October 7, 2017

Second home [confirmed]: Part 2

Day 4: Vehicle license renewals are easier! Meeting more old friends
- Up again quite early, out the door by 0530 to hear the frog croaking cease as soon as I was detected. Mist was coming off the rice paddies; old farmers were out starting the day's work.
- Motor vehicle license renewal. I felt instinctive hatred when I saw the Hiroshima Prefecture Driver's Licensing Center building again due to a difficult experience years ago (PTSD?), but then rational thought took over and I went in to start my license renewal. The staff there was perfunctory, efficient and unperturbed by my presence—having some of the language helps. I was processed and eventually found myself in line to take my two-hour driving safety lecture and learn about all the new laws.
- Old friends: Met the Vices for lunch and so wonderful to catch-up and hear about THEIR overseas adventure, hear about their kids. They are the first people from Hiroshima I met. And they are just great people.
- On country life in rural Japan: with no one around, you are at liberty to do whatever you want. Spelunking one morning, I decided I would sing “Wishlist” by Pearl Jam aloud in front of a lush row of rice stalks in a paddy near the town’s Buddhist shrine. It felt good to do something I would never normally do.
- It’s nice to take time to listen to the rain. It rained overnight, still drizzling in the morning when I awoke. I stayed quiet, quaffed an ice coffee, and listened to the thrumming of the rain on the roof, and on the ground outside. Small pleasures.
- One afternoon I went around the neighborhood rice paddies with Marina hunting for more frogs and geckos. The friendly neighbors all said hi to us.
- More old friends: Kanto Man Mike Penilski offered to get on a shinkansen mid-way through my journey to Yokohama for a catch-up chat and beer, stalwart fellow that he is. I talked him off the ledge and we settled for a Skype session instead. Next day, I reluctantly traveled to Yokohama for some business…

Day 5: Back in Yokohama (solo)
- In Yokohama, it’s nice to be able to get things done because I knew where stuff is located and how to get it all done hyper-quickly. Even simply walking around the Yokohama station area was fun, with all the throngs of commuters and crazy energy. As a visitor, I don’t feel a burden anymore because I know that I won’t face it every day. Plus, I witnessed a kickass sunset view.
- Back at the home office. Day of work catch-ups and relationship chats. Night of karaoke with K-7 friends and cocktails. Effusive banter with my work friends seemed like a Judd Apatow movie in that hilarious way.
Day 6-7: More, MORE friends, more baseball. Happiness!
- Took an early-morning train to visit old friend Jim Shortenance at his home. Supreme catch-up coffee and man-hugs. Next was a live baseball game with Jaker K. at hallowed Jingu Stadium. The game was entertaining as we watched the on-field action and trashed each other. This is the guy I climbed Mt. Fuji with and shared many other of life’s moments, not all good. But that’s the aquifer of true friendship. And two foul balls came to within 20 feet of us.
- On the way back to J.’s place something peculiar but wonderful happened. We were at Shinjuku Station about to board a train when heavy monsoon rains inundated the train platform, and we decided to wait for the next train. I dragged my heavy bag over to the passenger line-up lane where he was waiting. This prompted a sturdy North American woman of a certain age, with frizzy copper hair, to come over and launch herself into a conversation with me: “You don’t have to lift that heavy bag, just use the wheels on your suitcase…that’s what I have learned here in Tokyo,” she said. I was taken aback by this spontaneous-yet-pleasant banter. After a few more quips from her and my startled replies, she melted into the station area jammed with commuters, and Jaker actually mentioned something like “was that lady a reincarnation of your mom?” he said, kindly. Only after he mentioned it did the similarities really sink in. It was an odd but uplifting experience, and left me with a warm feeling.
- J.K., kind host of my last day in Japan this time around, and knowing well the dearth of beef in India, made a platter of delicious burgers and other succulent treats. I watched the Tragically Hip’s final concert on his plasma TV and marveled at his Canadian outpost in Tokyo’s suburbs. His family came home and we picked up from the last time I’d visited, one year prior, without missing a beat, and feasted.
- Early next day, I made my way back to Gurgaon’s 100-degree heat with a warm and fuzzy tranquility. I found myself at home singing Taylor Swift songs alone in the apartment, missing my family who were still visiting Nippon, and elated by the realization that I had re-claimed wonder and enthusiasm for my second home in the world.

