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Friday, December 28, 2012

The Taj Mahal

So we did go to the Taj on Christmas Day. Getting there and back was a royal pain and it took forever, so we didn’t get to see anything else but I don’t want to write about that. I want to write about the the Taj because being there was amazing. I guess it’s one of those things that you just have to see to appreciate. It is bigger and more magnificent than what I thought it would be based on pictures I had seen. And there are some terrific pictures of it out there. We took a bunch too and I thought I’d share them with you here, so let’s take a “tour,” shall we?

First, here is a nice map of the whole complex to help you follow along, courtesy of the Smithsonian Magazine:

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We entered the complex through the East Gate (2 above, left below), went through the forecourt (4 above) and found ourselves in front of the Great Gate (7 above, right below), which is made of marble and red sandstone, decorated with semi-precious stone inlays and calligraphy.

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Even though it’s called a “gate,” inside the Great Gate is a room which is kinda dark and as you enter it, you immediately see the Taj beautifully framed by the Mughal style arch.

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Then you step out and get a full view of the Taj and the Mughal gardens around it. The gardens are said to represent heaven on earth. The view is truly breathtaking, or at least it was for me. I remember thinking, “Wow, he must have really loved her!” because it was commissioned by Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan in memory of his favorite wife, who died delivering their 14th child. Of course, he was the head of a very large empire and he could afford to do something like that but the point is, he didn’t have to. She was already gone. He chose to do it and that’s beautiful. Because the Taj is a true masterpiece, evidenced by the millions who make the trip to see it. We went on Christmas Day thinking there would be less people because Christians are a minority in India but it was packed. Go figure…

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On each side the Taj is flanked by two matching buildings (pictured below, and 13 and 14 on the map up top)  constructed in the same style/materials as the Great Gate – one is a mosque and the other was a guest house.

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The Taj itself is made of white marble and is also decorated with semi-precious stone inlays and calligraphy.  It is surrounded by 4 tall marble minarets. Here are some close ups:

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It backs onto the Yamuna river, the largest tributary to the Ganges.

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We did not go inside the Taj because the lines were very long. See those people on the balcony and below it - they are all waiting to get in.

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We did get some nice people to take a picture of all of us in front of the Taj though.

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So there you have it, a tour of the one and only Taj Mahal. Hope you liked it.

Monday, December 24, 2012

Happy Holidays!

Warmest wishes from our (temporary) home in India to yours! Hope Santa brings you everything you wished for, if you’ve been good that is, and that you have all the love, health and happiness your hearts desire.  Our holiday photo was taken by the awesome Dani from Hot Pot. Thanks so much Dani, I look forward to returning the favor!

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We are doing well. I just spent most of the day preparing our holiday meal, which is not very traditional. We are having a beef tenderloin with Russian and Shopska salads and eggplant, fresh mozzarella and tomato stacks. Other than the meal, we’ll take it easy tonight because Paul and Nia were in the US for a week to visit Paul’s parents for the holidays and just got back a few hours ago. They are awfully jetlagged but we already opened our gifts and we must have been nice because we got some really cool ones.

Tomorrow, we are going to make one more attempt to go to Agra and see the Taj Mahal. It’s been 9 months since we moved to India and we still haven’t made it there, which is wrong on so many levels, so we are going to try to do something about that. So stay tuned for pictures from the Taj.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Block-printed Awesomeness

I was fascinated by this Indian craft when I fist saw it done in Jaipur back in August and have been meaning to blog about it but kept running out of time. I finally managed to carve a little time for it, so let’s get to it.

People have used blocks to print on fabrics all over the world for centuries but it’s an art/craft that has been largely replaced by machines. In case you are wondering, when I say blocks, this is what I mean:

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In India block-printing it is very much alive and well. It’s not that there aren’t machine-printed fabrics here but many people do like the hand-printed ones better and that keeps the craft alive. We got a demonstration of it at a block-print fabric and craft store in Jaipur and this is how it works:

First, you get the wood blocks (stamps) and the colors ready.

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You pick your design (we picked an elephant) and colors. The blocks the dude is holding below have already been inked.

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The more colors you want, the more stamps you need and the more skill is required because you basically layer the colors on top of the first block-print which gives you the overall shape. You have to be careful and align the stamps just right, because if you don’t, you’ll end up with a messy design. Of course, these guys were pros and did this elephant design in a couple of minutes. When they are making a big item like a table cloth or bed cover, several people line up, each with the respective block/stamp and stamp their color/shape in succession.

