Sunday, November 07, 2021

Diwali at Home - Laddoos & Cookies

Happy Diwali!!  Wishing everyone a happy and healthy new year! Here are some links on Diwali and the background. 

Growing up, Diwali did not make much sense. It was inconsistent, no one else celebrated it and it could not compare with Halloween and Christmas. Mom would make a special dinner, turn on lights around the house and have special pujas/ceremonies. Everyone would call to wish Sal Mubarak for the new year. All the jewelery would be taken from the bank and blessed - thanking Lakshmi and showing appreciation for the wealth we have. It was definitely acknowledged in our house, but not given enough encouragement I believe. 

 For my husband, who grew up in India, this is Christmas. Lots of traditions from special foods to lighting fire crackers to family and friends getting together. Plus per the Hindu calendar, he was born on the first day of Diwali. So, everyone always remembers his Indian birthday. (My daughter is born on Valentines' Day. The only memorable event I have for mine, June 30, is that it's the last day of the fiscal year). 

Anyway, for my daughter is a different world than it was for me. Sesame Street talks about Diwali. Elementary schools have Diwali displays. Employees are taking off on Diwali as a "religious holiday". There's more awareness and pride in this holiday. With my daughter, we're going to light candles around the house. 

We went to a party on Saturday and friends had sparklers and firecrackers which we lit in the yard. It was fun - and was my first time seeing firecrackers without a simultaneous radio or TV broadcast. Annika was a bit scared at first, but quickly got over her fears. 

I found a book about Diwali at the library and Annika and her daddy read it together. It was great later during the firecrackers and I asked (to no one in particular) what was going on when they were trying to light a firecracker. She said "Mom, this is just like the book. That's what they're doing," rolling her eyes and her voice in exasperation. Sorry. I missed the reading. A few friends and I decided to join forces and prepare some homemade treats at each other's houses - chuklis, besan laddoo, karanji. 

To get my daughter involved, we baked toll-house chocolate chip cookies - why not?. She helped me with the tray of goodies to bring to our friends' house - laddoos, pistachio sweets with silver foil and chocolate chip cookies. 

 While it's important to maintain one's heritage, it's exciting to begin new traditions. That's what being American is all about, isn't it?

Tuesday, June 08, 2021

San Juan Puerto Rico Tips and Recap - May 2021

This was my 3rd vacation to San Juan, Puerto Rico, but my first travel blog about it. My first trip was in 1995 as a girls trip, staying at the La Concha hotel in Condado, while my husband and I stayed on our trip 2004 at an Isla Verde hotel. This time we stayed at a house in Dorado.

Over the years, we've been to resorts in Mexico, Bahamas, Dominican Republic, but Puerto Rico is the one place where there's so much to see and do. Actually, because of my experience with PR as a sight-seeing destination, we were actually confused in other places - wait, we can't leave the resort? There are no historic sites or monuments? There are no rain forests to hike through? What about the art museums and bookstores?

The Age of COVID 19

These are tips and updates as of May 2021, as we're stepping out carefully. My family is vaccinated so we felt safe enough to venture forth. However, we followed the Travel Guidelines on the Puerto Rico tourism site. 

  • We needed to get tested 72 hours prior to arrival and post our tests to the online portal. 
  • We all received texts and emails with our special QR codes. 
  • After we retrieved our bags, we presented our codes to the health officers. They scanned it and took our temperatures before we proceeded. 

Subsequently, we received a daily email alerts (for 2 weeks) asking us if we were experiencing any symptoms listed. We would need to confirm Yes or No. If you do not reply - all of us thought this was a spam at first  - you will receive a phone call from a health official.  

Restaurants and shops offered hand sanitizers and frequently insisted we comply. Also, mask wearing signs were all over, including at the open air historic sites. Even if someone was working outside, they wore their masks. I know it's a challenge to get vaccines outside of the mainland US, but you respect everyone. 

Viejo San Juan (Old San Juan)

On our previous trips, we stayed fairly close to Old San Juan so we could go via bus or taxi. This time we stayed in Dorado so it was a bit of a crazy drive. (The drive is straight forward highways, however, people drive pretty nuts so it gets stressful). 

