Thursday, November 18, 2010

Kate & Wills! Kate & Wills! Finally something worthwhile to blog about!

OK, Ok. Maybe the Royals are not the center of your life as they are here in Old Blighty. The non-stop TV coverage is entertaining and campy to the extreme. Example headline: "Kate says, 'I Wills!!!'"

It's hard to watch this drivel without involuntarily conjuring the image of Kate Middleton as the new Weight Watchers mascot a few years down the road. But I feel that even if Kate and Wills continue the trend of royal disappointments, unlikely the country will finally give up on it all. It's just too darn fun - just ask Pam, she eats it up.

Meanwhile I'm convinced that the commoners are doing their best to exterminate me. So many close calls just trying to cross the street! Perhaps it's the angst engendered by the unending politeness expected of us all in daily life -- road rage being the one release.

The English drivers are the most wound-up in the world. And everyone is so intent on the rules --both following them and hoping to catch someone else not following them. Like a pedestrian crossing the road outside of a zebra crossing (see Abbey Road album cover). IDIOT! I'll teach you! (Increase pressure on accelerator, alter course for offender...)

Like all strange customs, one finally gets used to it (or in this case, dies). Until you venture to a normal country. Normal being just about anywhere other than the U.K.. For example, Simone and I were just in Cairo. Now the traffic there is insane: 19 Million people and cheap gas. But do they make a sport out of trying to kill pedestrians? Rather not.

About Cairo... We were there for Simone's soccer championships against the other top international schools in the EMEA region. I found the geographic setting, in the middle of bleak desert salvaged by the massive Nile, stunning and powerful. Between games I managed to sneak out for a bit of sightseeing. As forewarned, The Pyramids were smaller than expected:

Actually, it was truly a treat to finally see the Pyramids. I arrived early in the morning and, being alone, managed to get ahead of the armada of tour buses dumping their payloads. So I was able to wander around the archaeological site completely on my own. There is a large area near the pyramids littered with crudely excavated mastabas. Reminded me of the setting for the opening scene of The Exorcist.

It was actually quite dangerous, with gaping tomb shafts just waiting for the careless wanderer:

Down below, 5000 year stone images stand guard over the tomb:


The soccer went well too. ASL finished a white-knuckled third place, very respectable. The final game was a poetic finish for Simone's soccer career at ASL: they won against the well-supported host team (Cairo American College), Simone scored a key goal, was awarded MVP, and did not get hurt! What more could a soccer dad ask for?

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Year 1 coming to a close

Umm. It's no longer February, that's for sure. What has happened, as I understand it, is the earth proceeding some 120 degrees along its path of revolution around the sun. Given our extreme latitude here in Old Blighty (some 50 degrees north) together with the inclination of the earths axis of rotation, we now have absurdly long days, lush greenery all around, scantily clad people out and about, sidewalk dining, Wimbledon, outdoor theatre, and many other delights.

As I recall, the change began somewhere in March. Just about the time the blog entries trailed away. Sorry, but everything just started to click -- experiences piling on top of adventures, one after another, with no down time. I.e., no more dark, cold snowy days spent hovering over the laptop.

Just to bring things up-to-date, here is what's been going on:
  • March 10: Pam goes to Madrid for an art tour with the Women's Club
  • March 16: Jon skis Courchevel with Jean-Girard Galvez and his Paris buddies
  • March 19: Jon joins the Knightsbridge Golf School for a weekend in Spain
  • March 23: Jon skis with college roommate Alberto Finali in Crans-Montana Switzerland
  • March 27: We all go to California for Spring Break, visit friends & family, ski excellent late season powder at Kirkwood
  • April 10: Pam and the girls return to London for Spring Semester at ASL
  • April 16: Jon and brother Mark go to Fiji for an amazing week of SURF!!








