Author Archives: Ria
Usually half the fun of travelling to a new place is the planning, the talking, the anticipation… but this was a trip without any of those. When Gloria asked me whether I wanted to go to Thousand Islands with two more of her friends, my only question was… when? The answer ‘tomorrow’ was not what I expected, but what the heck, how long does it take to throw some clothes and toiletries in a bag? So there we were, driving to upstate New York and the Thousand Islands on a Friday evening.
The group of islands known as Thousand Islands, is located in the St. Lawrence river, flowing along the border between Canada and the US. The river originates at Lake Ontario in the Great Lakes region and drains into the Atlantic Ocean, flowing in the north east direction. It is the widest river estuary in the world and shelters the beautiful islands in its blue waters. And though the group is called Thousand Islands, there are actually 1864 islands in all, in a 50 miles long stretch of the river.
The only way to experience the beauty of the islands is to go for boat rides among them. And there are several shore towns on either bank that offer such tours. We chose to go to Alexandria Bay, one of the big towns on our side, the US side. And it has a variety of tours to suit people of different interests.
To be qualified as an island in the group, a land mass should be above water the year round, should be at least one square mile in area and should support at least one living tree.
The area of the islands vary considerably, from 40 square miles to tiny ones with just one home and one tree. Also, there are numerous outcroppings of rock without any inhabitants except for the birds. The majority of the islands are modest sized with two or three homes on them. And there are two castles that you can visit, also on the islands. More about them later.
The river St Lawrence was named after the saint himself. Jacques Cartier, a French explorer, was the first European to explore this area, in the first half of the 16th century. He arrived at the mouth of the river on an August 10th, which is the martyr day of St. Lawrence and hence he named the river St. Lawrence.
On a cliff overlooking the river on the Canadian side, is a statue of St. Lawrence, put up as a tourist attraction.
The statue is shown holding a book and a gridiron. Legend has it that St. Lawrence, who was the archdeacon of Rome, was asked to surrender the treasures of the church by the Roman prefect. St. Lawrence brought forward the poor of the church saying that they indeed are the treasures of the church. The enraged prefect ordered that St. Lawrence be punished by a slow death on a gridiron with burning coals underneath it. The gridiron is thus associated with the saint and he is worshipped as the patron saint of cooks.
In the early 1900s, many industrialists, businessmen and other prominent men in the society bought islands and built houses on them. Today the Millionaire’s Row boasts of large beautifully landscaped homes occupied by the rich and famous of the land.
St. Lawrence river is a major shipping route connecting ocean going ships to the Great Lakes. Due to the presence of the islands and rock formations under the water, it is a difficult river to navigate. There are plenty of navigation aids like lighthouses and beacons present to help the ships and boats.
Beacons indicate the boundaries of the navigable area of the river. A ship should keep the red beacons on the port (left) side and the green beacons on the starboard (right) side when going upstream, away from the ocean.
Similarly, when going towards the ocean, the green beacons should be on the left and red ones on the right.
During days of the prohibition in the US from 1920 to 1933, a lot of money was made by a lot people on the St. Lawrence river by transporting liquor from Canada where there was no prohibition. One of the amusing stories is about how smugglers will have the cases of whiskey bottles trailing their boats so that the rope could be instantly cut if there was any chance of the prohibition agents approaching the boat. But then, the losses became so unaffordable that they started packing half of each case with salt. When the rope was cut, the load will sink, but once the salt got dissolved the case with the whiskey bottles will promptly rise up in three or four days! And the boats were often painted different colours on either side to trick the agents watching.
One of the islands in the group is actually called ‘Whiskey Island’. Apparently, boats from Canada used to leave their cargo on this island, of course within the territory of Canada, to be retrieved by their counterparts from the US conveniently out of sight of the agents. Interesting times and interesting stories!
How would you like to live on an island where you are the only resident? There are several such one-home islands! More about them when we continue.
19 Sep 2014
16 Sep 2014
Being educated in a missionary school part of the time, I’m pretty much familiar with the array of saints. At least so I thought. Till I found out that the legions of towns and municipalities in Italy have their own patron saints! Prominent among them is San Gennaro who is the patron saint of Naples.
Little Italy in downtown New York celebrates the Feast of San Gennaro every year. This year the feast started on the 11th of September and will last till the 21st.
The statue of San Gennaro in front of the Most Precious Blood Church at Mulberry Street. Devotees pin their offerings to the streamers hanging from the base of the statue.
