It had finally stopped raining. I was out in the backyard looking down the slope leading into the woods when I saw turtle feet move inside one of the burrows that had provided shelter from the rain. Turtles dig nests there to lay their eggs.
I was excited to imagine that there would be baby turtles soon that would eventually head into the creek down below.
All of a sudden I heard a scratching noise behind me. I turned around quickly. A short red haired man seemed to appear from nowhere. It was getting dark and I could hardly see him clearly in the dusk but I was startled by his high pitched voice. He must have been watching me from the side of the woods while I was trying to remove one of the broken branches in the yard. There had been a storm and some branches had broken off the trees, hanging dangerously from above.
“Are you looking for someone to cut those branches?” he asked with a muffled cough. I nodded back, not sure I wanted to engage in a conversation with him. He stood there gazing at one of the large birch trees. It was almost dark and I wanted to go inside so I started walking back to the house. He followed me.
Why was he following me?
Annoyed with this strange behavior I turned around and looked him in the eye. He had a pleasant triangular face, pointed ears and small dark pupils. I noticed he was wearing a yellow gold chain necklace. He was now smiling and I could see his pronounced white teeth.
“I am not sure I am ready to decide yet, there are three trees that are impacted and I need to think about whether I want the trees removed or just trim the branches”, I said to him. Meanwhile I was thinking I need to compare prices, and check whether he had insurance coverage or not.
“It’s a day’s job for me, I can remove those branches tomorrow if you want.” He said restlessly while balancing on his toes. I was happy to hear that he could start the job so soon. Most people who cut trees are backed up after a storm like this and not easily available.
The next thing I remember we were discussing the contract and it was settled that he would start with the job the very next day.
When I came home from work the next day evening, the broken branches from the three impacted trees had been removed. Pleased with the progress made, I sat on the deck drinking some Darjeeling tea and reading the newspaper.
As it grew dark and I was ready to go back inside, I took one last look at the woods. I was surprised by what I saw. A red fox with a long bushy tail was standing on a mound looking at the burrow where the turtle had laid the eggs. The pointed ears moved. Something had caught its attention. It pounced on something in the dark. I heard a growl almost like a muffled cough.
The fox must have come for the turtle eggs.
It was a long moment before the fox leapt back into the woods and I heaved a sigh of relief - mixed with the heavy feeling of not being able to protect the turtle eggs.
It was hard to tell in the twilight but I believe I saw a familiar looking golden chain around the fox’s neck.
After dropping Jit at Woodcrest Station I crawled through morning traffic to the greyhound bus terminal. The 8:30am bus to NYC was about to leave. In one warped moment I parked the car -tires screaming, wore my jacket collected my laptop in one fluid motion, raced to the counter and flashed my credit card at the counter lady.
Meanwhile the line of humanity entering the giant bus was almost disappearing like a species going extinct.
The lady at the counter said this bus is sold out and so are all of them until noon. Whaaat?! She was avoiding eye contact now. Ok I want to buy the ticket anyway. There will be no refund, she said. Ok understood. In another long second I had a ticket pointed at the driver and was grinning ear to ear trying to appease him. Well guess what - he let me board the bus. However I could not find a seat. Omg do I have to go standing all the way?! But then I spotted a seat all the way at the back. I thought to myself it must be someone who is using the toilet. I decided to take a chance and occupied it immediately -melting into the leather cushion with all my existence.
I think we are half way to New York already. The trees outside look gorgeous through the tinted windows. It's a beautiful day.
Having wrapped up the official part of our meeting at 5:30pm I was drawn involuntarily with some colleagues to the nearest Irish pub. I think there are strong invisible microservice enabled strings that pull you in that direction and before you know it - you are seated on a high chair watching an arbit football game ordering Irish ale with spicy wings to a pretty looking server.
Two glasses of ale later I still can't follow the football game.
Does it really matter which team wins? Finally I have the courage to say it. I think I want to catch the 7pm greyhound bus back home - I say it aloud finally. They look at me with horror as if I am from another planet, but their expression evaporates the next moment. It is ostensibly a kind expression but what it really means is - oh we understand you are a pathetic commuter from rural Jersey who needs to go back home to your family and home cooked dinner.
