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Wildlife & Politics in Kerala

April 13, 2014 Leave a comment

Morgan and Kim ride Sundari the elephant

Ok, maybe not totally wild, but the “life” part still applies.

My last post on our Kerala trip starts with this pic of Kim and Morgan riding on Sundari the elephant.  Elephants are extremely important in Kerala culture, and all festivals there will feature elephants.  Our hotel was easily able to direct us to a place where they kept some festival elephants so we could see and ride on these amazing beasts.

The ride that the girls took was short but still incredibly memorable.  At one point Sundari, being led by her mahout balked at continuing the walk.  After unsuccessfully trying to cajole the beast forward, the mahout called over another of his colleagues – this fellow gently talked the elephant into proceeding, as Kim related, much as a patient parent might talk to a small child.

I like to think everything worked out well for Sundari, for after the short stroll she had a snack of 3 kgs of bananas that our driver providentially recommended we bring:

Banana time

The dexterity of the elephant trunk is amazing.  Sundari had no problem taking from our hands a single banana, or picking one up from the ground.  I’m sure she could have picked up a pencil or a coin with equal ease.  All 3 kgs of bananas – peels and all – were gone in about a minute.

Another place we visited was Ponnumthuruth Island – in English, Golden Island.  The name comes from a local legend that princesses of the Travancore Kingdom hid their golden jewelry there.  Certainly all of India is mad over gold, but the fever seems to burn hottest in Kerala – with only 3% of India’s population, Kerala nonetheless yearly acquires 20% of the country’s gold.  In 2012, the wedding of the daughter of the CEO of Muthoot Finance Co. (one of Kerala’s biggest banks) made headlines for the 5 kg of gold – over Rs. 1,47,50,000 (1.5 crore) or about $250,000 at current prices – worn by the bride.  Then in a recent headline we see smugglers attempting to bring 1.8 kg of gold into Kerala from Singapore, hidden in printer cartridges, roller-suitcase axles, and other apparently not-so-clever means.

But we really were not interested in gold at Golden Island.  We wanted to glimpse Kerala’s famous backwaters, the intracoastal network of lakes and canals that runs all up and down the Arabian Sea coast.  Golden Island is in the middle of one such lake, and the way you get there is by boat, poled by a boatman:

IMG_1816

This is a place where the jungle habitat of Kerala expresses itself clearly.  All around are coconut palms, cashew trees, and other tropical flora.  The water of the lake is salt and in it we saw numerous jellyfish:

Kerala jungleJellyfish

On the actual island the main thing to do is visit the temples.  There are three: for Lord Ganesh, Lord Shiva and Lord Vishnu.  Pictures were forbidden, but we did observe a puja being made by the Brahmin for Lord Vishnu.  Also just outside the temple walls were two shrines for snake-gods, one pair of gods devoted to Lord Shiva and another pair devoted to Lord Ganesh.  A man was guiding us about these temples so I asked him, “In the north where we stay there are many temples for Lord Shiva and Lord Ganesh, but few for Lord Vishnu.  Why is that?”  He told me quite plainly: “In the north they are Aryans, light people, and here in the south we are Dravidians, dark people.  That is why.”  That I suppose is as good a capsule of the complexities of Hinduism you are likely to hear.

Then we spent another 30-40 mins just roaming the small forest of Golden Island.  As I mentioned, cashew trees are everywhere, here is a small sample that we saw:

Small cashew tree

That curved sort of bud in the center of the picture is the actual cashew.  It is inside a tough and caustic husk and, when mature, the green pod above will ripen into a large, orange-red fruit.  We tasted such a fruit growing wild there at Golden Island – the flavor was tart but not unpleasant, like cashew-flavored lemon drink.

Then it was time to return and our boatman poled us back.  On the way I managed to get a picture of a hawk or eagle-like bird:

Perching eagle

I believe this was most likely a Lesser Fish-eagle, or possibly a Brahminy Kite.

