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.
The aim of the play was to focus attention on the rise of superstitions and their exploitative tendencies in the Kerala society.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
It was like, in a manner of minutes, a barren playground turned into an elaborate stage, riveting the audience’s attention.
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.
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!
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
After visiting my friend Dilly at Thangassery, I had this question that I could not find an answer to… why hadn’t I visited the place earlier? Dilly and I have been friends for donkey’s years, I knew of the beauty and historical importance of the place… maybe it is true that there is a right time for everything!
Located near Kollam in the south western state of Kerala in India, Thangassery is a beautiful seashore town with a unique cultural heritage. Established as home to the Anglo-Indian community (which includes all people of European descent), its contributions to the cultural milieu of the region are invaluable.
The word ‘thangassery’ means gold town or gold village, referring to the distant past when spice trade was conducted here using gold coins. It was also known as ‘Dutch Quilon’ till the 20th century.
Thangassery has a long history, going back to the colonial times when European powers jostled for domination in the Eastern territories. The first European power to appear in Thangassery were the Portuguese, who leased the area of Thangassery from the queen of Quilon (currently called Kollam) in the year 1502, to be used as a trading post. The dilapidated remains of Forte de São Tomé (Fort St. Thomas), built by the Portuguese in 1518 to protect their enclave, can still be seen in Thangassery.
The fort that rose up to a height of 20 feet, is under the care of Archaeological Survey of India and is currently being restored.
After almost a century and half, the decline in the Portuguese power in Europe and the colonial territories led to a Dutch victory at Quilon. In 1661, Fort St. Thomas and Thangassery passed into the hands of the Dutch, who developed the area further. After another century, the fortunes of the British were on the ascendant and the Dutch had to surrender Thangassery to the English East India Company in 1795.
Many of the Portuguese and Dutch soldiers and traders had married locally and settled in Thangassery. This cultural mixing has always enriched the life of Thangassery in many ways. The grid pattern of the roads existing in Thangassery town even today was established by the Dutch. The only other place where I have seen such a perfect grid of roads is my own town, NYC! 🙂
There are several food items that have come out of this mixing of cultures, where local ingredients available in the tropical climate of Kerala find a place in traditional Portuguese and Dutch recipes and get reborn as amazing items. And I thought I had tasted them all. Imagine my surprise when I discovered ‘orappam’, a kind of white halva with a definite coconut flavour, that belongs right at the top with the best of them!
Thangassery lighthouse, established in 1902 and still functional, is one the attractions of the place. The view from the top of the lighthouse is worth every one of the 193 steps you have to climb to get there.
Starting with the tranquil basin of Kollam port protected by the Thangassery breakwater, extending 1.1 mile into the sea…
your eyes will sweep over the vista of the Arabian Sea in a 270 degree arc to land again on a rocky shoreline studded with graceful coconut palms.
Moving further, your gaze will settle on the green landscape dominated by the church steeple…
to end up back at the colouful fishing boats pulled on the shores along the Thangassery Beach Road.
A view that you will never tire of, I can guarantee!
The circular wooden staircase of the lighthouse itself is a work of art.
Standing at a height of 144 feet, the lighthouse has a luminous range of 26 nautical miles. The lighthouse has been in continuous use since its inception.
One of the oldest printing presses in India from where the first book in Kerala was published in1578; Mount Carmel Anglo Indian Girls School, the first convent schools for girls established in 1885; the Infant Jesus Church, a Portuguese-built church that goes back centuries… Thangassery’s claim to fame are many. Still, old timers here are quick to point out the changed circumstances in the town. Large scale migration of the younger generations seeking better fortunes has taken its toll on the local community. Old life styles are disappearing with the influx of outsiders into a hitherto close-knit community.
Though many believe that the golden years of Thangassery are long gone, I found the place charming and delightful. My only regret is that I did not make this trip a long time ago!