Indeed. Nothing beats "machh bhat" at home.
So I shake hands vigorously, hugs and goodbyes, quick look at my watch and race back to the Port Authority bus terminal. Walking ten blocks diagonally in Manhattan is an art. If you try to crack this scientifically it is as difficult as the traveling salesman problem. But if you don't mind getting honked and cursed at you keep walking despite stop lights - pretty much like you would in Gariahat Calcutta, just don't make eye contact with the person behind the wheels. How pedestrian can you get, I think to myself. Anyhow I keep walking through this maze of oncoming vehicles and desperate humanity in the hope of catching any thing that gets me out of the city quickly. It is dinner time and the city is getting ready to feed itself. Spirits are going down. Spirits are going up. I notice the hot young blonde wearing a colorful sleeveless summer dress drinking champagne from a tall glass - while her tuxedo clad date is gaping, obviously smitten. I notice the confused looking homeless guy limping ahead not sure where he lost his bag full of promises and dreams. Finally I'm at the terminal. The AC feels good like a cold towel around the neck on a hot and humid day. I look at the long queue of summer tourists waiting at the counter as I buy my ticket from one of the kiosks in just under 30 seconds. One level down to the gates. But wait I still have 15 precious minutes left. I head straight to the book shop and in typical Calcutta/Howrah book stall manner I browse through every book on display but end up buying nothing. I skimp through "The Gene" by Sid Mukherjee of Columbia university and read about how his Dad could never get over the Partition - did he die of cancer, I turn the page, turn some more, turn turn, my alarm sounds- time to go. Should I buy the book or not? Ah - who is going to carry such a heavy book on top of the laptop and jacket - I make a mental note of ordering it on Amazon. Out of guilt I buy an overpriced pack of lightly salted pistachios from the book shop and race down the escalator to the gate - the bus is about to leave.
In one fluid motion I hand my ticket to the attendant and one giant step later I am walking down the aisle of the bus that is already moving. I need a seat. Why do these buses fill up so quickly I am thinking maybe I should drive into the city next time. Just then I spot a seat in one of the middle rows. It is next to a teenage kid slouching on the seat. He seems intoxicated. No wonder nobody sat next to him. Oh well. I take the seat. The kid starts to blabber. He is saying something I can't understand. I switch on my iPad and put on my earplugs. Is he going to puke? I hope he doesn't puke coz that would make me puke. Omg. And then the lights dim. It is already dark outside. The bus is sailing smoothly on the turnpike. The kid goes to sleep. I catch up on the half watched new Game of Thrones episode. It is still a beautiful day.
“Why are they planting sticks in the ground..?” asked someone while viewing the large painting on the wall, it was more than 12 feet tall and was drawing a lot of attention.
I was visiting the Phoenix Art Museum after work on a Wednesday, and was thrilled to note that the museum was open until 9pm. Having browsed through the European art collection, I had now ventured into the Western American art section. So what is so unique about Western American art? Simply put American art created in the West has more emphasis on local subjects such as Grand Canyon and Yellowstone, but the collections here include all American styles.
Many visitors would be pleasantly surprised with the variety of arts and culture in Phoenix, America’s newest major city with population growing from 250,000 in the early 1950s to over 4 million recently. With the growth in population the Art Museum has also grown in size as well as in the variety of collections.
“Oh look at the soft morning light on the Crow Indian’s clothes…!” remarked another person standing in front of me.
It was a painting by Howard Terpning called “Offerings to the Little People” and it had won the gold medal for painting at an exhibition almost 20 years ago. The painting shows Crow Indian Tobacco Society members planting tobacco. It is one of the major ceremonies of the tribe.
The Crow Indians believe that tobacco was the first plant to grow on earth and that growing it is important for the welfare of the tribe and apparently smoking it helps carry their prayers to God. A small plot of land near a stream is prepared for the tobacco crop and then sheltered with feathers and ribbons. Once the seeds are planted, sticks with attached bundles are inserted into the ground. The bundles contain berries, herbs, tiny moccasins and miniature articles of clothing; these are meant as offerings to the “little people” who the Crow Indians believe to live in the ground.
The little people would help with the success of the crop!
