Archive for category Travel

Travel: Charleston, SC


Charleston, hotbed of confederacy, first state to seek secession from the Union, is home to sweet and sour, yet rich history and well preserved architecture. Charleston was a major slave trading port and it is believed that of the estimated 400,000 captive Africans brought into North America, nearly 40% arrived at Sullivan’s Island of Charleston. Additionally, between 1680 and 1720, about 40,000 native men, women and children were sold through the port, often to West Indies and other Southern colonies. The planters felt that the Indian slaves were more likely to escape or revolt so they preferred to sell them and use the proceeds to purchase black slaves. Such is the sad history of slavery.  In 2018, the city formally apologized for its role in the American Slave trade after CNN noted that slavery “riddles the history” of Charleston”. Slaves were sold at the arriving ships or at ad hoc gatherings. As per our city tour guide, one of the parking lots we passed by was a prior slave trading post. 

Boone Hall Plantation 

Our visit to Boone Plantation, one of the oldest plantations still in operation, was illuminating. Like a great deal of architecture around Charleston, Boone Plantation is also a historic site. The most informative were the brick slave cabins located along Slave Street which date between 1790 and 1810. Each cabin displayed video presentations along with other artifacts that told the story of former inhabitants’ lives. There was also a colonial style dwelling of former slave owners.Most fascinating was a Gulaghichi presentation. Most slaves brought here were desendents of West African tribes, near Angola region. They developed their own language and customs that was referred to as Gullah culture. Islanders of Georgia were referred to as Gheechee and together they are referred to as GullahGeechee. A presentation on GullahGeechee culture with songs and drums was a highlight of this tour, where for the first time I learned where Kumbaya came from and what it meant.

Charleston Architecture

The high cost of 19th century slaves and their high rate of return resulted in concentration of wealth where about a hundred interrelated families controlled half of the wealth and the lower half of the population had no wealth at all. That means there were amazing private gardens and almost no public parks. On our city tour, we visited some gorgeous Charleston homes that would evoke for many nostalgia for the antebellum South, for Southern charm and Southern hospitality. The tours focused on gorgeous architecture and fine furniture but always, always, at the back of my mind was the reality of life of enslaved labor that made such high living possible for a few privileged people.

Ghost tours and stories

Charleston and Savannah’s ghost tours and stories combine both history and ghoulish lore. Often narrated with dramatic flair and humor, under these ghost stories lie tragedies of human beings who inhabited the region, destruction during many wars fought here, ghoulish practices of enslavement, duels and other traumas .

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Travel: Fort Sumter, South Carolina – a piece of history from the American Civil War


Built on an artificial island, in Charleston, SC, during the War of 1812, Fort Sumter is a tiny island that was meant to protect Charleston from foreign invasion, like the British. Sumter became a point of central focus during the Civil War. 

Charleston, SC was the first state to secede from the United States when the abolition of slavery seemed inevitable. Charleston became a hotbed of rebelliousness and both sides agree the the first shots that sparked the civil war were fired against the Federal Government at Federally held, Fort Sumter. The fort had been cut off from its supply line and Federal army had to surrender. More than 43,000 shells, or 7 million pounds of metal, were hurled at Sumter and although it lay in ruins, neither side had lost a single man due to this battle. 

When the victory for the confederacy seemed imminent, Confederate General Beauregard went in a boat to Fort Sumter and offered Union General Anderson generous terms to surrender that included allowing General Anderson to take all property while leaving and saluting the United States flag as it was lowered. The fort lay in ruins but it was a matter of pride for Charleston and the fort remained with the confederacy. Almost towards the end of the Civil War, after putting up a strong resistance, when Confederate states surrendered then the stalemate in Charleston Harbor came to an end in February of 1865 as Union General William Tecumseh Sherman marched into South Carolina. After the Civil War ended on April 9, 1865, Robert Anderson, now a retired Major General, returned to Fort Sumter to raise again the U.S. flag he had lowered in defeat exactly four years before. Confederate sympathizers in Charleston were devastated, but on April 14 a large crowd stood to hear the ceremonies or watched from boats in the Harbor as Sumter was no longer the symbol of the Confederacy, and was now the symbol of the victorious Union. Ironically, the North’s jubilation was cut short with the assassination of Abraham Lincoln that very evening in Washington, D.C.

Our visit was an immersion in sweet, sour history of war within a nation, over what one side considered an issue of survival (albeit on the backs of slaves) and other side deemed it a moral imperative to acknowledge that “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights” and to begin to create conditions for equality. 

After the Civil War, Fort Sumter was restored by the U.S. military and is now a National Historic Site.

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Yellowstone National Park, Montana


America is unequivocally the most wondrous land of natural beauty. Our trip to Montana and specifically, Yellowstone National Park did not disappoint a bit. Of course, we only got to see a very very tiny portion of the park on the Montana side. But we were left in fascinated awe of its diverse and gorgeous beauty. 

First let me say (on account of enormous rush and crowds) what we did not see and the sites that are on my bucket list, the Old Faithful, Grand Prismatic Spring, Mammoth hot springs, Snake River and more. None of the disappointments took away from the amazing sites we did see.

