, cold and unfriendly, people are as nice as strangers can be. They smiled at us, patted the LO’s head and baby talked to her. Almost everyone speaks some English and their English is way better than my few words of broken French. The undertone to their English is not snooty or supercilious, just vexed. How annoying it must be to have everyone simply assume they don’t know English when most of the younger people we meet are reasonably fluent in it! You get what you give, so be nice. Learn to greet. Learn the golden words – please, thank you, sorry and excuse me. I can count from 1-10. I know the days of the week and months of the year. I can read menus and order food. Travelling with a year-old child, the word I found most useful was “lait” – milk.  “Au lait, pour le bébé.” I used it in restaurants and super markets, and always got what I needed.

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*cell phone photos. Please forgive the image quality

Being Indian helped when the above got complicated. I simply look for my paisanos; desi folks; people from the sub-continent. They are everywhere, often hidden in plain sight – working in stores and restaurants; running stalls at local markets; driving taxis. Find them. Find them and they will help with a smile. If you are not Indian, doesn’t matter. They usually know French, English and one Indian language.

Paris is a very good idea ❣️

Paris – A Literary Feast

October 2018

Paris is dotted with literary landmarks. When I think of Paris, I think of Voltaire and Victor Hugo; of Ernest Hemingway. I think of The Hunchback of Notre Dame, A tale of Two Cites, The Scarlet Pimpernel…and mom. When I get to The Scarlet Pimpernel, the next thing that comes to my mind is my mother. The dashing hero, hiding behind a mild, meek, ineffectual persona has inspired generations of superheroes and vigilantes – Superman, Spiderman, Batman…When I asked which book comes to you mind when you think of Paris, she answered, A tale of Two Cities and …. The Scarlet Pimpernel. It is just the kind of story she loves. Romantic, adventurous, served up with a generous helping of culture and history.

img_4228In so many ways Paris is like that too. Romantic, adventurous, filled with culture and history. If you prefer the razzle-dazzle of the modern world, Paris has plenty of that too. Our friend, RP, confessed it was his 10th visit to Paris but he usually doesn’t stay in the area we picked. I confess I picked this locality because of its proximity to two big parks. When you travel with kids, you have to think of things like that (insert eye roll). Turns out, we were just down the road from where Hemingway and his wife lived. In 1922 the Hemingway moved to 74 Rue du Cardinal Lemoine. Our hotel was at 75 Rue du Cardinal Lemoine. Next door..almost. They later moved to 39 rue Descartes. That’s the next street. The French poet Paul Verlaine died in that same building. Valery Larbaud lived at 71 Rue du Cardinal Lemoine. Next door – literally.  The plaque outside describes him as l’écrivain, poète, romancier, essayiste et traducteur* . Romancier is simply novelist in french, but it sounds like so much more dreamy.  Valery Larbaud was all that the plaque says and also travel writer extraordinaire. Larbaud loaned his apartment to  the Irish writer James Joyce and his family, to give Joyce the sanctuary he needed to finish his controversial book Ulysses, in which episodes of Homer‘s Odyssey are paralleled in a variety of literary styles. We were in the company of greats and barely knew it.

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Larbaud was close friends with Adrienne Monnier and Sylvia Beach. Sylvia Beach was the owner of Shakespeare & Co., a bookstore and lending library that Hemingway often visited. During the 1920s, Beach’s shop was a gathering place for many then-aspiring writers.  When Hemingway was young and broke, Beach gave him a library card (for her lending library) and told him to pay at his convenience. Shakespeare & Co was originally located at 12 Rue de l’Odéon. The iconic English-language bookstore closed during the German occupation of Paris and never reopened but… there is another bookstore called Shakespeare & Co., paying homage to the original, located on the quay across from the Notre Dame. This one was started by  the American author George Whitman. It continues to serve as a purveyor of new and second-hand books, as an antiquarian bookseller, and as a free reading library open to the public. The little bookstore also provides aspiring writers and artists a place to stay. In return the tumbleweeds, as they are called, need to help out around the store, read a book a day and write a one-page autobiography for the archives. Yes.. you can also actual sleep in the store surround by books.

* l’écrivain, poète, romancier, essayiste et traducteur – writer, poet, novelist, essayist and translator

2017 – What a year it has been!!

We started 2017 on a very healthy note. My resolution for the year was to get fit and fit back into my clothes. Part of the deal was to quit alcohol, with the understanding that cutting out alcohol would automatically also cut out on all the junk that’s consumed with it. Little did I know how easy life was going to make it! Somewhere around the second or third week of January, I found it that I was pregnant. Oh, the joy and the surprise!!

Elsa Announcement

(She was due, end of September, but she came early October)

I was bursting to tell the family about it when we visited SD early February for the niece’s third birthday, but we decided to hold off till the heartbeat is identified and the eight weeks scan is done.

From SD we went to Seattle where I met a dear old friend.  Amongst other things, Seattle is a culinary city. A cousin who had spent a number of years working in Seattle happily provided us with a list of places to places to eat and items to order. Isn’t it wonderful to play virtual guide to someone visiting a city you love, and re-experiencing everything you love about it twice over – once while reminiscing, and coming up with a plan and once again through their eyes as they execute it. Let me also remind you that recreational marijuana is legal in the state of Washington and I will say no more about it.

When we got home, the pregnancy got confirmed and we started our second greatest adventure ( the first one being our marriage), our journey to parenthood.  The next thing I remember is Amma coming to stay with us in May, all excited – both for the new baby and for my graduation. My sister and nephew also flew in from San Diego for my graduation.

The nephew helped us put up our first little vegetable garden. We grew tomatoes, cucumbers, egg plant, okra, watermelon, pumpkin, strawberries, bell peppers,cayenne peppers, ghost peppers and herbs. We had a bumper harvest all through summer and a good part of fall. This summer my new thing to do with a tourist friend in NYC was “walk across the Brooklyn Bridge.” This item has been on my list for a loong time now. My list item is actually cycle across the bridge, but never mind. Maybe someday we’ll get to that too.

Our big trip for the year was our “babymoon” to Scotland via London. We were originally planning to go to Banff, but Banff was so expensive that time of the year that we may as well have gone to London and we did. Our flight  was overbooked and we got $400 each to reschedule..to a more convenient flight. The new flight was delayed due to bad weather and we ended up spending an entire day at Reykjavik airport. When we finally checked into our hotel in London, it was a tiny, but comfortable burrow. No windows! We only had to spend two nights in there, so no worries. We were out all day having the time of our lives. In London I met two of my best friends and they took time off to show us around. Best way to see the city. We missed meeting other friends (and babies) due to the flight delays, and that’s my only real regret about this trip. We spent a day at Wimbledon, catching up on the Championship live. A major part of our holiday was spent in Scotland. Dark grey clouds rolling across lofty hills, looming over verdant valleys; bizarre landscapes of conical hills dotted with emerald green ponds and scattered waterfalls; sea, sky and the space between coloured in every shade of blue imaginable – Scotland is a bit of a drama queen like me! We had heard that the weather would change faster than my pregnant moods, but it stayed gorgeous for us the whole time. When I say gorgeous, I mean cloudy, cool, with occasional drizzles.I have come to realize this is NOT what most others find beautiful, they call it dreary and dull.

In all of summer, we managed only one evening at the beach and a couple of barbeques at home. We squeezed in one terrible IIFA pre-awards night. The last weekend of summer was spent in Vermont, having the kind of vacation we never have – slow and relaxed. The next week was absolutely crazy, we went to the US Open quarter finals, took a our of the hospital, welcomed Amma back and had our baby-cue over the weekend. We had our traditional Indian “babyshower” early summer with family and then early fall we had this more fun one with friends.

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Our baby made us wait a week past due date and even after that she wouldn’t come. I had a very easy pregnancy, but caught up on all the drama in labour. My body just wouldn’t go into labour, no matter what they tried or how hard! Finally, they had to cut me open and get the baby out. She came out shouting as loudly as her little lungs would permit. Then they  put her cheek against mine and she heard my voice, and calmed down instantly. This was also the instant I forgot all the trauma of my delivery. It all just vanished. Just like that. And just like that our journey changed from “the road to parenthood” to parenthood.

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My sister and her family visited the little one over Thanksgiving. What a blessed Thanksgiving it was!

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While the little one had been around the block, to the pediatricians, to a near by park, the neighbours’ homes, the local zoo, her first real trip was to Cape May for my birthday. As always it snowed (and made me very happy). This being our first big small trip with her, we weren’t well planned and prepared . We left home later than we had anticipated and with enough bags to make us look like a nomadic family on the move. We drove around Cape May that evening taking in the holiday lights. The little one let us have our dinner at a restaurant, another first ( hopefully not last!). Yet another first was seeing snow on the beach the next morning. In my mind snow and beaches are opposites of each other, so it was something of a wonder seeing them together. We stayed just one night because we weren’t sure if the little one would be up to it, she was a champ though. For now, she HATES her car seat, but hopefully that will change. In all our fluster as new parents, we left behind her co-sleeper. She had pretty much outgrown it and we were still using it only because we (read I) were not ready to move her into her crib, in her room; a room that we had so lovingly and painstakingly set up. With no choice now, we moved her into her crib, with me next to her on the bed. Again, she slept beautifully. I, on the other hand worried in my sleep all night.

I made it back to the gym at the end of the year. I feel fitter than the end of last year, I’ve not had a single drink all year and while I have not lost any additional weight, I am back to  my pre-pregnancy weight. I’ll consider that resolution kept.

2018, surprise me 🙂

For 2018,

I want to go home and introduce my family to my little one. My grandfather is ninety-four, and I really really want him to hold her and bless her

I want to stopover at Paris and make it the little one’s first “foreign” destination

I want to go to South East Asia, Bali perhaps

I want to go to the Yellowstone National Park

I want to invest in a telescope and a good book on astronomy, and stargaze

A Walk Across the Brooklyn Bridge

New York has so much to offer, we try to do something new with visitors each time. Sometimes it’s a new bar, sometimes it’s a new experience. This time, I fulfilled my long time wish of walking across the Brooklyn Bridge.

This bridge has featured films such as Annie HallGangs of New YorkKate & LeopoldIt Happened in BrooklynI Am LegendThe Dark Knight Rises, and The Avengers and ….Kal Ho Na Ho – who can forget SRK standing on the bridge and spreading his arms, in his trademark style! This bridge is a very popular location for romantic engagements and photoshoots.

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Of the three bridges (B-M-W) that span New York City’s East River, the Brooklyn Bridge has iconic status. It is probably one of the most popular landmarks and one of the most instantly recognisable features of New York City’s skyline. The bridge was started in 1869 and completed fourteen (14) years later in 1883. It is one of the oldest suspension bridges in the United States and the first constructed using steel wire. Back in the day, it became a symbol of what could be achieved. It was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1964.

The bridge was designed by an immigrant – German born civil engineer German immigrant John Augustus Roebling. Let’s take a moment here to acknowledge the contribution of immigrants to this country. Besides if all life started in Ethiopia, everybody is an immigrant; some came sooner, others later.

Shortly before construction began John Roebling suffered a serious foot injury from which he contracted tetanus and died. The project was taken over by his son, Washington Roebling. Shortly after construction began, t he too suffered a paralysing injury and was unable to attend site himself. Undeterred, he relayed daily instructions to his engineers through his wife, Emily. At the time of its inauguration, people doubted its strength, so the city hired a circus promoter to lead a herd of 21 elephants across the bridge!

I love Manhattan, but in my heart, I’m a Brooklyn girl. The Brooklyn Bridge was the first bridge to  to provide passage across the East River between Brooklyn and Manhattan, back when Brooklyn was still an independent city. 125 years later, its granite towers and steel cables still loom majestically over New York City’s East River, linking the two boroughs.

 

Seattle

February 2017

How apt that our first “family” vacation should be to San Diego! We are here to celebrate the niece’s third birthday. She is super excited and so are we!

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From here, we are headed to Seattle. Why? It’s our anniversary break, we are already on the west coast and we’ve never been to Seattle.

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Seattle is a literary city, a grunge city, a culinary city…a city often called the Emerald City; home to hipsters and the PNW life. Not much, yet so much has happened since, that this trip is almost a blur now. The only distinct part is meeting N, my school friend and picking up where we left off like it was just yesterday. Laughing under the Lenin statue and getting late night coffee.

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We wandered across the city, using mostly uber, which is surprisingly cheap in Seattle. Somewhere in the blur is a trip up the Space Needle, going crazy at the museum of pop culture, tasting strawberry-ghost pepper jam at Pike Place market and regretting not being able to get some back ever since, going all the way to the Locks but missing seeing them in action, a cruise around the shoreline, down the Elliott Bay and Seattle Harbor, not going to chewing gum alley, a visit to Uncle Ike’s and the crazy number of Prius around. It’s almost as though you are not allowed to own any other car here.