Another Crow Indian ceremony is the Sun Dance where they show their devotion to God by fasting and by the torture of constant dancing. This ceremony involves self-torture to appease their God. In the old days, holes were punctured into the pectoral muscles of dancers; ropes run through these holes and attached to a pole.
The dancer would lean backwards from the pole in an act of self-torture...
This part of the ceremony has now been banned!
The Crow Indians like all Native Indians believe in spirits.
They believe that above the physical world lies another larger world of spirits. One of their oldest beliefs has been that they are deeply connected to nature and that they belong to the land and not vice versa. This is the reason why they resist any kind of relocation. A woman who was asked to move just 10 miles from her place of birth would not agree to move.
Apparently the reason she gave was “The wind does not know my name in the new place!”.
“When I say One, you say Love…One…?” our tour guide enthusiastically addressed the group of tourists assembled around him.
Love! (the audience chanted softly)
Our tour guide looked offended.
“I don’t hear you…One…??”
Love!! (the audience was louder this time).
He was still not satisfied.
“I need to feel it…One…???
Love!!!!!! (the audience was really loud this time).
I have not seen a more passionate tour guide!
“And when I say Bob, you say Marley…Bob…?” he egged us on until we were hoarse shouting and having fun and singing together at the top of our voices.
It was a beautiful sunny day, gorgeous 80 degrees in downtown Kingston, Jamaica, and we were visiting the Bob Marley Museum. This is the house where the famous reggae musician Bob Marley lived until his death and even survived an assassination attempt. His wife Rita Marley turned it into a museum a few years after his death. The museum displays the legendary musician’s various awards.
Bob Marley is one of the world’s best selling artists of all time. He has sold more than 75 million records. His famous song “One Love” was named the song of the millennium by BBC in 2004.
The son of a white father and a black mother, Bob felt rejected by both communities and his short life was a fight to promote the universality of love and the common unifying thread across different races.
The museum displays various personal treasures, including a rare picture of his father – Captain Norval Marley a white man in the British army. His father was 60 when Bob was born! Bob’s mother Cedella was 18 when she got married. Bob didn’t see much of his father because he was always travelling – his father died when he was only 10.
He did not have an easy life.
The museum has a well equipped theater room where one can watch Bob Marley’s recordings and listen to his various interviews on what motivated him and his songs.
One of the rooms in the museum has all the pictures of his various world tours. Bob Marley was the hero of black freedom fighters. The lyrics of his famous songs such as "Buffalo Soldier" and “Get up, stand up – stand up for your rights” were motivational to freedom fighters around the world.
Bob wanted people to be free from the tyranny of white colonial rulers, especially those who had brought on the slave trade across the oceans. In 1980 he was invited to perform on the first Independence Day celebration of Zimbabwe. This event was attended by various leaders including Price Charles. Thousands of people gathered to attend his show but the crowds went completely out of control - the show had to be stopped for security reasons!
Bob Marley had a strong affinity to Africa and especially to Ethiopia. He believed that Haile Selassie the emperor of Ethiopia, coronated in 1930, was an incarnation of God. Bob was a true believer in the Rastafari religion that was started by Haile Selassie. He had his famous dreadlocks to prove his adherence to this religion.
But it was not just the dreadlocks, Bob believed so strongly in the Rastafari religion that when doctors diagnosed cancer in his toe and advised him to get his toe amputated, he flatly refused – saying Rastafaris do not amputate, they do not believe in dismantling a man!
Bob always wanted to go to Africa. When he finally did visit Africa in 1978, he discovered to his dismay that the man whom he worshipped as God was not well remembered by his own people and was buried in an unmarked grave. This must have disappointed him greatly.
Bob’s cancer spread and claimed his life within 2 years of getting diagnosed.
The King of Reggae died in 1981 at the young age of 36.
“Do we have to buy tickets to the gallery…or is it free entrance…” we asked the security guard at the door of the Rarity Gallery.
The security guard didn’t respond immediately as if trying to decide what to say, but his gaze was constantly fixed on us. He was a middle-aged man perhaps in his fifties. His glasses gave him an intellectual look and his smartly pressed trousers revealed his attention to detail. I looked at his admiral’s hat and shiny shoes. He looked back at me without blinking his eyes; it seemed to me that he was deep in thought.
