Noi6 means "the 6 of us" in Romanian.

We are five, you are the sixth one.

We thank you for joining us in our trip around the world...

Thursday, December 29, 2011



We have had a hard time dodging Asian traffic.

It is crazy, except in Japan. There you get nice drivers who pay attention to the rules. You can wait for a long time for the traffic light to change. Most people in Japan wait through this, even if there are no cars.

Then you get in China and you feel like people don’t care if they run you over. They just want to get to their destination, but of course they care that they might break their car. In some parts of China they have built bridges where you can go over traffic, YAY!

That's just some. In China and Tibet (which is in China) the traffic wouldn’t stop, so we usually followed the locals, or time really well, and RUN!

Nepal was mostly the same with narrower streets and so is India. Here we jumped into a bus while it was moving, because the drivers don’t stop, they just slow down.

If you are reading this, it means we are ALIVE!

Hide and Seek

Deeply buried within us is the wish to be special— different from the rest of the world. And, in spite of our altruistic appearance, we’re happy that we feel different. We could have been like the other three million people who visit the Taj Mahal each year, and have taken pictures from all angles. But no... because the Taj was enshrouded in fog.
The owner of the hotel had told us the night before that if we are going at 6:30 am, there will be fog. “Listen, all the tourists at my hotel—and I have only foreign tourists—go to the Taj Mahal later.” But it’s Maria’s birthday and she likes to wake up early to enjoy every minute of it. On top of this, we don’t like crowds, and want to enjoy the monument with peace and quiet and space. The majority of tourists from Delhi come in the day time, see the sunset at the Taj, and then at night they’re back at their hotel. But we don’t want to be like the majority.
So we wake up at 5:30am, eat something while standing, and meet with the taxi driver at 6. We drive through a fog so thick we can’t see the road. Luckily, the headlights lead us along like Ariadne’s thread (or Dumbledore’s Deluminator).

We’re greeted from the sides by Indians who are stretching their limbs. I guess that they’re the vendors or guides which will assault us later. The ticket counter isn’t open yet, but there is activity; they’re sweeping, tying their turbans, putting shawls around their shoulders. There are two counters: one for Indians (divided into two, with a large balustrade between them. One side is for men, the other for women). The other counter is for foreigners. At this hour only the last of them are standing in line. The cold is humid and penetrates any layer of clothing you may have on. After we buy our tickets we collect our shoe covers and wait in the next line, where we can enter the palace. There is segregation even here and the four lines are, female foreigners, female Indians, male Indians and high value tickets holders (this is because foreigners pay 750 rupees compared to 20). After we pass through security, we arrive in a square where there are more people. They entered through the other gates.
The gate behind which the Taj Mahal is hiding can barely be seen, and we’re right next to it!
 I admire the intricate chandelier and keep walking. The gate ensconces a white atmosphere.
 We hurry through the garden towards the actual building, put on our shoe covers and climb the wooden stairs built over the marble ones. We’re face to face with the Taj Mahal. 

 As we enter the mausoleum we realize that it’s warm... the light filters through two rows of jalis (perforated stone windows) and through the windows from under the cupola, plus the cold light from the fluorescent bulb in the intricate lamp above the tombs. We can hear the pigeons fly and the cries of their young ones. We don’t know which way to look first.  The small fence which surrounds the center is occupied by a tourist group looking at the gate made of one block of marble. This portal has precious stones inlaid in the shapes of flowers.
 We move to one side, looking at the sculpted lace, following the dainty arabesques. The central vein flowers and bifurcates into delicate ovals. Our sight feels the smoothness. There is so much love ... you can’t create something this beautiful without loving marble and your work. It’s hard to tear myself away and keep going.
We make a round trip and arrive in front of the gate: in the center is Mumtaz’s grave, and to the side, Shah Jahan’s. His is a bit taller and bigger, but both are covered in that white motive with red and yellow flowers, with green leaves and black thistles. I notice that his is a bit raised on one side, which means that the floor with white marble stars separated by black strips is curved so that water can drain away!

We exit the central part and go around it between the jalis. The foggy light filters through and warms the floral basrelief. 
 Too quickly it’s finished and we find ourselves outside. We wait... maybe the fog will lift. We try to photograph the verses from the Quran written in black on marble one metre in width;
 we take pictures of details, a sweeper... 

The humid cold gets the better of us so we enter the mausoleum again. Calm... seeing it again... I touch the marble walls and precious stones and feel their warmth...
It’s time to leave. Though we found the Taj Mel in its hiding spot (as the Indians pronounce it), we didn’t see it properly.
We hurry towards the car and drive to Ttimad-ud-Daulah. It is Mumtaz’s grandparents’ grave and it’s nicknamed... Baby Taj. Just like Fontainebleu Castle is the precursor to Versailles, this one inspired the Taj Mahal. A small building, multi-colored, on a square platform, surrounded by fountains. 
 A jewel which shelters graves of orange marble. I feel happy— I feel like skipping and clapping my hands. On the inside the arcades are painted with blue and gold. 
 My eyes go over the walls with flowers made of stone: yellow, black, red, white, and so called green, that has waves of turquise and mother of pearl. With my mind’s eye I see the hands which cut, polished, sculpted, glued, and smoothed all the details ... so much work...  

