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?

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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…

Traveling Times Again

My trip to Peru was a visit of a life time and in spite of some issues it was a fantastic one. I have had a bucket list of places that I have wanted to see since the longest time and Machu Picchu has been on that list for the past 8 years. The pyramids of Egypt were added to my bucket list even before I knew what a travel bucket list means! Hopefully I can check off Egypt soon too, but in the mean time I am savouring Machu Picchu through my pictures and my mental images.

I first saw the images of Machu Picchu some 7 years ago and that place had fascinated me from ever since. I am so delighted that seeing the actual complex did not dim my fascination one bit. Not just Machu Picchu, the places that I saw in Peru, from small villages and towns to the highly touristy MP, they were all fantastic. The people, the places, the vegetarian food….all superior, I just wish I could have seen everything…but since that is not possible, I am going to be satisfied with whatever I could see and tour.

I am not the kind of person who can do extended travel for months and spend weeks on road. For me seeing a new place and spending time out of my familiar place for 10-15 days is enough for a vacation. In spite of my love to see new places, I am a homebody and would always want a home base to come back to, which is why it is perfect to spend 10-11 days in a new country, seeing as much as I can is a perfect vacation for me. I also don’t believe in cramming every second of a trip with sightseeing and being all touristy…there has to be some downtime to appreciate and enjoy your surroundings. Though this trip was all go, go, go…I think I will try and schedule some downtime in my next trip.

The first tip I would give anyone who is looking to go anywhere, is to leave your assumptions at home on your way out. When I first decided to go to Peru, most people asked me, if there was anything else to see in Peru besides Machu Picchu and they assumed there wasn’t anything else so why was I going so far just to see that one spot! My reply to everyone was, of course there are other places to see and that I would know more once I do more research. Quite frankly, even in MP was the only spot to see in Peru, I would have still gone that far to see it. Any new place, new country or new state, is different…you are never going to enjoy it if you go there with pre-conceived notions. The idea is to go with an open mind and just take it all in, the good and the bad. Afterall, I can’t think of any place which doesn’t have bit of both, you just have to learn to accept it all.

I will be writing a more detailed post with my co-travelled on our itinerary through Peru soon. But until then this post will have to do!

Getting Hitched Attempts!

Since past 5 years or so my parents have been trying to arrange my marriage. By Indian standards, 5 years ago, I was at the “right marriageable age”, and today by those same standards, I am already old! The way the arranged marriage system works, is your parents give you details of some random stranger and ask you to talk to that guy, and then depending on the quality of those first initial conversations, things either move forward or come to a halt. After so many years of doing this, I have realized these guys can be divided into several categories: some love to talk and talk and talk without taking things in any direction, some who are in a serious hurry to get married and talk about kids in the first conversation, and some who talk to you because their parents are pushing them to talk. Sometimes I am myself in the last category, when I know I don’t want to talk to a person, but it is difficult to explain it to your parents why you don’t think this guy is worth your time!

But sometimes the guys seem decent on the paper and I do end up talking to them willingly, only to realize that they are usually talking to number of girls at one time and will suddenly disappear because they have hooked up with one of the several other girls they were talking to! Sometimes by some accidents of fate, I end up meeting these eligible bachelors. Lately my “dates” with these random strangers have gone from bad to worse and my life has become one hilarious event after another. I have decided to laugh to entertain everyone with this post because if you cannot laugh at yourself then life becomes overwhelming and difficult.

My latest attempt at meeting someone topped all my disastrous dates so far, in that I went to NYC to meet this person and he almost stood me up by coming in 2 hours late! The guy seemed good in the initial conversations so I decided to go and meet in person. But apparently he didn’t think I was important enough to warrant coming on time. Even after coming late, he kept on checking his cell phone and texting. The best part of this whole ordeal was the beautiful day I spent in NYC walking around Central Park, enjoying my company while I waited for the moron to make an appearance. So all in all it was a great day spent almost entirely by myself; with 9 hours of bus ride to meet someone for 2 hours!

Last month was yet another funny attempt at meeting a random someone. In a couple of chats, the guy seemed very immature and annoying. This guy-a complete random stranger-would argue with me over chats when I didn’t wish him good night and good morning. Since he was in Boston though, I couldn’t get out of meeting him and we agreed to have dinner at an Indian restaurant. Then when I met him, he spent the whole evening giving me creepy stares and telling me to honest with him. During the course of that disastrous dinner, he also informed about me looking skinnier in my pictures than I did in real life. Yet another Prince Charming….Yes, my life is full of them!

There was one guy who was actually quite interesting and who chatted with me on phone for couple of months and then hedged around when I asked about meeting up and ultimately told me he had found someone else.

There was one guy, who was some long lost relative of a family friend and was in Boston, so obviously I had to take time out and meet him otherwise I was going to disappoint everyone from here to Mumbai. Turns out, this guy didn’t like talking, every time I would talk his response would be a one liner and then “and what about you?” Yup, he was a talkative one!