His blue uniform, his hat and badge declared that he was obviously the security officer of the building – then why was he not responding, was he deaf?!
“You need to ask me that question!” a smiling young lady came out of the gallery and welcomed us into the gallery.
I looked again at the security guard seated on his chair motionless in the corner of the tiny gallery’s entrance, his expression was still unchanged. The young lady was now chuckling. We realized our mistake in a split second. We had been fooled. It was a piece of illusionistic art! The security guard was a life-size realistic sculpture by Marc Sijan.
Now that we had been well and truly fooled, we went near him and looked closely at the unbelievably lifelike sculpture of the guard - the hands, the nails, the veins running along his hands, the tiny hairs, even the blemishes on his skin. There must be a real person hiding just under the surface of the sculpture. It was truly awe inspiring.
“Welcome to the genre of “Hyper Realism”!” said the young lady now leading us into the gallery while explaining how several artists came together to create an exhibition there.
Later while reading about illusionism, I learnt about the French term “trompe l’oeil” (pronounced as “trawnp lœ-yuh”) which stands for visual deception in art. Such art can fool the eye of the beholder.
Examples of trompe-l’oeil go back in time. The ancient Greek artist Zeuxis had painted grapes so realistic that even birds pecked at them! Similarly when the Italian painter Giotto had painted a fly sitting on the nose of a painted figure, people would try to brush off the fly thinking it was real.
In modern times trompe l’oeil has been used effectively in commercials such as the Honda ad where its temporary visual deception provides comic relief:
Rene Magritte the Belgian surrealist artist makes his point in “The Betrayal of Images” (This is not a pipe) that no matter how lifelike the pipe looks in the picture, it is simply not a pipe because one cannot stuff tobacco in it. By that logic no picture of an apple is actually an apple because one cannot eat it and a picture of a car is never really a car because one cannot drive it. Perception in these cases is far from reality.
We live in a world of spin and popular propaganda is often far from the truth. Just because we see something on TV or read something on the Internet it cannot be automatically believed as true.
However in some cases perception does translate to reality. And sometimes deception can be of a permanent nature.
One example from the world of art is the story of the sculptor Pygmalion who created Galatea - a beautiful girl made out of ivory. Apparently Pygmalion was frustrated with the unfaithfulness of the women in his life so he created his own woman and believed her to be real. So strong was his belief in her real-ness that he even brought her flowers and jewels as gifts.
The story goes that Pygmalion prayed to Venus for a wife as lovely as Galatea and Venus granted his wish - which brought the statue to life.
Pygmalion believed in the illusion created by him. He prayed hard to make his illusion come to life. And finally the illusion became real. This could be happening even in modern times, and not just in the realm of art.
The greatest deception is one that ultimately becomes real.
While stepping out of the gallery that day in Greece, I looked at the security guard one last time. I smiled and waved him goodbye. For one frozen moment in time it seemed to me that he winked through his glasses and smiled back at me.
“Would you like that to be a classic or regular?” asked the nice lady at the counter of the café restaurant. It was late afternoon on a rainy weekend near London and we had just ordered some hot tea asking preferably for the “English Breakfast” flavor.
It was the first time that I heard a question about my choice of classic or regular for tea, and assuming that she was referring to the size of the tea cup, I just said “Medium please”. She was a bit surprised with that response and pressed further: “What kind of bread would you like sir?”
Now this was strange. I have traveled numerous times to England but had never been offered bread with my tea. Again I assumed that she was offering some toasted bread to please us and I realized that we were living in a competitive world and cafe style restaurants were trying to differentiate themselves by offering free stuff to new customers.
When she asked “How would you like your eggs sir?” I almost fell off my chair and then I knew there was some grave misunderstanding about our order. So I decided to clarify – “Look Ma’am, we just had lunch and all we need is some hot tea…so if you could kindly…”.
“But you asked for the English breakfast?!” she seemed puzzled and also slightly annoyed.
I glanced at the huge black board behind her with the day’s menu written up in beautiful old fashioned calligraphy using a white chalk and noticed for the first time that this place specialized in offering a variety of breakfasts, and the term “English Breakfast” was mentioned clearly as a menu item with variants such as classic or regular depending upon how you wanted the eggs prepared and whether you liked baked beans to go with it or not.
