Claire and Ava in Gruyeres, Switzerland

Claire and Ava in Gruyeres, Switzerland

October, 2011

October, 2011
Chess in Lausanne, Switzerland

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Off to the Land Down Under!

Tomorrow we're off to Australia for Christmas! We've never been so are excited to check out a bit of the country. And it will be nice to have a few days out of the dirt here. (Gurgaon is incredibly dirty/dusty with all its construction and pollution, and signs of poverty are as pervasive as you can imagine.)

I will enjoy leaving the hotel and not seeing at least one man (if not several) doing his business by the side of a busy road!

Those who advised us to look past the not-so-pretty to experience India's gems are so right, and I thank you for your insights.

We're off -- merry merry and I'll do my best to capture some of our Australian adventures while we're out and about!

Friday, December 12, 2008

Day 2 -- Corbett National Park

Dec. 9 --

6:00 a.m. found us bundled up in a jeep, bouncing over the pavement en route to start our jeep safari. Yes, it was chilly -- no windows and a good morning breeze as our driver tore off down the road. We did pass a few joggers and bicyclists, otherwise it was pretty quiet; Ava was convinced it was the middle of the night. Certainly felt like it!

After 20 minutes of crisp wind whipping at us we arrived at a small safari jeep consortium. Our driver angled the jeep as close to the gate as possible, just as the other drivers were doing. Then all drivers hopped out to do what Indian drivers do when waiting for Corbett to open, I guess, whatever that might be.

All of us tourists sat tight and I tried to remember how warm I'd been when I walked out the cottage door w/ cup of nescafe in hand.

(Note: I suck at cold, and with Delhi being so termperate in winter I feel like I'm back in Texas December weather. No complaints. I did bring lots of layers for this excursion and had kids bundled up w/ hats, mittens, 4 layers and blanket. They seemed toasty, I, of course, was cold. Suffice it to say climbing Mt. Everest and snow skiing aren't on my list of hobbies.)

Anyway, as we waited for the safari to begin we were accosted by binocular renters so each child had a pair.

As the gate opened drivers flew to their cars, each jeep jockeying into position Indian style (not much attention to any kind of line).

Once inside we again stopped for paperwork then hit the dirt roads leading into the safari zone and immediately spotted India's largest species of deer, most favored by the tiger (can't recall the name) and monkeys.

After a final paperwork stop we picked up our guide who, like everyone else we'd encountered since checking in, was intent on finding a tiger to observe. This isn't easy given their propensity to spy, the fact that they have so much cover in which to hide and that they blend into their surroundings.

But 6:00 a.m. is supposed to be the best time for this effort, hence our crack of dawn departure. (BTW I'd asked for a 5:20 wake up call, instead got one at 4:40, then a 5:20 knock at the door. More help than necessary.)

The forest was gorgeous at sunrise, a few scattered clouds turning peach and pink, a light golden haze with a bit of fog blended in to cast a lovely warm glow on the trees and hills.

Our jeep hustled us over a windy, rocky dirt road, around bends and through shallow rivers. We slowed down to pueruse for widlife, saw dozens of spotted deer grazing, most just giving us a glance and continuing with their morning munching.

The barking deer we saw here and there, too -- so small and dark brown. Birds were more active as the sun became more established in the sky.

The driver stopped a few times after spying tiger pawprints and a spot in the road where one had been sitting, all recent.

Around a bend we stopped with a group ahead of us; they had spied a tigress and 3 cubs so we stopped to look. Claire caught a glimpse of one of them but the rest of us were unlucky.

Our guide showed us where wild elephants water, though we didn't see any. We certainly saw our fill of monkeys! And we kept stopping to quietly peruse grassy areas but didn't spot the cats. Our guide said time and patience are the keys to tiger observation. He recommended we come back for several days so we could plant ourselves for hours at a time in the same location until a tiger turned up. While I'm sure the sighting would be fascinating, I'm a bit too Type A for laying in grass for hours so will hit the zoo. (Plus I could see myself falling asleep as tiger emerged, therin missing the whole thing.)

Incidentally, Corbett has 160+ Bengal tigers, the largest of the tiger species. (They count animals by using camers that are triggered when an animal steps nearby.)

