Wednesday, July 17, 2019

Girls Weekend in Mumbai

Despite monsoon season and recent flooding, me and my girls braved the elements to enjoy a weekend trip to Mumbai.

One of our very first stops was Leopold Cafe.  The sign boasts that it's been in business since 1871.  I first heard of Leopold when reading Shantaram, an excellent novel set in Mumbai in which the main character frequents Leopold.  The cafe was also a sight of the November 26, 2008 terror attacks in Mumbai, which loom large in the memories of Indians.  The cafe maintains high security at the door, but otherwise we enjoyed our drinks and had some laughs with our very amusing waiter.

Maribel, Erica, and Karime at Leopold Cafe

From there we visited the iconic monument of Mumbai, the Gateway of India.  It was completed in 1924 to commemorate a visit by King George V.  Placed at the Mumbai harbor, it looks out over the Indian Ocean.  The view wasn't stunning on a cloudy day, but the archway remained impressive.

Karime at the Gateway of India

Later in the day, we entered another colonial landmark, the Chhatrapati Shivaji (Victoria) Terminus. The building was a spectacle of Gothic and Victorian architecture with gargoyles that almost rival Notre Dame.  The inside was equally impressive.  It was bright, airy, and clean, with sparkling gold columns.  Let me remind you:  This was a train India.  The contrast to Delhi's dark, dirty train station was striking.

Is this really an Indian train station or are we being punked?

We took a break from colonial architecture to view a modern marvel.  Mukesh Ambani is the Chairman of Reliance Industries and one of the 10 richest people in the world.  His "residence" houses 600 staff, is 27 stories tall, has 9 elevators and 3 helipads.  The house actually wasn't on our itinerary, but our very helpful Uber driver suggested that it was just a small detour from our designated route, so we couldn't resist a photo op.

The helipads are up there somewhere

We returned to the colonial era for high tea at the Taj Mahal Palace hotel.  We stuffed ourselves with traditional tea fare like cucumber sandwiches and scones, but also added some Indian flare with pani puri and chaat.  With that, our Mumbai monsoon weekend was over, without ever getting rained on. Nice job ladies!

Pinkies out ladies!

Thursday, June 13, 2019

Taj Mahal

After more than a year in India, I finally visited the Taj Mahal!  I'd been hearing for months from Indians, "You must have been to the Taj Mahal by now."  And they were completely baffled when I replied, "Not yet."  I knew a friend would eventually visit and give me the opportunity to tour the Taj with them.  And it finally happened when my friends from Baku, Jodi and April, visited in March.

First glimpse of the Taj Mahal through the Main Gate entrance

We drove to Agra the night before and then gathered in the hotel lobby at 6:00 am to catch the Taj at sunrise.  (The sun was already up, but hey, close enough!)  Unfortunately, one member of our group did not appear in the lobby.  We called his mobile, texted, called his room from the reception desk, and finally went to bang on his door.  No response.  We shrugged and proceeded to one of the modern Seven Wonders of the World without him.

Tariq, Erica, Jodi, and April

We had a great guide named Shariq who offered us many interesting facts about the Taj, none of which I checked for veracity!  He stated that the Taj is the only great monument of the world built for love.  Even if it's not true, it's romantic, so I won't question it.  (For those shaky on their Indian history, Emperor Shah Jahan began building the Taj in 1631 as a mausoleum for his favorite and beloved wife Mumtaz after she died giving birth to her umpteenth child.  I found references to it being her 13th, 14th, or 15th child, so I won't lead you astray by picking a wrong number.)

Taj Mahal from a different perspective

Shariq also mentioned that the Taj is 100 percent symmetric EXCEPT for one feature.  He gave us most of the visit to guess it, then finally pointed out that Mumtaz's tomb is in the center of the mausoleum, with Shah Jahan's tomb to her right, but no corresponding tomb to her left.  He also pointed to the crowd gathered around a particular bench waiting to take photos.  He said that was the "Diana Bench" and tourists always clamored to take photos while sitting on it.  But, when Princess Diana visited the Taj in 1992, it was actually a different bench she sat on for her photo shoot!

Erica holding the Taj?

Speaking of photos, Shariq loved posing us for various photos:  with the Taj reflected in our sunglasses; with us reflected in the pools; individual shots; group shots; holding the camera down low; going in for close-ups, etc.  As you can see above, I was not fully on board with all these shenanigans of getting the cheesy "must-have" tourist pic of the Taj.  But we did get a lot of wonderful pics and create wonderful memories of our trip to this architectural wonder.

Final shot of the Taj Mahal

Saturday, May 4, 2019

Sri Lanka

Over the Easter holiday, I took a wonderful trip to Sri Lanka.  We spent several days in Mirissa, a lovely beach town on the South Coast.  The turquoise waters were a perfect bathwater temperature. And the waves were amazing!  No wimpy little swells.  Crashing waves that sometimes made my heart skip a beat as they threatened to maul me.  They brought back fond memories of summertimes at the Jersey Shore, jumping the waves of the Atlantic Ocean.  Of course, the Jersey Shore didn't offer fabulous fresh coconuts...or warm water for that matter!