Not all of Kerala is jungle of course.  As we traveled about, mostly on small roads, we saw many colorfully painted, large bungalows, like this one I snapped as our driver barreled down the road at speed:

Bungalow in Kerala

I asked our driver, Who owns these nice houses?  His answer came quickly: Overseas money.  2.5 million or more Keralaites work overseas, primarily in Persian Gulf states like UAE, Kuwait or Qatar; in fact when we visited London over end of year holiday, one of the managers at our hotel was from Kerala.  With extremely high literacy and education rates, Kerala is in an excellent position to supply valued workers.  Remittances from these workers are estimated about 49,700 crore (about $8B !) for 2011 – this is about %30 of the entire domestic product of all Kerala.  The majority of these emigrants are Muslims.  They follow a centuries old pattern of Arabian traders moving back and forth to India – it is called the Arabian Sea, after all.  But nowadays, with laws changing both in India and abroad, emigration from Kerala seems to be on the decline.

And this brings me to politics.  I don’t have much to say on this, philosophically, but I will say politics is everywhere visible in Kerala:

Political signs in KeralaHammer and sickleUDF symbol

Political posters cover any and all exposed spaces.  Also it seems that householders allow different parties to paint or put posters on the walls surrounding their bungalow, I assume sometimes for a fee.  All of these posters include the symbols of the respective party: The hammer and sickle for CPI (Communist Party of India), the raised-hand for UDF (United Democratic Front), and – most rarely seen in our Kerala travels – the lotus blossom symbol of the BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party), the extremely conservative, Hindu-nationalistic party that is making a fair run at breaking the decades-long dominance of the leftist Congress party for rule of India

I think folks from the USA are often amazed to hear of successful communist political parties in other nations – it is part of the 20th century American narrative that we led the fight against communism, and that we won it too, making the world safe for capitalistic purveying of nifty consumer goods like smartphones and TVs which due to the self-created efficiencies of global markets are built in countries like China that just happen to be … communist?

I said I would not be philosophical … sorry, almost done.  I guess seeing all these unexpected symbols on our trip brought back to my mind that India has its own national narrative, that for modern, independent India starts with Gandhi and his vision of agrarian socialism.  The founders of this largest democracy in the world were socialists – capitalism in the form we see in India today is a relatively recent thing, dating to 1991 and the introduction of new, liberal trade policies under then finance-minister, now prime minister, Manmohan Singh.  But for all the magic powers of capitalism and markets, Kerala seems to be doing fine with socialism; they have highest literacy and education rates of any Indian state, and in 2010 a UN study ranked Kerala highest of any Indian state on its human development index, an aggregate score combining per-capita income, life expectancy, education, and income distribution.  It is little wonder Kerala has small interest in the “Modi miracle”, as BJP top candidate Narendra Modi styles his achievements in his home state of Gujarat.

Nothing deflates a discussion or a blog post so much as politics so I’ll stop all that now.  Here are some final images from Kerala: Morgan on our boat ride back from Golden Island; Kim and Morgan beneath a very large cashew tree at the elephant compound; and, fishing boats slowing working their way north along the coastline at Varkala Beach.

Boat ride from Golden IslandMorgan and Kim beneath giant cashew treeFishing boats off Varkala Beach

The world is big and there’s much to see and so I can’t say I expect to be back to any of these places.  I believe the images will stay with us.  Only time and mind will tell.

Till next time.

Categories: Pictures, Travel

Dogs & Dining in Varkala

April 5, 2014 Leave a comment

Sanchez the beach dogAnother beach dog

My last post told you about our trip to Papanasum Beach in Varkala, state of Kerala.  Herewith a few closing odds and ends about this most delightful trip.  I’ll begin with a dog-bites-man (almost!) story.

At Varkala Beach, like everywhere in India, there are wild dogs – though like everywhere else, there are not wild-wild, they are in a kind of symbiosis with people.  The first day on the beach one of these dogs sauntered over to where we were, gave Kim, Morgan and me a quick look, then settled in for a snooze in the shade of my chair.  This dog, in the left pic above, Morgan named “Sanchez” (sand-chaise, get it?)  Two days later a similar dog came and snuggled up next to a couple sitting close to us on the sand; same time, a whitish dog came and sat in the shade of my chair.

These dogs seemed really mild; you can pat them, scratch them, or just leave them be and they are content.  They will take food if you give it, but they don’t go rooting through your stuff looking for snacks.  Just nice dogs.

