May 31, 2017

The Taj Mahal Tour

The Taj Mahal and the Gurgaon skyline from my balcony
The moment you arrive in India people tell you the Taj Mahal is a must-see. They are right. If you live in the Delhi area, as I do, it’s all the more reason to go experience one of the Seven Wonders of the World. It took us  only eight months to get there...

First day in Agra – April Fool’s Day
We decided to travel to the Taj via the new-ish Yamuna expressway from New Delhi to Agra. Our driver, R., drove as crazy as was necessary to get there. The highway's flat asphalt was deceivingly lulling, but every now and then we had Mad Max moments courtesy of buses and tractors (!) that kept it interesting
It was a four-hour drive. The expressway ends right at the entrance to Agra; it might as well be called the Taj Tourist Pipeline. The Rising Family went directly to the hotel to check-in. The Optimum Tara Palace hotel was more like an ‘Adequate Quasi-Palace’, but it was near the Taj’s west entrance, so what the hay, eh. We decided to end the day by shopping in the Sadar Bazaar area amid the late afternoon heat. 

Shopping in small cities in India is actually a lot of fun and I snapped quite a few photos. Naomi is a lioness when it comes to commerce. She enjoys the art of bargaining far more than the actual purchase. Lady E. is developing the same skills. M. remains oblivious of it all and hangs with me. We walked around in the dusty, clattering shopping area and it felt like we were the only foreigners around. People were friendly and curious—as always. I watched the auto rickshaws go by, the throngs of people going about their business, the energy in the air was palpable. 
Our shopping excursion yielded one purchase: we bought a few sippy cups as water containers. Simple pleasures--plus they help avoid dehydration. 

Stomachs started growling. Despite my Lonely Planet’s many recommendations, the closest suitable eatery was the aptly-named Only Restaurant. Only problem was, we were the only customers--usually not a good sign. Let’s just say the beer was really tasty.
On the way back to our hotel we stopped off at a couple of handicraft stores and had a truly delightful encounter with one store owner who collected paper currency like me (geeks connect!) and was very generous with his time and conversation. We only bought trinkets but he didn’t seem to mind. We were in his store over an hour and in the end Naomi drank some chai, and the girls became comfortable around these local people. It was a pleasant way to end the day. We went back to the hotel room, tired and hot, and went to bed early because there was nothing else to do—and the next day was our date with the Taj Mahal. 

May 27, 2017

Holy Cows

If the Chicago Cubs’ legendary baseball play-by-play announcer Harry Caray had ever visited India, I have no doubt the first two words out of his mouth would have been, ahem, “holy cows.”
This cheeseball joke aside, I was intrigued the first time I saw a herd of cattle roaming traffic-congested roads in New Delhi and Gurgaon without any apparent sense of fear or concern.
This just runs contrary to my Canadian upbringing, where any large animals on the road – for example, moose or deer -- are considered a danger to vehicles, people, and the animals, and we corral cattle lest they become bovine roadkill.
Yet, here in India, cattle freely amble around and even command their own passing lane on busy roads. They can go anywhere they want, even in dense urban areas. Cows are also welcome at open air markets, garbage dumps (a food court for them!) and they generally lounge wherever they want--to chew cud, watch what’s going on, and just “be what they wanna be.” Cows are one of those special cultural symbols that exemplify India’s quirks writ large.
At this point I should mention the religious element. Hindus revere cows (female cattle) and consider them sacred animals because they produce life-sustaining milk. Cows are worshiped and decorated during the many festivals that occur throughout the year. Needless to say, UN FAO statistics indicate that Indians have the lowest rate of meat consumption in the world for the aforementioned religious as well as economic reasons. Local Muslims, not so much: they dominate the meat industry here. Recently, in many Indian states, the slaughtering of cows and selling of beef has been either restricted or banned. I have read many a hysterical news article describing Muslims being lynched or beaten to death for alleged theft or transport of cows. Consequently, cows have become a focal point of inter-faith conflict. I am not sure what the views are concerning bulls or oxen—the forgotten, ignored, disempowered male cattle. (Insert fake outrage here.)
So all this superficial insight into the social intricacies of religious legacies, caste and how they impact on modern Indian society all comes from a thought of how cool it is that cows rule the roads. And that, my friends, is one example of why I enjoy living overseas…you never stop wondering “why does that happen?” and my thirst for figuring things out never gets quenched.

As for the Rising Daughters, from time-to-time we freeze food we know we will not eat and feed it to the local grazing cattle. It just feels like a positive thing to do. 

