Category Archives: Vacation

The Hills are Alive…

In the last week of October we drove up to the Great Smoky Mountains in Tennessee. It was a 11-hour drive, mostly on I-95 North. A straight highway with regular cars making their way up North somewhere. Towards the end of day I dozed off for what must have been thirty minutes. I woke up suddenly and found myself in the colorful mountains. The winding road had bursts of color popping up at every bend, the evening sun throwing spotlights on the mountain slopes. Breathtaking, enchanting are merely feeble words to describe what I saw. Whoever included “great” when naming these mountains knew exactly what they were doing.

I was ecstatic and I broke into a song –  The Hills are Alive. For four years I hadn’t set foot on the mountains. For four years I hadn’t filled my lungs with the crisp and fragrant autumn air. For four years I hadn’t witnessed the awe-inspiring season that is fall. Unquestionably, my most favorite season of all. We stopped by a river right by the road, walked over the pebbled and rocky banks and touched the freezing water. My son picked up some rocks to add to our river rock collection. It reminded us of summers spent by the Deerfield river in Mohawk Trail, Massachusetts.

That evening, we reached our hotel, nestled in the mountains. The next day we headed off to the Great Smoky Mountains known for their permanently cloud-capped peaks. God bless the visionaries who fought hard to preserve these scenic places as National Parks for future generations. We drove all the way to Clingman’s Dome which is the highest point in the Smoky Mountains at about 6,600 feet.  Shrouded in fog and freezing cold (at least for us Floridians), we skipped the 30 minute hike to the observatory/dome for the warm and toasty gift shop. After warming up by the fire we headed off to the Cherokee Indian Reservation on the North Carolina side of the park. It boasted the biggest waterfall in the area and it was a short hike to reach it. Doable by our family of kids, elderly parents and us – middle-aged adults. The Mingo falls could be reached after climbing 170 steps and a small stretch of rocky mountain path. It was well worth the hike to see it.

On the way back my husband was compelled to stop at an Indian gift shop to buy a dream catcher. The one we got from Mohawk Trail years ago was falling apart and he wanted to replace it. Dream catcher in hand we headed off for lunch and some more tree ogling, oohing and aahing, and trying to take pictures of tunnels and trickling rivers. On the way we were forced to stop on a narrow road as cars in front of us slowed down and came to a stop. People were jumping out of the cars and heading to the edge of the road overlooking the forest. We were wondering what all the fuss was about and found a big group of people gazing up at the treetops, cameras and phones clicking away furiously. We too looked up in the trees and saw a black bear climbing up a tree.

Now in all my years in the U.S. I had never seen a black bear in the wild. I had always wanted to see one (hop across the road while we were driving or take a drink in the river while we watched from yonder!) My husband (the ever practical one) warned me of the dangers of encountering a bear in the wild. So this was just perfect. We were far enough to be safe but not too far to miss all the action. We simply had to get off and take pictures. One excited person yelled – there’s four of them. But we only spotted three and they looked like cubs. My husband joked that we should be on our way before “Mama Bear” made a grisly appearance.

Next day we packed up and checked out of our beautiful hotel and made our way to Ober, Gatlinburg to board the aerial tramway for a view from way above. It was like seeing the mountains for the first time ever. We took the tramway up and down four times and each time the mountains and the colors looked different because of the light and the position of the sun. We then took a chair lift to a ride called the Alpine slide where you squat in a little car with a hand pedal to go forward or slow down. Our little cars took us down a winding concrete track. The kids loved it and wanted to do it again and again but we had to leave. I wished we could have spent another day in the mountains but we had to say goodbye and reach Atlanta, Georgia by 4.30 p.m.

P’s Dad loves elephants. When he was a young boy growing up in Kerala, many families owned elephants and some used to turn up in his backyard for a treat of bananas by the bunches. He loves telling my kids about elephants and stories from when he was a child. But in his 80 years he had never seen an African Elephant. So P and I were determined to show him one on this trip. Zoo Atlanta boasted not one but two such elephants. But we had to get there in time for the last admission which was at 4.30.

We drove for 3 hours without a break. Not stopping for food or drink. We made it in time to see these magnificent elephants. One was swaying away happily and the other was moving around. We also saw a very restless lion that was growling and pacing around and two hungry pandas munching on bamboo shoots. In an hour the zoo closed and we headed off to our hotel for much needed R & R.

