Monthly Archives: March 2014

A Trip to Canada’s Capital City

Is it the end of the month already? Where did the whole month go? 🙂 This month’s guest post is by Cux, who talks about her foray into one of the very interesting cities of Canada.

~Admin

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Toronto is a great city… spectacular architecture, a great array of lovely restaurants and a buzzling arts and cultural scene… all add to its charm. But it is the classic international city! Very multicultural and diversified, it somehow lacks a unique identity. Having lived here for a while, I was determined to get around and explore other Canadian cities.
 
When a couple of my friends from the Czech Republic turned up in Toronto, it was the ideal opportunity to go visit Ottawa, Montreal and Quebec City. These cities were so different in their architecture, culture, signature food, and the outlook of their inhabitants that it was a real pleasure to be there. It was fascinating, to say the least.
 
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Ottawa, the main center of the Canadian government, is a quiet, introspective city which mesmerized me with its colonial buildings and Victorian structures. The many walking trails that weave around the city gives one the opportunity to investigate its varied environments. Whether it is the Discovery walk that begins at the Canadian Museum of Civilization on the banks of the Ottawa River, and ends at Parliament Hill, or the walking trails around the Provincial Parks, all of them provide unique experiences.
 
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My tour companions were seasoned walkers and helped me keep up my enthusiasm for walking throughout the trip.
 
The beautiful Alexandria bridge that connects Ottawa to Quebec is a beautiful sight. Ottawa has the most well-kempt parks and gardens. Also, it is home to the Canadian Tulip festival.
 
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We saw the Rideau Canal which totally freezes over and becomes the world’s largest skating rink in the winter. The canal was opened in 1832 and is registered as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

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The National Gallery of Canada houses the most creative art that I have seen in Canada till date including a landmark sculpture of a spider in front of the building. The sculpture, named Maman by the artist Louise Bourgeois, is among the world’s largest sculptures, measuring over 30 ft high and over 33 ft wide. It is made of bronze, stainless steel, and marble.
 
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We sat in for a parliament session as well… it was interesting to watch the proceedings in the House of Commons though we were more taken in by the stained glass paintings and the intricate architecture of the hall! Do take a look
 
The Byward market is the happening place in town, lined with posh cafes and shops. Interestingly enough, adjacent to it, was an old old farmers market. This, I thought, was a perfect blend of tradition and modernity. I found the best cookie shop in this market where I tasted cookies designed as Canadian flags.
 
The friend in Ottawa who hosted us was a good cook and lived in a lovely house in a great locality. He introduced us to homemade maple butter, the next best thing to chocolate. Since then, I am hooked on it.
 
At some distance from the city, on the way to Montreal, we checked in on Plaisance National Park, which has a beautiful lake and some scenic wetlands, spread across the Ottawa river.
 
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That was the best hiking trail of the trip.

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It felt like walking in the wilderness of a natural forest. Protected by forest range officers, this huge park is good for camping. I hope I can go back there with my family sometime in the future.

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And my photographer friend captured splendid shots of the floating gardens, open fields, flora and fauna including deer, squirrels, ducks, and beavers.
 
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More about Montreal and Quebec City later…

~Cux

31 Mar 2014

A Peep into Spring

The annual Flower Show at Macy’s kicked off last Sunday, March 23rd. And the temperatures are still hovering around freezing. So the flower show feels like a look into the long awaited spring… a reminder that spring will get here eventually.
 
The flower show takes place in the cities of New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, Minneapolis, and San Francisco. This year, the show will last till the 6th of April (2014). This is the 40th annual flower show to be held at Herald Square in New York.
 
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Dazzling, stunning, gorgeous… any number of adjectives can be used to describe the show. It is attractive and colourful… as only flowers can be.
 
As can be imagined, a lot of effort goes into putting up this show, which consists upwards of 30, 000 flowers, kept fresh throughout the two weeks of the show and replaced as required. As soon as one flower show is over, the planning and planting for the next year’s show starts right away.
 
None of the pieces on show are wasted and thrown into garbage, once the show gets over. All the trees are replanted and all the wilted flowers are turned into compost.
 
The flower show is usually arranged around themes. This year, one of the themes was ‘Under Sea Garden’. Take a look at these plants…
 

In addition to the flowering plants, this year on display are 23 flowering cherry trees. Also, some palm trees are also in the show.
 
