Category Archives: life

Me and the Taj Mahal

This week I’m back to travel blogging. I’d like to tell you about one of the most amazing experiences from my three months in Asia — visiting the Taj Mahal.

Of course, I’d seen the Taj Mahal in photos many times over. But seeing it in person, actually being there, took my breath away. It left such a deep impression that the only way I can convey the experience is through a story…

(And my own photos. Click to enlarge.)

You wake to darkness, well before dawn. The rickshaw driver you hired yesterday, a small imp of a man named Shabbu, told you that dawn was the best time to go. So here you are, getting dressed in the dark and stumbling downstairs in the pitch-black guesthouse because the power is out, again. It’s February and cold. You’re wearing all your clothes.

Shabbu drives you through streets empty of traffic, but not of people. Early-rising locals drift through the predawn mists, wrapped in odds and ends of shawls. There is an echoing absence of sound, of the constant honking you’ve grown to expect in your short time in India. It looks like the apocalypse.

Shabbu lets you out near the great walls that surround the gardens. You cannot see the Taj Mahal beyond, only the lineup, other foreigners waiting. The line is long and dawn is coming. You start to worry about missing the moment of greatest beauty.

Finally you reach the head of the line. There is a security patdown — segregated by gender — and then a scanner for your bags. You have your small laptop with you, unwilling to leave it in your room at the guesthouse. They explain you can’t bring it in. Only the camera. There are lockers down the road. You’re turned away.

You panic. Stress turns to tears. But you go, as you must. The lockers are guarded, after a fashion, and you leave the bag because there is nothing else to be done.

Back at the gates, the lineup has dissipated, everyone already inside. You push through, cross the outer courtyard, pass through the immense gatehouse, and catch your first sight of the Taj Mahal.

And nothing else matters.

Taj Mahal 4

It emerges from the dawn mist, pearly pink and ethereal, almost shimmering.

You lose all your words.

You’ve rented an audioguide but you can’t listen, eventually turning it off. All you can do is drift closer, speechless, eyes fixed on the most perfect, beautiful, glorious building you’ve ever seen.

Taj Mahal 3

There are other people around, other buildings in the complex, reflecting pools along the long straight path from the gatehouse, but they don’t matter.

It takes you a long time to reach the Taj Mahal. You keep stopping to gaze, to take pictures. Finally you reach the base of the marble pedestal upon which it sits. You don slippers they give you to protect the marble.

(Indian visitors ascend the pedestal a different way. Slippers aren’t included in their — much cheaper — entrance fee, and they must pay separately if they wish to go up. This is a little alienating, this segregation, though it makes sense that they’re charged so much less. Westerners are unbelievably wealthy in comparison.)

Taj Mahal 6

Up close, the building is even more beautiful. The curve of the arches is perfection itself, but now you can see that each arch is lined with Arabic writing inlaid in the very marble. You can’t imagine the level of skill required. The arches soar higher than you expected, but the building itself is smaller.

Taj Mahal 5

You enter the building.

It’s immediately clear that this is a tomb. The interior is a small octagonal room, full of hushed echoes. At the very centre, protected by a marble screen, sits the cenotaph or “empty tomb” of Mumtaz Mahal, the woman beloved of the emperor Shah Jahan, for whom all this was built.

Beside her cenotaph sits the emperor’s — the only thing that disturbs the precise symmetry of the garden and the building. (In the tradition of the Mughal Empire, their bodies lie in an underground crypt where they will not be seen.)

Outside once more, you circle the building on the marble pedestal.

Taj Mahal 8

It is symmetrical, identical in all four directions, down to the slender minarets on each corner of the pedestal. On the far side you discover the Yamuna River, still hazy with morning mist.

Taj Mahal 7

You linger still, because now you discover something else. The Taj Mahal changes as the light shifts. You circle it watching the shadows in the arches, watching the marble change to golden yellow and then pure white as the sun rises overhead.

