Escape while you can!

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Unless you have been living under a rock in the last few months, then you know the media has been buzzing constantly; first with endless US presidential election campaigning, then the US election night, Indian PM demonetizing the Rs.500 and Rs.1000 bills and then the final cherry on the top: Donald Trump winning the elections to be the 45th President of United States. While all the outside news has been constantly hammering on in my mind, the twists and turns of life and work have also kept me constantly busy.

For as long as I remember whenever life overwhelms me, I have turned to books and reading. Like Hermione in Harry Potter, when faced with a problem I have looked for answers in books and library. So it isn’t surprising that in whatever little time I have had lately I have read voraciously. When there is so much drama happening in real life, one doesn’t want to read anyone else’s life drama; even that of a fictitious character. So I picked up couple of books from science fiction and fantasy genre. Fantasy genre is one of my favourite genres and if the book is a fantasy thriller….my life is all set! I mean who is thinking about real life problems and presidential elects when you are hot on the trail of aliens trying to invade earth or a wizard trying to save humans!

For science fiction this time I tried a book called The Three-body Problem written originally by a Chinese author Liu Cixin and translated in English. I just finished it yesterday and it was one of the most interesting science fiction books I have read; it was mainly about how a group of people are sick of the current state of humanity and decide to invite a race of aliens to save the human kind. It resonated with me because this is exactly how I feel about human race today, where we are completely losing touch with our humanity. While realistic it was also thrilling, fun and educational. Today I picked up Ursula Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness. I have never read any Ursula Le Guin, but have heard wonderful things about her writing and I am excited to start the book. The other one I picked up was Fool Moon by Jim Butcher which is the book 2 in the Dresden Files series. Most of the books in this series can be read standalone and I have read a couple of them in no particular order; but this time I decided to start reading the series in its right sequence.

I have always loved to read thrillers, mysteries and adventure stories.  I guess I have always looked for a way to escape the reality even if it is for a little while, if I can get a fun ride with a wizard or an alien during that escape I am more than happy to get on it!

Lands we leave behind

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More than half a century ago a man left the green fields and farm lands of western Maharashtra to try his luck in the glittering city of Mumbai. His mother had passed away a while ago and he left behind his father and younger brothers with the promise to bring them to the city. In Mumbai he found friends, a small place to live, got his degree as a certified accountant, and a job. Eventually he started his own company that manufactured chemicals and trained his brothers to manage that company. That man was my uncle, who brought his younger brothers from a small rural village in Maharashtra to Mumbai, give them better education and to give them a chance at a better life. Once he came to Mumbai, he never went back to the village except to visit the other relatives there every now and then. He got married and found matches for his brothers one by one, including my father. Everyone started their families in Mumbai and nobody gave a thought to return back to the village. The second generation of my family (my cousins and myself) decided to come further away to improve their lives and a few of us immigrated to the USA. Like our elders before us, we have not given much of a serious thought to going back to our lands. Like my uncles and my father who were immigrants to Mumbai and eventually became citizens of Mumbai (called mumbaikars), we have slowly become Americanized.

People all over the globe move from their home towns and home countries and become immigrants elsewhere. Mostly they move for a better life, better opportunities for families, and sometimes just for the sheer adventure of living unmoored in a new place. I moved away from my home when I was young to find a life different than the one I had back in India. Maybe like my uncle I thought this was the right move to have a better future; but unlike my uncle I didn’t have to bring any of my family here with me.

When you move far away to make your life better, you leave something behind…usually elder parents, other family. You lie to yourself saying you will be back one day but you never get back. Whether it is moving 350 km to Mumbai or 10000 miles to US, it is a move where eventually you will never look back. You have to make a life where you move in order to be successful, but the happier you are in new place the guiltier you sometimes feel about all that you have left behind.

I don’t know if my uncle ever felt the guilt or worry about his move decades ago (he wasn’t the kind of person to talk about his feelings), but he was very happy when his daughters moved to US, he felt that like him they were moving on to something better in life. I just wish I had asked him about all this when he was still coherent, I wish I had talked to him about how to immigrate when you leave half your life behind.

Raksha Bandhan for sisters!

Today is Raksha Bandhan in India, meaning it is a festival dedicated to brothers and sisters. It is the day when a sister ties a thread on her brother’s wrist and in turn the brother promises to protect her and care for her. As far as I can remember I have never tied a rakhi (the thread is called rakhi) on anyone’s wrist. My only cousin of the male variety lived in a different state and I never got into the habit of sending him any rakhi by post. I think my mother probably sent rakhi to him when I was younger but stopped it at some point. Today he lives in a different country and I consider it a good day if I can manage to have a 15 minute conversation with him without being at each other’s throat.

For me my elder sister has been everything…my brother, my mother, my friend and my protector! Who needs a brother when you have a sister standing strong by your side. Cheers to all those who have a strong sister standing by their side!

Our Moon has Blood Clots-Rahul Pandita

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This was not an easy book to read and it is certainly not easy to review. It isn’t a story which you read in your free time and forget about it. It is a personal memoir of the exile of Kashmiri Pandits-a Hindu minority in a Muslim majority Kashmir valley. It is the story of how systematically Kashmiri Pandits were forced to flee their homes leaving everything behind, carrying with them only the hope that someday they will return back to their ancestral lands. In a matter of fact style, Rahul Pandita recounts the names of his pandit neighbors, family and friends who were forced to flee or killed or worse. It cannot have been easy to recount those terrifying days of childhood, but the author does it without any drama and fanfare. The recount of the cold January night in 1990 when the neighbourhood mosques start the anti-India and Azadi (freedom) slogans was terrifying to read. It is impossible to imagine the fear of the parents with 2 young children when they hear the mob outside their house shout out messages about turning Kashmir into Pakistan with the help of pandit women.