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A 14-ft tall mannequin in a ball gown woven of red flowers – mainly roses, gerberas, anthuriums – is the highlight of the show. As per the flower show tour guide, the dress is made up of individual flowers in holders so that each one can be replaced individually without affecting the whole of the dress.

 red-mannequin

 
The dress consists of close to 3000 flowers. A closeup of the dress…
 

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The whole show is arranged on bridge like structures above the shopping aisles and around the pillars, providing a dazzling view from the mezzanine floor.
 
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Also, massive gates with flowering creepers climbing over them, are placed along the path of the show.
 
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Workshops and demonstrations related to the art and craft of gardening and flower arrangement are also held around the flower show.
 
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Indeed an hour’s respite from the freezing winter…
 

~Ria

27 Mar 2014

Union Square Greenmarket – a cornucopia of delights

When my work group moved from our midtown office to the downtown office, one of the things I really missed was the once a week lunch time walk to the Union Square Greenmarket. Now that I am back at the midtown office (Yay!) and the weather is turning reasonably walkable, that is the first place I chose to walk to!
 
It is an amazing place, specially for a food-loving person like me. The open air market is held four times a week – Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday from 8 AM to 6 PM – in a three-square-block area that is part of the Union Square Park, along Broadway at 14th street. Though it is a year round market, the tempo varies according to the season. Even now, when It is just picking up pace after a long long winter, the variety of stuff available is great. But just wait for a couple of weeks… man, the bounty of nature floods the place with such abundance!

A cloudy downcast day at Union Square Greenmarket

A cloudy downcast day at Union Square Greenmarket

The history of the Union Square Farmer’s Market is an impressive one. The Union Square Park has been in existence since 1839 when it was designated a public place and named Union Place as it was the site of the intersection or union of two major streets.

After the second world war, the park started to deteriorate and had fallen into disrepute by the 1970s, being frequented by drug dealers and similar characters. This kept the general public away from the park, as it was generally considered unsafe.
 
In 1976, a new initiative, the Greenmarket program, was set up in New York city, to promote small scale agriculture by providing a viable market to family farms for their produce, at the same time ensuring that the teeming millions of New York city got access to fresh, nutritious produce delivered directly to their localities.

The Greenmarket program – now called GrowNYC – selected Union Square as the location for its second market in the city, after the one at 59th Street and 2nd Avenue.

And the Union Square Greenmarket began functioning in the parking lot surrounding the park, with 12 farmers. It played an important role in revitalizing the neighbourhood by attracting consumers who valued the quality of the products.

 

Today the Union Square Greenmarket is an upscale market selling high-quality products, all fresh from within truckable distances. On an average, the market receives 250,000 customers per week. More than one thousand varieties of fruits and vegetables can be found during the produce season. Even on a cloudy day recently, with the rain threatening to start falling any minute, there was still a bustling crowd, milling around the many stalls. In addition to the fresh fruits and vegetables, there are stalls selling varieties of plants, herbs and cut flowers.

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Tulip plants…

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Herbs…

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Cut flowers…

A wide variety of baked goods, cheeses, pickles, maple products…

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The whole place is fragrant with the smell of herbs and fresh bread and cookies, it is a pleasure just walking around the place.

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The number of farms that participate in the Greenmarket has grown to 140 at peak season. A recent addition to the market is the participation from fisheries.

New York is supposed to be a haven for pet dogs; you see the largest number of them here. And no market place can be complete without catering to them. In addition to various food items, here are a bunch of bones for them to chew on…

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Once the weather gets a bit warmer all kinds of arts and crafts stalls will open up, giving the market the looks of a lovely fairground. Can’t wait…

~Ria

24 Mar 2014

Abyssinian Ground Hornbill

When we talk about birds, the Abyssinian Ground Hornbill is one bird that has fascinated me ever since I first saw one at Murchison Falls National Park, many years ago. Since then, I have seen these beautiful birds a number of times on subsequent trips to Murchison and they always make me smile.

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Hornbills are generally sedentary and live within a defended territory. The Abyssinian Ground Hornbill is a large turkey like bird that is normally found in the sub-Saharan African savannah, north of the equator. An adult bird can grow to around one metre tall and weighs about 4 kg. It has a large bill topped with a casque, a helmet like structure. Despite their wingspans these birds very rarely fly and are adapted to ground dwelling, hence the name Ground hornbill.  Abyssinian Ground Hornbills also have wattles (a fleshy pouch hanging from the throat, similar to a turkey or chicken). From these pouches, one can distinguish between a male and female bird as males have a bright red pouch hanging from their throats whilst those of females are blue. These birds  always seem to me like they are dressed up for a fancy party not only because of their dark , shiny feathers and brightly coloured pouches, but also their long eyelashes, which are actually modified feathers designed to protect their eyes from dirt and debris.