Anyway, all of us are sitting all peaceful-like with our doggy brothers and sisters when into the vicinity comes an Indian guy hawking leaflets of some kind.  There’s various such people off by the shops and restaurants, but they are not very welcome on the beach itself.  I take note of this guy, and maybe 50 yards away he offers a leaflet to someone.  Then he takes a step in our direction …

It was that instant the doggy Delta Force leapt into action.  Both my dog and the other couple’s dog tore off at top speed at this hawker, barking like Ravana himself had arrived from Sri Lanka.  The hawker scooted away and the dogs came to a stop.  Hawker gingerly steps in original direction – dogs launch themselves, nipping at his heels, very nearly getting a healthy portion of hawker-calf.  The dogs stood sentinel a few moments more then, satisfied they had properly defended what needed defending, they return back to the shade to sleep.

Not a single other person did they treat this way.  Either the dogs have a refined sense of beach propriety – no hawkers allowed! – or they know this particular guy.  As the hawker stood out of range, other people drew away from him, either having no interest in leaflets and/or not wanting to get caught in a canine crossfire.

Final tally: Beach dogs 1, hawker, 0.  Go, beach dogs!

On to other matters … next, food! Along the edge of the beach is a cliff, and at the top of this cliff is a path of 1-2 kms where there are many shops and restaurants:

Varkala North Cliff

Varkala is on the Arabian Sea, and seafood of all kinds is abundant; each night we saw many lights out to sea that seemed to be a fishing “fleet”, but my camera could not well capture them.

But there’s no difficulty in capturing the spoils of these fish hunters.  Every restaurant along the cliff displays a big table of ice and fresh seafood, intended to entice the hungry diner.  Our favorite was the Sea Queen:

Sea Queen RestaurantFresh fish

Red grouper, red and yellow snapper (but a different sort than we get in the Atlantic), dorado, crab, prawn, squid and octopus … and on other days they had some kind of sword-fish, kingfish, and one specimen a restaurant-tout assured us was barracuda – but they are salesmen and not ichthyologists, so we learned not to put too much confidence in those guys’ fish identification.

But the taste spoke for itself:

Fried squidWhole fish from the tandoor

The Kraken released, into butter/garlic.Seafood, Varkala-style

In order, fried calamari, a snapper done in the tandoor, then octopus (just barely sautéed in butter/garlic, perfect tenderness!), and last – our dinner from a different night – a platter of 2 fish, more calamari, prawns, chips and salad.  I have to say this was all the best seafood we have yet had in India.

Well, there’s more to say about our  trip, but that’s for yet-another post.  I’ll leave you with this, sunset over the Arabian Sea:

Sunset from Varkala

Till next time …

Categories: Pictures, Travel Tags: , ,

Papanasam Beach at Varkala, Kerala

March 31, 2014 1 comment

Papanasam Beach facing south Papanasam Beach facing north

Our vacation in Kerala is done and an excellent time it was.  As you can see from these pix of Papanasam Beach, where we were, there were clear skies and ample beach with soft sand … just the thing for relaxation, by Salazar tastes.  It was also a great time to see a slice of South India, in many ways the same but in other ways, quite different from the north, such as Pune in Maharashtra where we live.

For one thing, men everywhere much more are in traditional dress, specifically the lungi, or mundu, a long rectangle of cloth wrapped around the waist to make a skirt:

Man wearing lungi on the beachAt the tea stallMan wearing lungi at the airport

A pretty versatile garment, there’s several ways to go about in your lungi.  You might let it drape down, which gives a cool, slightly formal look.  Or, you might hold one corner, maybe as our airport-goer on the right is doing; this keeps the folds from binding your knees if you want to walk quickly – in fact many men sort of lightly flap their lungi with a kind of jaunty motion as they walk.  Finally, you can grab both edges, fold them up, and knot them in front, as our beach-walker is doing – this is the way for walking fast or doing work.

I thought about trying the lungi myself.  In the end, despite the clear comfort – it’s the tropics, after all – I decided against it.  I think we westerners often look comical in Indian dress, and with the possibility of wardrobe malfunction from an improperly secured lungi, I decided to hold off, perhaps till another visit.

On to the beach itself.  As I said in my previous post, Papanasam Beach is a holy place for Hindus.  They go there to make a special puja, called karkidaka vavu.  These prayers offer food for the dead, and also cleanse the sins from the living as well as the departed.  A key part of the puja is to place an offering of food, spices and other items in a banana leaf, place it on your head, then go down into the sacred water, as this man is doing:

Devotions at Papanasam

Once the water is reached, they will turn around and drop the offering behind.  Then they will rinse themselves all over with the water.