According to Catholic beliefs, San Gennaro was the bishop of Naples in the 3rd century AD, and became a martyr to his faith, being beheaded by Roman emperor Diocletian who persecuted Christian believers. According to the faithful, a vial of his blood kept in the Naples Cathedral turns back into liquid form on three days important to his history, every year.
Decorations of green, white and red, the colours of the Italian flag
The tradition of celebrating the feast of San Gennaro started in 1926, in Little Italy where the early immigrants from the country had first settled. Over a million people participate in the event every year.
Colourful parades, musical entertainment, and fun events like cannoli and pizza eating competitions are all part of the celebrations. And food, plenty of food, is of course the main focus of the feast. And the word ‘feast’ is not used loosely here… it is a real feast, with food and drink in abundance. More than 35 of the restaurants along Mulberry Street participate with extended temporary dining areas to accommodate the feast goers. This is in addition to 200+ street vendors lining Mulberry Street and selling varieties of Italian food, from the exotic to the mundane.
And of course, traffic along Mulberry Street is shut down for the duration of the feast.
Sausages, meatballs, calzones, pasta, and pizza… in all their varieties were present, but my attention was mainly towards the sweet side.
We sampled everything except the fried oreos. I have eaten fried oreos once earlier, around the time they first appeared. Would I eat them again? Maybe, if the alternative is death by starvation… Haha!
One Italian speciality going fast was torrone. It is a kind of candy made out of sugar and various nuts. The best way to describe their texture is to point to the hammers found in the stalls selling them!
Stuffed clams ready to go into the oven at a seafood stall…
Attractive cocktail containers that you can take with you. And what is more, it is free refills!
If you don’t really care for the cocktails, there are soft drinks.
All in all, a thoroughly enjoyable time will be yours, regardless of which day you go!
12 Sep 2014
The Union Square Green Market is an eternal source of goodies, any time of the year. Still, the best season at the market is the summer. The lush abundance of nature’s bounty on display is like so much eye candy, and something truly exciting to any food lover.
Most weeks during the summer, I make a side step to the market on the way from work. There is always something of interest to pick up… a bunch of green garlic, a block of unusual cheese from an upstate dairy, or a black and white cookie… among the mounds of produce that is piled up in the stalls.
The variety of produce available in the market is amazing. And most of them are organically cultivated. All in all, any locavore’s dream come true! If I did not have to commute home, I would be doing all my veggie shopping here, without a doubt!
On a recent visit, the place looked fully loaded despite the signs of a waning summer. Just walking along the tables was enough to make one hungry!
And more vegetables…
Multi-hued root vegetables looking especially pretty…
Tomatoes in all shapes and colours…
Celery root, one of my favourite things…
Some speciality garlic…
Squashes, summer and winter…
Varieties of chilies…
Jams, jellies and preserves…
Cookies, pies and breads…
Interesting small batch wines…
Hard cider made from local apples…
Ready to eat salad mixes…
And this time, there was even a ‘Harey Krishna’ group performing at the market!
09 Sep 2014
I walk into the room… and on the table, is this vase full of gorgeous orange roses!
And a cake decorated with fresh strawberries and marbled chocolate pieces… inscribed with the message, ‘WITH BEST COMPLIMENTS’.
On closer look, I’m even more surprised… propped up against the cake is a card bearing my name! So it is not a mistake after all!
As if on cue, there is a knock on the door. The guy at the door introduces himself as the assistant manager of the hotel. He wants to know whether I liked the flowers and the cake. I assure him on that count. Yes, they are beautiful, but why? Why? He is honest with his answer… ‘Ma’am, the general manager saw your note and he was very angry with me. He has asked me to get your opinion reversed before you leave the hotel in a week. Ma’am, I’ll bring any colour flowers, any cake you want… you have to give me a good service comment before you leave’.
All this came pouring out in a stream. Finally when he stopped for breath, I told him nothing of that sort will be necessary… I’ll be happy to write a note appreciating the good service as long as the service is good. No flowers or cakes will be necessary for that. ‘No ma’am, I have to make sure you are happy. Otherwise, GM will be very annoyed with me. You have to write a note when you leave, ma’am’. It takes much reassurance to finally get rid of him.
And goodies keep appearing in my room on a daily basis. Flowers, fruits, chocolates…
Gerberas in a bamboo vase…
Big bunch of red roses…
Red roses, white asters and yellow sprays…
Another lovely gerbera…
A solitary red rose, chocolates, fruits…
Yellow roses and purple orchids, fruits, chocolates…
The march of the goodies continue through the week, increasing my discomfort with the whole situation. I can’t wait to get away from the place.
