Morocco, argan oil and bad memories.


A big debate ensued within the family. Should we visit Sahana in Madrid over Christmas break in 2019 and tour Spain as a family or go someplace else so Sahana, along with us, can see a new country? My vote was for Spain, Sean wanted to go to a new country since Sahana would be touring Spain anyway as she was spending her junior year of college there. I held my ground till Sean floated the idea of Morocco. Why would I NOT want to go to Morocco? Spain could wait.

Sean, Ryan and I left for Morocco a few days before Christmas and flew into Casablanca. We had already rented a car and a very nice man was waiting for us with our vehicle at the airport. Sahana flew in from Madrid and met us at Casablanca airport as well. Finally reunited with our darling daughter after 4 months, we drove 210 miles from Casablanca to Chafchouen, a gorgeous, blue city at the foothills of Rif Mountains in North West Morocco. We parked our car in the dark and went in search of the riad that we had booked for a few nights. A riad is a traditional Moroccan home that are very popular with tourists to get the full experience of staying in Morocco. We lost our bearing completely while navigating the serpentine, narrow and sometimes steep alleys of the ‘blue city’ and after asking several locals, we finally arrived at Riad Nersjaonsar. The owner was sitting on a bench just outside and welcomed us with a big smile. We went into our room, cleaned up in the common bathroom, went to sleep and woke up at 11:00 am the next morning. Although breakfast was only served till 10 am, the very hospitable owner had his son cook Moroccan bread, eggs and Moroccan coffee for us along with fresh orange juice, rich honey. We ate breakfast on the terrace under the shadow of the Rif Mountains. It was magical. Our tour of Chafchouen will always be the brightest spot of our Moroccan trip and I will let some photos do the story telling.

Navigating the alleyways of the blue city, Chafchouen
The walls of the ‘blue city’ were painted in this hue to keep mosquitoes away.
One of the many beautiful gateways.
Artist selling his painted mosaic tile in Medina in Chefchouen

Our next destination was Fez. However we stoped in Volubilis on our way to Fez to explore the ruins of the Roman city. After spending a beautiful day walking among the Roman ruins and marveling at the ingenuity of Roman engineers and builders, we got in our car to drive on to Fez. Again, we wanted the experience of staying in a riad in the old part of Fez. We arrived at beautifully decorated Riad Sunrise.

View of the inner courtyard from our room in Riad Sunrise
Typical Moroccan breakfast.
In Fez Medina

The medina (market) of Fez was magical and it seemed like we had stepped into history however my memory of the city is tainted by the youth who offered to take us out of the labyrinth of the Medina and then asked for an exorbitant amount of money. We did not pay but I was concerned that he might hurt us.

Fast forward to Marrakesh, a gorgeous city of wide avenues, beautiful gardens, historic Medina, famous Koutobia mosque and fashionable people. We all were looking forward to desert visits and camel rides. The plan was to spend the night of December 31st in the middle of Sahara desert. Sean and I did not book anything in advance and we thanked our lucky stars for that later. We were staying in Marrakesh for 6 days, so we thought we had ample time to book a desert tour. After an early pizza dinner on the day we arrived, we retired to bed, hoping to explore the city and book our desert trip with a local tour company the next day. I woke up in the middle of the night to the sound of Sahana retching in the bathroom. That was the beginning of our nightmare. She had one of the worst cases of stomach infection that went on for days. While she rested in the hotel room, glassy eyed and dehydrated, Sean, Ryan and I went out for short walks to buy some dinner and to bring back crackers and electrolytes for Sahana. Each day we thought maybe Sahana will recover and we can still book a desert trip. On the third night, I was gently awoken by Ryan saying, “Mom, I just threw up. But don’t worry, I feel fine now.” Well, he did not feel fine for long. From that point on both of them threw up every hour as Sean and I tried to keep them hydrated. When they were not throwing up, they were taking hot showers or resting in their beds. Sean and I went for long walks to get fresh air when the kids rested and toured Marrakesh as much as we could. I fell in love with the city, despite the nightmare that was unfolding in our hotel suite. Here I must mention the kindness of our housekeeper, Nadia, who without saying a word of English, commiserated with the kids, with us, cleaned up their mess and asked me if the children had eaten at the Medina. They had not. She always made sure to bring us extra towels and sheets. I was touched by her kindness in that foreign land and when we checked out, we made sure we left a generous tip for her.

I picked up a small vial of argan oil from a supermarket (of all places) in Marrakesh. I had no idea what argan oil was or what purpose it served before going to Morocco. I simply wanted a memento of the country that I could bring back in my carry on luggage and I saw argan oil being sold EVERYWHERE in every Medina we visited. Argan oil came home with me along with regrets, some anxious moments, bad memories and some amazing experiences.

I started using argan oil on my face as a moisturizer and also on my wild hair. The change in my skin and hair within a couple of weeks was remarkable. This oil not only moisturizes but also protects from sun damage, reduces wrinkles, prevents skin from getting too oily. I am a convert. And for my hair? Well it controlled my uncontrollable frizz! Enough said. After my small vial from Morocco was gone, I bought more of the oil, and now that is a part (only part) of my beauty regime. As I was massaging argan oil in my hair last night, the memories of Morocco came flooding back to me. I could not bring myself to write about that trip right after our return because it seemed like a vacation of nightmares. However, enough time has passed and the bad memories are slowly being replaced by memories of magical Chafchouen and the wonderful welcome we received there from the locals, memories of walking miles and miles in beautiful Marrakesh with Sean taking in the glitz of the big city juxtaposed with the narrow alleys of colorful Medina steeped in history.