The next day we left early to see Martin Luther King’s house and the Freedom Walkway. We then stopped by the Georgia Aquarium and spent the morning there before heading back to Florida. The sights of the city and aquarium held no magic for me for my heart was still in the mountains. I simply had to close my eyes and I was there in the midst of the trees in their glorious hues, feeling alive, feeling surprisingly healthy and happy, the melody in my heart rising to my lips until I could hold it in no more and I burst into song…The Hills are Alive.

 

The Chennai Chronicles – Part 4 (Family and Final Week)

My four-part travelogue will not be complete without mentioning my wonderful family and the good times we had together. My parents and in-laws live in Chennai and that makes life easy for us…or not! My trip to Chennai in 2011 was spent shunting between the two houses! This time we had a better plan and we actually implemented it. It also helped that both my Dad and father-in-law were in good health this time.

December happens to be kutcheri season and several musicians and dancers flock to Chennai for the Music Festival. My daughter learns music and we thought we should take her to a concert (kutcheri). So on New Year’s eve we were at Narada Gana Sabha nodding our heads to Sudha Ragunathan’s beautiful rendition of Thyagaraja and Papanasam Sivan’s compositions. As a bonus we got to see a Bharatanatyam performance by two very graceful ladies (whose names I forget!). We also sampled the food at the canteen, which, according to my friend A, is the highlight of the Music Festival. She was right – the aapam and vada curry and the rava dosai were to die for!

The next day we were up early and ready for our road trip to Mahabalipuram, a very touristy place just outside of Chennai. It’s known for its beautiful rock temples with intricate carvings dating back to the Pallava dynasty. There were rocks to climb, caves to explore and wells to peep into. The kids enjoyed it, although it was an awfully hot day and there was not much shade. We then stopped by Fisherman’s cove for lunch. The kids couldn’t wait to run into the beach and we had to force them to stay till they cleaned their plates. Then they headed into the water with their grandma in tow. After dinner at Ashoka we headed back home.

My Dad returned from Kerala with my grandma, Ganga. It was wonderful to see her. She looked healthy and happy. She lives at the Shivananda Ashram now and loves it. She has a place to herself, healthy fresh food and she gets to chant the Lord’s name everyday. What more could you ask for?  I asked her to stay on till N’s birthday, so we could all celebrate together. It’s the second time that his birthday happened to be during our stay in India. The first time really didn’t count because both my kids were terribly ill and we couldn’t do much.

My cousin G’s mom sent a chocolate cake for N’s birthday. We cut it on the 7th and on the 8th we all went out for lunch at Eden. So N had a 48-hour birthday! How you ask? Well, his d.o.b. is the 7th and according to his star sign (nakshatra in the lunar calendar) his birthday was on the 8th. He wanted a RC car for his birthday. He also got an X-Box game and some clothes. His grandpa made a special payasam (sweet dish) for him. But the best treat of all was getting to celebrate it with his grandparents, his uncle and Ganga!

The next day Ganga left for Kerala along with Dad and we got busy packing for our trip back. It was with heavy hearts that we said our goodbyes, but with hopes of coming back soon, so we could do it all over again.

To our families – we miss you and greatly appreciate all that you did (the long trips, the amazing food and the crazy shopping) to make this trip a memorable one. Love you tonnes!

The Chennai Chronicles – Part 3 (The Wedding)

My cousin G’s wedding was one of the reasons I really wanted to be in Chennai for the winter holidays. She called me sometime in August when she was fixing the date and the venue and confirmed that the kids and P were off for Christmas/New Year. I assured her that we would make it and then all our plans went phut! ( see http://punctuatelife.com/2013/01/14/the-chennai-chronicles-part-1/)

The wedding was in the last week of December and was preceded by a Mehendi ceremony. The boys didn’t want to go, so A and I went with my parents and brother. It was by the beach, in an open pavilion with divans and bolsters along the low walls. G was sitting at the far end of the room, her feet covered with mehendi (henna tattoos). A lady was working on her hands and deftly covering it with fine lines of green paste from a cone.

My daughter couldn’t wait to get mehendi on her hands, so my mom and I had to take turns feeding her. I was paranoid that she would get it on her nice clothes.  I kept nagging her to stretch her arms out and not touch her clothes. Soon after I put mehendi on my hands, I sat down on the couch to talk to G. I ended up putting my hands on my lap and got it all over my saree. I had to wash it all off and also had a wet spot on the front of my saree. So much for nagging A about not getting it on her clothes.

The groom’s side is Finnish and G got all the ladies sarees with matching blouses, which they wore to the mehendi ceremony. With matching bangles and they were very eager to do some Bollywood moves. So my brother stepped up and decided to lead. It was a lot of fun to dance in a group and the steps were so funny that we were in stitches by the end of the dance.