September 30, 2017

Second home [confirmed]: Part 1

The Rising Family™ returned to Hiroshima this past summer after more than a year without touching base in Japan. If you look for a definition for “home” in any search engine you’ll find hundreds of quotes, parables, old religious verses and thousands of average netizens’ thoughts on what constitutes one’s home.

What I took away from our visit to Japan, and what captures the essence of “home” for me is where I feel at ease, where I feel I belong, or at the least, where I can be happy and pursue life’s pleasures. When I left ol’ Nippon in 2016 I needed a break; when I came back, I came to realize that I did in fact have a second home in this world. I will always be Canadian, it is my forever home base, but it seems beavers can indeed thrive in the Land of the Rising Sun.
Courtesy of the CCCJ
Here are some thoughts and anecdotes from the trip that drew me to the conclusion that Hiroshima is my second home.

Day 1:  Japan’s national penchant for precision and predictability
We exited the airplane from India and within 30 minutes boarded the shinkansen bullet train that transported us to Hiroshima Station. Upon arrival, our rental car was waiting. All…seamless.
- I was in heaven driving again, on streets I knew and no navigation system necessary, no horns blaring, space to drive--just fewer driving worries. Nominal bliss.
- The islands are more global, less Galapagos. In an age where SIM cards are integral to a peace of mind during a vacation, access has never been easier. Sign of the global & 24/7 times.
- Local is accessible. 30 minutes from Hiroshima’s downtown you have pastoral options: our visit began with a healthy dinner with Naomi’s parents and then we all went to sleep around 2100. Wow—country style.
Day 2: Country peace and baseball
- Next morning, warm and quiet. Lady E. and M. went out to hunt ill-fated frogs and salamanders living in the rice paddies. They had been waiting months to do this.
- Naomi decided to go to the supermarket to buy food. There was no one in that place under 60 years old. Eye opener. Means even more room for others in the future, even gaijins.
- Viewing the skyline, sucking in the clean air. I went for a short hike up Takeda-yama with buddy Scolari McKillgore. It is good to have such great friends. We hiked and talked all the way from the train station to Takeda-yama.  A decent trail--I huffed in all the right places. Enjoyed the panoramic view, the beef jerky and mild philosophizing at the top of this hill overlooking Hiroshima. Then a cleansing dip in the public bath (sento) we all used to frequent 20 years ago. Good friendships evolve with the times but also value the past.
- We mostly ate healthy, home-cooked Japanese washoku fare, but with a side-dish of hot dogs from home base North America. Thanks to Costco, I had a hot dog and it tasted like a dream. Hiroshima Carp fans decked out in team regalia surrounded us and I felt envy because they could see the game. The Carpies are too popular now for us time-constrained visitors to get tickets.
- Shopping downtown with the family at all our old haunts, most of which are still there. Beautiful weather, robin-egg-blue skies, hot dogs and excited ball fans. BUT---
- NHK broadcast of the game cut off the Carp, tied 2-2 with the Tigers, exactly at 1730 as is the Japanese habit….for the latest breathless news exclusive on the status of the baby panda bear in Ueno Zoo. Some things do not change.
"If you can't be with the one you love, honey, love the one you're with..."
- I still cheer for the Zoom-Zoom brand, which got me started in my career.

Day 3: Hamada visit
- We drove Route 191 to Hamada. Enjoyed a kagura traditional dance festival at Aquas Aquarium, followed by shopping fiesta at the local 100 yen store.
- Went to the Iwami Seaside beach on the Japan Sea to dip our toes in the ocean. I tasted the salt. I watched the facility staff guy with his Segway-like transporter and drone overhead. Neat technology. Then we went to a local hot spring onsen and washed and relaxed. I got a massage from the 100-yen-for-10-minutes chair and a recharge from the canned cold coffee. Naomi ate kaisendon (seafood) which made her immeasurably happy. In fact, we all were. The Rising Family enjoyed being back as much (or more) than I did. Because it is Home for them.