While our animal ante from the excursion wasn't what we'd hoped, we certainly enjoyed the beauty of the adventure and the opportunity to get outside in such a beautiful place, careening around in a jeep. The smells of the plants were fabulous.

Interestingly, Corbett's tree leaves don't change color for the most part, though some do turn brown from the heat/dryness of summer and fall off prior to monsoon.

The salt (sp?) tree is most prevalent here -- a hardwood that spends 100 years growing and 200 decaying. It was used by the railway to make sleeper cars because of its durability.

Teak trees are also in the forest, with big transparent leaves, as were banyan trees, with vines for swinging hanging off. We saw parasite plants wrapped around some trees. Apparently they take nutrients from the host tree, making it hollow over time.

Back at the park entrance we said good-bye to our guide and headed back down to the hotel, enjoying the scenery we could actually see this time. Villagers were going about their day and we saw an elephant getting a bath. It was also much warmer, though at this point I had no plans to toss any layers yet.

Breakfast tasted great and afterword we parked next to the pool to absorb the sun. Several monkeys were playing in a tree near the pool, dropping their discards onto the ground.

We also checked out the spa; I decided the steam room was on my agenda (and why pass up an opportunity for a head and foot massage. Let's face it; after being bounced around, stiff and cold, in a jeep, massage was absolutely critical).

The ladies at the spa said they would watch Claire and Ava while I got pampered -- fabulous deal. Claire played w/ a puppy and another young girl vacationing w/ her family, Ava supervised my head and foot massage.

For the steam experience, I was placed in the cold room sans steam. At first I wondered if it worked but the attendant told me to wait, steam would come. Sure enough it started blasting out -- wet heat infiltrated the room and me. Fabulous.

Ava, at this point, was done with spa services so joined Claire in spoiling the puppy.

We enjoyed lunch on the veranda overlooking the rover; someone was standing in the middle of the river, fishing w/ a net.

At 4:00 we boarded our elephant for the elephant safari. Her Indian name escapes me but it means garland. (BTW I'm told all elephants used for riding are female as makes are too aggressive.)

Off we went, again with a guide from the hotel, across the road into the forest. The area was very thick with brush so it was a good excrusion by elephant. Our guide told us a tigress had been spotted there the previous day, in fact she followed the group on elephant so they hightailed it out of the park.

No such excitement for us. We did enjoy the ride, lovely setting, canopy, tons of lantana (which was introduced as a garden plant, takes over, nothing eats it and they struggle to get rid of it).

We did see plenty of monkeys; one tree had both brown and black faced ones living together. And we saw lots of very cool, big black and orange spiders with immense webs.

Ava fell asleep on the elephant, apparently that happens frequently as they slowly rock back and forth.

Our elephant wanted to stop for snacks along the way and at one point tried to lay down. Probably over worked and underfed.

After 1 1/2 hours of sauuntering around the forest we returned to the hotel, enjoyed folk dancing by the fire (bagpipes, drums, dancers from the area). Ava danced quite happily by the fire and we three got coaxed into joining in the finale.

What a long, wonderful day!

Corbett National Park

This week the kids and I took off for Corbett National Park, the first national park established in mainland Asia. It is, quite simply, paradise (particularly after breathing in Delhi air this time of year -- well, anytime of year, I guess).

Located in Uttaranchal in northern India (foothills of the Himalayas), Corbett and neighbouring Sonanadi Wildlife Sanctuary and Reserve Forest areas, form the Corbett Tiger Reserve (1288 sq. km). The park was established in 1936.

(More on park later)

Day 1 of our journey to Corbett:

After flying out of bed when the phone rang at 6 to let Mr. Brenda know his driver awaited we scrambled to get ourselves out the door.

Corbett is a 6 hour drive (it's really not all that far from Delhi but w/ roads that are a free for all for any kind of activity at all times, the statement that one does not make time is life's biggest understatement).

En route I didn't think we'd ever leave Delhi -- the urban area goes on forever (and at some point we entered different cities/villages). The air, filthy in Delhi, managed to get filthier as we went through an area of factories.