If you want to see everything at relaxed paced and enjoy the route - sit in the bars or the plazas, fly a kite by El Morro or visit the shops and galleries -- I would recommend this as 1 full day tour or 2 half-days tours. The city is built on hills and it could be quite hot, so be ready to go up and down hills. Someone advised us to download the app Visit A City, which gave us a perfect walking tour of San Juan. We wished we had found this earlier!

Day 1 - we toured the Castillo San Felipe Del Morro, which has beautiful views of the water and the city.  There are former prison cells, sentry boxes and lots of levels.  There's a lot of walking here in open sun, and it's great to see people flying kites on the grounds since the winds are so strong by the water. There is a $10 entry fee, which includes both forts and is good for 24 hours. So, don't feel like you need to walk and finish both in one day. Afterwards, we walked down Calle de Sebastian, which seems to be lined bars and pubs. We wandered up and down the streets and ended by the pier, which was buzzing with activity. Lots of opportunities to pose in front of the iconic colorful buildings with the beautiful balconies and flowers that reminded me of Madrid and Barcelona.

Challenges: Since it was a beautiful Sunday, the town was packed with people. So, it was a challenge to find parking at Ballaja lot, but we landed on a small valet lot next to the Cathedral de San Juan Bautista. We were looking for a nice open place for drinks, but were disappointed to see some of the notable restaurants were closed (some permanently), while others were quite full. 
Day 2
We went early on Monday morning to Castillo San Cristóbal and enjoyed the quiet town with handfuls of tourist. We found parking easily, and made note of the restaurants around Plaza Colon. We walked on Calle de San Francisco and Calle de la Fortaleza. We stumbled upon 7ven Seas Art Gallery, which had beautiful work by local artists. We continued to the end of the street with the flag displays, and then to the Cathedral. There's a little park across from the church with a grand tree that reminded me of Spain again.
We also found Poets Passage, where the owner is living my best life. Beautiful and charming bookstore/art gallery with a cafe and small stage in the back for open mic performances. 

Rain Forest & Waterfalls

Puerto Rico's El Yunque rain forest is a must see. I remember on my previous trips how we took the precarious drive up the mountain and hiking towards the waterfalls, and the lush views of the forests are so beautiful.

However, the new process is to make reservations online as they are limiting the number of visitors. Someone advised us to get our reservations as soon as possible. Unfortunately, acquiring reservations is difficult to procure - we logged in at 11:56 to get the 12:00 release of tickets, but at 12:02, they were all gone. Therefore, we decided to let it go. 

Instead, we found this list of waterfalls to visit in Puerto Rico. After consulting maps and checking reviews, we decided to go ahead with La Canoa Falls or the El Hippie Waterfalls. This is on the other side of the main Rio Grande entrance to the rain forest, and we drove through small towns. We loved this part because majority of the island is going to be rural. You see green mangoes and lemons on trees in someone's yard... fields with cows and horses grazing. The square houses with the iron screens reminded us of Indian houses - tropical environments need to have those types of structures to help keep cool. We enjoyed the drive though the small towns, but on the way back, we got on the main highway fairly quickly.

The experience of going to the waterfalls was so unexpected. At first, we were concerned that the rocks were so slippery. This was a spot where families came together - young and old. They had picnics set up on the side of the rocks. Everyone was swimming and diving into the clear pool of water from the waterfalls. People were climbing up the rocks to the different levels, or you could just sit on a rock and soak your feet in cool spring water. The beauty of these rock formations is stunning. Do recommend water shoes if you want to walk around the rocks - though we felt better without our shoes.

 Post-Vacation Site Suggestion 

I just read that these falls were near a town of Naguabo; it would've been nice to check this out since we were right there. We did drive through Luquillo Beach and we marveled at the unique terrain with grass and pine trees mixed in with the palm trees and sand.