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I learnt many interesting things about these birds from a Uganda Wildlife Authority guide who had accompanied us on our game drive in Murchison Falls National Park. He told us that the Abyssinian ground hornbill mated for life, which is interesting but one hears that about a lot of birds. What was most fascinating (for me at least, not sure about the others with me!) was finding out about how these birds lay eggs and look after their young. In the case of a regular hornbill, the female lays eggs in the cavities of tree trunks or any other caves or crevices of a tree. The male hornbill then builds a cover over the cavity with mud and twigs and the female does not leave the nest until the eggs are hatched. Naturally, it is the duty of the male bird to bring food for his partner during this time. So if something were to happen to him while he was out fetching his bird wife food and he gets killed, the female will also die of starvation. But Abyssinian Ground Hornbills do this in a slightly different way. They do not seal their nests at all, and they are left open during incubation so the female can come out for preening and excretion. Not for anything else though, the male still has to bring food back to the nest.  Once the eggs are hatched, the female remains in the nest with the chicks for a week and then joins the male in finding food for the young. If there are two chicks the younger one is usually ignored or starved.  Chicks are ready to leave the nest after 3 months. These nests are normally permanent under favourable environmental conditions.

 

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P3 AGH
The Abyssinian ground hornbill is listed as a species of Least Concern by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) due to its large population. So I don’t have to worry about them disappearing anytime soon. 🙂
~Min

20 Mar 2014

An important announcement

We are happy to announce our new blog Pepper Route, A global food trail

The chief focus of Pepper Route is food, food and more food. The creation as well as consumption of it… in all its variety and splendour. You can count on an endless array of recipes and other food related information, including interesting food trivia. So visit us there and enjoy the reading. And of course, Like us on Facebook, +1 at Google+ to keep in touch. Looking forward to lot of fun together!

Cheers,

The Big Jackfruit Tree Admin

 

 

17 Mar 2014

A bit of spamology…

Spam comes in all kinds and flavours… And it falls regularly into our email boxes promising various things. But one thing common to all spam is that they all seek to deceive us. And it is up to us to protect ourselves from such deceit, which is not all that difficult. While recognising the nuisance they are, I have often been amused by the ingenuity of many spammers.

By and large, the spam business is founded on the concept that human beings are evil by nature. And the spammers are counting on the fact that people will be tempted to act by their greed, even when there is cause for suspicion.

Outside of the phishing scams, job offers, pharmacy pitches, offers of loans and the straight forward ones that tell you to open the attachment, you can put most spam into certain categories.

The pious lady who has millions to distribute to the poor and is asking you – a perfect stranger – to take charge of their millions and use for charity as you see fit. Here it is abundantly clear that the person is counting on you to jump at the chance of getting your hands on someone else’s money. And the later request for some immediate cash from you towards setup expenses will surely follow. But even then, your greed for the unearned millions is expected to blind your judgement.

Then there is the bank officer who has boat loads of money under his control. Either one of his account holders died without leaving an heir or the heirs can’t be traced. And he has identified you as the one person who can pose as the heir and claim the money. Of course, to be divided between the two of you later. You are counted on to be tempted by the free millions, despite the danger of going to jail for impersonation!

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And people with all kinds of schemes for getting money out of Iraq/ Syria/ wherever… all zeroing on you for assistance. And very often they will have links to real news reports lending an appearance of authenticity to the emails.

Very common are the ones that announce that your email has won a huge amount of money in a Coca Cola/ Toyota/ whatever lottery. All you need to do is complete the form so that the money can be transferred to your bank account. Of course, we all know what is going to happen to your account once the email is responded to.

If you had any doubts about the smartness of the spammers, just take a look at this…

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Compensation for spam victims! 🙂

And don’t forget the damsel in distress, the young beautiful girl, whose parents passed away leaving her all their savings. Now, she is looking towards you to take care of her and her millions. Here the appeal is not only to your greed…

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There are other damsels too, who write to you addressing you as dearest or darling, because they saw your email on a search and want to make you their special friend. And the first thing they promise is to send you their pictures as soon as you respond to them. 🙂

Not forgetting the ones that promise to expand your various body parts, with scant attention to whether you are male or female. And most days you are bound to get both varieties!

Look at this… this guy is releasing the first instalment of my inheritance funds to the tune of one million to me! Can anyone blame him if he asks for some small change – compared to the millions I’m going to get – just to make the arrangements, as he is sure to do? And the blank ‘To’ field indicates that this email was addressed to thousands of people at the same time!

