Best Things in Life

20150629_133208-1I was at a certain gift shop the other day when I saw one of the most beautiful things in life…I had to take a snapshot of it….it says ‘the best things in life are….’ as shown in the picture on the left. I thought the message was profoundly deep and meaningful, and worth sharing.

An empty bench facing the Charles River and the bridge that I often ran across in Boston. I imagine there was a loving couple sitting on the bench, watching the seagulls fly high into the sky on a warm, sunny day...now it's empty on a cold Winter's day.

An empty bench facing the Charles River and the bridge that I often ran across in Boston. I imagine there was a loving couple sitting on the bench, watching the seagulls fly high into the sky on a warm, sunny day…now it’s empty on a cold Winter’s day.

I am anti vandalism, but for that Shirley-and-Matt-were-here kind of vandalism that we often see in major landmarks, I (sort of) can understand why certain people do it…I imagine years later, when one re-visits the place, and the other has long gone, the feelings that the one (who returns) has when he/she sees the inscription will be bittersweet…
There are certain places that I’d definitely like to see again…not because they have given me some of the greatest moments in my life…but mostly because they are the only way (that I know of) that 67218_457821611505_332296_ncan reconnect me with the people I loved with whom I saw those places, even if the re-connection is only in memories…

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Milestone Travel

About 3 years ago, my sister and I were planning our first international trip together. I suggested Egypt. Was that a crazy idea, considering the nation was still devastated by the aftermath of its political tumult then? It was not; not for me, and definitely not for my sister. Her response was ‘let’s go see the only surviving wonder of the ancient world. It will be the best present to mark my 30th birthday’ :-D. The second part of her reply has forever changed the way we see celebration of milestone birthdays, especially when we are not much of a partier. And I believe the trip was really the best birthday present my sister could give herself. At one point of our trip, she challenged me to do the same for my 30th birthday. I accepted her challenge by saying ‘I’ll go to Peru’.

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Shuzy and I on our first day in Cairo. The city does not have rainbow colors. But I suppose that is a reflection of the religious values there- humility?

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Riding toward the horizon as fiery sunset was engulfing the Giza plateau. What is this if not life?

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Following the posing style of Queen Hatshepsut who had her tomb dug in the Valley of the Kings.

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With our guide, Ahmed, before the Great Temple of Ramses II.

I turned 30 last year. And I didn’t go to Peru. But the dream was still very much alive. My best friend said to me ‘you can go next year, just before your 31st birthday. You will still effectively see Peru at 30’. That’s precisely what happened. I call it a delayed gratification :-). And it was the best landmark birthday present I gave myself. During our Inca Trail trek, we celebrated the 31st birthday of one of the fellow trekkers. He told us that he wanted to make the trip last year for his 30th birthday, but for some reason that didn’t happen. Hearing him say that, I was like ‘hey, we are on the same boat’. I was reading a Time magazine the other day. The 10-questions section featured Barbara Bush. One tiny part of the article really caught my attention: Barbara’s husband jumped out of an airplane for his 90th. It got me thinking if it is becoming a trend that people plan vacations for their milestone birthdays. How I wish I could travel for each birthday! That would only be possible if my dream to have a money tree came true (then there’s that annoying time factor). However, as much as I love to travel, I do believe in the beauty of ‘going down the country road before hitting the highway’. You will appreciate that BIG travel a whole lot more that way. It is still a long way to my next milestone travel (the 40th), but I’m thinking maybe I can make it every 5 years, instead 0f 10. Sky diving? :-D. Let me mark that on my 2019 calendar! My friends, where are you going for that milestone birthday of yours?

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Yay! Finally! It was surreal to see Machu Picchu right before my eyes! It was fantastic that we lingered a bit after the crowds were gone.

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Beautiful Andes in the background.

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That’s the highest point I’ve been to in my life so far: the Dead Woman’s Pass at 4215 meters.

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Group photo with our porters just as the sun was rising! Absolutely beautiful!

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Group photo with the Urubamba river in the background, winding through the valley like a mystical snake!

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Churos! churos! churos! Absolutely yummy!

The Story behind Skyscrapers

Willis Tower, previously known as the Sears Tower, at 1,450 feet. It has 110 floors. It was the world's tallest building until 1996, when it was surpassed by the Petronas Twin Towers. Cool :)

Willis Tower, previously known as the Sears Tower, at 1,450 feet. It has 110 floors. It was the world’s tallest building until 1996, when it was surpassed by the Petronas Twin Towers. Cool 🙂

I am not a big fan of skyscrapers. For me, they are just tall structures. I do agree that a host of tall buildings have their own distinct architectural flavors and characters, though. Some of the world’s tallest buildings have cast their spell on my friend and me. Spellbound, we made our way to the Petronas Twin Towers (I am proud to call it my home country’s!), Taipei 101, Willis Tower and a little over a month ago, the Empire State Building. If there is one common trait that DSCF2922characterizes these buildings, I would say ‘an extremely long line to experience its main draw’ (just think about the not-seem-to-be-getting-any-shorter line to the Petronas Twin Towers’ skybridge).  Anyway, each building that I visited has left its lasting mark on my mental map. Take Willis Tower for example. It has this amazing thing called the Ledge. Fast facts about the Ledge: it refers to the glass boxes extending out 4.3 feet from the skyscraper’s skydeck on the 103rd floor. When you step out onto one of the boxes, you get breathtaking views of the city of Chicago in a way that is a great deal more fascinating than from the skydeck. And
DSCF2923because they are glass boxes, you can pretty much see what is going on way, way down below. I do not think I have a serious fear of height. But the Ledge kind of made my knees go soft, and my hands become cold. My friend’s height phobia was more intense than mine. He urged me to go ahead, which I did. I stepped out onto one of the boxes with my eyes fixated on the glass wall. I swore I would not look down

Fear? bring it on!