Taj Mahal 9

The dawn crowd has dissipated and the tour buses on day trips from Delhi are arriving by the time you finally tear yourself away. You walk away slowly, still half dreaming, glancing repeatedly over your shoulder to catch a few last precious glimpses.

Taj Mahal 1

You will never forget.

If you liked this post, you can find more tales and photos from my travels here.

Housekeeping and ROW80 Update

Hello, all! I had an unexpected Internet outage over the weekend, and my connection was only restored yesterday. It’s good to be back.

First, a couple of quick housekeeping notes…

The latest installment of my fantasy serial “Still Waters Run Deep” is now posted at Turtleduck Press. In case you’ve forgotten or are new here, this is a story loosely based on Thailand. The current installment is the second-to-last one, so it’s a good time to start reading if you haven’t already. Part 1 is here. The whole thing is free…enjoy!

Second, this week I’m blogging about being a late adopter, also at Turtleduck Press. There’s a good discussion happening in the comments, so please do come on over and weigh in if you have time.

ROW80 Writing Updates

Once again, Real Life was seriously distracting (more about that below). I logged 2.25 hours of writing, consistent with what I’ve been doing throughout most of January. (My total for the month was just under 11 hours.) It’s really not where I want to be — so resisting that self-talk is getting harder. I need to figure out how to get self-talk working for me instead of against me.

This week I’ve logged 0.5 hours so far. More tomorrow, I hope.

Renovation Updates

I mentioned I had an Internet outage. That, and other technical problems tangentially related to the renos, pretty much ate the weekend…and thus, all my writing time. I’m getting really frustrated. Must find a way to write more (and stop talking about writing more).

However:

  • flooring has been done (full disclosure: not by us)
  • paint colour is chosen and painting has been done (also not by us)
  • living room, dining room, and porch have been decluttered (by us!) and they look great — still awaiting some nice decor touches, but at least they have more space now
  • junk (from above rooms and elsewhere) has been taken away
  • much research has been done on curtains, blinds, and similar
  • another trip to the home improvement store has happened

Woot woot! Renovations aren’t finished, and there’s still a lot to do, clean, choose, buy, and so on even after the renovations themselves are done, but I think now we can slow down. Which means more writing ohgodIhope.

I’m also hoping to get back to doing Monday books-movies-and-media posts here on the blog, because I’m having Thoughts about things other than my own life and I’m lost without the ability to natter on about them. But in the spirit of Project: Making Space, I need to remember that blogging is an “extra” and writing fiction isn’t.

So I’m upping my goal a bit and aiming for 3.5 hours this week. I’d love to hit 15 hours for February. It’s still far from where I want to be, but at least it’s headed in the right direction!

 

Top 3 Sights in New Delhi

I haven’t done a travel post in a while — high time to fix that! This week I’m sharing my favourite sights in New Delhi, the capital of India.

(ROW80 update at bottom of post.)

New Delhi is the first stop for most tourists to India. It’s teeming with people, dirty, poor, chaotic, but vividly alive and more modern in some ways than you might think. (Read more about my impressions of Delhi.)

Market in the Paharganj area of Delhi

Market in the Paharganj area of Delhi

And the best sights are…

3. Old Delhi

The Jama Masjid in Old Delhi

The Jama Masjid, or Friday Mosque, in Old Delhi

If you want a sense of Delhi life in times past, head to Old Delhi. You’ll be buffeted by the teeming foot traffic (and cycle-rickshaws and auto-rickshaws and carts), you’ll have trouble crossing the road, and you’ll be dismayed by the poverty. But many of those things are true of Delhi in general…and Old Delhi is less thronged by tourists, and those trying to make a buck off them, than popular areas such as Connaught Place and Palika Bazaar. You might also get to practice your haggling skills.

Bonus: if you’re inclined, you can visit the great Jama Masjid (mosque) at the centre of the bazaar. You don’t have to be Muslim to enter the courtyard, and the architecture is beautiful.