Chihuly Gardens

I absolutely love the Chihuly Garden. Chihuly Garden and Glass showcases the imagination  of Seattle’s famous glass-blowing artist, Dale Chihuly. If there’s time to do just one thing in Seattle, visit the Chihuly glass garden. The glass, breathtaking shapes and gorgeous colors, the scale, variety, lighting…all come together to make the whole experience surreal. Walking from room to room, is like fluidly moving into dream after dream. Make sure you pause at the end, and look up through the glass for the best view ever of the Seattle’s iconic Space Needle.

 

 

 

Skyfall

July 6, 2017

Day 6

File_006(2).jpegIt’s closing time at the Eilean Donan Castle, so we can’t go in. We walk around and admire it from the outside. There’s a bagpiper playing for a wedding there. Oh to get married in a castle! We’ve informed our B&B host we’ll be checking in late. When we get there, she has everything set out for us. There are no falls around the House on the Falls, but it is the sweetest little house in the middle of nowhere with sheep all around and wool stuck in the barbed wire. I never knew sheep shed. Most natural, now that I think.

Isle of Skye.jpgWe quickly freshen up and head out o Neist Point.  Out good host has suggested a few places we can stop at for dinner on the way. We are not hungry and decide to have dinner on the way back. I insist on driving to Neist Point. It’s a short drive, on interior roads so I can go as slow as I like. There is very limited cell phone signal in these areas, so we’ve mapped our way in advance and are following it. It takes us on narrow paths, past sheep and lambs – I gently toot the out of my way, through gates and fences. These narrow roads are single lane and have traffic going both ways. There are designated pull over spots every now and then, to allow passing. An hour later, we are nowhere close to Neist Point, and I find myself tooting the same sheep out of way again (don’t ask how we know, they really were the same sheep). We try following the road signs instead of the map, but it doesn’t help. Only when we get some signal, is the map able to re-calibrate and put us back on the right track. By now I’m done driving.

The husband gets us to Neist Point. The beauty of the place and the never ending daylight make it easy to lose track of time. Before we know it, we are late for dinner. We try a all the options suggested by our B&B host, only to find the kitchens closed. Luckily we still have some fruits, energy bars, cookies and other snacks on us. My poor baby, but it was totally worth it. Plus, breakfast was only a good sleep away.

Tennis Treat – Wimbledon

July 4, 2017

Day 4

Wimbledon. Oh how I’ve dreamed of this day! I found this on a bucket list from a few years ago –


“Go watch a Tennis Grand Slam match”

“With the American Open right around the corner. I might be able to check this off this year. Ideally, I’d like to go for the Wimbledon finals or the French Open, but hey a grand slam is a grand slam right? It would make it even special, if I could see Federer play. It would be like watching Sachin bat, except every time I’ve seen Sachin bat he never it past single digits, lower ones that too.”

Wimbledon

For years, it has been my fondest wish to see watch the Championship live (that or the French Open). Today, we are going to try our luck. Tickets to the Championships get a sold through a lottery system almost a year in advance. A small number of tickets can be bought online on the previous day, but they go fast too. Our best bet was to turn up early and hope to get a grounds pass.  Wimbledon is just a short train ride from London, so we hop on and make it there by around 8:00 a.m. Our number in the queue is eight thousand and something. Here’s where being pregnant worked wonderfully to our advantage. We didn’t get to cut the line, but we are seated comfortable in the “mobility” pavilion till our number was called, as opposed to waiting for five long hours in the heat, in a two-mile-long line.

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It is almost one o’clock (1 p.m.) by the time we get in. We head straight for Court 18, where we know Ferrer is playing Gasquet. After waiting almost an hour in line outside the court, taking turns to wander around and catch bits of other matches, we give up. In the meantime, I also find out that Roger Federer was practicing on Court 10 at around noon, meaning we just missed him. Heartbreak! After spending an hour futilely waiting to get into Court 18, we decide to get some lunch with strawberries and cream after which we have a big decision to make – do we stay or leave; if we stay do we head up to the hill to watch Federer play on a big screen or do we pick a court a watch (relatively?) unknown players play live. We decide to stay and watch a live game. We pick Harrison versus Coric and it turns out to be a very interesting game. Again, the bump gets me a seat. Later, the husband gets to sit too. The game is replete with good tennis and drama, with Harrison lashing out at the chair umpire for what I think was a very valid warning. I am seated next to a little boy, who is cheering hard for Coric. His zeal is so infectious that I find myself rooting for Coric too. Down the game, we are joined by another little boy, cheering for Harrison. Too late, I’ve picked my horse. Too bad, he loses.

We walk around, catching the ends of other interesting games being suggested to us over Whatsapp. Technology, I tell you! Simultaneously, I am also trying to co-ordinate dinner with friends in London. However, it gets too late by the time we reach our hotel and we need to check out and check-in closer to Stansted airport from where we fly to Edinburgh tomorrow. Dinner plans are hastily re-written to grab something on the way.

We are staying at Holiday Inn Express tonight, and I have to say the service was simply not upto the mark. The room was matchbox sized; this is London, we get it, but there is simply no excuse for poor service. We spent the last two nights in a Best Western at Vauxhall. The room was tiny and windowless, but our stay was comfortable. 

Edinburgh, we are coming!

London Baby!

July 3, 2017

Day 3

Ganesh3N will be meeting us at Leicester Square. We have no data, so we are coordinating over (read surviving on) free wifi. Here, we start our tour of London. It’s a very pleasant day; no jackets or hats needed. We walk down to Trafalgar Square, where much to  our amusement there is a sign prohibiting people from feeding the pigeons, prompting the husband and N to comment that it probably put there because of and for tourists like me. Now, if you grew up in India in the 90’s, you must know, that’s what you do at Trafalgar Square!

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Buckingham palace is right around the corner. When we get there, much to my surprise and delight, we see the horse guard marching past. I so did want to see the changing of the guard at the palace, but our delayed flight had put an end to that dream. Unexpectedly seeing the horse guard absolutely made my day. Hereon, nothing could go wrong!

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We are now in  London’s tourist district (I think). One simply needs to stand in the centre and turn around to see most of London’s most iconic landmarks – Westminster Abbey, the houses of Parliament, Big Ben and the fake red phone booths scattered all over London for tourists to pose in. I want to go inside the abbey to see the graves and relive the climax of Dan Brown’s Da Vinci code, but the line is too long. We walk down to 10 Downing Street and then take the ubiquitous London tube to Borough Market. I imagined Borough Market to be a livelier farmer’s market sort of place, but it turns out to be covered marketplace, with designated stalls.  Strangely, many of these are shut. A joins us for lunch. The boys have been absolutely wonderful hosts right from finding us places to order food from late night to accompanying us around the city. They even called Scotland to see if we could try our hand at falconry and looked up last minute tickets to the game at Lords. I suspect they might have ended up seeing and learning more about London than they wanted to!

Ganesh4We stroll down  London Bridge to the Tower Bridge, where we get some amazing pastries while we wait for our boat cruise on the Thames. We can barely hear, much less comprehend what the captain is saying but it’s nice all the same. The new buildings juxtaposed against the old make the waterfront an interesting study. We pass Shakespeare’s Globe, the Shard, that crazy building that melted roofs of parked cars and go all the way to the London Eye. We hop off here and take the underground to St. Paul’s Cathedral. We reach a few minutes before the last mass of the day ended but cannot go in because I was dawdling along, taking in the outside. Next stop Kings Cross.

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We don’t have time (and the others don’t have the inclination) to head across the city to the Fortnum and Mason’s flagship store, so we visit the little one in St. Pancras station across the street from King’s Cross. My big belly gets us/me ahead of the winding queue of Harry Potter fans at Platform no. 9 ¾. Good thing too, as the husband is throwing up his hands at my willingness to wait in queue. The rest of our little group seems more done with the day than I am!

We head over to Dhishoom – the promised Mecca of Indian street food. This place is wildly popular to be prepared to wait. Again, my growing bump gets us place to sit while we wait.  The food surpasses my (admittedly low) expectations and sets a new standard in my eyes. Food is good. Everyone is tired, except me, but I suppose I could use some rest too.

Goodnight London.

Sunset at Death Valley

November 7, 2016

dsc_0664We made it to the Badwater Basin in time for sunset. We opted to drive up further from the parking lot and then walk across the salt flats, as suggested by pamphotography. Walking across the salt flats is tricky because you don’t want to break the ridges, at the same time there is something deeply satisfying about crunching salt underfoot. We’ve set up our cameras and we have nothing to do except wait. If you forget to bring a mat, like we did, you can take your shoes off and use them as a cushion. Getting up is harder as the crystals will hurt your hand as you try to lift off. The Basin is at a much lower altitude than the mountains that surround it. Therefore, the sun sets ten (10) minutes earlier here. The drama begins around ten (10) minutes after sunset. We see an orange-pink cloud starting to form. Slowing it grows bigger and starts moving. More clouds form. One shaped like a dragon too. When we turn around and look behind us, we see long pink fingers ripping the grey clouds to shreds. I have seen many spectacular sunsets with blood red skies, mixed with turmeric yellow, but this crazy pink and grey is a first. While the sunset is far from what we expected, it most certainly does not disappoint.

dsc_0679As the light starts to fade, we move towards the parking lot. The Badwater Basin is also a great place to stargaze, we stay there a little longer. There is a bottle of wine and two steel glasses in the car.  The clouds take over and we head back to our camp site.

file_001Tonight’s dinner is rice and pasta cooked in an open pan over coal. This really feels like camping. Despite his protests and reluctance, I can see that the husband is enjoying the experience. The skies have cleared and we can see the stars shining brightly overhead. After a few attempts to identify constellations we call it a night. We must be up early tomorrow to catch the sunrise.

Death Valley and Zion

October 2016

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Death Valley National Park

How did this happen? How did it come to be?  I need to pinch myself to be sure.  It all started with being too late plan a Thanksgiving and/or Christmas vacation for which we wouldn’t have to sell our house. Then came the school holidays for the elections. The timing was perfect. The husband is not particularly keen on either camping or Death Valley (blazing hot in summer and below freezing in winters), but he is keen on using up his leave. When I suggest Death Valley, he quickly  runs a fact/weather/temperature check ( I’m sure he did) and agrees.  Since the temperatures are extreme in summer and winter, the transition seasons are a great time to be there. We got the last campsite available at the Furnace Creek campground ( the only shaded  = most desireable campground), and I think that’s what sealed the two night camping deal. The husband hates letting a deal pass + he knows how badly I’ve been wanting to do this. Also, we didn’t camp or barbeque all summer, so we kind of made a big deal ( deal again) of fall camping a little earlier.

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Death Valley National Park

The husband has the logistics sorted. He’s booked us on Southwest Airlines, so we get to check-in 2 bags each. This means we can carry out tent and comforter. We threw away our old mattress topper,  our tent bed, or we could have taken that too. He’s rented a car to drive down from Vegas to Death Valley and back. He’s also squeezed in a day at Zion.

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Zion National Park

I call the parks department and find out that to hike the Wave – the coolest and most famous formation in Zion, we need to apply through an online lottery four months in advance. There is a walk-in lottery as well, but you need to be there one day in advance. Not happening. Next, check with friends and find out that the Narrows are super cool too. I’m super kicked about it, but it’s an eight hour hike and needs river sandals and sticks (can be rented).  The husband is sure we don’t have that kind of time either, so we decide to wing it.

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Death Valley National Park

We’ve packed a little pan to cook in and burger patties and buns. I have steel plates, spoons and glasses for us, so as not to increase landfill (lol). In a ziplock bag, I even have a sponge with some dishwashing liquid on it (the environmental conundrum!). We’ve packed layers of clothing.GPS – check. Camera+ charged batteries – check. Phones and chargers – check. We are all set to go!

 

Bus Tour Staples

August 26 and 28, 2016

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Hoovar Dam from the Mike O’Callaghan-Pat Tillman Memorial Bridge

There are certain staple items that every Chinese bus tour thinks it needs to cover – a university, a chocolate factory and a shopping outlet mall. I am not being racist, it’s a genuine observation based on my experience.