It is late in the season and by talking to some locals we understood there were few people making offerings. In January there would be 100s of supplicants, and on a special day typically in August, 1000s of people will come to the beach.  Still every morning there were 20-30 parties preparing for their prayers on the beach:

Papanasam Beach

Which brings me to one of the most interesting aspects of the whole trip.  Papanasam is indeed a holy place, but it is also a great beach, a place where tourists want to come and spend money.  We saw many Indian couples on the beach like this:

Indian beach-goers

So, there are two kinds of visitors: first the Indians coming to pray and/or relax, and then the foreigners, who come for many reasons, including praying, but also a great many non-prayerful things like drinking, shopping, swimming and sunning.  On this beach everywhere you look you see this contradiction, like here:

West and East

Western women in bikinis, and Indian men in long-sleeve shirts and lungis and Indian women in saris or kameez.  At Varkala both sides peacefully coexist, but the divide between the two worlds is as constantly glaring as the tropical sun itself.

As to the beach: Fantastic!  Not at all crowded; it is the tail-end of the season after all.  The sand was soft, and at both high and low tides there was ample gently sloping beach.  The swells of the Arabian Sea really were modest, but as in the pic on the left, some of the breakers are head-high or more and if you’re standing right at the break-line, you can get knocked over and scraped along the sand:

Surf at PapanasamAlong the beach

The waves in fact support surfing; there’s a surf school and we saw some successful surfers:

Papanasam Surf SchoolSurfer at Papanasam

The last thing I’ll say in this post is about the cliffs.  The beach is about 1.5 km south to north, and to the east is all a high cliff of about 20 meters:

North Cliff

Atop these cliffs are guest houses, shops and restaurants.  You can reach them from the beach via stairs – somewhat eroded and without rails for some places, the stairs are tricky to navigate in the dark.

Here I’ll end my first post about Varkala.  Next time: Elephants, Waterways, Communists, some of the greatest seafood we have ever ate, and the Attack of the Keralan Beach Dog!  Till then …

Categories: Pictures, Travel Tags: , ,

Visiting Kerala

March 23, 2014 Leave a comment

Kerala and Varkala

In just a few hours myself, Kim and Morgan depart for the southern-most state of India, Kerala, there to vacation for 5 days at Varkala Beach.  As you can see from this Google Maps capture, Varkala is pretty far south – only 8.7 degrees north of the equator, it is at roughly the same latitude as Somalia, Ivory Coast and, in South America, Panama and Venezuela.  Weather for our time there will be in the 90s F, clear and sunny.  The beach is below a cliff; our hotel is atop the cliffs and looks out over the Arabian Sea.

From my reading, Kerala is an interesting place: It is the state with the highest literacy rate in India, and oddly also with one of the highest rates of alcoholism.  There are a great many elephants in Kerala – which we plan to visit – as well as numerous lakes and waterways, which we also may visit but, truthfully, we Salazars are mainly looking forward to beach time and scanning the horizon for dolphins that are said to swim thereabouts.

Another thing we doubtless will learn more about happens on the beach itself:

Puja on Papanasam Beach

The beach we will be at is called Papanasam, often called the “sin destroyer”, because its waters are thought to wash away sin.  It is a tourist place, and one many foreigners visit, but the beach also has great significance to Hindus.  There it is considered a very meritorious thing to perform a special puja on the beach with the ashes of the departed.

Soon we will learn more.  Now, all I can say is, if the dolphins can take it, so can we.

Pictures and a full report when we get back.

Categories: Travel Tags: ,

Last London Pics –The V & A

March 1, 2014 2 comments

Albert at the V&A

Here’s the last pics of our London trip (and warning, there are a LOT of pics) from the Victoria & Albert where we spent a good 5 hours.  Like the British Museum there are many antiquities here, but the emphasis on the V & A is more the decorative than the historical or archeological.  (NOTE: If you are interested, I have made as many of these pictures as I can links to the V & A or other reference on the work.)

