General

An Amazing Street Play

Back in New York… or shall I say the freezer? I had thought that below a certain level of cold – say minus 10 – it is all the same, which is too cold. But no, no, no… there are 50 shades of cold below freezing! And the bone chilling, face freezing cold of this winter of 2015 is the worst I have ever known. One look outside, and I was ready to get back on that plane and go back for another two months! That too, after a flight of 14 hours… Yeah, exactly like Punxsutawney Phil who saw his shadow on Feb 2nd and went back into his burrow for another 6 weeks of slumber!
 
Okay, let me be honest here… I did escape a major part of the brutal winter.:-)
 
Spent about two months in the beautiful tropics. Of all the things I managed to see and do this time around – blue oceans with sandy beaches, hikes on green mountains, visits to tea estates and factories, houseboat rides on backwaters – what has made a lasting impression on me is a street play I saw in Calicut, Kerala… yes, that sliver of a state in the south western corner of India.
 
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The aim of the play was to focus attention on the rise of superstitions and their exploitative tendencies in the Kerala society.
 
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It was organized by Kerala Sasthra Sahithya Parishad (KSSP: Kerala People’s Science Movement – not a literal translation).
 
KSSP is a unique social scientific movement in Kerala that came into being with the dual aims of bringing science and scientific thinking to the common people and influencing the direction of scientific research into channels that will benefit the people. It is unique in the sense that among all the socially relevant popular movements anywhere in the world, there is no other such organisation that has an exclusive focus on science and scientific mindedness. And if Kerala has topped the United Nations Human Development Index despite its high population density and low per capita income, making it stand apart from the rest of India, KSSP and the scientific temper it has managed to popularise, have a major role in that achievement for sure.
 
The brainchild of a group of scientists and science writers, KSSP was formally established in 1962. KSSP’s concentration on active communications and education has paid off big time, making it an integral part of the Kerala social fabric. KSSP is the largest publisher of science and technology themed books in the state of Kerala. It also publishes four periodicals, two of them meant for children. Science quizzes and talent tests are conducted at primary and secondary school levels and science clubs are organised throughout the state. KSSP has carried out successful campaigns against industrial pollution, deforestation, unwise water management policies, etc.
 
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In addition to traditional outreach mechanisms like lectures and symposiums, and articles published in newspapers, KSSP uses ‘kala jatha’, an art form encompassing elements of street theater and folk story telling traditions to increase awareness and nurture a scientific outlooks among the population. Teams travel throughout the towns and villages of the state performing in front of audiences large and small. The kala jathas spread socially relevant messages based on scientific facts and generally promote scientific thinking and reasoning among the populace.
 
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The performance that I was fortunate enough to see was part of ‘Nattu Pacha’. Google Translate gave me ‘indigenous green’ as the English synonym, which even I know is nowhere near the intended meaning… would ‘the goodness of the countryside’ work? Roughly, I would say.
 
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As part of Nattu Pacha kala jatha, ten groups of performers travelled throughout the state and performed the play at over 400 venues. The main factor behind the success of the effort is nothing other than the dedication of all those involved.
 
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I do not remember the names of the actors; this was not a performance that hinges around a few stars… this was a joint venture in the true sense of the word. With the minimum of props and costumes, the actors brought out the story of what happens to a hitherto peaceful village when religious powers, supported by exploitative commercial interests, move in and take control of people’s minds.
 
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It was like, in a manner of minutes, a barren playground turned into an elaborate stage, riveting the audience’s attention.
 
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The ease with which the actors slipped in and out of character is amazing, especially when you consider that none of the participants are professionally trained actors. And I loved the background singers who equaled if not surpassed the actors.
 
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The next time I’m in Kerala, the first thing on my to-do list will be to check for any interesting activities organised by KSSP!
 
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~Ria

P.S. I’m sorry that in a small blog post, it is not possible to even touch upon all of KSSP’s activities; so, read about it all at the KSSP’s own website.
 
 

22 Mar 2015

Possible Jumper…

I think I have mentioned that the salt mine that employs me, is located in Times Square. Yes, right bang in the middle of the universe. Yesterday, we were all at work when the public address system sputtered up. Usually that thing is used to announce fire drills, but this was in the afternoon and fire drills happen in the morning. Could it be a real fire? “Attention please… 42nd Street is closed between 7th and 8th avenues due to police activity. There is a possible jumper somewhere on 42nd.” What? Possible jumper? On 42nd? In a minute, we were at the windows.
 
From the 14th floor, where I’m located, we had a direct view of that part of 42nd Street. This is what we saw…
 
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There is this guy in a white shirt sitting on the wall of the terrace. And there are cops in different uniforms on the terrace, but most of them are keeping their distance. There are a few near the guy and actually talking to him. But even they are being careful not to get too close as they do not want to trigger any unwanted action.
 
