Sunday, January 30, 2011

Dear Egypt...

I heard about your rumblings and I just wanted to ask you "Why, Egypt, Why?". It is not everyday that I decide to visit you. And now amidst your anger I must find a way to retrieve the money I used to help stimulate your economy and use it towards visiting someone else. It's really your loss. I mean is Mubarak really thst bad? It's been thirty years. I know-I know...he's not the best. I get it. You deserve the best. But must it be now? Yes it is selfish of me but meeting you was a dream if mine. So i ask you once again "Why?".


P.S. Where should we go now?

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Congratulations are in order...

to my nephew-in-law Nakul! He took in overall recognition for his speech on global warming at his school's Annual Day yesterday!  He should be more heavily recognized for refusing to lip synch his speech (as requested by the school) and to further refuse lip synching to a girl's recording of his speech.  Way to go Nakul! 

 Nakul's parents Vathsa and Pushpa and us.

Friday, January 28, 2011

I'm Back...

in India again.  And I am enamored.

Bangalore and its 4th block have a Mamta comin'. (That's one of its shopping districts, girls.)

Srinidhi's parents have joined us here in Bangalore and already family history is being recorded on my camera.  I love my life.

At Bangalore's botanical gardens Lalbhag.

PS.  You may want to scroll back about FIVE posts to catch up.  I just uploaded them (and post-dated).

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Read this...

Trust me. It is worth it. It is not happy and is heart wrenching instead. The American media avoided it for obvious reasons (I mean-we were the enemy), but the story is one of human psyche. And human heart.

Just read it.

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Ha Noi Hilton...

We had the best day in Ha Noi, filled with rich Vietnamese history as heart aching as it is. Accompanying us on a tour was a young third year University student from Hanoikids, which is a volunteer organization built to give foreigners a tour of Hanoi in return for a day of practicing English. That's right. These kids do it just to practice English. All they ask for is payment for taxis, entrance fees, and lunch. That is quite a small price to pay for an all day locals' tour. Let's just say entrance fees were around $0.50 typically, and he got a student discount on top of that!

 Our tour guide Anh at Sword Lake

We began at the Ho Chi Minh complex, which consists of a mausoleum, a museum, and two of his homes (including the one where he passed away). There were three things I came to correctly understand through this first hand visit to Vietnam. The first of which was at the complex. Ho Chi Minh was revered, respected to a level no textbooks or newspapers can depict. Hearing or reading about Ho Chi Minh does no justice to the regard in which the people of this country hold his everlasting presence and legacy. They call him Bac Ho (Uncle Ho), and their faces light up when his name breaches conversation. He is their Gahndiji or George Washington. Abraham Lincoln, Nelson Mandela, or Martin Luther King, Jr of sorts. The polar opposite of Adolf Hitler or Benito Mussolini. Modern America's Bill Clinton in ways. Serving as their leader and with admirable dedication, he never married so as not to distract himself from his people. He visited kindergartens and villages of elderly. He settled for a while in France, eloquently learning their native language. Same for the Soviet Union. He made political trips to India and the US. He could speak in seven tongues and read four of those languages. His life ended naturally in Hanoi, and upon his death the Vietnamese people preserved his body in the mausoleum, defying his request to be cremated and spread across three regions of Vietnam: North, Central, and South. Although not compulsory, many pay tribute annually.

Ho Chi Minh Complex

We then proceeded to the Temple of Literature, which was the first university in Hanoi. There are many temples of literature in the country, but this one is the largest and most well known. Much of the back portion was destroyed during the French-Vietnemese war and rebuilt thereafter. Today, it is more or less a temple and museum.

Temple of Literature

Our gift to ourselves was this "idea" I had whilst sitting in this vegetarian restaurant (Hats off to the chef at Tamarind). I wanted to get our family name (that's Nagaraja...not Patel) written in the local language on some cool canvas/cloth/bamboo. As it turns out, there are elderly folks outside of the Temple of Literature who do just that. Apparently, it is not just a tourist thing-it is quite common close to the Chinese/Vietnemese new year (February 8th this year-it goes by the Lunar calendar). We had Anh assist us and after much interpretation, we found a gentleman who took "King Cobra" and translated it into Chinese as "Big Snake". In doing so, I learned more about Vietnamese history. You see-Vietnamese language is actually NOT written in characters like many of its neighbors. It is based off of the Latin alphabet. Well, many years ago the good ol' Christians came through and through that influence the written language was changed to Latin-based. Some locals tried to adapt the Chinese alphabet and make it "Vietnamese", but it was too complicated to catch on. And thus, reading Vietnamese is much like Spanish to us-you can read it and not understand a lick of it.

Pretty cool huh?

