Alok and Ankita’s Wedding

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They tied the knot in Agra, India, in April. We were invited to the festivities. Indian weddings are legendary, days of interesting, lavish events. This was something not to miss.

Two years ago on a trip to northern India with a German tour group, I met Alok. (see previous posts, Intriguing India and more ) He was our guide – affable, knowledgable and fun. He speaks fluent German, as well as English in addition to his native Hindi. Among the many wedding guests were others from his tours.

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The wedding took place in Agra, Alok’s hometown and site of the Taj Mahal, a symbol of love.
We wanted to follow customs, so we sought the advice of friends who had lived and worked in India. They looked over the invitation, a large elaborate card in bright red with gold lettering. Four events. Four different days. Each, we learned, required special attire. I was lucky. My friend Sigrid, a very talented seamstress, had been invited to an Indian wedding in London several years ago. She made two gorgeous outfits, both of a golden fabric that had been purchased in India. Perfect. I could borrow them.

Bob was not so lucky. When we arrived in Delhi, we showed the invitation to the

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Try on at shop, very classy but he never wore the vest.
guide/driver who would take us to Agra. He agreed. Bob needed to go native and wear Indian clothing for the events.  We were whisked off to a classy shop where the salesman, after checking the invitation, convinced us Bob needed at least two Indian outfits. He tried to sell us three, but we stopped at two.

To make sure that we committed no grave faux pas, at our hotel in Agra I asked a receptionist to come to our room and check out our wedding wardrobe. She looked over the invitation and announced that my golden outfits were OK, but would not do for the main event, the actual wedding. For that, a genuine sari was de rigeur. Bob’s newly purchased Indian garb would do, but his shoes would not. He needed Indian foot attire, a type of slipper.

Determined to do it right, we set off to the bazaar the next morning. Bob refused to go for the slippers, but he did acquiesce and purchase a type of loafer. I bought a sari, sapphire blue, but later leaned that I should have gone for a brighter color.

The salesman skillfully wrapped the sari, nothing but a long piece of cloth (saris are from five to nine yards long), around me. No way I could ever master this. “Just google it,” he advised.

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All decked out for the ring ceremony
Festivities kicked off with the ring ceremony. Swathed in golden cloth, and Bob in his dark green sherwani (?), Indian tunic and his new Indian loafers, we set off to a hotel where the event, attended by several hundred guests, was held. As they paraded in, we began to feel very uncomfortable. The men did not wear traditional Indian garb, just basic western street clothes. Most of the women, however, wore colorful saris with their arms festooned in tiers of sparkling bangles.

The groom arrived wearing a business suit, albeit a very smart, stylish one. Bob was not happy, feeling a bit ridiculous in his Indian costume. (I thought he looked cool). I also felt my golden garb was way over the top. So much for the advice of experts!

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As this was a Hindu wedding, no alcohol. There was an assortment of very tasty hors d’oeuvres. Folks mingled around and kept busy with cell phone cameras. There were plenty of photo ops for all, including several professional photographers.

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Ankita and her parents before the cameras
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After the bride arrived, bejewelled and clad in a glamorous sari, ceremonies got under way. There were numerous different rituals: certain ones for the groom, others for the bride, and lots more photo ops.

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We started to leave when the rituals ended — oops, not so soon. Guests were lining up in an adjacent room for a buffet. We joined in – delicious.

The following day Alok invited us and others from his tours to his home. We enjoyed chatting with the guests, mostly Germans, and savoring tasty delicacies, some prepared by Alok’s father. Alok had plenty of beer for his German friends.

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Hospitality at Alok’s family home.
That night a type of cocktail party and buffet hosted by the groom for his family and friends took place on the rooftop of a hotel/restaurant. Bob wore a sports coat, approved by the hotel receptionist. I ignored her advice and did not wear golden outfit number 2… fortunately. This was not a dressy affair. Not all Hindus are teetotalers, we learned. As this was Alok’s event, beer and Indian whiskey were available.

fullsizeoutput_a4dWhen it came time for the wedding, two days later, again I requested assistance from a hotel receptionist. No way could I google “sari” and conquer the wrap. Another helpful young woman came to the rescue and dressed me.  Bob wore the luscious red tunic (sherwani). He rejected the gorgeous vest and matching pants, but the Indian loafers were on his feet.