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It is 3 pm when the announcement is made. We don’t know how long he has been out on the wall. Looks like he is on the building that houses the ‘Ripley’s Believe It or Not’ museum and ‘Dave & Buster’s’ diner.
 
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Right next to Madame Tussaud’s. Must be around 12th floor height as he is slightly lower than out 14th floor.
 
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The road below, 42nd St, has been closed off to all traffic, including pedestrians. We can see the police tape and vehicles blocking the traffic on one side. And the police below have positioned an inflated thingammie right below where a person would land in case he decided to jump.
 
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See, that things is taller than a person! Meanwhile there are non-stop comments and conversations on our floor. What could motivate a person to go to such a drastic measure as committing suicide? Someone expresses the opinion that a person seriously planning suicide would never do so in such a public fashion; he wants to get something, that’s all. Some others are quick to refute… there are so many instances of people actually committing suicide in a very public fashion… what about that? I zoom the camera and look at him…
 
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He seems to be quietly talking to the cops nearby. But not really looking at them. What could the cops be talking to him? What is there to say? Come on down and everything will be okay? I was fervently hoping the cops would be able to get through to him. Anyways, they were talking…
 
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And I notice… the position of his legs. Apparently he is more relaxed now. And he is leaning towards the cops now. By this time, it is 4 pm… my usual time to leave for home. But there is no question of me going home, leaving that guy perched on the wall; I have to see the end of this. We are off and on going to the windows, checking up on progress. Things seem to be at a standstill. The talking continues. It is 4.30… 4.45… I’m at my desk. Suddenly, there is some noise from those at the windows. I rush… there is a collective sigh of relief. The cops are helping the guy from the wall!
 
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He is led away, by a group of cops. Seem to be continuing to talk as they move inside the building. We couldn’t really make out whether he had cuffs on.
 
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All is well that ends well! Time to go home. As I walk out of the building, I notice that 42nd Street is not yet opened. The police vehicles are jus leaving…
 
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Okay, so these were the people talking to him! Great work, guys!
Here is a local report of the eventand another one.

~Ria

17 Oct 2014

Single House Islands… So Many of Them!

Oh yeah, we were talking about the Thousand Islands. What really really enchanted me about the place were the cute little islands with just one home on them. Of course, these are summer dwellings as it will be physically impossible to live in the middle of a frozen river in the winter. Or would it? Imagine sledding to go visit your neighbour! 🙂

The most picturesque of all the houses, is this little gem, with the water and water birds almost coming up to the front steps.

 
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In fact, if you get out of the back door, you will be stepping directly into the water!

 
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There are no industries emitting effluence into the St. Lawrence river and the boats on the river have to adhere to strict cleanliness regulations. Also, it is a crime, punishable by law, for a resident to throw any garbage into the river. Thus the water of the St. Lawrence river is extremely clean and clear. Even at a depth of meters, you can make out the dark patches of the rocky river bottom.

 

Look at another red house. This one has more trees around it, and it has its own boat jetty.

 
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This barge like house is built covering the entire width of the narrow island, like someone picked up and placed it there precisely.

 
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Some of the large islands have common power generation facilities. And recently, underwater power connections have been introduced to a few islands located closer to the mainland. But most of the islands depend on individual generators and battery power for household needs.
See the neat boat house at the side of this house? The tree look huge, comparatively.

 

This house is directly under the tree. Hot summer’s day, blue chair, heavenly breeze… aah!

 
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Perfect oval of an island. Can’t really see the boat house hidden among the trees.

 
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There are no natural springs or waterfalls anywhere on the islands to provide drinking water. So the islanders have to bring their own water from the mainland. For cleaning and washing needs, water from the river is used.

 

Here is a blue house among blue waters! Step off the boat and you are directly on the deck of the house.

 
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What do you do with your household garbage when you are located in the middle of water? And it is a crime to throw anything in the water? Not to worry, garbage collection is done regularly, by a barge nicknamed ‘honey barge’.

 

Here is a house located at the extreme end of the island. Also, I believe there is a pathway built to the neighbouring island.

 
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While our boat passed by, the two guys sitting on the deck chugging beer waved to us. Many of the houses are owned by weekenders who live and work elsewhere during the week.

 
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The Wau-Winet Island was written up in New York Times a while back.
http://www.nytimes.com/2007/08/24/travel/escapes/24thousand.html

 
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Tourist guides on the boats always tell the story of the Zavikon Islands, owned by the same person and connected by a bridge but located in two countries. And how it is the shortest international bridge. Our guide was no exception… he spoke of the owner telling him about the convenience of being able to escape to another country for a while, whenever he had a little spat with his wife. (I could see the wistful looks on the faces of many a man on the boat!) And the boats stop around that area for a photo-op. However, that story has been debunked; both islands are in Canada!

 
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Apparently the owner likes the fake story and is encouraging the telling of it, by displaying the different flags prominently on the little bridge.
 