After introducing our guide to a Indian food (which was not oily and quite home-cooked tasting), we headed to the famous Hao Lo Prison-or perhaps you know it as Ha Noi Hilton. Oh you don't? Allow me to explain. The prison was built by the French (oh yeah-ever wonder why the Vietnamese are good bakers? French occupation should say it all...) and used to imprison Vietnamese during the their war. And by imprison I mean brutalize, abuse, and punish. During the Vietnamese-American war, it was used by Vietnam for American POWs. When US planes and their US soldiers went down (including former US presidential candidate John McCain), they were captured and held at the Hao Lo prison. Though, it was nothing like how the French ran it all those years prior. I cannot say it more eloquently than Anh so let me use his answer to my innocent question: "What the French did was unheard of in its cruelty. We Vietnamese are nice people. We were not looking to abuse. The Americans were simply the enemy and they crashed in our territory. We had to imprison them and so we did." The POWs were not mistreated or abused or tortured. And thus, the Americans called it the Ha Noi Hilton. I had always known of this phrase and thought I understood it. But the meaning hit home when I saw the pictures. I only wish all humans on this Earth could learn history first-hand. It would be such dramatic learning.

Hao Lo Prison

Sculptures of Vietnamese soldiers during French imprisonment

 US POWs playing cards, etc at Ha Noi Hilton

Zoom in on this and read the top left. 

We finished the night off with traditional Vietnamese culture after Anh confirmed it was indeed worth it and not at all "only for the tourists". We saw what is called a Water Puppet Show. It is literally that-puppets in water. But it was also so much more than that. It was entertainment before modern entertainment existed. Paired with Vietnamee folk song, we had a great end to our taste of Vietnam.

 The Water Puppet Show

I recommend every American visit and take a month to tour the entire country. Someday we will.

Finishing off with a quick lunch in Ho Chi Minh (the former Saigon)

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Sunday, January 23, 2011

Dang Nam

Today, we went to a fishing floating village. We were escorted by locals on a paddle boat and greeted by the head of the village (in Vietnemese and translated by our tour guide Huong (or Bobby as he says...)). There were so many things I learned-for example, the company who runs our tour cruise has an owner who is quite philanthropic and donated $50,000 to fully cover the building of a new school in the village. There are 150 families here, and happiness is palpable. I also learned that Huong learned English by watching satellite TV from his Uncle's place (you know...Cartoon Network he says). I was surprised they had a satellite. For the record, his English is pretty darn good. Also, the village gets water from either the grotto, which collects rainwater naturally or through a vat they put out to collect rain themselves. The Vietnemese government sends doctors to the villages twice per month for the medical care of these locals, which I found quite amazing for a third world country.

Probably what strikes me the most is the self-sufficiency with which people live. I mean-we are pure wasters of everything on that side of the world. Or so it seems to me now. Or should I say in the West.

We just got back from kayaking, which was a bit more frustrating today than yesterday. Srin and I are not very good in all our noviceness and were constantly moving like a snake! But the scenery was breathtaking. Apparently 500 million years ago, tectonic plate movement created the formations in these pictures. A second movement only 250 years ago created more.

We are about to head to dinner, which will be in a CAVE! This trip just gets better and better.

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Saturday, January 22, 2011

Me Love You Long Time

I kayak'd today. Me! All the way to the Chinese border (or so I was told). It was so much fun. The sights were breath-taking. I fear my words and pictures will do it no justice.

Today, we made a 4 hour road trip from Ha Noi to Ha Long, which is on the northeastern border of Vietnam. From there, we embarked on the Dragon Pearl Junk (a junk is a boat) to travel the waters of the bay. We are here for three day and two nights, kayaking and eating and enjoying the natural rock formations.

You know-you see pictures and wonder where that shot may be. Well, I found it.

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Friday, January 21, 2011

Good Morning Vietnam

If you want to see Vietnam in its most local form (but in a major city), try Ha Noi. Coming from Siem Reap where the city is reliant on tourism, Ha Noi is a breath of....well, not exactly fresh air. The air is certainly not fresh, but my observing eyes are refreshed. It is chaotic and non-Western. Crazy but organized. English-less and tourist-mild.

We spent the first day finding a jacket for read that right. We came from perfect weather (and I do mean girl-perfect. Dress-wearing perfect.) in Cambodia to be greeted by cold Vietnemese weather. And stupid us assumed all of Southeast Asia would all be nice and warm. We were not even smart enough to check the weather in Singapore before we left (and mind you, we have nice winter wear for our Everest trip but guess where we left it?) And thus, I bring you to our day one plans.

We are staying in the Old Quarter where our boutique hotel is quite nice but affordable. We walked around, barely able to read the signs (well, we can read them but remembering the names is difficult...Hang Dieu...Hung Be...Dang Nam (Thank you Eddie Murphy)...) and found ourselves at the markets. After following a recommendation for an all vegetarian dinner spot, I got me the famous Vietnemese local dish called 'pho' all vege-tized. Yummo!  And that was pretty much day one. The rest of the Ha Noi sights will be done via a local student-based tour from Hanoikids on Tuesday.

