A sojourn through Ancient , Roman, Saxon , Norman , Medieval and Modern England

In 54 or 55 BC , Julius Caesar long before he said “Et Tu Brute” landed in Britain to punish them for their collaboration of the Gauls . He said “Imagine the gaul!!” and that phrase has caught on with us . He decided that since there was no name for the island , he would name it Britannia (whose biscuits are still sold and consumed in India and the Indian diaspora) . Some years later , a small village called Londonium was set up on the banks of the river Thames . Apparently the city was so popular with the Romans that they built a wall around the city to keep out the riff raff . They got this idea after they had their first fracas with Boadica , Queen of the Iceni who insisted on equal rights for women and gave them a good ol whooping . Embarrassed they put up a wall whose fragments survive to this day , one can be seen just outside the Tower hill tube station even today . However soon the Romans got tired of the cold English weather and found out that all roads lead to Rome except for the one in Britain which led to wet pants and shoes so promptly left . This was followed by was general good cheer among the natives who said “Mr Caesar ,tear down that wall”  .They liked the name of their little village except that they decided to expunge all roman influences like “ium” and called their city London instead.  Centuries later , the state of California and the city of Berkeley would do something similar , they would take their names from the elements called Californium and Berkeleyium and drop the oldish “ium” to sound totally modern and hip . Fast forward today London is a bustling metropolis of 9 million people.

Preparations

Other than the customary plane ticket , I decided that I needed more help so I asked some of the folks around , watched several videos by Rick Stevens (most of which I dont remember except for a admonition not to visit the strip clubs) , finally I decided to pose the question on Facebook to a group called Medieval British History and while they offered excellent suggestions as to places I should visit and places that I should skip , the most valuable suggestion turned out to be to get a British rail pass and a English Heritage Overseas visitor card . Somebody also suggested that I read 1066 and all that which turned out to be a hysterical summary of English history. I had decided to stay in a YHA and I ended up finding one at Earls court which is on the District line of the underground which connects all the sites in London as well as to the locations which serve the National Rail services. Avoid getting the mobile pass , most locations outside of London do not have a reader that can read a 2D barcode off your phone , so there is a lot of grumbling from the rail employees about their inability to read a 2D barcode from a phone when I would show them the pass to allow me to pass through their pearly gates.It costs an extra 2 pounds to have the ticket in paper form mailed to your home , I would gladly pay just so that that I would not have to listen to all the grumbling.

Day 1 at St Pauls , Westminister and Tower of London

I decided that I would do the big attractions today , namely St Pauls Cathedral , Westminister Abbey , Tower of London and Benjamin Franklin’s house on Craven St (the last is a big one for me personally) . Scheduling them turned out to be an ordeal , finally I settled in on going to St Pauls first since it opened at 8:30 AM and went to the crypt which hosts a number of luminaries in their after life . The Napoleonic battle heroes like Wellington and Nelson are accorded honor here and of course the Architect himself , Sir Christopher Wren himself. There is an exhausting climb to the top which not only narrows to very tight proportions (especially for us Americans) but also seems extremely short but you are rewarded once you get to the top with an amazing panaroma. St Pauls was built in 604 AD and the current building was rebuilt by Sir Christopher Wren after the great London Fire of 1666.  It is a remarkably beautiful building even to my uneducated eyes

 

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Then it was a 20 minute trip to Westminister Abbey on the underground from St Pauls .

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Westminister Abbey was started by Edward the Confessor and has been the site of every coronation since 1066 i.e starting with Duke William of Normandy or William the conqueror as he is known today and there are several monarchs buried here including Edward the Confessor who is accorded a place of honor. But as I walked around there are an amazing number of luminaries buried here including Geoffrey Chaucer , Charles Dickens , Thomas Hardy, Laurence Olivier in what is called the Poets corner . Everywhere that you walk, you seem to be walking on the graves of great men and women , I saw Charles Darwin , Isaac Newton , Ben Jonson . It is literally a whos who of British greats. Between the architecture and the people buried here , it is a remarkably humbling experience to walk through here.

And finally another short ride via the underground to the Tower of London .

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The Tower was built by William the conqueror and is witness to countless executions including 3 queens , two of whom had the misfortune of marrying Henry VIII who was always looking for a reason to divorce. The most tragic of all the murders is actually a mystery , the murder of two young princes  aged 12 and 9, sons of Edward IV . It is suspected that Richard III , their uncle was behind these murders but never proved. There is a part of the tower that is dedicated to them

 

The biggest attraction inside the Tower was for the Crown Jewels ,the lines snake impossibly and quite frankly it was a letdown for me . Growing up in India , I had read about the KohiNoor diamond . But after seeing it I realized that somebody could give me a kohinoor and I would not know the difference from a cubic zirconium.  The one thing that I did not expect to encounter inside was the famed Ravens , they are fed a ration of 150 gms of meat along with biscuits every day. Talk about pampered Ravens!!

 

The amount of walking that was involved seemed like a lot but according to Google , I had only walked about 2 miles but I have a sneaking suspicion that if I had started my Strava , I would have had a far more accurate number .

Day 2 at Covent Garden

I started off with visiting the Royal institution where Michael Faraday worked for the majority of his life . Michael Faraday along with Benjamin Franklin are two auto didacts that I admire immensely

 

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Saville Row is the street for expensive London tailors . I found out that if I worked my whole life in Silicon Valley then maybe I could afford to pay for one Saville Row suit , like the ones that James Bond wears.

 

Bond street has a similar reputation for fine jewelers and similarly if I work two jobs in Silicon valley , I might be able to get myself a decent watch from this place.

 

It is a short hop to Covent garden which has a massive market and a Freemasons Lodge

Along with being a shopper’s paradise , I was told to check out the Apple store , it was a little novel compared to other Apple stores .

John Soanes Museum is a hidden treasure around here . Sir John Soanes was an architect who collected antiques , paintings , books and then managed to get Parliament to pass an act where it is guaranteed to maintain the house as a museum with free access to the public . Unfortunately though it was the first time I saw a Sarcophagus , one of the early editions of Shakespeare’s 1st Folio and a ton of amazing stuff , it is not allowed to take any pictures inside this marvelous place so nothing to share except a recommendation that this is a must visit spot. IMHO it is far more interesting than the London Zoo, London Eye, Madame Tussaud’s and hordes of other popular tourist destinations.

Day 3 in Oxford

It was a sedate trip to Oxford

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Anybody who has seen Yes Minister or Yes Prime Minister , this is the Bailey college that Humphrey went to

Day 4 at the British Library and the British Museum

It was quick stop at the British Library where I got to see one of the 4 surviving copies of the Magna Carta . There were several other treasures including Shakespeare’s first folio , a Gutenberg bible , an original of Alice in Wonderland , recordings of James Joyce reciting passages from Finnegans Wake , one of Da Vinci’s notebooks .

