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Monday, December 30, 2013

Neemrana

Before I go into this cool adventure we went on today, let me quickly address my absence from the blog world in the last several months. My excuses are not very good but they are all I’ve got, so they’ll have to do.

The main reason for my silence is life. I didn’t intend to stop blogging and it didn’t happen because of a lack of blogworthy events. On the contrary, there’s been probably too much blog fodder and it’s been difficult for me to focus on any one thing before the next one hit. Before I knew it, four very eventful months had flown by and I hadn’t blogged about any of it. But as any blogger knows, the longer you spend without blogging, the harder it is to get back to it.

And let me just say for the record – blogging when you work full-time and try to be a halfway decent parent and an OK host to visitors and have some semblance of a social life is a challenge. Being a blogging diplomat is also tricky. The job is very interesting and I want to talk about it on this here blog but I really can’t because there are a lot of sensitivities around most of what we do and that’s hard. I am the kind of person, who likes to talk through things. So, if I had my druthers, I’d be spilling it all out here. But then I’d lose my job and we wouldn’t want that, would we? So I have to curb my enthusiasm for spirited work-related story-telling.

But enough excuses… Back to my story.

So today we went to Neemrana, which is a small town about 2.5 hours from Delhi in Rajasthan. The main attraction there as far as we were concerned was the Neemrana Fort and the Flying Fox (a zip line). We heard about Neemrana soon after we arrived in India and have wanted to go ever since but we wanted to zipline and we wanted to do it with Nia (Max is way too young). Unfortunately, you are not allowed to zipline unless you are 10, so until recently, Nia simply couldn’t do it (which also means that she had a birthday and her horrible mother didn’t blog about it – shame on her mother!)

But now that’s she’s 10 and we are all in town, we decided to do it. And it was well worth it. The fort is built on the side of a hill and the ziplining course consists of 5 lines, that look like this:

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You have to walk up a steepish hill to get to the beginning of the course but then you get to zip above this really cool fort – 5 times! It’s awesome. I have to admit I was a little skittish at first but within a couple of seconds I was having a blast and so was the rest of the gang – Nia, Paul and my Mom. Yes, even my 68-year old Mom did it and loved it, though the hike up to the beginning of the zip line course was a bit too much for her. My Dad chose not to zipline because he’s a cancer survivor and breathes through a hole in his throat, so he was worried that he would not be able to breathe because of the rushing air. He watched us from the fort.

Here’s a brief (38-second) video of us going down the shortest line. Doesn’t it look awesome?

It was a lot of fun and I highly recommend it to anyone over 10.  At $35 for adults and $30 for children, it is not exactly cheap but it’s not something we do every day, so we decided to splurge. You can get about $5 off, if you book online but we were a little nervous about sharing our credit card number with an unknown company, so we ended up paying cash. We paid an extra $12 for the staff to take the above (and more) videos of us too. They turned out alright, except they had a smudge on their camera lens, which is annoying but what are you gonna do?

After we were done ziplining, we took a nice walk around the fort, which is a heritage hotel, so you can stay there. Each room/suite is unique and has a veranda or a turret with a spectacular view and a lovely pool, so if we go back, perhaps we’ll stay at the hotel too. We had several friends, who had gone there and had gotten food poisoning, so we packed sandwiches but whatever was wrong with the food when our friends visited, may well be fixed by now, so don’t let that stop you.

I am going to leave you with a few pictures from the fort.

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Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Happy Holidays!

 

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I know I certainly have a lot of ‘splainin’ to do on this blog but I can’t do it now. Hopefully, soon.

I just wanted to let you know that we are all well and to wish you wonderful holidays and a terrific new year!!!

Love,

The Swiders and the Yonovi (my parents)

P.S. A big thank you goes to Dani from The Hot Pot Blog for taking the picture and to Summer from Summertime Designs for the Christmas card idea.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Maxisms

It seems just yesterday we were concerned about Max not talking and all of a sudden he’s become quite the chatterbox. He is talking all the time these days. I thought I’d share some of the cute/funny things he says here:

(early in the morning) Wake up, Mommy! Wake up, Daddy! Wake up, Nia! Wake up, Me!