An interesting example is one of the first works you see at the museum:

Peach Blossom Spring

This work, Peach Blossom Spring, appears as a large example of Eastern calligraphy but on closer examination, the characters are Roman; the work presents an English translation of the famous Chinese fable, the Peach Blossom Spring.  (In the inset I think you can see ‘All Of A’…) This same theme is the subject of a wonderful outside garden:

Peach Blossom reflecting poolMore reflections

Tiny Buddha with blossomsTiny whales on the move

There were a great many old Asian works, such as these from Japan (a favorite place and era of Kim and myself):

Takiyasha the Witch and the Skeleton SpectreTanto & wakizashi

China:

Tomb guardianMing dynasty head in serpentineEarthenware horse

And India, Nepal & Pakistan:

Shiva NatarajNepalese ritual helmetThe throne of Ranjit Singh

Very dramatic is the Sculpture Hall, with examples from many times and places, but mostly from the great days of the British Empire:

Oliver CromwellMonument to Emily Georgiana, Lady Winchilsea Neptune & Triton

From our SCA days and still today, Kim and I are much interested in Medieval Europe.  The V&A is a treasure trove – no, treasure hoard – of such articles:

The Boppard Altarpiece, 1510St. George & the Dragon, 1480Missal from the Abbey of Saint-Denis, 1350

Lastly, the V & A has an unmatched collection of fabric arts of all kinds, a particular passion of Kim’s.  These articles are challenging to capture in photos, especially encased in glass as they all are.  I’ll start with some medieval examples, all priestly wear:

Chasuble, 1450The Clare Chasuble, 1294The Clare Chasuble, 1294

Three later period examples; the piece on the right was done by Mary, Queen of Scots:

Shepheard Buss, 1570Embroidered jacket, 1620Mary, Queen of Scots embroidery

Now, Kim’s great favorite of all needlework is blackwork, of which there were some tantalizing exhibits:

Blackwork smock, 1585Blackwork pillowcasePillow from the Great Bed of Ware

I know that’s a great many pictures … I hope if nothing else this conveys the immense breadth of what’s to be seen at the V & A.  I took over 250 shots there, and daughter Alex took many more as well.  Things we could show you include: Richard Burton’s costume from his Stratford-on-Avon  Henry V (1951);  The Valkyrie costume from The Producers (2004); the amazing “castings gallery”, where architectural works, some stories high, have been re-created in plaster; the ironworks collection; the 20th century design hall, including the Garden Egg chair; the Montefiore Centerpiece, 37 kg of sterling silver with as baroque a rendition of Moses, Ezra and David as you could imagine; plus paintings, jewelry, fabrics and every-day items beyond counting.

This last image I’ll share is a painting we stayed and pondered a while before wandering onwards, The Day Dream, painted by Daniel Gabriel Rossetti in 1880:

The Day Dream

Pre-Raphaelite that he was, Rossetti was also a poet. For this painting he composed a verse of 14 lines, which ends:

Lo! Toward deep skies, not deeper than her look,
She dreams; till now on her forgotten book
Drops the forgotten blossom from her hand.

The thing museums make me wonder more than anything else is: Are we – people, humanity, all of us – different now than we were before?  Does the sentiment of Rossetti, or the  devotion of the embroiderers or chasuble makers, or the vision of the sculptors who chose gods as their subjects, does any of that still exist?  Or have we become over-fond of the “realistic”, the cynical, the clever, the – frankly – small?  If you tell me Rossetti’s painting is puerile, contrived, and shallow, I know what you mean.  But I still like it, and I wonder what Rossetti really thought when he painted it.

Thus, finally, ends the chronicle of our London trip.  I hope to get back to more India postings soon, such as the planning for our end of month trip to KeralaNamastē.

Categories: Pictures, Travel

More London Photos

February 16, 2014 Leave a comment

Tower of London Entrance

Sorry its been so long between posts … after our return back to India I had quite a lot of start-of-year, post-vacation work catch-up to do, including preparation for our IBM Connect 2014 show in Orlando.  Now its been 9 days since my return from a 9 day stay in the US, and jet-lag is only now dissipated.  We saw a lot of sights on our London trip … one of which being the Tower of London, so here I share some pictures and thoughts.