Soon, it is the weekend. A close friend of mine is visiting me, to do some sightseeing. She will go back Sunday and I’ll be leaving on Monday night. We spend the whole of Saturday checking out the historical and touristy places of the city and get back to the hotel by late evening. Too bushed to go out for dinner, we decide to go to the hotel dining room. The dinner is good, with live musical entertainment.
And it is Monday and checkout time. I can see the assistant manager hovering in the background, in case he needs to remind me of the good feedback. But he has nothing to fear; there has been no further fiascos on the service front. I’ll be writing that ‘note’ he so much wanted.
Though this is an official trip, I ask the front desk to separate the room and food expenses as I’ll be using my personal card to pay for the expenses for my friend. I get the accounts for food and it doesn’t look right. It’s way more than what I had expected. I do a mental calculation again, and yes, it is almost twice what it should be. I ask to see the individual checks. The man glances through them before handing them over to me and tells me, ‘ma’am, it is the check for the Saturday dinner’.
I zero in on that bill and see that it is a huge one… I mean really huge. A dozen or so beers, big platters of chicken and fish and plenty of desserts. Apparently the check for a large party. I look at the signature at the bottom and of course, it is not mine. I point out this little discrepancy to the front desk man.
He calls for the waiter in charge of the table, there are whispered conferences, of course joined by the assistant manager. The front desk man comes back to me with a sheepish face… ‘ma’am, there was some mistake; it was the check for another table which was accidentally placed under your account. I’ll right away prepare a new one’.
I look around for the assistant manager… he is nowhere around. Happily, I realise… I have seen the last of him! 🙂
05 Sep 2014
It was an official trip. The salt mines I work at, wanted me to go and set up a team of writers in a remote city in a remote country, both of which shall remain unnamed. I had identified and recruited a talented team long distance and now was going to meet them. All in all I’ll be staying for a week.
I reached the city in the evening. The hotel was booked by our company travel department; and though it was one of those that charged exorbitant rates for corporate from the US, I had to stick with the official choice. The only good thing I could discern about the place was that it had fairly well-reviewed dining facilities so that I wouldn’t have to venture out for dinner after a day’s work.
So I check in. It is the standard room, with heavy dark furnishings and hardly any view to speak of. I am glad to see there is a coffee machine, but I see just this one measly packet of coffee, nowhere near enough to jog me out of my jet lag, when morning comes. So I call the front office, as per the information found in the room, and ask for more coffee. “Yes ma’am, it will be there in a minute”, the response was prompt.
I watch some TV, and aiming for an early night, decide to go for dinner. Realising that the coffee has not yet arrived, I call the front office again. The poor things are shocked that the coffee has not been brought yet. They are ready to have it delivered right away, but as I am on my way out, they promise that it will be in my room when I get back from dinner. Good enough already!
I saunter back to my room after a fairly okay dinner. And… you guessed it, no coffee! By this time, I’m getting a bit on the pissed side, and call the front office immediately. As can be expected, they can’t believe their ears! “No coffee? Really no coffee delivered to the room?” Another promise to take care of it at once.
Settling down with my book, I wait for the angel of coffee. Half an hour, no angel. By this time that coffee packet has moved from a ‘want’ to a ‘desperate need’. Finally I get out of the room and head for the front office to take delivery of the coffee personally. Around the corner, who do I meet? The coffee angel himself! Not one, but two coffee packets in hand! I know there is no point in asking him what took him so long; the definite answer would be that he rushed with the coffee the moment he was told about it.
So the next morning I drop a two-line note into the suggestions box, suggesting that they should at least take care of the basic needs of their guests and not make them call the front office three times for something as simple as a coffee packet.
By the time my work day is over, I am in a semi-zombie state, being pretty badly jet-lagged. I step into the room, ready to drop onto the bed, and am stopped dead in my tracks… immediately, I know it is a mistake, there is no other explanation!
To be continued…
02 Sep 2014
Imagine 70 elephants, some as young as 4 years and some as old as 80, living on a campus… where you can visit them and watch them in their day-to-day life… chewing on palm leaves or having a bath in the nearby pond. This magical place is Anakkotta, in Kerala, the south western state of India. The elephants are housed in a huge coconut grove and fed and taken care of by mahouts.
The elephants at Anakkotta belong to Guruvayur temple, dedicated to Lord Krishna of the Hindu pantheon. Among all the offerings made to the temple, devotees who can afford them, offer elephants too. The price tag for a medium sized young elephant would be around $ 40K, which I found out after some research… not that I have been shopping around for an elephant! 🙂
The elephants are extremely intelligent animals with legendary memory powers and have individual personalities. The elephants at Anakkotta – meaning elephant fort – are all named and answer to their names. What is more, many of them have their own fan base!