The Finnish ladies were not done and went on to do some fine gyrations that made the rest of us applaud in admiration. There was also a Killi Josiyam person. Basically tarot cards which are laid out in front of a parrot. The killi or parrot walks over the cards and picks one with its beak. The bird hands it over to the astrologer who then interprets it. My daughter gave it a shot and the parrot picked Unnikrishna (baby Krishna) and the astrologer rattled off some well-rehearsed lines – work hard at school. Donate to charity (which was odd!)

We ate a sumptuous dinner and then drove back home. Most of the guests were staying at the hotel and so the party continued for several hours after us city dwellers had called it a night.

The wedding was the next day. The mandapam was supposed to be set up outside but the rain played spoilsport and the ceremony had to be indoors. The path outside, with stairs leading up to the mandap was strewn with flowers. There were plates of roses all along the low walls of the verandah. The mandapam was beautifully decorated with white flowers and lotuses. G looked divine in her gold zari saree, exquisite choli and traditional jewellery. J was wearing a sherwani which was almost the same color and carried it off pretty well. I figured he was hot in it (although it was officially winter in Chennai – if you can call misty weather with a few scattered downpours, winter!)

They made a beautiful couple and I hope they live a long life together making many happy memories and with much laughter and joy.

It was a traditional Kerala wedding. They say Kerala weddings are so short that if you blink you’ll miss it. So here’s how it’s done. The bridegroom waits for the bride at the mandapam. The bride walks to mandapam accompanied by little girls carrying trays of flowers and women (both single and married) carrying oil lamps. My daughter and I were part of that group. G joined J at the mandapam and he tied the taali (mangalsutra or chain with a small pendant that consecrates the union) with the nadaswaram and thavil playing in the background. They exchanged garlands and then got the blessings of all the older family members. They first touched the feet of their parents, grandparents, great aunts and uncles. Then the rest of the gathering went up to the couple and threw rice & flowers (akshata) on them and blessed them.

J’s side of the family brought some of their wedding traditions to the table. After a toast by the groom’s brother some of the ladies sang Finnish songs (complete with a drum) and actions. Not one to be outdone, G’s aunt decided to sing a Hebrew song – Hava Nagila and we all joined in.

And then there was the elephant! Yes a real live elephant. The not-so-eager groom was garlanded by the pachyderm. Locals, expats, everyone alike were uber excited to see the elephant (my kids included!) The cameras kept flashing and everyone wanted to pose with the animal.

After dinner, which was a delectable spread (my mouth is watering just thinking about it!) everyone was in the mood for dancing. After a few rounds of Finnish dancing, holding hands and going around in a circle, my brother did his number. Then the group kinda split up and P and I went to get the kids. The kids were all pumped up and wanted to keep dancing. So P and I ended up dancing with them at the edge of the dance floor. After a while we got tired but A & N didn’t want to call it quits.

And then it happened. The DJ played this Korean song that went viral – Gangnam style. N had learnt all the moves and he broke into an animated dance. It was so much fun to watch this little guy do all the moves. The grand finale – he slid between my brother’s legs like they do in the video. It was hilarious!

When we had enough of the dancing, we took a walk to the beach and stood there breathing in the salty night air and soaking up the sound of the waves lapping onto the moonlit shore. We then drove back to the city.

I’ll remember this wedding for a long long time. Not because of the elephant or the venue or anything. But just because it was the first wedding my kids have ever attended. Also, it was so much fun and sometimes I wish I was still in India so I could dress up and go for a wedding every month (oh yeah! and that’s just a conservative estimate!). Thank you G and J for inviting us! God bless you.

The Chennai Chronicles – Part 2 (People and Places)

32 days in Chennai. 32 glorious days. I met many old friends and made several acquaintances. So many that I can’t possibly write about every person I met. I just picked a few experiences that I think others would like to read about. But just so you know whether I met someone for 10 minutes or spent an entire day with them, I hold all of my friends close to my heart. Each feeds some part of my soul and enriches my life in a way only he/she can.

Even before I started from the U.S. I was determined to meet my soul sister N. We couldn’t meet in 2011 and I was upset I couldn’t make the trip to Pondicherry. Ever since I found her in 2010 (see http://punctuatelife.com/2012/02/19/finding-a-long-lost-love/) she has been my rock as far as my writing goes. She is always there for me, encouraging me and making me believe that I had it in me to write stuff that people would actually want to read. So much so that now ‘I’ think I’m capable of writing a book!