  • May 1: P, J & E spend a long weekend in magical Bruge, Belgium. S. stays in London to take the SAT :(
  • May 5: Pam is joined by Kate Ditzler for a biking tour through Umbria, Italy with a group headed by Sarah (Greer) Bertasi
  • May 13: P & J are invited to a lavish fund raiser (the ARK gala), hob-nob with London's hedge funders, and dance to The Killers
  • May 15: Jean-Girard comes over from Paris and he an Jon fly on to Barbados for the annual "Caballeros" surf/windsurf/golf week
  • May 28: Pam goes with the women's club to St. Petersburg, Russia to see the Hermitage and other cultural landmarks
  • June 16: Girls finish school and we ALL go to Barcelona for a wonderful 4 days -- our new favorite city in Europe
  • June 21: Simone starts an internship at the Hummingbird Bakery, while Pam and Elie depart for New York to get Elie set-up for her month long design program at Parsons.
So there you have it. Obviously. But rather than attempting to dive into details on the above, lets just revel in the glory that is London at this time of the year.

Everyone here realizes that most of the thrill can be ascribed to our mutual suffering through the winter. Yes, we all agree, its only because of the sheer torture that we've endured that makes it all seem so wonderful when the thermometer breaks the 20C (68F) barrier.

The funny thing is, this realization does not dampen the experience. Damn but doesn't that sunshine feel good on the skin, bring color to the scenery, and make one want to smile upon your fellow man? Never mind that a north wind just kicked in, the temperature has dropped 10 degrees in 10 minutes, and clouds are once again scudding overhead -- lets strip off our shirts and throw frisbees in the park!

For us desiccated Californians, the heady greenness is indeed intoxicating. It seemed the trees morphed from twig-fractal displays to lush, verdant, shade-giving monsters in just three weeks. This happened at the peak of the tulip bloom, these having emerged from secret plantings of military precision in every public space throughout the city. Next up were the azaleas and rhododendrons -- I didn't even realize that we were surrounded by them until they erupted in color. And the lilacs, ahhh -- not to mention the hosts of other intensely scented blossoms. And all the while, the rosebuds push upwards at a tantalizingly slow pace...

So suddenly the outdoors, and therefore every reach of the city is alluring, especially in the balmy evenings. Amongst our favorites were a impromptu picnic called by our friend Colleen Graffy near her home in Battersea Park. She, the consummate hostess, put it together after work, plying one of the nearby trendy delis for a tasty assortment of cold salads etc, and arriving with her nifty traveling champagne kit (holds a bottle and four glasses). We chatted, supped and sipped as the sun slowly sank below the horizon at 10PM.

Another started with a dinner with another pair of ASL parents at "The Providores and Tapas Room" on Marylebone High Street. This is a Kiwi-run modern "small plates" style restaurant, extremely tasty plus an extensive assortment of NZ wines on offer. From there, we walked to the Open Air Theatre in Regents Park for a performance of Arthur Miller's "The Crucible". It was excellent, and the setting, overshadowed by spooky trees wavering in the breeze, was eerily perfect for the Salem witch-hunt theme. We walked home at midnight, not able to cut through the Park as it closes at night, a 45 minute stroll in shirtsleeves. Literally the moment we reached our door, the skies erupted in thunder and rain...perfect timing!

Oh..there is Simone. Just back at 11:45PM. She's been at work (an internship at a hip cupcake chain called "Hummingbird") which then led to a dinner with friends at "Entrecote" -- a one-size fits all french brasserie serving perfectly broiled sirloin smothered in bernaise. She made me a special cupcake, but unfortunately it melted on the bus and had to be discarded. Damn! But maybe for the best as I wolfed down three boxes of similar fringe benefits last night.

Friday, February 26, 2010

February

I had reconciled my psyche to a monochrome existence, and even found beauty in it. For example, the morning outlook from the upstairs window:

But, with consternation, I find myself forced to adjust to yet more changes.