Fear? bring it on!

(because I knew that’s when my fear of height would kick me hard). I put my hands on the wall, as if that would stop my knees from shaking. I looked to my right and left, and saw that the other Ledge fellow visitors were having a lot of fun. Fear seemed to be non-existent in their vocabulary. They inspired me, though. Slowly, I turned my eyes to the world below me. Doing that made the

The views of Chicago from one of the glass boxes

The views of Chicago from one of the glass boxes

entire experience even more memorable. I pulled my friend’s hands so he could join me. Together, we defeated our fear of height and could even have a good laugh while still out on the Ledge. We made it!!! 😀 … Well, I do not think I am completely free from a height phobia now, but… whatever! Oh by the way, while waiting for our turn

Oh that's adorable :)

Oh that’s adorable 🙂

to experience the Ledge, a very sweet moment flashed before my eyes- a young man took the courage to ask his special lady to prom in one of the most adorable (though pretty scary) ways :-D. That is how I appreciate skyscrapers. I imagine they are like some ancient high-power beings that have witnessed many, many things that befall on mankind, conquered by mankind…the defeat of fears…the spark of romance…what is your story behind the skyscrapers, my friends?

Living Attractions

Play some music for me, little sister- Peru

Play some music for me, little sister- Peru

It tells you what you want to know. It shows you what you want to see. It makes you smile. It makes you laugh. It also tells and shows you what is not covered in a travel guidebook. Despite the language barrier, it somehow makes you see more, understand deeper, both the good and the bad. Exchange of words does not necessarily have to take place to achieve that understanding. Look deeply into its eyes and they will give you the insights. What is that element of a place that does all this? – The people. Not just any people. It is

Dancing with the Maasai women- Tanzania

Dancing with the Maasai women- Tanzania

the local people you meet and talk to as you traverse their land. It certainly is a wonderful experience to be able to meet and talk to the local people of the place you are visiting. Go to places where the local people usually are at- local restaurants, villages, markets, streets, local stores, off-the-beaten-track places. See them in their everyday lives, from the food they eat to the way their hands move as they communicate. Hear what they are saying, though you may not understand a single word that is being uttered (some time later, when you reflect, the whole scene will be like a silent movie). Have a conversation with them when the opportunity presents itself. When I was in Egypt, my conversation with

Have a cup of hot tea with the Bedouin- Egypt

Have a cup of hot tea with the Bedouin- Egypt

my guide went beyond ‘tourist’ information. I was made to understand the widening, unbridgeable gap between the rich and the poor, and how the gap had created a deep scar in the heart of the latter. The streets were a living stage for that gap. While trekking in Sapa, Vietnam, some Black H’mong friends followed me to my destination. Some of them were just kids. They were trying to sell

My unexpected trekking companions, the Black H'mong minority in Sapa, Northern Vietnam

My unexpected trekking companions, the Black H’mong minority in Sapa, Northern Vietnam

their products to me, of course. I asked them about their families, school, and what life was like for them. It was quite heart-breaking to learn how poverty and the need to survive propelled marriages at a young age and the abandonment of the pursuit of formal education…I learned that tourism can be a vehicle to promote a cross-cultural understanding between visitors and local people. While I believe that is true to a large degree, I wonder if that understanding can be completely materialized in a situation where the local people view visitors as a walking dollar sign, and visitors see the local people as a living attraction on display. The

College graduation- Vietnam

College graduation- Vietnam

words exchanged between the two smell a great deal like a business transaction. A visit to Isla Taquile on Lake Titicaca, Peru opened my eyes (more widely) to that. The moment the island residents spotted us (the visitors), the kids came running toward us, holding a bag of knick-knacks they made, so ready and eager to strike a deal. The visitors, on the other hand, could not stop taking snapshots of the host with their state-of-the-art cameras. At the entrance of Sacsaywaman in Cusco, Peru, I saw a row of Peruvian women in their traditional costumes and braided hairstyle, with their llamas, standing behind a rope line, as if they were in some invisible glass display box. Some visitors joined them and had a few pictures taken.

Money in exchange for a 'cool' shot? - Peru

Money in exchange for a ‘cool’ shot? – Peru

I did that too, thinking it would make a good shot. And the price I paid for that shot? One sol, paid after the service. Looking at the picture now, I wonder, in a tourism world that seems so mass, so money-orientated, so fast moving….how much is left that is truly authentic…