Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Sydney Opera House

If you are ever in Sydney (as opposed to Sidney), a visit to the Opera House no doubt occupies pride of place in the list of things to do, but a tour of the Opera House is in order as well. The Opera House offers frequent conducted tours, including visits to the performance halls and theater spaces.

The tour takes a good hour. Strollers, backpacks and coats are required to be checked in at the cloak room prior to the tour. So if you are traveling with children, be prepared to carry the younger ones around, including up and down a few flights of stairs.

The story of how the iconic building came into existence - complete with the designer resigning midway through the project, the final cost going over budget many times over, the project taking 10 years longer than anticipated to complete - is itself the stuff of drama.

From a distance, the layers of its lotus shape seem so delicate as they hang in the air, perpetually waiting to be peeled back, the exterior walls shining in the brilliant sun.

A view of the Opera House as you walk up from the Circular Quay




From Luna Park, across the harbor

But up close, as you marvel at the design that manages to hold up those petals, it becomes obvious why these massive walls of concrete are vital to the structure.

An inside wall of the Opera House


A close up of the tiled exterior walls

The Opera House hosts many performances, homegrown and touring, including plays, concerts, operas and meetings. One of the advertisements we saw was for a performance by Asha Bhosle.


The Utzon Room, dedicated to architect Jorn Utzon who designed the Opera House. The room, dedicated to host children's programming, has an awesome view of the harbor and is built using Utzon's design principles.

The Utzon Room

The main performance hall is massive and imposing. Sound dampers hang from the ceiling and can be lowered and raised according to the needs of a particular production.



The piano in the foreground was wheeled out and the room was being readied for a performance later that evening. The massive pipe organ high up in the back dominated the stage.

Here's a link to the Sydney Opera House Website for tour information and tickets.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

What's with the weather?

It's the 23rd of October and the temperature here is set to reach the 80s (F). That's at least 15 degrees above normal.

The leaves are falling, the grass is dying, kids have been back at school for nearly two months, but fall temperatures seem to have gone on holiday. We wake up in the morning and dress the kids warm and by the time Calvin returns from school he's sweaty and mad. At nighttime, when you would expect to feel cold, we dress up in jackets and pants but end up feeling uncomfortably warm as the night wears on.

There's definitely something odd. It's great not to have to crank up the heat and bear the brunt of the astronomically high gas costs, but it feels weird and unhealthy, as a friend said, to feel so warm so late in the year.

Is this global warming? Every time I think that, the weatherman (or woman) on TV says something like, "The last time we had weather like this at this time of the year was in 19__." How can it be global warming if we've already had these weather patterns many years ago?

Updated to add the most important point I wanted to make - there is no end in sight to the infernal nuisance of shaving! Bah!

Karwa Chauth: Lovely essay in Washington Post Magazine

Here's Anu Kumar's well-written essay in this past weekend's Washington Post Magazine about Karwa Chauth from the perspective of a woman torn between her feminist ideals and nostalgia for a time gone by.

Monday, October 22, 2007

ICSE or CBSE? Which is better or more desirable?

I've received quite a few queries wanting to know the answer to that question. I asked Google aunty and one of her answers was this 2004 Deccan Herald article written by Bala Chauhan. It looks informative and useful.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Travel: Uluru (Ayers Rock), Australia



She sat on the floor in one of the main halls of the Cultural Centre—shoulders hunched, working on a painting; her dark blue frock-style dress fanning out around her. The painting was colourful, with swirling dots morphing into circles, telling Tjukurpa tales. A little further away lay four or five boat-shaped bowls containing grains that were very similar to ragi.

As we approached, she took one look at us and delightedly rubbed her skin with her fingers, and then reached over to touch my son, saying something to a park ranger nearby. The ranger translated, “Barbara says ‘aborigine’.” We nodded, adding that we were from India.

In her own way, Barbara was seconding what archaeologists have long postulated: the parallels between the races of Central India, Sri Lanka and the Anangu, as the aborigines of Australia like to be called. Archaeologists estimate that the Anangu have lived in the southern continent for at least 50,000 years, continuously adapting their way of life to the vagaries of plate tectonics (it is believed that, once upon a time, Australia had a land connection to Asia) and the changing landscape.

The rest appears in this weekend's Mint Lounge.

Clinton or Obama? Black or White? Man or Woman?