2. The Qutab Minar

Arches in the Qutab Minar complex

Arches in the Qutab Minar complex

This was actually my favourite place in Delhi, but only because I went at the exact right time. If you go, go at dusk — the most atmospheric time of day. The Qutab Minar is a minaret (prayer tower) that dates from the twelfth century, one of the oldest surviving structures in Delhi.

It stands in the ruins of a contemporary mosque, which itself was built on the ruins of an eighth-century fort. The mosque was constructed with materials from destroyed Hindu and Jain temples, and parts of statues and other stonework from these temples can still be seen in the ruined walls of the mosque. If this sounds like your kind of thing, don’t miss it!

1. The Red Fort

Arches in the Hall of Public Audience

Arches in the open-air Hall of Public Audience

If you like old architecture and/or history, or you just want to get a quick sense of one of the major forces that shaped India, the Red Fort is a great place to start. Built during the heyday of the Mughal Empire — for the same emperor who built the Taj Mahal — it’s an impressive show of power.

It’s also beautiful, featuring red sandstone, arches, marble, and peaceful green gardens…which are in short supply in Delhi, so enjoy them while you’re here. Though it’s called a fort, it was also the emperor’s palace (sadly, no furnishings remain). There are many similar fort-palaces throughout northern India, so if you’re inclined to explore, the Red Fort will give you a good grounding. (I’ve written more about the Red Fort — with lots more pictures — here. I’ll talk about some of the other fort-palaces in a future post.)

Honorable Mention: The National Museum

Buddha statue head from Uttar Pradesh, India

Buddha statue head from Uttar Pradesh, India

If it’s a rainy or unpleasantly hot day, consider visiting the National Museum. It’s not very large, not at all interactive, and the signage isn’t great (bring a guidebook and/or rent an audioguide so you know what you’re looking at). But it does have good collections of:

  • sculptures and woodcarvings from all over India
  • weird and wonderful musical instruments, and related items like masks used in dancing
  • textiles

Bonus: afterwards you can wander up and down the Rajpath, a massive avenue built by the British in a fervor of Paris-envy.

Your turn! If you’ve been to India, what were your favourite (or at least memorable) things about New Delhi?

If you liked this post, you can read more about my travels here.

ROW80 Check-In

I’m not counting blog posts in my ROW80 goals, so the above doesn’t count. So far this week I’ve managed 1 hour of writing…in which I finished a serial short story. Better, I was quite pleased with how the ending turned out — it’s my first attempt at a serial, and I’m a pantser — so that’s a win already.

Next up: either some flash fiction or an attempt to dive back into a novel edit.

I’ve reduced my goal from 5 hours a week to 3, for reasons discussed here, so I’m aiming for 2 more hours this week.

 

Renovating My Life and ROW80 Week 2 Check-In

Here’s where I admit that ROW80 is not going so well.

I picked just one goal, because this is my first time trying ROW80 and I do better when I’m not multitasking. My goal: 5 hours a week of writing or editing.

For Week 1, I hit somewhere around 2.5 or 3 hours.

For Week 2, I hit all of 2 hours. I’m working on the fifth and final part of a serial story (the whole thing will be about 10K when it’s done) and feeling pretty good about how it’s coming together — a minor miracle since I’m a pantser and this is my first attempt at a serial. So that much is good at least.

This is why the writing isn’t moving much…

Renovating My Life

I mentioned in my initial ROW80 post that this is the year of Project: Making Space – physical, mental, temporal — and that I would be staging a multi-pronged attack.

ROW80 is one prong. Another is my house. My significant other and I moved from a crowded, disorganized one-bedroom apartment to our first house…and promptly threw ourselves into planning for a big family event, then a big trip overseas, and then starting our very first vegetable garden (details in link above). Now that the dust from all that is settling, we’re noticing that our house is still just as disorganized as the apartment was.

To fix that, we’re currently doing some renovations that will give us more storage and more living space. (And by “we” I mean our awesome contractors.) This will be a good thing for Project: Making Space in the long run.

