Tag Archives: sense of wonder

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.

The Space Program and the Path that Might Have Been

I’m over at Turtleduck Press this week, talking about outer space (yeah, you knew I was a space cadet…or is that joke too dated now?):

Here’s something about me that you might not know: I used to be a Physics major. I started out my university career taking courses like astronomy and calculus, before I realized that a creative writing/English degree was a much better fit.

But those two areas are closer than you might think.

You see, I write science fiction. I grew up watching Star Trek: The Next Generation. Anecdotal evidence suggests that an awful lot of real scientists have a similar story. So I had dreams of becoming an astronaut, or at least a SETI scientist or an astrophysicist.

Read the rest here: Dreaming of the Stars

Life took me in a different direction, but I’ve always kept one eye on the path-that-might-have-been.

I was thrilled to pieces when we started landing robots on Mars (I still remember being awestruck by those first panoramic photos), horrified when the space shuttle Columbia came back to Earth in pieces (I was too young to remember Challenger very well), and brokenhearted when the shuttle program was retired altogether.

I’m not sure whether it’s optimism or cynicism — or simply too much Star Trek in my impressionable years — that makes me passionately believe that one day we’ll need a space program. We’ll want a way to get off this planet, if not out of our solar system. I don’t know whether it’ll be a need for expansion, or the discovery of alien life, or a disaster (possibly our fault) befalling our home planet, or simply the desire for exploration, but one way or another, the human race is going to reach for the stars.

I hope we make it.

Your turn! Are you a space-lover or amateur astronomer? Why are you drawn to it?

Knight Errant by KD SargeIf you liked this post, you might enjoy Turtleduck Press author KD Sarge’s novels about spaceships, ex-Marines, and young men facing down their fears. The first one is called Knight Errantclick the cover for more info!

Nuit Blanche and the Artist Date

This week I’m over at Turtleduck Press talking about an all-night arts festival I attended on the weekend. Here’s a tidbit:

Two years ago in this space I wrote about attending Nuit Blanche, a one-night-only arts festival that runs from dusk until dawn. If you think this sounds magical, it is…or at least it was.

Picture an urban downtown transformed, sculptures in alleys, multimedia installations projecting onto buildings, performance art on the street, location-specific works of art making the most of the spaces that, for one night only, they are allowed to take over.

Wandering around with friends at night, finding art in the most unlikely places, I felt like I was getting away with something, like I was discovering a secret part of the city, like I was sharing a private experience with the other attendees.

Click through to read the rest at the Turtleduck Press blog.

My experience this year was mixed (as you’ll see from the full post), but it did remind me of something I used to do. In The Artist’s Way, Julia Cameron talks about an “artist date” — going out and doing something that feeds your artistic soul. Fellow writer Ellen Gregory calls it feeding the muse.

I went through the Artist’s Way 12-week program (following the book) a few years ago, and while most of it didn’t stick, I loved the idea of an artist date. And I haven’t been doing it much lately. Note to self: more artist dates!

Your turn! Have you ever had a magical experience in a mundane place? What feeds your soul?

#WANAFriday: Fall Bucket List

maple leaf

Copyright Siri Paulson, 2011

Welcome to another edition of #WANAFriday! This week’s topic is:

Fall bucket list — what experiences do you want to have / what do you want to spend time doing this fall?

A quick preface is in order here. I hate being cold, and my body knows that the arrival of fall means winter is not far behind. Add to that the fact that I grew up on the Canadian prairies, where fall was only about six weeks long. Now I live in Toronto, where it lasts at least two months, and often longer. Yet I still spend fall thinking about the cold days ahead, instead of enjoying the glorious days of the season I’m in.

So every year about this time, I remind myself to dig in and enjoy fall. Some things I plan to do:

  1. Pay attention as the leaves change colour.
  2. Drink pumpkin spice lattes and pumpkin soup and…all things pumpkin, really. And apple cider.
  3. Revel in the crisp — but not yet cold — air after the long, hot summer.
  4. Savour the tomatoes and other vegetables from my garden.
  5. Go for some long walks before the weather turns cold and I start my winter hibernation.

As far as concrete goals for this season, I’m going to:

1. Figure out what I’m doing for NaNoWriMo.

I’ll probably write a brand-new novel — which means picking an idea first — but there’s a chance I’ll do a complete rewrite of a previous NaNo. Either way, I’ve got lots of planning to do.

(See my post Should You Do NaNoWriMo?)

2. Get as far as I can on the novel I’m editing before NaNo.

I don’t want to say “finish this draft”, because I’m feeling my way through this edit and I don’t know how long it will take. But I will give it my best shot.

