July 31, 2017

Where I'm At

Where I’m At: Postcards to Myself

This week I read this sentence online and it has become wedged in my head:
“I’m happy where I’m at, and everything is okay with me.” Aside from ending a phrase with a preposition, it’s a simple-yet-graceful declaration of this person’s state of mind.

Similarly, I was listening to a podcast when the guest suddenly blurted out that she couldn’t get over the idea that her life was more than half over according to actuarial tables. It evidently changed her thinking in a positive way. Having had my own birthday recently, I am verging more toward the former than the latter thought. My co-workers surprised me with a very harried, but well-meaning, mini-celebration in our office. That doesn’t happen in North America or in Japan. All I have to say was that I enjoyed it. I had my middle-aged crisis when I was 24 and living in Halifax, so birthdays and aging don’t vex me all that much.

Which brings me to my offspring. They are demented little things. Check out these impish b-day cards (look inside the yellow borders on the scanned card):

Lady E.: “I am glad you made it (to) 48.”

M.: “Do you like summer? I like watermelon.” Followed by “Beer! Let’s drink beer.”

Do my kids know me or what?

These cards are better than anything Shakespeare ever wrote!

I repeat: “I’m happy where I’m at, and everything is okay with me.”


July 30, 2017

Our seven deadly sins in Dubai

Larceny trumps lust n’ liquor in the Vegas of the Middle East

On our first night in Dubai I was stuffed with great food, lulled by the warm sunset framing the Palm Jumeirah skyline underlined by the aqua shoreline of the Persian Gulf, and numbed by many cocktails. In my semi-trashed cab ride back to the hotel, the Pakistani driver dispensed his quips about Dubai. One stayed with me: “nobody is ‘from’ here, even the locals. It’s a city of wealth, temptation and excess. And it’s great fun, opportunities abound.” Thus began our trip to Dubai. 
Did I have a good time? Darn right I did. It would be difficult to have a bad time in this city of dazzling buildings, fast growth, and pervasive luxury. But it didn’t take me long to agree with the driver’s view that this was the Las Vegas of the Middle East. To enjoy it, you just roll with that and forsake trying to attain deep understanding or meaning, because either the sand storms or piles of money obscure it from easy view.

But who am I to offer some curmudgeonly thoughts? We were there precisely for Dubai’s sensory pleasures. While there was no sinning, as such, looking back at our four days in this fabulous jewel of a city, it does make you think of the deadly sins, viz:

First night in town. Many restaurant choices. We ended up in The Cheescake Factory for the first time. They subsequently rolled us out of the eatery and bowled us toward our hotel. We are fans of the wide breadth of food choices we experienced in Dubai. I could not imagine that one day I would feast on a delectable Philly Cheese steak sandwich on the edge of the desert in the Persian Gulf. And Dubai boasts a Denny’s or three, which is always a plus for me thanks to my adoration of a good heart stopper breakfast.
Not surprisingly, there is a lack of overt lust here. On the outside, Dubai is tourist-oriented and multicultural, sure, but on the inside I was aware it is wise to respect local traditions, including the clothes you wear. Especially the ladies in my posse.

Gold sports cars, ultra-deluxe hotels, private offshore islands and rumors of Richard Branson sightings, skyscrapers adorned with all the world’s great brands in huge letters—it was hard to escape the pervasive commerce and smell of money floating around in the warm, humid air. Mostly I felt the impact of our wallets being effortlessly vacuumed due to the expensive prices. Dubai ain’t cheap. On the other hand, frolicking at the Wild Wadi water park was a great time, as was seeing the Atlantis Hotel on Palm Jumeirah.

World-record breaking skyscrapers, mega malls and seven-star hotels. Digging canals in the desert. Making petite island paradises with massive land reclamation projects. Dubai wants to make a statement to the world!
On day two, we descended from Burj Khalifa to the world’s largest mall, the Dubai Mall, bursting with superlatives. The view from the Burj Khalifa was terrific of course and lots of desert out there, waiting for more development. The vanguard of global capitalism was well represented in the Dubai Mall. True to form, we enjoyed the Aquarium the most.

Old Dubai, the souks where the host of cultures collide. The street touts didn’t take too kindly to my needling. Nevertheless, there was nothing--and I do mean nothing--that I wanted to buy there.

Mall of the Emirates (home to an indoor ski slope, Ski Dubai), has it all and more. We boarded a double-decker bus for a daylong tour of Dubai’s main sights, for another shot of how quickly the place has grown. First, we went out toward the traditional parts of the old city (the Souk) but it was a tourist trap. I still had fun sparring with the street touts. Very hot on the tour bus. The air conditioning was underwhelming, and it got hot; 37 degrees out there. So we plugged in the tour audio and watched the sites. Mostly amazing contemporary architecture and everything “world’s largest.” Eight-lane highways driving at a fast clip. I had an interesting conversation with a Nigerian guy working for the bus lines and he said he liked living in Dubai, but it was expensive, and time went by quickly because it was all so "sleek." (What a neat word he used to capture the city's gloss.) The tourists keep coming and coming, he said.
My only recall of this was the remnants of our untouched breakfasts. Our hotel room was a budget hotel apartment, just fine for our needs, but the continental breakfasts were left mutilated on the plates in our room every day. Waste, to me, is sloth, but...just plain inedible.