And because we are close to the Yamuna river we drive to its shores to see the Taj Mahal. We pass by Mehtab Bagh, a garden recently arranged to protect the monument from sandy wind. A camel with touristic harness is eating its lunch. A place with many small temples. Military tents, the river and... as if through a veil, the Taj.  One side is in sunlight, the other in shadow. No matter how long we try, we cannot see it beter. We take pictures, when suddenly we hear bleating and the sound of bells: an Indian woman and some children were coming with a herd of goats so that they could graze on the banks. 
On to Agra Fort. Akbar had his court here when he built Fatehpur Sikri and we recognize places from “Jodhaa Akbar.” In the courtyard an old man surrounded by his family asks us if we are from Teheran. Our negative answer prompts him to tell us that everything here was built by Iranians. He is from Teheran, but lives in London. National pride!
As usual we walk without a guide through the yards and read the inscriptions provided by the Indian Archeological Institute. We learn about a succesion of shahs that usurped their fathers, about the people who built and improved the fort, about the water collection system from the river with Archimedes water wheel. From over a hundred buildings, only 38 survived the test of time and British military. The symmetry, the alternance of white marble and red stone, the repetition of the elements... It doesn’t compare with what we saw until now, but it has a feeling of order, of hierarchy. Finally we find the rooms where Shah Jahan spent his last years of life, imprisoned by his son Aurangzeb. We follow his line of sight over the river... but the Taj is hiding again in foggy folds.
But you know what? If we can see the domes of the Pearl Mosque from the fort, it means that we can see the Taj Mahal from the South Gate! Mr. Juned waited for us in the car and we go again across Agra through markets, between rickshaws and cows. There is no one in line for tickets, no one in the foreign line for security and we’re happy because the Indian Government gives us the privilege to be different: the line for Indians is doubled on itself... Armed with our high value tickets we waltz through the security and wait for the boys... who don’t show up.
We have the proof of how good is the security around the monument: they won’t let Mihai enter with a flashlight! We read in the guide that the marble is translucent and in the morning we checked it out.
Even a guide asked to borrow it to show to his clients, but this didn’t impress the soldier. We were not allowed! (but it looked so beautiful with the garnets and the marble lighted from inside).  And now, at our second visit, he had to promise he will not use it. I don’t have the patience to wait for them to shake the rocks out of their shoe, and hurry to take my place in the center of the gate for the touristic photo.
Ten, twenty, thirty, a hundred! Ready or not, here I come! 
They catch up with me and we try to have our picture taken. The light is perfect, with a pinkish hue. Though we can see the gardens now, we’re not according them even a look, all attention concentrated on the Taj. We climb the central platform of the fountain and we’re taking classic pictures. An Indian with a blue shirt and white dhotti offers his service to take our family pictures: he tells us where to stand, to change positions, stand up, sit down, he stops other people from getting into our picture, he hides in the arch of the staircase for a better angle. He’s good! His kindness is rewarded with a hundred rupees ($2).
After some jumping pictures, I leave them to their devices and try to take advantage of the sunset light. I realize that I forgot my shoe covers and walk in my socks. I’m next to the building and look at it only through my lens... this is an interesting angle...catch the sun under the kiosk... a river panorama... On the steps of the minaret there are some Indians who look at me.... “weird these tourists, they come, take pictures, but they don’t stop to enjoy...” I’m trying to capture the bronze tip with the crescent moon, but for this I have to lie down; I place my shoes with the soles facing each other on the floor, and while I take a picture, I hear them talking, I presume approving my gesture (the mosque, the tomb are holy places, and we have to follow Moses example, take our shoes off)

Ha, ha, haaa I found you and I took your pictures! But I was happy too early, the battery is exhausted....and ooooooh, how many pictures I could have taken! Who laughs last...but no, I won’t give up, turn off, turn on the camera, shake the battery and take some more pictures, but in the end I have to stop. Without the camera, I see people, not as many as I imagined. A father takes pictures of his four children climbing the platform, their mother smiles happy and tired. I see their bare feet and follow their example. The marble is cool and imperfect, slightly uneven, like it was used more in some places. I look at things that this morning were lost in mist; I can see them, a little bit clearer, more colored, and they continue with other ones. A symbolic monument, so simple and so detailed... who has the merit? The one who ordered and paid for it? Did he pay for it, or was it the loot from wars? The one who conceived it? The ones who build it? The one who inspired it? It has no importance now, they are all dead.
I go around it trying to absorb as much as I can...the soldiers are still there allowing the foreigners to enter and the Indians to stay in line, such a long one that I can’t see the end. I ask myself if I want to enter again, but I refuse, I don’t want to change the morning’s images, with marble in space and pigeons in flight... it must be very crowded... and sudenly I realize... that’s why the marble was warm, from the ones who breathed and stepped on it the day before.
I find my family and we start toward the exit. We thank God that He gave us the possibility to come and see what we never imagined, and that we could do it on Maria’s birthday. The South Gate’s platform is almost empty, some tourists and Indians are there. The sun has set, but there is still that reddish light. We sing “Happy Birthday!” to Maria. Behind us it looks like the air has hardened in specific shapes.