Post-Vacation Restaurant Suggestions

Here's a good list of top restaurants, but we were unable to go to these. El Asador looked amazing, but they were not open and the timing did not work out for us. Barrachina is supposed to be the home of the first piña coladas. However, it seemed to be touristy with a line out the door. Just made me nervous that if we stand in line, and the piña coladas tastes just like any other. And, honestly, the best piña coladas I have had are served in a plastic cup on the beach. 

If you are in Dorado, we had the best veggie nachos and tacos at this Mexican place called Vagon. I'm not a fan of nachos, but I'm a team player and always go along with the orders. But this one was such a surprise with sauteed onions and peppers on the nachos. We had this on Taco Tuesday, and then I had to order it again for Nacho Saturday!

Puerto Rico has so many nice restaurants with Carribbean staples, as well as American mainstays like Subway and Applebee's. For travelers, it's easy to find food within your budget anywhere, as well as Walmart and Costco if you need to stock up at a rental.

Casa Bacardi

On my first trip to the Barcardi Rum Factory, I fell in love. It was just a quiet tour and we got simple rum samples under a wide patio surrounded by palm trees. I wanted to work there - why not? The second time we went, I was disappointed because it was way too touristy with specialty cocktails sold under the patio. Much like Disney World as we spent time watching movies and taking rides.

So, this time we did not go, though I was interested in old time's sake. However, you apparently need to make reservations two weeks in advance and tickets are $15 now. I'm surprised they're charging because one would think they made enough by dropping all the tourists off at the gift shop where you buy bottles to take home.

Other Blogs To Check

Colorful Walking Tour of Old San Juan

 5 Days in San Juan, Puerto Rico: The Perfect Caribbean Getaway


Dorado Beach

Tuesday, April 13, 2021

Anne of Green Gables and The Railway Children

I'm finally reading Anne of Green Gables thanks to the series "Anne with an E." Somehow, even though this book is exactly in my preferred genre of books when I was young, but I never read it. How did I miss it?

It's not that "Anne of Green Gables" wasn't available. I saw it on every spinning book rack at the library. I did read "Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm," "Pollyanna" and "Heidi" - as they fit the criteria above. So I assumed Anne was in the same vein, so I'm good and have it covered. I also figured it would be the same but just more polished - maybe like "The Secret Garden." That is another book I never read, but saw different movie versions. I had friends gush about it, and I was fine without it. 

So, I recently requested a copy from the library and I'm rather enjoying it. I do wish I had read this through 11-year-old eyes rather than as an adult. Comparing the book to the Netflix series - it's really stayed true to all of the characters' spirits and storytelling. It's also intriguing since they're giving it modern sensibilities.

What kind of books did I like to read at the end of elementary school?

  • Does it have an orphan as the hero (e.g., Noel Streatfield's "Ballet Shoes" series)
  • Does it have a heroine that doesn't have conventionally good looks, such as as mousy brown hair (e.g., Katie John books by Mary Calhoun, Pippi Longstocking books)
  • Is there poverty or struggle involved (e.g., "Little House on the Prairie" series)
  • Does it take place in another era? ("All of a Kind Family", "Little Women" books)
  • Am I going to cry and can I read it over and over? (everything else!)

The book that I loved seems to have escaped commercial popularity. My favorite book was "The Railway Children" first published in 1906 by Edith Nesbit. My father had brought this book home one day for me. We actually did not own a lot of books because we were big patrons of the library. We trekked back and forth every week with armloads of books. (We lived in Queens, NY in 1970's so we were free to walk to the library.) After all these years, I recently downloaded a library copy it on my Kindle to reread, and I loved it. I found the 2000 movie version on Amazon last year; actually seeing it helped clarify some of the confusing parts of the book and my comprehension. There was a "hound in a red jersey" and I was confused if it was a dog or a boy.

The story is about 3 British siblings and their mother who have to live in the country for some time because the father was involved in some "business matters." They had to shift to their country home and "play poor" for a bit. (They had a 'Schitt's Creek" situation). They have their adventures near the railway station, the locals and even the passengers on the train.