I moved onto the British Museum where I spent all day until they closed at 8:30 PM . One gets to see so many artifacts from so many places around the world that it becomes very easy for comparative analysis . The British Musuem is a treasure trove for folks who enjoy Greek epics , there is so much pottery depicting scenes from the Iliad and the Odyssey and various other Greek plays and mythology .There was one memorable one depicting the murder of Priam by Neoptolemus using the baby Astanyax as a weapon , that was horribly gruesome by any standards , to kill the grandfather using the dead body of his infant grandson .

On a happier note there were sections that shows you clearly how a mechanical watch works which was truly fascinating . Amazing things that I had always heard about and got to see were the Rosetta Stone , the Parthenon Frieze , the Elgin Marbles , Easter island statues , Sarcophaguses , bust of Rameses the Great , an actual mummy

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Day 5 at the Museum of Natural History

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After umpteen trips to the Smithsonian and NYC , I had yet to make a trip to the Museum of Natural History so I had go across the pond to view a museum of Natural History . It was an auspicious start given that Charles Darwin argued his case here . The amount of information presented becomes overwhelming even though they have taken great pains to present the information in small easily digestible formats . I suspect that they spent a lot of time with psychologists to reduce information fatigue.

I went over to the Science Museum next door but was quickly disappointed , they have one wing for Information Technology , I am spoilt by the Computer History Museum in Mountain View . I was expecting more mechanical marvels , I got to see a giant steam engine but very little details on how things work .

Day 6 in Hastings and Battle

I went over to Hastings which is a long train ride from Charing Cross. Hastings is the location where William the conqueror landed and quickly setup a fort.

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When I posted on the Facebook group for Medieval British history that I was going to Hastings , several people frankly asked me if I was planning on feeding chips to the sea gulls . I was appalled at the time. But having visited it now  , I have to agree . The ruins are present but give you absolutely no idea . For a 5 pound fee , you are allowed to go into a dungeon which is about 10 steps deep and then watch a movie which briefly shows the motivations of the characters involved . King Harold who was a powerful man and took an opportunity to take the throne for himself or William the conqueror who claimed that promises were made on account of the fact that he was Emma’s (mother of Edward the confessor) nephew.  Tragically for Harold who was incidentally the last native English king of England, he got stuck with an arrow in the eye . This also ended the Anglo Saxon rule in England

This is the scene showing Harold with an arrow in his eye . It is a scene from the Bayeux Tapestry which was commissioned by William’s half brother Odo.

On 14th Oct , barely 3 weeks after landing in England  William  marched 8 miles north to meet King Harold’s men in a place that is known today as Battle.

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Battle is far more interesting than Hastings. This is a well maintained historical place and the ruined abbey inside it. The abbey was built by William who apparently did it as penitence for the blood that was shed on this ground . The high altar of the abbey was the place where King Harold fell.

Day 7 in Canterbury and Dover

This was a sojourn to Canterbury . In a way visiting Canterbury was as important to me as visiting Battle . To see the place where Becket was killed ,

to see the street where Henry II walked on his bare feet. To contemplate and marvel at the monks who having watched Becket get murdered helplessly flogged their penitent King.

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After visiting Canterbury Cathedral , I walked out to see the ruins of Abbey of St Augustine (no relation to the St Augustine of Hippo who wrote the City of God) . Legend has it that the pope Gregory saw some fair haired slaves who looked like Angels or Angles (which is the root of the word English ). After he learnt where they came from, he sent the Benedictine monk Augustine in 595 AD to convert this pagan nation to Christianity and save all their souls from eternal damnation.  There is a statue dedicated to Geoffrey Chaucer and another dedicated to Ben Jonson

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It is a 20 minute train ride to Dover from Canterbury . Unfortunately I did not get enough time to view the Castle which is a magnificent piece of work ,  built by Henry II. Dover is also home to the best preserved Roman built structures shown below

This was the best shot that I could get of the White cliffs of Dover

 

Dover castle has been gateway to the realm for almost a millennium. During WWII It  was home to Operation Dynamo which saw the safe evacuation of 400,000 British and French troops from Dunkirk . There are wartime tunnels which also served as hospitals for the wounded . Unfortunately I reached too late to actually do the full rounds of Dover Castle and go all the way to the top. The only solace was that I had a full English breakfast with two pints of bitter for dinner. While I could identify most items , there was one in particular that I could not identify at all so I made brave to ask the owner /bartender and he burst out laughing . He told me it was black pudding. The texture is closer to a granola bar and the taste is extremely savory not sweet . I have no idea why it is called pudding . He proceeded to inform me it was pigs blood .

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Day 8 at the Imperial War Museum

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Day 9 at the National Gallery

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This is my first Da Vinci , The Virgin of the Rocks

It has Monet , Cezanne, Rubens, Michelangelo , Murillo , Van Gogh and more paintings and artists than I could remember . One of the paintings on my to see list was the Wilton Diptych

Day 10 in Bath and Stonehenge

Visited the city of Bath which was highly developed by the Romans who believed that this was a sacred place and dedicated it to Athena or Minerva

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Then onto Stonehenge . Words fail me as I try to understand how they set up these stones 4500 years ago . It is an elaborate site , amongst other purposes it is known to identify the Summer and Winter Solstice just by viewing the sun from particular locations around the stones.

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Unfortunately I missed going to Salisbury cathedral , I was too late coming back from Stone Henge . Next time I will drive rather than take the trains for long distance journeys. The cathedral is beautiful , it is the tallest spire in the United Kingdom . It houses the best surviving copy of the Magna Carta . There is an interesting anecdote about the Cathedral from World War II . During the battle of Britain , every part of England was bombed but not Salisbury . After the war, the interrogators asked the Luftwaffe pilots as  to why Salisbury was spared . The German high command had issued strict orders that Salisbury was not to be bombed . The spire was so tall and so distinct that German pilots would use that as their landmark and once they reached Salisbury then they could proceed to their respective destinations comfortable with the knowledge that their bearings were correct.