(while putting on on my sunglasses) I (am) going to work. Bye-bye! Have fun!

(in an airplane, right after landing) Thank you, airplane!

Me (imitating one of his favorite bedtime stories while tucking him in): It’s time to sleep, little Max, little Max!

Max: It’s time to sleep little Mommy, little Mommy!

(to his Nanny after I put him in timeout): Geetanjali, I (am) stuck!

He has a hard time with L and R sounds, so he says:

I yuv you (I love you).

Yook (Look).

I yunning. (I am running).

Yaining (raining or lion – those two sound almost the same).

Sometimes he also confuses the A and I sounds, so he says happo, instead of hippo and pallow, instead of pillow.

He is learning his numbers but selectively. Some numbers are just not worth his while at this point, so he skips them and counts like this: one, two, five, ten, oneteen,twoteen, threeteen, fiveteen, nineteen...

He likes to add a T sound after an F, as in “I can do it myselfT!” or “Turn it offT!” and “I wanna take a bafT (bath)!”

For the longest time he couldn’t quite say his name, so he called himself Mice but just a week ago he figured out his first name. The last one is still a challenge though, so right now he is Max Fighter.

Max Collage

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Summer Recap

This summer just flew by. Before we knew it, Labor Day came and I realized, I have hardly blogged at all this summer. So I thought, I’d do a little recap.

One of the first things which happened this summer was that I got my next assignment. I was assigned to (drum roll please) Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. My position is General Services Officer (a.k.a GSO), which means I will be dealing with things like buildings, vehicles, housing, furniture etc. It is in my cone (Management), so I am happy but my happiness is not complete because we still don’t know where Paul will be posted next. Second tour bidding is tricky no matter what but add to that tandemhood and you have a real pickle. I am the more junior between the two of us, so I had to bid first. In order to increase our chances of being posted together, we perused something called the projected vacancies list, according to which there was no more/no less than one place in the entire world where we could be together and each of us in our cones, ha! We somehow thought that between large posts and countries with multiple posts like China and Brazil we will have multiple options of being together and in our cones but we were wrong. Addis was it this time around. Everywhere else, if one of us was in cone, the other one wasn’t. So while my assignment to Addis is very good news, the drama continues as Paul is now in the middle of bidding and there are exactly two positions he can bid on in Addis, which work for us timing-wise. One is in his cone (Public Diplomacy) but is a double stretch (two levels above his current grade), so it will be very hard to get. The second one is an international organizations position with our African Union mission in Addis (at his grade). Both positions seem neat and we would be happy with either. Anything else would mean separation or breaking my assignment (which seems to be frowned upon in State) and starting from scratch (which may be a blessing or a curse).  We are trying not to think about those possibilities right now. We’ll cross those bridges if/when we have to…

Otherwise, our summer wasn’t bad. It started out crazy busy and stressful  but got a lot better by the end. We had a couple of high profile visits to Delhi (Secretary Kerry and VP Biden), which made our already short-staffed section even more people-strapped but we survived and learned a thing or two in the process, so we can chalk it up to experience now. I have to admit I was a little bit in the doldrums in late June, early July. For a while it felt like we had more work to do than we had live bodies or hours in the day and there seemed to be no end in sight. We tried to take our R&R (Rest & Recuperation) trip in June but were unable to due to the Secretary’s visit and the high season for consular. So we didn’t leave Delhi for about 4 months, which was hard because traveling outside of your post is how many of us keep our sanity in this lifestyle.

We finally took our R&R in late July. It was a very short one for me because I hadn’t been with State a full year yet plus, I had to go to D.C. for training for a week. I switched jobs (which is another way to keep your sanity) and my new position could benefit from a training class. When I say switched jobs, I mean I am in a different position within Consular. Delhi is a large and busy post and one thing that’s nice about it is that we get to rotate between several functions within Consular. After 8 months on the non-immigrant visa line, I am now in the fraud prevention unit, which is different and very interesting. The training in D.C. was very useful but it was also awesome to be back in the US even for a week – I ate and shopped myself silly, I hung out with friends and just enjoyed all the things people in the US take for granted like drinkable tap water, produce that you don’t have to bleach before eating, driving without pulling your hair out and the likes. While I was in D.C., Paul took the kids to Chicago to visit his parents and sister. They too had a wonderful week, although one of the main reasons for their visit to Chicago was Paul’s Mom’s deteriorating health, which saddens all of us.