We say good bye and leave. The Taj has hidden behind the gate and I don’t think that I am ever going to look for it, to take it out from its hiding place...
Dinner, luggage, going to bed early, we have to wake up at 5:30 to go to the train station... I can’t fall asleep, my mind races over the buildings, the lights, all the untaken photos....hee, hee, hee, in the end I win! 

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Guitars & Nepal

blog: 1. (noun) a personal website or web page on which an individual records opinions, links to other sites, etc., on a regular basis. 2. (verb) add new material to or regularly update a blog.
Well, that was helpful. I still don’t know how to blog.
Anyways, y’all didn’t get a blogpost on Nepal from me. So sorry about that. I like to blame lack of computer due to selfish parents, but then again, I’m biased.
Nepal in one word: Phantasmagorical (I swear to you I did not make that word up).
Nepal in more words: gorgeous. Great. Loud. Noisy. Fascinating. Colorful. Ridiculously interesting. Great temples. Cool people. Epic clothes. Fun.
All in all, I loved Nepal. I loved seeing the temples (did not love reading up on them beforehand, though), and I loved seeing the clothes, and, sadly enough, I loved walking by the guitar store and nearly bursting into tears*. Our hotel was right outside a school, and I actually liked hearing all the kids screaming and laughing outside (I didn’t like the kid upstairs, though, who, according to Mom, was playing with a hammer). The only part I didn’t like were the vaccinations, as I do not, in general, like vaccinations.
*This is the part where I start moaning in regret. The things I miss most from home are my piano and guitar. I’ve been studying piano since I was six, and have been avoiding it religiously ever since my first lesson. Guitar, however, I’ve only been studying since I was eleven, and avoided just as religiously until this summer, when I started to play it much more often. But now that I’ve gone and there is no way for me to play them (Apps are not adequate replacements), I’d like to go home and spend a ridiculously huge amount of time just playing**.
**Of course not “just playing”! I have compositions to compose! Accompaniments to arrange!
Oh God I sound like Maria.
Ahem. Anyways, I’ve been informed that blogposts don’t have to be a million words long. Just 500 is OK. So, I’m just going to talk about Chitwan, Nepal, which was the most epickingest part of Nepal (I didn’t make that word up either. Your spellcheck, however, will disagree).
To reach Chitwan from Kathmandu, a bus must be taken. The road will occasionally have bumps, but it’s mostly a smooth ride. After many hours, Chitwan is reached. We get to Sapana Lodge, which is beautiful and bright, and are given the welcome drink, which is delicious. Naran, the manager, comes up to us to discuss rooms (we’d originally booked two, but they had an overbooking problem and he wanted to know if we were willing to have just one big room instead), program (if we want to go to the village, through the jungle, bird-watching, canooing, etc.), prices, etc. We go to our one big room and quickly acquaint ourselves with three little girls and an even littler boy. I cannot remember their names for the life of me, but they were very sweet and would kiss us, hug us, put flowers in our hair, and ask for pens, hairties, money, candy, and my crucifix. The pens we needed and didn’t give, the hairtie I wouldn’t have minded giving if it hadn’t been my only purple one (sobs into handkerchief), candy I did not have, and my crucifix was mine, and, considering how possessive I can be of my things, I’m surprised they escaped unscathed (I think it was the cuteness factor). And as for the money, before we left the US, I took out all the cash from my wallet ($6) and put it in one of the many pockets from my Scottevest, which was what I’d been wearing when we met the children. As they were putting flowers in our hair, it occurred to Maria that she and Mom needed hairties (of which I was in possession). The hairties were in the same pocket as the money. Later, as I was putting the hairties away, one of the girls stuck her hand in my pocket and came out with the cash. She gave one to each of them and kept one for herself, then gave me the remaining two dollars. They hugged me and left. Since then, I have not carried cash longer than necessary.
That evening we went to a Tharu village not that far from the lodge and we met with more children. They asked us our names and we asked them theirs, and some brought us flowers. One of the little boys took to taking dramatic poses and shouting, “ILENA!”* at the top of his lungs. Pretty soon all the kids where shouting my name and by the time we left the village, I had my hands and my hair full of flowers.
*Meeting non-Romanians that can pronounce my name properly is just short of astounding, and results in having that non-Romanian reaching a very high level of respect in my eyes (so far it’s just Nick). For those who can’t say my name, Ilena/Alana is [just barely] acceptable. Nicknames are suitable.
On the way back from the village I ceremoniously dropped the flowers on the Grandmother River and watched them float away. I kept the little boy’s purple flower in my hair, though.
After dinner there was a Tharu stick dance demonstration. It was pretty much indescribable. It was like martial arts a bit, but still dance. It reminded me a bit of the hora, which is a traditional Romanian dance, mostly because of the dancing around in a circle, I guess, and probably the white outfits. After they showed us the harvest dance, the fire dance, the war dance, and more—there was one last dance in which they asked us to join in. I failed worse than snowman with a hairdryer, but GOLDARNIT I HAD FUN.