After seeing the small houses, let’s take a look at the huge castles next.
 

~Ria

23 Sep 2014

Thousand Islands… Beyond Beautiful!

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.

 
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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.

 
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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.

 
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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.

 
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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.

 
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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.

 
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On a cliff overlooking the river on the Canadian side, is a statue of St. Lawrence, put up as a tourist attraction.

 
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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.

 
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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.

 
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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.

 
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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.

 
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Similarly, when going towards the ocean, the green beacons should be on the left and red ones on the right.

 
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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.

 
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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.

 

~Ria

 

19 Sep 2014

Guggenheim – a Museum or a Work of Art?

Coming soon…

16 Sep 2014

Union Square Green Market… an End of Season Visit

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!
 
Vegetables…

 
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Vegetables…

 
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And more vegetables…

 
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Multi-hued root vegetables looking especially pretty…

 
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Tomatoes in all shapes and colours…

 
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Potatoes…

 
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Summer fruits…

 
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Berries…

 
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Celery root, one of my favourite things…

 
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Some speciality garlic…

 
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Squashes, summer and winter…

 
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Varieties of chilies…

 
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Flowers…

 
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Jams, jellies and preserves…

 
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Cookies, pies and breads…

 
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Pickles…

 
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Interesting small batch wines…

 
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Hard cider made from local apples…

 
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Fresh pasta…

 
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Ready to eat salad mixes…

 

And this time, there was even a ‘Harey Krishna’ group performing at the market!

 
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~Ria

 

09 Sep 2014

A Travel Story

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…

~Ria

 

02 Sep 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…

 

~Ria

 

 

22 Aug 2014

The Amazing Brooklyn Bridge

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?
 
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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.
 
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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!
 
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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.
 
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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.
 
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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!
 
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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!
 
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But these days there is all kinds of stuff being tied to the railings, including ear phones and plastic paper. Really an eyesore!
 
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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!
 
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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.
 
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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. 🙂
 
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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!

 

~Ria

 

19 Aug 2014

On the Kindness of Strangers…

At some time or other, we have all been touched by the kindness of strangers. I’m not talking about someone helping you with a heavy suitcase down the staircase at the train station or holding the door for you when you are loaded with shopping bags. Those are actions of the moment, without much thought behind them, more like reflexes of good manners. What I’m referring to are actions that are the results of conscious decisions to help others with no thought of personal gain.
 
The other day I was listening to ‘This American Life’ on NPR, and the story was about unusual acts of kindness by strangers. What was unusual about them was that some of the stories were not even intended as acts of kindness. Like, the guy who walked along the subway platform, telling each waiting passenger that were either in or out. The story goes on to narrate how inspiring it was to be told ‘you’re in’, though it meant nothing and was just a random muttering from a stranger. Was there an intention here to help people feel good? I would rather doubt it, but the end result was that it made others happy.
 
Listening to the stories, I was reminded of an incident, two summers ago, when I was subject to an act of kindness – actually, more like a present – from a stranger.
 
It was around 2 pm and I was waiting for a train to downtown, to meet a friend for a movie. As usual I had a book with me, and sat reading as I was a few minutes early. Suddenly I got this feeling that eyes were upon me and looking up saw this person watching me intently. I looked around; lots of people on the platform, so no need to worry. Ignoring the watching eyes I returned my attention to the book.
 
Time for the train and I got up and walked out. The person approached me smiling and started speaking. It was easy to say, ‘sorry, I don’t speak Spanish’. He extended a small card towards me and kept talking in a mix of English and Spanish. The only words I could get were… ‘for you… books… to read’. He pushed the card into my hand. I looked down and saw that it was a Barnes & Noble gift card. Like a true New Yorker I thought… Oh, the guy wants to sell me the card – probably blank. Yeah, right!
 
By this time, the train was approaching the platform. I tried to give the card back to him. But he wouldn’t take it and kept explaining. What I could grasp from his talk was this: he was a visitor to the city and was going back that day. Did not have time to use the card, and so wanted to give it to me.
 
The train doors were open, and it was easier to say ‘thank you’ and get in to the train than continue arguing with him. And I was careful to sit far away from where he sat. I pushed the card into the book I was reading.
 
I did not think of it further till I was passing in front of the Barnes & Noble store on Broadway (which has since closed). Went in and checked to see if the card was of any value. How much do you think was on that card? 78 dollars! I was amazed, to say the least. And truly felt ashamed at being so suspicious of the guy’s intentions!
 
Why did he pick me to make a present of the card? I cannot make a guess, except maybe it was because I was the only one reading a serious book on the station platform.
 
I still remember two of the books I bought with that card… ‘Unaccustomed Earth’ by Jhumpa Lahiri and ‘Half Asleep in Frog Pajamas’ by Tom Robbins, both of which I thoroughly enjoyed!

20 Jun 2014