Sahara eluded us this time and most likely we will not go back to Morocco for a vacation. I am still not sure what my children ate to cause such violent sickness and why us, the parents, were spared but if I could I would go back in a heartbeat, because, I for one, absolutely loved what I saw in this beautiful country. And the country gave my my magic potion along with some stress related highlights (gray hair) – argan oil!

Last day in New Orleans and a broken promise


On Sunday, Sean went to church while I took my time with coffee and shower. After his return we took the street car to the World War II museum. It was a sobering experience to say the least. After seeing photographs of young soldiers, making the ultimate sacrifice to stop evil from destroying our world, after reading narratives, witnessing the devastation that war caused, we wanted to pack up the museum and send it to Washington DC so law makers can do all in their power to prevent another large scale destruction of life and property. As we walked back slowly, both of us were quiet and contemplative. The sights and sounds of war, something that happened years and years ago were still hard to absorb.
Lunch that day was surprisingly easy and delicious. We found Auction House, a conglomeration of restaurants, within a building. I had an amazing Louisiana crab cake and Sean had some concoction that included avocados. We shared a chocolate hazelnut banana empanada from Empa Nola. Instead of getting back to the hotel, we decided to go see the Lafayette cemetery. We waited for eternity, or so it seemed, for a street car to come so I put my time to good use. I watched Ryan’s baseball game on Game changer. You can take a baseball parent out of town for a vacation, you cannot take baseball out of a baseball parent.

But here is the most important information in this blog that you need to know. We broke our promise. We did not take a nap on our final afternoon in New Orleans. We just rested for a while once we got back to our hotel. After church, Sean went scouting for nice restaurants away from the touristy French Quarter, which, in retrospect, we should have done earlier. And he found an Italian restaurant in the downtown area, which, to him, looked promising. Domencina was fancy and delicious. We ended our stay with a truly sumptuous meal and we each ordered a dessert, which we never do. He ordered Cannoli, I ordered Crema cotta that had honey, blueberries and basil. Heavenly.

We walked back to the hotel and rested. No naps. As I said, broken promise and all. In the evening we slowly walked around French quarter absorbing the ambiance and the joie de vivre  that we felt on the first day and which, in my mind, is truly the characteristic of this city. After looking around several sauce shops, we bought hot sauce for Ryan, mask magnet for Sahana,  chocolate covered pecans for both and headed back.
We packed to go back home and watched Cavaliers  beat Celtics. Sean was grumpy and berated King James .

A blog about this trip would be incomplete if I did not mention what we found when we got home. The house was immaculate, my kitchen was organized, counter tops spotless, the lawn was mowed. Ryan did not miss a singe baseball game. Sahana kept everything in order.

The trip was much needed. A little break from routine. But the realization that our daughter was grown up, responsible was priceless.

The first day at Yosemite


We got an early start from the hotel. The driving distance from Sacramento to Yosemite National park is close to 3 hours and I slept at least half of that time. I sometimes feel guilty falling asleep on the passenger seat as Sean drives but not guilty enough to keep myself awake. When I woke up and looked around, the scenery around me had changed. All around me were lush green and gentle hills. And in the distance, shimmering in icy blue were peaks of Sierra Nevada. While my family got excited and chirpy that the destination was near, I got silent. My mind was cluttered with concerns over health of my loved ones, deadlines and schedules but I had decided to put all my worries and stress in the farthest corner of my mind as I submerged myself in the joys of being with those I love the most within the splendor of natural beauty. I hoped to soak myself in the beauty around me and hopefully, emerge rejuvenated, restored. As I watched in silence, Merced river flew by one side of the road with first, a gentle murmur and then a roar. As we came close to the park, the water raged next to us while the hills rose on the other side with occasional signs warning travelers of falling rocks. Slowly, everyone in the car fell silent as we took in the verdant countryside and powerful river. What else lay in store for us? Soon enough we spotted our first waterfall and although during the course of 3 days in the park we will see plenty of waterfalls, they never lost their charm for us. Each time we saw one we would stop each other and exclaim, “Look, there is a waterfall!” And we would pause or retrace our steps to catch a glimpse.

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The line to enter the National park was long. Ryan got impatient and got out of the car to walk along the parapet next to us. We crawled towards the entryway to get our 7 day pass and enter paradise. Slowly the line of cars moved and we crossed the threshold.

The first stop was Yosemite Valley Visitor Center. On the way to it, we saw several cars parked on the side of the road and its occupants out on the road with their cameras held high, clicking away the magnificent Yosemite falls. We saw it while we drove on and Ryan urged Sean to ‘have fun but not too much fun and keep his eyes on the road ahead.’

We parked and walked to take in the incredibly beautiful and powerful Yosemite Falls before walking over to the Visitor Center.

The sheer force of nature amazed us and also made us aware of our insignificance in the grand scheme of things.IMG_7115

My chat with the ranger at the visitor center was very productive and rewarding. He said all the trails are open, however the folks who try to summit Half Dome come prepared with lots of snow gear and ice picks since the trail up there still has considerable, knee deep snow. I looked at my over achiever husband and said, “So, NO!” The ranger looked at me and said, “We can not say a forceful NO like that to hikers but yes, if I could I would say the same with the same emphasis!”