First a bit about the city.  It occurs to me London may be the oldest intact city in the world – and by “intact” I mean structurally recognizable, and having districts with continuous identification over a very long period.  This revelation – not terribly original, I admit – came to me while we were back in India, watching Olivier’s Henry V (having just seen Jude law, we wanted a comparison).  The start of the film is a panning shot over a diorama of London in Shakespeare’s time, ending up at the Globe Theater.  Early on you see the famous London Bridge and a white castle on the north bank of the river:

Shakespeare's London

Seeing this I remarked, “That’s where we were!” – meaning, the Tower of London.  Suddenly the tube maps I had looked at, and all the place names I had heard of somehow fell into place as I realized modern Londoners have a mental map of their city not unlike what Shakespeare himself must have had.  How different from a place like Pune, where 90% of what you see is new since the mid 90s, and long-time residents have often have trouble recognizing where they are.

Ok, enough commentary … here are some pictures:

Tower of London dioramaThe White TowerGrounds at the Tower

The Tower is not a single castle or building, it is several all enclosed by a bordering wall.  The largest is the White Tower (the center pic above) which was build by William the Conqueror in the 11th century, and so is the oldest part of the overall Tower.  Inside the grounds are many buildings built over the centuries, and in some places historical staff re-enact medieval life, like the campsite in the picture on the right.

The Tower of course is famous as a prison:

Tower of London prisoner graffitiRaleigh's desk

Above left are some carvings made by Catholic prisoners in the 16th century; these are in the Salt Tower, a series of plain stone cubicles and stairways.  Rather more comfortable where the apartments assigned to Sir Walter Raleigh, who was imprisoned in the so-called “Bloody Tower” (where supposedly Richard III murdered his young nephews) from 1603 to 1618.  Raleigh’s desk, shown above, is where he authored his “History of the World”, an ambitious work if there ever was one.

If you visit the Tower you must see the Crown Jewels:

The Jewel House

These are maintained in the “Jewel House”.  Since these are the top attraction for visitors to the Tower, there very wisely is a system of managing the flood of visitors.  Railings allow the crowds to queue in an orderly fashion, then every 30 mins or so another batch of regalia-hungry tourists will be allowed to enter.  Photos are forbid inside – I will only say there are one or two knick-knacks therein I would not mind having for my own, not the least of which was the Wine Cistern, a mind-numbingly gaudy punchbowl that holds 144 bottles of wine and weighs over 250 kg – in 18-karat gold no less.

Coming back to the White Tower, through much of its history (including in WW2) that tower was used as an armory.  The display of arms and armor there is unequalled:

Mounted armorVarious armorsHenry VIII armor

Swords of the Kings of EnglandThe armory at the TowerChild's armor

 
On the top right is one of the armors of Henry VIII, famous (or infamous) for its codpiece.  Quite interesting was the display of swords of Kings of England, beginning from George III.

I’ll leave off with this last photo:

Norman knight explains it all

Here a re-enactor, garbed as a warrior from Williams the Conqueror’s time, explains a bit about medieval life to a young visitor.  The Tower really is like that – live history that is all at once workaday and amazing.

Soon, a final London post, about the Victoria and Albert.


Categories: Uncategorized

And the winner is …

January 24, 2014 Leave a comment

The Rosetta Stone

Afraid further pic-posts from our London trip will have to wait, as I am later today off to the US for our yearly Collaboration-Services Conference, IBM Connect 2014.  There among the things I will do is present an hour-long session in video-panel format, with 10 developers from my worldwide team answering questions and sharing insights about IBM Sametime.  Though I have no fears about the software holding up, networking at these events is always tricky, so wish me luck.

But before I go I wanted to award a Mighty Marvel No-Prize to my good friend Tom, who correctly identified the location of the crowd-shot in my last post as The Rosetta Stone.  The shot above is closest I could get and was taken 1-handed with camera aloft.  I guess seeing as this is an artifact at the British Museum that virtually everyone has heard of, it’s not surprising people would cluster round.  But for those of us who read neither hieroglyphics, nor demotic, nor ancient Greek (the three languages used on the stone) I can only say it is a nice stone indeed, of impressive heft and neatly done carving, and one that would be a great conversation starter if displayed in the family den.

Now, back to a few hours of work, including some rehearsal for my talk, and then at 6:30 pm my time I embark to Mumbai to begin the journey towards Orlando and all things Collaborative and Mousey.  I should land in Florida around 6 pm Saturday local time, for an elapsed travel time of about 35 hours.  Such are the joys of international business life.