“Ah – there seems to be a misunderstanding Ma’am, we just wanted the English Breakfast flavor of tea and not the English breakfast per se - if you know what I mean…”
“Oh well – you asked for the English breakfast…and English people have breakfast all day long…” she was still muttering under her breath, but then she was sporty enough to start smiling.
The tea was PG Tips Black tea. That was the only flavor they had. Oh well let’s get our cuppa!
I chuckled to myself, as I reminisced fondly about this micro episode while having breakfast at the Macdonald Berystede hotel in Ascot. This is a nice hotel themed around horse-racing with pictures of the Ascot thoroughbred racing events that take place at the nearby racecourse. Incidentally the Ascot racecourse has a close association with the British royal family, being just a few miles from the Windsor Castle.
The Berystede breakfast was quite a spread. Hash browns, scrambled eggs, poached eggs, sausages, baked beans, tomatoes, mushrooms…all of this while enjoying a beautiful view of the greens. While sipping some English Breakfast tea at breakfast, I realized I was feeling unusually tired. Must be the jet lag I thought plus the fact that I had not slept much the previous night. The temperatures were dropping below 50 degrees Fahrenheit at night. And for some strange reason the switch for heating in my room was continuously being switched back to cooling. It must be a mechanical defect I thought. Surely there was no ghost playing with the switch at night.
The next day I read up on the history of the hotel. The hotel site dated back to 1362 when it was a manor. The original house that was later converted into this hotel was destroyed by fire in 1886, and the Prince of Wales himself had come over from Windsor to inspect the damage. As per history the lady’s maid Eliza Kleininger died in the fire. She had saved her gifts that she received from her employer and their guests in a jewelry box in her room. This was meant to be the precious asset for her retirement.
Everyone including the family members ran out of the house to save their lives. The butler ran out, the valet and the cook ran out, the housekeeper and all the maid servants ran out, the night watchman ran to save his life. But not the lady’s maid Eliza. She attempted to save her jewelry box by rushing into the burning house and died a tragic death.
Eliza’s charred bones were discovered the next day at the foot of the staircase, surrounded by the pieces of jewelry she had so desperately wanted to save.
It is believed that her ghost still haunts the Berystede hotel.
But does she also play with the heating switch at night?! I guess we will never know the answer to that one.
“Sir you are on the wrong ship!” declared the young attendant crisply.
“What do you mean wrong ship? We have tickets for the Sea Jets ship and this is a Sea Jets ship if I am not mistaken…” I retaliated, slightly annoyed with his attitude.
“This company has a dozen different types of ships, this is a ChampionJet – and your tickets are for the smaller SuperJet” responded the attendant chewing each word in his thick Greek accent. He was wearing a blue uniform with the company logo on his shirt. I looked at the tickets again and my expression changed from anger to disbelief to frustration.
It was a hot humid weekend in August, the busiest time of the year for tourists headed to the beautiful Greek islands. We were trying to get to Mykonos from Santorini. It would have been a very short flight if we had flown, but it was hard to get a flight. A two and a half hour journey by ship with stunning views of the deep blue waters of the Aegean sea, seemed like a great idea.
I looked around the ship for the first time, it was indeed very big. It could easily seat a thousand passengers, more than twice the number that would fit in the smaller ships. Apparently our ship was running late and this one came exactly at the time our ship was supposed to depart. Some kind of announcement would have helped, I thought to myself. Not to mention that the staff checking our tickets downstairs at the car deck could have done a better job of really checking our tickets before letting us in. I guess they were running late so they just wanted to board everyone quickly.
At the lower deck, passengers were falling over each other trying to place their luggage on the racks. We had our share of challenges with putting the luggage. Someone had put luggage on the wrong rack meant for Athens instead of the one for Mykonos and then had to pull the luggage back and put it in the right rack. Not to mention that pulling luggage out when others are still trying to push their luggage into the rack - is tricky business.
We were not the only ones confused with our tickets, there were other passengers as well who could not find their seats. The scene was starting to look like a chaotic fish market. Finally a senior staff member came and asked everyone to take a seat, irrespective of their seat numbers.