Ever line you read hits you, because these are not just random names you are reading on the page of a book; these are real people, names with faces who once had dreams and lives same as you; the lives that were snuffed or irrevocably changed in the name of religion and ethnic cleansing. No it is not an easy book to read, but it has to be read to realize that human beings are not really human. History has shown us that time and again, human beings will kill and maim each other at the slightest excuse. Sometimes for land, sometimes for god and sometimes for the power; the excuses change but the outcome doesn’t.

Like most refugees, the Pandits will also probably will never return back home; and if they do what will they return back to; terror and discrimination or peace?

Traveling times: Peru-Planning

Every major travel deserves a blog post, and a destination as good as Peru deserves several posts! I have decided to split the posts into planning and then actual travel/tourist places. In my mind, Machu Picchu deserves a separate post and I will try to do that one as well.

When I decided that I wanted to take a major vacation this year, I had no particular place or plan in my mind. I started talking to a friend I hadn’t seen in over 5 years about the general hum drum of life and on a whim we decided to go on a vacation together. The destination didn’t matter as long as we saw a new place and had a good time. We talked back and forth about various spots and I thought about my Machu Picchu dream. I figured this was as good a time as any to make this trip of a lifetime and if I didn’t make use of this opportunity, who knows when next would be a good time to go. Once the idea of Peru took root, it wouldn’t leave me alone and I couldn’t imagine going anywhere else! I convinced my friend that other destinations could happen later on, but Peru needed to happen now! I must admit it was not easy convincing someone to travel to South America with me, and Peru at that; not Brazil or Argentina, but Peru! I had to convince my parents, my friends and family that the travel would be safe and I will be cautious. My co-traveller and I had to almost cancel our trip twice before we were finally on our way to Lima.

But deciding on a place is just the first and the easiest step of the traveling, the logistical details were the major time consuming part of the planning. After deciding on Peru, our next step was to look through the visa application procedure, if the visa application seemed too detailed and required too much of documentation then we would have had to change our destination. But Peru tourist visa application was an absolute breeze; the major required documents are your round trip flight and hotel reservations, financial documents and itinerary. On enquiry with the Peruvian embassy we found that the visa application didn’t require any appointment, just showing up with your documents and passport; in case of any missing documents they just ask you to come back again with the documents.

But before our visa applications, we had to take some major decisions regarding travel dates and the places we wanted to visit within Peru. Since this was my first international trip with a friend, I decided to take a safe route and stick with touristy places. Initially I wanted to do Lima, Cusco, Amazon rainforest area, Nazca Lines, Paracas National Reserve and Puno. But doing these major spots would require at least 15-17 days of travel and I did not want to spend all my vacation days on one vacation, so we decided to do Lima, Cusco and Puno –all three cities in the southern region of Peru. Once we decided on the places, considering our required visa work, all major decisions such as traveling dates, international flight reservations, and hotel bookings had to be taken as soon as possible.

We booked American Airlines from LA to Lima with a layover in Miami. Most of the flights we saw had layovers in Mexico, Miami or Panama City, but since we did not want to do anymore visa work for other foreign city, we opted for the Miami layover flight. Our main consideration while booking the flight was that the flight had to reach Lima and leave from Lima during the day. We did not want to land in an unknown country late at night, and most of the flights from US were reaching Lima at awkward hours, but we managed to find one that suited our needs.

After flight bookings we started looking at hotels in Lima, Cusco and Puno. We divided the hotel search between us, so that each of us would have some bookings under our name during our visa applications. Again safety was our first and foremost consideration while looking for a hotel, cleanliness, and availability of taxi/shuttle services were close seconds. All our hotels were booked through hotel.com and we relied a lot on the reviews by other patrons. We also made sure to email the hotels individually to confirm airport/transportation center pickups/drop offs. We booked Casa Fanning and Manhattan Inn for Lima, Amaru Hostal for Cusco and Tierra Viva for Puno.

Just two weeks before our trip, we booked our domestic flights from LimaàCusco with Star Peru. The airport in the city of Juliaca is closest to Puno for domestic flights so we booked JuliacaàLima with LAN airlines. For transportation from CuscoàPuno we decided to do the 9 hour Inka Express rather than a flight, which I believe was one of our best decisions. So our travel was something like this: LimaàCuscoàMachu PicchuàCuscoàPunoàLima.

After conversations with a friend who was in Peru and some online research, we decided to book the inter-city tours after reaching the city. In summary, the main bookings completed from US before travel were: international flights, hotels, domestic flights, Inka Express and Machu Picchu tour.

After all these bookings, we couldn’t wait to begin our journey! Stay tuned for more posts on our travels and experiences!

Strangers once again

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It is funny how sometimes you meet strangers and can just connect with them. And then sometimes the opposite also happens, the strangers who had become friends go back to being unknown strangers again. I have had experience with the latter when a best friend became a stranger and a ‘he who shall not be named!’
But life is strange and time is weird, it heals you even though you don’t want to be healed, and finally there comes a time when memories don’t hurt as much and you can smile and let the stranger go…