This morning a foreign yellow orb appeared in a strange colored sky -- blue, I guess you would call it. I ventured out, and found that I could do without the usual gloves, scarf and cap. I stumbled upon this sad tree, apparently infested with some kind of white mold:


...and the Primrose Hill sledding ground has been attacked with a green and yellow slime:

Ah to be back in the Alps, where white purity reigns. Here Pamela, just last week, posed prior to a plunge down the pistes of Verbier, Switzerland:

Thanks to a local's tip, we later joined the pilgrimage to the "Cabane du Mont Fort", serving the finest fondue and raclette to be found at 8,000':

Still, this is 3000' below the peak, which had an awesome view. Sadly, I did not bring the camera, but someone else did. <== check this out.

Yes, the visuals are stunning, but overall we did not love Verbier. In fact, it burst my romanticized vision of 'ze alps'. Yes the mountains are awesome, but the snow was poor by our standards and the crowding extreme. Some authentic quaintness, but a lot of over-the-top commercialism, with entire families running around in $$ridiculous$$ "Moncler" ski outfits. And though I knew it would be expensive, I figure we could have saved an entire village in Africa from starvation in what we spent in one week.

Of course the girls did swimmingly, quickly determining that the ap├ęs ski scene was the place to be with no applicable age-limits at the clubs . Flaunting their exotic american accents, they made lots of friends in the wee hours. Life is tough at the top for Simone and friend:

And Simone and I did manage one thrilling run down Mont Gele (home of the 2008 Extreme Skiing Competition) on the one quasi-powder day we had.

Speaking of the girls, this morning they posed just before slamming the door on their way to school flaunting their new hairdo's (unfortunately both a little 'undone' by last night's pillow time):


Wednesday, January 20, 2010

India Road Trip (a post in-progress, updated Jan 25)


The Shields family will all remember India as an epic road trip. We covered lots of territory in our chauffeured Toyota mini-van; bobbing, weaving, honking. Breathing smoke, dust, diesel and dung-fire fumes -- all the while knowing that we would eventually crash in a head-on, but rationalizing that the mere 2000 kilometers that we covered would be statistically insufficient for our number to come up. In times of doubt we just inwardly repeated the Indian driving mantra "Good Brakes, Good Horn, Good Luck" -- as instructed by more than one of our drivers.

Our path:


In truth, our biggest fear was that we would be disappointed. Pam and I had both had grandly romanticized our visits to India in the past to each other (Jon: 1973, 1981, Pam on business in 1995-2001). Since our girls were born we have been plotting a return so that they could experience the wonder themselves. But what would India be in 2009? We knew of the robustly growing economy. And of the 1.1 billion people and attendant environmental problems. Would we see subdivisions, fast food, shopping malls and Abercrombie attire? Or would it be just the usual shoddy pursuit of these things at the expense of tradition, culture and religion? How much had been lost in the gain?

We dutifully started our tour with the standard four hour drive along the Great Trunk Road from Delhi to Agra, home of the Taj Mahal. Our driver was Jogi (short for Jogindra), was an unflappable, well-groomed, polite and neatly dressed in his Nehru-style suit. Guides would come and go, but Jogi would be our companion and rock, really, for the next 10 days. The first hint that religion was not dead India was Jogi's small pious acts and the changing ornamentation of our ride, including strange talisman made of organic items dangling from the front bumper, marigolds hanging on the mirror, etc. all varying according to the day of the week (did you know that Tuesday is dedicated to Lord Hanuman, the monkey king?).

Every morning Jogi and vehicle would be awaiting us just outside the gates of our hotel (they pretty much all were gated, yes). The car was freshly cleaned and each passenger position was pre-loaded with a fresh bottle of water. Suitably well-slept, properly nourished and air conditioned, we would buckle-in and plunge into the chaos.