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I understand the shopping bit. Most people love shopping. People want to buy stuff they may not be able to buy back home. People want to buy gifts to take back. Shopping, I get. What’s with the other two. Why do people need to be bused to a university they don’t go to? I know I’m supposed to be all awed and inspired at these great centres of learning, but one part of me just doesn’t get it. Why exactly am I walking through this campus? What am I supposed to be doing? I find the mandatory chocolate factory tour even more baffling. I like chocolate, but what’s with the tours? This is not Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory and they don’t even let you into where plain ‘ole chocolate is really made; that would be a quality control issue.

summer-20168This tour took us U.C. Berkley, a chocolate factory that was shut and to an outlet mall that barely had any shops. There was a cactus garden next to the chocolate factory, but it was quite pointless driving all the way for that. At 9 a.m. they took us to an Asian buffet, with instructions to eat enough to last till the end of the day. This was brunch. There would be no lunch. We decided to take our chances and skipped it, breaking our fast instead on some bakery items we had stashed away. We reached the shopping outlet around lunch time. We were given around two hours to get back to the bus. What are buying, groceries? To be fair, there wasn’t really much to shop there. We spent our time grabbing pizzas at the cubicle sized food court.

Grand Canyon

August 27, 2016,

Grand Canyon – West Rim

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Last time we went to the South Rim. This time, for logistical reasons, we opted to go to the West Rim. The West Rim is privately held by the Hualapai Reservation. Though not as vast as the South Rim, I was more impressed. The shuttle bus makes three stops. The famous glass Skywalk (or infamous toilet seat) over the Canyon is at the second stop. There are no railings or barriers at the West Rim. It is a safety concern, but it also gives you a feel for the unfettered beauty and grandeur of the canyon. The rush you get when you stand on the edge and look down is incomparable. Be careful, for here you can hear l’appel du vide* and it will have you believe that you can soar like the eagle.

* l’appel du vide – call of the void, the crazy urge to jump from a great height

What Happened TO Vegas?

August 26-27, 2016, 

Las Vegas

We are traveling with the family and are on the bus tour that just doesn’t get the whole Vegas nights things, but even if I take those externalities out – what happened to Vegas?

The streets are less loud and the crowds are thinner; the drunk groups of young adults staggering around with oversized drinks have been replaced by families and hand holding couples. Is Vegas getting gentrified? Or is it just a reflection of how the economy is doing?

I vividly remember my first time here. It was electrifying. The strip was buzzing and bursting – jazzy lights, dancing fountains, fake monuments! Colorful characters jostled about, laughing and chattering loudly. It was like stepping into a decadent fantasy fiction.

The glamour seems to be wearing off. What happened?

Monterey Bay

August 25, 2016,

Monterey Bay

summer-20166While we did not go whale watching in Monterey Bay, the when-will-this-end bus tour took us to the aquarium.  We were given instructions on which exhibits to check out, in what order and how to get there.  The best part of this excursion was the feeding. Unlike Seaworld, you don’t get to feed the animals, you instead get to watch them feed. The big guys first, then the little ones. If you are wondering why the big fish don’t just eat the little fish, after all this is no Zootopia – the aquarium throws in lots of feed and fed food is easier to get than chasing after prey. The small fry stays out of the way till the big fry is done eating. Then comes the sardine tornado.   Hundreds of sardine swarm towards the food, like a mini silver tornado moving under water. This is the coolest part of this exhibit.

summer-20165The tour then took us along the scenic 17 mile drive, much of which hugs the gorgeous Pacific coastline.  It’s incredible, when you contrast this with the man-made and manicured beauty of the fabulous houses that line it. The bus took us to Bird Rock and allowed us savour its wild beauty for a few moments.

Should we make that desperate bid for freedom?  Before you know it, it’s too late and we are again trapped in the metal cage and shunted away.

Roaring Camp

August 25, 2016,

Roaring Camp Redwoods

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The one thing I was really looking forward to on this why-did-we-take-this trip, was taking the steam train through the Californian Redwood forest. We have seen and loved the Giant Sequoias, and the Californian Redwoods are supposed to be even bigger than their southern cousins. I’ve seen pictures of my parents driving through one of the tree tunnels, and in my head I see a train chug-chugging through a tree. In that sense, the Roaring Camp train and Redwoods are a disappointment. A gentle fog runs its tendrils through the dense foliage and early morning light dapples through. There is a slight nip in the air. The open wagon of the train is equipped with blankets which we help ourselves too. The conductor cum guide talks about the history of the camp. The train winds through the forest, giving an occasional soft toot and not billowing enough steam to make me happy. The trees tower over us, but are not enormous, not yet atleast. They are still young, and have a long long time to live before they become the giants I was expecting to see. The route is charming, but has no tunnels.  

Given a choice, I think I’d prefer a walk through Muir Woods, where I’d be able to press my left ear to the trunk of a giant tree and listen to secrets from a thousand years ago.

San Francisco

August 24, 2016,

San Francisco

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It’s a cool morning and San Francisco’s famous fog is all around us. The tour covers the usual suspects – the cable car (aka tram), Golden Gate Bridge park, crooked street, palace of fine arts, soup in a sourdough bread bowl at Boudin’s, Grace Cathedral and City Hall. The bus went up the twin peaks, to give us a panoramic view of the city. It even took us on the mandatory cruise. All must-do’s in SFO.

 At the foot of the crooked street, across the road on the left (if you have your back to it) is a tree and at its base is a memorial for a child called Achoo. I don’t know anything about this child or family, but the name is imprinted in my brain. Every time I go to SFO and the crooked street, I go and look at it. I know it is terrible to say something like this about a child long dead, but I do hope Achoo means something beautiful in whichever language, otherwise it is just mean to name a child after a sneeze. You have to take the left (back to crooked street) at the intersection and it is on the right side, at the very beginning of the road. Sweet child, rest in peace.

Summer 20169.JPGSummer is a great time to get married, and no place says take a picture here like a grand staircase. There’s sometime about grand staircases that just makes you feel like royalty – strong, poised and elegant. Sure enough, there was more than one couple getting their pictures taken on the grand stairs of City Hall. The streets of SFO are full of photo-ops, but the Palace of Fine Arts is another great place to pose.

San Diego – Zoo and Sea World

August 2016

Summer 20161.jpgWe are taking the husband’s parents around San Diego. Zoos are a common favourite with both grandparents and grandchildren, so we load the lot into two cars and go to one of the best loved zoos – San Diego Zoo.

After sulking through most of the bus ride, because we could not sit on the upper deck,Akash finally comes around. After lunch, we go on the gondola. It is Lara’s nap time and Raga heads home with her. Akash gets to skip is nap and spend the day at the zoo.

We started with the polar bears, checking out the exhibits on the way. The polar bear swam right up next to the glass, and plonked down in front of us, giving us a very accurate idea of its size. We get icecreams and then  walk over to the panda bears. We wanted to take the bus, but it is going in the wrong direction.   Down the hill from the restrooms, and almost halfway to the next ones, Akash suddenly says he needs to use the toilet – urgently. We hurry on the the next ones which are luckily near the pandas. The panda habitat is undergoing some renovation, so they have been shifted temporarily. The new enclosures do not afford as much privacy and we are able to see both mommy and baby napping.

Next we take the escalators to the orangutans and gorillas. On the way we walk through the aviary. The orangutans are gorillas are also napping close the the glass. The orangutans wake up. One shuffles lazily like a carpet rug being dragged, while the other decides to roll along the perimeter of the enclosure. Our last stop for the day is the reptile house. As we enter, we see a green mamba shedding its skin. It is the most disgusting, yet fascinating thing to see. We hurry around the exhibit so we can come back and see the progress. The husband opts to wait and nap.

Homeward bound- tired and sleepy. What a successful day this has been!

Sunny San Diego

August 2016

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At Balboa Park, where we rode the train, saw ducklings, tried to get touch the fish, saw some art, admired some plants, dipped our feet in the fountain, went on the carousel and in all had fun

I’m spending my break between jobs at our holiday home in San Diego. People often ask me, if I’m not weary of the east coast winters and would I not like to move to California? My answer is, that’s where I go to holiday. Everyone needs a getaway spot. A place where you can bury yourself under the covers and pretend the rest of the world does not exist. My is sunny San Diego. Could it get better? Under the covers there, there exists a world inhabited by giants and jedi; lorikeets are our friends, eating from our hands and carrying messages. A world that’s constantly changing as the years go by, but magical nonetheless.

This visit was supposed to be a surprise for the kids and for amma.The surprise was broken, but the thrill and joy was intact.

Cape Cod again

Aug 6, 2016

DSC_0593Our first big trip with the family, this year, is to Cape Cod. We get off to a bad start with a flat tire, followed by crazy traffic. It’s early evening by the time we reach. We have 4 items on our list – beach + lighthouse, sunset, whale watching and Martha’s Vineyard. We are too late to catch the last whale watching boat, so that gets pushed out to tomorrow. If we can make it to the first boat, we might still be able to do Martha’s Vineyard. When we reach the Race Point Lighthouse, there is a wedding ceremony in progress. The family is highly amused. We head to the beach, where we dip our feet in the ice cold waters. Seals froliking the ocean as we stroll along the shore.

Cape Cod 2016We arrive at the Rock Harbor beach twenty minutes before sunset. Dark clouds, low on the horizon have obscured the sun. We are disappointed, but wait it out all the same. Good things come to those who wait; we were rewarded with the most unexpected spectacle. The sun slowly slid out under the clouds and slipped into the ocean.For a moment it stood perfectly suspended between the cloudline and the horizon, like a dot of kumkum. The throat of the ocean shimmered as it swallowed the orange ball of fire. We waited till the last sliver of light had been consumed. As we walked away, the water greedily lapped up the leftover pink from the sky.

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The first boat is too early for us. We miss the second because we got stuck in a cycle rally to Provincetown. Martha’s Vineyards is now off the cards. Trivia – the first family reached Martha’s Vineyard today for a sixteen day vacation. I did try suggesting, we switch whale watching with Obama spotting, but.. siigh!!

Cape Cod 20161Whale watching is a smashing success. Very soon, there are all kinds of whales, all around us. We get to witness some feeding behavior. The ocean is calm and the dramamine is really helping. I’m having  a whale of a time.

On the way back, we again get a truckload of traffic. Where is everyone going this weekend!

As crazy as it was, the family is happy and the weekend was well spent.

Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge, Maryland

I don’t say je t’aime and je t’adore as often as I should, not aloud atleast, but always remember that I am saying it, that I go to sleep thinking of you.

… the words are stolen, but the feelings are true.

February 6 and 7, 2016

Black water national refuge (2)This year, we decided to celebrate our anniversary with the national  animal and bird of America  – the bald eagle. Our original plan was to shack up in an adults only resort, but Valentine’s day and the President’s day long weekend put an arrow through that plan. Every single room with a Jacuzzi or heart shaped bed was booked out at astronomical rates. This gave us an opportunity  for some early celebrations at the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge in Maryland. This wetland  is a popular destination for migratory water fowl and the only place on the east coast,  north of Florida where the bald eagle can be spotted. Much like the birds, we’ve flown a long way to build our nest so what better way could there be to mark this momentous day!

Collages13It was almost closing time when we got there, but we drove through the refuge before going to the charming  B&B we had booked. Keen to be a part of our celebrations, the sky slowly changed  from blue to warm rusty orange as the sun set. We could have watched forever.  Even though it is illegal to consume or carry alcohol into the refuge, we sorely regretted not have a bottle of bubbly and two flutes at hand.

Black water national refuge2We were staying at the Mill Street Inn Bed and Breakfast, a beautifully restored Victorian house in the heart of the Cambridge’s historic district. This house  was built  in 1894 and remained in the family until 2004.  In 2006 Skip and Jennie Rideout restored it as a B&B. We were absolutely charmed by  our room.  It wasn’t just the tasteful room decor, wine and chocolates, there were maps and brochures by the bedside and makeup removal wipes in the bathroom. Very thoughtful!  The house has 3 common fireplaces, a large wall to ceiling bookshelf, a piano, a chess table and more. Every corner has a small surprise. Did I mention the pineapple leitmotif? I found it a little out of place, but heck it’s cute!

Black water national refuge1Jennie and Skip are both great  hosts and their age belies their enthusiasm.We wanted to be at the refuge early, so Skip was  gracious enough to wake up before us and make coffee. He even gave us muffins to take with us. It was the kind of morning where you want to wrap your arms around yourself and  walk even if you have no place to go or be. Cool, quiet and peaceful. The beauty of the landscape was in its simplicity. There were no majestic mountains or vast expanse of sea. The trees didn’t tower tall and proud, nor were they gnarled and twisted into fantastic shapes as testimony to  the power of the wind. The refuge glowed softly in the first light of day. The water was still as a mirror. Brown rushes fringed its edges. Flocks of ducks and geese dotted the marsh. We saw snow geese with their black tipped wings, tundra swans who as their name suggests had flown in from the arctic tundra, stately great blue herons and the king of birds – the bald eagles. The bald eagle has a white head and a white tail and  is easy to identify even at a distance. With a wingspan of 5.9 – 7.5 feet, it is an impressive sight in flight. It’s beak, talons and eyes are a fierce yellow. When perched, the hard glint in its eyes and strong beak give it a striking appearance. You don’t want to get close enough to look into its eyes, but here’s a secret – the king is actually a coward. Bald eagles rarely hunt dangerous prey on their own. They target creatures much smaller than themselves. They obtain much of their food by scavenging carcasses or by stealing prey away from other predators. Not very kingly behavior, eh?