I looked out of the large glass windows at the beautiful Aegean Sea. The view was quite stunning. And then I realized that we were already sailing. Right ship or wrong ship, there was no getting off this one! I heaved a sigh of relief and settled into my seat for a bit of rest. Only to be bombarded within thirty seconds with juvenile requests to buy pizza from the pantry shop.
It had been a hectic three days in Santorini - an island south of mainland Greece. Santorini is actually part of an archipelago and the site of one of the largest volcanic eruptions that occurred 3,600 years ago and destroyed a prehistoric civilization. A large eruption happened in 1650. Although the most recent volcanic activity happened in 1950, there could be another eruption anytime - it is still an active volcano and perhaps the only volcano in the world with its crater in the sea!
The islands in the archipelago came into existence as a result of a dozen violent volcanic eruptions, so the whole area is a natural geological museum.
Our hotel in Santorini (Mediterranean Royal) had a private sand beach and was a short ride from the main town of Fira. A cable car runs from a high point in Fira connecting it to the port below. There was a long queue of tourists standing in the hot sun trying to get into the cable cars. We decided to visit the nearby archaeological museum instead, and were amazed by the collection of prehistoric red and black vases that date back to 20th century BC.
Later when we came back to the cable cars the queue had reduced significantly. It was a short but very scenic 3 min ride down the steep rocks to the port below. A host of busy shops along the port catered to the crowds of tourists. One could just sit there the whole day gazing at the ships and the blue sea. Appropriate head gear and sun lotion was absolutely needed if one ventured to walk in the sun.
It was late afternoon when we tried to get a transfer by boat to Oia which is famous for sunset views, but were told there were no more transfers that day. The only way was to go back up to Fira and go by bus or taxi. We looked at the long queue of tourists waiting in the sun trying to get into the cable cars that would bring us back up to town.
Was there no other option?
I remembered seeing steps while we were coming down. What if we took the steps to climb up to town? But where was the entrance to the steps…
The entrance to the steps was full of people waiting to get on donkeys that would take them up the steps. These were large donkeys the size of horses and were not looking very disciplined. Perhaps not very well fed either. While my family members decided to ride the donkeys, I didn’t quite like the idea of punishing an animal in this deadly heat. I decided to climb up the 500 odd steps.
The gym at the hotel did not have a treadmill. So I thought this would be a good way to get my workout for the day. The cobbled steps went in a zig zag manner along the rocky mountain. I raced up the first flight of steps. I had climbed just a couple of flights of steps and the reward was immediate. A gorgeous view of the deep blue shining sea. Out came the iPhone from my pocket. Click! Click!
What a beautiful sight indeed. I opened my eyes wide to take in all the beauty of nature. And then I closed my eyes to rest for a few seconds. A moment of calm solitude. A drop of time to connect with one’s inner self. Ah – this was the vacation moment I had been dreaming about.
And then reality hit hard…
A sudden blast of dust and a very pungent smell caught my senses totally unawares. It was the smell of donkey excrement. There was a loud noise of stones clattering down the slippery steps.
A herd of donkeys was racing down the steps at breakneck speed!
I moved quickly to the side to avoid getting run over by the donkeys. There was no handrail. It was a precarious moment. Dust filled the air. I couldn’t see anything for a few seconds. Santorini was undoubtedly beautiful - but I had no intentions of dying there, getting kicked down the steps by a charging donkey.
It was hot, humid and I was sweating profusely from the exercise. My heart was pounding perhaps in anticipation of getting kicked to death by a wild donkey or perhaps it was merely the reaction of my senses to the strong smell of donkey excreta.
After a few moments of uneasy existence I realized that with the immense grace of the almighty, the donkeys had fortunately just grazed past me and except for some mud on my clothes I had survived the attack. The dust and the smell subsided after a few minutes.
I started climbing up again. And started looking for another spot to take in the breathtaking views.
It was 588 steps to the top. And every step was worth taking.
I am famous and more than 500 years old. Five hundred and eighteen years - to be precise. My creator is long dead now, but I am still here.