Along the way we gazed upon many wondrous, only in-india sights. The wide variety of traffic was a continual source of entertainment. All manner of beast being used to convey cargo, including oxen, camels and even elephants:



Another form of conveyance was not only colorful but also exemplified the "can-do" self-sufficiency of the local population. This is the "Jugaad" or home-made truck:


These beauties begin with a certain widely available diesel engine provided to farmers for use in agricultural water projects. The chassis is built-up from old carts, the steering and brakes harvested from lord knows where. The resulting vehicles are not particularly fast nor smoke free, but do seem to chug along, managing tremendous loads.


Jugaad in Profile

A Jugaad Navigator

There are two economic factors that result in the Jugaad. One is the money saved by not enriching Detroit, Tokyo or (more likely) Tata. The second is the savings on registration fees, as apparently the assessment is by make/model, so unbranded, home-made vehicles get by Scott-free.

And speaking of transit-related fees, we witnessed a little incident that gave us a first-hand insight into the rampant corruption -- estimated at $5B in bribes annually.

On crossing the border from the state of Uttar Pradesh en-route to Delhi, our driver needed to make his quarterly road tax payment. I was curious as to why this transaction took a bit of discussion, so I asked. He explained that he had presented his car's registration papers and tendered his 2000 rupee fee. But the agent then requested 2100 rupees.

"Please give me a receipt showing 2100 rupees, and I'll be happy to pay," replied our driver.

"I am sorry, it will be 2100 rupees if you want me to overlook your out-of-date registration papers," explained the agent.

"No, please it's OK. You can look at my papers. The registration is up to date and everything is in order," replied our driver.

But the agent went on: "But there is a problem, brother. You see, I am not an educated man. I cannot read, and therefore, I am unable to verify that your documents are in order."

The driver knew he had been trumped by this brilliant line of reasoning, and dutifully paid up.



-----

Eventually we reached Agra, which itself was fairly grim. However, the Taj did not disappoint. We visited twice, sunset and sunrise. The hazy morning light was the best:


Encouragingly, we found that western tourists were vastly outnumbered by Indians. We sensed a definite pride in the locals -- with their newfound prosperity they now have the wherewithal to travel and tour. For example, this colorful gaggle of Indian women queueing to enter the inner chamber of the Taj Mahal:


The next day we drove on, crossing the state border into Rajasthan and landing in Jaipur for the night. Jaipur is the biggest city in Rajasthan and not all that pleasant on its own. Still, some good sights and shopping. But the highlight was the second morning, when we drove a ways out of town. Rounding a small mountain that forms one of the boundaries of the city, we suddenly received this incredible vista:

Completely unspoiled, looming above us in its medieval splendor, the Amber Fort. (Double-click on the image to see more detail!)

The road does not ascend to gate of the Fort, so you had two choices: walk or ride. We chose to ride:



On entering the gates of the fort there was a on-going greeting ceremony, including a small band with drums and bugles announcing our arrival into the main courtyard. We were told this fanfare was identical to that which would have been afforded arriving dignitaries in days of old. It was truly intoxicating; very cool.

The fort itself, including inner palaces, was very elaborate and unique. Here the girls admire the view from one of the balconies in the harem wing:

-----

Our next stop was a welcome respite in a rural setting. This was the Chhatra Sagar Camp, comprising 11 luxury tents offering an updated version of the 1920s hunting parties hosted by the Nimaj family, who have owned the surrounding working farmland for the past century.


The camp is set on the rim of a dam built by Thukur Chhatra Singh of Nimaj and is operated by his descendants. It overlooks the resulting lake which hosts many migratory bird species and other wildlife.

The accommodations, food and hosts were outstanding. The girls luxuriated in their tent...


...and in the morning the crew were at work sprucing-up the decorations on the dung-plastered floor of the camp area:

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Snow Country

Don't know if this is making the news back home, but our little island is covered with snow. This amazing satellite photo was all over the papers yesterday:


Though we are keeping upper lips stiff, it is quite difficult to get around. Hoards have been stranded at the airports. Trains are stymied. Even parts of the underground are down (doesn't make sense, does it?)