 

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Have you ever really lol-ed at a piece of spam? Read this and tell me… could you stop laughing?

 

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I had to explain to my colleagues why I was laughing… And now anyone has just to mention pink crocs for laughter to break out!

~Ria

13 Mar 2014

Air travel… then and now

I love long distance plane travel… This might be hard for many to fathom. And they do have some valid points too. The narrow seats with hardly any leg room, almost inedible meals, the long hours spent going through security… all true. But for me, these are all minor matters. Especially when compared with the luxury of the exclusive time I get to spend without any outside interference. Totally personal time that no one can encroach upon. Beyond the reach of cell phones, conference calls, and business meetings… And beyond the call of pending household chores, which have a way of bothering me even when I have no intention of getting onto them! 🙂
 
Me and my book, curled up in the window seat… and my mind wandered to a long gone era of luxurious airline travel…
 
The jetliners that started flying in the late 1950s changed the scene of commercial air travel. The flight time from New York to London was promised to be a mere six and a half hours in 1958, as opposed to the 17 hours 40 minutes in 1946 and 10 hr 50 minutes in 1956!
 
This Pan Am commercial from 1954 features the prototype of the Boeing 707 jet clipper that started commercial flying in 1958.
 
Suddenly, air travel became a doable thing. And the airlines of the day came out with fabulous commercials to persuade the public to use the new means of travel. The TV commercials of Pan Am and TWA are full of champagne, fine food and perfect service.
 
Take a look at this TWA commercial… a flight from the east coast to Los Angeles.
 
In addition to all luxuries, it even promises pleasant company. “Everybody nice and friendly, like we knew each other.” And maybe to prove how air travel brings out the best in everyone, it even has a kinda fairy tale ending with… no, I don’t want to spoil it for you, do watch the video. 🙂
 
Air travel apparently was an occasion, an event, with people dressing up in their best finery as if they were going for a party. In fact, the commercials exude a true party atmosphere with everyone smiling and laughing and circulating with glasses in their hands. Having lots of fun. It seemed like it was more about living high, than getting from place to place. And today’s air traveller is left wondering whether it is all indeed happening within an airplane…
 
And the food… white tablecloth, silver trays, hors d’oeuvres… even the dinner was served off a silver cart, on china, with designer flatware and linen. And the meals came piping hot from full-fledged kitchens, complete with freezers and convection ovens.
 
And get this… the early jets had lounges with huge windows, sprawling seats, and buffets, where coach passengers could socialise. Some of the flights even had actual film projectors to replicate the movie theatre experience. Even when the lounges were removed in 1973/74 to accommodate more seats, portable service bars were provided in an attempt to retain the freedom of movement. Sigh… gone are the days…
 
And the rest rooms… nothing like the teeny little spaces where you are bound to hit your head somewhere unless you are a hobbit… Separate lounges for men and women, women’s lounges with vanity tables and settees and large mirrors.
 
When looking at these old time commercials, what impresses me above everything is the space… the abundance of it. The seats were fabulously wide with legroom unimaginable today, and one could move around between seats as seat belts were optional in those days!
 
Of course, air travel those days was only for the privileged few as the cost was astronomical and beyond the reach of the average Joe. Now, it has become more affordable. And with the competition among the airlines for your dime, it could get even cheaper. More so, if you are willing to forego comforts (basics?) like an assigned seat or a bathroom… that is, if you go by the plans put out by some of the airlines… 😉
 
P.S. Did you know that during the early years of air travel all stewardesses had to be certified nurses?
 

~Ria

10 Mar 2014

41 Days of Summer…

… right in the middle of the worst winter in the last 20 years! That is a true luxury, especially for a person like me who starts shivering at the first hint of a cold breeze. Add to it awesome spicy food of a wide variety… that too, without a single day’s toil in the kitchen… Now you know why I am constantly smiling these days! 🙂
 
This was a work combined with vacation trip. The swanky new office in a brand new technopolis near HAL in Bangalore was very impressive with naturescapes and waterfalls all around. The moment I started snapping some pictures, one of the security personnel at the the entrance came running… “Ma’am, no photos please…” “Not even of the flowers in the garden?” “No Ma’am, all photography is prohibited”. I really laughed out loud… it was no use telling it to the security man, but I had to say it… “this is the number one news and photo agency in the whole world, and we ban photography on our own premises? Interesting!”
 