Norris Geyser Basin is the hottest, oldest and most dynamic of Yellowstone thermal areas. It is also the most acidic.  The Porcelain Basin was absolutely breathtakingly beautiful. Devoid of trees, it provides unique sensory experience of sound, color and sulphuric smell. Back Basin was more heavily wooded. Gibbon falls on the Gibbon river, gently drop down 84 feet. All throughout we saw a variety of geysers, springs, vents and mudpots and saw steam rising from thermal waters below. In some places, we got sprayed by the sulphuric waters.  

I have always loved caves and naturally air conditioned caverns. The Lewis and Clark limestone caverns are spectacularly lined with stalactites, stalagmites and helictites and it was a beautiful walk to the entrance on a trail that provided some of the most amazing views of the surrounding mountains.

Day trip to Helena from Big Sky and Bozeman was long but lovely. Helena is the state capital and it’s capitol building is absolutely spectacular. The city of Helena extracted millions of dollars of gold from the mining camps and perhaps some of the prosperity is evidence of old money. The architecture of century old cathedral of Saint Helena is gorgeous and inspiring. We had a delicious dinner at one of the many lovely outdoor restaurants on the main street.

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Alaska – Land & Cruise — August, 2019


Alaska – via land — Wasilla, Palmer, Anchorage, Talkeetna, Healy, Fairbanks, Denali

IMG_20190807_161150440-1.jpgMy Alaskan adventure began in Wasilla and Palmer, Alaska. During 1930s, Great Depression, at a time when people had few sources of income, the Government invited Americans to settle in Alaska and do farming. After strict screening of applicants, 203 families were selected. Each family was allotted several thousand acres in Alaska and was given $3000 as starting incentive. They settled near Palmer. Today Palmer is a little town with a small but vibrant downtown with a little museum that celebrates the original inhabitants and their descendants. While I waited for my friend to arrive, I had a beautiful day visiting the shops and learning some history from chatty shop owners.  

IMG_20190811_105424848.jpgIMG_20190813_170931147.jpgWe stayed the night in Anchorage and began the 250 mile drive towards Healy. We were greeted by most amazing vistas with rolling snow capped mountains, glaciers and rivers interspersed with forests. In Alaska, you get all the nature your heart desires and it is teeming with wild life. We saw a hare, a black bear and a couple of hyenas. On the way we stopped at the beautiful town of Talkeetna and enjoyed its quaint shops, had fireweed ice cream and birch candy and then came across what we thought was a routine vista point. That was Mount Denali South viewpoint and the view was just breathtaking.

 

Denali, also known as Mount McKinley, with elevation of over 20,000 feet is the highest mountain in North America. It was a clear day and we could see the gorgeous mountain, in all its majestic beauty.

IMG_20190809_204306653.jpgFrom Healy we went to town of Denali and then visited Cheena hot springs in Fairbanks.  Besides being known for its sulphuric hot springs, Cheena is known for viewing of Aurora Borealis. Unfortunately, we did not get to see Aurora, except in a documentary, in a museum.  But we thoroughly and absolutely enjoyed soaking in the hot springs. Very reluctantly, I emerged out the relaxing waters.  We drove back to Anchorage enjoyed the day in Anchorage touring the downtown area, visited a little street fair and market and then proceeded on the beautiful drive South to the port of Seward. The drive was lovely. Seward is also a lovely little town and we enjoyed the walk through in the town before boarding the cruise at Holland America.

After we boarded the cruise…… 

 

Haines, AK – Absolute awesomeness of natural beauty in Alaska will make your soul sing happy tunes. A small five mile inlet called Glacier Bay exposes travelers to perhaps world’s most majestic wilderness area. It covers over 3.2 million acres of forest, inlet and shore with mountain peaks rising over 15,000 feet, towers of ice and many glaciers. Tidewater glaciers are rivers of ice that flow to the sea and from time to time large chunks of ice break free and flow into the ocean. There are seven such glaciers here. 

 

Margerie Glacier – Margerie glacier is truly Alaska’s spectacular gem of a glacier. The views were so amazing that on a sunny day, a boat load of people were watching on the deck, in stunned silence. And after rumbling sound followed by thunderous cracks, when large chunks of ice began to break off, the people erupted in oohs and aahs…

 

Juneau, Alaska & Mendenhall Glacier – This land keeps revealing more and more beauty and each new sight competes with the previous one for top spot. Mendenhall Glacier is about 13 miles long, located in Mendenhall Valley it is about 12 miles from downtown Juneau. The glacier terminates in Mendenhall lake where the views are stunning. We gazed upon the blue hues emanating from this spectacular glacier, then walked up to the visitor center and gawked upon more spectacular views from the top. Mendenhall Glacier is overflowing with beauty, with nature and wild life. While we didn’t see the bear, we saw a porcupine very up close.  Here’s a little joke we heard on the way. Why are Alaska state employees not allowed to look out of the window in the morning? So they could look out of the window in the afternoon. Actually life moves in a slow lane here and many residents take up to 4 month break and go away to the “lower 48” during winter, to work as a contractor or visit family. Small request: Regardless of your political affiliation, please take care of these gorgeous glaciers. Gunalcheesh (thank you) in Tinglits lingo. We also took Mount Roberts Tramway from right near the cruise ship dock for a short ride up 1,800 feet up the mountain. From there we got to see spectacular views of the city of Juneau and Gastineau Channel and did some shopping of gifts for friends. 