The wedding began with the “barat,” a raucous parade from the groom’s house to the party venue.

We first joined others at his home where he was seated at a kitchen table being dressed by his mother and others. They sang as they worked. This time he was in full traditional attire, turban and all.

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The parade was incredible, dancing guests following a “band,” lots of horns and drums. Fireworks along the route added more noise. Traffic had to stop. The groom, seated high up in a horse-drawn carriage under a garland festooned canopy,   brought up the rear.

fullsizeoutput_a55All manner of stands offing a wide range of food ringed the huge, open venue space. The bride and groom sat on a stage at one end. A band played. In addition to numerous photographers, the momentous event was captured by drone cameras.

Guests lined up to offer best wishes to the pair, showering them with rose petals. This went on for several hours, but the real wedding ceremony, more Hindu rituals, took place much later and was attended mainly by close family.

We will long remember Alok and Ankita’s wedding,  like no other.  And, just in case we get invited to another Indian wedding,  our wardrobe is ready.

A Word on Indian Weddings

In India, “When a baby girl is born, the family starts saving for her wedding,” said Sunil Kumar Nair, resident manager of the DoubleTree Hilton in Agra where we stayed. “The bride’s family pays for all. The boy gets everything,” he added.

Average cost: $50,000 to $60,000. That accounts for about 200 guests, but it is not uncommon to have many more, up to 2,000 guests with a corresponding price tag. During our stay, many weddings took place at the hotel, outdoors on the lawn in a football field – sized space.

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Wedding venue at our hotel.
And, many weddings that week in April all over Agra, a popular wedding site with its iconic Taj Mahal considered a symbol of love.

Wedding dates are decided by the Hindu calendar. There are two main wedding seasons, we learned, September to February, and April/May. A priest consults the horoscopes of the couple, the positions of the planets and the stars, and fixes the date. Sunil said one year on February 2, a particularly auspicious day, there were 80,000 weddings in Delhi.

Alok and Ankita’s marriage was arranged, as are about 80 percent of marriages in India. It usually starts with a search in the Sunday Times of India: a full page of “Wanted Grooms” and another of “Wanted Brides.” The ads are divided into categories by caste. India has four main castes, and it is important to marry within one’s caste. Both Alok and Ankita are Brahmins.

When a probable match is found, background info, references etc. , are exchanged. If all looks good, the parents meet. If that goes well, the couple meets with the parents. Alok first met Ankita during a stop at a highway restaurant on one of his tours.

Sunil said traditions are changing, and more and more couples are marrying for love. Yet, the arranged system has its merits. According to one source, the divorce rate in India is the lowest in the world.

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Between wedding events, we walked the Taj Mahal nature trail.
After the wedding,  we toured spectacular Rajasthan.  More in coming posts.  Don’t miss out.  If not already a Tales and Travel follower, sign up, upper right.  Your address is kept private and never shared.

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Fires for the Fete de la Saint Jean.

Oops…so sorry.  Previous post published too soon…while still in the making.  Below is the real, finished product.

l5w2JUKAQyaLKjNCJ4sbcgThe eve of the feast of St. John (June 23) is a time for fires, big bonfires, in parts of France. As the sun set, Reillanne, our town, honored the saint — a day early — but with fierce  flames and more.LBROmh6SRPWoyF9MMbDfNw

The fire ritual, observed in many countries, was meant to honor the saint as well as repel witches and evil spirits. In France this Catholic festivity is reminiscent of Midsummer’s pagan rituals with dancing around the fire.es6srtONT8ynwIfyG8WEGA

Before the huge pile of branches went up in flames, school children entertained with song for Tambacounda, a Reillanne association which supports a school in Senegal. And, there was food, chicken mafe, an African speciality, and more music, sounds from Swing Manouche.  A good time was had by all.  Evil spirits have been driven from Reillanne.

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At last, time for a new recipe.  The chicken mafe at the fete reminded me that I have a recipe for this West African favorite .  I have not made it for years.  Now is the time. Peanuts (or peanut butter) is a key ingredient. Different and delicious.    Back up top you will see link to recipe.