Now that the prospect of losing my husband to Half Dome was out, we looked at different trails for the following day. But we decided to climb the Yosemite falls to see how far we could go up and discover the view from up top. So we retraced our steps back to the falls and went in search of the trail head. With a deep breath and deeper resolution we started the trail with our young Ryan leading the way. The rangers urge the hikers not to stray from the trail so as not to trample the local flora that grow in abundance in the park. Within a few minutes, I was completely out of breath. I urged the family to move on while I panted. I said I will catch up but Sean just hung out with me, pretending to take in the view. No matter how many times I said I did not want to hold him back, I will be up soon, he stayed, just looking out without saying a word. He was also our mule carrying water, coats and other climbing paraphernalia. Sahana had the camera, Ryan had another water carrier and I carried my own self. Once I got into a rhythm, the steep climb became somewhat easier and I could climb at a steady pace. Fortunately, there were enough instances where we all stopped in wide eyed wonder at the visual feast ahead of us. As we got closer to the top of the falls, the panoramic view of the Yosemite valley and the gushing waterfall provided an incredible view. What an experience!IMG_7206

Midway through the climb, Half Dome exposed itself to us against the back drop of bright azure sky. The vast expanse of nature around us was breathtaking and incredulous.

The Yosemite Falls is North America’s tallest waterfall, which rises 2,425 feet (739 m) above the Valley floor. National Park Services website says:

If you make the one-mile, 1,000 foot climb (via dozens of switchbacks) to Columbia Rock, you will be rewarded with spectacular views of Yosemite Valley, Half Dome, and Sentinel Rock. From there, it is worth the time and energy to hike another 0.5 miles (0.8 km) (some of which is actually downhill!) to get a stunning view of Upper Yosemite Fall. Depending on the season, you may even feel the mist from the fall, which may be welcome respite after the tough climb.

And that is exactly what we did. When we climbed up to view the Upper Yosemite Fall we met with some hikers who were on their way down. We still had some fuel in our tank and the desire to see the view from the absolute top so we asked the hikers how the trail was. They all said there was considerable ice. A couple of young hikers had turned around because they did not want to tackle the ice. That put a damper to our spirits. We were not sure we wanted to navigate steep, icy terrains in the fading light of the evening. So the consensus was to turn around.

We reached our car when the sun was almost down. As we drove back to get to our hotel in Mariposa (a 45 minute drive) from the park we got to glimpse yet another hue of the green mountains in the dying light of the sun. It was truly mesmerizing. Merced river, swollen and raging, guided us back as we drove by it.

By the time we reached Mariposa and decided to stop for dinner, Sahana was feeling unwell. She opted out from eating anything while we stopped at a Subway to pick up sandwiches, checked into our hotel, cleaned up and hit the hay. The next day was going to be a full day of hiking so we needed the rest. My unused muscles were reminding me painfully that I was extremely out of shape but my rejuvenated mind told me I was up for the challenge. The following day we planned to hike up the Vernal Falls and then further up – Nevada Falls. Now for some sleep…..

Yosemite: Let’s go


The week before our departure to Sacramento, I was very mindful of my cuticle. You probably clicked on this blog to read about the wonders of Yosemite and you are, most likely, puzzled a bit about my mention of cuticles as I begin my travel blog. Yes, I would be puzzled too. If you have read my blog on our Mexico trip, you would know. I bit my cuticle right before our trip and I spent most of our vacation in considerable pain, till Sean lanced my hugely swollen, infected finger in a dark bathroom in a little hotel in Playa Del Carmen. So when I felt that annoying piece of skin irritating me to no end, I reached for the nail clipper.

We first decided to go to Tanzania for our spring break, then it was Peru and finally Yosemite. Neither Sean (the world traveler) nor I had seen the splendors of Yosemite but we had heard about it from those who had visited the National Park. They all proclaimed Yosemite ranks high in terms of natural beauty, grandeur and the sheer force of nature. So Yosemite it was. The time leading up to the trip was as usual – hectic. Sean traveled far and wide, Sahana stayed lost in her euphoria in getting into college and making new friends virtually, Ryan juggled grades, baseball, music and little bit of swimming while I tried to balance full-time work and home. I checked out a few books on Yosemite but did not touch them. We had 8 hours on the plane, we decided to make good use of the time and plan our activities then while we flew over clouds on our way to see glorious mountains and gushing waterfalls.

The flight  was uneventful except for the fact that we did not find seats next to each other because we were late in checking in. Ryan sat next to two strangers who were very kind to him, offered him chocolates and window seat. The kind folks also asked me if I were his sister when I went to check on him. Wait, it gets better! When I said I was his mother, they laughed and said he had told them he had a seventeen year old sister so they assumed I was the sister. I thanked them for their kindness and beamed all the way to my seat next to Sean and relayed the story. He probably rolled his eyes, I don’t know. He was finally reading the book on Yosemite and making ambitious plans of tackling the celebrated Half Dome and for those of you wondering what is the big deal, why am I being snarky about it, here is some information from trusted source – Wikipedia.

Half Dome is a granite dome at the eastern end of Yosemite Valley in Yosemite National Park, California. It is a well-known rock formation in the park, named for its distinct shape. One side is a sheer face while the other three sides are smooth and round, making it appear like a dome cut in half. The granite crest rises more than 4,737 ft (1,444 m) above the valley floor.

My husband likes challenges and urges the family to do something daring.  Thankfully, he knows me well and when I said I am NOT even thinking of setting my foot on that Half Dome, he knew not to push. I wanted to see Half Dome and I was willing to oooh aah over it, but from far! While I read The Fair Fight by Anna Freeman on the flight, Sean mapped out some trails that he thought will be fun and somewhat challenging for us all. I kept reminding him, without looking away from my book, to keep my physical abilities in mind and he kept reassuring me, without looking away from his book that I will be fine. I am stronger than I think I am. Cliches like that.