The first full day in Chitwan was spent like so: a lovely elephant ride through the jungle, where we saw trees, leaves, plants, and occasionally even (gasp!!!) animals. It was lovely, so long as you ignored the elephant driver as he beat the poor elephant with his stick, but besides that it was gorgeous. Then, after the elephant riding, we went elephant washing. It was very wet. But it was amazing! The elephant is so huge and so rough, but so soft and loving... I can’t believe that such a huge animal, one which could easily overcome an unarmed human, puts up with the sort of treatment it receives from its handler. Not all handlers are bad, though. As we were walking into the jungle for the elephant ride, we passed a handler and his elephant. He was sitting on the elephant’s neck, eating crackers, then the elephant would then reach up with his trunk and would receive a cracker.
After the washing, we lazed around in the room, attempted to connect to internet, and in Maria’s case, swung in hammocks, until the evening where we took a canoe ride to the elephant breeding center, which, unlike the Beijing Zoo, did not have cages, but was no less saddening.
The next day, Ioan and Dad were going to go bird-watching, but Ioan had developed a fever from the Typhoid shot, and so stayed home, to his infinite sadness. Mom stayed in the room with him as Maria and I played badmington with Jamal our waiter, Paras the assistant cook, and another waiter. Then Dad came back from bird-watching and it was Maria and Jamal vs. Dad and I. They won, but only because the wind was on their side. Then Dad and Jamal faced off and Jamal won again. I played a bit of football soccer with Jamal as Maria played more badminton, and then we went back to our room.
Later, I was writing outside as Jamal was drying the glasses. One thing that I’d noticed about him was that he liked to sing, but, unfortunately for me, he sang quietly. So I asked him what he was singing.
“Nepali love song,” he said.
“Oh. Will you sing it for me?” I asked, being the insatiably curious one that I am.
“Nooooo,” he said, embarrassed. “What about you, do you sing?”
“Well, um, yeah. You know. A bit.”
“Sing something for me,” he said, making encouraging gestures.
“Oh, okay.” I said. “I like to ride with a jungle-machine repair man. Na na na na na na na na na... He was high on individualism. I’ve never been there but the brochure looks nice... Jump in, let’s go. Lay back, enjoy the show. Everybody gets high, everybody gets low. These are the days when anything goes. Everyday is a winding road... I get a little bit closer. Everyday is a na na sigh... I get a little bit closer, I’m feeling fine.” (In my defense, I don’t really know this song. It was just stuck in my head since the elephant ride.)
Jamal clapped, complimented my voice, and asked for another. The result was “Fearless” by Taylor Swift. He said I sang like this boy, he didn’t know the name... The waiter from earlier came over with his cellphone and they found the singer, so I came over and listened to one of Justin Bieber’s earlier singles. Is it okay to be told you sing like Justin Bieber if you’re a girl? Dad’s bird-watching guide came over too and they asked me to sing more. I brought out my iTouch and sang some of my own lyrics. They recorded me, took pictures and video, and added their compliments to Jamal’s. Almost thirty feet over, the director, Dhruba, heard me and shouted that my voice was beautiful and that he thought someone was playing a CD. Then he said the most beautiful thing that I had ever heard in my whole entire life: his friend had a guitar, and they could bring it over tonight. Naturally, my reaction was, “A guitar?!! Where?!! When?!! Can I have it now? Can I keep it?” but instead I just said, “Really? Thanks!” (how unoriginal).
All throughout dinner, everyone was coming up to me saying that, sorry, the friend is late, but he is coming and we can play around the campfire after dinner. Then, when the friend arrived and the food was eaten, they ushered me to the campfire and I played.
And then, the worst possible thing happened: I forgot all the chords.
Naturally not the lyrics. Lyrics can be sung in the shower and at the top of one’s lungs in empty hotel rooms. But chords require guitars (or guitar apps). But I’d forgotten to copy the chords to my songs somewhere other than in notebooks. Which happened to be in a big, plastic box. Beneath my bed. At home.
(Lucky me, I know exactly which notebook. It’s green, spiral-bound, has 70 sheets, cost about ten cents, and has “Thirteen” written in black ink on the cover. The chords are on the last page of “At a Gas Station”, which is in the middle of the notebook.)
Even luckier, I still remembered the chords to my favorite song I’d written, “Last Time (The Rain Falls)”, “Na Na Na (Campfire Song)” also by me, and “I Love You” by Avril Lavigne. The guitarist friend played more songs, mostly Nepali songs, but also Pink Floyd. At one point he asked me who my favorite singers were, to which I quite naturally said Guns N’ Roses.
“Do you know ‘Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door’?” he asked.
The answer was a yes, so he played it and I sang along. Later we also sang my all-time favorite, “Don’t Cry”, which I forgot the lyrics to.
Of course, I was not the only one singing. Mom sang a song about a man who meets a wolf, to whom he says, “Don’t eat me, wait for my wife.” The wife comes along and the man says, “You can eat me or my wife, better yet, eat my mother-in-law!” Another of the guests who’d heard me singing the day before sang a song like “Just look on the bright side of life...” All in all, we had the most lovely time around the campfire, singing and guitar-playing. I hated leaving the next day, but while waiting for the parents to get in the jeep to get to the bus, Maria and I started planning.
“When I come back here,” I said, “I’m bringing Lydia and Ingrid.”
“I’m bringing Helen.” Said Maria. “Oh, but I have to take her to France first.”
“Maybe I should bring Michael?” I asked.
“Um, because it’s Michael, and he’s sweet and fun and hilarious?”
“Yeah, but still.”