Here is the situation on the ground, entrance to Regent's Park:


Speaking of modes of transportation, here is a study in contrast from the neighborhood, demonstrating different styles of self-expression. In the front, a G-Wiz electric; in the back, your basic "Chelsea Tractor":


Monday, January 4, 2010

New Years

Yes, we did finally make it to India. We're just back now, with a memorable family experience still bouncing around our brains. I will attempt to document it all, or at least the high points – and low points, which may be more amusing. As a first installment, let me recount our 2010 New Year's, this the year of the tiger.

-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-

Our wake-up call came early this New Year's eve, 5 AM to be exact. Five minutes later our personal butler appeared with a pot of masala chai, shooing away the monkeys from our porch as he arrived. Outside darkness prevailed, but birdcalls permeated the bungalow, laying as it was on the edge of a grassy clearing with the awakening jungle just beyond. We swaddled ourselves in our warmest clothing in deference to the unexpected chill. For Simone, this meant donning improvised 'sock mittens':



With our grips firm on the cold steel of our anti-tiger weapons (flashlights, actually) we steadied our nerves and set off down the unlit, meandering path through the bamboo and various creepers to the main lodge. Exclamations of "Daddy, this in NOT THE RIGHT WAY" notwithstanding, we eventually arrived at the stunningly appointed common area of Mohua Bothi, the Taj Group's outpost on the edge of Bandhavgarh National Park in the heart of India.

Awaiting was our guide Arwind, originally from Goa. He dove into a chalk talk on the game plan, hazards, and the all important do's and don'ts when confronted with large cats. Duly informed, we happily signed the liability releases, our heads swimming in a pre-dawn fog. Before long we climbed into our three-tiered game viewing jeep – at last I 'get' the vehicle of the Indiana Jones ride at Disneyland.


We bumped and lurched along the pothole strewn road through the pre-dawn activities of the local village (mostly consisting of men imbibing chai and ganja), across the shallow river-cum-community-plunge, soon finding ourselves grid-locked with the 44 other jeeps awaiting the 6 AM opening of the park gates. At this point I feared we were headed into a sad developing-world disappointment, overcrowded, strewn with trash, etc.

But I could not have been more wrong. Once we passed the entry, the various jeeps fanned out into assigned tracks within the 1200 square kilometers. The first light of dawn revealed stunning landscapes, with pods of spotted deer along the road, and various other creatures roaming about.





At the dead center of the park lies its namesake, the Bandhavgarh Fort dating from the 2nd century and mentioned in the Ramayana. It is perched on top of a spectacular outcropping, with a winding, steep elephant track carved from the rock as its only approach. Our TATA jeep was capable, and before long we passed through the formidable entry gates.


I was convinced that not only did this place inspire the Ramayana, but also Jungle Book, complete with roots growing through the ancient edifices:




A tablet engraved with Sanskrit was resting in the weeds...


..and nearby a spectacular reclining Vishnu carved out of solid sandstone, alongside a mossy, spring-fed pond carved from the same rock:

It was in a perfect state of neglect and decay, simply marvelous.

We zenned on it all with our morning chai and naan. After warming in the sunrise...


...we again descended to the parklands.


Before long, we spotted rather large kitty tracks along the road:


Following these for about 600 yards, Elie was the first to spot a large beast lounging in the shade of some bushes. Pamela scopes in (follow her gaze)...


...on this magnificent creature:



There was a moment of pure adrenalin when a sambar (large ungulate) wandered by, then scented the tiger and started to run. The motion caught the cat's attention, and he bounded to his feet in pursuit. With three gigantic and incredibly graceful leaps, covering what I estimate to be 20 feet per hop, he closed some distance. But then apparently gauging that he was too late, he just watched the sambar disappear into the bush (above).

Much better than a cup of coffee to get your heart going!


For Pam, there was only one way to complete this amazing day, and finally dispel the chill...

...a marigold-strewn bath complete with sandalwood incense and India's finest Sauvignon Blanc, prepared by the staff immediately prior to our return to the lodge!