Day 11 at The Victoria and Albert Museum

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Day 12 in Greenwich on the Prime Meridian

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Majority of the museums are free , these museums are magnificent houses of creations of humanity over the centuries , they take exceptional care of these artifacts , far more than these great pieces would have received in their homeland . One only needs to look at the Parthenon pieces which are preserved here or remember the Babri Masjid incident in India or the Bamiyan Buddha destruction by the Taliban or listen to fundamentalist regimes talk about destroying parts of their heritage which preceded their particular sets of beliefs  . So I was grateful to see these beautiful sculptures , carvings , paintings preserved and available to see for free . I dropped 5 pounds every time I entered these museums , bought books , bought over priced scones with butter and jam and cream tea or cakes . The experience of watching this was priceless so I would recommend everybody who has an opportunity should see it and if you can donate , please do so . We need to keep this alive for the sake of future generations

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A Rev Evolutionary Edu Vacation

Shantiniketan is the home of a unique University Viswa-bharati , India (and Asia)’s first Nobel Laureate , Rabindranath Tagore used the money from the Nobel prize to further his father’s vision of a place of higher learning , one of the instances when the Nobel prize money was actually put to good use as was hoped for, by Alfred Nobel. Einstein actually used it to pay his alimony .

This is an open air school where each classroom has a tree and a podium for the teacher

Rabindranath Tagore as a child hated the traditional concept of a school and played truant on the banks of the river Kopai . I imagine the river looked more scenic in his day. Legend also has it that he wrote Gitanjali on the banks of this river

I found a vendor of date palm jaggery on the banks of the river

This is a date palm tree .

They use coconut shells to shape the jaggery.

The villagers use the dried leaves of the date palm tree as fuel. The sap is tapped and collected into buckets which is then heated on a fire . It reminded me of Maple syrup from Sugar Maple trees in Ohio and Canada. The process is very organic , natural , vastly different from the manufacture of any of our sweeteners . I don’t know but I am willing to bet that the Glycemic Index of this is substantially below industrially manufactured and bleached white sugar.

Viswa-Bharati has several different schools but the one that I could visit was called Kala Bhavan or the art school . Getting around in Shantiniketan is done via Tuk-tuks , an improvised contraption on wheels that runs on natural gas

Our guide told us that we could get to the school after classes were over at 1:30 PM so we ended up visiting a museum nearby which housed cultural artifacts and models of homes in several of the nearby states

The one that fascinated me most was the dwellings of the aborgine people of Andaman and Nicobar islands

These are supposed to be stilts and the house is built on a raised platform

The floor is made of bamboo and incredibly uncomfortable to walk on . I hear that they sleep on this . Mind boggling!!!

This was my first view of Shantiniketan

The grounds are immaculately maintained

These are works of the Sculptor Ramkinkar Baij

What is remarkable about these sculptures is that he created them by putting up a wireframe and then throwing gobs of concrete and plaster from a distance . I could not but draw parallels between this technique and Jackson Pollack

Walking in further lead to more amazing scenes like these murals

 

A painting in stone

Amazingly these murals were made with tiles

 

 

Watching this reminded me of Frank Wright LLoyds Fallingwater. A harmony of architecture with Nature !!!

Watching the Banyan vines made me nostalgic

 

This was an amazing artifact to me , the artist had created a bug with the gas tank of a Yamaha motorcycle , motorcycle mirror holders and other odd artifacts . In fact at the open air market outside the school were a variety of handicrafts , handloom textiles and curiosities as the above made beetle , all made from household materials . The artist had clearly seen regular every day items with a creative eye and produced something all of his own .

I loved the concept of this school , the idea of applying what you know while you are being taught . Unfortunately I could not quite see how the other schools in Viswa-Bharati were conducting their classes . It would be quite interesting to see the science schools

Education as a subject has always fascinated me . The current model of education all over the world which has pupils memorizing and regurgitate for the sake of the exam encourages a behavior where the student is rewarded for memorizing meaningless facts and promptly forgetting after the exam is over .

I have heard numerous arguments for allowing kids to drop subjects that they dislike . Math seems to be a popular choice for dropping . Plato had a quote outside his Academy that anybody ignorant of math should not enter  and if the ancient Greeks thought so highly of a well rounded education in those simpler times, this day and age simply demands it. I believe that not being exposed to the core ideas in all subjects is like going through life with your hands cuffed behind your back. I have learnt from personal experience as well as very interesting reading that exposure is what allows us to recognize patterns and exploit them .

Growing up in India and watching snow in movies made me believe that snow was white fluffy stuff that was good for skiing (which I thought was a risk less sport) and making snow balls and hitting your friends. I moved to Ohio in December and before the winter was out , I had recognized several kinds of snow , the fluffy ones , the heavy slushy ones . the ones that were overly slippery. I read that the Inuit living in the Arctic circle had 17 different words for snow . When your life depends on recognizing whether the snow / ice can handle your weight , I suppose it makes sense to be as specific as possible . It also makes sense to have specific words for it so you can hang your experiences on those words and thereby make it easy for recall.  Another  anecdote is about this tribe living deep in the Amazon rain forests who do not know the color blue . They know the color green and can discern minute difference in shades of green that most women would envy and yet when they were given a color wheel with shades of green and one blue and asked to point out to the color that stood out, none pointed at Blue. It is actually not too outlandish , first time I read Homer , I was baffled at his description of the wine dark sea . I could not imagine a sea that was the color of any wine that I had drunk . It made sense later on after I found out that the ancient Greeks had no word for blue . One could offer countless examples where one starts to recognize patterns only after one is taught to recognize the pattern or at least the principle behind the patterns .

The idea behind letting kids choose their future is an attractive one but to be able to do that , they need to be aware of all the choices and tools at their disposal. Paul Graham had an interesting essay , fair warning it is lengthy .

How to do what you love

In this playhouse of infinite forms I have had my play and here have I caught sight of him who is formless.
My whole body and my limbs have thrilled with his touch who is beyond touch; and if the end comes here, let it come—let this be my parting word.

This fragment from Gitanjali seems to refer to god but it could very well refer to that spark of creation that lies within each and every one of us , a spark that needs the tools that schools provide . This school is a testament to that spirit and to the vision of some great men who made it possible.

 

In praise of the City of Joy

The author  of Geography of Genius  makes a strong case for the fact that Genius tends to be clustered in space and time . Ancient Athens is the first known example when we had brilliant minds like Socrates , Aristotle , Plato , Herodotus , Aristophanes , Sophocles, Euripides,Euclid , Archimedes , Hippocrates  co exist within 200 years of each other . Moving forward , we can see the time of the Renaissance where we have Da Vinci , Michelangelo , Machiavelli live around the same time in Italy , fast forward a hundred years and we have the Enlightenment in Scotland that had Hume , Smith , Paris with Voltaire , Rousseau , Lavoisier, Montesquieu , Kant in Germany and our own Founding fathers in America , similarly between 1840 and 1920  Calcutta (Kolkata) experienced the Bengal Renaissance where we had Nobel laureates such as Rabindranath Tagore , Biologists / Physicists such as Sir Jagdish Chandra Bose . The book is very readable in spite of being only a subset of the different places and times (it skips Paris in 1920s).  So here I am in Kolkata , wondering if I can see what made the city so special in that time .