When we did eventually get away from Delhi we found patches of farmland, much of it bordered with rocks. Stalks and stalks of sugarcane were being harvested by hand and carted into the village by water buffalo. Carts were heavily laden with the green woody plants -- they must be 3 to 4 feet tall. It's hard to imagine they contain sugar. I later learned sugarcane is fed to elephants. Wonder how that is on the teeth?

We also saw lots of wheat and yellow mustard. Toward Corbett we saw groves of mango trees with some guava here and there. Very pituresque, flat, green land. BTW I tried a guava the other day -- maybe it's an acquired taste?

People lined the road as we traveled. In Delhi it was commuters getting on/off buses, trucks, cars, etc., dozens of children walking or being delivered to school.

Outside the city we saw the typical Indian myriad of transport: trucks, cars, water buffaloes, goats, pony carts, cows, bikes, motorbikes(no camels though). Our driver, Naresh, told us one of the areas we were traveling through was predominantly Muslim. We saw many men with small white caps and many women in black (though it must be ok to wear bright colors beneath the black -- we saw plenty of turquoise pants and brightly colored sandals). Naresh said Muslim girls wear white.

We saw a young boy making what Naresh called Muslim food from rolls of dough -- he flattened each ball out, laid it over what looked like an upside-down wok set over hot coals, and peeled it off a few seconds later.

In one particularly busy village street we saw a bunch of goats and owners. Naresh said the goats would be sold at market the following day. Later we drove by a smilar meeting of water buffalo and owners.

The air cleared beautifully at some point on our drive and eventually we started to see the foothills of the Himalayas, where the park's east entrance (and our destination) is located.

We rolled in early in the afternoon. Our one rest stop on this trip was at a hotel/restaurant complex with the best playground we've seen since our arrival -- complete with 5 rabbits scurrying around a cage w/ 2 big (loud) roosters.

Obviously the rabbits are used to being fed; they didn't pay any attention to me until I came out of the restaurant w/ a bag of food, then they followed me around until the kids were done playing.

Our hotel for this excursion was the Corbett Hideaway, which I highly recommend. It's set on the river with little cottages that all sport front porches. We had lunch in the Hideway's restaurant overlooking the river -- spectacular view.

At 4:00 we headed out with a naturalist for a nature walk down by the river. Ava nearly slid in, otherwise uneventful but beautiful. We saw many different birds -- Corbett has more then 600 bird varieties.

Our walk was through the buffer zone, one of the park's 3 zones (buffer, tourist and the deeper zone that can only be accessed by foresters). In the buffer zone a few villagers still live (grandfathered in before the park officially became a park, I think), and some use of the park is allowed (fishing, herb and firewood gathering, etc.).

Wildlife abounds in the area too; we were told tigers come into this zone regularly, cross roads, etc. In fact, one was hit and injured in January on the paved road. The forestry dept. looked for it to provide medical attention but it had disappeared.

In the deepest part of the park the two varieties of bears found in Corbett hang out: sloth bear and Himalayan brown bear.

On our walk we saw a bunch of black-faced monkeys and learned some Corbett animal trival -- in addition to 600+ types of birds, the park supports 4 kinds of cats, lots of snakes (including King cobra and python).

BTW venomous and non-venomous are correct terms to apply to snakes (rather than poisonous). That's because you can digest venom if swallowed (it's a protein). It becomes problematic if it enters the blood stream.

The king cobra is so venomous it can kill a bull elephant. It's also the only snake that nests; it hangs out w/ its young and cares for them for about 30 days.

Tigers typically have 2-3 cubs, sometimes 4-5. They are solitary dwellers, mark their territory and males will fight to the death over territory. (Lions are the only wild cats that live in groups.) Male tigers sometimes kill their cubs.

Wild elephants live in groups of 25-40, females and young, the oldest female being the leader. Males live by themselves. Apparently wild elephants can be very aggressive. The park has Asian elephants, which differ from African elephants in ear shape and whether males/females have tusks.

At least 2 types of monkeys live at Corbett -- we saw both brown and black faced. They send out signals (calls) when cats are near by. These calls warn the spotted deer and other animals. The monkeys also drop food down from trees to the deer sometimes.