Categories: Sundries, Technology, Travel

Back from London, part II … The British Museum

January 18, 2014 1 comment

GUESS WHERE THIS PICTURE WAS TAKEN

One of our goals in our recent holiday trip to London was to see some of the many museums there.  Wikipedia tells me there are 240 museums in London, including the Sigmund Freud Museum, Michael Faraday Museum, and the Type Museum.  Seeing we only had 4 days to work with, I hope we’re forgiven that we only saw “the big three”, starting with The British Museum, The Victoria & Albert Museum and The Tower of London.  Herewith follows my first whirlwind chronicle of these places.

But before I begin, a challenge: Try to identify where the picture above was taken, and put your guess in a comment, either on FB or on the blog.  It is from one of the 3 visited museums, so extra credit if you can identify a specific exhibit.  I’ll share the answer in my post after this.

The British Museum

Amenemhat IIIAmenhotep IIIAmenhotep III

The British Museum brings together artworks and cultural artifacts from civilizations past and present – but, mostly past.  The three samples above are all from the ancient Egyptian hall, one of the first you will encounter when you enter.  There are many colossal statues here, and their size and demeanor sets a dramatic tone as soon as you enter.  Going from left to right, the first dates from 1850 BC and portrays Amenemhat III; at only 31 inches high, this is one of the smaller works.  The remaining two both portray Amenhotep III (aka Amenhotep the Magnificent) and date from around 1370 BC. The middle statue is 60 inches high, the one on the right 114 inches – think about it, nearly 10 feet! – and weighs 3,600 kg.  The expressiveness of these ancient works is striking, giving us a window into the character of these rulers from over 3,000 years ago.

Next stop was the ancient Greek collection: Incredible.  Every other thing Kim and I saw we felt certain we had seen before – in pictures of course – in art history books, book covers, etc.  Perhaps you have the same feeling looking at these examples:

Sutila showing Athena and PerseusCorinthian bronze helmetBust of Pericles

Just to give you a sense of how much stuff there is here, the helmet shown above – dating from 650-570 BC – is one of 62 bronze helmets in the museum collection.  It was acquired by the museum in 1904 from a Mrs. Hawkins, who also donated a bronze greave and a statuette of Mercury.  Such factoids can easily be found using the museum’s search function, which let’s you look for, for example, “bronze helmet”.  Pretty much, if you have a picture of something from the British Museum, and a basic sense of what it is, you can find out everything you could ever want about that specific piece.

We spent a long time looking over the museum’s most famous exhibit: the Elgin Marbles:

Relief sculpture from the ParthenonRelief sculpture from the ParthenonSelene's Horse

These amazing sculptures adorned the Parthenon, until they were removed by Thomas Bruce, the 7th Earl of Elgin in the early 1800s.  There is controversy over whether these priceless artifacts ever should have been removed, or if they should be returned.  All that aside, we should be glad these works have been preserved.  2,400 years old, these statutes show both a realism and intense energy that is instantly affecting.  For example, the horse’s head, above, comes from a section where originally the gods witnessed the birth of Athena.  This horse is one that drew the chariot of Selene, the moon goddess; I daresay not till Da Vinci was the horse so expressively rendered by western artists.

It is easy to spend an hour just looking at the marbles alone, which we did.  They are arrayed along walls in their own very large hall.  At either ends are some monumental free standing sculptures.  The lounging figure of Dionysus, on the right below, would have been eight feet or more had the wine god been standing.

Wall of Elgin marble reliefsDionysus from the East Pediment

 
Alas, we only spent a bit over 4 hours in the British – we had to make an early dinner and then off to Henry V –  and barely saw anything of the Asia, Medieval or Middle Eastern halls.  Those will wait till our next London visit, though no way of knowing when that would be.

Next posts, The Victoria and Albert (I promise) and The Tower of London (I hope).

Categories: Pictures, Travel

Back from London, part I

January 2, 2014 1 comment

Tower ticket Henry V Ticket
Mousetrap ticketUnderground ticket

Myself, Kim and Morgan have returned to Pune – arriving back home around 5 am on Jan 1 – while elder daughter Alex is back in Boston enjoying one of our signature New England weather events.  Herewith some initial report on our revels.

Travel Travails

A minor hitch at the start of our visit, Alex’ Christmas Eve flight from Boston to London after a long delay had to be rescheduled; her connector to Halifax would arrive long after the second leg to London had departed.  She was re-booked for the 26th and was able to reach London first thing Friday morning where, groggy but mobile was able to join us in our rambles about town, and later to see Henry V.