Another fun fact – Female bald eagles are usually a third larger than the males.

Collages14As the sun started to rise higher and the early morning mist faded, we made our way back to breakfast at Mill Street Inn. Jennie had quite a spread ready. She even accommodated my vegetarian diet.  At breakfast, we met the lovely couple staying in the other room. They had a local connection and advised us to try Old Salty’s on Hoopers island for lunch. Old Salty’s did not have anything vegetarian apart from a salad, so we drove on to their second suggestion. We went up and down the island twice but could not find it. As we gave up and were driving out of Hoppers, our new acquaintances called to inform us that the husband had left his wallet to Old Salty’s.

Lunch happened at a taqueria in the next town. The husband ordered shrimp diablo and boy was it HOT!!! On the way back, we stopped for ice creams at our old haunt – U-Dairy Creamery . As we drove home the sky turned into an unbelievable pink, like a tent of multi hued silk.  The world seemed determined to remind us that the celebrations were not over.

 

Reaching Svalbard

December 21, 2015

svalbard

Photo Courtesy Rahul Pagey

Svalbard. I first came across this place while reading the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and the name has stuck in my head since. I came across it again while researching Norway and the Aurora Borealis and I knew I wanted to go there. Svalbard is the northernmost settlement in the world with a permanent civilian population. It sits in the  Arctic ocean, about midway between mainland Norway and the North Pole. Unless you’re a scientist or a researcher, this is the closest you can get to the North Pole.There’s only one flight a day to and from Oslo, and if that got cancelled for weather or other reasons, all our careful planning would go for a wild toss, but to tell the truth, we were all quite excited about it.

This time we’ve triple checked our tickets and make it to the airport well in time for our flight. Past security, one level down, we join a queue to two doors leading to what we assume is the waiting area at the boarding gate, but is infact the boarding gate. There are two booths before the doors. When it’s our turn, the husband hands over our passports – mine first. The man looks at it and asks me to please step aside, to the other line. My passport is riddled with issues that demand a post or two of their own, so the husband hands me my passport with a look that’s a mix of AGAIN!!!, I am leaving you here and going,  and why don’t you just get the darned thing fixed? Then the man hands him his passport and motions him to step aside too. “Me too?, the husband asks incredulously. I am quite besides myself with glee. By the time he joins the line, I’ve figured out what’s wrong. “Where is your return flight from?” the lady on the other side of the box asks. ” Oslo.” “You’ll need a Schengen  visa to go Oslo.” “It’s right here.” I reach for the passport, but before I can take it she patiently explains,” This is a single entry visa. Svalbard is not part of Schengen.When you go there, you will be leaving the Schengen region and will  need a new Schengen to return to Oslo.”  But wait…”Svalbard is a part of Norway, isn’t it?”We’re not leaving the country, so why do we need a new visa to re-enter. How can we re-enter when we are not leaving? Turns out Svalbard is (as the husband puts it) the Kashmir of Norway -the northern most region, mountainous, gorgeous and has special status.

Unlike the rest of Norway (including Jan Mayen), Svalbard is a free economic zone, a demilitarized zone, and is not part of the Schengen Area nor the European Economic Area. All citizens and all companies of every nation under the Svalbard treaty are allowed to become residents and to have access to Svalbard including the right to fish, hunt or undertake any kind of maritime, industrial, mining or trade activity. The residents of Svalbard must follow Norwegian law though Norwegian authority cannot discriminate against or favor any residents of any given nationality.

Aaha!! By now RP has joined our queue, but when he shows her his EU temporary residence permit, she clears him to go. What about us? “When you reach Svalbard, go to the local police station. They’ll give you a new visa. There won’t be a problem.”

 

 

An evening in Oslo


December 16 and 17, 2015

I have packed all that need. The house has been tidied. The fridge and pantry stocked up for the family. Keys and instructions been given. Paper submitted. Each item triple checked. I fly to Tromso this evening. Everything is going so smoothly, it seems unreal. I’m sure I’m missing something important, but I’m not. I make it to JFK (airport) without a glitch. I have allowed for more time than the husband deemed required. I am at the correct terminal. I have my passport and what the husband said was my boarding card. This is where I think I willed a potential nightmare in. The security line is winding all the way to the back of the terminal. Some people are nervous fliers, I’m a nervous boarder. A lifetime of missed trains and planes has left me with acute boarding anxiety. I ask someone to hold my place, while I try to find a boarding agent to help me jump the queue. When I find an agent, she tells me what I have on the airline app is not my boarding card and I need to get into line to first get a boarding card. I look at the looong line and she looks at me; she asks me to join the relatively short premier customer line.  When I am finally handed my boarding card, I ask the boarder if there is any way she can get me past security in time for my flight. She smiles and points to the long line I had skipped and says, “A lot of these people in line are waiting to board the same flight. You’ll make it.”  In the meanwhile, my place holder seems to have gone so far ahead, that I can no longer spot him. I make it to the flight with 4 minutes to spare for boarding.

 We flew Norwegian. Since the husband handled all the logistics, I didn’t know till I boarded that this is a low cost, no frills airlines. What that means is you pay for each additional service like food, blankets and even headphones. I have a stopover at Stockholm and since there are no clear signs or people to give any directions, I am quite lost about how to get to my connecting flight.  I make it to and past immigration and to Oslo. At Oslo, I walk straight out, without having to clear immigration or customs.  I am genuinely surprised and so is the lady at the tourist information centre, till we realize I was in Schengen zone and I had already cleared immigration at Stockholm. Smooth! Now, a train to the city centre. I’m not sure if I should use my card to buy a ticket, so I change some money. Did I mention, the train station and trains have FREE WiFi? When I get off at my station, I pull up the hotel address and the husband’s directions “It’s a very short walk from the station. I took a cab and got ripped off” Okay.. I put Hotel Thon Munch in my google maps and start walking.  Since the husband took a cab here’s what he didn’t realize – a. the cobblestone sidewalks of Oslo are not meant for stroller bags. b. there’s ice on the sidewalks which makes them slippery and grit thrown in to keep people from slipping, both of which add to the challenge. Low battery alert on phone. Low battery alert on phone. Dead. Thankfully a helpful stranger points me in the right direction.

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The big plan for the evening is to go to a Christmas Market, get dinner and attend a Christmas concert by the Oslo Symphony. The Christmas market is tiny compared to the holiday markets of NYC, but it is charming nevertheless.  It has a little fire place, a talking reindeer head, an ice skating rink and a Ferris wheel.  I try the glogg, which tastes like spiced apple cider. Since it was being sold in a Christmas market it had no alcohol I guess, but it warmed me up all the same. We return to the hotel to pick up RP and then all of us head to the concert hall. We eat some surprisingly good deli fare as we walk to our destination.

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Photo Courtesy – Ganesh Sankaran

We are late, but in time to sneak in during applause. The programme includes folk melodies, classics and show pieces. The music was soothing enough to lull a baby to sleep. It wraps around us like a cocoon. Music has no language, but the concert is presented in Norwegian.  Herborg Kråkevik sings most hauntingly. We do not understand a word of what is spoken or sung, but the concert touch a chord. The highlight of the evening was Tine Thing Helseth’s trumpet solo. It transports me to the world of dreams. Dreams filled with sonorous sounds and multi coloured lights dancing across starry skies. Perhaps tomorrow this dream will come true.

 

2015 – Recap

ice hotel1We started 2015, freezing our toes in Montreal and Quebec. Both cities are perfect summer destinations, but winter has its own charm! Next we stopped over at Istanbul on our way to India. London was our first choice, but Turkish Airways offered us such a sweet deal that we had to take it. As much as we would have loved to see more of Turkey – Cappadocia, Pamukkale; we had just about  enough time to cover Istanbul – one city; two continents. Shortly after landing in India, we rushed off to Kutch for a spot of bird watching, and to enjoy the white expanse of the salt flats under an almost full moon.

Vermont -Leaf Peeping1Back in the United States, summer started in the mountains of Maine and ended on the beaches of Cape Cod. Every weekend in between was spent grilling and chilling. We managed to squeeze some kayaking, row boating, hiking, wine tasting and two camping trips including our camping debut before we went leaf peeping in Vermont. We saw bears (and elk, and other wildlife) in the Great Smoky Mountains. We ate soul food in Charlotte. We learnt to fly an airplane. Summer saw the bestie take over the house for a few days and the husband’s bestie make himself at home. Fall was little slow as the husband was upto to his eyeballs  preparing for a competitive exam. By the time he got done, I was swamped with work stuff, school and project work. No complaints; we had our grand finale trip coming up in December. December saw us in Norway chasing the Northern Lights in Tromso and  finding them in Svalbard. We missed the polar bears, but we experienced the  unending polar night. When we came back we had family waiting for us. A darling friend made us Christmas sweets because we couldn’t find the ones we grew up with in the market. Nosiest, craziest, BEST Christmas EVER!!

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Svalbard – Polar days, Polar Nights and the Aurora Borealis

In other news, I kept my word about publishing one post every week. I even got published in the Cape Cod Daily. Thank you 2015, you’ve been simply spectacular! Thank you everyone for following along!

 

“I’m sharing my #TalesOf2015 with BlogAdda.”

Ahmedabad – The Night Food Market

April 2013

ahmedabad2At the end of the heritage walk, I took an autorickshaw back to The MG House. My *rickshawala recommended I get dinner at the nightly food market at Manek Chowk. Following his advise, I returned my audio-guide/walkman and took another *rickshaw straight to Manek Chowk. When I got there, the day stalls had packed up, hustle bustle of the (day) market had died down and the place looked deserted. I wondered if I had come to the right place. I asked a lone foodcart. “Just wait and watch.”, he laughed enigmatically. Sure enough, right in front of my eyes, the place began to transform. The day stalls were moved. Shop fronts morphed into street kitchens. Fires were lit, electric lights strung and lit, tables and chairs were set out; clang clang! bang bang! sizzle, smoke and the transformation was complete. I highly recommend you get here early so that you can see the magic happen.ahmedabad3The tantalizing aroma of street food filled the air. At first I was the only one there. I sat down and ordered a pav bhaji. Slowly, people started to trickle in and before I could finish eating the place was buzzing with life.

*autowala/rickshawala – auto-rickshaw driver

Smokies – Falling in Love can be Hard on your Knees!

September 13, 2015

The Great Smoky MountainsOur log-cabin turns out to be a chalet – complete with a pool table, deck, grill and hot tub.We are two, but it can sleep minimum five. Inviting as the hot tub is, it must wait till tomorrow.  We turn in almost as soon as we enter and are fast asleep even before our heads hit the pillows. When morning comes, we find out that few joys match waking up in a hot tub on a cool crisp day like this. We have a difficult choice to make. We can either do the 8 mile Charlie’s Bunion Trail and  the super short but steep Clingman’s Dome or we can do the epic 12 mile Mount Cammerer. Other items on our to-do list are Cades Cove, the Cherokee Museum and the Cherokee village. When we get to the Sugarlands Visitor Centre, everybody seems to be talking about bears. The ranger tells us, bears are everywhere but they are most easily spotted at Cades Cove. That seals it for us.

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Photo Courtesy – Ganesh Sankaran

The Charlie’s Bunion trail starts at the state line of Tennessee and North Carolina. It is a part of the Appalachian Trail. It’s not very difficult and is very beautiful. Up and down it goes, as it winds through the Great Smoky Mountains. As the fog rolls in, I get this feeling of having stepped through a portal and into *Lonavala or Matheran in the monsoon. Dark green canopies, gnarled trees, soft, cold, light wetness – it must be!  The trail is not perfectly marked, but it is easy to keep to. When we reach Charlie’s Bunion, we are rewarded with a view that took my heart away. The mountains are majestic beyond measure and beautiful beyond belief. On the way down, the realization grows stronger and stronger that up here in the Smokies, time and distance are inversely warped. The longer we walk, the less distance we seem to cover. Even at the husband’s punishing pace, we are always only halfway there. I tell you, there is magic in these mountains!