As the oldest of three, I easily identified with Roberta (Bobbie), but there were times I did not understand her. Though I did feel for her trying to manage her younger siblings since I had a brother and sister as well. The way they entered the old house reminded me of the way we had moved into our big empty house in Queens and spent time exploring the house and the environs.

One of my favorite parts was when they made a birthday cake for someone and whipped up frosting out of sugar. Wow - a recipe for frosting? I used the book as a cookbook and tried to follow it. Didn't really work out if I remember. 

The interesting part when I reread this now was that the mother wrote short stories and sold them to make money. This is absolutely fascinating because in 1900's England, this was the only option for an educated woman of a certain class. The mother is always stressed out - I remember the girls put eau de cologne on her forehead to help her. My gosh - that poor woman! Her husband is tangled up in some messy business, their names are in the papers, she's gotta take her 3 kids to the country and figure out how to manage alone! Fortunately, it does have a happy ending - else I wouldn't have read it so much!

Side note - British actor Jenny Agutter plays Roberta (Bobbie) in the 1970 version of the movie, and then she plays the mother in 2000 version. But.. wait.. I know her.. Sister Julienne from "Call the Midwife"!

Thursday, March 25, 2021

Movie Review - Bombay Rose


I have been seeing trailers about Gitanjali Rao’s “BombayRose” on social media since it was released in 2019, so I was so eager to see it finally on Netflix.

It is an hour and half of beautiful hand animation, a love story to Mumbai. Each frame is so beautifully crafted, and the music is hypnotic and transformative. 

The movie begins with the faceless crowds of Mumbai going about their daily hustle. It focuses on the main character – Kamala. By the way, keep your eyes open for all the subtle and not so subtle references to flowers. Kamala is a lotus flower and even later I noticed a shop with the name Gulabi, which is a rose.

I don’t want to say much about the story because it is so different, and one should enjoy the visual experience. The story line is a your basic Hindu girl selling flowers and a Muslim boy catching her eye on the street, each dreaming of the life they wish they could have. Their intricate backstories are revealed slowly, and characters' interactions cross over eventually - all woven together. 

As a true love letter to Mumbai – or Bombay as it is always known in people’s hearts – Rao addresses the microcosm of cultures in the city and the languages. We have Salim from Kashmir, the Maharashtrian sellers in the market, the Goan Christian teacher who was a former film starlet. The movie doesn’t shy away from tough real life topics – child labor, sexual exploitation/prostitution, gangsters, poverty. However, these are not faceless characters anymore – we know them and their struggles.

What stands out in this film is the story of Shirley D’Souza, an elderly woman who reminiscences about the old days. As she steps out onto the pavement, the city turns black and white and back to 1950s. She loves her cigarette and whiskey and reliving memories of her youth. These are the shops and the buses my parents talked about riding; the streets are quieter and not as populated. Above all, we loved the Konkani music! We had to look up one of the songs – “Red Rose” by Lorna Cordeiro. The video has the English translation of lyrics and it’s so great! (And, another rose was delivered)

 In a way, Shirley’s story seemed separate from Kamala’s, almost as if it could be its own movie, complete with a love story and tragic heroine. However, the narrative is strong enough to bring it all together in the end.

 It moves slowly and thoughtfully, but it's so engaging. It would be a good introduction to Mumbai for some, but lots of nostalgia for others.

Tuesday, January 14, 2020

It's Time for Jeopardy!

“Oh! Oh! It’s 7 pm. I need to go now,” he would excitedly say, abruptly cutting our phone conversation short.

“Wait, I didn’t finish. I have to tell you something.”

“OK, tell me quick. It’s time for Jeopardy!”

So that’s how the conversations would end. If you needed to call my father, you’d have to call before or after he finished Jeopardy! If you called after, you would get a delightful recap of the show.

“Did you see the final Jeopardy question? Oh, you didn’t? I thought you would know it because it was about American Literature.” As an immigrant from India who came to the US 50 years ago, he was comfortable with majority of the British writers and Hollywood movies, but on Shakespeare and American popular culture, he would defer to me. If there were topics that were unfamiliar and intriguing, he would make a note and search online later to research.