I have posted a bunch of photos from Thangassery here…
01 Feb 2015
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
The castle was designed with soaring spires and high ramparts, after the castles in the Rhineland, the neighbourhood where he grew up. A self-made millionaire, he had risen from a kitchen worker in a hotel to the proprietor of the great hotels Waldorf Astoria in Manhattan and the Bellevue-Stratford in Philadelphia. And when George Boldt wanted to build a castle to demonstrate his love for his wife Louise, no expenses were spared. He bought the Hart Island in the Thousand Islands group which he reshaped in the form a heart and renamed ‘Heart’ Island. Going up six stories, the castle had 120 rooms, a powerhouse, Italian gardens, a drawbridge, tunnels, and a children’s play castle.
The castle was to be presented to Louise on Valentine’s Day of 1904, but things went wrong before that. In January, Louise died of a heart failure at age 41. A heart-broken George Boldt immediately ordered all construction stopped at the castle and never again set foot on Heart Island.
The grand staircase
The Boldt Castle, the biggest castle on Thousand Islands, stood abandoned for 73 years, subject to harsh winters and random acts of vandalism. In 1977, the Thousand Islands Bridge Authority was handed over charge of the castle. Currently the castle is undergoing restoration, as per the original plans. The lower two floors are fully restored and work is going on, on the upper floors. All entrance fees collected from visitors are used solely for the restoration work.
Stained glass dome of the cupola
The Thousand Islands salad dressing was first introduced at the Waldorf Astoria by George Bolt. So was the Waldorf salad.
The power house, which was planned to generate all the electric power needed for the Boldt Castle, was destroyed in a fire in 1939. Now it has been fully restored.
A gazebo on the castle grounds
Children’s play castle named the Alster Tower
The portrait of Louise Boldt displayed in the castle
Another very prominent castle among the Thousand Islands, is the Singer Castle, named by Frederick Bourne, the president of… you guessed it, the Singer Sewing Machine Company! And every room in the castle, I mean every room, has a sewing machine in it!
When Bourne acquired the island, it was named Dark Island because of the dark pine trees growing thick. A self-made millionaire, he started working in his teens, in the offices of a thread company which developed a thread suitable for a sewing machine for the first time. He wanted to build a castle and engaged the famous architect Ernest Flagg to build one, around the same time as the Boldt castle was being built, 1902 to 1904. And as model, he pointed to the castle in Walter Scott’s novel ‘Woodstock’.
And the result was the 4-story, 28-room Singer Castle, with many hideaways, underground tunnels, dungeons, spy holes and secret rooms all over the place, just like in Woodstock Place. Today, many of those are open and visible to visitors. The castle boasts of elaborate boathouses, a workshop, powerhouse and a 2-story ice house.
While the castle was being built, Bourne kept it an absolute secret from his family so that he could present it to them as a surprise! I can really imagine the whole family of nine kids, going ‘OMG!’ 🙂
The dining room with elk, caribou, deer and moose heads mounted on the four walls
The furnishings included Italian hand-carved ornate tables and chairs, wrought-iron chandeliers, brass lamps, oak cabinets, bronze work, and paintings.
Do you see the difference in the height of the headboards? And the size of the breakfast trays? Yep, the wife had to know that she could never be equal to the man! 🙂
Corn Island seen from Singer Castle
During the days of prohibition in the US (1920-1933), groups of guests used to be ferried across by luxury launches, to Corn Island which is located in Canada, but had the same owner. After the cocktail party, they will get back in time for dinner!
I wonder whether this is still functional!
Today, Boldt Castle and Singer Castle are available for weddings and other functions. You can also stay at the royal suite at the Singer Castle for a not-too-exorbitant rate.
One fact that impressed me while listening to the stories of these castles, was that both were built by men who rose from the bottom rungs to the highest positions in the society of their day, only through the dint of their hard work. Would such a feat be possible today?