Erica drinking fresh coconut on Mirissa Beach
While the beach was fantastic, Sri Lanka had so much more to offer than just beaches.  We were completely charmed by the Fort of Galle.  We walked along the fort walls, with stunning views over the Indian Ocean.  In addition to admiring the seaside views, we stopped for cocktails, lunch, and coffee at three different cafes in the Fort area.  Total overkill, right?!?  And we visited several cute boutiques with fun souvenirs.  The entire Fort was perfect for strolling and just soaking in both the natural and manmade atmosphere.  We were also lucky enough to catch the sunset as the capstone to our Galle visit.

Sunset over the Indian Ocean in Galle
Sri Lanka is one of the top producers of cinnamon in the world.  We learned this and other facts about cinnamon during our visit to Mirissa Hills Cinnamon Estate.  We saw how cinnamon is planted, harvested, and rolled into shapely sticks.  We also visited Handunugoda Tea Estate, where we tasted many varieties of Sri Lanka's famous Ceylon tea that is exported across the globe.

Fresh cinnamon anyone?
Besides these agricultural exports, we were excited to consume the other bounties of Sri Lanka - namely fresh coconut juice and seafood!  I drank a fresh coconut each day I was in Mirissa.  They may or may not have been spiked with vodka.  At our first dinner in Sri Lanka, my friend Dorian ordered crab.  When the waiter came to me, I also ordered crab.  He paused and said "But your friend already ordered crab."  I looked the waiter square in the face and said "Yeah...and I want my own crab." I then had to eat my words and a whole lot of crab to clean my plate and prove the little woman could eat an entire crab of her own.  

Smiles all around for fresh coconut :)
With happy stomachs and spirits, we headed towards the airport for our return flight to New Delhi. Along the way, a friend shared a vague news article about an explosion in Colombo.  Then I received an email about more bombings.  We turned on the radio and heard that six bombs had exploded in Sri Lanka that morning.  Airport operations were unaffected, so we continued to the airport.  As we approached the terminal, we slowed to a crawl and then spent the next 40 minutes inching forward towards a new checkpoint where security officials were screening every car and opening every trunk.  At the terminal entrance, every bag was opened and searched.  After that we proceeded as normal to the gate and returned to Delhi without incident.

Erica & Karime at Colombo Fort's Clock Tower
We learned that one of the bombs had gone off at the Kingsbury Hotel in Colombo.  Earlier in our trip, we had taken the above photo at the Clock Tower in Colombo.  Then we walked down the block and passed right by the Kingsbury.  We also heard that an unexploded bomb was found near the airport, and we probably passed right by it as we waited in the long line of cars entering the airport.  We are thankful that is the extent of our encounters with this tragedy, but our hearts ache for Sri Lanka at this time.

Sunday, February 24, 2019

Mughal Gardens

Erica jumps for joy in front of Rashtrapati Bhavan
Rashtrapati Bhavan is the Presidential Residence of India.  According to Wikipedia, it is the largest residence of any head of state in the world.  It was originally built as the home of the British Viceroy when Delhi became the capital of India in the early 1900s.  The 330-acre estate includes the 15-acre Mughal Gardens, which are open free to the public in February/March every year.

Erica at the Musical Garden
One of the first stops on the Mughal Garden tour was the Musical Garden.  I absolutely love musical fountains, so I was ecstatic!  The others in my group commented that it's the only fountain they've ever seen that danced to Bollywood music.  Unfortunately, the music stopped just as I was about to record a video.

Rashtrapati Bhavan from the Mughal Gardens
From there, we moved on to the Main Garden, which is designed in the Mughal style with water canals symmetrically dividing the garden sections.  From here, we also took lots of great photos of the Rashtrapati Bhavan building.

Erica by a Mughal canal in the Main Garden
The weather was absolutely beautiful for our visit.  We seemed to have finally emerged from the Delhi winter.  Yes, we actually have winter here, although many of you will scoff at winter lows in the 40s. More importantly, the main winter pollution season has also passed and the air quality was good, the skies were blue, and the sun was warm.

Circular Garden
The final stop on the tour was the Circular Garden.  This was a section where you could actually get close to the flowers without being blocked by ropes or long expanses of grass.  Everything was in full bloom so I felt immersed in color, with flowers on both sides of the walkway.  Thank you to India's President for allowing us into your garden each spring!

Saturday, February 9, 2019

Cirque du Soleil

Dorian, Erica, Maribel, and Mary practice their acrobatic moves
When I heard that Cirque du Soleil was coming to New Delhi, it was an event I did not want to miss! I've seen Cirque du Soleil before and knew they put on a fabulous performance.  This show, Bazzar, was no exception. 

Bouncy Tightrope
The picture above was what I'm calling the bouncy tightrope.  The rope was strung perhaps 3 or 4 feet off the ground.  Much of the act involved the performer bouncing high off the rope, flipping in the air, and then landing back on the rope.  In this picture, though, he's not bouncing.  He's wrapped his ankles around the rope and is balancing while hanging off the side...obviously with no hands!