We landed in Sacramento quite late in the evening, went to get our rental car and drove towards our hotel. The road was dark, it was between large expanses of fields and we were somewhat disoriented. After we checked in to the hotel, the three of us, myself and my two children, discovered we were ravenous and needed food. We got back in our car and ended up in a McDonald half a block away. Sad but true, McDonald’s was our first food in the West Coast. It could only get better.  The food was the same as any other McDonald but you must believe me when I say, the water was delicious. Yes, the water! So fresh and tasty! All I remember from that meal is the taste of water. Sean refused to eat food from McDonald so he went to bed hungry. The plan was to wake up, eat breakfast and then hit the road to our next destination – Yosemite National Park.  Stay with me!

My happy place


I woke up the next morning, sat up on my bed and saw the ocean peeking in through my bedroom window. After almost three weeks, I still remember the overwhelming feeling of contentment that I experienced at that moment. I often feel extremely blessed in what I have in my life. That was one such moment. There would be many moments during the course of our stay on that island where I felt an inexplicable gratitude towards the universe for allowing me to witness such beauty. I felt most spiritual, most connected with the universe in my solitary moments while I sat alone on a rocky beach with no human in sight. Just me, the vast body of water in front of me and scraggly yet majestic rocks that rose above the low tide.

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We quickly settled into a routine on the island. I generally went for long, solitary walks traversing the entire length of the island after a leisurely cup of coffee in front of the water. On those walks, I saw the island creatures – colorful garter snakes, deer, wild turkeys, a ferret like creature who lived near our house. Those walks were also times when I introspected about this life that I was leading, where I was at present in this journey and where I was headed. I spent time with myself, which is a rare thing to do in my daily life. I am a mother who juggles too many balls to ensure the ones dependent on me have a smooth life. I don’t have much or any time for myself. This island break gave me a week to spend with me, the person, not me the mother, wife, worker.

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If asked what was most memorable time in that island I will say it was the thirty minutes that I spent by myself sitting on a secluded rocky beach with the vast expanse of sky over me and inky blue water crashing against the rocks. Little sail boats gliding gently by, the regular swish of water against rocks, perhaps the shrill cry of a gull once in a while and the excitement of an extended cormorant family complete with babies, moms, dads, uncles, aunts, grand moms, granddads cavorting on their rock. Many thoughts crossed my mind, solitary thoughts, personal thoughts, peaceful thoughts, reassuring thoughts that beauty like what I was witnessing abounds our planet, despite man made divisiveness and destruction and the fact I was lucky enough to witness just a tiny part of it.

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The second most memorable time I spent on that island was with my girl. We walked over to the secluded rocky beach of the island and then hopped on the scraggly rocks to see where it would take us. Our path was difficult hence the adventure was thrilling. We strategized, mapped out, warned each other of wobbly ones and slippery ones, squealed when the cold water lapped up to our toes and scrambled higher. We hugged the coast and made our way around the island boosted by our strength and ability to haul ourselves up. I apologized to home owners whose private beaches we trespassed, they cheered us on, while Sahana apologized to each and every spider in our path since we were breaking some spider webs. We made it to the tipping cove, scurried through tall grass fearing ticks and eventually took the boring path home. But we were conquerors of the unknown and we bragged about our conquest till nobody cared any more.

Ryan disowned his own family and hung out with his ten other cousins, eating, roaming, diving down the dock at the wake of the ferry and working at the only tiny pizza store of the island for candy as payment. The boys judiciously watched the clock between playing baseball, tennis and hide and go seek. As soon as it was the time for the ferry they left everything they were doing to go to their jobs of unloading supplies for the store from the ferry. The vacation, for an eleven year old was idyllic and most importantly, free – something that children in cities and suburbs have forgotten.

Remember the kayaks, Sasha and Hexel? Well, they were put to good use as my husband took them out with his brother, his son or his daughter to explore the nearby islands. Sometimes they were gone for three hours or more.

This is what we all needed. Time. Time to connect with each other and also time to disconnect and seek solitude. I believe we were immensely successful. We left the island almost two months ago, yet today, on this dreary, rainy, gloomy day, the island’s memories are a beacon to me. I can go back in my mind to this happy place and I am not gloomy anymore.

 

Before stepping off the mainland.


I forgot to pack my notebook as I packed some grubby clothes hurriedly in a newly purchased tote bag to take to Cliff Island off the coast of Maine for seven days. My extremely outdoorsy husband had purchased two kayaks because the kids ‘needed’ it you see and was planning on bringing them. The children declared they absolutely needed their bikes to ride around the three and a half mile long island with their cousins. There was a tennis court on that tiny island, so how could we not bring tennis rackets and balls? There is also a baseball field, we could not simply leave behind baseball glove and bat, could we? I sighed as I looked at the accumulating junk and dictated folks to take bare minimum in clothes so we could each carry a bag pack and keep both hands free so we COULD CARRY JUNK! The island does not have a grocery store for provisions so we needed to plan and buy seven days worth of groceries, and then figure out a way to carry them!! I forgot to pack my notebook though, in the hustle bustle of planning. I planned to write down my stream of consciousness as I sat in front of the ocean. In the absence of tangible medium, I wrote and painted in my mind’s canvas. Before life gets steadily busy, I hope to put down those thoughts on these blogs.

Like many others on this planet with children, our lives are hectic and rigidly scheduled. As August came closer, all four of us counted down days to break free from work travels, deadlines, swim meets, baseball practices to reclaim our time together, doing what we love to do – reading, walking, talking, listening to music, swimming, playing. We planned a retreat from real life with Sean’s siblings and their families in a tiny little island off the coast of Portland. We rented a house for a week starting Saturday, right on the water. However, my family headed north early, on a Thursday morning at 5 am to jump start the vacation. The plan was to meet our one day old niece in Boston and then drive up north, find a place to stay for two nights, Thursday and Friday, and then get on the ferry from Portland to head to the island on Saturday.