The run up to the 2008 presidential elections is proving to be historic. For the first time, we have a woman candidate for president. For the first time, we have a black candidate who has more than a fair chance of winning (Alan Keyes, a Republican, has run in the primaries before, but has always been considered a long shot).

Questions swirl in the air. Should a woman president be automatically considered better for women than a male president? How will a woman president's governance be any different than a man's? Should there be any difference? Should voters be looking for differences at all? Should all women vote for Clinton? Should all blacks vote for Obama? Oprah has endorsed Obama. Should she have endorsed Clinton? Should Oprah = woman power = endorsement for Clinton? Did she endorse Obama because she is black? Should gender and color play any role in one's endorsements or voting choices? Will Oprah's endorsement actually carry any weight at all?

It's easy and appropriate to say voters and endorsers and sponsors should be blind to the candidates' gender or color, but considering that these events have never occurred before, voters are like kids in a candy store. Of course, it's quite another matter that after running around in the candy store, quite a few of them are still dissatisfied and are looking toward the horizon for someone more desirable.

Obviously, I'm not the only one pondering these questions. Consider these women in the beauty parlors of South Carolina "that are among the social hubs for black women."
Black women, Belk [a political scientist at Winthrop University who co-directed a recent study of black voters] said, are divided equally between Obama and Clinton, and significantly, perhaps a third are undecided.

"They stand at the intersection of race, class and gender," he said. "Black men say to them, 'Sister, are you with us?' and at the same time white women say, 'Sister, are you with us?'"
The entire article is an eye-opener when it comes to the quandry voters are facing next fall. But best of all, it threw some light on the thought process of 51 year-old Betty McClain, a bus driver,
[She said] she liked what she heard about Obama. But she likes Clinton, too. "She's already been president before," McClain said approvingly, dismissing Bill Clinton's role in his own administration. "He was just there," McClain said of Mr. Clinton. "He was just the husband, that's all. She really ran the country."
It made my day.

Update

Been extremely busy offline. Hence the tardiness in replying to comments and responding to tags. Will get on them shortly. Cheers!

Monday, October 08, 2007

Mario Capecchi's Journey - From Street Kid to Nobel Winner

He was four years old when his mother was sent off to a German concentration camp for being critical of the Nazis. He roamed the streets of Italy, finally ending up in an orphanage. His mother survived the concentration camp and was released in 1946 when the Americans liberated Dachau. She then set out to find her son and searched for him for a year and a half. She found him and the two of them got on a ship and sailed to America.

"The vision of America at that time...I was literally expecting the roads to be paved with gold. What I found, actually, was just opportunity."

What a story! Just filled me with sheer delight. And what a line - "What I found, actually, was just opportunity"!

Watch this ABC News video in which he recounts the story.

By the way, the 2007 Medicine Nobel was awarded today to Martin Evans of Cardiff University in Wales, Mario Capecchi of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and the University of Utah, and Oliver Smithies of the University of North Carolina for "work now enables researchers worldwide to create "designer mice" that have transformed the study of human disease."

Updated to add these two links to thoughtful essays:

A Nancy Gibbs essay from Time Magazine (Oct 22 issue); and

This post from Under the Banyan Tree (thanks Poppin's Mom!).

Nine Innings from Ground Zero

If you get a chance to see this HBO documentary, please do. It's the story of the Yankees baseball games in the aftermath of 9/11 and how the game riveted a city and diverted their attention, even if only for a few precious hours, from the horror of the carnage a few blocks away.

With interviews of the players, the fans, the people who lost loved ones on 9/11 and of city officials, the footage and the raw emotions spilling over from the stands on to the diamond are just riveting. I found the program by accident this morning and was hooked.

Information, background and broadcast schedules can be found on HBO's website.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

October 4, 2007: International Bloggers Day for a Free Burma

Free Burma!

This post is in support of Free-Burma.org's efforts:

International bloggers/webmasters/bullentin boards are preparing an action to support the peaceful revolution in Burma. We want to set a sign for freedom and show our sympathy for these people who are fighting their cruel regime without weapons. These Netcitizens are planning to refrain from posting to their websites on October 4 and just put up one Banner then, underlined with the words "Free Burma!".
For more information on the campaign to free Burma, go to Free-Burma.org.

Myanmar - Tasting Freedom. Literally.