But, I’ll tell ya, that first sniff of the putrid breath of the big, aggressive bulls, that first sandpaper rasp of the cow’s tongue across your hand as they snap the food out of your palm—those experiences are unforgettable.
Clop on, cows in India, clop on.

April 30, 2017

Grandpa Sees the Subcontinent

Living so long away from Canada has afforded many unique experiences but carries the opportunity cost of not living close to my relatives and friends back home. Luckily, part of that downside has been allayed by my dad’s boundless curiosity that inevitably brings him over for visits. Even though he came to Japan for a week last year (our kickoff of the Shikoku Temple Pilgrimage), “Canada Grandpa” decided to undertake nine days of sightseeing in India’s northern region along with five days with the grandkids, daughter-in-law, and yours truly, in Gurgaon. 

“Go hard or go home”
During his group tour, Dad experienced far more of India than we have managed to do in the eight months we’ve lived here so far. Nine days visiting sights in Old and New Delhi; Agra and the Taj Mahal; Ranthambore National Park (tiger viewing!); Jaipur Pink City; Varanasi and the Ganges. So when he arrived back in Delhi to visit us, I was all ears, picking up pointers and advice, and was just plain glad to see him. 
To start, Dad accompanied Naomi to some of her charitable activities and he sampled some local food that put a dent in our “going out together” time because it dented his colon with Delhi belly. These things happen. I did get a day with him only for me—we went out to some sights he hadn’t seen in Delhi the first time around, bought some gifts for the folks back home, and even had an air hockey match at an arcade. The Rising Granddaughters maximized the time spent at home improving their listening skills and playing board games. 
To my surprise, Dad’s no prisoners competitive spirit extends even to the girls, as Elena found out to her chagrin. You have to earn a win in this family.
Despite the unlucky food choice literally putting a cramp in his style, it was a wonderful visit just as the weather was truly warming up. The girls have been studying hard and the effort showed as Lady E., M., and Grandpa were talking and yukking it up throughout the visit. We capped the trip with a visit to the Worlds of Wonder amusement park before he took the flight home. 
Thanks for the gifts, Pop. It was nice you saw the Subcontinent, but for us, the treat was just having you visit.

April 27, 2017

Holey Moley it’s Holi

The Holi festival is a wonderful example of how Indians have mastered the art of having a good time and collectively getting their ya-yas out without rancor. It’s a visually beautiful festival – oft described as the festival of colors and love – and a day to mark the beginning of spring. Goodbye gray sky, hello blue!
My takeaway from the Holi festival was vibrant colors, mayhem and entertainment--a societal stress break at the close of winter mixed with spiritual harmony and goodwill.

Although an ancient Hindu religious festival, I’ve read Holi has gained fans among non-Hindus in other countries and in Asia. There are Holi festivals in Vancouver and Toronto. And justly so. Something tells me the Grateful Dead received more than musical influence from Ravi Shankar, and the Love-ins of the summer of 1967 and later iterations such as Lollapalooza, owe a lot to Indian culture.

Water balloons, dry powder poofs and wet colors everywhere 
March 13: we celebrated with extreme joy among hundreds of other residents in the courtyard of our apartment complex. The word had gotten around the foreign community on when and where to start the festivities and parents had done meticulous preparation of water balloons and dry colored powders. We all wore old clothes. At the appointed hour mid-day, we met friends and their kids and it felt like we were the only ones there. This was yet another lesson on how time is perceived differently in this country. Soon enough the venue setup was completed by the organizers, music started blasting, more foreigners and local people arrived, and everyone started smearing each other with bright colors.
Then out came the hardware: water pistols and high-pressure squirt guns filled with colored water, and water balloons. Soon most folks were drenched and multi-colored. The Rising Daughters had a blast, as did Naomi and I.
The pervasive air of gaiety extended to interacting with strangers you would normally never speak with. That means nods of recognition, a few quips and random dousings, all socially sanctioned. Nobody got offended if they splashed you or you colored them.
Smiles abounded all afternoon. And that’s a good thing. The music kept the party going, there was an adult’s area for dancing and some alcohol intake within reason and the party shifted from family fun to a touch of buffoonery by the young men. Fire hoses were unrolled and geysers of water soon graced the skies. Yet the entire course of events was flavored with general merriment and zero violence.
The afternoon wore down but everyone in my neighborhood strode around with color in their hair or remnants smeared on their face.

I am a fan of being Holi.

March 31, 2017

Wet ‘n Wild: Our dacha for a day

Glory to our great Party!