Elephants to participate in the daily rituals of the temple are picked from those living at Anakkotta. Also, temples that do not have their own elephants rent elephants from Anakkotta for their festivals. The caparisoned elephants at a temple festival are a truly wonderful sight.
Elephants have featured prominently in Indian cultures from ancient times, being irrevocably linked to their religion, myths, and history. Studies based on rock paintings have shown that domestication of elephants in India extend back to 6000 BC. Seals from the Indus Valley civilization, dated between 2500 and 1500 BC, indicate the existence of domesticated elephants at that time. Ancient literary works like the Rig Veda and the Upanishads also contain references to domesticated elephants. And elephant ivory was one of the items of trade between Indian and other civilizations around the world, since ancient times.
A baby elephant at Anakkotta
Elephants formed one of the four branches of pre-modern Indian military (elephants, chariots archers, and infantry,) and the practice spread across south-east Asia and westwards into the Mediterranean. The world’s first book on veterinary medicine, written in ancient India, deals mostly with elephants and horses, which were most important for the military capability of any kingdom.
India is home to 50% of the wild and 20% of the captive elephant populations in Asia.
Anakkotta is one of the largest elephant sanctuaries in the world. As the elephants belong to the temple, the temple management takes care of their day-to-day care. Though their food mainly consists of palm leaves, cooked rice and bananas are part of the diet as well. One of their favorites is jaggery, the unrefined cane sugar.
Elephants are very fond of the water. They get their daily baths at the pond at Anakkotta. The mahouts scrub them with coconut fiber brushes and thoroughly wash them.
During his bath, this guy has kept his trunk (his nostrils) away from the water…
However, the moment it is out of the water, the elephant with throw trunkfuls of dirt on its back. Apparently, it is to repel the insects that might be buzzing around. Whatever works for you, right? 🙂
Note: My bro says there are three things that you never tire of watching… Elephants, Trains, and the Ocean! And I’m a huge fan of all three!
29 Aug 2014
Once at an office meeting, I was pulling up my chair to the table when my colleague Boris said, ‘wait, don’t do that’. I was taken aback a bit, as I was not doing anything in particular. ‘But then, you are already married! So it’s okay’, he continued. In Russia, it is believed that if a woman sits at the corner of a table, she will not find a life partner!
Superstitions like these abound all over the world. We all know about the beliefs associated with black cats, ladders, and cracks in the road – seeing them, walking under them, stepping on them… will bring bad luck. I mean, seeing the black cats, walking under the ladder, and stepping on the cracks. Now if you step on the cat? Definitely the cat will not like it, and it will be instant bad luck for you! 🙂
How is it that different parts of the world came to share some of these beliefs is an interesting thought. At the same time, the more interesting and bizarre ones are truly unique to their places of origin.
Is there any substance to these beliefs? Only if you truly believe in them! I mean believe in them enough for it to bother you when you did something you shouldn’t have or didn’t do something that you should have. Or vice versa… or the other way around… whatever… you get my point, right? 🙂
In Ancient Britain, women believed that by carrying acorns in their pockets they will stay looking young. Maybe a result of seeing the mighty oaks continue to flourish year after year?
In 19th century England, men were advised to avoid eating lettuce if they wanted children. An idea arising in the fact that the lettuce plant doesn’t bear any fruit?
In Spain, it is believed that if you eat 12 grapes at the stroke of midnight on New Year’s eve, you will have good luck and prosperity the entire year! At the least, good for your health!
Prescribed days for doing specific things are common in all cultures. Cutting hair or trimming nails are forbidden on Tuesdays or Saturdays, depending on where you are. Visit a new baby or a sick person, set out on a journey, go to the hospital, plant crops in the field… all these have their own auspicious days.
A very intriguing custom from Medieval England… I’m at a total loss at guessing its possible origin. An expectant mother will make a large round cheese known as the ‘groaning cheese’ and allow it to mature for nine months. When the baby is born, the cheese will be shared among the family, keeping the rind intact. And the baby will be passed through this rind at christening to ensure a long and prosperous life. Now what would happen if the rind breaks while the cheese is being shared (would it still be good if it is stapled together?) or the mom-to-be miscalculated and the baby is too big to pass through the rind, is anybody’s guess!
I personally heard it being asserted that it brings good luck (or a variation, you will get sweets) if a bird poops on you. Aimed at making the person feel better about being pooped on, I would say. And it is taken a step further in Russia… if the bird poops on your house or car, it will bring good luck and riches. And the more birds pooping, the better! None of these say anything about birds pooping on statues, though… 🙂
From Brazil… if you place some salt in a corner of your house, it will bring you good luck.