All told, we reveled in the immensity of the city and its supersized persona. It is better than Vegas for me, because what happened in Dubai did NOT stay in Dubai. It left indelible memories on the Rising Family™.

June 30, 2017

Canada Day Eve

Thoughts turn tonight to Canada, my home and native land. Mostly because tomorrow is Canada’s national day and the nation’s 150th birthday. 
Courtesy of Global News
But also since I returned this week from a visit to what has become my second home away from home, Japan.
Travel is a tonic, and makes you appreciate things you take for granted in daily routines. My jaunt to Hiroshima and Yokohama made me freshly adore so many wonderful things about ‘ol Nippon. I won’t wax poetic on this just yet; I want to let the sediment settle before I go granular on that trip.

So, you’re probably thinking by now, what is he trying to say here? Actually not much, just that no one place is perfect, but there are perfect things about every place, and that includes my current place of residence, India.

Now before I go and weep in my beer, the main instigator of this wee little post is the Hadfield brothers’ video, “In Canada”, made three years ago but still saved in my favorites. Canadians abroad are often chided for our country's penchant for politeness and preference for peace, order and good government. The Hadfields capture all that in a fun tune. It's worth another look/listen, folks. Lots of people I have met overseas have said they would love the chance to be Canadian--we are the lucky few in this world. Be proud to be Canadian. Have fun. Happy birthday!

June 29, 2017

The Taj Mahal Tour – Second Day

During family trips I willfully ignore my iPhone and view TV with contempt. I remain hopelessly optimistic that I’ll have spare moments to daydream and read. Visiting Agra, I thought, might afford time in the early morning to skim a long-ignored novel. The Rising Family™, though, defied prior behavior, rising early on account of growling stomachs. So we headed down to the hotel’s breakfast.

Indians are famous for their warm hospitality, and that is precisely the word that came to mind each time I was cordially greeted by the hotel’s staff whenever we encountered them. Yet these happy vibes were dashed with the decidedly mundane morning chow at this hotel. I can accept spicy India-style food, but Lady E. & M. just couldn’t find anything they could eat; they went hungry and I drank my instant coffee to douse the flames on my tongue. Despite the early hour, my hyperactive thalamus conjured up Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire” as the soundtrack to my inevitable fate that day. Naomi really enjoys Indian food so she was “all good.”
So—finally we were off to see the Taj Mahal. We rode to the Taj’s outer gates on an electric car. All of us–foreigners and locals alike–were herded around from point to point. We were approached by streams of spurious tour guides, and my jaw hurt from saying polite, but increasingly terse “no thank yous.” Elena and Marina were soon whining about the heat, but become cooperative once we had the Taj Mahal in sight—it was, as advertised, a magnificent sight. We strolled around the Taj’s exterior, absorbing the white marble in the blazing sun, snapped photos, all the usual touristy stuff.  I mused on the Taj being essentially a mausoleum commissioned in the early 1600s by the Mughal emperor, Shah Jahan, to mourn the loss of one of his “favorite” wives, Mumtaz Mahal.  I joked about that with my wonderful wife but she failed to appreciate my wit.
Once inside, the grandeur and majesty of the palace grounds and mausoleum captured my senses. Local people, true to form, all ignored the signs to not sit down or take pictures inside. It was funny. We went through the front entrance and around the exterior, and then came out the other side, watching the families stay in the shade, lazing happily in the aura of the Taj Mahal, the most beautiful building in the world. It was a remarkable experience. I was delighted by the buildings but also just stopped and thought, holy s--t, I am in India and I am at the Taj Mahal. It is that feeling of wonder, the weight of history, and an undeniable curiosity that feeds my travel bug.
We proceeded to the ring of souvenir shops guarding the Taj’s walls and perused numerous stalls featuring marble boxes, water, rugs, brass knick-knacks, and so on. I bought a miniscule version of the Taj Mahal to keep for my travel trinket memory shrine. The girls bought some small inexpensive objet d'art so they were happy.
Soon, amid the oppressive heat, our patience with the tenacious stall owners and touts was wearing thin. I recall some great sales pitches from one energetic shopkeeper earnestly trying to sell us–his first customers of the day (ahem) at 1400 in the afternoon--an alabaster jewelry case:
Us: Could we have a discount due to the broken hinge?
Him: The hinge is broken because it is an antique.
Us: How about that crack on the lid?
Him: The top broken part is part of the design. (Said quite vehemently)
Courtesy of HD Wallpaper
Grins exchanged, we parted ways smiling. All of us were sweathogs by the time the shopping ended. What I enjoyed most about the souvenir shopping was the efficiency spawned by the heat and browsing fatigue. We simply got back to our SUV and wearily requested our driver to take us home. Mission to the Taj Mahal completed successfully, satisfactorily, and pleasantly. Lucky us.

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.