One of the best things about seeing the show in New Delhi was that the tickets were cheaper than in America.  We had 3rd row seats for under $100.  It was amazing to be so close to see the performers' facial expressions and to take decent pictures.

Pole Man
I had a hard time thinking of a good name for the performer pictured above.  There was a wooden pole in the middle of the stage and he climbed up it and balanced himself in different positions.  In this picture, he's made it to the top, balancing on one hand.  I love how I snapped the picture just as the backup dancer was posed as if he was looking up at the acrobat in wonder.

Another fabulous aspect of the show was the music.  There was one man who seemed to play every imaginable instrument, from piano to horn to drums.  And there was a woman with the most amazing, powerful, thrilling singing voice.  I was mesmerized every time she appeared on stage.

Seesaw Jumpers
The seesaw jumpers bounced each other high in the air where they did flips and twists before landing back on the seesaw to return the favor to their partner.  Sometimes they were so high, they went above my camera frame.

Now to explain the first photo above.  There was no photoshopping involved!  The lobby of the arena had a photo booth with a fun spherical jungle gym.  So we climbed in - and in my case on - for an awesome group pic showing off our Cirque moves!

Cirque du Soleil Ensemble Dance

Monday, January 14, 2019

Bagan Temples of Myanmar

With my friend Jane living in Myanmar working for the United Nations, I didn't want to miss the chance of being so close but not visiting.  Jane took me to the Bagan Archaeological Zone, a region in central Myanmar studded with 3000 temples built mostly between the 11th and 13th centuries.  

Erica and Jane at Tharabar Gate

Many of the temples were Buddhist and received the faithful bringing offerings and performing worship.  I participated by applying a piece of gold leaf to a Buddha statue.  This act of merit-making supposedly improved my changes of reaching a better future life.

Erica earning merit

The temples also provided rich fodder for fun photos.  Jane assured me that doing silly poses in front of the Buddha statues would not reduce the merit I had just earned with the gold leaf.  Actually, she didn't say that, but she promised it wouldn't be seen as offensive, so I forged ahead!

Erica losing merit??

The most-touristed temples were large and grand, with carvings, morals, and Buddhas galore.  These temples often had impressive golden spires with maze-like inner passages winding past endless Buddha images.

Ananda Temple

As part of our Bagan experience, we rented e-bikes - electric-battery-powered motorbikes.  Although I had driven a moto around a parking lot once while living in Cambodia, this was my first time really driving a motorbike, on real streets with other real vehicles.  Granted, these e-bikes topped out at 30 mph, but even after 6 hours, I still never executed smooth turns or conquered my fear of wiping out disastrously.

First time driving a moto!

Despite my uneasiness about the e-bike, it was the highlight of the trip.  Because the real beauty of Bagan was in its atmosphere:  cruising down quiet tree-lined paths; admiring the surrounding landscape sprinkled with small, unnamed temples; suddenly seeing one of the larger temples pop into view; soaking in the peaceful spirit of the area.

Erica enjoying the peaceful beauty of Bagan

Sunday, December 30, 2018

Capital City Minstrels

Since grade school, I have sung in choirs:  school choir, church choir, community choir.  In fact, I have sung in every city I've lived in, even overseas!  Some groups have been small, all-women choirs. Others have been large ensembles of men and women accompanied by a full orchestra.  Many people only associate choirs with church.  While my choirs have always sung some religious music - how can you ignore all the classical greats like Handel and Mozart and even the modern composers like Lauridsen and Bernstein who composed beautiful music based on the Latin mass? - I've also sung plenty of secular music like Broadway tunes, rock ballads, folk songs, pop hits, and more.

Erica singing with Capital City Minstrels

Here in Delhi, I joined the Capital City Minstrels in February 2018.  CCM, as it's known, was formed in 1994 with only 10 singers.  It has now grown to over 40 members and traveled periodically to Europe for performances.  Currently, the group is made up primarily of Indian singers, with a smattering of expats from America, England, Germany, and elsewhere.

Capital City Minstrels in concert

This December, we performed a holiday concert on the theme of peace, with songs about the beauty of winter and the hope of the Christmas season.  One song about a moonlit winter's night inspired our outfits of silver and blue.  Yes, that's me in a sari!  I have to give a shoutout to my fellow choir members who helped drape the sari on me beautifully.  I was hopeless at it myself.  At home, I simply wrapped the sari around myself like a mummy so I could get out the door fully clothed.  Then once arriving at the concert venue, I begged others to fix me up appropriately.

Erica with her fan club!

I was lucky to have several of my embassy friends come see me in concert.  I was really touched by their support and praise.  Some of them had never been to a choir concert before!  Below is a short clip of my favorite song from the concert:  "Sing Alleluia" by Sally K. Albrecht.  May it bring you a moment of joy and peace this holiday season.  Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to all!