Friday, December 23, 2011

Write Your World (amino): India

Write Your World (amino): India: You all are probably going to be crossing your fingers for me to get out of Goa so that you can read about monuments and cultures, but… gr...

What would I like for Christmas?


There is a Chinese folk tale about an emperor who wanted a painted panel with two fighting dragons on it — one red, the other yellow, and so well-painted that they looked alive. His courtiers searched through the entire empire for a painter who would be able to paint these dragons. But the painter, once he had listened to the emperor’s orders, asked for three years in which to practice. He reclused himself into a cave in the mountains, where he painted from sunrise to sundown. And when the three years had passed, he went to the palace.
In front of the entire court, he approached the black panel with golden margins, arranged his paints, and selected a brush. He dipped the brush in the yellow paint and drew a line on the canvas. Then, he selected a second brush, and dipped it in the red paint, and drew another line on the canvas. He set his brushes down, turned to the emperor, bowed respectfully with his head to the ground, and offered the panel to the emperor. After a short moment of confusion, the emperor became enraged and ordered that the painter be beheaded and the canvas thrown away.
After some time, a war started, and the emperor had to leave the imperial city with many armies to protect his empire. And it just so happened that he managed to chase the enemy off. Very happy with his success, he started towards home. Being told that the cave of the painter was close by, he wanted to see the other attempts the painter had made at painting the dragons. His servants carried him up the mountain, but at one point it was not possible any more and the emperor had to climb to the cave all by himself. At the mouth of the tall cave was a painting as high as the ceiling. The two dragons spit fire, they twisted, they turned, their scales sparkled, but their eyes were dim.
The emperor walked on, to the next painting, further in the cave. It was a bit smaller, but after the emperor peered at it for a while he realized that this painting, too, was not perfect. And as he kept walking deeper and deeper into the cave, the paintings became smaller and smaller, and less and less detailed, until he reached a painting of two lines -- one red, one yellow. Looking at them, he realized that within those two lines was all the force and fight that he had seen on the walls of the cave. But it was too late for the painter, and the panel was never found.
What would I like for Christmas? Don’t cut me short, but read with patience the next lines, which will explain the following words: 
I want to share and receive.
My first memories of Christmas are of the cleaning. My mother used to boil all the pots and pans; to wash all the clothes, windows, and curtains; to beat the rugs; to scrub the wooden floor with gasoline and then apply wax (our job as children was to buff it). The entire house was cleaned from top to bottom.
When I grew older, I used to spend my winter vacations at my uncle’s farm in Oltenia. I would wake up when the pig had already been sacrificed and was waiting on a bed of straw to be singed. I would walk around it with impatience, bring more straw and sprinkle over it in the hope that the job would be finished faster. When it was done, I’d pour water over the pig so that my uncle would be able to wash the soot of with a fistfull of straw. Once washed, I was allowed to mount the pig to tenderize it. Afterwards, I’d receive a piece of tail or ear to chew on. In this way, I was out from under the adults’ feet, and they could cut the meat. When I reappeared, they’d send me after corn cobs to put in the furnace so that they’d melt the lard, or make me turn the guts inside out with a stick so they could be washed more easily, or pour clean water, or bring a pot, or chase away the chickens that entered the kitchen... I liked to mix and fill the sausages. I’d follow Uncle Patrutz, fascinated as he climbed the ladder and hooked the sausages high above in the chimney, to be smoked. How would they stay there without falling? Would they burn? What if the cat stole them?