Theater

First of the shows we saw was The Mousetrap, a comic mystery by Agatha Christie which has been playing continuously for over 60 years.  This was tremendously entertaining; if you have read somewhat of Dame Agatha’s works – as have myself, Kim and Morgan – you quickly pick up on her signature characterizations.  As to the ending I can only say if you see this show, you will be guessing up till the conclusion – after which the actors taking their final bows, swear you to secrecy to never reveal the mystery.  Like the rest of the show, this vow is a quaint throwback, quite meaningless in the internet age … still I’ll leave it to others to reveal the identity of the killer.

On Friday it was off for more serious fare with Henry V starring Jude Law.  This is rather a hot ticket, but I was able to snag 4 seats via GetMeIn.com (said seats having been purchased by one Craig C Willers and re-sold to me).

This play is well known to our family, all of us having watched many times both the Olivier and Branagh versions, as well as local productions.  The first thing to say about this show, directed by Michael Grandage, was that it was “raw” Shakespeare.  The sets are spare – nor more than the “wooden O” Shakespeare himself cited – and the actors render their lines with an uptempo pacing that moves the show along.  These things are in line with the goals of the Grandage Company, which are to produce plays accessible to a younger, wider audience; in this season of 5 plays 100,000 tickets were kept at a price of £10.

However, while I enjoy any staging of Shakespeare where a top company of actors comes together under top direction, I feel this show missed its opportunity.  This play is supposed to cap the cycle that begins in Henry IV Parts 1 and 2.  In those plays the young Henry searches for his place in the world, looking through the eyes of men both common and noble.  In Henry V, the king must integrate these two views and finally resolve his own character.

Alas, Jude Law did not bring that through to us.  His Henry was never at a loss, never in doubt, even though the play gives him many chances to show this struggle, as in the scene where the traitors are uncovered – Jude was scolding and smug in his treatment of the turncoats, showing not a hint of self-doubt after betrayal by his own best friend – or as in the famous “Harry in the night” scene – rather than discovering the answers to the hard questions posed by the common soldiers, Jude almost berates them in a “how can you be so thick?” tone.  Law’s Henry ends the play as he began, a good and upright king – which is fine, but I was hoping for something more.

Still, this was an excellent show that kept us hanging on every word.  Pistol, Bardolph and Nym were very well done – they were very much the human face of the play – and the final wooing scene with Henry and Princess of France Katherine was the best I have seen – it captured both Henry the soldier bringing a human touch to state courtship, and Katherine the princess as a bargaining chip, but one who is determined to speak truth, as when she says “the tongues of men are full of deceit”.

 

I’ll end my post here … next time I’ll do some show-and-tell on our visits to some of London’s great museums: The British Museum, The Victoria and Albert, and The Tower of London.

Categories: Pictures, Travel

Christmas Trip to the UK

December 24, 2013 4 comments

BBC's Ultimate roast beefThe British MuseumJude Law as Henry V

When it comes to Christmas and Year-end holidays, we Salazars are very much set in our ways: we celebrate at home with an over-large tree decorated with ornaments saved over decades; of course, cookies; Christmas music 24 x 7 that always includes at least one playing of The Waitresses 1981 should-have-been-a-hit Christmas Wrapping; then Christmas Eve dinner at home and Christmas Day dinner with good friends Tom and Meredith.

Alas, this year our traditional celebration is not in the cards.  Rather than open up our home from storage-mode, stock food, etc., we decided to all meet elsewhere for the holiday.  And, where better than London, a place Kim and I have long had on our when-will-we-visit-there list.

The plan is already packed: We all arrive early Christmas Day; then it’s off to afternoon Christmas Dinner at the strangely named Scoff & Banter; then, back to the hotel to watch the debut of the twelfth Doctor on BBC One.  Boxing Day is for some shopping, then a matinee of The Mousetrap.  Friday we see Jude Law in Henry V.  Then its visits to the British Museum, the Victoria & Albert, and the Tower of London.  We all depart for our respective homes morning of New Year’s Eve, I’m sure all properly exhausted.

I’m sure we’ll report on our travels during the coming week.  Meanwhile, whether you stay or go, we hope the holiday brings you joy.  Be well.

Categories: Travel
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