Around the world

A brand new year… with no elephants!

If there is one event that signals the winter festive season in New York, it is the lighting of the Rockefeller tree. This season it was to be on Dec 3rd. And of course, I wanted to go and watch the tree come alive in all its glory. But alas, it was not to be. NY police barricades to control street protests against police actions that question even the motto of ‘Courtesy, Respect, Professionalism’, had effectively prevented any public access to the tree lighting ceremony. Did the shadow of the conflict between the police and mayoral institutions put a pall on the city’s annual festivities? Or was it just my imagination?

Anyways, I was happy to escape from the cold, literally as well. Adding to my thrill was an invite from an old old friend (no, the friend is not old; only that our friendship goes back a long way!) had invited me to go visit her in her hometown in Kerala. The plan was to combine some local sightseeing with all the catch-up from the past few years. An excellent start to a new year!

The first stop on our travel was Periyar National Park and Tiger Reserve at Thekkady, on the border of the southern Indian states Kerala and Tamil Nadu. Formerly known as Periyar Wildlife Sanctuary, it was declared a national park in 1982.


We had booked rooms at the Periyar House, within the boundaries of the park. What awaited us at the entry gates to the park was bad news… no vehicles are allowed inside after 5.30 pm! And we were about three hours late! The security guards assured us that this was for our own protection as the wild animals tend to wander at night, and may not like our presence. They told us stories of how a herd of a dozen elephants had gone up to the doors of the Periyar House on New Year’s eve.


But then we saw many vehicles being let inside. Those are forest guard trainees and they live inside the park as well, we were told. We couldn’t imagine any wild animals that would selectively attack only visitors, leaving the forest guard trainees alone. So we decided to argue our case. After much telephoning over the next hour, finally we were allowed to enter, with the warning that we should get to the guest house and go in with the least amount of noise.

View from Periyar House

Along the mile-long drive to the guest house, we looked around with anticipation… to no avail. No elephant, no tiger, not even a wild squirrel! Was it a harbinger of things to come?

Periyar National Park covers an area of 300 sq. miles, most of it covered by evergreen forests. The central attraction of the park is an artificial lake, formed when a dam (Mullaperiyar) was built across the Periyar river. A boat ride on the lake is a ‘can’t miss’ activity when you visit the area.

I have seen innumerable photos of elephant herds frolicking in the waters of the Periyar lake, brought back by visitors. So it was with heightened anticipation that we got on the boat the next morning. And, if we were lucky, we could even see a couple of the majestic Bengals… of course, of the tiger variety, not Cincinnati! After all, the area has a population of over 40 adult tigers!


The enchanting view of layer upon layer of mountain ranges surround you as you embark on the boat ride. Stumps of the trees that got submerged when the lake was created can still be seen sticking out of the waters of the lake.


Water birds find these tree stumps ideal for nesting.


For the entire boat trip, our eyes scanned the shores looking for animals come to drink from the lake. No luck whatsoever! All we saw were a few wild boars on a far shore, that too, only for a couple minutes. As we got off the boat, I could hear mutterings… ‘maybe it was too hot for the animals’, ‘maybe another day’… yeah, maybe another day.

Though 35 species of mammals live in the area, the only ones we saw were bonnet macaque monkeys and Nilgiri langurs.


The bonnet macaques, called so due to the tuft of hair on their heads that resembles a bonnet, are very common here.


We even had one visit us at our room window, probably looking for a snack!


The area is well known for its 143 species of orchids, in addition to a wide variety of other flowering and medicinal plants.

The concept of ecotourism is taking strong roots in Periyar National Park with programs being run with involvement from the local communities. Among the wide variety of activities are bamboo rafting, nature walks, guided treks, adventure trekking and camping.


For me, surely there is gonna be a next time… elephants willing!