We are off to Ha Long tomorrow where we will traipse to the waters of the Ha Long Bay. Yay for cold water.

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Thursday, January 20, 2011

Quick update...

Still alive and kicking. Now in Vietnam. I have two posts ready and will put them up tomorrow.

Stupid Blogpress app won't let me post any pictures any more. Thoughts?

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Location:Hanoi, Vietnam

Briefly from Cambodia...

I have much to say about Cambodia but not enough time to do it at the moment. So, here's my preview. Cambodia was a drastic change from our Western travels up to this point. It was rewarding but heartbreaking. The people were poor but happy. All in all, it is a country worth traveling and an economy worth stimulating. The friendliness of her people were an obvious highlight.

Much of our trip was seeing the famous temples of the ancient city of Angkor. The namesake, Angkor Wat (Angkor means city and Wat means temple), is the most famous. Here is a picture of sunset at Pre Rup, a temple built in late 10th century, about 15 years prior to Angkor Wat.

Can you believe sunsets are this red in Cambodia?!? Courtesy of $5 sunglasses...

One of my favorite parts was taking two Khmer (traditional Cambodian cuisine) cooking classes.  The first one was WAY better than the second (and twice as expensive...but totally worth it).
Market fresh food with which to cook. Yummy mango salad.

Amok is a traditional Khmer cuisine, and the nyo leaves above make it an amok dish.

We also visited a local family, and this little girl was the youngest of 10 children.

This is her mom, and I really like this picture.

We finished our trip by visiting a local orphanage in hopes of improving their lives. More on this later.

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Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Food and Family...

It's always great when you have family around when you are in other countries. Our southeast Asia excursion began in Singapore, where the theme was food. Srin's cousin Mahesh and his wife Sona were the most gracious hosts-treating us to meals and drinks and meals and oh wait...more home cooked deliciousness. It was a precursor to India, if I do say so myself. Waking up to fresh masala dosas should say it all. They have two kiddos: Payal (age 9) and Akhil (age 4), and hanging out with them was a highlight of our trip.

Probably my favorite "epiphany" of sorts (I already knew this but a reminder is always nice) was when I saw the importance of family in Srin's life just from regular ol' interactions. One of his most attractive qualities to me was the regard in which he holds family, a tenet instilled in me naturally from my own parents. Anyone who knows me would tell you that I am unnaturally close to my family. It's a concept many "understand" but few fathom possible. I am often told that our relationships are enviable. And not one day goes by that I take it for granted. I did when I was young but not any more-I literally think about my family every day of my life. And that's part of what made me want to marry Srin-he holds family in utmost regard. And that includes family outside of family, if you know what I mean.
Akhil warmed up to us by mid-week and had fun with his boomerang we got him from Australia.

Payal and I bonded over Taylor Swift as she convinced her parents that she just NEEDED to go:)

The kiddos loved the "big I-touch"...Right Akhil?

One of my favorite parts of the trip was talking to Sona. She reminded me SO much of my eldest sister Hemben. I was so comfortable in her home.

We all went out to the Raffles hotel (the hotel behind Sona and me), named after the modern founder of Singapore.
After the Raffles, we ate at this late night hangout. Loved the name:)
Earlier that day, we went to the Treetop rainforest walk in McRitchie Park. This little guy let me get very close to him....only to find out they are "dangerous".

And we saw this lizard all over.

We walked on this very cool tree top bridge overlooking the dense rainforest.

We also spent a day visiting the city and this uber-new Double Helix bridge.

The Marina Bay Sands Hotel was something was more of a theme park I swear!

We met up with a good friend from Georgia Tech.  Sathyan was the leader of Asha for Education when Srin and I joined. 

Of course I must brag that he is now a professor of Manufacturing Engineering at Nanyang Technical University. He lives onsite in their staff apartments so our last day was cool because we got to see a different, very local area of Singapore. And he was such a selfless host-thanks Sathyan for everything: dinners, lunches, our NTU keepsake, and best of all, your hospitality.

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Saturday, January 15, 2011


There are two new posts (not including this one) for you to see what the last week or so has been like for us. We will be posting from Singapore in the next couple of days. Enjoy!

Friday, January 14, 2011

Mr. and Mrs. Patel...

It's okay to pretend to be your brother's wife, right?  I mean, would your reaction change if I told you four free nights at any worldwide Hilton were at stake?  Okay, what if I told you that you would inherit your brother's (ahem...husband's) Diamond status?  Okay, fine...what if I told you that Diamond members were upgraded to the Executive floor, where there was a spread of Australia's finest in breakfast (freshly squeezed juices and market picked fruit) AND free canapes and drinks (spirits, wine, beer, and soft drinks) each day?  Make sure you take into account that a beer in Australia is $8 minimum when you go out (prices only goes up).