P wanted to take me but he had some urgent matters to attend to. So I drove down to Pondicherry (the very same place where Life of Pi was filmed) with my parents, my brother and the kids. I was seeing her after 10 years and the whole experience was surreal. It felt like we were in a dream. She was a hostess par excellence. We could smell the aroma of all the delicacies wafting from her kitchen even before we stepped into her house. Vada, chicken 65, tea, coffee, special Bengali sweets and kheer. And her sweet smile never left her face. I can see it now. I can feel the purity of her love which elevated me to heights that I never dreamt were possible for me. If you have but only one friend in this lonely world then let that friend be like N.

She took us all out to lunch at the ‘Rendezvous’ and refused to let us pick up the tab. She just wouldn’t hear of it. Such is the generosity of her soul. She wouldn’t let me ride in the car. So I rode with her on her bike, which was a ‘Pleasure’ literally! She did not want to waste one second of my trip and I was fighting sleep so I could talk to her face to face. Like lunch wasn’t enough, she hauled us off to a pastry shop for dessert. And to top it all a specially made Bengali kheer was waiting for us at her place. All in all we were filled with the sweetness of her hospitality, love and sumptuous food by the end of the day. Before I knew it the day was done and this meeting that I had planned and prayed for came to an end. I left a piece of me in Pondicherry and hope we meet again. Until then I will cherish this trip in 2012 that leaves a sweet aftertaste in my mouth when I just think about it.

I met R after nearly 20 years. She left for another school and that was the last I saw of her. We connected years later through a yahoo group from school. It so happened that she was travelling to India around the same time I was. So we decided to meet at a coffee shop. She came with her son and her sister. It was wonderful to see her after all these years and we chatted like old friends. It’s funny but all the girls who went to school with me share this common bond that ties us together no matter where we’ve been or what we’ve done. When we meet or talk on the phone years later, we make a spontaneous and instant connection. It’s like all those years when we thought we were not connected, there was an invisible bond between us!

A few days later I met my dear pal A (of the Bisi Bela Bath fame) who was also in Chennai for a vacation. I almost thought I wouldn’t be able to meet her. She was splitting her time between three houses – her parents’, her in-laws’ and her sister’s. She was my dearest pal in MU and after we got married I moved to the U.S. and she moved to Australia. I kept wishing she would move to the U.S. and years later she did! And she was just 3 hours away from where we were staying. So we met at least 3 to 4 times a year. When I moved to Florida I really missed her. But it wasn’t so bad because we always talked on the phone. She was supposed to go to India last summer but her trip got cancelled. In hindsight I think that happened so I could meet her! It was a rushed meeting at a common friend’s place but it was good to see her after 3 whole years!

My aunt from TVM came down to spend a week with us. We did some fun shopping and did some sight seeing as well. We squeezed in a trip to the Chennai museum too. Sadly, we weren’t allowed to take pictures inside the museum. I marvelled at the architecture of the buildings – something I never really paid attention to as a child. The bronze gallery with it’s ancient idols from the Chola and Pandya dynasty were the best exhibits. I also enjoyed the art gallery with its Raja Ravi Varma paintings. Also  noteworthy are the ghoulish life-size paintings of British governors that seemed to come alive and appeared to be staring right at us.

I met my dear friend J and spent an entire evening with her at her home after enjoying a delicious lunch cooked by her. The kids played together and we laughed and giggled like old times. Giggled till our tummies hurt.

There were some unexpected surprises thrown at me (of the pleasant kind).  The first was S who is a distant cousin whom I’d met years ago at a wedding in Kerala. We hit it off and kept in touch through letters for some years. Now she’s married and is also into writing. She dropped in for lunch one day and it was fun catching up.

My long time friend G from elementary school,  made a sudden trip to India and we both did not know that the other was in Chennai. Call it divine intervention in the form of the isthri lady ( person you give your clothes to be ironed, not to be confused with dry cleaners). She turned up one day and she knew us right from our childhood days and knew we were friends. So she told me G was in Chennai (on the very same street!) and the next day she brought me her phone number. So I met G, her dad, her husband and her kids. God decided to throw in a bonus, so I met Uncle M and Auntie M who kinda moulded my views about vegetarianism many years ago.

When I was with G my mom called saying an old friend A had come over to meet me. She is my brother’s best friend’s sister. And we were phone friends when she lived in NJ. We had a lot in common and I really missed chatting with her when she left to settle in Chennai. What touched me the most was that she left her sick kids in the care of her husband and hurried to come see me!

This time in Chennai I felt like I was wrapped in the love and kindness that everyone extended to me. I didn’t want to leave that comfortable place. So a big thank you to my wonderful friends and family for a wonderful 32 days!