 

Kachikan, Alaska – Kachikan is a lovely city facing the Inside Passage and is known for its Native American totem poles. We did not get to visit Misty Fjords, a glacier carved wilderness with snow capped mountains and waterfalls and salmon spawning streams. Kachikan has a vibrant wild life with black bears, wolves and bald eagles. We visited Tongass National Forest which also has a salmon spawning stream. We were incredibly fortunate to see a bald eagle fly fairly up close with its completely majestic display of wings spread out. I could not get to my camera in time to capture the incredible flight but I will forever savor the sight. We also visited a bald eagles sanctuary. Injured or old eagles who cannot survive in the wild, are cared for there and they also work doing little shows for visitors.   We visited Totem Pole museum and then visited Creek Street, the former red-light district that is now turned into an arts and craft and museum area. 

 

Our Alaska journey ended in Vancouver, Canada but the incredible expansive beauty of  Alaska is seared forever in our memory. Alaska is truly the last most glamorous frontier that is easily accessible and offers spectacular awesomeoness in all its majestic glory for everyone to enjoy. It is up to each one of us, to do little some thing that we can do to preserve and protect this incredible and gorgeous land.

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India Trip – Kerala, Gujarat, Maharashtra: People, places, possibilities, pant suits & palazzos – Oct-Nov, 2017


IMG_20171109_163518289.jpgThis time my India trip was all about people.  I had many discussions around religious beliefs, stayed in many homes, debated and discussed what needs fixing (and there is a lot and mostly I did not bring this up) and what works and why and of course enjoyed world’s most incredible diverse range of cuisine available; enjoyed gawking at incredible, ever evolving, new fashionable clothing like gowns, pant suits and palazzos, and breathtakingly gorgeous jewellery.  

Kerala: Diversity of fruits, plants and foliage all growing together and jostling for space and thriving alongside each other in Kerala is just astounding... And amidst vast tea plantations, valleys full of cardamom trees, are bamboo, jackfruit, coffee, Cocoa, plantains, banana, cloves, tons of green peppercorns, cloves, supari, papaya, guava, sitafal, mango and more. And all these teaming with equally diverse animal life including taher mountain goats, elephants, possums and vast vast varieties of birds like maina, bluebirds etc. My friend who accompanied me was like a walking encyclopedia on all native plants and pointed out each variety as we passed them by.  Enjoyed chilling in house boat at Alleppey and enjoyed touring amazing Thekkady, Munnar in “God’s own country”, Kerala.

 

 

God-crazy India – Slightly with a sense of alarm and slightly lovingly, I wonder if India has gone God crazy.. I  found that there is a segment of Indian population that has clearly become more secular and refuse to partake in religion fueled divisiveness. Then there is a substantial segment that has become clearly much more religious. In the early morning of the day I landed and went to a small eatery, the waiter went and poured tea on a nearby tree and when questioned by me, explained that first tea has to go to the tree. Gods, rituals, and shrines keep multiplying in India and practically every Indian has a real ghost story. In one city, the government installed artistic statues of deities in the middle of four way streets to beautify the place. Very soon people began to go there and started praying there. I found catholics fiercely differentiating themselves from their closest siblings, the protestants.  A Shiya Muslim cab driver was staunchly asserting that Hindus don’t understand the differences but all terrorist acts are always carried out by Sunnis and unequivocally stated there can never be peace between Shiyas and Sunnis. When my friend asked the cabbie to stop at a spirits store to purchase a bottle of alcohol, he said we should have said it earlier and then he would not have accepted us as passengers because it was against his religion to enable people to drink.

 

A Hindu woman protested the assertion by Jains and Buddhists to be counted as separate religions because according to her they are all offshoot of Hinduism. Jains fear being swallowed and losing their identity in the amorphous and boundaryless system of Hinduism and equally staunchly assert their identity. And finally, as a most interesting experience, a Jain woman asserted how important are the differences between two sects of Jainism. One of the outward difference between the two sects of Jainism is that God keeps eyes open in one and halfway closed in the other. When I said it was a superficial difference, she explained how significant it was that the God kept the eyes halfway closed (never mind, that the statues are made by people).

I came away feeling more like Ron Reagan Junior (an active atheist). One atheist famously has said, “most people are atheists anyway about most religions, I just go one religion too far”.

Clothes Crazy India: Somehow I came away feeling like all of India and not Paris should be dubbed the fashion capital of the world. Incredible innovation in clothing styles and jewellery has made every Indian woman a fashionista, be it a cleaning woman, a beggar on the street or one living in a big mansion. There are incredible styles of clothes available to suit every pocket, everyone’s choice of color, style and size. In amazement, I stared at billboards and loved gawking and people watching at airports, hotels and on streets.