There was another guy I talked with last year, who was very interesting and I had a very good time chatting with him, but he refused to talk on phone. I was so interested in him that I let that nonsense go on for quite a while, almost affecting my mental health in the process. Thankfully a close friend forced me to put an end to it.

One blog post and couple of paragraphs don’t do justice to my stories. But it suffices to say, this is a long drawn and difficult process for those who don’t conform to the societal rules. I have been told that I should not to seem too independent or too talkative; to not tell any guy that I drink, lest he think I am too fast; to not tell anyone that I work in cancer research field or someone might think I can’t have babies. The implication being that the only way anyone would like me is if I not reveal my personality at all.  The good part through this experience is that my parents have never forced me to compromise on issues important to me. Living within the Indian society while not conforming to its rules has been an ordeal I had never imagined myself having facing while growing up.

Memories Unlimited

In response to The Daily Post’s writing prompt: “Always Something There to Remind Me.”

Memories are a weird thing. They come unbidden to you at the most inopportune of the times. Seeing a picture somewhere, watching a movie, some snatches of conversations randomly flying through your mind, any of this could trigger a memory event. And of course, who can deny the link between music and memories. We always identify some specific songs to certain specific events in our lives. Some songs remind me of teenage carefree days, some songs remind me of the days when I felt the world was at my feet, some songs belong to the days when it was difficult just making it out of the bed. These songs relate to the good, the bad and the best days of my life.

But the song which never fails to give me goosebumps is from a hindi movie called “Rang De Bansanti”, which means Color me Red. The song is called “Luka Chuppi”, sung by Lata Mangeshkar and A R Rehman. The song is about a mother missing her son, while he is away as he is in the Indian Air Force. While I love the entire song some of my favorite lines are: “aaja sanj hui mujhe teri fikar dhundla gayi dekh meri nazar, aaja na”- meaning; it is evening now, I am worried about you, and my vision is foggy with tears, please come home now. The other line that I love is when the son sings, “yahan sab kuch hai ma phir bhi lage bin tere mujhko adhura”-means; I have everything here but I feel incomplete without you mother.

When I first came to Boston, from Bombay this song always reminded me of my mother. Today this song still reminds me of my mom waiting for me and then it reminds me of those early naïve days in Boston, almost a decade ago. When I as in India, and if I was late coming home from work, my mother used to wait up for me for dinner, so that she could sit and tell me all about her day and ask me about my work. Today when I come back late from work, I know my mom isn’t with me waiting for me to ask me about my day and that thought breaks my heart a little. But we all have to grow up and fly out of our nests doesn’t matter how painful, but for those painful evenings there is always Skype to call and bug your mom so that she doesn’t realize how much you miss her!

For anyone who wants to listen to the song, here is the youtube link and the entire English translation is in the description portion of the video.

Only one life

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This is a poem from a hindi movie called “Zindagi na milegi dobara”, translation, “you only live once “.

Literal line by line translation means:
If you are walking around with restlessness in your heart, you are alive! If you have the twinkle of dreams in your eyes, then you are alive!
Learn to live free like the gusts of wind
Learn to be free like a wave in the sea
Meet every moment with your arms wide open
Greet a new sight with your eyes every moment
If you are walking around with curiosity in your eyes, then you are alive!
If you are walking around with restlessness in your heart, you are alive!

I love this poem. It wakes up something in me every time. I know there are great many stories and poems which tell you to live your life in the moment, but this one is my favorite!

Besan flour face mask: DIY beauty mask

When I was a teenager I wanted to use the fancy colourful shampoos and face washes instead of the homemade treatments that my mom made for me. But these days I find myself reverting back to my roots for healthy hair and skin. I have started using natural masks for my skin, an ayurvedic soap for bath and an ayurvedic mixture for my hair. While these home remedies take longer to work, they are also much better for you in the long run. We use unreasonable number of chemicals in our daily life, while I cannot avoid eating vegetables/fruits with chemicals, I am trying to reduce the use of these chemicals wherever possible in my life.

Garbanzo bean flour or chick pea flour is made from chick peas and is called besan/channa atta in Hindi. Besan has been used for skin treatments since centuries. It is a natural exfoliating agent and helps reduce the oil secretion. The mask is made of besan, milk/honey, lemon juice and turmeric powder. Lemon juice adds some acidity to the mask and is a natural bleaching agent, turmeric powder in a small pinch helps reduce oil secretion from the skin and is an anti-inflammatory agent, finally milk and honey helps bind the flour together and also acts as moisturizer for the skin.

Besan Atta

Our skin is like a sponge and absorbs all the pollution and dust from the environment which in addition to the effects of the sun causes breakouts, pimples and also excessive tanning. My Indian skin tans easily and combined with the pollution becomes dirty and oily. This besan face mask helps remove the unwanted dirt and oil from the skin thus letting your natural beauty shimmer out! This mask has also been used to remove unwanted facial hair for centuries, when hair removal techniques were sparse.