We started our long journey before the sun rose. Sean had secured two kayaks on top of our minivan and two bikes behind the car on bike racks. I had a niggling fear that one of those would go free, go flying and hit fellow motorists. That did not happen thankfully. We arrived in Mass General Hospital with all our JUNK intact but went round and round the busy city of Boston to find parking for our heavily loaded car. We held and kissed our baby niece, full of joy at the miracle of life and hit the road again after bidding the proud and tired parents goodbye. We wanted to visit some of the beaches of New Hampshire or maybe Maine, get a couple of days of sandy beach fun before we met others at the ferry and headed over to Cliff Island. First stop was Hampton beach. We tried to get a hotel for two nights but nothing was available. It was coming up on dinner time and the day was slowly losing its luster. We decided to move on, drive up and find accommodation somewhere farther up north. We were not worried. Next stop was Ogunquit, Maine. The beach was gorgeous, the town seemed inviting. Four of us started to feel hopeful about finding lodging and eventually some dinner, but ‘no vacancy’ signs greeted us as we passed cute hotels, motels and bed and breakfast. A resort right on the beach showed vacancy sign. We parked and jogged to the reception desk. The children, cooped up in the car for 10 hours, ran to the beach to touch the water.

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The resort offered one night’s accommodation for almost $400. Friday night was full. Crestfallen parents called the kids back to the car to continue the journey, but the lovely restaurants and the handmade ice cream stores were too tempting to pass by. We stopped for dinner at Hamburger Harry’s. The kids got busy ordering while the parents desperately searched for lodging on their smart phones. The children, with their bellies full of sumptuous burger, kept reassuring us they could sleep in the van if needed. I glared at them instead of appreciating their effort to be accommodating 🙂 ! I recognized their effort later, when I relaxed finally in a comfortable bed. After several attempts, we found accommodation for two nights in a hotel in South Portland, only to find out later that the Boston Marathon bombers stayed in the same hotel before their heinous deed (the knowledge would not have made any impact on our decision of staying there at that point anyway). We drove up to our hotel, after ice cream of course, and crashed.

We woke up Friday morning ready for a beach day. We wanted to have the total boardwalk experience with all the glitz since we knew we will be in isolation in an island far away from the madding crowd. We found Old Orchard beach that fit the bill, complete with an amusement park, boardwalk fries, tattooed skin and crashing waves. The kids ran towards the amusement park before they said hello to the ocean.

As Sean and I stood in line to buy a few tickets for a some rides, a man walked up and gave us two passes for unlimited rides, FOR FREE, just like that. He had to leave the beach and had no use for those passes, he gave them to us. Before we could collect our wits to thank him profusely for his generosity, he left! The children rode every single ride till Ryan threw up and decided enough was enough and sometimes too much. After a mediocre lunch in a taqueria, which had an interesting name with a frog in it, we finally headed to the beach. My thin Indian skin can not tolerate the coldness of the Atlantic Ocean in Maine, so I slept on the sandy beach while my family rollicked in the waves. Completely satiated with our day of sand filled and sun filled activities, we headed to our hotel to get ready for our big preparation day on Saturday. The day we had to figure out a way to transfer our kayaks, Sasha and Hexel (yes, they are even named), our two bikes (no names), luggage, books, towels and seven days worth of provision across the ferry from Portland to Cliff Island. But before we did that, Ryan got lost. I will leave you here with a cliff hanger like mystery writers do, so you will wait with baited breath about the fate of my son, till I write the next installment. I am evil like that. 🙂

Is it worth it?


“The Old Rag Mountain hike in the Shenandoah National Park is one of the most popular hikes in the mid-Atlantic region. With many spectacular panoramic views, and one of the most challenging rock scrambles in the park, this circuit hike is a favorite of many hikers. But be prepared for the crowds. This is the only hike we give a star rating for solitude.” So says http://www.hikingupward.com/SNP/OldRag/ and yes, they were right about the solitude. There is no solitude to be had if you plan your climb later than 7:00 am.

Although we had planned to get in the car by 5:00 am and be at Old Rag by 7:30, ready to climb, we over slept. By the time we arrived at the parking lot, there were quite a few hikers spraying sun tan lotion and readying their hiking sticks. Our journey began quietly. Sahana, being almost sixteen requested to hike alone, without us. She took off from us as soon as we reached the base of the mountain, lugging her back pack on her shoulders where she carried her own snack, a liter of water, her own sandwich and a surprise that I will reveal later. Sean, Ryan and I were left to our own devices. Sean, of course, was the mule of the hiking party, he carried 2 liters of water and our food. I carried my camera. Ryan carried himself.

Old Rag is a very popular hiking destination with a summit elevation of 3291 feet located within the gorgeous Blue Ridge mountains in Virginia. From different elevation points one can get breathtakingly beautiful panoramic views of the farming fields of rural Virginia down below and the peaks of the Blue Ridge mountains surrounding Old Rag.

This was my second climb, Sean’s fourth and the children’s third. They were professional climbers of Old Rag and they cheered the newbie (me) on with very encouraging endearments like, “you are doing great mountain goat, mama!” “What a mountain goat wife I have!” so on and so forth. I had half a mind to tell them I don’t appreciate being called a mountain goat but I was panting hard so could not talk. We all knew the trail started innocently enough and then slowly increased in grade. Personally, the walk through the woods does not excite me much unless I spot a gorgeous yellow butterfly, or an interesting worm on the trail, or perhaps a nameless flower growing on the side. The view is hidden by  foliage and the only sound you hear are the bird songs, if you pay attention, or the voices of fellow hikers or the soft rustling of the stream at the bottom of the mountain. The gurgling of water fades away as you ascend towards the top. I stay focused on my own breathing and the burning of my leg muscles to truly appreciate the quiet beauty of the woods around me. And I get irrationally competitive. If I see a hiker pass me, I scramble up quicker to pass him or her. It is a silly quirk.