Other #WANAfriday participants this week

Ellen Gregory (who, being Australian, is talking about spring)

Kim Griffin

Liv Rancourt

Your turn! What’s on your bucket list this season?

 

WANA Friday: If You Could Travel Anywhere…

Here’s the next installment of WANA Friday, in which several writers post on a common topic. The posts are meant to be short and sweet, so you can go blog-hopping and read everyone’s takes on the subject.

This week’s subject:

If you could travel anywhere, where would you go?

As you may have noticed, I like travelling. I’ve just finished an amazing trip through Malaysia, Thailand, India, and Nepal. In previous years, I’ve travelled through Norway, Denmark, Ireland, England, France (briefly), and a good chunk of my own country, Canada.

So where do I still dream of going?

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The Amazing Temples of Chiang Mai, Thailand

Roof-line of Wat Prathat Doi Suthep

Roof-line of Wat Prathat Doi Suthep

Quick note: This week I’m over at Turtleduck Press, talking about my latest “ooh, shiny!” obsession — gardening.

It’s time for another installment of travel tales from my trip through Asia. In this episode, we’re still in Chiang Mai, Thailand. Chiang Mai is famous for more than the adventure tourism I mentioned last time. It’s also known for its temples, or wats….

Wat Prathat Doi SutheP

Detail of the naga (serpents) guarding the long flight of stairs up to the temple

Detail of the naga (serpents) guarding the long flight of stairs up to the temple

Early in our stay, we took a group tour up Doi Suthep, a mountain next to the city. The main attraction of the mountain is the temple it hosts, Wat Prathat Doi Suthep. There’s a legend about its founding — involving a white elephant (sacred in Thailand) and a relic of Buddha — which you can read on Wikipedia.

This temple was our first experience with Thai religious architecture and Buddhism as practised in Thailand. I’d seen pictures, of course, but the sheer lavishness of the decoration was amazing in person. I wandered around in a daze snapping photos of everything, drunk on the beauty and worldbuilding potential.

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Friday Link: Habitable Planet Discovered At Last?

Happy Friday!

As a huge Star Trek fan, I got really excited when astronomers first started discovering planets outside our solar system. Then more and more planets were identified, and none of them were hospitable to (Earth) life, and we didn’t find any aliens, and the whole thing got kind of boring even for a space geek like me.

Here’s a reminder that finding new planets is still something worth celebrating.

From the Surprising Science blog:

The latest in a long string of recent exoplanet discoveries could be the most exciting one yet: A planet called HD 40307g, roughly 44 light years away, appears to be the most likely candidate to harbor life of any exoplanet we’ve discovered to date. Larger than Earth, but smaller than a gas giant, the planet seems to be in the “goldilocks” zone of its star system, the region with the right balance of heat and cold to potentially allow for liquid water.

Read the rest.

That’s all for this week. See you back here on Monday!

Seeking the Dark Side of Halloween

Chapel near Kylemore Abbey, Connemara, Ireland | Copyright Siri Paulson, 2004

Happy Halloween!

I’ve never been into Halloween that much, and I’m not one for ghost stories (unless they’re by Neil Gaiman). Sure, I’ve dressed up and gone trick-or-treating. This year I got to hand out candy from my very own front porch for the first time. And I’ve carved pumpkins and decorated lightly and read kids’ books about witches. But it’s never been my favourite holiday.

And yet.

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Things We’ve Forgotten: Make-Believe

Did you have a vivid fantasy life as a child?

I just finished reading Jo Walton’s Hugo-winning novel Among Others, and one of the (many) things that struck me about it was how real make-believe can be for kids. I’m not talking about the fairies in the book — those are meant to be read as real — but about the names Mori and her twin use in their playing. Osgiliath, Glorfindel…of course on one level they know they’re conflating stories with reality, but on another level, those names are true in their heads.

When my sister and I were children playing explorers or servant girls or pirates, we had much the same experience. We knew our snowy backyard wasn’t the Arctic, but it didn’t matter. We knew the playground near our house wasn’t a sailing ship surrounded by sharks, but at the same time, it absolutely was. (Or a robber fort, or a medieval castle, depending on what we needed it to be.) We hadn’t yet learned to fear cognitive dissonance.

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Embassytown by China Miéville

cover art for Embassytown by China MievilleWhat can I say about China Miéville’s Embassytown?

Miéville is not an easy author to read. His fantasy novels tend to be chock-full of really whacked-out worldbuilding, Lovecraftian monsters, and plots that don’t go the way they’re supposed to. (I’ve read several; my favourite of them is Perdido Street Station.) But with Embassytown he turns that sensibility to science fiction, and the result is something truly special.

(Note: No spoilers in the review, but there may be spoilers in comments.)

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