Kolkata had an interesting mix of populations during the British rule, while on the one hand , the most educated and Anglophilic existed here but co existing with them were the most fervent nationalists who were opposed to the British rule . The Indian national anthem comes from Rabindranath Tagore , there has been some rumblings that we should focus on”Vande Materam ” written by Bankim Chandra Bose (another Bengali) which is a fervently patriotic song that rouses one’s spirits even one such as myself who does not understand the language.

The people are reputed to be extremely friendly and helpful. I got my first taste of that when I was trying to get to the famous Kalighat temple. A rickshaw driver actually took a detour  to guide us through the narrow alleys to get us to Kalighat . I was touched. I had never ever experienced anything like it. Kalighat is an old Kali temple in Kolkata

Early morning street markets getting ready to open

The main temple dome

Inside the temple , I saw a streak of fresh blood across the floor and following the streak led me to the beheaded carcass of a baby goat. I suppose that was the sacrificial offering for the morning . I saw offerings of purple radishes  , I had never seen offerings of vegetables in temples before , asking the priest led to some incomprehensible mutterings in Bengali , after grilling him in Hindi , he responded curtly that I would not understand. I took the hint and moved on

A tram – relic of days bygone was certainly a sight to see . Though I see it routinely in San Francisco and find it mundane , somehow seeing it in Kolkata was different,  watching it amidst the crazy traffic is like watching a thriller .

This is a replica of the Big Ben in London.

These are the pictures of the famous Park street

I found some interesting fruits on Park street , I searched for them everywhere but could not find any

This fruit reminded me of starfruit, the texture is similar and just like starfruit , it is bland and juicy.

While this one was a total mystery

I learnt from Google that it was called a Rose Apple and apparently it is grown in Oregon and California but the ones in North America does not look anything like this. The texture is like a pear and it has a delightful rose fragrance. This particular variety grows in South East Asia

This is the iconic Howrah bridge on the Hoogly river

The Hoogly is a tributary of the Ganges , the holiest river for the Hindus . Hindu myths dictate that a dip in the Ganges washes away all of ones sins . Today the Ganges flows into Bangladesh where it meets the Indian ocean in the Bay of Bengal but every tributary is considered just as sacred so one finds a lot of Hindus bathing in the Hoogly

Kolkata is also the home of Sri Ramakrishna Paramahansa , an 18th century mystic highly revered in Bengal and also the home of Sri Vivekananda who travelled to America in 1890s and introduced a new spiritual movement in America . Sri Ramakrishna had his divine visions at the Dakshineshwar temple.

This is a view of the bridge from the temple

One has to take a ferry from the temple to get to Belur Math which is where the temples are dedicated to Ramakrishna, his wife  and his disciples and one gets to view where the old co-exists with the new

A fisherman in his canoe getting ready to launch his fishing tackle

As can be expected , the entrance from the water is quite scenic

The main temple

Feast for the eyes for Flora lovers

Dedicated to the wife of Sri Ramakrishna .

Just outside Belur Math was a street vendor selling something that looked like potatoes , and they call “Sweet Potato”, it turned out to be Jicama (Mexican Yam) my sister insisted on tasting it so we had the street vendor cut it up for us . He added some rock salt-spice mixture to the chopped pieces . The texture was more like  a pear and it did not taste at all like a raw potato or even the Jicama that I have eaten before. Just last month , I had encountered a book called the Botany of Desire which deals with 4 plants ; Apple , Potato , Cannabis and Tulip. The author reiterated was that these plants have been artificially moulded by our desires . Apples as sweet as a Red Delicious is an anomaly as is a Russet Burbank . We do not let these plants attain the vast potential that their genes are capable of . In the Andes is a purple potato that I have never heard about.  Kolkata showed me an apple that did not look or taste like any Apple that I had eaten before . A touching incident here was the interaction itself , my sister asked the vendor to add more of the salt spice mixture , he insisted that his concoction was the best but just to satisfy us , he gave us a packet of his precious spice mixture which he said we could add if we wanted but he assured us that we did not need to. I looked at him marveling at his torn clothes , extreme poverty had not affected his pride in his craft . His pride to me was touching and inspiring.

My tryst with history as I expected it did not materialize . There is a lot of history in this place including the Battle of Plassey which led to the first British stronghold on Indian soil in 1757 . Modern Kolkata owes a debt to Job Charnock who not only saved a young Indian woman from Sati , a dreadful practice of burning widows alive with their dead husbands but married her and sired 4 children and adopted Indian ways of smoking cheroots or Indian cigars and drinking arrack , a harsh palm brandy. I saw a hospital named after him and I presume that there are more memorials to the man .

RFD-Trunk-Road-Map3-tmagArticle

The Grand Trunk road connects Chittagong, Bangladesh to Kabul,Afghanistan via Kolkata , Delhi , Amritsar and Lahore. Reading about Sher Shah Suri who ruled India in 1540  , I had discovered the Grand Trunk road .However I was to learn later that Chandragupta Maurya  had built large sections of it.  This was my great opportunity to ride on the section of the Grand Trunk Road west of Kolkata and retracing the steps of those brave travelers so many centuries ago. While thrilling , most of it is slow progress . Like most highways in India , they tend to go through the hearts of small villages so one can expect a small crowd in the middle of the street drinking tea , a herd of buffaloes crossing the road and other interesting sights so dont speed , you never know what will show up in front of you on the road.

I found the culture to be charming and interesting , the city shuts down come 12:30 PM and does not re open until 3:30 – 4 PM . They take their time for lunch and a much needed siesta after the delicious meal . The sweets have been reputed to be the best in India as long as I can remember , I consumed them like a glutton who knows no tomorrow and I have to admit that just about everything that I tried there was delicious . The pale imitations that I had eaten earlier in other cities do not come close . They have an amazing variety of sweets that I did not know existed . On the flight there , several of my co passengers after learning that I had never been to Kolkata heartily recommended several sweetmeat shops and I fortunately took them up and indeed the sweets did not disappoint. The Bengalis love their meat and fish and indeed so much so that I was introduced to an amazing sight , one that I had never seen before . Vegetables , fruits , meat , fish , chicken all sold in the same market place with no separation .

Here one sees the goat carcasses alongside the fresh vegetables and moving further one sees a sea of fish . The Bengalis love their fish and call it the vegetable of the sea .