The agitation didn’t finish here. The bread and round braids had to be baked. Aunt Rola would send me to the storage building to sieve the flour. Afterwards she would put it in a trough seated on two chairs, would mix the fresh yeast with some sugar (and give me some of it) and knead the bread. She would cover it with a cloth and let it rise. Then she would go to prepare the oven made of adobe and washed with mud. She would take out the cold soot, put in some corn husks, and set them on fire. While I was watching it, she would spread lard on the round pans, cut the dough, knead some more and let it rest on the pan. In the end she will shape it round and flat, prick it with the fork so the crust won’t separate, and brush it with homemade tomato sauce. For me she would make a little dough chicken. By this time the oven would have been hot and with a fork she would break the cinders, and spread them equaly. The pans, on the metal tripods, would be put inside with a long tail fork one by one, and the oven closed with a metal sheet. From time to time she would check the bread. She would take out the little chicken bread for me to eat it. And when it was baked, she would take the bread into the house, turn it over on the table and leave it covered with a clean table cloth to cool. Later she would return and turn it right side up. The round braids were simple, or braided, big or small. They were all in the long hall way, beside apples and nuts and after the priest blessed them, we could give them to the carolers.
From the box of memories now come the ones about the ornaments. Ornamenting the tree is my favorite part. First you put the lights, then the globes. The star goes on the top, and then the other ornaments as you like (we had some shaped as dwarves, pine cones, pickles, apples, mushrooms, bells and a stork), and at the end you put on the tinsel. When we were very small there were sometimes sparkles. To light them was a joy, to feel them cradkling in your hand was a fright — what if you burned yourself?
Carols came later. Of course I’d heard them and sung them, but what it meant to go caroling I understood when I was older. I received this gift from my future husband’s family. They came from three cities, but on Christmas Eve they’d gather around the tree and sing carols which they’d heard at church, or just learned, or those from their childhood.
We moved to the USA and here the Christmas season starts right after Thanksgiving, which means at the end of November. In all this time Americans buy presents, visit, bake cookies, and listen to traditional Christmas songs to the point of saturation. They celebrate Christmas in pajamas opening presents and then eating turkey or a sweet pork roast. The next day the Christmas trees are in the street waiting for the garbage truck.
Time changes us— how happy I was when I saw the presents under the tree when I was little. Now they don’t have to be there for me to be happy. Now, I celebrate the birth of Mesiah.
Where can I find someone to celebrate like we do?
The answer: at church. Each family has their own traditions, but we all celebrate three days of Christmas. We all dress nicely, sing carols, have cabbage rolls and a Christmas cake (either bought or made at home). The parish has become our extended family, and I’m glad that over water and land is a Romanian oasis.
This year we are on the road, and there is no question of family or Christmas tree. There is no question of culinary goodies, or even an Orthodox church, which is hard to find in Asia.
Let me go back to the question of what I want for Christmas.
To share with other people the joy of Jesus’s birth. Christ is born, glorify Him!
To sing Romanian and English carols to them.
To tell them about our traditions.
To participate with them in the holiday.
And through this I will also receive.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

A Birthday


Yesterday the difference between my sister and me was shown quite concretely.

My mom asked us if we wanted to wake up early and go see the sunrise at the Taj Mahal. I'd already said 'yes,' but Ileana looked at Mom with a look that clearly said, 'are you crazy?'

She went on to say, "The whole point of birthdays is sleeping in."

"Maybe for you," Mom begins, "but—"

"The whole point of birthdays is waking up obscenely early so you can savor them."

And I did wake up early. I woke up at five and worked on a spreadsheet I'm making for MilWordy '12, then terrorized both Ileana and Ioan awake at 5:30.

The driver that took us to Fatehpur Sikri yesterday was outside waiting for us when we strode outside at 6:15, and within fifteen minutes we were at the parking lot for the Taj Mahal. Getting there meant walking on a practically abandoned foggy road for who knew how long until we saw the right turn. Since we couldn't see more than ten feet in front of us, and since it was pitch black, we weren't sure whether or not it was the right place until we saw the LARGE sign that said, "Forbidden Objects in the Taj Mahal."

The list includes guidebooks and passports.

We waited at the ticket booth until about 6:55, crossing our fingers that the sunrise wouldn't happen without us. Everyone in line for tickets seemed to be shivering. I wasn't cold, but my hands made up for that admirably with their debilitating numbness.

We did not see the Taj until we were practically on top of it. One of the things you never see in the pictures are the flowers carved into the marble, or the inlaid semi-precious stones on the walls. Or the writings of the Quran over the doorways in beautiful, flowing script that doesn't look like anything but remarkably sophisticated doodles.