Enormously hospitable and friendly India – During this trip to India, I stayed in many homes, connected with my cousins on mother’s side, father’s side, with friends and neighbors from early childhood and from school and college days and with friends visiting from California and their families and friends in India. My cousins, friends, neighbors, friends’ friends and families and strangers in whose orbit I came, accepted me as their own, and at the same time, gave me the best things, fed the best items. My heart was filled with love and gratitude in each home that I visited, and in each interaction. Even when people held different beliefs than mine, even when I questioned and debated, in the end, I was in their orbit and I was accepted based our similarity as humans.  Over and over people told me that they loved to have me because I was so genuine and adaptable and I responded always that how can anyone not adapt when surrounded by such love and hospitality? I left eagerly for my homeland, but I left my motherland with a heavy heart. As I reminisce, I don’t miss the noise (it seems in India, there is a competition to rise above the din, bells in the temples are loudest, cars and scooters honk for no reason, people burst reams of firecrackers that last full 2-3 minutes when you cannot talk with the person sitting next to you inside a home, and even babies cry louder here). I don’t miss the air pollution (I yearned for a deep breath of fresh there). I don’t miss the dirt and grime (though there is considerable improvement in that). But I do deeply miss and remember people and their love, possibilities that exist, palazzos and pantsuits, gorgeous gowns, sarees and fashionable blouses that I wasn’t able to take my eyes off, the potential that India holds.

 

 

 

 

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Four beautiful cities in Europe – Prague, Budapest, Vienna, Salzburg – July, 2017


We arrived in Munich, Germany and spent the day on our own touring the city, specifically the Central Marienplatz Square surrounded by Neo Gothic landmarks and high end modern stores. Next day we joined organized tour by Cosmos and started driving towards Prague.  On the way, we stopped at Nuremberg, a city in northern Bavaria, distinguished by medieval architecture. The Hauptmarkt (central square) contains the Schöner Brunnen, the gilded “beautiful fountain” with tiers of figures, and Frauenkirche, a 14th-century Gothic church. Strolled the square and enjoyed gelato.

 

 

Prague is capital of new Czech Republic. Part of Czechoslovakia, the Czech Republic was in a sort of a time wrap behind the Soviet iron curtain until 1989. When the curtain fell, a McDonald’s opened within 29 minutes and the country has not looked back since. Along with many trappings of the modern society, there are stark reminders of the past. The countryside is still lined up with insipid looking 10+ story buildings, many of them without an elevator, that were used to house the factory workers. The capital city Prague is bisected by the Vltava River and Charles bridge that is lined with statues of Catholic saints. Prague nicknamed “the City of a Hundred Spires,” is known for its Old Town Square, the heart of its historic core, with colorful baroque buildings, Gothic churches and the medieval Astronomical Clock, which gives an animated hourly show. Time was too short to enjoy this city with medieval charm and strong Austrian influence. Prior to World War I, Czechoslovakia was part of the mighty Austro-Hungarian empire. We did a quick deep dive into the history, palaces and churches of the city but I would have loved to spend time with the locals and learn more about how they lived under Soviet influence and relentless propaganda and what was it like to drink change through the fire hose when the curtain fell.

 


Wowed by
Vienna, capital of Austria. If Prague had a medieval feel, Vienna felt regal OR as locals say… It is very ShikiMiki…Situated on the Danube River, Vienna’s artistic and intellectual legacy has been shaped by it’s well known monarch, Maria Teresia and other Hapsburgs and genius artists like Mozart, Beethoven, Strausse and also Sigmund Freud. Strolling through the main square and landmark St. Stevens Cathedral and plague memorial was amazing. Besides tons of gelato, I also greatly enjoyed sunflower seeds bread and Saher chocolate torte at the world famous Saher cafe. Visit through the incredibly gorgeous Schönbrunn Palace and gardens gave an insight into the Habsburgs might and opulence.

 

I was completely blown away by Budapest’s beauty and medieval charm. I did not expect it. Budapest, Hungary’s capital, gets it’s name by merger of two cities Buda and Pest, bisected by the River Danube. Its 19th-century Chain Bridge connects the hilly Buda district with flat Pest. Nicknamed Paris of the East with sweeping vistas all around, and vibrant nightlife, this is a city to enjoy… Hungary, once part of the mighty Austro-Hungarian empire, is now a very small country of 10 million residents of whom 2M reside in Budapest. Hungarians feel bummed out as they were invaded, annexed, and ruled by many Invaders. But I feel due to circumstances or whatever the case may be, Hungary also happened to be on the losing side in both world wars and that loss exacted a stiff price. In WW II, Hungary made a choice to side with Hitler to get away from the Soviet Union but when Germany lost then in the global arena it was a very small country to have a say and it came under the Soviet control…. So Hungary got dinged both ways; first the Nazis took a toll and then under the communistic Soviet control. Fortunately Budapest’s incredible architecture stands intact. There is SO MUCH BEAUTY TO ENJOY HERE. The dinner cruise on the Danube was the highlight of the trip. While the vegetarian food was nothing to swoon about the gorgeous views all around and lighted buildings kept us riveted, with camera in hand.

 

Salzburg, Austria birthplace of Mozart, where the Von Trapp family of Sound of Music lived prior to escaping Hitler and where the movie is shot has sweeping views of the Eastern Alps with medieval and baroque buildings. To me, Sound of Music epitomizes freedom that sets you free to be a better human being and the courage it takes to do what’s right because freedom is a right but it’s also a responsibility and a privilege. On the way to Salzburg, on a rocky outcrop overlooking Danube river, adjoining the Wachau Valley, we saw Melk Abbey, originally built as a castle, it was gifted to become a church and survived threats and political upheavals. What’s an ordinary looking church from outside has entirely gold and gold plated interior with 40 kg of GOLD, its opulence meant to resonate with Benedictine tenet of “Glory to God in Everything!!!!!! At Salzburg, visited the places associated with the filming of the movie, walked through the town and ended up at the main square with it’s landmark cathedral, Mozart’s House, and shops and food.  Bought Austria’s famous marzipan Mozart chocolates and Salzburg Schnapps and of course a day in any city in Europe must include gelato.