That’s what I felt like screaming to the blue skies that cloaked us in happiness as we strolled around the Wet n’ Wild waterpark in September 2016, just after we’d arrived in India. Apparently it was India’s first-ever waterpark resort. Like a fallen glamour queen, the years of fun and games were plainly visible but somehow overlooked because the good times that were had along the way were also front and center. Let me explain. 

In September the Rising Family™ was still living in a hotel and eager to explore our new surroundings in Gurgaon. The temperature was still hovering around 35 degrees Celsius outside every day and we needed some aquatic relief. We took the clickbait and decided to visit Wet n’ Wild. It is located several miles south of Gurgaon off the NH.8 Jaipur highway--Google Maps helped us find it.

We hopped out of the van and found the parking lot and entrance area utterly deserted. Was it even open? There was very little signage. We found our way in and were warmly welcomed by the duo of resort greeters in prim uniforms minding the register (3,300 rupees for the four of us). We were the first customers of the day. In fact, we were the only paying customers in the waterpark for the first three hours. 

That’s why I started this post with “Glory to our great Party.” From the beginning we were outnumbered by the drowsy-looking staff. They were initially a bit abashed to see us, but soon were helpful and gregarious, particularly toward the Rising Daughters. I quickly began to understand how relatives of the North Korean Great Leaders feel when they covertly visit amusement parks overseas. Or maybe Brezhnev-era nomenklatura bureaucratic elites getting some sun and surf in the Crimea. “What waterslide would you like to go on next, Dear Leader?”
What happened was that all the pool filtration systems, water fountains, slides and Jacuzzi jets were turned off. The staff would follow us around politely, and when we showed interest in a certain pool or slide, they would cheerfully turn on the water. Once we moved on, they’d turn it off. We’d use hand signals to communicate. Lines were – ahem – not a problem. We first thought this a la carte service was charming. Elena rode her favorite slides repeatedly until even she felt the odd atmosphere without other folks around. The lesson: people need people.

Visualize sun-bleached waterpark attractions that worked fine but had seen better days. Throw in loud music -- 1980s hits that were suddenly cut off due to periodic power outages – blasted to non-existent crowds, and you get the vibe: 1964 New York World’s Fair grounds circa 1975. 

The staff were cool about it all. They went about their duties at half-speed—why rush? The old, out-of-shape lifeguard with henna-orange-style hair was jolly and patient, but still made us obey some basic safety rules in the water. So safety wasn’t something entirely ignored.

All told, we had a delightful family outing but I just could not shake the Cult of Personality air to the place. We had it all to ourselves until well after lunch. Luckily, later in the afternoon a gaggle of teenage boys came along to add some zest to the place, soon followed by a Sikh family. Their daughter joined up with Elena and Marina for a bit of fun in the small family pool.

As we exited the waterpark later that afternoon, I half expected the staff to line up and clap. That would have been just a tad extreme, don’t ya think? All told, though, the Wet n’ Wild experience was simply fun and freaky.

March 29, 2017

Diwali, not Hallowe’en, is supreme

“Sir, no excuses Sir, so far I have been negligent in writing in the blog about India. I will do better going forward, Sir!”

Let’s spend the next few blogs on our India experience. This one is about India’s most popular holiday, Diwali. Diwali is the Hindu festival of lights celebrated every year in autumn. In 2016, it began on Oct. 27 for a duration of five days, peaking on the 31st.
Courtesy of NASA. This is just a cool look at India at night from space
On the 30th, we took advantage of the relative lack of traffic on the long weekend to go downtown and visit some places that we had been planning to see but had put off. First destination was the Dilli Haat, a government-run bazaar featuring goods and clothes from around India’s regions.  It’s aimed at tourists: one-stop, all-of-India represented convenience—even Hilary Clinton had dropped in for peek during a state visit. Because it was targeting foreigners as customers, it featured products like silk scarves, bronzed statues of Hindu gods or lacquered elephants. We enjoyed meandering around and haggling with the store owners. Marina and I bought a small figure of Lakshmi, the Hindu goddess of good fortune and prosperity, because the vibe just felt right.

After this, we literally crossed the road to visit the Indian National Army Market, which was more in line with our “wild India” image. It had frenzied masses of shoppers frequenting the small shops. Imagine narrow stalls with varying dimensions all crammed into tight, dark passageways, with a soundtrack of squawking chickens in hutches, skinned animals hanging in the air surrounding by buzzing clouds of insects, touts trying to get your attention and draw you in for the kill…err…sale. It was a terrific experience. Colorful, loud, vivid. This is the real India.