After about nine switchbacks and 2 miles of woods we reached the first vista. And from that point the rocky scramble started. My family goes back to Old Rag again and again and endures the 2 miles of walk in the increasingly steep trail in the woods just for that rocky scramble that leads to the summit. And a scramble it is. Some times one has to pass through a tiny crevice within the boulders, sometimes one has to jump from one boulder to another quite a distance below. We scraped our arms, Sean took a tumble, I was on all fours most of the time, yet we had big smiles on our faces every time we crossed or hopped over a particularly challenging boulder.

Sahana had pushed herself to reach the rocks first and waited for us there to catch up. I apologized to her for keeping her waiting: “I am sorry I took so long! I had to rest in between to catch my breath and drink water!”
The ever polite girl replied, “You did great mama! Just climb at your own pace, I did not mind waiting at all!”

And I could see why one would not mind waiting:

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We laughed as we hurt, we teased and we got scared together! We bonded over our jumps and encouraged each other on. “You can do it” “Just Jump, don’t think about it!” “Don’t look at the ledge, your legs can easily jump that distance!” And we did not think, we did not look at the ledge, we sometimes gave each other a little push, an extended hand.

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And then, all of a sudden, we had reached the top. There was the cerulean  sky above us, the huge boulders  holding us up and blue mountains surrounding us.

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The hikers who were climbing with us, who gave us words of advice, told us where a better foothold was, took our help too, arrived a little after or before us. People of all ages, shapes, sizes had climbed the mountain. We encountered true solidarity when hikers unknown to each other yet with the same goal gave each other a push, a little help, a hand to overcome a particularly difficult stretch of terrain. Finally we all made it to the top and we all had the euphoric feeling of achievement, we nodded at each other and smiled. Then we  competed with each other to find a shady spot beneath the rocks for a picnic lunch. The sun was strong and we all looked for shade.  At this point, my daughter brought out a copy of “A Brave New World” by Aldous Huxley to read at the summit of Old Rag Mountain. She had carried the copy in her backpack to read at the mountain top after a hard yet satisfying climb, surrounded by mountains. She thought that was a fitting book to read in that ambiance. I felt a surge of pride at her nerdiness.

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We ate our peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, crunched on some trail mix, almost finished the water leaving just a little for the hike back and simply soaked in the purity of our surroundings. I wish there were fewer people but oh, well! Old Rag belonged to them as much as it belonged to us. After climbing even more boulders at the top and seeing the panoramic view from every which angle we decided to make the long trip back down. There are two ways one can come down – one take the fire trail which did not have any rocks but a simple downward trail or the same rocky trail that we came up. Guess which one we chose?

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As we started down we realized that was a popular time for people to hike up. There is one passage in the rocky part of the trail where only one person can pass at time and there was actually a back up. Our option was either to go back to the summit and then go down the fire trail or use an alternate route which was by the edge of the cliff and if one did not make the right jump, could roll down the hill to one’s death. Sean went first. There was a young man who was helping his family navigate this particularly rocky terrain. He took Sean’s back pack and pointed to the dead man’s drop. He said, “Sir, you don’t want to get down on your right, you better move towards your left!” Sean crab crawled all the way down the rock and then slid down at least 6 feet since the drop was deep. The children were hesitating so I went next. I did not think and I did not look at the drop. With adrenaline pumping I did not even feel any fear, I was focused on my crab crawl till Sean caught hold of one of my foot. I gave myself up to the slide and slid quite uneventfully to solid ground. Ryan came next and Sean got him down deftly. Sahana, after she slid down made one comment, “That took twenty years of my life away, guys!” She summed it up for all of us.

The rest of the downward rock scramble was uneventful and then the easy part started – walking down the woods. Sean and Ryan left Sahana and I in the dust as they surged forward. We did not mind to be parted except when we realized they had the precious water with them. But the thought of cooler full of ice water in the car kept us going till my left ankle landed on a twig, gave out from underneath me and I fell hard on my left side – on the easiest part of the trail. There was a young dad who came to my rescue asking if I needed help getting up. I was gritting my teeth waiting for the pain to subside, so I nodded my head and said through gritted teeth, “No thank you, I’ll be fine. Just need a moment!” The family stood nearby as I pulled myself up and tried a few steps gingerly. At this point, my valiant daughter dropped her back pack, stretched a bit and offered to carry me on her back for mile and a half till the end of the trail. I laughed out loud through the pain. She was all serious, “I can do it, mama! I can carry you!”

Sahana and I were having a heart to heart chat as we climbed down, before I fell. After my fall our conversation ended, I slowed down considerably so as not to injure my throbbing ankle any further and we both wished the end was near so we could rest our weary and injured muscles. We strained our ears to hear the gurgling stream which would indicate we were nearing the start of the trail. We heard only silence. As we hobbled down, we came across a middle aged couple sitting by the trail, panting heavily, quite red in the face. We said the customary hello and moved on. But then the gentleman asked me a question which I did not hear. I stopped and turned, “I beg your pardon?”

“I asked is it worth it? The climb?” He asked.

