Wednesday, November 01, 2017

Mahabalipuram (or Mamallapuram) highlights

Just an hour or two south of the bustle of Chennai, Mahabalipuram offers a slower pace, space, quiet, cleaner air and a beachfront location that makes it an ideal place to get over jetlag, or just to relax for a while.

Some area highlights include:
·      The monuments
The carved rock monuments of Mahabalipuram are one of the most stunning sights I’ve had the pleasure of seeing in India.  The large rock sheets and structures pulse with the life of elephants, gods, animals, vessels and human figures.    

It is easy to walk from one monument to another.  I read that the light is best in the early morning and late afternoon, so I visited during an early morning, when the combination of the light and few crowds makes it easy to see the monuments come alive in their natural surroundings. 

I started at the Pancha Rathas [open 6-6; 500 rupees for foreigners), where I purchased a ticket to the series of monuments and walked among temples featuring humans and set amidst boulders. Each were carved from a single large rock in the 7th century and rediscovered only 200 years ago.  A single life-size baby elephant figure, when faced head on, appeared to be moving it’s large and bulky body towards me. I could imagine it moving on an ancient street. 

From Pancha Rathas, I walked up the light house for a view across the boulders and the greenery over the town and to the sea beyond.  

From there I visited the 8th century sandstone Shore Temple, located on the shoreline.  Nearby, people streamed onto the beach on the weekend morning, adding color to the pale blue water, the beige sand and the grey-blue sky with the rainbow brush stroke of colorful clothing. 

My favorite  monument is Arjuna’s Penance, a stunning wall of carved stone that is both a work of art and an amazing human accomplishment.  Stone women carry jugs on their heads, children grasp the hands of their elders, a tall man stretches high, another wraps his arm around the shoulders of an elder. Someone milks a long-horned cow, a calf nearby.  One elephant follows another. Scenes that could take place today just as much as when the sculpture was created.

My final stop was the Ganesha Ratha park area, which includes Krishna’s butter ball, a giant stone that looks like it is about to roll on top of the strollers and picnickers that fill the park on weekends.  This is a nice place to rest or to people watch as families stroll or relax in the park.  

·      Dhakshina Chitra
Dhakshina Chitra is an ethnographic museum located north of Mahalbalipuram, making it a convenient place to stop on the way to or from Chennai. Upon paying admission (250 rupees for foreign visitors), an introductory movie in English provides some preliminary information about South India.  Then you can stroll the open-air facility, walking into exhibits as you wish, while feeling like you are stopping in at a neighbor’s house.

The main attraction is the collection of houses that show the living conditions in Tamil Nadu and Kerala by religion and type of occupation.  Many houses incorporate traditional set-ups and furnishings, or display typical objects. Most offer the option of an activity you can try for a small fee, such as weaving a small basket or decorating a handkerchief with block printing. One of my favorites was the weavers home, where a man demonstrated weaving on a giant loom. The informational signs said that weavers typically did their work in the living areas, then stored the equipment at night. It was impressive to imagine taking out and putting away such a massive contraption every day. Another favorite was a circular coastal home, unlike any living structure I’ve seen before.  It has a round, protected nucleus, a safeguard from the monsoons, then a second ring covered by the thatched roof. Typically, the residents would sleep outside.

In addition to the exhibits, the facility includes a live performance area, a craft bazaar, a playground, restaurant and art gallery, making it easy to spend several hours there. It is a popular place for local families.  

·      The Mahabalipuram beach
Visit early on a weekend morning and you’ll see people streaming onto the beach.  It is an interesting place to people watch.  Many vendors nearby sell cut fruit and food from carts.  In addition to the main beach, there are areas further north and south where you can access the beach.

·      Local resorts
I have stayed at the Intercontinental and the Grande Bay Mahabalipuram.  Both offer a tranquil retreat space, as well as a variety of local activities, including yoga. 