But in the meantime, we’re neck-deep in choosing new flooring and paint colours, with many more decisions ahead of us in the next few weeks…and then decluttering and (re)organizing and decorating the newly renovated spaces.

Needless to say, this is taking up a lot of brain cycles and decision-making power and even a certain amount of creativity.

(Decorating does not come naturally to me, but I have strong opinions about what I don’t like, and as for what I do like, “I’ll know it when I see it…”. This makes things tricky, as you might imagine. But I would really like this house to look more like somebody cares…and it ain’t gonna be my significant other who picks out the exact shade of paint and coordinating decor.)

ROW80 Under Revision

Like I said above, these renovations are actually still working towards my overarching goals for the year.

So I’m thinking that this ROW80 is going to be more about “get the newly renovated spaces in my house in order” with a certain amount of “don’t drop the ball on writing completely, because it’s a lot harder to start up again from zero than it is from a crawl”.

I’m not really sure how to make that into a nice, neat, measurable goal, though. Any ideas?

Looking Back on 2013, and ROW80 Check-In

Okay, I’m a bit late, but hey, it’s still January!

Last week I wrote about my desire to make more space for writing. During the past year, I’ve been busy doing other things. Since I want to be a writer when I grow up (note to self: that would be now!), my focus needs to change this year.

(ROW80 folks: check-in is at the bottom of the post.)

I am aiming to do better. But because I tend to beat myself up, I still want to celebrate my accomplishments from the past year…

Non-Writing

Bukit Bintang street food market, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

Bukit Bintang street food market, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

2013 was, of course, the year of the Grand Adventure in Asia. My travel partner and I spent three months exploring Malaysia, Thailand, India (for six weeks!), and Nepal. The trip was exhausting, exhilarating, and everything in between. It wasn’t the first extended trip I’ve taken, and I hope it won’t be the last.

In slightly less earth-shattering events, other 2013 accomplishments included:

  • road-tripping through the Canadian Rockies and back
  • starting a vegetable garden (I’m now a year and a half into home-ownership)
  • getting into photography (having a good camera and lots of new locations will do that to you)
  • knitting my second pair of socks (do you know how much knitting goes into a pair of socks? Hint: it’s a lot)

Writing

Best of Turtleduck Press, Vol. 1

While the above kept me pretty busy, I did manage a little bit of writing:

That’s not bad given all that was going on, but like I said, I intend to do better this year.

On that note…

ROW80 Check-In

My weekly goal for ROW80 is 5 hours of writing or editing.

For Week 1, I hit:

  • 2 hours of drafting and editing “Still Waters, Part 4″
  • somewhere between 0.5 and 1 hour of prepping novel chapters to send around to my critique group

…so somewhere around 2.5 or 3 hours in total, well short of my goal

For Week 2, I’m at 1 hour so far (drafting “Still Waters, Part 5″). Clearly I need to step up my game.

I work full-time, I had a busy weekend (in a good way, but still), and my house is being renovated (mid-size renovations rather than major ones, thank goodness). But that’s still just excuses.

Writing Productivity Tools

On the plus side, when ROW80 started, I finally got around to setting up LeechBlock, a Firefox add-on that lets you block whatever websites you want, whenever you want. I’ve got it set up to block, between 9 and 10 PM (prime writing time for me), all the websites that are the worst distractions for me. Wikipedia is not one of them, so I can still go online to do some quick research — I’m pretty good at not getting distracted if I’m in the middle of writing and just need to look up something specific.

If that’s not enough, I also have a program called Freedom, which actually disables my computer’s Internet for a set period of time. The drawback of Freedom is that you can’t pre-set it like you can with LeechBlock — you need to have the willpower to turn it on manually. In fact, you can pre-set LeechBlock to block everything…I just haven’t gotten up the nerve yet.

Four more hours in Week 2. I can do this. Onward!

Your turn! How are your goals and resolutions for 2014 going so far?