Charlie's Bunioin hikeWe finish the hike in a little more than four hours. Clingman’s Dome is a very close, but if we walk to the top and pause to take in the views, we will miss the bears. Not wanting to miss the bears, we drive across the park into Cades Cove. At the very entrance, the husband looks at the fuel gauge dismally. Having come so far, we don’t want to go back. We put our faith in that ranger who is supposed to follow the last car in and drive on. Very soon, we see a line of cars parked along the road. Clearly, something has been spotted. A bear with her cubs! The husband insists there are two (cubs). When momma and her babies decide the show is over, we drive on to spot a jackal and a few deer before we get stuck behind a long line of cars. We manage to make it out of the cove, but that just makes our hearts beat harder. There is no ranger who is supposed to follow us anymore. If we run out of gas…

Photo Courtesy - Ganesh Sankaran

at Charlie’s Bunion; Photo Courtesy – Ganesh Sankaran

Thankfully we make it back to Gatlinburg, and from there to our hot tub. There is so much to do tomorrow, but tomorrow is another day!

*complete the Lonavala experience by buying fudge at the fudge shop in Gatlinburg

Cape Cod – A Whale of a Tale

Labor Day Weekend, 2015

Summer is hurtling to an end and we are scrambling to make last minute plans for the Labor Day weekend. We throw caution to the winds and decide to drive down to Cape Cod.  Post card beaches, glorious waters and the last weekend of summer – a four to five hour drive on a regular weekend can easily turn into a nightmare on the road. The prospect of driving through New York City to get across seems daunting but we set forth valiantly on Friday evening, only to turn tail and return before we even hit the city.

DSC_1073Wine turns into sweet dreams and sweet dreams turn into coffee; we hit the road at 5 a.m. on Saturday. We beat the crazy traffic, but  by no means  are the only souls on the roads. The first thing we do as we drive into Cape Cod is donate clothing. What a blessed start! Why we have donation clothes in the back of our car is a diversion we won’t make. As soon as we check into our hotel, we book a whale watching trip. This will be my third attempt and I am determined. I want to bike the Provincetown trail, but we are simply starving so we head straight to Commercial Street. What a gay place it is! (In both the traditional and modern sense of the word).

DSC_1103Post burgers, we walk around and down to the Pilgrim Monument. Rising like a stately chess piece, this granite tower stands atop a little hillock. The Pilgrim Monument was built to commemorate the Mayflower Pilgrims’ first landing in the New World in Provincetown. There was a time where people thought that Africa, Europe and Asia were the whole world, so when the Americas were discovered by these worldly people, they promptly termed them as the New World.  Towards the end of 1620, a boat called Mayflower brought ashore a group of people who are now collectively known as the Pilgrims. These Pilgrims actually called themselves Saints, and were Separatists who did not want to pledge allegiance to the Church of England, which they believed was nearly as corrupt and idolatrous as the Catholic Church it had replaced. The Pilgrims are commonly accepted as the founding fathers of America, but the truth couldn’t be further. Apart from the Native Americans, several white colonies had sprouted across the continent before the Pilgrims arrived. After spending all of five weeks in Provincetown, the Pilgrims decided it was not suitable for settlement and sailed on to land at Plymouth Rock.

DSC_1098The Pilgrims certainly didn’t spend those five weeks in Cape Cod building this 252 foot monument; this was built much later (in 1892) by the Cape Cod Pilgrim Memorial Association. A short climb took us to the foot of the tower, where we were informed that the only way to the top was to climb 116 steps and 60 ramps which would take only about ten minutes at a leisurely pace. Not wanting to risk our hearts, we pondered and concluded that we did not have the ten minutes. Turns out, we really did not have the ten minutes. We make it just about in time to our whale watching boat.

Love, Your friend, the Whale

Love,
Your friend, the Whale

This time I am taking no chances. I chew on this little miracle called Dramamine and find us seats at the back of the lower deck. As the boat cuts through the ocean, water behind it furls out like the fluke of a whale. I have never enjoyed the sea so much – the rise and fall of her ample bosom; the gentle swaying from side to side. A huge fountain erupts in the middle of the ocean and has people excitedly pointing. Another fountain erupts alongside the first. Each whale  is easily almost as long as the boat. Two of them can  easily take our boat down.Thankfully, that was not what these gentle giants have in mind. The whales are playful and curious. There is one that keeps sneaking up close to the boat, sending a spray of water through its blow hole and hiding.  Later,three of them swim straight at the side of the boat and under, sending everyone scrambling to the other side. They even give the boat an impish bump on its bottom. While I am fiddling around for the husband’s phone to take a selfie, I see something from the corner of my eye. I turn around just in time to see the most spectacular sight ever – a whale breaching.It doesn’t arch like Free Willy.  It  leaps straight up and for a second holds that pose, like Mount Meru emerging from the cosmic ocean, then it does a half flip and falls back.Our captain assures us, we saw three types of whales – humpbacks, finbacks and minkies, but all I can tell you is we saw around six to eight whales including a baby.

We are treated to a postcard sunset on the way back; complete with a little lighthouse glowing in the last rays of the sun. What a perfect way to end the day; yet not yet!

Bonus – whale watching video on our Instagram

More photos to follow on our FB page

Istanbul; The Whirling Dervishes

January 28, 2015

We are back from our almost monthlong super short vacation to India, via Istanbul. Three and a half weeks just flew by and here I am sitting on my couch wondering how to get them back.

We broke our journey in Istanbul and spent a couple of days in this grand old city. Divided by the Bosporus, partly in Europe and partly in Asia, this city is the perfect embodiment of the word picturesque. It reminded me of Delhi, a cleaner, better preserved, grander Delhi with much better weather.

The night we were scheduled to fly out of New York City, almost every other flight had been cancelled on account of an impending snowstorm. The streets of NYC wore a deserted look and usually the bustling JFK airport had fewer people than a local bus terminal. Fingers crossed, we waited for our flight to take off.

I bow to Thee, for there is Light in each of us

I bow to Thee, for there is Light in each of us

The husband knew I was very keen on catching a whirling dervishes performance. It is not a really performance, it is a ceremony; a prayer. We had tried booking one online, but had not been successful due to technical issues in making payments. We were staying at the Best Western Premier The Home Suites & Spa. As soon as we checked into our hotel the husband asked the uber helpful man at the reception about the ceremony and in no time we had reservations for the show at the Orient Express Train Station (Sirkeci Event Hall–Istanbul Gar). Set to haunting music, the ceremony is fraught with spiritual symbolism, right from the attire to the spinning. A short video of the ceremony can be seen on our Instagram account.

Truth is one, but men describe it differently -Rig Veda

Truth is one, but men describe it differently
-Rig Veda

I am not a religious person. I believe in God, yes. I like to think of myself as spiritual, but what is spirituality? Is it contentment? Or is it discontentment? The constant ache, the yearning, the longing, the neverending search to attain the unattainable? As the dervishes whirl themselves into a trance, they seek  love; eternal and everlasting. Like the earth revolving around the sun, their bodies spin around their hearts. They strive to achieve self-realization, and by understanding themselves they hope to  understand the Creator. I too believe that God lives in us. The conscience that guides me, that is my God. If you can be true to yourself, you will never be in danger of worshiping false gods.

You are the universe in ecstatic motion -Rumi

You are the universe in ecstatic motion
-Rumi

God is too big to be contained by religion and too great to be concerned with what you wear or eat. He is more likely to care about how you treat your fellow creations. How much you pray is less important than how much you care and how you express it. To me, God is the flow of energy. Omniscient, omnipresent; that which can neither be created nor destroyed.

*Mo ko Kahan Dhundhere Bande Mein To Tere Paas ... Khoji Hoye Turat Mil Jaoon Ik Pal Ki Talas Mein Kahet Kabir Suno Bhai Sadho Mein To Hun Viswas Mein

*Mo ko Kahan Dhundhere Bande Mein To Tere Paas

Khoji Hoye Turat Mil Jaoon Ik Pal Ki Talas Mein
Kahet Kabir Suno Bhai Sadho Mein To Hun Viswas Mein

My religion says there are two ways to attain the Supreme. One to give up all worldly pleasures and concentrate only on **Him, the other is to devote yourself entirely to the tasks that have been set out for you. Give your all in every relationship. No matter what work you do, give it your best. Seek pleasure not in the results but in every little thing you do. Service to man is sacrifice to God. Mine is the second way. I have not reached the top of the mountain, but I am content that I have found my path.

**Mo ko Kahan Dhundhere Bande Mein To Tere Paas

Khoji Hoye Turat Mil Jaoon Ik Pal Ki Talas Mein
Kahet Kabir Suno Bhai Sadho Mein To Hun Viswas Mein

– beautifully explained here 

**Him/Her/Whatever. I’m using Him merely for convenience, otherwise I believe God is gender free.

P.S –Check out the Istanbul, Turkey album our FB page to enjoy our journey through pictures.

Ice Hotel, Quebec – A Dream Come True

Last on our list was the Ice Hotel. We had seen signboards for it on the way to Wendake, so we knew we were not far away, but our GPS insisted otherwise and took on a wild goose chase. At one point, we just gave up and walked into a bar in the middle of nowhere to ask for directions. The bartenders and patrons, all looked at us most curiously before enquiring about the reason for strangers to walk into their bar in strongly accented French.

A few *merci beaucoups later we were on our way.

The Ice Hotel has been on my bucket list ever since the internet came to our home, way back in the 1990’s. Back then when everybody had  hotmail and yahoo e-mail addresses that they would now be too embarrassed to acknowledge, I received a forward with pictures of the most magical looking place ever. An unbelievable hotel made entirely of ice. Unlike the cramped and bare like the igloos we drew in geography, it was full size and glamourous, glinting and glimmering in blue and purple lights. Everything from the external structure to the internal furnishings were made of ice, even the cutlery. Beautiful ice sculptures graced the walls and corners. The moment I set my eyes on those pictures I knew I wanted to see that place someday. Back then, I didn’t even know where Quebec was. In my mind, I put it away as somewhere around the North Pole. Years later, I realized Quebec was in Canada, but I still thought it was far up North, in the Arctic Circle. Where else could this place of wonders be!

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The icicles formed in my heart broke and stabbed my gut when I read that Hôtel de Glace would open on January 5th,(2015) one day after we leave the province. Sensing my disappointment, the husband asked the front desk at the Place Royale museum if they had any information on the opening of the hotel, and I was elated when they said,” Today. They open today.” When we reached we found that it was just the soft opening, and some work was still in progress, The grand opening was scheduled for January 16th (2015). I was a little disgruntled because it didn’t live up to the images I had carried in my mind for all these years, but nevertheless the place was marvelous. Each room had a different theme.  For a ridiculous sum of money, you can stay there overnight, sleeping on a bed made of ice, surrounded by objects made of ice,  in a room made of ice. I’m glad we don’t have that kind of money, I was freezing inside. I needed to step out into the snowy night just to feel my fingers again; my toes were beyond redemption, and my feet and slowly my ankles were turning into ice too. They had an outdoor Spa, and a Chapel in which you could get married, as well.

To Warmth!!

To Warmth!!

The bar was open, and we got our **drinks in ice glasses. I could barely hold my glass, and the bartender had no gloves on!

*merci beaucoup – Thank you very much

** I got the signature drink and the husband got the next one on the list, recommended to him by the bartender. Both were delicious.

Greenwich Village Food Tour, NYC – An interview with our Guest Stars

You’ve heard what I’ve had to say about the Greenwich Village food tour. Here’s a bonus post on what our guest stars (Bijish Perumpully and Jisha Ramachandran) thought of it.

...because true love and fresh air don't fill stomachs

MT : You guys were on such a short trip to NYC, but you opted to do the Greenwich Village Food and Culture Tour as opposed to the more popular touristy activities. What did you think of it?

B : The walk itself was pleasant,at the most. The restaurants were great, but I liked the buildings more.  I liked the personal touch there. The passion,that they really cared about preserving some of the old buildings and culture. I think the biggest challenge that cities like NYC face is that they really need to upgrade, but without losing their character or culture.

J : It’s a decent outing. The walk was good. Walking through streets is one of the best ways to get to know a city.

MT : We agree with that. Walking around is the best way to experience any place. We have also found it is the best way to find your bearings in an unfamiliar place.

B : I want to add that I would have liked to cover a bit more area than what was covered. We only walked around two or three blocks.

MT : It’s a three hour long tour. How did you find the pace – the number of tastings and the way they were spaced?

B : Spacing was fine for me. Some tasting portions were a bit too big or a bit too sweet.

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MT : What did you think of Barri, our guide?

B : The guide, even though not highly charming, was knowledgeable. It was probably not one of her best days. She looked preoccupied. I’d say she was sweet.

J : She was good. She seemed to know the area and its cuisines well.

DSC_1351MT : What about the restaurants and the food?

J : There could have been more variety in the cuisines. I understand however that probably that location has only Italian restaurants.

B : There was way more Italian than any other food. Dutch, English, German and African were completely neglected. African being the elephant there. I can understand that they didn’t own many restaurants back in time, but I’m assuming they would have opened up a few by now.