·      Additional local attractions that I haven’t had the chance to explore, but may be worth visiting include: the seashell museum, crocodile bank, tiger caves, Vishnu temple, Varaha caves and Mahishasura Mardini cave.
·      Other things to do in town include ayurvedic massage and yoga. A center for serious students of yoga is Ph: 2744 2184; cell: 096772 97545;; 10/B 2nd cross Street, Venpurusham, Near Five Rathas, Mamallapuram – 603104)
Recommendation:  Try to visit the monuments in the earning morning or late afternoon for the coolest temperatures and the best light. 
Cost: 500 rupees to visit the monuments. 
Kid-friendly: Yes
Things to keep in mind:
Travel to Mahabalipuram is quicker if you arrive on a late night flight (when traffic is light).

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Mexico City Highlights

This is brief, because my visit was brief.  But I expect I’ll be return and will update this with future finds.  Here are a few things I particularly enjoyed:

1.              The parks.  In particular, a block along the Paseo de la Reforma that is lined with statues.  

2.              Coyoacan and the market.  Coyoacan is a beautiful, tree-lined area, with colorful older buildings, a historic elegance and a tranquil atmosphere.  The market is fun to walk through and the food stalls in the center of the market looked very appetizing. Unfortunately I didn’t time my visit to align with a meal, but I hope to do so in the future.

3.              The architecture.  There is beautiful architecture to admire in Mexico City.  I particularly enjoyed a red and blue building that looked as though it had been constructed from Legos, a purple building with an orange spiral staircase on an upper floor, and a building with open space built into the translucent structure about two thirds of the way up.

4.              Street food.  Food booths are everywhere, particularly around mass transit stations and markets.  You don’t have to go far to find a good taco, quesadilla or soup.  Look at where the others are going and try a bite of the local culinary scene.  One random find I particularly enjoyed was the Birreria y Taqueria Lupita, where friendly staff pressed fruit into juices and made tacos in full view of customers.  


Saturday, May 07, 2011

Celebrating the ideal mother

In honor of mother’s day, I thought I’d write about an article I saw in the Nigerian newspaper Weekly Trust. Around this time last year, it ran a full page article on Celebrating the Ideal Mother.

The introductory paragraph reads, “An ideal mother is one who inculcates the best of family values in her children. She also has tons of patience to put up with the childish tantrums and makes the child feel satisfied and happy without being over-indulgent. She is usually a mix of toughness and softness and that is why every mother deserves to be celebrated!”

Later in the piece it reads, “The whole day is most likely ladened with one kind of stress or the other, and they welcome it with open arms. Why? Because they are mothers and it’s what they do best, being the multi-tasking gurus that they are.”

One part I especially agreed with was towards the end. “It seems as if something spiritual happens to a mother once their baby is born. Not only does the mother receive a spiritual connection with her baby, she seems to be suddenly connected to other children besides hers.”

The article ends by advising you to call your mum and let her know how much you appreciate her as your mother. Good idea.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

donate to humanitarian relief in southern Kyrgyzstan

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) regional office in Tashkent is mobilizing aid to southern Kyrgyzstan. You can donate here.

Voice from inside a blockaded Osh neighborhood

It took many tries to get ahold of my Uzbek friends in Osh this evening, making me worry about their well-being. Finally, I was able to reach them at their home number.

Nargiza (name changed) answered and her voice sounded like a child’s. Unlike last time, when she expressed her excitement to hear from me, she remained somber. “We’re not doing very well,” she said in a low, quiet voice. “We’re all still healthy, but you know, it’s a war zone.”

A few days earlier, she expressed regret that her sons were out guarding the neighborhood and couldn’t talk to me. Tonight, there was no discussion of friendly chats. Her husband and sons were busy sleeping in shifts of 1-2 hours, taking short breaks from a constant guarding of the neighborhood.

“I’m very scared for my children,” she said. “None of us are getting much sleep.”

She said the men in her neighborhood have blockaded it, so the people and the houses have remained safe. But they feel they are in a state of war, and the stress and the lack of the sleep are wearing on them.