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After you add all the color layers, you dip the fabric in a special solution, which fixes the design and changes the colors a little.

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Here are some wonderful light quilts made of block-printed silk and stuffed with wool. Those things felt so heavenly to the touch that I don’t know how I didn’t buy one right then and there. Actually, I remember now, it’s because it was ungodly hot in Jaipur when we were there in August. I am definitely going back to rectify that. The quilts come in many different colors and designs but I fell in love with the blues, made using natural indigo.

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I did not leave the store empty-handed though – I did buy this cotton tablecloth and napkins set.

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And have since acquired a few more cotton block-printed items from markets in Delhi: a couple of bed covers and a wrap-around skirt. If you look closely at the designs, you notice slight imperfections from where the stamps meet. And if you know me, you’ll know that I am a little bit of a nitpicker perfectionist and things like that bother me more than they should. Interestingly, now that I know how block-printing is done, I find those little imperfections special – they remind me that we are all human and thus perfectly imperfect. I’ve also got a few blocks – a paisley, an elephant and a peacock, hoping to use them to make cards one day.

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Finally,  here are block-printed fabrics in a myriad of designs and colors.

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Sunday, December 9, 2012

Bye, Bye, Binky!

Max has some news to share:

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It wasn’t easy and the first three nights were downright dreadful. I didn’t want to cut the binkies because I felt it was a mean thing to do to the items that had given my baby boy more comfort than I realized but it seemed like if I didn’t do something radical he was going to suck on those suckers for the rest of his life. So out came the scissors and we had 5 binkies around the house that looked like this:

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After we cut them, we didn’t limit his access to them. We let him have them as much as he wanted, which wasn’t much at all. He was very puzzled and upset about them because they didn’t work. He did carry them around the first couple of days. He would put them in his mouth and then take them out and examine them very carefully. He couldn’t understand what happened to them. He would talk to them and about them when they weren’t in his hands but less and less so as the days went on. He doesn’t seem to be talking about them anymore. Perhaps he has even forgotten about them, which is such a relief but boy was it hard at first.

Next up, potty training… If you guys and gals have any great ideas to share in that department, I am all ears.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Nine

Her Cuteness turned 9 a couple of weeks ago. Her birthday was 10 days after I got back to India, so I didn’t have much time for organizing. We had a little party for her at the bowling alley on the embassy enclave. Her school friends came and had a great time. I was all intent on decorating the room where her party was going to be with streamers and tissue paper flowers. Some of her friends were already there when I started and they really wanted to help, so I let them. They ended up doing all the decorating and had a ton of fun in the process. Then they had pizza and bowled. After that they decorated cupcakes. Nia wanted to have cupcakes at the party and take some to school as well, so I ended up making 100 cupcakes that weekend. I was going to decorate the ones for the party but then I was kinda running out of time and decided to let the kids do it instead. Best. Idea. Ever. I just made a couple of kinds/colors of frosting and brought several different types of sprinkles and the girls had a blast. They were definitely sugar high as a result but they needed the energy to help me take the party decorations down when the party was over. So, admittedly, I was a bit hands-off with the party this year but it turned out great. It could be that Nia and her friends are growing up and are at an age when they actually want to do these things. It was nice to see the girls helping and having a blast at the same time. Wonder how long this phase will last?

Anywhoo, here’s the birthday girl bowling. It does look like she’s aiming for her feet but that’s how she rolls and, believe it or not, her feet were no worse for the wear.

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And here she is making a wish

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Instead of gifts, we decided to ask her friends make a donation of their choice and help Indian girls in need. We stole borrowed the idea from one of her classmates, who had recently had a birthday. We collected about $200, which Paul and I are going to match and donate the whole amount to a girls’ school in Uttar Pradesh. We’d very much like to make the donation in person, so Nia can go and meet with the girls but have to see when we can make that happen as the school is about 4 hours away. It should be a neat experience and we look forward to it.

She did get gifts from us, of course, and her favorite was her new scooter. She’d been asking for one ever since we moved to India because all the kids on the compound use scooters to move around. We had sort of promised her and when I was in the US, I got her one. She loves it and is scooting on it all the time.