Ingredients:

2 tsp gram flour/besan

1 tsp milk

½ tsp honey (optional)

1/4th of freshly squeezed lemon/lime for juice

a pinch of turmeric powder/haldi

Avoid any of these ingredients if you are allergic to them.

Adding all the ingredients
Adding all the ingredients

Directions:

Add everything in a small bowl and mix it to form a thick paste. Wet your face and apply the mask in gentle circular motions until it covers your face except the eye area. Let it dry, don’t talk or smile too much while the mask is on. After 15-20 minutes, wash your face with cold water or wipe it off gently with a wet wash cloth. Apply the mask twice a week and see the results.

mix the ingredients to form a thick paste
mix the ingredients to form a thick paste

Vacation!

In response to The Daily Post’s writing prompt: “Journey.”

As a child, I traveled around India with my parents, visiting places from Kanyakumari to Jammu, Mysore, Calcutta, Darjeeling, Manali and many more. Then over the years with intrusions from life, the summer started getting shorter and so did the family vacations. We had small vacations here and there, but nothing as much fun as the summer vacations from school days. Then last year when I went to India I got a chance to go on a big vacation with my parents…and like an adult! It was fun to combine the Diwali festival, vacation and a friend’s wedding all in one trip to India.

The vacation started from Mumbai–>Jaipur–>Agra–>Delhi–>Amritsar–>Dalhousie–>Mumbai.

Jaipur: Jaipur is the capital city of the north-western state of Rajasthan. In Jaipur we first went to Amer Fort-one of the most famous forts in Rajasthan built in 1592 by Raja Man Singh. Then we saw the Jal Mahal (palace on water). Next day it was Jaipur City Palace, and Jantar Mantar (a world heritage site which has a collection of architectural astronomical instruments) and fantastic time shopping for some jewelry and rajasthani shoes in Jaipur markets.

amer fort far away view

amer fort gardens
Amer Fort Gardens

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Agra: From Jaipur we drove to Agra which is a city on the banks of the Yamuna river in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh. It is famous for the monument of love-Taj Mahal and the Mughal Agra Fort. On the way to Agra from Jaipur we also visited the bird sanctuary in Bharatpur called Keoladeo National Park and the famous city of Fatehpur Sikri. Fatehpur was once a capital of the Mughal empire and has beautiful monuments built with a mix of Persian and Indian architectural influences. It houses important buildings like Jama Masjid, and the tomb of Salim Chisti-a Sufi saint and the palaces of Akbar’s various queens, including Jodha Bai-his Hindu queen.

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In Agra the next entire day was dedicated to the beautiful Taj Mahal and Agra Fort. I am sure Taj Mahal-one of the world’s wonder made entirely of white marble and precious stones needs no description other than it was more beautiful than I ever imagined it to be! Agra fort is actually more of a walled city and almost all Mughal kings have contributed to this series of monuments by adding and modifying some feature or another during their reign. Both these monuments were the highlight of this vacation for me, I enjoyed spending time looking around these old buildings and imagining how much history and change they have witnessed over the centuries.

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Delhi: From Agra we drove to the capital of India-Delhi. This city does not need any description, except that is also crowded and very confusing! We got lost while trying to find our hotel even though we were less than a mile from our actual destination! We did not spend much time in Delhi except at Qutub Minar monuments as it was more of a pit stop. Qutub Minar are 11th century monuments and definitely deserve much more attention than the 2 hours we spent there before our flight to Amritsar.

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Amritsar: It is a city in the state of Punjab. It is known for the Sikh shrine, the Golden Temple and the fact that it is less than 30 km away from the Indian village of Wagah near the India and Pakistan border. If anyone ever goes to visit northern part of India, golden temple in Amritsar is a must see spot. It is much more than just a shrine or a temple. It is one of the few places where I actually manage to feel spiritual-not religious, just calm and spiritual. We also visited it at night when the entire temple is bathed in golden light and with the calm chants and bhajans the feeling is almost ethereal.

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Dalhousie: This was the last destination in our journey. Dalhousie is a small town nestled in the hills in the northern state of Himachal Pradesh. My main reason for going to this city was to attend a very close friends’ wedding, and since my parents had been to this place either, we decided to attend the wedding and tour around the town. We drove from Amritsar to Dalhousie through these narrow hilly roads called ‘ghats’. It is a typical hilly town, with friendly people and amazing locales. The view of the mountains from my hotel room window was beautiful. Attending a friend’s wedding was without doubt the best part about this destination, beautiful location, beautiful people, food, clothes and close friends and family…what else do you need to make a journey worthwhile?

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While this post in no way does justice to my experiences on this 15 day vacation, I have tried to convey my feelings through this post and pictures. Maybe I will write a much more detailed post soon so that I can write about how did visiting a centuries old palace and seeing your best friend walk down the aisle made me feel!