“We can still hear shooting,” she said. “We keep hoping that someone from outside will come to provide security, but it hasn’t happened yet. We don’t believe anyone in Kyrgyzstan anymore, so we want someone from the outside to help.”

She says it has been a bit quieter since Monday, though they can still hear shooting. The people within her neighborhood were told not to venture out, so she hadn’t seen the city outside her street for several days. “People have run in different directions,” she said. “The Kyrgyz to their villages and the places they came from, the Uzbeks into Uzbekistan. There might not be many left in Osh.”

They are left with a sense of incomprehension. “We don’t know who killed people or who was killed. The Kyrgyz say it was people specially prepared to do this. I know the Kyrgyz are good and peaceful people. We’ve lived among them and shared space at the market together. Still, there is a war with Kyrgyz and Uzbeks killing each other. They burned Uzbek homes and destroyed their stores.”

“I’d like for my children to be able to leave,” she said. I asked where they could go and she didn’t know. “Uzbekistan isn’t letting anyone else in. They let in 80,000 and said they don’t have any more room. There are a 100,000 people lined up at the border. Those who went first to Uzbekistan were those who had no protection, who had nowhere else to go.” She is in regular contact with relatives in Tashkent, but says they are unable to do anything.

A few days ago, she spoke about how the family had begun the process of remodeling their house to put in an addition for their eldest son. They wanted a space ready for him so that he could marry and bring his future wife into their home. In a matter of a few days, they are willing to give it all up. “A part of me is ready to leave this all behind, to give up our house and everything for our family to be able to leave.”

While the men protect her neighborhood, she and her female neighbors huddle together at home. They have food, water, electricity and telephone service. “I hear talk about humanitarian relief being organized,” she said. “We have plenty of food. No one in our neighborhood will die due to a lack of food. What we need is protection. I’m very, very afraid of something happening.”

Saturday, June 12, 2010

One Family Waits Out the Osh Unrest

I became very worried about reading the news about the last two days of ethnic violence in Osh. I lived with an Uzbek family in Osh for close to a year. The mother traveled to my wedding in the United States, her first time ever on an airplane. She has three sons who are young men and I feared any of them could be at risk. I wondered what it must be like to live in fear in your own house, the place I also used to consider home. The Uzbek neighborhoods, or mahalas, are close knit. But they are also segregated by ethnicity and easily identifiable.

As soon as possible, I called to find out. Nargiza (name changed) said that her husband and her two sons that are in Osh spent all night guarding the street. The men sit together on the street, guarding their neighborhoods. “But they don’t have guns,” she said. “I don’t know how much they can do.”

She wanted her sons to stay home, but “they are grown up now, and don’t listen to me.”

Markets and workplaces have been closed for the past two days. Her youngest son was supposed to take his last exam to graduate high school today, but that didn’t happen. She said some houses were burned in a nearby neighborhood and that she heard gunshots. She heard that many of the nice, large shops that were constructed in recent years, many by Uzbeks, were looted.

“It’s been terrible,” she said. “Two nights and a day of violence.”

Nargiza has a stall at the market, where she sells dishes. Her dishes are in storage at her market stall. I asked if her goods were in damage of being looted. “I don’t know. I didn’t have time to think about that,” she said. “This happened so suddenly. I haven’t been there for the past two days.”

She was hopeful the unrest would blow over within a few days and said the presence of the troops seems to be helping.

I asked what relations at work would be like after this. How would her husband and son return to work, where most of their colleagues would be Kyrgyz? How would they be treated?

“Relations between the Uzbek and the Kyrgyz in the city are fine, very friendly,” she said. “This has been caused by wild people brought in from other places, rural areas in the south. It’s only been a problem since Bakiyev was removed.”

Friday, June 04, 2010

Spain Sierra bike trip - day 5

El Escorial to Soto del Real – an additional 47 kilometers and we are done. The first half had its ups and downs, but wasn’t too bad. And the second half had a welcomingly consistent downward slope.