21 Jan 2015

Elephants, Elephants, Everywhere…

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

More About Fun Beliefs

So what were we talking about? Yeah, superstitions! It is amazing how widespread these beliefs are and how many situations and topics they touch upon.
There is no question that these beliefs originate in the fertile imagination of people who are quite conversant with the social norms and conventions of the time. As a result, many of these beliefs are aimed at guiding people’s behavior in the socially desirable directions.
My fifth grade class had undertaken a project, under the guidance of our science teacher, to investigate the origins of superstitions. Her inference was that what we call superstitions today had logical reasons behind them, at sometime in the past.
One of the ideas that we looked at was the common local belief that if you look in the mirror with oil on your face or hair, you will get black spots on your face! And it all seemed so simple after we had a serious guided discussion about it…
In olden times, mirrors were a luxury item found only in rich homes. And where would they be located? Of course, in the ladies’ chambers along with rich draperies and silk beds. And what would happen if someone goes there with oil on their face? They are bound to get oil on these fabrics. But are many people likely to listen to that logical argument? No way, they want to see how their oily faces look in the mirror! But would anybody risk getting black spots on their faces for that fleeting look? Of course not! A perfect example of skilful mind control, I would say. Though no longer relevant today, the belief lives on!
Many of these beliefs are harmless and definitely chuckle-worthy. Take for instance, these amusing ones…
In Philippines, after visiting a dead person in a funeral home, you are advised not to go directly back to your home. You guessed it; the spirit of the dead might follow you home! So wander around a bit, go get a coffee, or just go for a very boring movie. I think the aim would be to convince the spirit that following you is not all that fun, after all!
A common belief in Korea is that the spirits of dead people do not go straight to their destination, but linger around for 6 weeks. So unless you want vengeance from a ghost, do not speak ill of them; they can hear you! (Nothing is said about misguiding them as to where you live, though!) 🙂
This might interest the dog lovers among my readers… you know I’m talking about you! In Germany, when a pet dog dies, its body is buried under the front door step, in the belief that the dog’s spirit will continue to protect the home from thieves. Talk about eternal burdens… the poor dog has to be at work even after death!
It is considered lucky in Venezuela for women to wear yellow underwear on New Year’s eve. Maybe because the color of gold is yellow? Okay okay, let’s not take that thought any further. 😉
And Philippinos believe that wearing polka dot designs on New Year’s day brings you money. This was told to me by my boss who is from Philippines. Yep, I have taken a selfie in all polka dots on last New Year’s day and plan to send that to the boss close to bonus time!
Do you like soft boiled eggs? Make sure that you poke the spoon through the bottom of the shell after you finish eating the eggs. At least, that is what the Brits are supposed to do, to release the bad spirits.
If you are part of a Russian family eating dinner, it is better to be careful about your cutlery – do not drop any of them to the floor. For, if you drop a fork or spoon, visit from a female guest is imminent. If you drop a knife on the other hand, a male guest is bound to visit you. And I refuse to ponder the implications or possible origins of that belief…
This one caught me by surprise… I have attended weddings in Denmark and this never happened. Still, it is fun to imagine… 😉
Apparently, it is a tradition in Denmark for the bride and groom at a wedding to cross dress, to confuse the evil spirits and keep them at bay.
I have no idea what the Hawaiians have against bananas, a perfectly harmless fruit. It is believed that if you bring bananas on a boat will bring bad luck to the fishermen and others on the boat. I would really love to know the origin of this belief, but can’t even make a guess.
The list goes on… it is fascinating when you take a serious look at these beliefs or superstitions. That is, as long as you don’t take them seriously. But it is real hard for many people to let go of beliefs that they have grown up with. Most often, education has nothing to do with it… the believers themselves will agree that it is not logical. Still, some lingering shadow in their mind will make them turn around thrice when a black cat crosses their path or throw some salt over their shoulder if they ever spill salt. To each, her/his own…




26 Aug 2014

You Believe in These?

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

Beijing, the City of Skyscrapers

Never forget the time when I stepped into Beijing with the hope of exploring a foreign land and found a wondrous and modern city. So industrial-looking yet so entrenched in culture and tradition. It truly felt like a home away from home. Perhaps, due to my experience there or thanks to the many friends I made or the delicious food I got to eat while being introduced to one of my favorite dishes, the Beijing Hotpot, I don’t know what but Beijing and the Chinese culture will always remain very dear to me.



Much for my experience climbing the Great Wall of China, there were also other awe-filled moments that made me fall in love with the city. Hiking up Fragrant Hills or Xiangshan Park to see the Fall colors (even my Chinese friends envy me for this!) was one rare expedition to an exotic scenic location which is now an exquisite memory. In the awesome company of my friends, I could see the whole of Beijing city from the top of the hills. It is an “imperial garden at the foot of the Western Mountains covering 395 acres” and a natural pine-cypress forest with maple trees and other beautiful trees.


If you manage to go all the way up to the fortress on the peak, you become a hero and win a medal (from your friend!) 🙂 Nature was sure at its splendid best there! And yes! Another awe-inspiring experience was attending the Beijing Opera. It is traditional Chinese musical theatre where the actors are great performers. Donning colorful costumes of the Chinese kings and queens of yesteryears, they usually enact out legends and fables. The men wear painted masks with long beards and the women are nymphlike with painted faces. Enjoyed watching the performance at the Chang’an Grand Theatre while relaxing with a cup of green tea.


Of course, I also did the usual touristy stuff like checking out Tiananmen Square, going to the Forbidden City (an erstwhile palace!), strolling around the verdant summer palace, be treated to a spectacular acrobatics show (where the performers were as young as five years old!) hogging on the myriad varieties of dim sums, noodles, and congee, taking a ride along a Hutong (a type of residential locality that has narrow streets and courtyard houses; now more of a heritage structure), bargaining crazy at the innumerable flea markets like Hongqiao pearl market, Silk market, and gaping at the fancy malls at Wangfujing (Seriously, those are Some Fancy buildings!)


Now I yearn to return someday to re-explore the city and meet my old friends! 🙂

05 Aug 2014

A Street with an Identity

It was to Bloor-Yorkville, the so-called swanky neighborhood that I took my friend to show her the fashionable areas in Toronto. “Well, this looks pretty usual!” was her response; my friend didn’t seem very impressed.


I agreed with her as, unfortunately, that day, even the streets were crowded, with the TTC (Toronto Transit Commission) plying shuttle buses from Bloor further south to downtown Toronto. So, the extra load of subway people on the streets along with the construction work obstructing the roads (related to the condos and the sidewalks) added to the chaos.