Here's part of an awesome essay by Myanmar-based journalist, Ma Thanegi, who was imprisoned for volunteering with a democracy movement:

After the first few days of prowling and growling like a cat in a cage, after the first few weeks of believing that I would go berserk if I were held for even another hour, after the first six months of constantly hoping to hear the words "You're free to go", I realized I was wasting my time and began to think about how I could benefit from the experience.

"They've put us in prison to make us miserable," one prisoner told me, "but let's not give them the satisfaction." My fellow inmates might have cried silently in private, but I never saw tears.

[...]

Still, sudden incarceration is one hell of a calamity. How did we deal with it?

Most of all, we shared food. I was not allowed family visits but could receive a food parcel every Monday from relatives. A typical parcel might contain cakes, cookies, candies, instant coffee, instant noodles, dried prawn relish, fried Chinese sausages, dried salted fish, fried chicken, or fried beef. It delivered a cholesterol and sodium overload, but the food had to last without refrigeration. After our release, none of us could tolerate such sweet, salty treats for at least the next decade.
Read the whole thing here, in Saveur magazine.

Monday, October 01, 2007

Naples, Italy: Restaurant Choices and Tips

Caprese Salad: Quintessential Naples

Three and a half days in Naples and all I'm about to tell you is where to eat. This is not so much an indictment of Naples as it is a commentary on the other more exotic and thrilling destinations that are within easy reach of Naples - Capri, Sorrento, Ischia, the Amalfi Coast, Pompeii.... Also, what can I say? I love food!

Gusto y Gusto, Via Partenope: This restaurant is just a couple of blocks away from the line of pricey hotels overlooking the beautiful Gulf of Naples. Ravenous after a circuitous flight from Nice, France, we dumped our luggage in our room and headed out around 3 pm, afraid that the restaurants might be closing for the afternoon. Only, we forgot for a minute that we were in Italy. Lunch hour was just beginning!



Gusto y Gusto was very inviting. They had outside seating and the weather was perfect. The waiter who waved us in from the pavement had a huge smile on his face. If we sat out, we would have a great view of the Gulf of Naples and a portion of the city as it bent around the gulf.


A view of the Castel Dell'Ovo at night from the restaurant

Naples at night from Via Partenope

We had heard a lot about Italian food before we set out on our travels - some good and some bad. Friends warned us that after years of eating pasta and pizza in the US, we might not like the real deal at all. The pizza is too thin, they said; the pasta sure to be undercooked, they said; you'll get tired of all that pasta and pizza within two days, they said.

With all these dire predictions roiling in our heads, we opened the menu, and sure enough, there was pizza and pasta with all sorts of toppings and all sorts of combinations. But we also found that the menu was much simpler than at a typical Italian restaurant in the US.

We ordered the Caprese salad (I can never say no to mozzarella cheese), bruschetta (which we discovered, to our horror, that we'd been mispronouncing with the "ch" sound as in chair when it has the harsher "ch" sound of choir!), a pizza and a pasta.

The meal started out with warm bread with garlic butter, which we devoured. We were just too hungry that late in the afternoon. Everything from the bread to the pasta and the pizza was delicious. It was the best Italian meal we had had ever, bar none. I'm not exaggerating and I can assure you it was not the hunger talking, either.

Because we went back to Gusto & Gusto two more times in the three days were spent in Naples. We were not disappointed. The ingredients were superbly fresh and succulent. The tomatoes were juicy and sweet. The cheese was to die for. The olives were delicious. The pizza had a thin crust but it enhanced the flavors exponentially. The pasta was cooked al dente (I finally figured out the exact consistency of al dente) and I'll agree that that's not how I would prefer my pasta cooked, but the dish over all tasted good.

And the best part of Gusto & Gusto was not even the food. That place is mighty popular among the natives. At night it's a hopping place to see and to be seen in, if all the goings on were to be believed. The line goes out the door for seating at night. Everyone from socialites out for an evening of fun with their beaux to families out for dinner to young couples to college kids to tourists is at Gusto and the owner is a man much in demand.


The owner with one of the wait staff

Even with all the crowds hanging around there are families with young kids too and we were not made to feel unwelcome as we were expecting.