More to come...

September 27, 2017

Rickshaws rock

I remember my first tuk-tuk ride in 1997 in Bangkok. I loved the no seatbelt, no frills, no windows openness and exposure to everything that is going on around you. Tuk-tuk rides provide a primal rush, and depending on your driver, are just a little bit scary. I position them between motorcycles and cars on the adrenal spectrum. Yee-hah!
I still love tuk-tuks, in all their iterations throughout Asia, to this day. So let me gush a bit about these three-wheeled meisters of mobility and add a few anecdotes.
Described as tuk-tuks by Thais, autorickhaws (or just plain “autos”) by Indians, and with other local tags in other countries, they are basically people movers: no-nonsense ways for average people on a budget to get move from point A to point B. Autorickshaws are made to shuttle people around in urban areas which usually have tight, narrow streets and – these days – immense traffics jams.

Quick, yes. (Maneuverability in the traffic snarls is a bonus.)

Safe, no. Not really. (But to repeat what I wrote above, that’s part of their allure.)

Cute, absolutely.

And they enhance your cultural knowledge because you usually have to bargain with the driver to figure out a price before you get in. (No set price = you will get screwed, big-time.)

Environmentally friendly? (Debatable.)

Presumably tuk-tuks are so named so because of the sound their two-stroke gas engines make. In India, many of the autos have converted to natural gas, which generates an off-putting pervasive fart smell whenever a driver pulls in to top off his CNG tank. (And yes, there are no women drivers that I have ever seen anywhere.) But they all emit CO2 gas, which leads me to…e-autorickshaws!
In recent weeks I have seen new electrically-powered autorickshaws on the streets of Gurgaon. What a great idea. The Indian government’s recent push to have new vehicle sales be all-electric by 2030 seems to be have been kicked off with this e-auto initiative. Our lungs thank them for the effort. So we will be able to have the fun and adventure of riding in a tuk-tuk without adding to the hazy brown skies and particulate matter figures in India’s big cities. 

Here are a few photos of the popular forms of mobility in my current city.
The family that rides together, stays together

Old school, baby!
The black-colored autos are designated routes that people use instead of public buses. Very cheap.

August 31, 2017

DLR for Prez in 2020

As August ends, I regret that I didn’t feel a “silly season,” as Allan Fotheringham puts it, a month when no one notices anything the government does because they are too busy fiddling with their BBQ and basking in the summer warmth. I grew up reading Dr. Foth in Maclean’s magazine, and his American compadre,  P.J. O’Rourke in Rolling Stone. I was thus schooled to value a wry irreverence concerning pols. This is a good thing because it keeps them human and us entertained.
Consider the vitriol and narrow-heartedness that has taken over a good swath of the world. And North Korean missiles flung hither and yon. I was daydreaming the other day and imagined what it would be like if David Lee Roth ran for president in 2020. Alas, it is not an original idea; it seems the prospect of President Dave was vetted in 2016, but not acted on. 
The flamboyant former Van Halen frontman can certainly turn a phrase and work a room. 
Beyond the rock star antics, there has always been humor and intelligence (all with a knowing wink) evident in his media persona. 

Makes you ponder what President Roth's political philosophy might be:

National economic policy
“Everybody wants some / I want some too / Everybody wants some / Baby, how 'bout you?”

“I live my life like there's no tomorrow / And all I've got, I had to steal /…runnin’ with the devil”

Foreign policy
Panama! Panama (waaaooo)

Domestic policy
California girls (his 1980s remake)
“I been all around this great big world / And I seen all kinds of girls / Yeah, but I couldn't wait to get back in the states / Back to the cutest girls in the world”

So, America, with love, vote David Lee Roth for President in 2020, and laugh a little more, willya?

Meanwhile, back at home…
Elena’s “baby politician” pose photo still cracks me up whenever I view it on the desktop.
 And perhaps Lady E. is showing a political bent in her latest snapshot…? Future ambitions? Time will tell. In one of her classes at school the students reflected on what they would do if they were made the Prime Minister for a day—what changes they want to make in their country? 
Fewer missiles, please. And David Lee Roth for president. The world would be a wackier, better place.