On the way back from the US, we stopped in Bulgaria for 6 days, which was entirely not enough time but such is life. We didn’t do anything special really – just hung out with my parents, relatives and friends, took a couple of day-trips and ate as much Bulgarian food as our tummies could fit. We thoroughly enjoyed fresh fruit and veggies from my parent’s garden as well as unlimited quantities of meat, which can be tricky to find here in India. The kids loved running around the yard and splashing in the inflatable pool.

We came home the first week of August and things picked up again. Nia’s back in school. She’s a 5th grader – can you believe it??!!! Max is also in school – he goes to daycare on the Embassy compound and seems to enjoy it a lot. The weather is starting to cool off a little bit as the rainy season is coming to an end.

I am leaving you with a few pictures from our summer but will be back soon with more pictures and posts about our trips to Thailand and Udaipur, so stay tuned.

Summer 2013 Collage

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Rangoli

I recently worked the official 4th of July event at the Ambassador’s residence. I was the program and décor chairperson and part of my responsibilities (among many others) included coordinating the creation of Rangoli decorations at the entrance to the Ambassador’s residence. Rangoli are colorful designs, made usually of flowers and colored rice but other mediums can be used as well such as colored sand, paper, glass beads, etc. Rangoli designs are especially popular around Diwali (the largest Hindu festival in the country) but they grace the entrances of Indian homes for other special occasions such as the arrival of guests. They are meant to be sacred welcoming areas for the Hindu gods.

In any case, we often have Rangoli designs for special occasions at the Embassy too and the official 4th of July Reception was no exception. Luckily, I work with some very talented local staff in Consular and they helped me design and create the Rangoli for the Ambassador’s 4th of July reception. Here is a picture of my team and the Rangoli designs we created for the event. I had a lot more pictures of the process of creation but we had forgotten to remove our ID badges while we were working on the Rangoli and as a result I can’t post them. Oh well. But this one was approved, so I am using it.

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The Rangoli for the event were made from rose petals, white carnation petals, blue-colored rice and white paper stars. Ah, yes a lot of creativity and sweat too. Did I mention it was very hot? When we first started brainstorming on the design, my team was ready to go all out. They were thinking about making the Statue of Liberty and an eagle and I have no doubt they would have done a marvelous job because I have seen them create some amazing designs out of flower petals and rice but we presented our ideas to the Ambassador and she decided to go with something very simple this year, so we did exactly that.  I found the process absolutely fascinating and was determined to use my new skillz as soon as an opportunity presented itself, which happened sooner than I expected. I also thought it would be an awesome bonding project to work on with Nia.

We are the social sponsors of our friends, the Pratts. Adrian is also a blogger, and a damn good one, I might add. He has several blogs but currently writes over at Passages from India. Adrian arrived in Delhi about a month ago but his family was about to arrive, so we decided to put up a Welcome Rangoli for them. An Indian colleague hooked us up with flower petals and then I met with my team – Nia, Gitanjali (our Nanny) and Jim (our Driver, who took most of the pictures). Paul was responsible for keeping Chutney as far away from the Rangoli as possible because that boy has some rad Shiva skills. (Shiva is the Hindu god of creative destruction.) This was our first Rangoli, so I wanted to go simple. I decided on a round shape with a white elephant in the middle and a scalloped edge around. We used chalk and a string anchored in the middle of the design to draw a perfect circle and then with Gitanjali’s help drew a basic elephant shape. It’s nice if you can get draw your design perfectly but if you have to make a few corrections here and there, it’s not the end of the world because your “oopsies” will be covered by flowers (or whatever other medium you decide to use).

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We filled the elephant shape with white carnation petals.

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Then we filled the circle with rose petals. Both the carnations and the roses smelled really good.