At our first meal at Gusto, as we sat down and settled the kids in their seats, we realized that our daughter's high chair had no belt and the gap was too large between the seat and the bar in front. When we pointed it out to Nino, our waiter, he promptly went in, fashioned a cushion out of a clean tablecloth and padded the high chair with it, blocking the gap as much as he could. Our Italian and his English were both negligible, but in those few moments, we felt welcomed. The waiters and the kitchen staff had genuine affection for the kids, going out of their way to make them feel comfortable and special.



The warm and welcoming wait staff and chef at Gusto & Gusto

If we had the choice, I would dare say we would have had every meal at Gusto. But there were a couple of other landmark restaurants we wanted to check out (plus Gusto does not serve breakfast).

Caffe Gambrinus, Via Chiaia, Piazza del Plebiscito: Located in the sprawling Piazza del Plebiscito, Caffe Gabrinus is a Naples institution.

Piazza del Plebiscito



Gambrinus is open all day late into the night if you find yourself suddenly hungry for a snack. The rooms inside are stupendously decorated with paintings, statues and other art. You can go in for a casual breakfast outside before you start your day of sightseeing and find a scrumptious array of confectionery, pastries and other baked goods to go with your cappuccino or tea. Or you could dress up and head inside later in the day into the Sala Rotonda or the Sala Michele Sergio for a stately and elegant tea.

We liked Gambrinus for the atmosphere, location and history more than its food. The cappuccino was cold by the time it got to us. The waiters were a harried lot, trying to keep track of the million orders from the throngs of people constantly streaming through the place.

It's a great place to visit once during your stay.

Pizzeria Brandi: If you love Margherita pizza, then Pizzeria Brandi is your Mecca. It's located on a quiet, narrow street just off Via Chiaia on Salita S. Anna di Palazzo, a couple of blocks up from Gambrinus. According to the owners, the Pizzeria has been around since 1780. A hundred years later, the story goes, the pizzeria fashioned a brand new pizza in honor of Queen Margherita. The ingredients are few - mozzarella, tomatoes and basil - but the flavor is dazzling.



The service is not that great and seating is cramped and uncomfortable. But definitely worth visiting at least once.


Naples Travel Tips:

1. Facilities: Italy may be classified as a First World country, but in terms of infrastructure, it could use a lot of development. The airport was chaotic to say the least. Trade unions engage in frequent arm-twisting tactics. Just before we left for Italy there was a rail workers strike. While we were in Naples, the garbage collectors went on strike - the evidence was quite visible as far as the eye could see - and in Rome, the day before we left, the taxi drivers went on strike.

So before you head out to any part of Italy, read the local newspapers, be prepared for what might be coming. Check with the concierge at your hotel the day before you need a taxi to head to the airport to confirm that you will have one the next day. You don't want to find out at the last minute that you might not have one. Consider purchasing travel insurance, particularly if any leg of your trip calls for train travel.

2. Haggle, haggle, haggle: The taxi line at the airport was long. That gave us the opportunity to watch the locals and seasoned Italy visitors negotiate the rate before they got into the taxi. The meter runs, but it is ignored for the most part and you don't want to find out after you get off at your destination. Even though we had agreed on a price, we had to call in for reinforcements once we got into the hotel because we found out that the rate we had agreed on was outrageous.

If you thought our hotel was any better, it was not. The lady at the front desk tried to hurry us into their restaurant as it was getting late in the afternoon and, she warned us, the restaurants outside would be winding down their lunch service. Not, as it turns out. They were just getting warmed up.

As they say, Trust, but verify.

3. Traveling with kids: One of the strange things about Italy is its love of children, but the horrendous lack of infrastructure to make is easy to move around with them. Everyone loves kids. Even people who don't have any. There isn't the feeling that kids should not be in such and such place at such and such time (a vibe we definitely felt in Frankfurt, for example). The cab drivers, the doorman at the hotel, people on the street, the lady at the fruit juice shop, the guards at the Vatican museum - they all went out of their way to talk to us about our kids, to tell us "bellisima" "que bella" at the drop of a hat, or help us cut the lines so we did not have to wait long. At many restaurants, we found kids at every table at all odd hours. There is definitely the feeling that kids are part of life, but that's no reason for life to slow down.

But the infrastructure for people with kids is nonexistent. Metros have no elevators or escalators. You have to carry the kids and strollers and your bags down innumerable steps. Also, menus have no options for kids (this I actually like. The kid choices on menus in the US are generally unhealthy).


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