"Oh, I learned something about about Roosevelts," and he would explain what he found on Wikipedia. 

This show has been a part of our lives for years. Back in early 90’s, my roommate and I had a 7:30 evening class; we needed to leave by 7:15 to be on time. There were way too many days when we waited to hear final Jeopardy question before leaving, thus being late for class.

Jeopardy! has a way of making the audience feel smart, especially when one out performs the contestants, who are so impressive until they mess up. Personally, I have a happy dance I do when I get the Final Jeopardy answer correct and the contestants do not. When watching the show with my daughter, I always challenge her to answer specific categories related to her current schoolwork. She rolls her eyes at me, and may not have an idea. But the moment she does gets a question right, her self-esteem shoots up!

My father watched Jeopardy! religiously, more so after he retired. I suppose that when one retires, there’s a need for schedule and structure. So, the whole day can be spent on random activities and phone calls to friends, but come 7 pm, there’s an appointment to be kept. My father was always the happiest at home, as master of his own domain – and remote control. By the way, Dad was a Ken Jennings fan and had followed his streak passionately, and scolded me for games I missed. 

Since 2000, my father was in and out of hospitals due to various cardiac health situations. He would often be hospitalized for days or a week or two. Of course, visiting hours hit in the evening, so we knew someone would be watching the show with him. We'd turn on the hospital TV and fuss with the angle and remote control volumes.

In June 2018, he was hospitalized for pneumonia, but it turned out to be kidney failure. We would be with him around the clock, as he moved on to dialysis. To help flush his kidneys, he was on low liquids. We held his hands as he feebly asked for water, which we could not give. Time moved slowly throughout the day as doctors and nurses came in and out, measuring and testing, and giving vague answers if any.

That 7 pm time slot was magical, a comfortable expectation of what we would experience. Alex is a reliable friend showing up, and reminding us the rest of the world was still normal. In his weakened state, he couldn’t follow along with the show. Was his hearing aid turned on? We tried to be cheerful and tried to ask him the questions in case he knew. The dialysis bed had a small TV on the side. So, it worked as a bit of distraction, as the machines droned rhythmically next to him, cleaning out his blood stream.

On August 20th, he passed away from multiple organ failure. It’s been difficult for the family and every friend who knew my father and his jovial spirit. My mother is living alone, and she said she watches the show every night too. This was their ritual she needs to uphold. One evening, she saw the lights flicker in the family room when Jeopardy! was on. She knew he was watching too.

When 7 pm rolls around, all of  us watch it as a way to get closer to my father. For about 30 minutes, we're remembering my father's excitement for trivia and his never-ending quest for knowledge.

Sunday, December 08, 2019

Self-Care with Netflix

When Netflix launched April 1998, we did try the DVD by mail service. But we accidentally mailed the wrong DVD back to them, which they promptly returned to us. We supported our local video stores until they disappeared and turned into a kiosk at the grocery store.

As Netflix expanded, the world buzzed about “House of Cards” and “Orange is the New Black.” Fortunately, we were able to procure the DVDs from the library. “We’re good and why don’t need Netflix since we barely watch cable TV, and my daughter will be glued to it even more.”

On November 25, 2016, they announced the reboot of the “Gilmore Girls.” That’s when I said “We need Netflix. NOW.” I had fallen in love Lorelei and Rory on reruns for the past year, unwinding after work with any random episode to escape into Stars Hollow. Let’s try it out and see if it’s worth it. Yes, we fell into the chasm of scrolling through choices and finding all the things we “always wanted to watch.”

Coincidentally, it was November 2016. Remember if anything else happen then? Oh yes, the whole world turned upside down due to an incomprehensible election. Like many Americans, I’ve been consumed by the news - the decline in morality, disappointment in the lack of integrity of elected officials. I’ve cried for children in cages and children who hid under desks. I listened to public radio journalists who tried to hold onto professionalism as they relayed the absurd and vulgar Tweets. We marched every January, hoping for the best.

That winter was a very dark time for the world, and it became even darker personally as we had a loss in the family. My husband was traveling quite a bit and I was dealing with changes at work. I ended up turning to Netflix for diversion. I discovered different shows that helped me feel less alone or give a different perspective. This escapism has continued for another 3 years now.