We had our farewell dinner in Munich and took pictures, exchanged emails and departed next day with many beautiful memories.

 

 

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Morocco immersion tour – April, 2016


My daughter and I wanted to do a tour before she went away for next phase of her studies.  The decision to go to Morocco was somewhat random and we were pleasantly surprised.  We took conducted tour by Gate 1.  Our tour started in Rabat, capital city of Morocco.  Morocco is in North Africa, bordering the Atlantic Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea.   Originally inhabited by the Berbers, Berber is still spoken in Morocco, and it has Berber influence, along with Arabian and European cultural influences.

In Rabat, we visited the area where Royal Palace is located.  Morocco has constitutional monarch with young king holding large powers.  He married an engineer who was also a commoner and he is believed to be very progressive, passing several decrees that would benefit women.  We also strolled among ruins of Chellah, one of the most ancient human settlements.

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En route to Fez, we visited the ancient ruins at Volubilis and I was surprised to find them very similar to other ruins I have visited.  Well, guess what — they were from Roman empire.  Roman empire had expanded to become one of the largest empires in the ancient world, had at one point covered about 20% of the world’s population and covered 2.5 million square miles.  Volubilis has nicely preserved mosaics, Roman road and city layout and it is always fun to see Roman baths and even more fun to see Roman toilets where men sat in rows and talked while doing their job.  The evening dinner at the home of a local family was one of the earliest highlights of this trip.  They served wonderful 8 course meal beginning with sweets and followed by salad, breads, couscous, vegetarian pastilla (yummy), vegetarian tagine (traditional Moroccon dish cooked in special earthenware pots), followed by fruits, and more desserts (delicious) served with mint tea.

In Fez, we visited the crowded medina (narrow walled city, with maze like streets), with beautiful Medersa, Moulay Idreiss mausoleum, fountains, and Fez’s famous tanneries.  Fez Medina is UNESCO world heritage site.  We wandered through the souk (market) watching traditional craftsmen, visited authentic Moroccan carpet store, visited exterior of gorgeous Royal Palace gate, walked through the Jewish quarter and all the while stopping to shop for knickknacks, while also trying to stay with the group.  According to our guide, if we got lost in the Medina, it would be hard to find our way back and we would have to locate a Moroccan spouse.  I memorized some key words, should that happen, “Habibi oheb buka”.  

From Fez, en route to Arfoud, we travelled middle Atlas Mountains and lush Ziz valley.  We visited the fossil factory (fossils are big business here), a lively souk and one more opportunity to shop and negotiate and shop some more, and visited the 18th century ksar (castle).  Then we traveled to Rissani (small city, on the edge of the Sahara).  This was one of the most memorable experiences.  We had a delicious meal, in a small oasis, in the middle of the desert.  We relaxes in the shade for some time.  Then we traveled more interior and finally rode the camels to watch the sunset.  Until the sunset, we played in the sand dunes, carpet rode the hills (our guide pulled us down the steep hills on carpets, but climbing them back up took every ounce of our energy). We enjoyed absolutely incredible vistas with sky above in various hues and glistening red sand below (full of iron and no salt).

En route to Ouarzazate (a city with a funny name), we visited truly magnificent Todgha canyons, which rose to steep 800 feet.  We also passed lush Todgha and Dades valleys.  We passed Meggouna valley of roses.  It is filled with roses, and rose water, oils and creams from here are exported all over the world.  We walked in a Berber village, constructed in 12th century and still inhabited by Berbers.  Some of us hiked up to Ksar of Ait Benhaddou (enjoyed incredible vistas where many films have been shot), before proceeding through Tichka Pass (highest road point on Atlas Mountain chain) to the bustling city of Marrakesh.

In Marrakesh, we visited Saadian tombs, dating back to the 16th century, the Koutoubia Minaret (law forbids any buildings to be taller than the Minaret) and the beautiful Bahia Palace.  But Marrakesh’s main attraction was the Square and continued to be for the next three days.  The busy square was populated with Henna artists, snake and monkey charmers (saw this monkey grooming the owner for almost 30 minutes), all sorts of knick knacks, street food and the square branches off in various directions into the crowded busy markets, another towards a road full of restaurants, and yet another road leading to horse carriages for carriage rides.  

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En route to the beach and fishing town of Essaouira, we stopped at some Argan trees full of goats.  Small round fruit of Argan trees have thick peel that the goats love.  They used to freely roam and climb these trees and eat the peel and spit out the nuts.  People gathered these spitted nuts and ground them for culinary and skin care use.  But now Argan oil has become world famous, highly expensive, and a huge business here.  So a few Government sanctioned trees where goats are allowed to climb, serve mainly as tourist attractions.  Oh what a site.  For some reason, goats are my favorite animals.  I love mountain climbing goats, grassy plains goats and I just adored these Argan tree climbing goats.  Another truly memorable experience.  

 

We visited argan oil factory, run by a women’s cooperative.  Besides learning about argan trees and sampling some products, it was also a beautiful opportunity to learn about the democratic way this cooperative runs, where many women find friendships and support.  In Essaouira, we walked the streets and while some enjoyed fresh fish cooked to perfection, Neesha and I stumbled into a small cafe serving vegetarian burgers.  It was a wonderful meal, with the most delicious juice ever.  It was date, almond, avocado, and orange juice freshly made with just the right blend of the ingredients.