Bangur road is a tribute to their artistic capabilities

Here one sees a lawn sculpture of the famous Dandi march statue in Delhi

A horde of elephants

Bangur street is covered with street posts that have been created by artists , one finds a lifesize clown loitering around and a roadside snack vendor and only close inspection reveals that these are sculptures . The traffic is horrendous and parking is impossible so I could not get out of the car to take much needed pictures

Turned out that my trip to Kolkata was far shorter than what I should have planned for . Also turned out that there were far more sights to see including the Sunderbans which is the home of the Bengal tiger , Ganga Sagar which is where the Hoogly meets the Indian ocean .Time to plan a return trip!!

Riding a 180 mile national park

To check out the ride on the GAP click here

Day 1 – From Cumberland, MD to Hancock, MD

The Chesapeake and Ohio canal national historical park has its terminus at Georgetown (about 30 miles  away from the Chesapeake) but the other terminus is Cumberland , MD which is almost 160 miles away from the state of Ohio and 100 miles from the city of Pittsburgh where the Ohio river comes to life . So in my opinion the name  is a tribute to optimism , optimism that the railroad would eventually reach Ohio. Today it is a wonderful national park , a park to ride horses in and ride bicycles …. as long as they have trail tires.

Cumberland , MD is the meeting point of the C&O and the GAP.

We left Cumberland early and this is what it looks like .

Leaving Cumberland

Within no time , we were in deep wilderness . This is what the trail looked like (mostly) on day 1

C&O 4

The canal was dug up and the towpath(or the bike trail) divides the canal from the Potomac river . Today the canal hosts a large number of turtles ,among other fauna

I got to see this lil bugger on the road .

I decided to pick him up and put him aside for safety . Most of us would believe that the hard shell of the turtle would protect him from crazy bicyclists and I would have believed that too until I saw one where the shell was split open . If you ever decide to save a turtle , make sure to wash your hands , they do carry salmonella.

I got to see an old fashioned water pump , had not seen one of these since the mid 80s when I would travel to my mother’s hometown, Chennai . The water is pretty rank , ok to shower or wash but definitely do not drink . Some would say the same for the water in Chennai as well .

 

About 30 miles in , we got to see  the Paw Paw tunnel . The tunnel is 3/5ths of a mile long. It does not seem like much unless you walk through it ,it is pitch dark so maneuvering the trail while walking with the knowledge that there is quicksand 20 feet below does not inspire confidence even in the bravest of hearts.  For its day and time , it was an engineering marvel .

Paw-Paw

In spite of the ghost that you hear in the video , we emerged unscathed on the other side

The village of Paw-Paw seemed to be the only place between Cumberland and Hancock for getting food . They have a gas station and an ice cream shop . The gas station sells chicken salad sandwiches and fresh cut watermelon (which tastes divine after a 30 mile bike ride) . About 20 miles from Paw- Paw starts the Western Maryland Rail Trail which is paved and goes all the way into Hancock,MD.  Day 1 ended in Hancock , MD .  We stayed in a small motel and turned in for an early night after dinner

 

Day 2 – From Hancock,MD to Harpers Ferry,WV

The Western Maryland Rail trail ends in Big Pool which is about 10 miles from Hancock. This is also where one gets to see Fort Frederick , a Civil War fortification .

Barely 10 miles later, we arrived at Dam 5

 

Shortly after I saw this board and was happy to see it , our conservation efforts, meager as they are ,  do seem to be paying off  .

 

Shortly I was stopped by a a half hysterical female biker, I wondered if she wanted my phone number  ,  it turned out that there was a baby bird and it needed to be saved. Apparently she could not bring herself to save it!!!

Not too far we saw this unused magnificent structure .

This is a  lock . This is where ships from one water level are raised or lowered to another water level . The Panama canal is probably the best example of how important navigation locks are to us . Without the Panama Canal Locks, ships would have to go around the Cape of Good Horn around the tip of South America .

Soon we were riding alongside the Potomac

Riding with Don on the Potomac

Eventually we reached Dam 5

We finally got to Shepherdstown where we had lunch along with a West Virginia beer . I saw this cool picture and decided to get a pic of it

Should be everybody’s motto!!!

 

About 10 or so miles later , we ended up in Harper’s Ferry , our destination for Day 2.

But we had to walk across this bridge

Walking across the bridge with Mike

This was the only marine that was killed in John Brown’s raid .

This is the building that John Brown attacked .

 

Harper’s Ferry is where several national trails meet . We ended meeting some folks from Georgia , well they had walked all the way from Georgia on the Appalachian trail and were headed to Maine , over  500 miles away . They walked about 20-25 miles a day.

 

This church can be seen for miles and miles.It is built on a hill and looks simply majestic

 

We passed within a mile of Antietam , reputed to be the bloodiest single day battle in American history. Unfortunately we could not figure out where we needed to get off so we missed it. We passed a lot of historical spots that had been hot beds of activity during the Civil war but today they seem to be sleepy little towns . The day’s ride was extraordinarily beautiful in a trip that was laden with amazing sights

Day 3 – From Harpers Ferry, WV to Washington,DC

About 20 miles from Harpers Ferry , we saw the Monocacy Aquaduct

 

Turtles sunning on a log in the river

We had seen close to 50 locks but this one seemed to have some water

And on the other bank , we had a curious visitor

And a beautiful sight

 

We saw the Edison Power plant

and nearby was the location where the Olympic rowing athletes practiced before the Barcelona Olympics , sponsored by the power company.

We finally reached Great Falls

 

We tried to enter Goat Island but were told by the volunteers that we could not take our bike on the island , I am sure it is an amazing place to visit

Goat Island

 

That was our last majestic view of the Potomac wilderness before we entered Georgetown

We found some stragglers to welcome us to DC

Got a taste of DC traffic

Inside DC with Dan

And finally the grand finale . Tried to meet the MAN

DC is a gorgeous place and tons and tons of things to do for everybody. We ended up near Chinatown

This brings to an end , a magnificent bike ride.

Riding the Great Allegheny Passage

 

For several years , my friends and I do a annual long distance bike ride . The whole process was started by Mike and he has christened this ride as the Bear Paw Soap Company (my that’s good soap TM) . This year we decided to do the 147th 8th Annual bike ride from Pittsburgh to Washington DC . Happily the two cities are connected completely by bike trails , a rarity by any standards.

Pittsburgh is connected to Cumberland by the Great Allegheny passage and it is 150 miles of gravel /crushed limestone .  I prefer wider knobby tires on trails like these

We started early and headed out to Pittsburgh where Mike’s brother had left us a bike for me to ride . Then we headed to West Newton where I drove off while the other 3 rode . West Newton has a great bike shop and a restaurant and a CVS in case you decide to do some last minute shopping .