The French believe that handing over a loaf of bread upside down will bring ill luck to both the giver and taker. Also, bread is not to be placed at the table upside down either. Think of that beautiful crust being crushed!
We all know that the colour red is considered auspicious by the Chinese. As a corollary, the colour white is associated with death and mourning, and flowers or gifts in that colour are not to be considered for any happy occasion.
While in Japan, do not stick your chopsticks straight up in your food. It is how they are placed at funerals.
Russians do not show their newborn baby to strangers till it is 40 days old, as it is believed that the baby receives it soul only by that time and it may take on another’s soul during that time. So what about the soul of the family members? Maybe the baby will be nice to them and not rob them of their soul!
Oh, this one I’m taking seriously. In Iceland, it is forbidden to knit on the doorstep in late winter as it is believed to extend the winter. Let me just catch sight of anyone knitting anywhere – not only in Iceland – in the winter and I’m grabbing that knitting and out it goes in the garbage. No way I’m risking an extended winter!
To be continued…
22 Aug 2014
A bridge that symbolizes everything that is great and eternally inspiring about a city, that stands towering high bringing joy to the beholder from far or near, at the same time functioning as a major artery of traffic connecting the city, and has contributed to the lexicon of English language… is there any other bridge in the country – no, the world – as grand as the Brooklyn Bridge?
And one of the key figures behind the construction of this great bridge was Emily Warren Roebling, the daughter in law of John Roebling who designed the bridge and started the construction. When John Roebling died of tetanus, his son Washington Roebling took over charge of the construction. Unfortunately, Washington was afflicted by caisson disease, the decompression sickness caused apparently by long hours spent under water. He became bed-ridden, his wife Emily stepped in as the ‘first woman field engineer’ and saw to the completion of the Brooklyn Bridge.
Emily functioned as the construction supervisor and project manager for the construction. And as the only person who saw Washington Roebling in his sick bed, she was the link between him and his assistants at the work site. She gained extensive knowledge and understanding of the technologies involved, with training from her husband. She performed the chief engineer’s duties and supervised the day-to-day construction while her husband watched the bridge going up, through binoculars, from their residence at 110 Columbia Heights in Brooklyn. According to reports, Emily Roebling was the first person to cross the bridge by carriage ahead of the official opening, carrying a rooster as a sign of victory. I found this a very interesting story and went looking for some image of the event. And see what I found!
When it was opened to the public on May 24, 1883, the Brooklyn Bridge was the longest suspension bridge in the world and the tallest man-made structure in the American continent. It has been designated a National Historic Landmark by the National Park Service, and a New York City Landmark by the Landmarks Preservation Commission.
As the name implies, the Brooklyn Bridge connects the burroughs of Brooklyn and Manhattan in New York city. At present, the bridge carries 6 lanes of automobile traffic, with an elevated walkway for pedestrians and bicycles in the center.
As you can imagine, the view from the bridge is breathtaking. And it is a vantage point to observe the way the look of the New York city skyline changes to reflect the time of day. Whether in the day or night, it is something that you can keep watching!
A rather new phenomenon I noticed on the bridge is the way people have attached all sorts of things to the sides of the bridge. It used to be locks previously, following the belief that if couples put their names on a lock that is locked onto a bridge and throw down the keys into the water below, their love will be everlasting!
But these days there is all kinds of stuff being tied to the railings, including ear phones and plastic paper. Really an eyesore!
Brooklyn Bridge has featured in many books, movies and songs. Most noteworthy is ‘The Bridge’, an epic poem by Hart Crane, the well-known American poet. What a coincidence that he lived for a while at 110 Columbia Heights, the same address where the Roeblings used to live!
And there are plenty of works about the bridge as well. The Great Bridge by David McCullough, published in 1972 and the PBS documentary film, Brooklyn Bridge, made by Ken Burns in 1981 are prominent among the lot.
By the way, the usage “If you believe that, then I have a bridge to sell you” has its origin with George Parker, a master con man who managed to sell the Brooklyn Bridge, several times, to gullible customers. Apparently, he convinced them that they could make a fortune controlling the access to the bridge! Other public landmarks he managed to sell, again many times over, included Madison Square Garden, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Grant’s Tomb and the Statue of Liberty. 🙂
These days the word ‘amazing’ has lost all meaning, through overuse. But this is one case where it should be used in its true full meaning… AMAZING! And that is the most apt word to describe this great icon of this great city!
19 Aug 2014