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Finally, at Casablanca (Morocco’s largest city), we visited the incredible Hassan II Mosque.  With 60 stories high Minaret, it is 13th largest mosque, topped by a laser light directed towards Mecca.  Part of it sits on the Atlantic ocean, with sea bed being visible through the glass floor (which we did not see), and has a retractable roof.  Inside its marble walls, 25,000 can gather for prayers and another 80,000 can pray on the mosque’s outside grounds.  It is packed with worshippers during Ramadan.  We also visited Notre Dame De Lourdes Catholic Church surrounded by beautiful stain glass.  We passed by the Rick’s Cafe, started recently by an enterprising American but were disappointed to learn that “Casablanca” was not shot in Casablanca.  

What a beautiful trip.  Morocco seems to enjoy a peaceful blend of cultures and its diverse terrain with high mountains, rugged coastline, winding alleys of the souks at Medinas, and sweeping desert, offered a range of experiences.   Walking past the cafes was a bit of the strange experience.  I called it, walking past viewing galleries.  Moroccan men sit outside the cafes, sipping mint tea and people watching (most likely, women watching).  Two men will not sit face to face but sit watching out, side by side, next to each other, often touching and enjoying a level of intimacy, not found among men in the US.  Also very often women walked together linking their arms.   Moroccan women don’t wear a veil but they may wear beautiful scarves and are mostly well covered.  Both men and women wear lovely long flowing robes that are very comfortable, called the Djellabas.

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Trip to Kyoto – Kinkaku-Ji Gold Temple, Shogun’s Castle, Kiyomizu-dera, Byodoin Temple, Fushimi Inari Shrine and trip to Kobe: Japan Travel


The best part of my trip to Japan was that we enjoyed different sites with so many of our Japanese hosts.  Each one of them was wonderful, infinitely kind and gracious and truly made our trip memorable.  We saw a lot of temples and shrines in Kyoto.  Kyoto is called a city of ten thousand shrines and has the most gorgeous shrines and temples.

wpid-20140825_130519-1.jpgOn first day in Kyoto, Piper and I met Hanada San and Nakagome San.  These two ladies are 83 and 81 years old and have been best friends for over four decades.  They are highly educated.  Hanada San studied languages and Nakagome San has PhD in Chemistry.  They use technology, accessed emails on their cell phones, and walked at such a fast pace and climbed stairs with such gusto that it would put young people to shame.

I found that in place of typical Japanese softness and roundabout way of saying things, older Japanese women are very direct.  They sit up so straight and exude such dignity as if every wrinkle is telling a tale of hardships overcome and character built.  These two gorgeous women were completely straight forward and totally direct.  Right away they made it abundantly clear that they were going to pay for everything, including meals, entrance fees, and various cab rides.

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They took us to Kinkaku-Ji gold temple.  This is a zen temple whose top two floors are completely covered in gold leaf.  There is another similarly named Silver temple, Ginkakuji that we did not see.  Kinkakuji is absolutely gorgeous temple, overlooking a large pond.  We could not go inside.  But we walked around outside and took pictures.wpid-20140825_124624.jpg

We went to a lovely restaurant with delicious vegetarian food for lunch.  Then we took a taxi and went to see beautiful rock garden and lotus garden.  Again the views were absolutely astounding and every place gave an idea of how seriously Japanese people take elements of beauty.  Hanada San and Nakagome San were lovely company.  Hanada San told me that she was just like my mother and I began calling her Mama San.

We took a taxi and went to see a Shogun’s castle, called Nijo Castle.  The castle castle has two concentric rings of fortifications, the Ninomaru Palace, the ruins of Honmaru Palace and various support buildings and several gardens.  In 1601, the founder of Tokugawa Shogunate, ordered all the feudal lords in Western Japan to contribute to the construction of the Nijo castle.  In 1867, the palace was the stage for the declaration of support to the emperor by Tokugawa Yoshinobu and the palace was returned to the Imperial Court.   wpid-20140825_145029.jpgwpid-20140825_162610.jpg

We were the last people to enter.  As we walked past an area, the caretakers closed the doors behind us.  We were the only people and so we clearly heard that as we walked by the wooden floors squeaked, but not in an annoying way.  The floors squeaked like the sound of the bird and they called it the nightingale squeak.  The squeak was designed to alert the shogun when someone was walking and so that no one would sneak up on anyone in the castle and yet it was designed to be gentle on the ears.  It was a gorgeous castle with lovely views outside.

We then went to Takashimaya, a huge shopping center and after some window shopping, went for dinner.  I wanted to climb up the seven floors, while everyone else took an elevator.  The floors however, did not go straight up but veered sideways on each floor and finally when I landed on the 7th floor, I emerged in the warehouse of a huge grocery store. I made my way out of the grocery store but could not locate them.  In English combined with sign language, I explained to the concierge to make an announcement for Piper, and they did.  I got found, and we had a hearty laugh during the lovely dinner!!  Hanada San and Nakagome San insisted on coming with us to the train station to buy tickets and stood waving goodbye at us for as long as they could see us.  Awww I was soooo touched!! What a memorable day!

wpid-20140828_172857.jpgWe enjoyed Kyoto again with Kozue and her daughters Hikari and Yuki and visited the Kiyomizu-dera shrine.  Kyomizu-dera temple was founded in 780 on the site of Otowa Waterfall, and is added to UNESCO world heritage sites.  The main temple juts out with a big wooden stage, 13 meters above the hillside below, offering gorgeous views of cherry and maple trees, along with the views of the city of Kyoto, in the distance. The main hall, along with the stage, was built without the use of nails.