Sahana and I looked at each other. I was hurting and she was tired and achy after the long hike. The entire trip is 5.2 miles and takes 5 hours. It took us over 6. Was it worth it? It is a emphatic yes for me. It was worth it. It was worth all of it – getting up early, driving two and a half miles, getting bug bites, the muscle pain, the lungs protesting, the scraped arms and knees, the fear of failure to cross the ledge and then finally standing at the top and looking at the view. The view was breathtaking, to be sure. The grandeur of mountains have lured hikers and mountaineers throughout the ages to scale the heights, not simply for the view although that is a reward indeed, but also for the sense of achievement and for believing in oneself that one can do it. So yes, every climb is worth it. Every time we push ourselves even when we feel we can not go one more step is worth it.

It made me think of life – the journey, is it worth it? With all the obstacles that is placed in our way, is it truly worth it to overcome them. When in moments of weakness we sit by the trail of life exhausted and question if it is worth it, we need to remind ourselves that it is. The view at the end is a gamble, I know. It could be breathtaking, it could be ordinary, it could be downright ugly. But the view that we see up there depends on our expectation, our wants. We can look at it with the lens that we choose and make it worth it.

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An hour on the streets.


Instead of using the very useful tool called Google search I still go old school, like arriving at a mall without checking first what time it opens. I did just that in Kolkata, when, after dragging my feet for a couple of days, I bit the bullet and went to shop for some summer kurtis for myself. I must have written before that I detest shopping with a passion. I believe it has something to do with making decisions. I have a mental block and the damage is irreparable. I found myself in front of West Side Mall in Gariahat at 10 am because I wanted to beat the shoppers but parking lot seemed unusually quiet. I asked the gentleman guarding the mall, ‘Kota e khulbe? (When will it open)’ I was there right at 10 presuming the whole world operated on US store hours. Well, I was wrong. India entertains its consumers an hour less than they do it here. The mall opened at 11.00 am. I had one hour to kill.

So I decided to walk the streets of Gariahat market, my old stomping ground. I know this area like the back of my hand. I thought I would immerse myself in memories by walking from one end of Gariahat till the other – from Ballygunge Station to Anandamela, cross the intersection and walk back on the other side of the road.

When I lived in Kolkata and walked the streets of Gariahat I always had a purpose. I was either going to Ballygunge Institute library, or going home from the bus stop, buying fish and vegetables or out for puja shopping. I threw myself in the crowd and elbowed my way in to get to where I was going. The events occurring around me did not register at all because I was part of the incessant movement. This time however, I was purposeless, an observer, a pilgrim of sorts, out to pay homage to my past and the place that has seen me grow.

I watched the shopkeepers sprinkling holy Ganges water in front of their make shift shops on the sidewalks of Gariahat road as they opened for business, hoping to appease the gods for a successful day. Some were opening their big bags of ware, slowly taking them out to display. The men seemed to be in no hurry, they laughed and chatted with each other, teased and talked about politics and cricket with their competitors as the items came out from huge gunny sacks.

The store keepers who had legitimate stores had opened slightly earlier. They were sipping their morning tea in small earthen cups, called bhaar, from nearby tea stalls, as they sat comfortably turning the pages of a crisp newspaper. I assumed they were the shop owners and not employees, just going by their demeanor.

The tea stalls and food vendors were busy preparing ghugni, luchi, aloor dam to feed the travelers getting off at Ballygunge Station, the shop keepers and the parents and children from neighboring South Point School, whose elementary section must have let off just then.

Little boys and girls with tired, sweaty faces were being dragged by their mothers. The saree clad, mostly young mothers carried their heavy bags while the children allowed themselves to be gently pulled, almost in a daze. Some mothers bought oranges from fruit vendors and after feeding the children the healthy snack, they said loudly, “Ektu jol din toh” (Please give some water) to the man selling fruit. And then to the kids, “Aiiii, hat bhalo kore dhue ne!” (wash your hands well).

Saree shops, shalwar shops, bindis, costume jewelry, magazine stalls, cake shops, watch shops, luggage shops, plastic toy stores – you have it all on the streets – at a good price, if you know how to bargain.

College boys and girls stood at the bus stop flirting, touching each other at every opportunity they got, playing out the age old flirtatiousness between the two genders, flouting the morality of a repressive society when it came to relationships. I watched the innocent, youthful flirtation and joyous laughter safely hidden behind my shades as I waited for the lights to change so I could cross to the other side.

On the other side of the street was the store where ma and later myself, bought our inexpensive blouses and petticoats. The employees were elderly men and as I passed by the store I saw them still – frozen in age. I wanted to peek into my old library which had kept me entertained throughout my childhood and then youth with dusty copies of Noddy, Famous Five, Nancy Drew, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Rebecca, books by Eric Segal and then Richard Bach, but somehow I missed it as I kept walking. Kolkata changes with passing years, Gariahat, somehow, does not. Even the shopkeepers that I knew from childhood – their structure, their clothes seem to be replaced by the next generation having the same structure, same outfit, same demeanor, same dialogues with customers. This continuity was very reassuring. A little part of Kolkata refuses to step into the contemporary decade. A little part of Kolkata remains incongruous.

I passed a group of boys and I stiffened for just a second till I remembered the confidence that silver hair can provide. As a young woman, when I passed a group of young men, I braced myself against an unwanted touch or some kind of unwanted remark. A lone boy hardly ever said anything, but a group of them was a different matter altogether. I remembered the feeling of apprehension as I passed groups of boys, my eyes to the ground, my pace increased, as I got silently ready for some kind of shame. That day I looked back and felt a little bad for the insecure young woman I used to be. I looked the boys in the eye as they took in my short-cropped hair and shocking pink shoes. I smiled and nodded; surprise registered in their faces, unsure of what their reaction should be. I chuckled as I moved on, peeked in Bharat Shevashram, lamented the loss of trams in the Gariahat area as I took in the construction that was going on to cover up the tram lines there and arrived back at West Side Mall after 11:00. The door man, looking dapper in his navy blue uniform, opened the door for me and smiled an unsure yet happy smile as I looked him in the eye and said a big, smiley “Thank you!”