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Before the flames.

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India’s Big Cats

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Beautiful Bhamsa

Wow! There he was, lounging high up on the rocks. Magnificent. Gorgeous. Bhamsa, a 3-year-old male leopard. On a previous safari in Africa, then one in Sri Lanka, I had hopes of a leopard sighting. No luck. These cats are secretive, elusive.

PHOTO-2018-05-08-15-58-37We were in the rugged countryside near Narlai, a rural village in Rajasthan, India. Just us, a guide and the jeep driver. First we bounced around the back country near our hotel, off roads, into fields, through bush, stopping frequently to scour the landscape. A few peacocks. Antelope. Errant cows. Nary a leopard. I was more than disappointed, certain this would be yet another failed mission.

Abruptly the driver turned around, backtracked through the village, on to a major road, racing like police on a chase. Hold on! A sharp turn onto a dirt track through rugged, barren terrain. The chase intensified.

As we approached a range of rocky slopes, the vehicle came to a speedy halt. “There, up there, a leopard.” Leopard? Where? I had a hard time finding him. Those spots and the beige coat blend in with the background. The guide gave me his binoculars. Yes. There he was. Awesome.

fullsizeoutput_9eaWe watched Bhamsa, mesmerized. He stared at us. My Olympus lens was not long enough for photos, but the guide took many with his Canon Power Shot and sent them to me on Whats App.

As we marveled at our leopard, out of nowhere appeared a young man with masala tea (an Indian special with spices), sandwiches and cookies. Also awesome.

We learned that eight leopards make their home in this region which is not on the popular Rajasthan tourist trek. Each leopard has his own territory of about 14 kilometers.

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Life expectancy for leopards is between 15-18 years. They weigh in between 70 -80 kilos, smaller than tigers which can weigh up to 200 kilos.

Bhamsa grew bored watching us, slowly stood up, stretched his long, lean beautiful body and moved on, jumping onto rocks out of our sight.

The excitement, the thrill of viewing wild beasts — be they gorillas, elephants, lions, leopards — in their natural habitat is like no other. I can’t get enough.

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According  to the last census (2014) there are 2,226 tigers in India which has 50 tiger reserves.

India rewarded us – not just with one leopard, but two tigers. We joined a group safari in Ranthambore National Park, a vast wildlife reserve in Rajasthan and home to 68 tigers. This time we were in a jeep with four others, some of whom had been on many tiger safaris and had interesting tales to tell.

On our morning trek we saw the imposing 10th century Ranthambore Fort up on a hillside, as well as the ubiquitous peacocks and antelope. Leopards also make their home in the park, but it is the tigers for which it is known.

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Due to shrinking habitats in India, leopards and tigers sometimes enter villages, killing livestock.  Humans have also been attacked.

After several boring hours, a tiger was spotted. That is, someone spotted a tiger. Again I failed to see it. This feline was sleeping in the brush, well camouflaged. All that was visible was the head. We drove around to another spot for a better view, soon followed by vehicle after vehicle. Word had spread fast.

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We, and at least 12 other vehicles filled with eager eyes, waited and waited. My patience was dwindling. I had seen enough of the tiger’s head. The guide knew best. The tiger would wake up.

It did. He sat up for awhile, taking in the conglomeration of vehicles, perhaps hoping we would disappear. No way. Not concerned, after a bit he headed in our direction, closer and closer. Even my Olympus could handle this. Ranthambore tigers are obviously accustomed to an audience.

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And, not far behind, another stunning tiger. They were brother and sister, 1½ year old cubs, we learned. They paraded by, the female following her brother, remarkably close to the safari jeeps.

Too close for comfort was the tiger which jumped in front of a resident at our lodging, Khem Villas, located in the wilderness on the edge of the park. The gentleman from London decided to take an early morning stroll (5 a.m.) and was standing by the pool when the tiger jumped from a wall. He froze. The tiger went her way. All was well. We later learned that a few days earlier another resident had spotted the tiger drinking at the pond on the property. I was not so lucky, but I was overwhelmed with the footage of the same tiger, a mother with two precious 2-month old cubs dutifully following behind, that had been captured by the hotel motion camera.