Spotted deer are one of the four types found in the park; they're small, with spots and live in herds. Barking deer -- the smallest deer of all -- are solitary dwellers and actually sound like a dog when they warn other deer of predators.

Back to our walk...we saw fish named for their big heads; they are silver underneath and we could see the flash of their markings when they turned over.

The river which Ava nearly entered was shallow and very wide. During monsoon time, when the park is closed (July/August timeframe) this and the other rivers in the park fill and can be 8-10 feet deep.

Around a bend in said river we came upon a Hindu temple set at the top of a very narrow hill. At one time it was a regular hill but most of the soil has eroded over time. The temple remained intect and is supported by a man-made structure.

We salked down to the water, passing another temple on stone steps, where we spotted many of the afore-mentioned fish.

After our two-hour walk we caught a slide show about the park's animals, which was set up by a roaring (quite literally -- I had plenty of ash all over me by the end) fire.

After dinner we fell into bed at 9:30 I think -- is there anything more tiring than sitting in a car or on an airplane for hours?!?

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Shopping and banking

No great sight seeing adventures to report today -- we've spent the last couple of days doing a little Christmas shopping and attempting to get access to our money. (Iy yi yi sometimes what seems so simple becomes a four-step process.)

Regarding shopping, Roop took us to the "best" market -- best quality, best prices -- on Friday. I was truly looking for only a few items but as soon as we entered Delhi Haat the buzzards were circling.

Out of every corner was a sales person and they were all talking at once. Bangles, carpets from Kashmir, handiwork, bangles for the "babies" (that's the term of reference for all children), traditional dresses for the babies, saris for the madam...etc.).

We managed to extricate ourselves from the first sales demonstration (textiles -- lovely things, they started w/ the synthetic blends and finished with pure silk and pashmina).

We skipped the rug room altogether, had to move pretty quickly on that one.

On the way up to jewelry I was accosted by an eager sari salesman -- "oh you must have sari, madam." Wherein I pointed to my jeans and said "I'm good in these, thanks." (That got a few laughs; I love the Indians for their sense of humor.)

Surprisingly, we managed to leave with the few items on my list, and I was quite pleased with prices and quality, just as Roop recommended. He came along to bargain, which I think made his day, so we got "discounts" on everything, even though signs said "fixed price only." What isn't negotiable here???

From there we went to a bigger supermarket with numerous western products. Couldn't pass up chocolate milk (for Claire), salami (which Roop thoroughly enjoyed on the way back to the hotel), oreos, etc.

Yesterday we were on a mission to get cash. We even resorted to looking for an ATM in one of the malls -- mind you it has everything, from Benetton to Sbarro, a big department store, Bath & Bodyworks, Pizza Hut... -- but no cash machine. Anyway, after finding 4 cash machines, we finally found one that would burp out some money.

I was also successful in posting a package to the U.S. I felt like I had to beat back everyone in line to let me have my turn at the postal counter, though. Mom, I'd say keep an eye out for said package, but I really don't have a good grip on when it will arrive...we received something a friend sent from Calif. weeks ago; it was late as it went first to Indonesia. (Mind you it was clearly marked India.)

Later in the day the hotel set up a movie night: a showing of The Bourne Ultimatum (which I ended up choosing, not sure how I got that honor). The DVD list here isn't terribly lengthy, though more than adequate, most films on the list are well known and have been out for a bit.

Anyway, I joined the group in the presidential suite for a movie hotel style -- straight-backed chairs, nuts and tall glasses of Fanta for snacks. The power went off twice (we have outages every day in the hotel but in seconds the electricity comes back).

Each time it went out during the movie, though, we had to go back to the beginning and fast forward through...first time the ladies running the show (literally I guess) called engineering. Thankfully an audience member grabbed the remote and we were up and running in short order.

The 2nd blink was at the height of action: Bourne jumping from the top of a building. What timing...

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Jama Masjid, December 04, 2008

After a lovely coffee with a friend of a friend (thank you, Archana), the kids and I headed off to see Jama Masjid – India’s largest mosque. (And quite the safe place to tour, according to our driver, Roop, who commented: when do you ever hear of an Islamic Mosque being bombed? !? )

“An exquisite Islamic statement in red sandstone and marble” (according to Fodor), the Jama Masjid was the last monument commissioned by Shah Jahan.