There were several more castles built among the Thousand Islands… Castle Rest, the first castle to be built on Thousand Islands, Imperial Isle, Calumet Castle, Arcadia, Carlton Villa… it is a long list. But none of them are in existence today. Most were demolished and replaced by more modest and modern edifices.
This was a weekend well-spent, but I doubt there will be any more such outings this year. As the weather gets cool, cold, icy, activities turn indoors. And food! How about this gorgeous caramelised pear and roquefort tart for a start?
26 Sep 2014
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.
In fact, if you get out of the back door, you will be stepping directly into the water!
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.
This barge like house is built covering the entire width of the narrow island, like someone picked up and placed it there precisely.
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!
Perfect oval of an island. Can’t really see the boat house hidden among the trees.
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.
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.
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.
The Wau-Winet Island was written up in New York Times a while back.
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!
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.
23 Sep 2014
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
The first public park, the first public secondary school, the first public library, the first State Constitution, the first regularly issued American newspaper… the first windmill, the first chocolate factory, and the first pub in the country… it will take a while to list all the firsts that belong to Boston.
The first public anti-smoking law (that too, in 1632!) was passed in Boston… the first woman in the United States to earn a Ph.D. did so from the Boston University… the list seems unending.
Founded in 1630 by a group of Puritans, Boston is one of the oldest cities of the United States. Puritans were English colonists who arrived in the 16th and 17th centuries in America, dissatisfied with the church of England over the church’s tolerance of practices aligned with the catholic tradition. Boston played a key role in the American Revolution, being the scene of events like the Boston Massacre and the Boston Tea Party.
In addition to being an important port and center of trade and manufacturing, Boston is well known for its educational and cultural institutions. Above all it is an architecturally beautiful city. So when I got a chance to do a quick trip to Boston one of these recent weekends, I jumped at the chance.
The first place we stopped at was the Harvard University campus. Did I tell you that it is the country’s first college? The spacious campus with brown stone buildings impart a sense of peace and calm.
The statue of John Harvard on the campus gets constant attention from visitors, particularly young ones. They are posing one after the other for photos with the statue that it is hard to get a click in without someone clinging to the statue’s foot.
Did you notice how shiny it is? It is believed that touching the statue’s foot brings good luck. And what happens there at night? Read for yourself here.
By the way, this statue is commonly called, ‘The Statue of Three Lies’, in the sense that contrary to what is said on the base of the statue, it is not John Harvard, John Harvard is not the founder of Harvard University, and Harvard University was not founded in 1638. Read all about it in the Harvard Summer Blog.
That day, the weather had some harsh treatment in store for us… it rained for the better part of the day! Despite the rain, we managed to visit some real interesting places.
Established in 1837, the garden has an area of 24 acres, with beautiful paths and formal flower beds. The lake in the garden apparently, always have two resident swans.
A 15 minute ride on the swan boats – a special attraction of Boston – takes you around the 4-acre lake in the garden for an utterly peaceful time with picturesque views.
Though we wanted to, we did not have sufficient time to visit all the stops on the Freedom Trail, a 2.5-mile, brick-lined route that leads through 16 historically significant sites associated with the American revolution.
The whole trail is marked by a red and gray brick path.
Any visit to Boston will not be complete without a look at the Boston Harbour, the scene of the Boston tea party, an event on December 16, 1773 where a group of patriots boarded a ship of the East India Company and threw chests of tea into the harbour, in protest against the Tea Act of May 1773. They were protesting – contrary to what many people understand today – not against taxation, but taxation without representation as the American colonies did not have a representative in the British parliament.
The dark look of the sky that day somehow suited the memories of that historical day.
Boston has so many firsts to its credit, but I want to give it a ‘best’ on my personal account. The best clam chowder – ever! It was so great I have decided to look on my bookshelves for my historic Boston cookbook, handwritten no less, to find a traditional recipe to follow.