Besides the Taj itself, the main objective is the mausoleum of Mumtaz Mahal and her husband. Inside the mausoleum no pictures are allowed— but that doesn't mean anything— there are small panes of glass removed from the outside, and people sometimes press their camera up against them to take pictures of the intricate marblework surrounding the two graves.

The fog still hadn't lifted by eight o'clock, and upon meeting a young woman who had been to Romania four years ago and spoke, in her own words, "Baby Romanian," we started up a conversation at the exit to the mausoleum, sitting on the marble inlaid with black designs, and, to be honest… rambling. Heidi and Brandon (her boyfriend), however, listened to us very nicely, almost like Emma, and it was a relief to finally meet someone new who had time to listen. We've missed that a lot— the basic day-to-day conversation with people who haven't seen the exact same thing we've seen all day.

At nine o'clock it was time to head back to the car so we could eat breakfast— all we'd had that morning had been half a banana and two biscuits each, and we were hungry.

After breakfast (omelette and toast with butter and jam), we checked our emails and responded to birthday wishes, (and sent some of our own— Happy birthday, Rowan!), getting up at 12pm to head to the Itimad-ud-Daulah— nicknamed the "Baby Taj." Though it doesn't look like it at all, the Baby Taj is cozy and delicate and is the Taj Mahal's forerunner. It was built for Mumtaz Mahal's grandfather, by his daughter.

After about an hour at the Baby Taj, we headed toward the Red Fort.

This Mughal fort was featured in Jodhaa Akbar (awesome historical movie with Indian Bollywood stars Aishwarya Rai and Hrithik Roshan). It was amazing to actually recognize some areas in the Red Fort as scenes from the movie— and as we looked at the real thing, I could imagine the rich splendor of the movie, the characters outfitted in heavily embroidered royal outfits— discussing in the throne room, walking in the courtyard… all in all a very red experience. The stonework is carved intricately, with flowers and honeycomb and zigzags and all sorts of things… and you kind of wonder who has time or money to pay for all this.

There was a mosque at the red fort which was pure white— we had to take our shoes off to go in, and it was absolutely beautiful with the blue sky and the white marble. It was also nice that we were almost completely alone inside the mosque.(XXX?)

After the Red Fort, we headed back towards the Taj Mahal to try and get some pictures of the Taj— with the fog we hadn't been able to get proper pictures even close up, let alone from in front of the fountain in front of it.

After taking a plethora of pictures and videos of the Taj Mahal that was becoming hazy in the fog and distance, we started walking towards it.

At one point we stopped to try and jump in front of the Taj Mahal, taking many pictures while Mom headed off again to see the mausoleum, which I'm sure was much more crowded than it had been this morning.

With beautiful pictures and tired feet, we headed back to the car, ignoring the various boys with Taj Mahal keychains, and the men with camel-drawn carts asking us if we wanted a ride, and the various tuk-tuk drivers.

At the hotel, we ordered dinner and dessert.

The food was delicious (something sometimes hard to find in the world), and my family sang "La Multi Ani" to me as everyone in the hotel stared proudly. Instead of blowing out candles (the boy the hotel sent out to find them had not yet returned), I blew a kiss to the camera.

But one last thing:

As we waited for the food to come, I talked with two women from China and told them about our trip.

"WHAAA!" one of them exclaimed, covering her head with her hands, "Fifteen months! That's crazy! Don't you miss your friends? Your family?"

"Sometimes." I said, smiling, "Today especially."

I wish you were all here!


We went to the Taj Mahal twice on Maria's birthday. We saw the most beautiful building in the world, inside and out, in the thickest fog at sunrise and later in the sunset and we were not at all disappointed. It is phenomenal, majestic, incredible and perfect, it is more than my words can describe. With the building in the background, as they were ushering the tourists out, we sang both Romanian Happy Birthday songs to Maria and we had a "thank you speech."

She had a good birthday. It started the day before with the trip to Agra. We had a name for a driver to take us from Delhi to Agra and back. I sent a message, he replied and then we lost contact. I bought two sets of train tickets. The early one, we were on the waiting list, we only got the confirmation at 6.30 am. The later one, confirmed seats, was just in case, and we would arrive in Agra at 4.30 pm. As our luck would have it, all went well and we got to Agra at 12.30 pm. We were immediately  surrounded by taxi drivers. They pointed to us the prepaid booth, you pay there a set fee for your route and they bring the taxi. We liked our driver. As I learned early in India, you cannot trust anybody, but this nice older guy, it was hard not to trust. "Why do you want to help me?" I asked. "I am a taxi driver sir and it is my job, to make sure you have a good experience here." He actually believed that!?