MT : Which tasting was your favorite?

J : Joe’s Pizza

B : The pizza and the meatballs. I found the small hall where Barri said they had book launches and poetry readings pretty cool and unexpected. The place was in a basement.

(MT:  Cornelia Street Cafe.)

B : What surprised me was that nothing was exceptionally out of this world or over the top luxurious there, but it was functionally well defined. Just what you’d expect from a busy city like New York.

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MT : Do you think it was worth the time and money? How likely are you to recommend it to someone?

B : Hmmm it wasn’t so expensive.  Just to take a walk with some strangers, it wasn’t bad. I wouldn’t recommend it  to first time tourists (to the Big Apple). Actually it depends on who is travelling.

J : It’s worth the time if you in NYC for a few days and are interested in food. Value for money: 3/5. Likely to recommend: 3/5

 

Notes :

MT – My Travelogue

B – Bijish Perumpully

J – Jisha Ramachandran

..and so another year begins

 

Health and Happiness to All!!

Health and Happiness to All!!

Hello Peeps!!

The last year went out in a flurry of activities. I checked out the 4 big holiday markets of NYC. We drove down to Luray Caverns,Virginia for a holiday weekend. Came back and met visiting friends; did a walking tour with them. Enjoyed 4 sets of New Year fireworks, all from the comfort of our (rented) apartment. No jostling crowd. No heels on slippery hardwood floors. No shivering in the cold. Good friends, good food, good music – that’s how we brought  2015 in. I was then whisked off for a surprise holiday in Quebec.

Here I am now, trying to settle into the new year. After 2 days of sub zero temperature in Canada, it feels like early fall in NYC today. When asked about my plans for the year, I realized that for maybe the first time I have concrete goals. There is so much I want to do, and a lot more that I have to do. Bear with me.

I just realized this is my 200th post. This blog has come a long long way, and it would not have been possible without all of you. Your love and support, your shares, likes, comments, just the fact that you read it – means a lot.

May the new year fulfill old dreams and set the stage for new ones!!

Keep Reading,

 

Toronto – Day 1 – Reflections

Reflected on the Day

Pondering- Reflecting -Meditating on the day that was today

By the end of Day 1 we had learned Lessons 3 and 2.

Lesson 3 – The USD might be stronger, but the local currency is  king. We paid for gas in USD (cash). When the husband returned with change, he looked extremely puzzled. “I should be getting more change than this, right?”, he asked me. On checking the bill  we found that the conversion rate used was not just below market rate, it made the Canadian dollar stronger. Ergo, convert in advance and always trade in local currency.

On a separate note,  yes it’s the bill here as one waitress made it a point to tell us. Talking of currency, the USD may be stronger, but the Canadian dollar is prettier; and as we found out the USD is not always stronger. A clear case of beauty bringing might to its knees, eh?

Lesson 2 – Check your roaming rates before you leave the country. I was using my cell phone to co-ordinate with the bestie and my data plan to navigate the city, when I got a message from AT&T asking me to call on their toll free number to avoid an astronomical bill. Usually I ignore messages from my service provider, luckily this time I called. In less than 24 hours I had run up a bill of $100+ (USD) for usage of approximately 8 MB of data. We immediately purchased an international data package – $30 (USD)for 120 MB, which AT&T backdated. The plan is valid for a month after which it automatically lapses.

We paid $ 42  (Canadian) for 4 hrs of parking because we didn’t interpret the rate board correctly. Since we had parked for beyond 6 pm, day charges and night charges both were applied. Look for parking spots marked with big green Ps for more reasonable parking in the city. Talking of Ps, this is Canada, please mind your Ps and Qs, thank you.

The Cloisters, New York City

What a beautiful day it is! The trees below, in the parking lot have changed colours and are dancing gaily with the wind.  The sun is out spreading an illusion of warmth, and conning people stepping out of their heated apartments, into the chilly autumn breeze.Trick or Treat!!

Oh wouldn’t it be lovely if for just one day in a year souls departed could visit us from the Far Shore? If we could pretend we are back where we used to be. If in the dim light of  candles and floating lanterns, we could see those we may never see again; welcome them, honour them, and send them back in peace. If on a cold night, we could warm ourselves with love lost.

I am sitting in my balcony admiring Autumn  below me, and New York City across the river. I have bright red gloves on my hands which I alternately take off and put on for the ease of typing, and on a little table next to me a bottle of water and some “aval” . For years, these beaten rice crispies mixed with a side of curds is what my grandmother had for dinner. She would pick out the groundnuts from her plate and give them to me as a treat. I’m thinking of her. ..and others.

If you are looking for a place to visit in NYC for Halloween, I suggest you go to the Cloisters . The Cloisters museum and gardens is a branch of the MET museum devoted to  the art and architecture of medieval Europe, mostly from around the twelfth through the fifteenth century. The whole place has a very esoteric feel to it. It whispers the story of the severe life of monks and nuns in the centuries past. In those whispers, perhaps are the murmurings of how a new religion adapted practices from the older ones and made them its own.

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Don’t miss the burial chamber, where every sarcophagus has a pet animal on it. Were each of those laid to rest  accompanied by a pet? Was their pet laid to rest with them? This is the spookiest chamber in the museum and a great place to take your Halloween pictures. Just not as a slutty pumpkin or Mickey Mouse! The basement houses the “Treasure”, which along with other objects created for liturgical celebrations, personal devotions, and secular uses, holds  a linen on which is detailed out the genealogy of Christ.

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My personal favorite room, along with the crypt, was the room housing the tapestries depicting The Hunt of the Unicorn.  My heart goes out to the unicorn. It is chased and hounded, and finally when it is tamed by a young virgin, it is killed. Instead of a mourning procession, its body is carried with great pomp and show to the castle. Oh,to kill a beast with love! Could they not find a crueler way to kill it? Although the beautiful creature is slayed in the 6th panel, it is depicted alive,and in captivity on the last panel. Can a unicorn rise from the dead, like a phoenix? Is this a separate unrelated piece? My knowledge is limited, but I know that the pagan unicorn hunt was absorbed by Christian doctrine as a symbol for the passion of Christ. Does this panel represent his resurrection?

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While you’re at the Cloisters, take a moment to enjoy the gardens and the tiny cafe. Just like at the MET, there is a suggested entry fee ( $25 per adult), but you can pay what you feel is appropriate and affordable.  They are open 7 days a week from 10:00 am to 5:15 pm,  March to October and 10:00 am to 4:45 pm, November to February.

Mt. Washington, New Hampshire

“Let’s go to Mt. Washington!”

We say this almost every 2 months. Usually this is followed up by a comment, ” It will be too cold now.” or, ” It’s just too far for a day trip.” It’s true, Mt. Washington is too  far for a day trip and 9 out of 10 times has inclement weather. This is exactly what Mt. Washington is famous for – bad weather.  If you search for Mt. Washington on youtube, you can find videos of boiling water being thrown in the air and turning to snow instantaneously, and other extreme weather videos that will blow you away. In 1934, the observatory at the summit (6,288 ft -1917 metres above sea – level) recorded the then highest surface wind speed ever officially recorded (372 km/h ;231 mph; 103 m/s).They market themselves as the place with the worst weather in the world.  Why would anybody NOT want to go there!

At the foot of the mountain

At the foot of the mountain

We were in New Hampshire (NH) last weekend; leaf peeping with friends. Despite all the meticulous research and careful calculations, we were ahead of peak fall. Wandering around, wondering what to do, we found ourselves at the base of Mt. Washington. The answer was as clear as day (and what a clear day it was!) , let’ s go up Mt. Washington.

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The Cog Rail

There are 2 ways to get to the top. You could either take the road, which is open only weather permitting, or you could take the cog train.  Since it is a cool, crisp sunny day, we take the 8 mile long, Mt. Washington Auto Way.  This itself is such a surprise because just the previous evening the radio weather channel predicted high speed winds, sleet and snow that night on Mt. Washington. When we got to the top, we see the evidence.

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Hawa ke Saath Saath, Ghata ke Sang Sang ( Riding with the wind and clouds for company)

The road winds its way up the highest mountain in the Northeast (of the US) like a dark gray ribbon, revealing ridgeline after ridgeline. The journey is like a short lesson in geography. At the base are the hardwood trees – oak, maple, birch, shaking their red and gold heads, dancing merrily in the wind. As we go up the mountain, we are surrounded by evergreen pines.

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Still higher, we are engulfed by clouds, scattered by strong busy winds. The terrain is bare and rocky. The climate, akin to the Tundra regions, differentiated only by the high amount of rain and snow it receives . It is a good day to be top of the mountain. It is cold and windy, but an ordinary jacket suffices. I wish my jacket had a hood though, to  prevent Jack Frost from getting my ears and nose, and a pair of gloves so that I could take my hands out of my pockets and make pictures.

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Up in the Clouds

Sometimes even the best laid plans go awry. Don’t let that get you down. If you keep your mind open, you will be surprised how easily disappointments can turn into opportunities. If there is no fall foliage to admire, the sun could be shining on Mt. Washington, or it could be so cold and windy up there that you could really brave the worst weather possible. The key is to go out there and have fun.

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Chasing Fall through New Hampshire

Summer seems reluctant to leave. There’s a slight nip in the air, but Fall is  taking her  time  dressing up. Our friends invited us to go leaf peeping with them to New England last weekend. We’ve been wanting to do this too, and happily join.  Maine and Vermont are supposedly past peak and Connecticut is yet to peak, so we settle on New Hampshire (NH). Our friends, seasoned fall peepers, chalk out the itinerary. Good company makes the long road short, yet it’s close to midnight by the time we throw ourselves on our beds.

When morning comes and I rub my sleepy eyes and look out of the window, I am treated to the perfect sight – a tree Fall has finished painting in bold reds and fiery orange. It’s a sign for sure! We pile into the car.

In the car, we (our friends really) come up with a list of places we need to cover. We must go to Lincoln. We should drive further North. We have to do the Kancamagus highway (lazily called the Kanc). We could drive up the road to the little bridge the man at the motel suggested.  We drive down the road and get food.  Somewhere in all this we decide to get some expert recommendations at the local visitor center, where we are  advised  to go to Square Rock. It would be a short and easy hike, ending with a breathtaking view of the valley. That sounds promising, but wait – the man at the bike rental shop (where we stopped to gather information, not rent bikes) also mentioned a waterfall. Turns out, that’s a short walk too, and very dramatic. Cascading water, surrounded by trees decked out in warm red and rust, reflected in a  still pool of cold water.  I imagine an (Asian) Indian bride admiring  herself in the mirror. We just had to do this!

(Glen Ellis Falls)

Hold my hand and walk with me (Glen Ellis Falls)

We get a lovely view of the valley at the Glen Ellis Falls, but there are no trees peeking into the pool and the 64 feet fall is  less dramatic than we expected.

We quickly change gears and decide to drive up the Mount Washington motor way, spend sometime time at the summit and drive back home along the scenic Kancagamus highway. By the time we hit the Kanc the sun is low in the sky, casting a lovely golden glow over the world – the bride just put her jewelry on.

Kancamagus Highway

Can you feel the LOVE tonight, it is where WE are (off Kancamagus highway)

The glitch is, we are travelling east, away from the orange orb. We are surrounded by mountains, which in the daytime would have cut out the harsh afternoon light, but were now blocking out direct illumination by the setting sun. This is so disappointing! We drove all day to NH (and drove back all night), only to find Fall being coy!

It's not about where you are, it's who you are with Picture courtesy -Ganesh Sankaran, Supriya Malpani and kind stranger

It’s not about where you are, it’s who you are with
Picture courtesy -Ganesh Sankaran, Supriya Malpani and kind stranger (at the foot of Mt. Washington)

Lets re-wind a little here. We drove with friends. The company was definitely worth the drive. We went shopping on a holiday, something we don’t generally do. I even bought something, which is almost an accomplishment for me, and a hallelujah  moment for those accompanying me. In an unknown town, we chanced upon a lovely dinner place. The weather held up. Not just that, it  was great. The motor road up to Mt. Washington was open. Mt. Washington has been on our to-do list, and now – check.  And while fall may not have peaked, there was plenty of colour. A sprinkling of green amidst the reds and the yellows, does not take away, it adds to picture.

The trick is to pause. Walk with Fall. Hold her hand and match her step. Admire the warmth she brings with her colours, and enjoy her cool breath on your skin.  Don’t chase her. It’s pointless.

Cherry Blossom Festival

DSC_0232_1At the end of WWII, Japan gifted the United States cherry blossom seedlings as a sign of friendship. In Japanese culture the blossoms are an  enduring  metaphor for the ephemeral nature of life.  Hanami  or flower viewing is a centuries old tradition in Japan. The  practice was first associated with plum blossoms before becoming almost exclusively linked with cherry blossoms in the Hein Period.