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Saturday, November 17, 2012

Reunited

It’s been more than a week since I got back to Delhi and things have been so hectic that I haven’t had a chance to blog. But let me tell you, being back has been wonderful! This was the longest I had ever been apart from my husband and my daughter and being together these last few days has made me appreciate even more the fact that I was posted in Delhi. It wasn’t a given and it’s such a relief. We were apart for Halloween and that was hard. I sent costumes and candy and Paul and Nia appreciated those but it wasn’t the same. I hope we never have to be apart like that - not very likely in this career, I know but a girl can hope, right?

So we have been busy reconnecting and doing the things we missed out on for two months, like hanging out around the house:

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Enjoying the nice weather in India  (picture below courtesy of the lovely Dani from HotPot):

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Spotting elephants in the neighborhood:

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Celebrating Indian culture and customs  - in the picture to the left below the kids are making rangoli, decorative designs, made using colored sand, rice, flour, flower petals, etc. to welcome Hindu deities, luck and prosperity into the home on important Hindu festivals such as Diwali. Our driver brought colored sand and patterns for the kids, otherwise rangoli are usually made by hand as is the case in the design to the right. It was made by people who clearly know what they are doing – their gorgeous peacock rangoli won this year’s embassy rangoli competition:

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I also started work in the best way possible – with an awesome party for Diwali, at which Paul and I got to wear our brand new Indian outfits. I know I look scary in that picture but such is life... Chutney and I had landed from the US after our 20-hour sleepless journey at 1 a.m. that morning. We made it home by 3 a.m. and I managed to get a couple of hours of shuteye before I had to get up and get ready for my first day at work. I was lucky it was a short day due to Diwali followed by a 4-day weekend (for Veterans’ Day and Diwali).

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I am still getting used to being back at work. The jetlag is now gone but it’s still an adjustment after being in training for two months and home with the kids for two years prior to that. It’s great though and I am not complaining. On the contrary, I am incredibly grateful for the opportunity to serve my country and be with my family.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

A Very Close Call

I had a couple of farewells with friends today. The second one was a potluck, so I needed to go to the store and get something. I was in Falls Church, so I went to the Safeway there. Max was with me. I had to use the bathroom. Max had just woken up from a nap and was being all cute and silly and we ended up laughing out loud in the bathroom. I must have been distracted. We went back into the store and went about our business. About 15 minutes later I realized that my purse was missing. Oh.My.Stars! I had forgotten it in the bathroom. I was gasping for air. I was having a major panic attack. I ran back to the bathroom. No purse! I was  practically in tears and pulling my hair out because without that purse I was a nobody in a whole lot of doodo0.

Why? Because as luck would have it, I had just gone to the ATM and gotten quite a lot of cash for my trip back to India. My driver’s license, social security card, Max’s and my regular and diplomatic passports with our precious Indian visas in them, my phone, my Kindle and the keys to my apartment were also in that missing purse. The worst feeling ever!!!

I don’t know how I got myself to the Customer Service desk but there I was telling the lady at the counter that I left my purse in the bathroom but it wasn’t there anymore. “You sure did,” she said nonchalantly and gave me back my purse with absolutely everything in it, after confirming my identity. I just sat there for a few seconds blinking stupidly. I wasn’t dreaming. That was indeed my purse and nothing was missing. I was so happy, I was speechless!  I did ultimately thank the woman. Profusely!

Now, of course, I know better than that and should have been paying attention. I am usually pretty good about stuff like that. Not this time apparently, so that was my wake up call.  Hopefully, this will be a reminder for you as well to be more alert and aware and not do what I did.

But I was also thinking that perhaps not all hope is lost. For humanity, that is. Because the person who found my purse didn’t have to turn it in. They could have totally taken advantage of my stupidity airheadedness and made me pay for it through my nose. Because think about it. It took me a good two weeks to get just my diplomatic passport and visa. There was no way I was going to depart for India on time, had that person not decided to do the right thing. Hell, there was no easy way for me to prove who I was under the circumstances or do pretty much anything quickly. Needless to say, I am eternally grateful to that person. Whoever you are, you awesome stranger person, you are my hero and I thank you from the bottom of my heart!!!

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Trick or Treat!

We had a split Halloween this year. Half of us celebrated here in the US and the rest – in India. It was a little sad to be so far away from Her Cuteness (who is quickly turning into Her Attitude these days) and my husband on Halloween. It was just not the same without them but we did try. Chutney was a pirate. He didn’t love the costume, especially the hat. I barely got him to tolerate it long enough to snap a couple of pictures.