We followed his advice, it was going along well with how we planned our visit. Agra is a smaller town, just 1.3 million people, but it has an important place in the history of India, especially during the Mughal emperors of the 16-17th centuries. Later, it became a bastion of the British and Indian armies and an industrial city, until more recently the tourism took over. Besides the Taj there are several other important attractions. The Agra Fort, the Itimad-ud-Daulah or the palace at Fatehpur are all phenomenal and any one of them would make the fame of any country. Most of the 3 million people that come to Taj Mahal every year make it a quick day trip and miss these places - we wanted more.

So the first afternoon we went to Fatehpur Sikri, 40 km from Agra. This was a short lived capital of Akbar and the site here has 46 palaces and a great mosque. It is another World Heritage site. I am mentioning this aspect because I think it is important. UNESCO gets involved in the renovation and protection of a World Heritage site, but the host country also has to make a clear commitment. Countries take pride in having a site listed and they benefit from the advertisement. At Fatehpur, several of the palaces looked in really great shape. It is about the same period as the Renaissance or Machu Picchu, just 100 years older than Versailles, yet so different and just as beautiful. None of us seemed to have a problem with Akbar having so many wives, and since the favorites got their own palaces, they might have been OK with this too. Astonishing for our time, the religious tolerance implied. Not just in the design of the palaces, with different elements from different cultures, but in the choosing of the wives as the muslim, the hindu, the christian one. We saw the same thing in Tibet, with their most famous king.
 One of the structures at Fatehpur Sikri, with air-conditioning in the 17th century.
Ileana, taking a picture of the main plaza
This was the little palace of Sultana, the Turkish wife
Nobody knows for sure what this was, probably the stables for the elephants or the quarters of the servants.
The next day we decided to try to see the sunrise at the Taj Mahal. The driver would come to pick us at 6 am, we would be there at about 6.15, just a few minutes before the opening. The owner of our hotel was outraged, "I know this man, how could he tell you that, you won't see anything, this time of the year the fog is really bad. Go at 8, I'll call the driver, tell him to come later!" After a quick discussion, we decided that we still want to go in the morning. At least there won't be any tourists. If we have to, we will go in the evening as well. Ileana described very very nice the whole experience (in Romanian and in English). Maria wrote about it as well (link). An online friend just visited recently and she described it as well, and we got some comments on our Facebook link to her post. As good as any description can be, I think that the Taj Mahal cannot be described. Not in a way in which somebody can feel what I felt:
- a bit of disappointment that we cannot see anything when we first arrived in front of it. A quick exchange with another tourist, the fog will go shortly no doubt.
- the amazement of realizing that we are stepping in the Taj without actually seeing it. How many people have done that? We'll see it after we get out.
- the awe of being there, in the middle of it, taking our time to indulge in every detail. There were some people for a while but then we were almost alone for an hour.
- the childish pleasure of recording the sounds of the Taj (they don't allow pictures, video, lights, nothing, but they didn't think yet of forbidding sound)
- the joy of watching our kids have fun with Heidi and Brandon. The touch of annoyance that they are bragging and talking too much about themselves as they are carelessly leaning on the rails in the middle of the Taj.
- the sadness felt an hour later. We were all OK with the possibility that the fog might never go away, but seeing some of the people leaving, I felt so sad for them, they might not afford the time and the money to get back in later. And last but not least,
- the truly unspeakable feeling of being there and seeing it in all it's splendor. It is real, I saw it, it's much better then in all the pictures, much better than in any description I could ever read about it. As far as the hype about it, it deserves it a hundred times more. Yep, you have to go and see it.
First view...
Last view...
Having fun, trying to strike an indian pose.


After the first three hours at the Taj we took a short break at the hotel and then went on. The Itimad-ud-Daulah, nicknamed the baby Taj, is a small tomb built 10 years before the Taj, the first built entirely of marble. It's small and delicate and off the main touristic circuit.

If Taj Mahal wasn't there, this would be a phenomenal attraction

Baby Taj - so lucky and proud to stand behind her!
We then went on the bank of the Yamuna river and saw the shape of the Taj in the distance. Probably a great view in clear weather, it was just enough to confirm to us that we have to see it again later. We crossed back the river and went to the Agra Fort for a few hours in the afternoon. It is fantastic. I cannot believe that they still have most of the fort occupied by the army and inaccessible to civilians.

The amazing Agra Fort, view toward the river and the Taj

We rented last year the movie "Jodhaa Akbar" on Netflix, the girls loved it and were excited to see some of palaces where it was filmed. They knew the story of this great mughal emperor and it made the whole place much more meaningful. It was here, in the last of the open squares that we visited, in the afternoon of our earlier visit to the Taj, that I realized, I saw so many amazing things in my life, I saw so many in the last two months, but probably nothing as beautiful as this square. I couldn't even find out it's name for sure, but I loved it. How twisted is the human mind!

One after another, amazing things at Agra Fort.