We planned to meet in Connellsville. As I reached Connelsville , I found out that today was the historical re enactment of Gen Braddock’s crossing of the Youghigheny river.  Before the colonies were free , General Braddock was summoned from England to help in the French- Indian wars. The campaign ended in a disaster with General Braddock ending up mortally wounded.

 

After everybody showed up , we decided to go check out Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater which is in a town called Ohiopyle also on the trail but it was 20 miles away from Connelsville. We needed to be there by 2:00 PM because they close at 4:00 PM and it takes an hour for the tour of the house, so we ended up driving to the place.

He designed the building so that the waterfall would go through the house , just mind boggling . One of my favorite books “The Fountainhead” written by Ayn Rand,  had  the lead character, Howard Roark  supposedly based on Frank Lloyd Wright . I personally dislike Ayn Rand intensely and more so for her bigoted views but the book delivered an unmistakable message to me when I was all of 16 years old and something that I strive to , even now . Shakespeare puts it more eloquently “This above all: to thine own self be true”. Her message in the book was simple , that one must be original in their thinking. If you happen to be in Ohiopyle and not had enough of Frank Lloyd Wright , you can also go check out Kentuck Knob. Also Ohiopyle is a fair sized town to do any shopping / eating if you need to . I have managed to make some friends in Ohiopyle who inform me that they have some white water rafting tours . They drive you to a point upstream and let you loose and then drive down to meet you downstream after you have had your fill of white water .

But moving on , my friends were done and I had not ridden any yet so I decided to ride the 12 miles from Ohiopyle to Confluence by myself .

At Ohiopyle in the Youghiogheny river , I see people playing water volleyball

So I start riding and this is what the trail looks like for the most part

but since we were riding alongside the Youghiogheny and then the Casselman , it is punctuated by scenes like these

owl

I saw this owl just chilling . Unusual to catch an own during the day .

I noticed a board which proudly declared that the Casselman river was  healthy  enough that fish , worms , insects and snakes were coming back so the Pennysylvania game commision had  re introduced the  American river otter into the Casselman after 75 years and the otters were thriving . I was gladdened to see that . I reached Confluence in less than an hour and we ended up staying at the Rivers edge cafe . It is a small cafe right on the rivers edge and one can hear the river bubbling by at night , it is a soothing rhythm that I could probably listen to and never get bored. Rivers edge cafe is a delightful place for dinner as well .

We had a sumptuous breakfast at the Sisters Cafe early morning and and got an early start on the ride and our first big sight was the Pinkerton tunnel

Bridge before Pinkerton

 

After that we stopped briefly in Rockport , PA where you see this beautiful bicycle sculpture. The smoke rings are bicycle wheels . There is also a bike shop nearby and a bed and breakfast which serves lunch.

Our next sight of wonder was the Salisbury Viaduct, an engineering marvel by any standards . The viaduct now runs across rail lines , a river , a freeway and fields and it is 2/5  of a mile long and 101 feet tall

Salisbury

Our next stop was Meyersdale , for shopping for biking merchandise and for lunch

For some reason  , this church caught my eye . In California , the churches tend to be oriented towards the Spanish Mission style so the Gothic architecture is a pleasant change.

Our next sight to see was the Eastern Continental divide . This is the dividing line for water going to the Chesapeake or  to the Gulf of Mexico

This picture gives us a good idea of the elevation involved.

continental divide

The next sight after the continental divide is the Big Savage Tunnel . Scary movie makers , take notice!!!  here are two dark dungeony tunnels , the Pinkerton and the Big Savage Tunnel,  that hare brained cyclists routinely enter without lights  , I see a wealth of opportunities for Slasher flicks .

But just outside the tunnel is this

Tim tried to fly here (or fall off the cliff )

 

It was barely  5 miles before we ended up hitting the Mason-Dixon line

 

and a super inquisitive deer that would not take its eyes off us

From here Cumberland was a mere trifle away (it is all downhill )and there ends our sojourn on the Great Allegheny Passage.

The Great Allegheny passage is a wonderful bike trail with a wealth of sights to see including wildlife and landscapes , experience riding on an viaduct , alongside rivers and in at least two dark and scary tunnels . It is generously dotted with bicycle shops , places to eat and stay . If you are a bike aficionado , obviously add it to your bucket list

Don’t forget to collect your certificate

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To check out the remainder of the trip on the C&O , go here

Viva Las Vegas

Untitled My first encounter with Las Vegas was the classic Mafia novel  “The Godfather” when I was 15 . I fell in love with the book , the characters and the places that were depicted in the book ,wandering through the villages of Sicily ,the streets of Brooklyn and Long Island and lastly but certainly not least Las Vegas . Las Vegas is probably the only place on earth which revels in its appetite for sin so much so that its nick name is Sin City and is proudly displayed everywhere . I have never taken  a census but I imagine it has more casinos , restaurants and options for entertainments than anywhere else that I have seen or read about. This last trip to Vegas was several firsts for me , first time that I had come to Vegas on a work trip , it was also the first time that I came to Vegas being single . What on earth would a married couple want to do in Vegas ? in Sin city?  Well interestingly Vegas has tons of entertainment options for normal married couples who are not gamblers . Every celebrity chef has a restaurant in Las Vegas , we saw restaurants owned by Bobby Flay , Wolfgang Puck  , Emeril , Giada De Laurentiis, Gordon Ramsay , Thomas Keller’s Bouchon … there are only 3 other locations for the Bouchon, one across from Central Park in New York, one in Beverly Hills and one in Napa but luckily for tourists in Las Vegas there was one in the basement at the Venetian . The macaroons at Thomas Keller’s Bouchon are literally to die for . On Paradise Rd is a Japanese restaurant called Musasashi Japanese Steakhouse presumably named after the author of the “Book of 5 rings” . The food is Hibachi style or Teppanyaki depending on your choice . But the draw for me was that he actually serves Japanese Kobe . It is hideously expensive but it is the most delicious piece of meat that I have ever tasted.

And every casino has multiple shows , rich in variety; stand up comedies, Cirque , Magic , you name it . The Cirque du soleil probably had a different show at each casino , some I was astounded to see were still playing since my last trip in 2011. David Copperfield is a regular at the MGM and every time that I have tried to see it, the tickets are sold out , and if you have a strong stomach then the duo of Penn and Teller is a must watch .Jerry Seinfeld is a regular at Caesar’s palace .

I walked down the strip , slowly admiring the buildings . The strip has a unspeakable hold on me Untitled

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The Casinos have themes that they stay faithful to throughout the casino. The Luxor is filled with Egyptian memorabilia , New York New York has miniatures of the Chrysler building , 30 Rock and so on . Paris has the Eiffel tower . Bellagio has italian artifacts . The Venetian has a mini canal inside and sculptures of Machiavelli and other notables from Venice  .