According to the staff, the tiger has left the park in search of new territory to protect her babies from a sex-hungry male. The latter are known to kill the cubs of a female if they want to mate. Khem Villas advises residents not to stray from the complex. Barriers are erected at night.

One of our vehicle mates, a young man from Mumbai, knew more about tigers than the guides. He had been all over India on tiger safaris. I was fascinated with the story of Machli,a famous Ranthambore tiger, “the most photographed tiger in the world” who died at the age of 20 in 2016. She had seven liters of cubs and is legendary for killing a huge crocodile. Google her. There are pictures of the crocodile kill, and her funeral.

Our fascinating 11-day tour of Rajasthan was organized by Wild Frontiers. www.wildfrontiers.co.uk

After returning from India about a month ago, we launched into house sale, a big project which has left me no time for blogging.   We must downsize and hope to move close to the Med. I have missed blogging and have much more to tell about India, and Egypt,  and where we may move.  So stay tuned.

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It will be sad to leave, but now is the time.

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Drifting Up – and Down – the Nile: Egypt by Boat

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERASerene. Soothing. Relaxing.  Our week-long cruise on a Dahabiya was wonderful.  This was not a 100-150 passenger boat for tourists, but a comfortable sail boat with eight cabins, each with its own toilet facilities.

Unfortunately the two sails seemed only for show. We were towed by a tug.  We and 12 other passengers repeatedly asked our jovial crew when we would be under sail. FinallyOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

they gave in to pressure. One sail was hoisted (quite a procedure) but stayed up for a very short time.

 

No matter. Now I can relate to a comment by my friend Lynne, who spent much of her youth living on a boat.  “There is no place I’d rather be than on the water.”

The Nile is calm.  The only sounds for us were the purr of  the tugboat motor and the occasional call to prayer from a mosque on shore. Meals, delicious and copious, were on the open upper deck, but under a roof (the Egyptian sun is powerful). Our cabin mates came from six different counties.  The Egyptian staff were friendly and helpful.

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The Nile is the world’s longest river, originating in the highland lakes of Uganda and Ethiopia, and flowing into the Mediterranean. For centuries civilizations have settled along the fertile Nile Valley.  The rest of  Egypt is mainly desert as we saw on our long ( four hours) and boring ride from Hurghada on the Red Sea where our charter flight landed.

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Temple of Edfu was dedicated to Horus (below)
We cruised from Luxor up the Nile to Aswan, then back to Luxor. We disembarked for part of most days to visit Egypt’s wondrous sights, ancient temples and tombs.

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Horus, the falcon god, played a star role with the ancient Egyptians.
The Valley of the Kings just outside  Luxor with its richly decorated royal tombs is astonishing. For a period of some 500 years (16th to 11th century BC)  ancient Egyptians buried the mummies of pharaohs in secret, elaborate tombs here believing they would

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Queen Hatshepsut at Deir-el-Bahri, site of her temple near Luxor
thus be saved for eternity.  Sixty -three tombs have been discovered; eight are open to tourists, but not all at the same time. The most famous is  that of Tutankhamun, discovered by Howard Carter in 1922. It was closed during our visit.

Descending shafts into this underworld of murals depicting gods, goddesses, kings, queens, symbols, snakes, beasts and battles is a mesmerizing  adventure. Guides give lessons on Egyptian mythology,  explaining who’s who, but keeping track is a challenge. Hats off to Egyptolgoists.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

On our return to Luxor, we visited its other treasures: Karnak and Luxor Temples, as well as it bazaar.  In between we made shore visits to the temple of Sobek at Kom Ombo, Esna and its temple of Khnoum, the temple of Horus at Edfu and the temple Philae on the island of Algikia.

From Aswan, an optional tour to Abu Simbel was offered. I remember being blown away by this monumental sight with is gigantic statues on a previous visit to Egypt many years ago.  I wanted Bob to see it.

He could have done without it.  The trip by car from Aswan is four hours through the desert.  To avoid the heat, we had a 4 a.m. wake up call.  And, even though we arrived at 9 .m. the sun was already blistering.  Throngs of Chinese tourists with cell phone cameras clogged the narrow passageways inside the tombs.