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We rimmed the circle with an inch yellow marigold border. Finally, we drew a scalloped edge around the circle using a plastic plate as a guide and filled the scallops with orange marigold petals. You really can’t tell the difference between the yellow border and the scallops but those were the colors we had.  We ended up with leftover petals and created a smaller Rangoli in front of our house but it’s not as nice because we had limited quantities/colors at our disposal.

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Here is the completed Rangoli. It turned out pretty nice, no? The Pratts seemed to like it too.

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Sunday, June 16, 2013

Takshashila Gurukulam

I have been terrible at updating this blog lately. Work has been crazy busy – this is our high season and we have had 1000+ visa applicants every day for a couple of months now. But it’s also transfer season and many of our colleagues are leaving and new ones are coming on board. I am now one of the seasoned officers (Ha!) and thus doing a lot of training. We also have tons of projects in addition to our regular consular workload, which means that one or both of us have to work late quite often. May and most of June were depressingly hot (read 110+ F/43+ C) so we spent them either cooped up in the house, at the pool or at air-conditioned spaces, which are not all that exciting. But the monsoon season started a couple of days ago and the temperature plunged down to 90s F/30s C, which is a lot more livable though now we have the mosquitoes and the Dengue they bring to worry about. But such is life in India…

This post is actually an update to the one about Nia’s Ninth Birthday, at which we collected donations in lieu of gifts for the birthday girl. The idea was for Paul and I to match the amount Nia collected in donations from her friends and then give the amount to girls in need. We had heard of a girls’ school 4 hours away in Uttar Pradesh but our plans changed a little when we realized that our friend Melanie was working with a different co-ed school in Uttar Pradesh called Takshashila Gurukulam and could put our donation to good use. Melanie was getting ready to leave India and was trying to finish a project she had started at the school – creating a multi-purpose room where the children could eat their breakfast and lunch but also where they could have art and music class and use it for various other purposes. She had started a mural in the room but did not have the money to finish the mural or purchase chairs and tables for the room. Our donation (about $400 in cash as well as clothes, books, toys and a small computer) would help her finish the project. 

We decided that we wanted to visit the school and meet the kids. So one Saturday, we loaded up our in-kind donations in the car and off we went. An hour and a half later we arrived at a couple of mostly-finished buildings.

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The school is Dadri, Uttar Pradesh. It has two campuses – one for primary school students (nursery through grade 5), which also includes common areas and a dorm (pictured above) and the other for secondary school students (below).

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The school is surrounded by fields in which many of the students work to help their families put food on their tables. We were told that a bunch of wild peacocks live in the fields around the school too, though we didn’t see any while we wee there.

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Canadian Fellow, Abbey Marsden, who is teaching at the school, gave us a tour of the school. Our tour started with the dorms. The school is not a boarding school and many of the kids live with their families and commute to school but it does provide some space where underprivileged kids can board. Here are a couple of pictures of one of the dorm rooms, which was in the middle of renovations.

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It was very modest and brought tears to my eyes. Another Fellow, Tariq Haq from U.S., who also teaches at the school, was helping brighten up the place by painting a mural of the solar system.

Next, we visited a 5th grade class, who were in the middle of a test but paused long enough to recite a couple of Karadi rhymes for us.

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The teachers use these rhymes to teach the children English. I found one of the rhymes, called “I am just like you,” particularly moving. It teaches the children about various parts of India and their respective local languages but also introduces them to the ideas of diversity and tolerance. I wish I had known they were going to recite because I would have loved to take a video of them performing as it was quite charming but their impromptu performance caught me unprepared. I do want to share the rhyme with you though because I think it’s beautiful, so here’s an animated version:

Just like you

We visited every classroom and said hello to all the kids including the littlest ones, some of which were as young as 3. They were all excited to see us and though they were a little shy, most of them were happy to sing a song, tell us a little bit about themselves or ask us questions about where we were from.

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In one of the secondary school classrooms the kids were working together on a letter to the editor of  India Times about violence against women. If that’s not inspiring, I don’t know what is! It makes me excited about these kids’ future and so glad we decided to make a donation to the school.

We also visited the school’s library, which was beautifully decorated with a jungle mural.

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Last but not least, we visited the canteen/multi-purpose room where our donation would go for purchasing of tables and chairs and finishing the lovely mural which looks like an illustration of the “I am just like you” rhyme mentioned above.