These are the world famous musical fountains at the Bellagio

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Also at the Bellagio is this magnificent ceiling sculpture of over 2,000 hand-blown flowers by glass artist Dale Chihuly 

At the end of the strip is the Stratosphere which probably has the scariest roller coasters in the world . Scary because they are mounted on top of the building and the rides consists of going off the side of the building and coming to a sudden stop 30+ feet from the edge of the building looking 300m straight down

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The top shot shown above is the tallest thrill ride in the world

This is the view of old Vegas from the top of the Stratosphere

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The stories that I have always heard is that at the casinos , drinks are cheap and so is the food . I don’t gamble so I have never experienced it but I have checked out the buffet sections at every casino and they are extremely reasonably priced and yet the selection is mind boggling and will cater to every possible taste and needs.

Las Vegas is one of the last places in the US where smoking is allowed indoors . So walking into a casino , one is hit with the smell of cheap air fresheners that the casinos  use to get rid of the stench of stale cigarette smoke . It always looks like night time inside a casino , they are carefully engineered to keep all daylight out , presumably to help people drink more alcohol so that they can make judgement impaired decisions , the pretty cocktail waitresses with skimpy dresses exaggerate the above mentioned effect.

We then move on to Fremont St in the old downtown

Fremont St 015

 

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Fremont St is the old downtown in Vegas before they decided to create the “strip” . This is where Bugsy Siegel came in and helped create a city in the desert . The old downtown looks rundown in places or perhaps that is an effect that they try hard to maintain . Accentuate the disparity between the old and the new . But Fremont St does have some really cool attractions such as the world’s largest video screen and open air bars and bands playing out in the open , various entertainers performing strange acts on the streets.

Vegas is one of the few cities that has Machine Gun ranges and the variety of guns is mind boggling . They also had some amazing handguns most notably the Desert Eagle which apparently is familiar to gamers . I saw a reference to it in one of my favorite movies “Snatch”, it is amazingly loud for a hand gun and packs a punch. One can even fire the M249 (The Saw) here .With the exception of the Uzi , all the other guns were American , Russian and German. The range that I tried out was called the Gun Garage and they had awesome Groupon deals.

On this last trip , I stayed at the Luxor which has the permanent exhibition of Bodies and Titanic . Bodies was a magnificent experience . It has real cadavers that are sliced and displayed in several different views . The human circulatory system was a delight to see , they had actually used chemicals to harden the arteries , veins and capillaries in a cadaver and then chemically removed the muscles and skins . Viewing the whole body as a web of intricate interconnected parts was an eye opener and I could not help but think that something like this in school might have sparked a greater interest in Biology but that might just be an elaborate excuse for my laziness. Some of the exhibits does require some caution especially the fetuses in various stages of development and they have clearly marked the path so that if one was to be offended then they could skip it. If Bodies happens to be in your neck of the woods , then I highly recommend that you do pay a visit.

The Titanic was interesting as well , I gained a new appreciation for the research that James Cameron would have done researching the Titanic to come up with the details that he did in the movie .  I was sorely disappointed when I came to the main deck and could not find Rose and Jack!!!

The folks in Vegas have a sense of humor , I was eating lunch at a small Mexican restaurant on Paradise Ave and I caught sight of this mural and had to take a snap

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The food was exceptionally delicious and I did feel some religion coming onto me after the meal

Long time ago, I read the Geek Atlas which is 128 places for a geek to visit , one of those is the Atomic testing museum in Las Vegas . Nevada was the testing site for thermonuclear weapons and the museums lists pictures , some interesting memorabilia . It is a must visit for every geek.

Not too far from Vegas is Lake Havasu city which houses the famous London Bridge from the beloved nursery rhyme “London Bridge is falling down”

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The story goes that a Real Estate developer imported the London Bridge that was going to be demolished . Every brick was labelled and the bridge restored in Lake Havasu city. The road system was designed by the designer who designed Disneyland . Take it from me that it is not nearly as much fun as Disneyland

This is the entrance to the London Bridge

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And the surface

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Also close to Vegas is the famous Hoover Dam on the Colorado river

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and the enormous man made Mead Lake
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One can also see the Mike O’Callaghan–Pat Tillman Memorial Bridge that allows people to bypass the Hoover dam .

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We all have the rubber necking desire to stare out at the Hoover dam but nobody wants to stop , the net effect is that everybody is slowed down . The government wisely decided to put up the bridge that US-93 now runs on. It is proudly displayed on the bridge that the pitons that were used to drive the foundation of the bridge utilized the same technologies that were utilized while building the Hoover dam in the 30s. A testament to physics that has stood the test of time.

The western rim of the Grand Canyon is a close drive . You can see the skywalk in the picture , it is called the skywalk because the floor is glass  and we can see straight down a mile or so. The glass is tempered to hold the weight of 10 elephants and since Elephants are not allowed on the skywalk , it are safe for us to venture out . They do not allow cameras on the skywalk , not for safety reasons but so that they can charge $40 for a picture but it is well worth it .

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One can also see the Colorado from the rim

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So next time you suggest Las Vegas to somebody and they retort with a scornful “Lost Wages!!! Never” , you can remind them of the zillion other things that are available for the rest of us.

West Side .. Market

The West Side Story is an American staple , a innovative take on Romeo and Juliet with the gorgeous city of New York as the backdrop . A musical which is a feast for the eyes and ears and indeed the the beating heart of any human being . I believe that even the English language is not a necessity for enjoying the movie or the play . But today , we are going to visit the West Side Market , Cleveland’s open air market on W25 street , not too far from the Cleveland Hopkins airport and yet close enough to the vibrant western suburbs of Cleveland.Supposedly the market dates back to 1840 . Astonishing considering that the city of Cleveland came into existence in the late 1700s .