And do you know who this is? Yes, Sam Adams, exactly like he is on the bottle! 🙂
Boston has so many things to boast of, if it wanted to, but it will never do so because then it will have to change its spelling to ‘Boaston’! Yep, that deserves all the groans that it will garner, but couldn’t help it! 😉
And much to the chagrin of Bostonians, Forbes magazine rated Boston as the 9th ‘Coolest City’ in the country! Yeah, it’s hard when you are accustomed to being first and then have to put up with being 9th!
08 Aug 2014
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
There are some things in every one’s life that have a lasting charm… some threads that run through life, helping keep alight the joy of life even when things are not so good. Something that gets you excited about life itself. For me, it is trains. I love trains… I mean, all trains. Long distance trains, commuter trains, touristy trains… love them all. And never give up a chance to ride on one either.
I don’t know when I was bitten by the train bug. In fact, I cannot remember a time when I was not enchanted by the trains. When I was in third grade, we were doing a chapter on transportation. Teacher asked whether there was anyone in the class who had not travelled on a train. To my utter amazement, a number of hands went up. And I was thinking… where have you been living? Under some moss covered rocks? Lived thus far without a single train ride? The pity I felt for those kids was fathomless. Even at that age, a train ride was one of my favourite things.
As I grew up, I found out that there are kindred spirits all around the world. Known by various names such as railfans, rail buffs and train buffs, they form groups and go train spotting. Yes, it is a legitimate hobby, with many followers. Train photography, model trains, exploring historical railway tracks and trains, and collecting train memorabilia are some of the activities of these groups.
You have to admit… some of the old trains are a pleasure to see. And you never get bored watching a train go by. Whenever a car I’m travelling is stopped at a railway crossing, and there are groans from the rest of the party, I’m secretly thrilled though I have to hide my glee! 🙂
As fun it is to watch a train from the outside, it is equally interesting to watch it from the inside. I mean watching the people. Where else would you get such a golden opportunity to watch a microcosm of society, yourself unobserved? Some of the people are busy reading the newspaper or books, some are engrossed in prayers and rosaries, some keep yakking away to either their friends or on the phone… some even do their chores like opening the mail or doing their nails.
One thing interesting about New York trains – including the subways – is that you get to hear all kinds of languages. Sometimes when a conversation in a language I do not understand gets too loud for comfort, I have a trick to bring it under control. I pretend to be seriously listening and smiling or frowning at all the right moments. And the conversationalists begin to wonder… does this woman understand what we are talking? In no time, it is toned down and there is peace and quiet again.
Let me ask you a question. Imagine this scene… you get on a train, from a station in between, and you have a ways to go. All the window seats are taken. Some of the people have their bags and papers all spread around on the aisle seats and are sitting taking up most of the two seats. Others have kept their possessions neatly on their laps and the aisle seats are left free of any encroachments. Where would you opt to sit? Don’t you think that by that choice, you are rewarding bad behaviour? 😉
Whenever I go visiting a new place, I would find out if there are any interesting train rides around. Very often, there are. And I never let go a chance to ride on one of them. This is a train from St. Kitts, that went around the island and the old sugar cane farms, keeping the Caribbean always within sight on one side. It was wonderful!
One of the activities of the railfans is called ‘complete riding’, which is to try and ride the complete railway network of a city, state, or country. It would be an interesting activity to consider during the fall in NYC.
I cannot end this note without a shoutout to a fellow railfan… you all have seen him, laughed with him and at him. And said ‘Bazinga’ with him! Yes, I mean Sheldon Cooper from ‘The Big Bang Theory’ whose love for trains is as intense as mine!
And the only reason I do not have an elaborate train set running on the floor of my apartment is that I live in a matchbox!
01 Aug 2014
When we set out on a visit to Gettysburg National Battlefield, on a sunny day in early spring, I was counting on a glimpse into an eventful chapter of history… but the extent of it was an eye opener and way beyond my expectations.
The battle of Gettysburg was one of the biggest battles in the Civil War, fought between the Confederate and Union armies – the Army of Northern Virginia led by Confederate General Robert E. Lee and the Army of the Potomac led by Union Major General George Meade.