Although one might argue, it is not the same me as I was first created. Roughly 18 percent of me got lost over time and 40 percent of me has been recreated. I have survived a bomb attack. But the humidity and pollution is slowly killing me. I have heard people whisper that I am deteriorating every day, despite all the efforts to save me.
Long before we got bombed, monks ate solemnly in my presence. Nowadays people come from all over the world and stand there in front of me in complete silence. They make appointments months in advance to see me. And they are never allowed to stay more than half an hour in this big empty hall with me. It is hard to live forever as an oil and tempera painting. I was created by Leonardo da Vinci and I hang from the walls of the Santa Maria della Grazie in Milan, as a famous artwork - the “Last Supper”.
I have inspired generations of artists. It is not just my geometry and remarkable perspective; it is my divinity and eternal importance as an enduring piece of art. I have delighted hundreds of tourists by giving meaning to their vacations. And I have comforted many a soul by making them see something bigger than themselves.
I was created during the height of the Renaissance period and my creator Da Vinci worked hard to find the characters whose faces he likened to the 12 apostles in the painting. He created a lasting image of a triangle shaped Jesus with his arms stretched, reaching out for the bread and wine, which was supposed to signify his body and blood respectively. Windows behind depict paradise. And he looked for the meanest face in Milan when he was painting Judas.
Da Vinci created a lasting image of Jesus in me. And I guess I returned the favor by creating a lasting image of him in history. Sometimes I wonder who really created whom.
“I thought BelGioioso is a brand of cheese from Wisconsin…” remarked the elderly lady jokingly to her companion. We were viewing the bedroom facing the scenic Biscayne Bay on the North Tower of the Vizcaya Museum in beautiful Miami.
This secret bedroom nestled on the second floor of the Vizcaya Palace overlooked the boat landing that brought so many goods over the years to this palace. The bedroom was named Belgioioso, after a small town in Italy, south of Milan. There are secret doors and passages connecting some of the rooms. And there is a mystery or two hanging in the air. The furniture in the room looked old and dusty. The decorations were a throwback to the Italian renaissance period. I looked at the vast blue expanse outside the grand old windows…I could almost see the Bahamas (just kidding – that is more than a 2 hour flight from Miami).
Who built this grand palace?
The Vizcaya palace was built by James Deering (1859-1925) a Chicago businessman. He built this as his winter residence and it later became his retirement place. Today it is a national historic landmark. Deering was clearly inspired by the palaces of Europe, particularly in Italy. A few letters that Deering wrote are on display, these range from business as usual topics such as the letter written to a wine merchant complaining about the shortage of a certain kind of ingredient for cocktails; to the planning of a bird sanctuary like atmosphere on the grounds. Vizcaya was built in 2 years (1914-1916) but the gardens containing sculptures were completed later in 1922, the delays were caused due to WW1. It us rumored that during its construction one tenth of Miami's working population was engaged there.
I think the planning of the gardens is truly awesome and they reminded me of Versailles several times during the tour of the grounds. There are sculptures, bridges and canals that make for nice background to pictures. In fact many weddings take place here. There is a little tea house on the southern side, overlooking the bay, that has stunning views of the palace. A stone barge appears to float in the water, perhaps used to break the waves and for yacht landings. I can only imagine that watching the sunrise or sunset in such a scenic setting would have been a real treat to Deering and later for his heirs. Later his nieces sold the property to the County, and that is how it became a museum.
After my brief visit I wondered - Who would have thought that there was such a place hiding in plain sight in Miami?!
From the archives I read that Deering hired Paul Chalfin (1873-1959) as the artistic director for the entire project. It was Chalfin who came up with the names of the rooms such as Belgioioso, Manin and Espagnolette, that were linked to the Italian historical setting. Apparently Deering had little appreciation for such hard to pronounce Italian names, he was immersed in his farm equipment business, but he trusted Chalfin’s judgment. They had travelled together extensively in Europe before making up their minds on how to build this historic palace.
Paul Chalfin had earlier worked as a curator at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts (MFA) and he had travelled to Europe aided by a fellowship in painting. It is clear that he did observe a thing or two about architecture and art in Europe and later he adapted the concepts to build a modern variation.
Deering spent the last several years of his life at the Vizcaya Palace. After his death, the maintenance of the 180 acre property became a big liability. Unfortunately there was also a hurricane in 1926 that devastated much of it.