Like most kids , growing up I looked up to my dad , anything that he said was gospel and sacrosanct . Proving my loyalty to him seemed more important to me as compared to my friends . I have wondered about it as time has passed by , I hypothesize that it was because he was a single parent or perhaps that is the prerogative of the elder child . His tastes were faithfully mimicked , his love of Shakespeare and Milton and Dryden has invoked the same in me,  his favorite foods seemed to become my favorite food irrespective of what my tastes told me. I had always had a sweet tooth but he loved fiery spicy food and I faithfully followed the dictum that spicy food is for real men and sweets are for wimps . I even adopted his favorite music , music that he had listened to as a teenager , music tastes that I defended against my contemporaries to the point where we would come to blows  . When he was diagnosed with diabetes , he was forced to stop taking sugar in his tea . Being deprived of the simple pleasure of sugar in tea was probably the worst punishment that providence could have inflicted on him . Tea in India is served with sugar and milk , sweet and syrupy , a delicious concoction of caffeine and sugar; the killer combination that the Coca Cola company has leveraged for the last 100+ years. So when he stopped taking sugar in his tea , I stopped as well . Part of me was stricken by his plight, the tea that he loved so much , that he could not do without was suddenly something that he seemed to hate and I wanted to experience his pain. Looking back at my experience, it is perhaps a tad bit ironical that I have completely switched to black tea and black coffee for no other reason other than realizing that to truly enjoy the taste of coffee and tea, one has to avoid the trappings of sugar and milky fats . Coming back to my father, everything that he said was gospel to me. Whilst growing up , he would tell me stories of his youth , when I was younger , I used to find it entertaining , now I realize that he was reliving the days of his youth. I also understand now that my mother’s death was harder on him that I realized at the time and I was his only channel at semi adult conversations or the only one who would listen to him reciting Shakespeare sonnets or verses from Milton or Dryden or reliving his childhood in Chennai. My sister has no recollection of any of that , but she likes to remind me that she is a whole 5 years younger than me so she has been deprived of all the wonderful memories bequeathed to me by our parents . He loved to tell me these stories of him shopping as a kid , and how he loved to bargain with the shopkeepers when he was not even 10 . The shopkeepers considered him a mini terror and hated bargaining and wheedling with him ;it is perhaps another one of the great ironies of my life  that I absolutely hate bargaining . I don’t even bargain in places like China where I am expected to bargain and leave the shopkeepers disgusted , bemused and presumably richer. One of the stories that he liked to tell was about the size of prawns that he would get in Chennai . He claimed that they were as large as his fists and he also said that these days , according to him those prawns are exported so we never see them in any marketplace in India. I had bought into that hook , line and sinker but as time passed , scales fall from our eyes and realization sets in that perhaps parents are human and have feet of clay. The realization that there are no damned prawns the size of fists and my dad was exaggerating firmly took root.  Dont get me wrong, I loved my dad and had the greatest reverence for him and some of the same loyalty was still lurking not too far from the surface but I also imagined that a lot of his stories were just that, stories.

I had moved to California from Ohio two years ago .  Ohio was a wonderful place to live , settle down . People like to poke fun at me , especially in the Bay area and in New York where there seems to be general condescension for the rest of the country. But I had a great time and if I have any regrets, it is that I did not soak in everything that Ohio had to offer more enthusiastically. I did not travel to see the museum of Aviation in Dayton , nor did I hang around the riverside in Cincinatti or check out what used to be the glass capital of the world , Toledo nor did I spend any great length of time in what used to be the Rubber capital of the world , Akron. It was only in the last few months that I went to see the Rock and Roll Hall of fame . It is a tad bit sad considering how much I love hard rock and metal . The Rock and Roll hall of fame is designed like the Louvre in Paris , inside it lists the history and etymology of music . One of my cousins who is extremely talented in terms of music , explained to me how the layout and etymology made perfect sense to him , how the gospels did inspire soul and R&B and eventually Rock and Roll and hard rock . It was a fascinating and delightful journey into the world of music .

But I have always had a delightful time at the West Side market on W25 st in Cleveland . I have looked at the West side market as a  one stop shop for fruits , vegetables , cheese , spices , meats , pasta , oils and pastries and snacks.  Not too far from the Westside market is another Cleveland treasure that one should not miss . The Great Lakes Brewing Company !! it is a microbrewery with very high quality beers and a restaurant that serves delicious American fare. One of the primary advantages of visiting a micro brewery is that you get samplers . A sampler platter of 6-9 beers served in shot glasses . An elegant way to sample all the deliciousness that the brewery has to offer without getting drunk.

While I was living in Wooster , the nearest Indian grocery store was in Cleveland which was 60 miles away. When I would go to get the so called essentials , I would swing by the west side market . Sometimes I did not even buy anything , just indulge in the pleasure of browsing . Growing up in India had me accustomed to open air markets and Singapore and the US had no parallels . The West Side market had an open air vegetable and fruit market and then inside a immense building was a treasure trove of culinary shopping . Mind you, I hate shopping with a passion even today with the exception of shopping for food , the more exotic, the more I delight in it . After shopping for fruits and veggies , I would go inside and talk to the pretty girl who was selling flavored Italian oils and learn how to make it myself , the Lebanese butcher who sold lamb and goat meat , the local farmers who would sell choice cuts of veal and steaks and porkchops. The sausage store that sold kielbasa , Chorizo ,Andouille , Bratwursts , Italian sausages flavored with sweet fennel and just regular sausage flavored with sagebrush . meetandcheeseThe cheese store was a delight , Gouda with its smoky sweetness , Havarti with the delicious astringent crunchiness of caraway seeds, soft Brie that one could spread like butter on toast, delicious English cheese like Stiltons , goat cheese , mozzarella , Parmigiana – Romano and many many more . There were several bakeries with more pastries than I could name and recognize . One of my regular stops was the Italian pasta shop where I would buy fresh Fettuccine and fresh Ravioli for my stepchildren , they loved my Fettuccine Alfredo and Zuppa Toscana and Chicken Marsala.  At the center was a spice store that one could find just about anything that one craved for , no matter what the origin was. The proprietor loved spices , spices were her life and the intimate knowledge of what ties in with which entree was something that she could effortlessly calculate in her head , it reminds me of accountants who could effortlessly calculate interest rates and calculate what your PMI is or what you would pay over the course of 20 years, most people would find it boring but I find the ease with which they proceed to be a delight. This woman was like that , she was the London cab driver of spices . She was white but she could correct me as to what I would need for Indian recipes . One could spend a whole day here and not get bored . Away from all of this hustle and bustle was a vestibule that led to a small section of the building . In here was the fish market , one could find grouper , Mahi Mahi , Freshwater bass , trouts , eels , even Pomfret from India . The first time that I was here , I looked at each fish and grilled the Russian proprietor  at length . However I was puzzled about this hunk of meat that vaguely looked like a prawn but it was enormous , probably bigger than my fist . The texture was slimy , reminded me of prawns and shrimp . The color did too . After admiring it for a few minutes , I asked the Russian proprietor again as to what this mystery animal was . He looks at me with a sly grin and says in a thick Russian accent  “Prawns” .  I wonder where they could be getting these enormous prawns from so I ask him “Where are they from ?” . His sly grin grew broader and he said “Well from India , of course” . To say that I was stunned would be an understatement . As I walked back to my car with my fresh fettuccine and Ravioli and lamb chops .  I silently apologized to my dear departed father for doubting him in the first place , an apology that was perhaps 10 years too late to matter .

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