Fine. Fine. Fine.  I know-it is NEVER okay to pretend to be your BROTHER'S wife.  I get it.  I hear you all the way from the States.  I know.  But I HAD to!  I didn't know about the perks at all when it happened.   Let me at least explain to you and then you can choose to judge me or agree with me.

You see, my brother is a very giving person.  He really is.  So for our wedding gift (well, one of many) he gave us these vouchers he received from Hilton, entitling us to four free nights anywhere in the world.  They were a blessing as housing was our biggest cost on the trip (not the airline tickets as many think.  It is always the housing when you don't have the luxury of family.).  Defying my long-standing rule to repel all American-anything while overseas, we booked our resort in Fiji as the temptation of ocean views, spas, and pampering overloaded our senses.  And while we were at it, we booked in Cairns, Australia and Nairobi, Kenya too.  

One night, I decided to call Hilton to be sure the vouchers were in my name since the bookings were in my name.  And it all started there.

"Hello and thank you for calling Hilton Honors Diamond Desk.  How may I help you?"
"Hello.  I was just calling to confirm my bookings under some vouchers we received."
"Sure.  Can you confirm your HHonors number, name, and address?"
Rattling off the numbers I had long ago memorized for the moment someone questioned me, she then says:
"Great.  Thank you...Mrs. Patel I assume?"

And this was the moment I had to decide if I was Mrs. Patel or "Oh no...I am Raju's sister."  And, well I guess you know which road I intrepidly explored.
"Yes.  This is Mrs. Patel." 

I mean, I am TECHNICALLY Mrs. Patel since I have not changed my name yet, right?  I mean, I should always have the status of being a Patel, right?  They cannot take that from me-can they?  

She continues: "Great.  Let's ensure your stay with us is all confirmed Mrs. Patel." 

It's like she knew the phrase Mrs. Patel was a dagger through me each time so she said it every moment there was a crevice of opening.  I mean, who in her right mind pretends to be her brother's wife?  Well, apparently me.  So many texts to my brother passed as I relayed how wrong this whole thing was and that was it.  My vouchers would be printed in my name and resent to "our" email account.  

And a few months later, I found myself on my honeymoon, enjoying the perks of Diamond life.  The peak of which occurred in Cairns, where travelers embark on their journey to the Great Barrier Reef.  We stayed in the Hilton before and after our liveaboard journey (literally where you live aboard a boat on the a cruise but all about scuba diving).  And it was here that we enjoyed our Executive status...until..they took it away.  Oh it was so embarrassing but how could I make a big deal of it?  You see, we came back from the boat and mosied on to the Exec Lounge for drinks as we had for the last few days.  And, she says "I am sorry Mrs Patel but you do not have access to the Lounge. "  We go back and forth just once or twice about how I am positive my account is Diamond and not Blue.  How dare she suggest that I am Blue status:) 

We retreat so as to not make a scene (especially since our new friends Clive and Tino were in there...wondering I am sure...).  Only to receive a call from the assistant manager: "Mrs Patel...I am SO sorry.  I checked your account again and you ARE a Diamond member.  I apologize for the error and do hope you will join us in the Executive lounge."

Why, yes, assistant manager...I believe we will see you in the Lounge.

And so went our Cairns stay.  Thank-you-very-much Bhikhu or Raju Jashvantlal Patel.  We can now sport our "We are brother and sister" t-shirts again.

Here are some pics from our scuba diving, the obvious highlight to our trip.  I scuba dived THREE times, and Srin did SEVEN dives in two days.  It was the most thrilling experience.  He even did a night dive (I had the pleasure of wondering where he was in the dark ocean while I witnessed a shark eat something, leaving a pool of blood for my viewing pleasure.)

We rented an underwater digital camera.  Here I am snorkeling!

On my first dive!  It was a most wonderful feeling to breathe underwater.  Especially since I was so ridiculously scared until I went under and realized how easy it was!

 My instructor took this really cool pic of his bubbles.

Srin followed me diving as he snorkeled and then dove in while I was ascending. 

 A huge clam one of us saw.

 I love this picture Srin took.

 I saw this reflection happening when Srin and I were snorkeling and I just had to try and capture it.  I loved this shot as well!

 And we were actually this close to the fishies!

 My last dive was with two fellow liveaboard-ers.  

 I saw Srin while I was diving so I had to take a picture!

 Srin had to wake up at 5:45 for one of his dives so at least he got to see this on his way down!

Oh yeah.  Did I mention we saw sharks?  Up close and personal.