Today 50 acres of the original property remain as a museum for public enjoyment.
“I think there is a storm coming…” someone mumbled while hurrying past me down the steps of the Bunker Hill Monument. We were in Boston for the New Year’s weekend and we had hoped that the weather would be fine as forecasted. A sudden storm was the last thing we had expected on such a beautiful day. The Bunker Hill Monument was at the end of the Freedom Trail that covered 16 sites, starting at the Boston Common.
The Freedom Trail includes famous landmarks such as the elegant Massachusetts State House, the Granary Burying Ground where the Boston Massacre victims are buried, the (non-existent) Old Corner Bookstore, and the Old State House; Boston’s oldest surviving public building from where the Declaration of Independence was first read to Bostonians. Right below the Old State House balcony is the site where the Boston Massacre took place in 1770. The whole experience is very educational to say the least. And it is hard to imagine how things looked like here around 250 years ago.
The Bunker Hill Monument includes a 221-foot obelisk that commemorates the battle of Bunker Hill where 500 patriots and 1000 British regulars died or were wounded. This is the site (actually another hill nearby) where the Revolutionary War was first launched.
We were standing at the base of the monument. I was looking up at the heroic statue of Col. William Prescott who had led the colonial forces against the British. Through the corner of my eye I noticed that people were leaving the Monument. Why were they in such a big hurry, I thought. It was suddenly very dark. There was the sound of thunder in the distance and a flurry of rain mixed with snow started to fall within moments.
We were not carrying umbrellas and there was no place nearby to seek shelter. I looked up at the ominous sky. Alas there seemed to be no escape…getting drenched today seemed inevitable…
Wiping the cold raindrops off my head I suddenly realized that we had no car. No car – really?! How did we even get here? Oh - we had decided to walk. Remember it was a beautiful day. And Boston is eminently walkable. Except when it is not.
The last of the regular taxis at the base of the monument was now gone. By the time I could fish out the number of the friendly taxi driver who had said, “Call me anytime sir…”, it was already very dark, and I wasn’t even sure I was calling the right number. How do we go back to the hotel? We looked around again but there were no taxis in sight. Surely this cannot be happening - not in this modern day and age – not in this most beautiful of all cities…
Meanwhile the rain and snow kept falling with growing intensity. A large raindrop mixed with snow fell on my neck and moved slowly and decisively like a cold metallic hand. As I took off my glasses to wipe them clean, I might have blinked in the twilight. I looked towards the monument. Wait a minute - where is the statue of Col. Prescott...it seemed to have disappeared from its high pedestal. I swung around to look but he was nowhere to be seen. Where did he go?
I tried the hotel number next, thinking they could just send us the shuttle and we would be back at the hotel soon. I was put on a long hold. At this rate they would take forever to send us the hotel car. I disconnected impatiently. I remembered there was an old taxi receipt somewhere in my coat pocket, it must have a number. I found the receipt and tried calling the number on it. It went to someone’s voice mail. I wanted to leave a message full of expletives. But then a cold hand on my neck seemed to distract me.
It was Prescott. Standing right next to me. He was saying “Do not fire until you see the whites of their eyes”.
I wanted to take a selfie of Prescott standing next to me, so I quickly searched for the camera icon on my phone. Well - the camera icon seemed to have conveniently disappeared just when we needed it most. Did I accidentally delete it? No way - it is not possible to delete the camera icon.
Then I heard Prescott say: Look above!
Above where? How? But as I looked up towards Prescott to ask him that, he seemed to have gone back to his pedestal in a flash.
Look above, he had said. What could that mean?
A white square gleamed through the darkness. The light came from an icon on my phone. Of course – the Uber app. Why didn’t I think of that earlier?
Life came back to normal within a few minutes. As we boarded our Uber taxi, all of us heaved a huge sigh of relief. The whole incident had lasted less than 10 minutes but the uncertainty of transport in the midst of bad weather had brought me to the verge of losing my cool and even firing expletives into an unknown voice-mail box.
As the taxi made a turn from High Street to Pleasant Street, I looked up at Prescott for one last time through the window. Look above. Of course! Uber means “above” in German. Huh - I should know that.