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He also did not understand the Trick or Treating thing. We went Trick or Treating in our apartment building where the people who wanted to participate had signed up and we had a list of apartments handing out candy. Max wanted to go in and hang out at every apartment that we went to. I had to chase him and get him out every time. He didn’t like the idea of putting his candy in a bag. He would also take candy from one candy dish and deposit it in the candy dish of the next people on our list. He was very confused. I tried to explain/demonstrate but I must have done a poor job because he was having none of it. Finally, I decided to just go home and hand out candy instead. But then he’d go out with me every time the doorbell rang, get candy with the rest of the kids, wave good-bye and start heading to the elevators. So I had to chase him and bring him back a bunch of times. Fun times! I think he really needs his sister to show him the Halloween ropes next year.

In other news, I got my Indian visa early and had my pack out yesterday. I tried to but could not get a waiver for my mandatory class, so I have to take it early next week. No biggie, right? Except my in-home daycare provider (aka my Mom) is going back to Bulgaria tomorrow and I couldn’t reschedule her flight without paying another hefty penalty fee, so I had no one to watch Chutney when I am in class next week. Fortunately, I was able to get him in as a drop-in child at the FSI Daycare just for those two days, so we are in good shape. I was also able to get tickets to go back to India for the day after my class is done, so I should be in Delhi, happily jetlagged, by next Friday. Luckily, next weekend is a four-day weekend for the US Embassy because of Diwali, India’s Festival of Lights.

Needless to say, we can’t wait! Is it next Friday yet?

Monday, October 29, 2012

Oh, Sandy!

As if preparing to move overseas is not complicated enough, now I have a major storm to worry about. Just when I thought I had everything where I needed it with my prep. I had a two-day mandatory class scheduled for today and tomorrow, pack out on Wednesday afternoon and I heard that my Indian visa was ready, so I was going to get a cab and go over to the Indian Embassy during my lunch break today to pick it up. My mother’s return ticket was originally for 10/25 but I was able to reschedule her (after paying a hefty fee, of course) to fly back to Bulgaria this Friday (11/2). I too had a reservation to leave on 11/2. Perfect, no? Too perfect perhaps…

Enter Sandy and things are all over the place again. Today the Federal Government in the DC area is closed, which means FSI is closed, which means I can’t take my mandatory class. The Indian Embassy is also closed, so I can’t pick up my visa. The packers are saying they are still coming on Wednesday as of right now, so I have at least that going.

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What happens now? We’ll have to see. I tried contacting the powers that be on Friday asking that very question but haven’t heard back. I suppose they could move my mandatory class to Tuesday and Wednesday, which wouldn’t be perfect because I have my pack out on Wednesday. Maybe I could reschedule that to Thursday and still be able to pick up my visa and leave Friday. Or maybe the mandatory class can be waived under the circumstances, though I am not holding my breath on that one. Or they could make me stay a few days and take the next installment of the mandatory class next Monday and Tuesday, which would be problematic because my Mom would be gone by then and I have no one else to watch Max while I take the class.

So, yeah, lots of moving pieces… I just have to remember to breathe and hope things will work out somehow…

Update: As soon as I hit “Publish” I saw that the Federal Government in DC is closed tomorrow (Tuesday) as well, which puts me in a real pickle because it makes leaving on Friday highly unlikely unless the powers that be waive the mandatory class for me. Otherwise, I will have to figure out where to put Max next Monday and Tuesday, so I can take the class. Oh, Sandy!

Friday, October 26, 2012

Best Guacamole Recipe Ever

Do you guys like guac?

Yeah, me too.

I love it actually but it was not a love at first sight because let’s face it, guacamole is weird looking. I had seen it around but I just couldn’t get myself to try it. I mean it’s green and it looks like it came from another planet or something. The first time I tried it, I must have had some really mediocre guacamole because I was not impressed. Then years later I gave it another chance and this time it was knock-your-socks-off good. I was in love and I decided I had to figure out how to make it. So I went on a quest to find the best guac recipe. For a couple of months I made guac all the time and Paul was getting really tired of it because most of it wasn’t very good. I thought you had to have a secret ingredient or something special to make it really good. In the end what I found was that with guac - as with many of other things in life - less is more.

Here’s the best guacamole recipe, in my humble opinion. It’s beautifully simple. I found it a couple of years ago in Costco’s monthly magazine. Try it – you’ll like it!

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I made it again last night and it was delicious! It was not as chunky as the picture in the recipe because my tomatoes were quite juicy and I put more lime juice than the recipe calls for but it tasted great nonetheless. I also don’t like cilantro (crazy, I know), so I just skip it.

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