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I will leave you with a couple more pictures – one of the children playing Kho Kho (a traditional Indian game) during recess ...

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… and one of Nia at the entrance to the school.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Hyderabad

I had to go to Hyderabad for work for two weeks in March. The kids stayed with Paul in Delhi but the three of them came to visit me on my first weekend there and we did some sightseeing. I didn’t know what to expect of Hyderabad but was pleasantly surprised. It is in South India and is the capital of Andhra Pradesh (an Indian state). It is substantially smaller than Delhi, which has about 22 million inhabitants. But it’s  not exactly small because it has 8.5 million inhabitants, which makes it India’s 4th most populous city. It also has about a million more people the whole country of Bulgaria (where I was born).  It’s all a matter of perspective, I guess.

The city has a rich and interesting history and was the seat of several very wealthy dynasties. I had read White Mughals by William Dalrymple and was really intrigued by Hyderabad. The book is about the British Raj in Hyderabad and the relationship of the Hyderabadi Nizams (Rulers) with the British. It’s a sad book but I found it quite interesting and couldn’t wait to explore the city.  But Hyderabad is not all about history and the past. As a matter of fact it is a large IT hub where many of the world’s largest IT and consulting companies have offices, hence its nickname Cyberabad. The employees of those companies are a large part of our visa applicant pool as they travel to the US quite often for client meetings, conferences, trainings, work (H1B visas) or tourism, so we see many of them each day.

Hyderabad is also famous for Char Minar, Golkonda, diamonds, pearls, lacquer bracelets and its biryanis (rice dishes). We saw most of those things, bought some bracelets and ate biryanis.

First, we went to the old city and saw Char Minar (four minarets) and Mecca Masjid. They are located in a bustling area with a lot of historic buildings and markets. As interesting as it was, however, we didn’t spend a lot of time there because both kids wanted to wander (chasing goats, pigeons and whatnot) and the area was very crowded – not ideal for a casual stroll with kids.

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That was not enough time in the old town for me, so I went back there after Paul and the kids left for Delhi and did some more sight seeing and bracelet shopping. There is a whole street it the Char Minar area dedicated to bracelets and jewelry – it was pretty overwhelming. I am not much of a bracelet person but Hyderabadi bracelets are pretty awesome. They are said to be made of lacquer, though I am not quite sure what that is, and they have small colored pieces of glass embedded in the lacquer in really neat designs. Most Indian women buy them in sets that go almost all the way to the elbow, which is a bit over the top for me but you can buy individual bracelets too if you like, which is what I did. I bought a few for me and a few as gifts, which turned out to be entirely not enough because Max broke some of them. I clearly need to go back for more. Here are a couple of pictures of bracelet stores and a picture of some men eating a fruit/vegetable I’d never seen before on bracelet street.

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But I digress - back to the story. After old town, we went to Golkonda, an expansive fort about 10 km outside Hyderabad, which had been the capital of an old kingdom (c.1518–1687). It had also been one of the first diamond mine and markets in the world and is the source of some of the most famous diamonds in the world, including the Hope Diamond (a deep blue diamond, currently in the Smithsonian in the US),  the Koh-i-Noor Diamond (Mountain of Light - currently in the Queen of England’s crown) and the Darya-i-Noor Diamond (Sea of Light - the largest pink diamond in the world, currently in Iran’s Treasury of National Jewels). The fort is quite large and mostly in ruins but you could see that it had been really impressive in its day.

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Some of us may have been quite exhausted by this point and may have zonked off on a chair in a café.

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From there, we headed for Falaknuma Palace, formerly one of the palaces of Nizams (the local rulers) but currently a luxury hotel. It was designed by an English architect in a blend of Italian and Tudor styles. It had a very European look and feel. In it is what is considered to be the world’s largest dining table with 101 seats as well as one of the largest collections of Venetian chandeliers, a unique Jade collection and a huge organ,  among many other interesting  and fancy things. 