This battle accounts for the highest number causalities in terms of people killed and wounded, and is considered the turning point when the tide started turning against the confederates. It was fought in and around the town of Gettysburg (obviously!) over July 1 to 3, 1863. Over the three days, wins in the battle shifted between the sides, but by the end of the third day, a decisive blow had been struck and General Lee’s Confederate Army was forced to retreat, abandoning all hopes of a victory in the north. Intermingled among the stories of valour and heroism and utmost sacrifice in the course of the battle, are the stories of brother fighting against brother, and friend turning against friend. Just imagine the emotional upheavals that rent the hearts of so many people!
I was very very impressed with the way the battlefield is maintained and managed. All the sites and monuments are clearly marked and the auto tour is the most helpful facility. You stop your car at the clearly marked auto tour stops and put the CD in the car’s player. The commentary provides you all the information to understand what happened at that site and its relevance to the battle and the war overall.
Markers along the way tell the stories of the events and memorials pay homage to individuals as well as fighting units. Most of the states that participated in the battle on either side have also dedicated memorials.
Among the state memorials, the earliest established was the Virginia Memorial dedicated on 6 June, 1917. It portrays General Lee riding his horse, Traveller. At the base of the are shown various men who left their civil occupations to join the war… a professional man, a mechanic, an artist, a boy, a businessman, a farmer and a youth.
The biggest of the memorials belong to Pennsylvania, dedicated in 1910. On top of the dome of the monument is depicted the Goddess of Peace and Victory. Above the huge arches are carved battle scenes honouring the four branches of the army, infantry, cavalry, artillery and signal corps. At the base, bronze tablets list the names of the 34,500 Pennsylvania soldiers who participated in the battle of Gettysburg.
New York Memorial very impressive. Topped with an eagle and showing the state emblem, it displays the names of all commanding officers and their units, not memorialised individually.
The North Carolina Memorial was one of the early ones, being dedicated in 1929. A wounded officer is shown urging his men forward, while he points to the enemy.
The Mississippi Memorial showing two infantrymen, one mortally wounded and fallen down holding the unit colours, while the other is in the act of defending the colours using his musket as a club, was dedicated in 1973.
The Louisiana Memorial depicts the Spirit of Confederacy holding aloft a flaming cannonball, rising over a fallen soldier – an artilleryman – who grasps a battle flag to his chest. This memorial was dedicated in 1971.
I like the Maryland Memorial very much for its conceptual inclusiveness. It shows two soldiers from Maryland, belonging to the two sides, helping each other. Also, a bronze tablet at the base lists the Maryland commands in both armies. This memorial was dedicated on 13 November, 1994.
You will also find a memorial to the soldiers and sailors of the Confederacy, dedicated in 1965, to honour all the men who fought in Confederate armies and navies. It shows a colour bearer urging his fellow soldiers to come forward. On the base are inscribed the names of the states that formed the Confederacy.
The 75th anniversary of the battle of Gettysburg was celebrated with around 2,000 veterans of the Civil War from either side attending. All veterans were invited to attend the function with expenses paid. At the gathering, on 3 July 1938, the Eternal Light Peace Memorial, a monument to peace and national unity, was dedicated by President Franklin Roosevelt. Made of Maine granite and Alabama limestone, the memorial is topped by an eternal light symbolizing the United States.
Markers like these are present all over the place and provide you the most valuable information to understand what passed here, so many years ago.
The different types of cannons used at the battle are on display at various locations at the site.
A view of the Gettysburg National Cemetery.
When you start talking about the Civil War and the Battle of Gettysburg in particular, there is so much to talk about… so many interesting snippets. How did General Lee’s estate and home in Arlington turn into the Arlington Cemeteries? What happened with the Schwartz brothers at the McLean House? Why did General Sickles often visit the National Museum of Health and Medicine? So much to talk about. Maybe another post, another day.
25 Jul 2014