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Abu Simbel
What is really remarkable about Abu Simbel, and several other huge temple complexes, is that they were all moved to be saved from drowning under the waters of Lake Nasser, the world’s largest reservoir created when the High Dam (the second dam) was constructed on the Nile.  Between 1964 and 1966 Abu Simbel was hand sawn into 1041 blocks weighing up to 30 tons each.  It was reassembled 210 meters behind its original site.

We visited the dam and the impressive Soviet-Egyptian monument honoring cooperation between the two nations in the dam construction.

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Soviet-Egyptian Memorial
Another optional tour – to a Nubian village — was also disappointing.  Nubians, the earliest settlers on the Nile with their own culture and language,  still live in traditional villages in southern Egypt.  Unfortunately, the one we visited was primarily a collection of shops selling the usual souvenirs. However, it did include an entertaining visit to a school where a “teacher” stood at a blackboard and instructed us in how to pronounce our names in Nubian.  Lots of laughs. This time we were surrounded by Taiwanese.  They loved it.

We had hoped to end our visit to the Nile and its sights with a balloon ride.  British passengers on our boat had been enthralled with views of the river, the Valley of the Kings, the desert and more.

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Not a  ski slope…
Another 4 a.m. wake up call.  We were driven to a field where huge colorful, deflated balloons blanketed the  ground, surrounded by groups of eager passengers.  It was cold at that early hour. No refreshment stands offered coffee. We waited, and waited, and waited, about three hours, for the signal that visibility was OK and we could soar up into the sky.  Sadly, visibility never improved.  No balloon ride.

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Sunset from our boat
But, the boat was bliss.

More on Egypt – the beach and the Red Sea — coming soon.

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Temple of Sobek at Kom Ombo
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School group visiting the temple of Philae.
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March for Our Lives

“Nothing can stand in the way of millions of voices calling for change” — Barack Obama’s tweet to march participants.

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Aix-en-Provence

Around the world they marched, from Washington D.C.to Berlin, from Los Angeles to New York, from Atlanta to Aix-en-Provence, France, where we marched — some 800 marches, including 10 in France.

All spearheaded by those courageous, determined students from Parkland, Fla.,  where the latest of too-many senseless gun massacres claimed 17 lives.  Since 1999, nearly 200 have died from gunfire at U.S. schools. More than 187,000 students in the U.S. have lived through school shootings since the Columbine school tragedy in Colorado in 1999.

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The slaughter is not limited to schools:  Mass shootings in churches, night clubs, concert venues, shopping centers.  Shootings in the streets, in homes.  The US has six times as many firearms homicides as Canada, and 16 times as many as Germany. Shootings are a daily occurrence in the U.S. where 20 children are shot on an average day.  In 2016, there were 38,000 deaths from gunshots.

Yet nothing changes.  Guns are easily obtained, even assault weapons.  Weak, spineless politicians are owned by the National Rifle Association whose coffers are enriched by the sale of guns.  The NRA advocates even more guns as a means of protection – truly insane.

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“Hey.  Hey.  Ho. Ho.  The NRA has got to go,” chanted marchers.

President Trump did not attend any of the rallies, including the one in Florida near his Mar-A-Largo resort where he spent the weekend, no doubt on the golf course.  His $1.3 trillion spending bill just signed took no significant new steps on gun control.

nra.17ENOUGH, say the students.  “Welcome to the Revolution.”  This time will be different.  They will not be silenced.  “Either represent the people or get out.  Stand for us or beware.  The voters are coming,”  Cameron Kasky, a student from Parkland, told the packed crowd on Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington.nra.12

Those of us who marched in Aix  (some 100 give or take)  were invigorated, inspired and hopeful for change thanks to  teens like Cameron.  We are not young (for the most part), yet we are concerned about this gun insanity that is tearing our country apart, that is killing our children and grandchildren.  We, too, want change.

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A speaker urged us to register to vote, to encourage others to do the same, to write our representatives.  The momentum must not die.

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We were joined by a few French citizens.  Two young people told me that they only see this on television.  “This is real.  This is from the heart.”  They were impressed.nra.15

“This is what democracy is all about,” we chanted as we marched, joining the “millions of voices calling for change.”

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Coming soon, Egypt Part I, Drifting down the Nile.  Don’t miss it.

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