 

Summer Escapes in God’s Own Country…

As the endless summer days come to a close and the stark reality of school, routine and classes loom large, I fondly remember the summer vacations of my childhood days. Every year around May, my Mom’s face would brighten with eager anticipation. Even before school was out for the summer, she’d have our tickets booked and trunks packed. After an overnight train journey, we’d reach Cochin and then board a bus for a 2-hour ride to Vaikkom. To Mutasshi and Mutasshan’s house with its sprawling garden full of fruit-filled trees and exotic flowers, and ponds with lilies and hyacinths.

In Chennai the only river/water body we knew was the Cooum  which (did not flow) behind our house and could be smelled from a mile away. So my brother, my cousin Rohit and I would want to jump into the pond for a swim the moment we entered the house. Since we did not know how to swim, my dear grandma, Mutasshi, would hoist up her mundu and get in the water with us. We would hang onto her arms and legs and kick our legs wildly, laughing in glee. After thoroughly exhausting ourselves and drenching Mutasshi to her bones we would jump out to eat red rice, shrimp and coconut curry and sambar. Mutasshan would pick a pineapple or mangoes from the garden for dessert. We would watch in awe as he cut it with the precision of a sculptor. After gulping down the juicy fruit, we’d jump into the pond for another round of ‘swimming and sinking’ with Mutasshi in tow. Pathetic little water-starved kids from Chennai we were!

We’d then raid the kitchen for Mutasshi’s cinnamon-spiced cake, butter biscuits or Mysore Pak specially made by the Maami from across the street.  And then we’d be back in the pond for our last round of thrashing around before it got dark. In the darkness lurked snakes and frogs and other not-so-friendly creatures. So we stayed indoors and listened to stories from the Books of Knowledge that adorned Mutasshan’s  shelves.

One night I remember staying up till midnight to see the Flower of Bethlehem bloom. Something that happens once in 12 years and at midnight. The flower closed up by morning. Mutasshan also had jack fruit trees, lemon and cashew trees, guava trees and even a cocoa tree. We once made chocolate from our very own cocoa nuts. The tart and juicy fruits of the Jambyaka tree were such a treat. I haven’t eaten a jambyaka, which I believe is a water apple, in years and I haven’t seen that ever-so-rare tree.

Memories of Sabu are sprinkled all over my summer vacations in Kerala. He was our maid Mary Kutty’s son and also our neighbor. She was a slim, small woman with olive skin and light enchanting eyes. It was hard to believe that she had borne three sons – Sabu, Babu and Maatachan. Sabu was the youngest of them and was my age. He walked around shirtless and his shorts were always falling off. This greatly distressed me and I would yell at him to hoist up his shorts and secure them with a safety pin. Somehow being the eldest amongst the cousins made me think I could boss around everybody.

When we wanted to go fishing in the pond, Sabu was the expert we turned to. He dug up worms with his bare hands while I tried not to puke. He found the perfect pole and even caught us a fish. I decided to keep the fish as a pet and brought a bucket of pond water. Sabu put the fish in the bucket and after a few minutes proceeded to take it out. I yelled at him to put it back but he didn’t. And I wasn’t about to snatch that writhing slimy thing out of his hands. So I watched in horror as Sabu let the poor creature thrash around, trying to take a breath of air but failing miserably. My screams fell on Sabu’s deaf ears. He let the fish die and watched me burst into tears and run into the house.

The famous Chakka  Kuru fight is definitely worth a mention. My valliamma (aunt) and my Dad were always at loggerheads. One day they were arguing in the backyard where my Mutasshi had left some innocent jack fruit seeds to dry. They are almond shaped but bigger. I’m not sure who threw the first chakka kuru but very soon they were flying all over the backyard. The rest of us were on the porch that ran along the side of the house near the backyard. We were yelling and cheering until all the chakka kurus were spent and both my Dad and my valliamma were thoroughly exhausted.

They say nothing lasts forever. And so my endless summer days spent in Vaikkom every year came to an end.  Right after Mutasshi passed away. Mutasshan was lost without his Sumathi by his side. He had to leave his retirement home and live with his daughters. First in Trivandrum and then in Chennai. I did go back to Vaikkom once after they had got a tenant for the house. The beautiful garden with its rows of hibiscus and fruit-bearing trees now lay desolate with neglect. The ponds of our childhood ‘swimming and sinking’ expeditions were full of weeds that covered the water. I sat by the pond that Mutasshan used to clean up for us every summer and cried. I cried for my Mutasshan and Mutasshi. I cried for my lost childhood and I cried for all the trees and ponds that would never be loved like they were loved before.