The sights weren’t quite as interesting as the past days. We went through a couple of non-descript towns, as well as the pleasant, lively town of Berecerril de la Sierra, and the town of Manzanares de Real, which has a large 15th century castle. Unfortunately, the castle was closed today due to a private event, but it’s still striking to see it appear on the horizon, then growing ever larger and more overpowering as we draw nearer. Castles, cobblestone streets, monasteries, churches and ruins of watchtowers, walls and road make clear on a daily basis the presence of human life many centuries ago. It forces me to remember that I’m part of only a small sliver of history, of which only fragments will be remembered, or considered important.

I enjoyed an afternoon drink at a bar on the plaza in Manzanares de Real, listening to the lively Spanish music coming from inside the bar, seeing the local life on the plaza, with multiple storks looking on from their nests on a nearby steeple.

We made use of the excellent public transportation system (a bus and a train) to get ourselves and our luggage from our end point of Soto del Real to the train station in Madrid. From here we’ll depart for Zaragoza.

The standard bike tour includes one more day, biking to Madrid. We cut that short in order to be able to see friends. I think I could have handled one more day. But 4-5 days is probably a good amount for me, unless there were to be rest days provided in between the bike days.

Overall, I enjoyed the tour a lot. I got a lot of exercise, was able to explore several small, out-of-the-way places and was able to take in the places much more vividly by biking through them. Since this is my first bike tour, I have nothing to compare it to. But my impressions were:

Route – very good. Took in a variety of sites. The evening stops were located in interesting places. The least interesting was Soto del Real, but that was a good base and the hotel was super friendly.

Roads: very good. While we did have to spend some time on highways, there was a lot of time on roads with little traffic and good scenery.

Outfitting: The bikes were new. The quality was OK. They had Shimano gears. A little extra outfitting (a mirror, a light, gloves, a bungee or two to make use of the rack, a set of directions for each of us) would have been helpful, as would have a more detailed introduction to bike care.

Instructions: I loved that the tour was self guided. And we did make it from start to end. But the instructions could have used more detail to dummy-proof them. We definitely put on some extra distance and encountered some confusion due to the directions. While the instructions indicated a few highlights of places to visit, some more details about the stops (a map of each evening stop would be great) and the things we passed would have been helpful.

Flexibility: Excellent. Bike Spain was really accommodating in helping to set up a tour that met the particular dates we were available. When we had some problems (Mark not feeling well, a forgotten bag) they were quick to help resolve them.

Hotels: Very good. Our least favorite (in El Escorial) was a hotel the tour company doesn’t usually use. Their standard hotel was booked up. The others were all comfortable, well-located and with friendly, accommodating staff.

I hope there will be another bike tour in my future and I’d definitely look into the offerings of Bike Spain for the next time around. Next time I’ll be looking for some child-friendly accommodations through (child trailer, bike seat, routes I can complete with a 40+ pound kid on board). I’m thinking my next bike trip, especially in a Spanish-speaking country, will be with my son.

Bike circuit completed

I made it! Over 200 kilometers in mountainous territory. I was the only female cyclist I saw until the very end of the trip, when the terrain was easier. I always like accomplishing a goal, so I’m proud of doing it, am appreciative of the chance to both get so much exercise and explore an interesting area.

But right now, on the evening of the day four of biking, I’m exhausted. Utterly exhausted. I’m sitting at a train station waiting for a late train and dreaming of a bed. Mark was having a harder time cycling today than I was, and he got less sleep than I did last night, but has more energy. “It must be the pregnancy,” he said. “Because you got a good night’s rest.” Did I mention I’m two months pregnant? In a great contrast to the eternal nausea I felt during the first trimester with River, this time I barely feel any symptoms at all.

At the end of the ride, I was able to check email and received a note from my dad, who appears to be holding up well while caring for a 2.5 year old. He said that River is going to the pool, the beach or the boat every day, which sounds like a summer camp vacation for him. He also said that they have taught River to say things like “I like hot dish,” and “Ya sure, you betcha,” that I’ll be picking up a real Swede.