The mosque is in crazy busy Old Delhi, whose windy little streets are chockfull of everything under the sun. From far above it must look like an ant colony, there’s so much hustle and bustle. Tons of rickshaw drivers &market shops, a few dogs thrown in, a bunch of goats being led somewhere (Roop said they were en route to be sacrificed by Muslims, then eaten. Sometimes I do wonder how much I misinterpret…of course, it would also not surprise me if they were being led off to holy slaughter. That does sound a little nicer than just butchered, I guess?)

Ok, so after I asked if the Muslims ate them, I asked Roop if he ate goat. Wherein he said “Mutton? Oh yes it’s very good.” I then realized that I’ve been eating plenty of goat, as I assumed mutton referred to lamb. Well no complaints, it tasted pretty good.

Aside from goats, bikes, beggars, builders, marketers, tourists, shoppers, police, horse carts, autos etc. we saw our first Hindi funeral procession. Claire glanced over at a body, draped in bright red cloth with orange garlands decorating it, being carried through Old Delhi atop what looked like a cot by a handful of men. She immediately knew what it was (how is that kids can identify death so readily? Must be innate.) I think singing was accompanying the procession but with all the noise (and with us in the car) I’m really not sure if I made that up or if was really happening.

After ditching the car Roop walked us to the entrance of the Jama Masjid, which was completed in 1656 after six years of work by 5,000 laborers.

Featuring a mix of Hindu and Islamic architecture, the dome is onion-shaped, has three gateways, four towers and two minarets.

The closet in the North gate of the mosque contains a collection of Muhammad's relics - the Quran written on deerskin, a red beard-hair of the prophet, his sandals and his footprint, embedded in a marble slab, all of which are still preserved. It is said that the walls of the mosque were tilted at a certain angle so that at the time of an earthquake, the walls do not collapse in the courtyard but outwards.

The courtyard can hold up to twenty-five thousand worshippers. The eastern gate of the mosque was the royal entrance and it has 35 steps. These steps used to house food stalls, shops and street entertainers. In the evening, the eastern side of the mosque was converted into a bazaar for poultry.

The south minaret is open to tourists, so we purchased tickets. (By the way, we were fleeced 4 times entry on the way through this mosque…first to come in, then to traverse up narrow, ancient steps in a tiny space to check out the view, then to use a camera for said view, then to pay someone for watching our shoes. The last one was a bit fishy but at that point, why not one more donation? I seem to recall similar experiences at those lovely European cathedrals…)

I am quite proud of Claire; she led the way up that winding little staircase with some trepidation, was quite the trooper. Ava, whom I carried (I’ve decided she now must weigh 60 pounds – well that’s a bit of an exaggeration but by the time we got to the top of the tower – 41 meters -- it certainly felt that way). Her commentary was: boy this is a tough climb. (Tough for who?!?)

What a great experience – breathtaking view, which we shared scrunched up next to Indians, UK’ers and Koreans. (There was very little landing and we had to hug the side so as not to step back into the stairwell, which of course has no railing.)

I spied a few men sporting plaid “skirts” (foreigners) and at first I thought maybe they were making a pilgrimage to the place, clad in some kind of symbolic attire. Silly me…they’d come in shorts so had to cover up for respectful entry into the place.

In the courtyard people were gathered here and there, several women in traditional Muslim attire, many kids playing around the fountain. A woman was feeding the numerous pigeons that seem to call the Mosque home. A few prayed in various corners of the Mosque, while others gathered to eat and converse.

I was struck by the majesty of the building and its view; set on a hillside, it overlooks that bustling Old Delhi scene we meandered through. Well worth the visit!

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

December 2

It's December? How did that happen?

All's well here; I've decided it's quite un-holiday like here. No turkey on Thanksgiving, weather was in the 80's in Goa, Delhi is cooler but not much; there are no lights, Xmas lamp post decorations, holiday shopping billboards etc. Let's hope Santa makes it.

By the way, I did note as we landed in Delhi (after absorbing the beauty and cleanliness of Goa) the smell of pollution wafting into the plane. A haze greeted us upon exiting. No doubt cellophane fires here and there aren't helping the old lungs.