The feeling of walking the streets of Gariahat is fast fading but as I write these little snippets I travel back to that hour, to that day, to that place. We live so many hours, a few stand out and get etched in memory. This particular hour was one such.

The rendezvous


I never get into arguments about Kolkata…anymore. I had to qualify that statement with the word ‘anymore’ because in my young and foolish days I asked my foreigner boyfriend to leave the city because he made an innocent (and true) comment about the dirt piling up in the corner of a street. I have wizened up since. I have finally realized that if I look from an outsider’s perspective, Kolkata does not appear very lovable. Kolkata needs to be discovered. It does not open itself up easily. One needs to have a deeper insight to dig within and discover the charm that hides underneath its veneer of dirt, dust and traffic. And this wooing the city takes time and effort.

I met a young American woman at the Dubai international airport as we waited to get on our connecting flight to Kolkata. Upon hearing Sahana and I converse in Bangla she asked if she could practice her Bangla with us. She was exuberant about the city. She, we found out, goes to the city often for her dissertation.

“My fiance is from Kolkata. He lives in US but he introduced me to the city and I fell in love. How can one not fall in love? It is full of these new discoveries that one can make almost everyday of their stay if one is looking. The people are wonderful, the food is to die for, the street dogs are adorable!” I had found a kindred soul. Her praise of Kolkata made me all shy, tongue tied and all warm and fuzzy. Praise of Kolkata does that to me, every time. 🙂

Since my love of the city is deeply personal.

I woke up before everyone on my first morning. Part jet lag, part excitement of being home, part anticipation and partly – desire to be alone with my thoughts and the first glimpse of Kolkata as it awakens into a new day. I tiptoed out so as not to bother the tired help, sleeping in the living room. I perched myself on the wide window sill of our back windows which opens up to a wide vista of the sky line of South Kolkata. A few tall buildings, coconut trees, the solemn white dome of the Ramakrishna Mission, the terraces of the neighborhood houses and the wide expanse of Kolkata sky. I sat still, savoring my first hello to Kolkata after two years, soaking in the slowly lightening sky, the sights, the sounds of the city – so familiar. My very own rendezvous. In the cooing of a lonely dove, the eccentric flight of numerous crows, the whistle and distant rumbling of the first local train, in the sound of water filling up a bucket, Kolkata embraced me deeply, meaningfully. The city opened up its palm to show a glimpse of my life that I spent here.

‘Nothing is lost. I have it all here within me. Safe’. First morning of Kolkata said to me.

I arrived truly, at that very moment.

Kolkata journey – Began.


“Mom, you are in a weirdly good mood! Turn it down to a 5.” Informed my sassy daughter gleefully as we chomped down a Dunkin Donut breakfast at the airport before our plane took off for Dubai. After two weeks of intense schedule, unnecessary worries of health, presentations at work and other issues, we were ready to take off – headed to roost. And yes, I was uncharacteristically chirpy.

After a thirteen hour-long flight to Dubai, five hours layover there and then a four hour plane ride to Kolkata, I was ready to hate the universe. But then, almost magically, the lights of Kolkata appeared beneath us. My hatred melted away leaving an inexplicable joy in its place. The relief of arriving at our destination was compounded by the relief of coming home. Ryan, who was sitting by the window, nudged me to show the lights of the city below us and seeing my ecstatic and expectant face, said in a very characteristic Ryan way, “Your time to shine Mom! Your time to shine! We are coming to your city!” I did have a tiny little pang in a remote corner in my heart – my city, not theirs, never theirs. My city indeed!

I have already written a blog about going home (Almost home) so I do not want to repeat myself, however, I did wonder if there are many cities out there in the world where those who belong feel such deeply personal ownership towards it. My happiness was shared by many of the passengers on board. A ripple of joy and excitement passed through the plane where murmurs like:

“Eshe gechi!” (we have arrived)
“Oi dekh Kolkata!” (See, there is Kolkata)

was overheard over the drone of the plane’s wheels engaging.

Since I am a Bangali, I shamelessly eavesdropped on the conversation of the young couple sitting across the aisle from me (they were speaking loudly). The young woman’s joy was written all over her face and I automatically felt a kinship with my fellow Kolkata lover. She hugged her little son in glee and said, “Babu, eshe gechi, Babu eshe gechi!” (Babu, we have arrived).
The woman’s husband quipped up, “Haa, joto kichu pocha, bhanga, nongra shei shohor e eshe gechi.” (Yes, where everything is nasty, broken and polluted, we have come to that city).

As one can imagine, a big argument ensued. The husband tried to say he was simply jesting but the wife’s Kolkata loving sensibilities were severely wounded,

After a relatively hassle free customs and immigration check we arrived at our designated carousel. I have written before that I find this last stretch absolutely unbearable but a miracle happened. The carousel never broke down like it has done in the past and both our suitcases danced their way to us only after about seven to ten minutes of waiting.

And then came the most coveted moment. The moment that makes two years of planning, worrying, anticipating all worth it. My smiling mother, my beaming father and this time my happy husband as well since he had arrived in India prior to us for work.

The hugs were awkward as usual. We still do not hug comfortably yet the happiness was palpable like you could almost touch it. My America born, very-used-to-hugging children threw themselves at their grandparents and were filled with kisses.

We emerged into the smoggy, dusty outside. I breathed in deeply and smiled. The commotion and complete chaos told me I had come back home. I smiled wide. And promised myself to imprint every moment of my waking time in my memory which then will sustain me till I can come back next time. I promised to feel deeply and meaningfully. I did.