I think it’s good for him to be exposed to that aspect of his heritage, so that’s fine with me. But I’m going to have to try to figure out how to say things like “I like hot dish,” in Spanish.

After this bike trip, I’ve decided I want to do another, and I’d love to do it a few years from now with River. If you have any recommendations of good bike tours to do with kids (I’m ideally looking for luggage to be transferred to the lodgings each night, the ability to set our own pace, and a route and a bike that would be appropriate for hauling a youngster) please let me know. I have a preference for Spanish-speaking areas, but would consider any place. Also, I’m terrified of dogs, so places where dogs don’t roam freely and run after cyclists also get bonus points.

Thursday, June 03, 2010

Spain Sierra bike trip – day 4

I think the mileage estimate on the instructions for today’s ride from Rascafria to San Lorenzo el Escorial was an underestimate. All I can think about looking back upon the day is up, up, up. Either I’m going to develop newly powerful legs and be able to barrel up hills in the future, or I’m going to turn around screaming any time I see an uphill.

I started off my morning with 17 kilometers of up. Pretty much constant up. Up a mountain. From 1200 meters to over 1800.

I can get myself up a decent hill or two if I know there is a descent or flatness at the top. The pain is temporary and I can push myself to overcome it. But here it was constant, a good 13 or so kilometers of non-stop up. I couldn’t ride up that, so I walked. And walked, and walked. I did well for the first half. I imagined myself taking a morning mountain stroll. I figured it should result in buns of steel. I appreciated the lack of traffic, the shaded walk through a fir forest, and the views of mountain slopes covered by trees.

When Mark passed me in the taxi, they asked if I wanted a ride. “No thanks,” I said. “I’ve only got 5-6 kilometers to go.” I was doing pretty well at that point. But somewhere in the last 5-6 kilometers, my strength was sapped. I was eating every half hour. I had to stop to rest. It ended up taking me three hours to cover the 10 miles. Yikes.

From there, we had a substantial downhill, possibly an equal distance of gliding. Yellow bushes flowered on the mountain slope and the air smelled sweet. Today was a public holiday, Corpus Christi, and the two mountain passes (ski resorts in winter) were packed with daytrippers coming to enjoy a hike.

We rode through a small town, Cercedilla, where wealthy people from Madrid have their second homes. There were some beautiful properties there and the cafes and shops were buzzing. I was tired, but the long downhill had provided some relief and I believed we were close to our destination, El Escorial. So I pushed myself on, wanting Mark to be able to see the famous palace and monastery before it closed at 6.

The directions indicated we had only four kilometers to go, so I was optimistic. But the highway seemed to go on an awfully long way. Long past when I expected we’d be riding through the town, I spied El Escorial from a distance, cathedral spires rising above a town perched upon a hill.

Then, when we got into the town, it was like a cruel joke. The road went up, and up, and up, and up. Straight up. Again, I resorted to walking.

We arrived at our hotel filthy, sweaty and tired, only to be told that we had to carry the bikes up a flight of stairs. Poor Mark.

Eventually, we managed to settle in, shower, find some good food (super huge portions and at least 10 choices for each course of the 17.50 menu at Restaurante Fonda Genera; – only bummer was that only a coffee is included as a drink. If you choose another drink, you are charged for it). We made it to El Escorial (right across the street from our hotel) and found enough energy to stroll the premises and appreciate the structure, the art and history. The library contains the oldest known book, from the 5th or 6th century. Wow.

Part of me is amazed I got here with my own leg power. Another part misses the small village. It’s much more tourist-oriented here, more expensive, less personal. Interactions in the smaller towns felt more intimate and I liked that.

Only one more day left in which the main activity of the day is accomplishing a physical feat. By late tomorrow night, we’ll be in Zaragoza with friends and then they will be in charge of arranging our schedule.