I digress...

Yesterday we traipsed down to the National Railway Museum to check out trainage. (is that a word? well, why not?)

When we pulled into the parking lot I had a moment of doubt...dozens of uniformed children were lined up and marching toward the entry gate. Dozens as in several busloads. However, the kids were teed up to check out the trains so on we went.

Thankfully the place is huge -- big indoor museum and several acres of engines, cars, a small train that actually runs, auditorium, train car bookstore, etc.

The museum housed railway maps, lots of model trains, roadkill (track kill?) -- actually the skull of an elephant that got nailed by a train way back when -- and various other historical data.

As we were meandering through 300 girls (7th grade) dressed in brown filtered in(more like pushed/shoved). We then became more of a spectacle for them than the trains.

Anyway, their teachers encouraged us to cut to the front of the line for our train ride around the place, which was Ava's sole motivation for visiting the museum. After our spin around we climbed aboard a variety of engines and cars, which included:

- the world's oldest working engine
- the Patiala State Monorail Train -- built to run on a single rail along one side of a road (originally pulled by 500 mules)
- the White Saloon of the Prince of Wales and Mysore Mharaja's Saloon (with gold ceiling) -- both were quite fancy

and a wide array of other railway relics.

Today we spent some time w/ our Gurgaon ex-pat group and got whisked off to lunch by our friend Margie, who is managing construction of a home nearby. One of her more recent tales of frustration was a crew that showed up on a Friday and did nothing all day because they forgot to bring tools. Maybe when I return to the U.S. I'll borrow a chapter from their book...I couldn't make dinner because I forgot to turn on the stove?

Monday, December 1, 2008

December 1

I caved.

Last week I really thought -- for all of 24 hours, perhaps, that I could grow out my hair and that it wouldn't drive me crazy, that I would be ok w/ "big hair" (let's face it -- any hair is big when compared to how closely cropped I've kept mine the last several years).

I even had myself somewhat convinced that it wouldn't drag my face down or bury my cheekbones. (Never mind that the more obsessed I became w/ my hair -- which I normally don't worry about once someone has cut off as much as possible without making me feel militaresque...though I guess I have been known to stalk other women w/ great short hair to find their hairdresser. So maybe I am obsessed. Stalking anyone here led to nothing -- all Indian women, young and old, have long hair. Anyone w/ short hair is a foreigner holding out to get it cut in the UK, Australia, etc.)

Anyway, all this pipedreaming about long flowing straight dark-going-gray hair went out the window when I woke up this morning. NO WAY was I going to be able to make it til Xmas vacation, letting this mop grow out, until I got somewhere where I could find an English speaking hair stylist with short, feminine hair-cutting expertise.

Thus led me to a salon at the Galleria shopping center. Frankly no research involved here; we rounded a corner on the upper level, I spotted a salon, poked my head in, all men in the salon had good hair (and no bad red dye jobs). So I asked the cost -- approx. $10 -- and if it was ok if my 2 small sidekicks watched.

Thirty minutes later I walked out quite happily, with less hair and the man's biz card in hand for my next hair cut fix. I was practically giddy with the experience, so thrilled was I to be in the chair w/ a cape on, watching hair fall around me. After all, it had been more than my typical 5-week hair cut stretch. Oh the small things in life...

We also set about getting Xmas cards made today (yes, late start, what can I say) and by the time these folks get a proof of said card to me (they created it while I watched -- so much for those snapfish templates), you stand to get a card from us sometime in February.

But it was quite fun; the kodak folks invited us behind the counter to pull up the photo off of yahoo, then they created the card while I got a pedicure (I no longer have calluses on my feet, first time in 20 years -- feels great until I try to run later this week).

After giving the ok on the card to the kodak guy, I asked about timing for printing these things...wherein I was told "plenty of time -- it isn't Xmas for another 24 days..." (Maybe February is being optimistic.)

Then we talked price -- 20 rupees per card. I walked out paying 14. I do love the bargaining piece.

No other late breaking news -- heightened security (expected) at the hotel, hoping to bury our heads in the sand in Australia for Xmas.

Jama Masjid, Old Delhi

Jama Masjid, Old Delhi
Largest mosque in India