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Stolen photo of flowers 🙂

The whole trip has been a continuum of good food; some great, some really great. It is difficult to pick favourites from the lot, but standing out in my memory are the traditional thaali meal at Rajdhani, a taste of Goa at Fishermen’s Wharf, Manglorean food at Parika, Mediterranean at Byblos, Tex-Mex at Habanero, Mughlai at Umerkot…
 
Amazing among the places I managed to visit during this trip are Ranganthittu bird sanctuary, about 75 miles from Bangalore, and the fishing port at Beypore, Kerala. More about them later.
 

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Ancient tree by the roadside

And the drive through the Western Ghats (9 hairpin turns!) will never lose its charm. Though the waterfalls were not very active despite the bountiful monsoons, the view of the mist clad mountains and valleys was as enchanting as ever.
 
And yeah, I got to eat sweet jackfruit, one of my favourite fruits ever! Though it was early in the season, I found a fruit seller on the road side selling it, and grabbed some. Delicious!
 
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Sooo… tonight I get on the plane to go back home. The last punch of winter is waiting for me, I know. Remember, some of the heaviest winter storms in the past have been in March. It will be great to have a taste of true winter knowing that it won’t last too long and that spring is right around the corner. After all, how will we appreciate summer if there is no winter? 😉
 
Just remembered, daylight saving time will become effective the day I land at Newark Liberty! I can get acclimatised to the new time and get out of jet lag at one go! 🙂

~Ria

06 Mar 2014

Old old times… a jackfruit tree

In the old old times, itinerant mattress makers used to travel from village to village offering their services. They will come to a village, camp on the outskirts, and go to the houses which had silk cotton trees growing in their compound. If the family wanted a mattress made, they will take the accumulated cotton pods, usually stored in huge gunny sacks, and make the mattress for them. They will extract the cotton from the pods, clean out the seeds and other impurities, beat it in the sun till fluffy, and stitch the mattress with a cloth cover. Often with a striped pattern. Have you ever slept on a freshly made cotton mattress? Lovely indeed!
 
So, just like that, one evening a group of three mattress makers came to this village too. They had to cross a river to get to the village. It was dusk by the time they arrived at the river. And lo and behold, the river was in spate. It was getting dark fast and they had to reach shelter before nightfall. Without many options, they decided to brave the fury of the river. After all, weren’t they all good swimmers?
 
Alas! As they got the towards the middle of the river, the swirls and eddies started pulling them down. However valiantly they fought, the men kept sinking towards the bottom of the river. And lost consciousness…
Till they woke up, lying on a lovely green meadow… alive with birdsong and a gentle breeze. Just like in a fairy tale. They looked at each other in amazement… is this a dream? Did they all die and get to some alien place? However the pangs of hunger scratching their stomachs assured them that they were very much alive. And they started looking around the deserted place.
 
Walking along, they saw a group of people far away, sitting around and eating something. As they got closer, they got the strong smell of ripe jackfruit. And there was enough water in their mouths to steer a boat…
 
The three men approached the group and asked them for some of the jackfruit. The group was reluctant to share any of it. But hunger prompted the mattress makers to keep begging, and finally the group’s leader spoke up, “This is a celestial variety of jackfruit, not seen on human earth. If we give you some, you have to promise not to take any of it with you.” The mattress makers willingly promised and were given some of the fruit.
 
When they tasted the fruit, there was no doubt about the veracity of the group leader’s statement. They had eaten many a jackfruit, but nothing anywhere near this. This was pure nectar, absolute ambrosia. And there rose in the mind of the youngest among them, the insatiable desire to take a seed of the jackfruit back home. How to manage that with so many eyes keeping watch? On the pretext of scratching himself, he turned around and managed to quickly secret a seed in his underwear. With beating heart, he finished eating his jackfruit.
 
Once all the jackfruit was eaten, the group leader collected all the seeds – except of course, the one secreted away by our man – and led the mattress makers away, to the side of a small stream. He told them to close their eyes and wade into the stream. They did so and when they opened their eyes, they were walking on to banks of the familiar river! There was no end to their joy when they realised that they were back on earth safe and sound.
 
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The jackfruit tree that grew out of that smuggled seed was a giant of a tree indeed! The fruits that it produced in abundance were so sweet and tasty that the tree’s fame spread throughout the region. Legend has it that when the ruler of the local kingdom was passing through the village, he sent one of his servants to fetch one of the famed jackfruits.
 
Eventually, my paternal great great grandfather bought the land on which stood the jackfruit tree. (I would like to believe that the presence of the tree had influenced his decision!) The jackfruit tree continues to thrive to this day with fruits hanging top to bottom during the early summer.
 
All of us children in the family have heard this story growing up. And I swear, I do believe each and every word of it too! 😉

~Ria

03 Mar 2014