DSC_3411-001Keeping with this ancient tradition, the Husband and I decided to do some viewing ourselves. The seedlings gifted by the Japanese people, were planted along the tidal basin in D.C. A fortnight long Cherry Blossom festival culminating in a parade is held every year round peak bloom time. After days of constant follow up with various websites on the peak bloom dates, and juggling of schedules, we decided to avoid the weekend crowd and parade madness, and go on Friday. Friday, however had forecasts of rain. Left with no option, we re-worked our schedules to go on Sunday.That it did not rain on Friday is a different story altogether.

DSC_0034_1Sunday was crazier than we expected. We circled around the city of almost an hour before we found parking around 2 miles from the tidal basin. Given that it’s Spring time, the weather was fine and walking was not a problem. Although NYC still has a few good knee-high boot days left, they are definitely over in D.C.  Shorts and open footwear seemed to be the sensible favourites.  I was quite stunned by the number of visitors who had come to see the blooms.  Beautiful as it was, I doubt a lot of people would drive down to d.c to see it a second time, so most would have to be first time visitors. Imagine so many first time visitors each year – it’s almost as though everyone who lands in the US that year, turns up here. Yeah, I’m exaggerating, but there were a lot of people there that day.

DSC_0258_1D.C has several varieties of cherry blossom trees. A list of locations is available here. The ones around the tidal basin have pale pink flowers. I believe these are the Akebono variety. Deeper pink flowers can be seen along the East Potomac Park. The East Potomac park also has the Weeping Cherry Trees. We also saw a lot of what we think were Yoshino Cherry Trees close to where we parked the car. The best way to enjoy the flowers is to walk along the Tidal Basin and cut across the East Potomac Park.  When the wind blows, the petals swirl around you like little snowflakes. Carry some water and a picnic lunch, and have a great day!

DSC_0055Pleasurable as the flower viewing was, I couldn’t help but feel it wasn’t worth a four-five hour each way drive. We didn’t have the time to even consider checking out the festival offerings. I am sure I’ve seen a couple of cherry blossom trees in downtown Stamford, if not the Brooklyn Botanical Garden has a few of them. Next year, I would rather go  picnic under local cherry trees.

Disneyland – Where fairytales come to life

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Choo Choo

San Diego vacations are always fun, because my favorite people live here. Everytime I’ve visited so far, there has been a new experience waiting. Last time we took a family holiday to Disneyland. Disneyland is not in San Diego, but it’s close enough for a daytrip. My sister had been planning this trip for the longest time now. Since the time *Akash was concieved, she has been dreaming of the day when she would take both him and me to Disney together. As an added bonus for her, 2 of our sisters from India were visiting and she got to take them along as well.

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Goofy-ness

We decided to start by meeting Mickey. On the way, Akash saw a baby roller coaster and was quite eager to get on. In our family, we all unanimously hate these rides. They make us queasy. We bravely climbed into the little cars. While Akash tried to throw up his hands in exultation, I screamed enough for the whole family put together. We visited Mickey’s house and then stood in line to meet him. When our turn came, we shook Mickey’s hand and got  hugs from him. On the way, Akash had rehearsed several things to tell Mickey. When he met Mickey, he was so excited he forgot all his lines and blurted out ” I saw three buses!!”. He was so overwhelmed, that by the time I could get a hug from Mickey he  had already run off.

It was at Disneyland that I drove my first car in the US. At one point, Reva and me were right behind Subi yelling, ” Subi!! Get out of our way!!”,with Subi struggling to accelerate hard enough to avoid a collision. ***Rose Aunty had also come with us. To tell the truth, she was more sporting than the rest of us, when it came to going on the rides.

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Mickey at the parade

A few rides later we decided it was time to go find a good spot to view the parade. The parade charming and entertaining. Most of the characters we knew; some we didn’t; few we guessed. First came a marching band. Then came Micky and his friends. They were followed by Disney characters like Peter Pan and the pirates. Peter is so naughty. He tapped me on my shoulder when I was looking the other way, and smartly stepped away. He had me quite confounded for a moment. Following Peter were the Disney Princesses.  Along with Snow White, Belle and Cinderella was Miss Tiana, who I confess I don’t know. She is the Princess from the Princess and the Frog. Miss Tiana is Disney’s first African-American princess.

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Mickey Icecream

Disney’s collection of princesses now includes an American-Indian princess (Pocahontas), a Chinese princess (Mulan), an Arabian princess (Jasmine), an African-American princess (Tiana), a Scottish princess (Merida) and even a princess from the sea(Ariel)! It’s hightime they got an Indian princess.

When night falls, Disneyland looks like a place straight out of the fairytales. The cobbled main street, lined with shops and bustling with people leads to the lake, in the middle of which is a magical looking castle. This lake with it’s castle is the venue for the most wondrous fireworks show I have ever seen. The Fourth of July Fireworks we saw in Miami were spectacular, but this was something else. A beautifully choreographed story told in pyrotechnics. How the fireworks danced to the music!! It took our collective breath away.

* Akash – my 3 yr old nephew

**Reva, Raga and Subi – My sisters. Raga lives in San Diego with her husband Ashok and her son Akash. Reva and Subi were visiting

*** Rose Aunty – Ashok’s mother, who was also visiting

The Giants of Mariposa

The Giants!!

The Giants!!

On day 2, the air had cleared up considerable. There were no ash deposits on the car or anywhere else. The burning smell had also gone. This prompted the boys to consider  doing the Yosemite Falls hike after all. I, on the other hand, wanted to go see the Giant Sequoia trees in the Mariposa grove. Giant Sequoias are native to the Sierra-Nevada region. I admit I did confuse them with the Redwoods, their North Californian cousins.  The difference between these closely related species can be understood here. Finally it was agreed that we were starting too late to complete the Yosemite Falls hike in time, so we should do the moderate 6 mile roundtrip hike in the Mariposa grove.

Once there, we were in for a surprise. We were astonished. We knew we would be seeing huge  towering trees, but we did not expect them to be this colossal! The tallest of us could go around a tree 10 times with his arms stretched out.  Some of these  mammoths are more than a 1000 years old, some close to 2000. The oldest known living Giant Sequoia is more than 3500 years old. It’s not in this grove though. Oh! the stories they would tell, if they could.  Some of these trees, like the  Faithful Couple seem like 2 trees growing next to each other that have fused together. I’m sure the view through the hollow Telescope tree on a starry night would be simply magical.  The Grizzly Giant would make a very good contender for Enid Blyton’s Faraway tree.

The walking paths are easy and quite straight forward.  The trees keep the paths shady and cool.  Signs, however are put up only at intersections. This means you just have to trust that you are on the right path, and keep walking till the next intersection to find out if you are right or not. The animal, possible bear, dropping on the way do nothing to boost your confidence. We managed to get on a trail we didn’t intend to take. We also managed to get lost for a short while.

Mariposa means butterfly in Spanish. The place gets its name from the thousands of Monarch butterflies that come to wait out the winter here. Imagine a multitude of delicate wings adding winter colour to the grove of giants! What a sight it would would be!

The end of the hike was no less surprising. We came across a man setting up glass cats in the roots of a fallen sequoia.

There’s magic everywhere and I’m a believer!!

Gir stands for Girl Power

April 2013

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Go Girls!!

When I called home from Gir, my parents asked me,” Is it true? Yesterday, in his speech, Narendra Modi* spoke of how his government has empowered the women of Gujarat. He said that women take tourists to see the lions. Is it true?”

Yes, it is true. Gir has women forest officers and rangers. These ladies do go into the forests. They routinely accompany tourists, just like their male counterparts. It is also true that this is the first time I have gone into the forest with a woman ranger. I have not seen women rangers accompany tourists in any of the other national parks I have been to in India.

I appreciate the general sentiment of giving women the confidence to confront lions in the jungle. I do wish, however, that society put in similar efforts to support women in tackling the big bad wolves outside the forests.

* Mr. Modi was the current Chief Minister of the Gujarat.

Gir – The day I startled a Lion

April 2013

How many people can truly claim to have startled a lion? Read on.The Gir forests are the last refuge of the Asian Lions. We had seen the majestic African Lions in Kenya last year. I was keen on seeing the Asian cousins. It seems rather strange, that even though I am was a resident Indian all my life, I should see the African kings before their Asian counterparts. I had always imagined it would be the other way round.

Marsh Crocodile at the reservoir

Marsh Crocodile at the reservoir

I reached Gir at around lunch time and checked into Sinh Sadan, a Government run guest house. This place used to be the hunting lodge of Kings of Junagad.

I was booked for an evening Safari. I was pleasantly to see that the ranger accompanying me  was a girl.  A  pleasant drive through the forest, took us to the reservoir created by damming the Hiran river. Taking in the panoramic views from the watch tower, we continued our quest to see the royal beasts.

A lioness feeds off the kill

A short while later we came across a lioness guarding a fresh kill. A cow had strayed from the settlement and had been brought down by a pride.  Knowing that the rest of the pride would be close, we decided to go look for them. At the turn, the driver slowed down to a stand still and whispered,” There he is…the LION”. I spun around, and at the same time the lion also turned towards us. I cannot tell you what it feels like, to turn around and find yourself staring into the face of a full grown lion, a few feet away from you, with no protective barrier in between. Believe me when I say this,  the lion was equally startled!!

As both of us regained our composure, he moved towards his group and we followed. A few more lionesses emerged from the thicket. Having already satiated their hunger, the eating session that followed was nothing like the feeding frenzy I had seen on TV. The beasts would go one at a time to the kill, grab a bite or two and return.

Diu

April 2013

Diu is one of the loveliest places I have been to. Although India attained independence on August 15, 1947, it was only the British who left. The French, Puducherry got it’s independence and was integrated with India 7 years later.  The Portuguese pockets – Goa, Daman, Diu, Dadra and Nagar Haveli were liberated by Indian military action 14 years later, in 1961.  It was only after the  anti-colonial military coup d’état and the fall of the authoritarian rule in Lisbon, that Portugal  recognized  these places as part of India.

Their colonial heritage and being a part of the common Union territory of Goa, Daman and Diu, until Goa attained statehood in 1987, Diu still identifies itself with Goa.  A lot of people visit Diu expecting a smaller version of Goa.  Diu is not  a poor man’s Goa.  Don’t get me wrong, Diu is beautiful, but it is unfair to compare it with Goa.  There are no rave parties  or chic beachside bars, or exotic flea markets or Russian drug dealers.  No bikini clad women either. What Diu lacks in terms of the Goa vibe it makes up with its own charm.

A flock of lesser flamingos welcomes me to Diu

Lesser Flamingos

The first thing that one notices when driving into Diu, is the excellent roads.  When in response to my “Are we there yet?”, my driver said “Oh yes.  Can you not feel the difference in the roads?”, I could sense his pride.  Now that the roads in Gujrat are also excellent, I couldn’t really tell the difference, but evidently this has not always been the case.

Sunrise

Sunrise

The Arabian sea hugs the west coast of India. So, to see the sunrise over this sea was a double whammy for me.  I missed the moment the sun rose out of the water by seconds the first morning, but was lucky enough to witness it the next day.

Tourists at the fort

I spent the morning exploring the ruins of the old fort.  The fort houses the sub-divisional jail. I am not sure if the jail is still functional. That section is not open to public.  Though functional, one can climb up the lighthouse for a birds-eye view of the fort and and the city. The morning was spent pleasantly amidst the fort’s old churches, granaries and wells , water storage, etc.  At the fort, look out for the parrots nesting in its walls. Outside the fort, vendors sell the sweetest coconut water I have had for the lowest rates I’ve had it at.

The women folk are somewhat shy of being photographed

At the market place

From here we went straight to the colourful little local market.

We had started early, to beat the heat, and to make the most of the day. the day was almost half done, yet there was so much more to do. The caves, beaches, the sea shell museum, a couple of temples my driver thought I must not miss..!!  Diu is a small place, and my driver was a well informed local.  He made sure I took in all the sights before we left.

Somnath Express

April 2013

Very inspired by Amit-jis advertisements for the Gujrat tourism board, I decided it was time to visit the state. After all when Amitabh Bachchan exhorts you to travel, how can you not listen?

Due to paucity of time, I had to abandon my rather ambitious plan, in favour of an itinerary put together by friends/co-workers who had done the trip a month ago.

This trip is memorable for so many reasons, the primary one being that it was the first trip I took all by myself.

Being *RAC 1, I hopped on to the Somnath Express carefree. There’s always atleast 1 person who cancels or misses the train. “There’s no way, RAC 1 will not get confirmed.”, I thought to myself. That, unfortunately, was not what the Ticket  Checker (TC) believed.  the train was full. He would have to wait for the next big station a couple of hours away, before allotting seats. Bah!