August 27, 2017

Accidental 10K: Freedom Run 2017

August 15 is a national holiday in India that commemorates its independence from the United Kingdom in 1947. I celebrated the day off from work by participating in the annual 5K “Freedom Run 2017” in Gurgaon hosted by Delhi Land & Finance (DLF) Ltd., the largest commercial real estate developer in India. 
The DLF brand is omnipresent in Gurgaon. It is a city of about 1.5 million people south of New Delhi, where I live and work. In the 1970s, Gurgaon consisted of small villages and agriculture. Now it’s a rapidly growing mega-city with its development led mostly by private companies.

On Independence Day I expected to run the five clicks, exchange pleasantries with a few other residents, and get some exercise. Instead, I received an in-your-face lesson on the social contract between the haves and the have-nots in India, yet I had fun during the non-competitive, friendly run experience. All told: fascinating & thought provoking.

Part 1: pre-race complications
I woke early, left for the race start registration. It was a holiday, so no taxis or auto rickshaws were available at the usual spot near my apartment. At that point, I had 30 minutes left before the race registration desk would close--yikes. I made a snap decision to run to the registration desk at the start point of the race (no other choice, really.) Bad planning on my part meant I had to run this “warm-up leg” to the start point. No big deal, right?

Wrong. My iPhone directed to streets off the main thoroughfare that appeared to be shortcuts and took me into a new part of Gurgaon I had never ventured into before. It was a completely new world. Plagued by urgency, soon I was huffing and puffing amid people walking to work, people coming from a less privileged economic strata. I was glaringly out of my element, and I jogged though this neighborhood like an idiot, watching people TV (outside, sitting on lawn chairs or the dusty ground) who were watching the PM’s Independence Day address to the nation. They stared back at me, not aggressively, more perplexed: Whaa? I soon realized these streets were designed to cordon off this particular neighborhood from where I wanted to go, in a more affluent area. I either had to run back and start from scratch, or figure out a solution. I went all-in, and kept going. I knew this was going to be an interesting experience and started snapping photos with the iPhone.

Soon I was running through dusty streets with very few people on them, with abandoned lots populated by wild dogs that followed me until I left their territory. 
I pressed on, soon came across a pack of wild pigs feasting amid mounds of refuse. All this in section of the city located about 900 meters away from a Porsche dealership and with luxury condos in the background. The dichotomy obviously stayed with me.
Finally, I hit a main street I recognized, passed a demonstration along the roadside and hauled ass to the start point. 

Part 2: the race itself
I convinced a reluctant organizer to let me join in some 15 minutes before the race began. I plastered the number on my T-shirt and gulped some bottled water to hydrate (it was already 31 degrees out). It wasn’t an Olympic-class crowd; I fit right in. In fact, it was mostly families and people who clearly weren’t running very regularly. Again, I fit right in. It was, after all, a fun run/walk 5K.

The course was all on roads on DLF property. I got a nice view of my own apartment tower complex from afar. 
During the race, runners received orange, white and green wristbands upon reaching each of three stations. Getting all three bands showed you finished the course. I had a decent run, enjoyed myself. I fell into step and took a photo of a guy who ran the whole course with an Indian flag in his hand. Finished the course. What was my time and how was my performance? Answer: Amaging.
There were no other revelations or odd things, just a good run. I later calculated that the total distance I covered getting there plus the run was well over 10K. So I ran longer and thought harder than I bargained for that morning.

Part 3: the point?
People from different economic occupations lead different lives. They have different experiences and different social rules that apply to them. That’s true in India as well as most places in the world. Still, to get to this race I left the manicured lawns and guarded entrances of my beautiful residence and took a detour into a tougher road not traveled. This reminded me that there are two extremes in Gurgaon: wealthy, white-collar urbanites who staff the companies that have built this city, and not-as-lucky folks who live in shantytowns, but seem no less happy and friendly—at least toward me.

I counted my blessings during the Freedom Run 2017.

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.