But Diwali's Grand Finale was right at our apartment complex. You see, India goes bananas in celebrating Diwali. We had been warned by skittish long-term foreign residents of Delhi to hunker down in the apartment for the night. Psssshaw! No way we were going to miss the real Diwali fireworks. As we have come to expect, the start of the fireworks fiesta began late, but man oh man it was worth the wait. Here’s why…

We live in a very nice block of apartments with a landscaped garden that is zealously guarded by a small army of private security and curious groundskeepers, all of whom address me politely and unfailingly as “Sir.” The residents are invariably well-heeled locals and expats. It is a safe and staid residential complex, and we are lucky to live there.

But not on Diwali. Once the sun set, the banshees came out for a hullabaloo. Normally demure family men unloaded their cache of fireworks and whole families lost their minds. It was true anarchy. Laws? Waazat. Safety concerns? Fuggedaboutit. Grown men and women with jobs and responsibilities had the look of merry mayhem in their eyes and eschewed all semblance of propriety, instead lighting and shooting rockets into the sky, running over and through low starbursts, cackling while lighting screeching circle smoke blowers and big, loud pipe bombs. It was a sight to behold. The Rising Daughters were aghast at the way little kids were empowered to light off these monstrosities. Dads were running around with armfuls of serious-looking rockets and smoke bombs, lighting them, and kicking them around or aiming at the fields. It was like the scene from “2001: A Space Odyssey” where the apes were flinging bones at the heavens. Primal. I wished I had something to make explode. We just kept back to marvel at the whole spectacle.
Courtesy of WSJ
I’ve seen some terrific fireworks in my life to date. I was reared on Canada Day fireworks in my hometown. I have been amazed by the precision and choreography of Japanese fireworks during Obon (especially the Miyajima fireworks festival). But in terms of the sheer spectacle of it all, this was the most fun I have just sat and witnessed in a long, long time. We all enjoyed the pandemonium. As the explosions grew in intensity, through the thickening smoke we could see other nearby neighborhoods were all collectively doing the same thing.

After a long day of sightseeing and shopping, then this visceral show of violence, bright streaks of light and joy, we were all tuckered out. Our Indian neighbors, though, were just getting started. Indians take their Diwali fun seriously—these fireworks went on for hours. I cannot really capture the entire vibe of the evening with words. Joy. Mayhem. Love. Explosions. Families together. The threat of injury. All rolled into one massive, nationwide yelp at the heavens amid the festival of lights. It was a beautiful disaster, a night to remember!

January 28, 2017

2016 Lookback in pictures - part deux

By July my work transfer to India was sealed! Amid Yokohama’s summer heat and incessant paperwork for the big move, we managed to continue to enjoy the summer. 

Witness the perennial neighborhood Obon Odori summer festival (the girls love it, as do I).

And a bit of frolicking at the Sagamihara Park. (I just like this shot; the girls are at the top.)

In August, I took off on my bromance motorcycletrip from Ft. Lauderdale to Key West and back with Mike and Bill. Outstanding!

This was followed by camping with my dad and brother. This shot is my dad and Uncle Pat paddling away.

Finally, it was the dog days of summer. I must have a baseball shot: Infiniti ad on the Green Monster. Never would have thunk that one, but glad and proud to see it nevertheless.

September. This was one of our last photos taken in Yokohama, actually done in late August to support Usain Bolt at the Rio Olympics. It was a work thing. But the photo is a keeper!

By the time this photo was taken, we were already living in Gurgaon, India (southwest of Delhi). It is a shot of the girls in front of a mosaic of Mahatma Gandhi that was made of thousands of pins stuck in the wall connected by black thread. 

As you might expect after moving, our frenzied activity to adjust and get used to our new home took some time. Eventually we ventured out to see a few sights– like India Gate pictured here–in October.

And this photo is us at the crowded Dussehra festival at the Red Fort in downtown Delhi. My co-worker Rahul kindly escorted us there. It is a Hindu festival that celebrates the victory of good over evil. That works!

The girls in their traditional Indian dress for a special school function in November.

Late December. We let off some steam together in Thailand! A super day at a water park marked our terrific tropical Christmas in the Gulf of Thailand.

Our first elephant ride!

This is the two rugrats and me on Khaosan road in Bangkok. It felt very different from my first visit there many years ago. That means I have changed; based on appearances alone, Khaosan has not. It remains the boulevard of a young person’s dreams.