Behind Kiyomizudera’s main hall is the Jishu Shrine, dedicated to the deity of love and matchmaking.  In front of the shirne are two stones, placed 18 meters apart.  If you can successfully walk from one to the other, with the eyes closed then it is said to bring luck, in finding love.  If someone guides you and you reach the other stone then it means that an intermediary may be needed, in finding love.  At the shrine, there are many other little puzzles and special prayer places to help in finding love.  The Otowa Waterfall is located at the base of Kiyomizudera’s main hall. The waters come out in three separate streams and visitors use cups attached to long poles to drink from them. Each stream’s water is said to have a different benefit, namely to cause longevity, success at school, and a fortunate love life. However, drinking from all three streams is considered greedy, so you must choose, where to drink from.  Important lesson in prioritizing!wpid-20140828_184239.jpg

We walked up and down the souvenir street and then went to eat at hot pot restaurant for Okinawa cuisine.  Kozue was immensely sweet and discussed menu for me at great length to make sure that I got completely vegetarian food.  Later we walked around and enjoyed the Kyoto skyline at night and saw the reflection of the Kyoto tower on the glass building, opposite the tower and enjoyed the water fountain with music.

wpid-20140824_112118.jpgLater I enjoyed the visit with Lisa to the beautiful Byodoin Temple and garden.  While walking back from the temple, we stopped at a tea shop and then walked to the station.  But Lisa forgot her water bottle at the tea shop.  So we parted company, as she went back to retrieve the bottle and I went alone to Fushimi Inari Shrine.

wpid-20140829_135443-1.jpgFushimi Inari Shrine is at a base of Inari mountain (Inari mens God of rice) and has trails that go up the mountain to many smaller shrines, across 4 kilometers.  The distinctive feature of this shrine is that entire walkways up are lined with literally thousands of vermilion or orange tori gates.  This is not only one of the most popular shrines among tourists visiting Japan but during Japanese New Year, it also draws several million Japanese worshipers.  It was great fun walking up the trail.

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wpid-20140829_150635-1.jpgWith Donna to Kobe

The highlight of my trip to Kobe was that quite unexpectedly, we ran into a Jain temple, even as I was explaining to Donna that during the religious days of Paryushan, I generally go at least one day to the temple and this may be the only year, when I would not be going, since I was in Japan.  As we accidently came upon a Jain temple, Donna insisted that it was not a coincidence and these events happen in our lives, when we have powerful intentions and that it is a part of the divine plan.  We walked in Kobe a lot.  Also went to the harbor, which was beautiful.  I love Manju, little Japanese dessert and ate a lot of that.wpid-20140827_141647.jpgwpid-20140827_130457.jpgwpid-20140827_094858.jpg

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Japan Travel – Koyasan Monastery: August, 2014


wpid-20140822_200202.jpgMarie-San and her husband Hiroyuki-San picked us up from Barbara’s home in Nara.  We drove for about 3 hours to a place called Koyasan which is a seat of one of the Shingon sect of Buddhism.  UNESCO has declared Mt. Koya as one of the world heritage sites. Located in a valley amid the eight mountain peaks, it is supposed to resemble a lotus and hence the location was selected as headquarters of the Shingon Buddhist sect.  We had a lovely lunch at a vegetarian place and then took a long walk where on both sides are beautiful graves of various people.  At the end of the road the founder of the sect is laid to rest and there is the head temple or Kongobu-Ji.  It started drizzling on our walk and Marie had brought umbrellas; so we walked in the gentle rain.  It was a beautiful start to awesome experience of spending time at the Buddhist monastery where Marie had made our booking.

 

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At the monastery, at the entrance we were to leave our shoes at the door and use the shoes provided by the monastery.  Our room was simple 6 by 6 tatami mat room, with a large table in the middle, where they served us welcome tea.  Marie and Hiroyuki came to our room and we all enjoyed the tea together.

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We ladies then went for the bath and men went into their own separate bath.  This was my first Japanese bathing experience and it was wonderful.  We each received a small wash towel and first scrubbed ourselves clean at our individual stalls.  Each stall was equipped with a tap and a shower head, a sitting stool, shampoo, and soap.  After thoroughly cleaning ourselves, we entered the bath and soaked in the warm water.  We scrubbed our bodies clean and rinsed and then entered the bath and soaked in the bath.  After we emerged clean and relaxed, we wore yucatas (bath robes) provided to us and then proceeded to a special room, where we were served dinner.  I don’t have words to describe the dinner.  It was amazingly beautifully served on two trays and had over 22 items and counting lids and chop sticks and chop sticks rester etc. there were 30 plus items.  Each item was served decorated into each server.  This was the most beautifully presented and the most delicious dinner I have ever had.