7 Tips for Mental Health and Lower Stress During the Holidays

Christmas treeThe holidays can be a tough time for many of us. Whether it’s the pressure to be perfect, the tension of navigating family relationships, the weight of memories, or the sheer length of the to-do list, there are many reasons to feel like Scrooge or the Grinch at this time of year.

Here, then, are some tips for retaining your mental health.

7. Don’t try to do everything. Pick your projects and your battles. I don’t bake or send cards, but I do decorate my home and put lots of thought into my gifts. If you’re trying to make Christmas amazing for a small person in your life, for example, pick and choose the things to focus on — the ones they’ll remember. Years later, they won’t remember how many kinds of cookies you made, but they’ll remember a tradition of making gingerbread together. If you’re a writer, maybe December is the time to scale waaaaay back on your goals or writing schedule — the words will still be there in January.

6. Resist the pressure, both internal and external. You’re inundated with messages about using your dollars to make your loved ones happy. You want to find the best gift ever this year. Maybe your in-laws and your step-family both want you with them for Christmas dinner. Resist. You can do this.

5. Do focus on what you love about the season. This is where family traditions can come in handy. A particular holiday music album that you always put on? A visit to Santa? Decorating the tree together? Curling up on the sofa to watch holiday movies? None of those things are expensive or time-consuming or stressful — they’re just fun, or if they’re not, they should be. Linger on them, and enjoy.

4. Make time for you. If you’re an introvert, for example, you’ll still need me-time — that won’t change just because it’s the holidays. Stick to your exercise routine if you can, or your weekly ritual of going out for coffee on Sundays, or whatever else you ordinarily do that you love.

3. Don’t beat yourself up for not being perfect. Your tree might not look like it came out of a magazine (unless doing it that way causes you more happiness than stress), but it looks like you trimmed it your way. Your cookie-decorating skills might be lacking, but if they taste good, who cares? I promise your family and friends won’t notice, or if they do, they won’t care.

2. Plan something to look forward to in the new year. One reason the holidays get so much pressure is that after they’re over, there’s a long, dark slog until spring (at least in this part of the world). My significant other and I have started a tradition of a weekend getaway for mid-February, and let me tell you, it makes January go much faster. If a trip isn’t in the cards for you, try a concert, a party, or any special event that you can get excited about.

1. Do what you need to do. Above all, your mental health is the top priority. If that means skipping things, letting other things slide, staying home sometimes…well, so be it, and don’t let anyone (including your own Inner Critic) tell you otherwise. You’re worth taking care of.

Your turn! What are your best tips for staying sane during the holidays?

Your Turn: First News Memory

This week is the 50th anniversary of JFK’s assassination — a huge event in US history, to be sure. But the extent of the coverage is kind of strange to me, because I wasn’t born yet. One newspaper bore the headline “Why we can’t stop grieving”…and all I could think was “Speak for yourself.”

It did get me thinking, though. We all have our seminal news memories — events where there was a “before” and an “after”, when our perception of the world shifted. But if you go even further back, we all have our first news memories, the first time we were aware of events that didn’t personally involve us.

I’ll tell you mine.

In October 1987, I was eight years old. I was pretty sheltered from news coverage — for example, I don’t remember the Challenger explosion or the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, which both happened the previous year.

But I do remember Baby Jessica.

That month, a toddler named Jessica McClure fell down a well in Texas and was trapped. More than two days later, after many dramatic rescue efforts, she was freed via a freshly dug parallel shaft. The whole saga was broadcast on TV, discussed endlessly in the print media with diagrams of the well shafts (I remember vividly how the tunnel that was dug between the two shafts sloped up towards the old shaft, so as not to bury Baby Jessica in dirt), and so on.

In hindsight, I don’t think it really occurred to me that she could have died down there — and she certainly could have, from the fall or exposure or even from the digging of the other shaft. It was just a captivating story…with, as it turned out, a happy ending.

(Here’s an update on Jessica as an adult.)

Your turn! What’s the first news event you remember?