Falaknuma was private property of the Nizam family until 2000, when it was bought by Taj Hotels. After 10 years of renovations and restoration, it “opened to the public” in 2010. It is not really open to the public because you can’t just waltz in there unless you have a reservation at the hotel or one of the restaurants, all of which are quite spendy. Several of my colleagues at the consulate in Hyderabad recommended going to Falaknuma, s0 it was high on my list but I was also told that you can’t get in unless you have a reservation. So I called and tried to make a reservation at the Indian restaurant on the property because I had heard that it was excellent, albeit pricey. The woman on the phone told me that children under 10 were not allowed in the restaurant. I wasn’t going to leave my children behind, so I said that I would have to cancel. The woman suggested we come for tea instead and so we did – we had High tea and Nizami tea at Falaknuma, which was plenty of food and drink but a lot less money than a full dinner and we got to enjoy the luxury of the palace, which was pretty neat.

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During the trip to Hyderabad, I also got to meet in person and hang out with fellow blogger Stephanie from Where In The World Am I and her lovely family. I have been following her blog from the day we found out we were coming to India. She was the only Foreign Service person blogging from India at the time, so I spent a lot of time reading her posts and looking at pictures trying to imagine what our lives might look like. I mentioned to Stephanie that I wanted to try authentic Biryani and she took me to a small restaurant called Bahar, which was very simple and unpretentious but their Biryanis were delish. We had vegetable and chicken Biryanis and they were both yum – Thanks, Stephanie!

I will leave you with a picture of the throne room at Chowmahalla, a palace complex located in the old city, which is where the Nizams and their families used to live.

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Sunday, March 31, 2013

Happy Easter

We celebrated Easter on two separate days, hence the different hairstyles Max is sporting. The first picture is from the Embassy Easter Party and the rest are from our own egg hunt and egg fight.

So if you celebrate it, Happy Easter to you and yours!!!

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Friday, March 29, 2013

Mumbai Part II

More pictures from Mumbai – come join us on a small tour.

At the Gateway of India (not to be confused with India Gate, which is in Delhi)

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Boats at The Gateway of India

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The Taj Palace Hotel - we did not stay there – it’s very fancy and expensive!

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Ornately inlaid flooring at the lobby of the Taj Palace Hotel

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Downtown South Mumbai – the car in the foreground is an Ambassador, still widely used as a cab, government and private vehicle.

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A beautifully decorated Parsee (Zoroastrian) residential building

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A young tightrope walker – she was tiny, maybe 4 years old and was already earning a living by entertaining crowds in South Mumbai, while her mom accompanied her on the drum. We didn’t finish our lunch, so we shared some chicken biryani with them, which they welcomed.

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The Antilia (this is actually just part of it – couldn’t get the whole building), allegedly the most expensive home in the world. It belongs to Mukesh Ambani, chairman of Reliance Industries, one of the largest Indian companies. It is 27 stories high and is maintained by a full-time staff of 600 people.

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Drying fish and shrimp on the beach at Juhu – the smell was overpowering.

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A couple of beautiful churches in Bandra, a suburb of Mumbai

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If I were to live in Mumbai, I’d live in this building in Bandra, which is next door to Shah Rukh Khan’s house…

If I were to live in Mumbai, this is the building where I'd like to live...

… and this would be my view.

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Beautiful, no – I love that rocky beach. There is a Bollywood walk of fame there, where the biggest Bollywood stars have left their hand prints.

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Next on our list was a visit to a sound studio where we saw how sound is mixed and sound effects, voices and music added to movies and commercials. We also got to play voice talents and had a chance to record our voices over some real stars’ in a TV commercial.

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Max didn’t care about the whole voice recording business but he loves fish and the aquarium in the studio scored major points with him. 

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Our last stop was S.J. Studios, a Bollywood studio where we saw several sets – an office, a jail, a police commissioner’s office and a hospital.

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We got to watch the filming of a soap opera episode in the hospital and then saw one of the stars outside, who was gracious enough to take a picture with us. We didn’t get the name of the soap opera but our guide said that the actor’s name is Arjun.

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Then the kids got to run around and goof off at the police station, jail and commissioner’s office:

Locked up abroad

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Making an entrance

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Daddy’s the head of the Maharashtra Police

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Our fun-filled adventure ended on a high note at an Asian buffet, where we ate too much and got chased by Chinese dragons.

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