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wpid-20140822_173912.jpgwpid-20140822_200226.jpgAfter dinner, there was still some time before the curfew (at 9 pm).  So we changed into regular clothes and went for a night walk and to watch the pagodas that were lighted.  It was enormously beautiful.  We returned before 9 pm and went to bed and were at the mantra chanting by 6 am.  After an hour of prayers, mantra chanting, and a lecture by the monk, we went for breakfast.  Again amazed by the care with which it was served and we ate in silence or minimally talking only when necessary.  We then toured the garden and went to another temple for meditation.   Here Marie had planned meditation training for us.  After each set of instructions, the priest paused, while Marie translated in English for us.  We then walked around the various pagodas and had lunch and started towards Nara.wpid-20140823_082903.jpg

wpid-20140823_103848.jpgwpid-20140823_082937-1.jpgUpon reaching Nara, we went for supa cento.  Those are public baths on a much larger scale.  There were at least 15 pools or baths (by my count), baths that included cold bath, hot bath, outdoor pool, cave pool, salt bath, small bath tub, lying down shallow pool, jacuzzi with different jets, electric bathing pool, outdoor small pool with TV and there was wet sauna, hot sauna and so on.  There were special massage baths as well for those who wanted to pay etc.  This was a highlight of the trip.  I enjoyed the Japanese bathing experience so much that I made a special request that Marie plan at least one more day of supa cento and she did even though she and Hiroyuki-San had to drive several hours to drop me back since I missed the train back!!

 

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Japan Travel – Nara


Touring Japan was an amazingly refreshing experience.  I will post a series of blogs, to cover different regions of Japan or different experiences I had in Japan. This blog is on our time in Nara.  Nara is the capital city of Nara Prefecture, in Kansai region of Japan.

As the plane was landing into Osaka, I looked down at the ocean and the scene with multiple ships similar gray looking ships (with only variation in sizes), looked almost exactly like the board of the game “Battleship”.  I felt a bit emotional thinking about my father going to Japan, almost 45 or so years ago.  He established great collaborations, with sole agency to sell Toshiba and National electronic products in Ethiopia and other parts of Africa, a business that brought much prosperity for the family, in years to come.

wpid-20140820_125615.jpgLanded into Osaka airport and took airport bus to Nara where Barbara’s husband Iishu picked us up.  They live in Byakugo-Ji, a small little village, in Nara.  While Barbara, Piper and I went for a walk around the village, Iishu set the table and put finishing touches on the dinner.  This place, a little eco habitat as Barabra calls it, is teaming with wild life.  We had to ask Iishu to identify multiple sounds, at different hours in the day.  The crows were the most vocal, noisy and as Barbara explained, most intrusive.  Garbage had to be left outside in little netted boxes to prohibit crows from picking apart garbage bags and making a mess.  Then there were certain types of cicadas that were buzzing till late in the night.  The morning came alive by 4 am with sounds from sparrows, various birds and of course the crows.  The village is dotted with gorgeous little houses.  Daily I was the first one to get up and I went for a lovely walk and often saw older Japanese women tending to their gardens with great care.

Iishu-San had prepared a lavish dinner with a some completely vegetarian items.  The table was beautifully set with rice served in the bowl with delicious little plum pickle in the middle to represent the Japanese flag.  We discussed itinerary and made calls and plans.wpid-20140826_185035.jpg

wpid-20140820_113425.jpgwpid-20140820_112917.jpgNext day, Barbara, Piper and I went to see the Big Buddha in Nara.  There we wrote a message on a tile and donated it to the temple, for the roof.  Barbara asked me to write something in gujarati and I wrote Aum Shanti.  We then walked around, took pictures with the deer, one of them came and licked me.  Deer in Japan don’t run away.  In fact at wpid-20140820_110552.jpgMiyajima, one of them put his head into my bag that I had left on the ground and I chased him and picked up the bag so the deer kept following me. Then I became the one being chased, I was scared and started running away from the deer.

wpid-20140820_115523.jpgBarbara, Piper and I went to a beautiful garden and walked around and took pictures.  Then we went to a tiny Japanese restaurant and had cold udon noodles.  Barabra explained in detail that I did not eat any kind of meat, including dashi (fish sause) which is ubiquitous in almost all Japanese cooking; and they were very gracious in accommodating our needs.wpid-20140820_142817.jpg

We shopped for groceries and got home and I cooked Indian dinner; Chole to serve with nan, pavbhaji to serve with bread, and eggplant pulao, and bundi raita.  They enjoyed the dinner immensely.

wpid-20140826_203725.jpgwpid-20140826_210722.jpgWe stayed a few days in Nara.  Our hosts were extremely gracious.  One day, after dinner, we got a special “show and tell” from Iishu-san.  Iishu happens to be an artist and a phenomenal story-teller.  From his childhood memories, he has made several small paintings and has special stories to go with them.  He showed us the paintings and regaled us with stories, which were not only entertaining, but gave a deep insight into olden (pre-internet) days, into Japanese culture, and into his own life.  wpid-20140826_210841.jpg

One highlight was a rainy day when several friends visited us.  We walked around Nara, did window shopping, shared umbrellas, found vegetarian food, and later had coffee in a beautiful cafe.  One day, our host, Iishu-San took us to a temple of new Shinto order and we sat there, enjoying the rhythmic sound and ritual of the prayers.  wpid-20140824_112129.jpg

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