The high-end shopping malls and the big branded stores located in Bloor-Yorkville makes it known as ‘the shopping district of Toronto.’ According to the Fortune Magazine, it is ‘the seventh most expensive shopping street in the world.’


Bloor Street spans 25 kms and is an important arterial road in Toronto, the other being Yonge Street. Beginning at Prince Edward Viaduct in the east of Toronto, the road extends till Mississauga in the west. I could not find the exact year when Bloor Street was built but it was in the nineteenth century that the street got its name from Joseph Bloor, an industrialist, who established the Village of Yorkville in 1830, courtesy Wikipedia.

Gradually, the region grew into a major residential and commercial hub. 2008 data reveal that the shops in Yorkville earn a rent of 300$ per square foot and the condos are priced from 1mn$ upwards.


A section of Yorkville Avenue enclosed by Cumberland Street and Bellair Street looks hip and resembles a European town, with cobblestoned roads lined with cafes, pubs, sushi bars, posh restaurants, salons, and designer boutiques. Facing the opposite side of the street is an artistic park strewn with stone and metal sculptures and branded shops. For a change, my friend was charmed by the elegant surroundings there.


Cumberland Street is that part of Bloor Street where people love to be seen drinking, eating, and shopping.


Hemingway’s is a popular pub there and Trattoria Nervosa serves awesome-tasting Italian food, moderately priced. Definitely worthy of multiple visits!


Bloor Street has a unique historical appeal as it houses many old buildings embodying European style architecture and design. The intersection of Yonge and Bloor divides Bloor into east and west zones. Yorkville is situated on the west side while the east side mostly has tall corporate buildings and is more recently developed. The Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) with the Michael Lee-Chin Crystal, world-renowned as an architectural splendor, and the Bata Shoe Museum are two significant places to visit.



The ROM is a wonderful treat for art lovers with five floors of beautiful art and sculpture from cultures around the world, depicted through the ages. The natural history sections are also very informative whilst no kid can ever forget the huge dinosaur exhibits that they were delighted to see and which still remain as their fond childhood memories.


I have made a custom of visiting the ROM once every six months. Or so it happens! With each visit, it seems like there is more and more to see and I come away regretfully with the feeling of not having spent adequate time.


My friend was more interested in the Bata Shoe Museum that showcased the evolution of footwear for different societies along with shoes worn by prominent celebrities. I loved the intricately designed and beaded moccasins of the Aboriginal peoples of Canada the best.


10 Jun 2014

Climbing the Great Wall of China

I have not met many people who have had the opportunity to climb the Great Wall of China twice. So, I consider it no small privilege that I could. After all, it is one of the Seven Wonders of the World and protected as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. I got the opportunity to attempt this feat when I was in Beijing on an official trip.


The Great Wall of China, known as the Long Wall of Ten Thousand Li in Mandarin, was built between the third century BC and the 17th century AD along the northern border of the country, from Shanhaiguan in the Hebei province in the east to Jiayuguan in the Gansu province in the west. The estimated length of the Wall is 21,196 km (13,171 mi). Several rulers from different dynasties governing different parts of China, constructed varied sections of the Wall to fortify their empires against foreign invaders. This ultimately came to be known as the Great Wall of China.


The Great Wall is like a long winding stone trail snaking through the mountains. Two sections of the wall, nearest to Beijing, were open to the public: Badaling and Mutianyu. Located half an hour from Beijing city, the Badaling Great Wall is the most frequented and the time I went there, it was crowded owing to the tourist season, I presumed. It was certainly a stretch, ascending that steep incline with people pushing and shoving you. Yeah, it was that busy! I had taken a conducted tour which also included stopping at a tea house for some indigenous green tea.


Across the wall, watch towers and small fortresses are built, which were used by the army in olden times. Now, they serve as rest areas for the wearied. The highest point is 1,015 metres (3,330 ft) above sea level. If you happen to stop to catch your breath, you will find plenty of street food vendors, perched on railings, ready to quench your appetite. Many hotels and restaurants are also nestled in the foothills.

Our tour guide mentioned that whoever reached the top of the section would be honored as a ‘hero’ as it was a struggle to get there. Unfortunately, I did not make it since I gave up in the middle. The fleeting thought of using the newly-constructed cable car that takes you directly up the hill, did cross my mind. But it seemed like cowardice. I had already vowed to myself that I will complete the climb someday!

Climbing the Mutianyu Great Wall was more comfortable as the slope was easier to walk on. This was again an arranged tour with a guide. With just another visitor in addition to me, we had quite an interesting personal experience.



A private cab picked us up, took us around and dropped us back at our homes. This part of the Wall, being further away from Beijing, there were also not many tourists around. Mutianyu is perceived as the most beautiful part, with scenic landscapes spread across the countryside. It looked more natural than the Badaling Great Wall which seemed like a commercial tourist hotspot. It is also older than Badaling. The wall at this point is made of granite and is 7–8.5 metres high and 4–5 metres wide. Had a fun time walking around at Mutianyu.


13 May 2014