For reference, I do not ‘binge’ on a series to complete all at once. I try to stretch it out as much as I can. The most I’ve done is 3 episodes in a row. If I like it, it’s a chocolate bar and I take a bite at a time to make it last as long as I can. So here’s a run down of the shows that gave me solace in a time of confusion.

Mad Men

This was first on my list of “always wanted to watch,” due to the reviews, the glamour of the era and personally, advertising was my dream career path. I never wanted to start in the middle of the series. Now it was completely on Netflix, I thought I’d give it a go. I escaped to 1950s America and then followed the team into the 1960s and 1970s through the 7 seasons.

There was one episode with a backdrop of the Cuban Missile Crisis and the characters contemplated the possibility of imminent nuclear war. If we forward to 21st century, this paralleled our own fear with current administration egging North Korea to continue nuclear missile tests.

Why is it “self-care”: It is a total escape into the past where people were jerks to each other’s face and did not hide behind social media. We could feel better about the sexism, crime and pollution in NYC now that we fast forward 50 years and have laws to protect workplace harassment. And of course, Jon Hamm as Don Draper – the most attractive, complex and enigmatic character on television. This America felt more familiar, even though I never knew it this personally.

I don’t know why but this show is my happy place. It’s smart, it’s witty and relevant, and then just silly.. The minute I turn this show on, I start cracking up. Maybe I’m still in 8th grade like Kimmie, but her optimism and enthusiasm are perfect escape. Tina Fey is a goddess of quick wit. Sometimes the joke just flies by so quickly, you know you were just hit by it, but can’t even explain to someone else.

Why is it “self-care”: Moments to laugh hysterically and surprise Jon Hamm appearances.

The Great British Baking Show 

When I come from work, I relax with an episode of this show. There’s companionship and politeness. There’s chocolate and Italian meringues. No one yells at anyone saying “you’re fired” or insulting anyone’s cooking style. Usually if the person has done a bad job, they know it. They don’t need a judge to humiliate them. Instead the other contestants and the hosts come around and give everyone a hug. Plus there’s the whole British baking language – remember that when they bake “biscuits” it’s really cookies and not doughy Southern style biscuits.

Why is it “self-care”: When we’re not in the tent, the camera takes close ups of a surreal green countryside and all the bits of nature. Then the desserts and bakes come together in beautiful displays that are so impressive and you’d love to indulge. By the end of the season, everyone is your friend and you’re crying when they have to go home.

Note - this appears on PBS too.

The Kindness Diaries

I’ve written a blog and then some about the Kindness Diaries. It marries travel shows with human interest stories. Leon Logothesis is charming and amiable.

Why is it “self-care”: this is a reminder that people are good in real life. We need to step away from the horrible stories we see online and just remember that one on one, people are still good and will try to help someone when they can.

Queer Eye

I love them. I watched the original series years ago, and was skeptical about the new cast taking this over. However, they’ve done a superb job and you can see their own metamorphosis from first season to becoming international ambassadors of positive energy and being true to oneself. 

Why is it “self-care” : we start with a struggling ‘hero’ and we learn to empathize with them. We understand their challenges and might have felt that way. By the end of the episode everyone has transformed and QE team is amazing and supportive. It feels good for the person who has struggled alone to have someone who is on their side and focused only on them.

And, cue the waterworks at the end of certain episodes. Yes, they do deserve this – they opened themselves up to change and the universe will help – even if it is 5 great guys. By the way, I think their home makeovers are SO much better than the Fixer Uppers and other HGTV shows. When those shows reveal at the end, you know exactly what the style will look like (shiplap, anyone?) Does everyone really want a farmhouse style? The beauty of the QE renovations, it's like they know what the Hero of the episode dreams about and honors that. That's a true makeover.

And more..

I could keep going on and on about my other favorite shows, but these are the ones that get my spirits lifted and I might do a separate blog post about those. So, I’m grateful for the “Gilmore Girls” reboot came