Very well then, I crunched up on my seat and put my yoga to test. Afterall the yoga instructor was always saying that yoga is all about being able to attain shavasana (tranquility of the dead) in any posture. Very luckily, the TC was soon back and I got a berth to stretch out on.

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Breakfast

I woke up the next morning to the sights and smells of Gujrat. And, to the softest, yummiest dhoklas, served with piquant green chutney at Rajkot station. The train splits at Rajkot. One part goes towards Porbandar, the birthplace of the Mahatma. the other, towards Veraval, where I was headed. Being forewarned, I wasn’t alarmed when most of the train pulled out of the station, leaving behind just a few compartments.

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Indian Railways

Stick ice-creams seem to be very popular in these parts. Throughout the journey and all through the trip I noticed the old and young enjoy it alike. A few stations down the line, I jumped out of the train, unable to resist the pull of icecream. As I approached a vendor and asked him if i could get a particular bar, he smilingly replied, “Sure, but you’ll miss your train.” I turned around in time to see the train chugging past. Running along, I got into the unreserved bogie. The hour or so that I spent here was an experience in itself.

As I hopped off at the next stop, I found the TC beaming at me. He seemed more relieved than I was that he had not lost me!

* RAC – reservation against cancellation. On an Indian Railways train, an RAC ticket holder is entitled to a seat but not to a berth. In case of cancellation by confirmed ticket holders, RAC tickets are automatically upgraded to get berths.

Labour of Love

..Mumkin nahin har ek ke liye Taj Mahal banvana, 

par har dil main ek Mumtaz rahti hai*

On the way to the Everglades, we stopped by at the Coral Castle. The Coral Castle is a true labour of love. It was built by a man called Ed in memory of  his love- Sweet Sixteen. One can’t help comparing it with the Taj Mahal – the most renowned monument dedicated to love .

The great Emperor Shah Jahan commissioned the Taj Mahal in memory of his 3rd wife. Ed, Latvian immigrant carved the coral castle, in memory of the girl who turned down his marriage proposal.

The Crescent of the East at the Coral Castle

The Crescent of the East at the Coral Castle

Architects, engineers and around 20,000 skilled and unskilled workers from India, Persia, the Ottoman Empire and Europe were engaged to build the Taj Mahal. The Coral Castle was carved by hand by  a 5 feet tall, 100 pound man, Ed. The  astronomical and engineering marvels of here are designed by Ed himself.

The Polaris Telescope at the Coral Castle

The Polaris Telescope at the Coral Castle

Both structures are built of porous stones. The Taj Mahal of marble and Ed’s castle out of coral.

The Taj Mahal took 22 years to completed. The coral castle was carved over a span of 30 years.

Both edifices are specimens are splendid architecture and engineering.

While the Taj Mahal is nothing short of magnificent, the Coral Castle is stupendous in its own way.

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*  Every man may not be an emperor, but every heart is ruled by a queen.

Pelhar Dam – Sometimes the Road is Less Traveled for a Reason

Khanabadooshiyon pe hi na jaane kyun Ilahi mera ji aaye aaye

Khanabadooshiyon pe hi na jaane kyun Ilahi mera ji aaye aaye

A few nights before I left Bombay, I met up with the Boys at Andy’s place. Sai, for a very long time has been trying to talk me into a night drive to Pelhar, a dam  and reservoir not too far from the city. This night, he managed to bulldoze a few us into doing it.

So somewhere in the middle of the night, we waved goodbye to those whose work and other commitments saved them from this craziness, and set off.

It took us an hour or so to reach there. I dozed off  and have no idea what way we went, except that we crossed the Dahisar check naka. At some point we  got off the main road and with reasonable doubt took the path pointed out by Sai and Amit. The tabelas in this place hold the biggest buffaloes I have ever seen. GIANT ones. The size of baby elephants.

When I have a toddler, my mum tells me, I pointed out to a herd of buffaloes and yelled “Look Amma, ELEPHANTS”. Must have been these. I don’t blame the little me at all for the confusion.

A short walk from the tabelas was our destination -> DARKNESS. Complete and absolute darkness.

Looking back, a little bit of light, a glorious full moon, a sky full of twinkling stars, a gentle sunrise accompanied by the chirping of birds would have made the place seem magical to us city dwellers. All the inky black silence did, was to prompt me to consider which of the following options was preferably –

a) being eaten by a leopard

b) being robbed and murdered by drunk, ruffian milkmen

c) being thrown in jail by cops for being found at a desolate spot where we really had no business being at that hour

* khanabadoshiyon pe hi na jaane kyun, Ilahi mera ji aaye aaye –  I don’t know why, my heart is always drawn to vagabond-like things

Prague – Paisa Vasool for Everyone

My second trip to Prague was in August 2018. This started off as a work trip with four other colleagues from UK, followed by my family joining me on the Thursday for an extended weekend. Being our second trip, my colleague and me decided to play tourist guides to the rest and walked them to Charles Bridge to give them a glimpse of the river front and Prague Castle.

By August I had done 3 work trips with the lads and my stomach was more conditioned to accepting a bit more alcohol, in short, I graduated to the large pint. I won’t bore you with every place we had dinner, but it won’t be complete without mentioning U-Fleku.  The Brewery and Restaurant U Fleků in Prague is one of the most famous and most visited Czech cultural sites, such as the Prague Castle, Old Town Square, Vyšehrad, the Jewish Town or the National Museum.This place had a number of halls with a large beer garden / courtyard in the middle. The seating was very Oktoberfest’ish with long rows of benches and tables. The place was heaving with tourists and locals with traditional live music running in the background that helped create an atmosphere. Beer was continuously refilled until you ask them to stop, quite dangerous for light weights like me! I ordered the only vegetarian option which felt like a Czech version of a bhajiya‘ platter with salad. The waiter asked us to try ‘medovina’, a classic sweet honey infused alcoholic beverage. A small shot glass was enough to make us appreciate the ambiance. Don’t miss this place if you visit Prague.

Pic courtesy- ufleku website. It looked a lot like this

Let’s get to the family part of the trip. Up until now, I’d only seen the ‘dark’ side of Prague, as we only had time in the evenings and the agenda was heavily inclined to places that served alcohol!

After a bit of research, I found a hotel quite close to Wenceslas square. The family had a bit of airport drama with flight cancellations etc which meant that by the time they arrived Prague it was mid- day and the girls were knackered.  After a much-needed nap, we got ready to explore the place on foot. Did I mention that last summer Europe was blessed with some never-ending sunshine and heat wave? It was early thirties and I was determined to try on that pink vest which I wouldn’t dare to wear in England. Besides that, was the only thing that coordinated with the pink themed evening.

We had the most enjoyable walk from new town to old. Prague has managed to maintain its heritage with its multi-colour facades along the street. The cafes along the street are pretty and unpretentious. Food and drink are not expensive in Prague when you compare them to other European cities. After a long walk to the town centre in the heat, we took a pit stop to grab a quick gelato for the little one. It was simply awesome. I wanted to show the family the Old Town square. As you walk along these lovely cobbled streets, you cannot ignore the Baroque architecture. Prague was once the cultural capital of Europe and it truly lives up to that title.

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The walk, in day light observing the rich heritage of Prague is simply spectacular. The little one was still sprightly, so we decided to head to the famous Charles bridge. The sun was about to set, and we managed to get clicked along the riverside. The riverfront promenade is bustling with more cafes and restaurants.

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The missus was a bit apprehensive to experiment the local cuisine besides her motherly instincts were flowing full throttle, so we had to find a dal-chawal place for the little one. On the way back towards the hotel, we bumped into Bombay Express. This was a life savior. If you are craving for Indian food in Prague, don’t miss Bombay Express (I think it is a chain in Prague as I saw it in more than one place!). We ordered a dal makhni, naan and paneer masala and may I say that it was quite simply delicious. I thanked the wife as by day five of staying away from home-food, I was craving for some desi food. On that tasty note, we called it a day.

The following day we decided to get a tram to Prague Castle. Remember I told you that Uber is good in Prague, trams are also good and cheap!  We arrived early and got a day pass to cover a few monuments within the castle. It gave us access to the Rose gardens, Cathedral, Gold lane among a few other historic buildings. The castle is on a hill top offering a breathtaking view of the city.

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After getting lots of photos, we entered the St. Vitus Cathedral. The intricate designs on the walls, the rose painted glass, high ceiling walls and the ornate decor was simply mind blowing. This is a must visit place and completely worth it.

The Cathedral was definitely the highlight of the visit. It was a visual treat from inside and outside. There is a lot to cover in the Castle. Our little one cooperated as we walked to tick everything we wanted to see. She was quite excited to see the castle exteriors, the rooms where the soldiers guarded the city and their outfits. The place has managed to preserve its history beautifully and highly recommended if you visit Prague.

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Day 3 with the family was meant to be any place of fun for the little one. We were toying with the idea of going to Karlstein which was also a palace type of place but instead chose to go to the zoo. Prague zoo is huge with a lot of area to cover. I would definitely recommend if you are travelling with kids and would probably start early in the day and get a cable car to the top. The zoo expanses on a sloping terrain and they’ve managed to get all the wild animals at the top end. We chose to walk up as the missus was petrified with the incline of the cable car (bad decision). Once up, we hired a mini train to take us around the park and we got to see a lot of the wild animals. Prague zoo is not a Loro Parque or San Diego Zoo in terms of different shows but nonetheless it has all wild animals one would want to see and recognize. If you are travelling with kids and want to do something locally, then it is worth a visit.

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I told you 2018 was a year of firsts and seconds. Two trips to Prague with completely different agendas but equally worthwhile and fun! Whether you decide to go solo, with a bunch of friends or with family, Prague has something to offer for one and all.  At the end of the tripthe little one said to me “Papa, Prague was the best because it was nice and hot!”. Paisa vasool! *

 

* Paisa vasool!  – got my money’s worth

-Nitin Kumsi – I’m not a born traveller, accountant, dancer, chaat-lover,reader or writer. l’ve just picked some of these habits along the way and stuck with some of them as I seemed to enjoy them more than others.

 

Paris – The Tourist Circuit I

October 2018

Arc de Triomphe at Place de l’Étoile at the top of the Champs-Élysées, a national symbol, but I had no plans for making a trip just to see it. I am not a big shopper. I find it tiring. Besides, my bags were overflowing from all things India. The Avenue des Champs-Élysées therefore held no special spot in my itinerary either. The LO fell asleep as we tried to find the stroller friendly way out of the Louvre, so we decided to skip the Jardin des Tuileries and go get a drink instead. Few minutes later we were on a subway to Champs-Élysées and when we get out we are at Place de l’Étoile, right at the Arc de Triomphe.

Raising a toast in Paris is an art like everything else. Use tchin tchin with your friends and everyone you’re on a “tu” basis with as a fun replacement of the more traditional “à ta santé” and “à votre santé” and semi-casual “santé”. Tchin Tchin!!

When we are done with our drink, it is time to head over to the Eiffel Tower for sunset. Years ago (in 2014) I wrote a blog post on the Esplanade du Trocadéro being better spot for photos than the top of the Eiffel Tower itself. That image of the plaza, with its fountains, pink skies and the Tour Eiffel stayed in heart. In the years that followed, the hundreds of Instagram pictures at the staircase messed my head up. We walked out of the subway station with no idea which way to go. I ask two security guards with my best lost face “Trocadéro Jardin?” They respond with, “Tour Eiffel?” and point us in the right direction. I just don’t get why they say Paris and Parisians are tourist unfriendly. We reach in time for sunset, but there are dark clouds looming and there is the eminent threat of rains. The tall slim frame, the lace like lattice work, the tower is as elegant and sophisticated as the proverbial French people. We didn’t have pink skies, but the light drizzle that followed adds its own charm to the moment and drama to the pictures. We watch as the lights on the tower go on.

The carousal here let’s adults ride. There is a wedding photoshoot in progress. The husband opts to stay out and take a picture while the LO and I go on her first carousal ride. I think she loved it.

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October is a wonderful time to visit Paris. The summer crowds have gone and the winter hoards are yet to descend on the city. It’s not too hot or too cold. We have the most perfect weather imaginable on our trip, bright, sunny, cool enough to not miss air conditioning, yet warm enough to not warrant a jacket. We are out all day, every day. We wake up late and breakfast on baguettes, croissants, orange juice and coffee; reach our first stop in time for lunch.  Our time is divided between attractions and parks. We walk into little cafés for a drink in the evenings. Explore some more. Meals are a leisurely affair. Again, must be a cultural thing. The wait staff take their time to come to you and simply disappear after serving your order. The bill is left on your table, in case you are in a particular hurry.