Saturday, April 26, 2014

Isui-en: peaceful meandering in Nara

I've always loved gardens.  Ever since I read The Secret Garden as a child, I've been enchanted by the idea of big gardens with lots of nooks and crannies in which to get lost.  So, when I learned that Japan is famous for its gardens, I was quite excited to explore them.

During my time in Kyoto, I took a half-day trip to Nara, the ancient Japanese capital.  During the Nara Period, Buddhism flourished here, and as such, some of the most famous Buddhist temples in Japan are located in Nara.  Along with temples, Nara is home to a lovely garden, Isui-en, which was created in the Meiji era (late 1800s to early 1900s).

One of the things I enjoy most about Japanese gardens is the fact that many of them contain teahouses, where you can enjoy a cup of matcha while enjoying the beauty and serenity of the garden.  In that respect, Isui-en was definitely my favorite garden in Japan.  Our first order of business after entering the garden was to pay a visit to the teahouse.  It was almost empty at that time of morning, and we were able to relax and enjoy the beautiful view.

The pond outside the teahouse

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Sunset at the Lotus Temple

The Lotus Temple is an iconic building in Delhi that is known for its unusual shape.  It is a temple of the Baha'i faith, which originated in Persia in the 19th century.  The Baha'i religion is an independent monotheistic religion that is based on the premise that all of the world's major religions are part of a unified process through which God reveals his will to humanity.  Followers of the Baha'i faith subscribe to the belief that humanity should become unified into one global society.  I'm not normally one to promote any kind of religious beliefs, but I'm a fan of belief systems that call for global unity and world peace, no matter how idealistic a goal that may seem.

The construction of the Lotus Temple was completed in 1986.  There are a couple of interesting architectural elements that are common to Baha'i temples, which are found in the Lotus Temple.  All Baha'i Houses of Worship have a nine-sided circular shape and a dome.  The nine sides of the Lotus Temple are formed by the petals of the lotus flower, and the dome is formed by the center of the lotus.  The temple is built from Grecian marble.

Since its construction, the temple has won numerous architectural awards.  Considering its striking appearance, it is not difficult to see why.

Though it is lovely during the day, the Lotus Temple is especially special at sunset, with the sun's last rays reflecting off the white marble.

Lotus Temple and gardens at sunset

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

A vegetarian food tour of Houston

The best vacations involve a lot of eating, and such was the case on my recent trip to Houston.  It was a weekend trip to visit a friend, and food was the emphasis.  Houston is not a place that I typically associate with an excellent selection of vegetarian food, but we found a surprising number of tasty vegetarian and vegetarian-friendly places.  Of course, it helped that Lily had scoped out all of the possibilities prior to my arrival, so all I had to do was show up and eat.  It's definitely not a bad way to spend a weekend.

Our first stop was The Original Marini's Empanada House, an Argentinean empanada restaurant.  I had a savory empanada and a sweet empanada, both of which were very tasty.  There were many vegetarian options, but I ended up choosing an empanada that tasted like caprese pizza, which is my favorite kind of pizza.  The sweet empanada was delicious and involved strawberries and cream cheese.  I'm not normally a big fan of cream cheese, but I do appreciate its use in desserts, so I still enjoyed it.

Empanadas and curly fries at The Original Marini's Empanada House

Friday, March 21, 2014

An ode to socks

I've seen all kinds of travel-related articles on different types of clothing: dresses, hats, pants, shirts, coats, shoes, scarves, and a myriad of other accessories, but it's not often that people talk about socks.  I love socks.  They are my favorite article of clothing.  They are also the necessity I most often forget to pack, which is unfortunate because they are crucial.  There are few things more uncomfortable than walking around with cold feet, for example.  And there are few things more annoying than getting blisters on your feet from your adventures.  Packing the right types and the right numbers of socks is a must for a happy holiday.

Socks for flights:
I love fuzzy socks for all occasions: the fuzzier, the better.  I could wear them everyday, but they are especially wonderful for long flights.  My feet get cold easily, but I don't like wearing shoes the entire time that I'm on the airplane, so a pair of fuzzy socks is a good compromise.

Colorful fuzzy socks are great!

I'm also one of those intractably unfashionable people who occasionally wears socks with sandals.  I nearly always keep a pair of sandals in my backpack, and once I get on the plane, I take off the shoes or hiking boots I'm wearing and put on my sandals instead.  Wearing heavy shoes for hours on an airplane is quite uncomfortable, but there is no way I'm setting foot in an airplane bathroom without some sort of protection on my feet.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

A Warm Weather Tour of Downtown Chicago

Winter has been a bit colder and longer this year than previous years.  Most of the time, I'd rather be sitting at home under a blanket, sipping a cup of tea, than walking around outside.  When the weather warms up though, Chicago is an incredibly fun city to explore.  Being right on the shore of Lake Michigan, the city is very picturesque for a big city, and there are lots of things to do downtown.

Chicago Theater on State Street

Monday, March 3, 2014

Travel theme: Ancient

I thought I'd try my hand at putting together a post for the weekly travel theme from Where's My Backpack.  The travel theme for this week is ancient.

Central America is full of Mayan ruins, and some of the most extensive ruins are in Tikal, Guatemala.  The majority of the ruins at Tikal are still covered in dense vegetation, but some, like this temple in the Gran Plaza have been unearthed and can be visited. 

Tikal, Guatemala

Friday, February 28, 2014

Vegetarian Chinese Food in San Francisco

I spent approximately half of my recent trip to San Francisco near Union Square, within a few blocks of San Francisco's famed Chinatown.  I'd heard that San Francisco boasts an excellent selection of both vegetarian food and Chinese food, and I was especially excited to discover the existence of vegetarian Chinese restaurants.  During the week I spent in San Francisco, I was able to try two Chinese restaurants with completely vegetarian menus.

Enjoy Vegetarian Restaurant
I went to the Enjoy Vegetarian Restaurant at 839 Kearny St, on my way back from wandering up to Telegraph Hill and the Coit Tower.  I stopped in for an early dinner soon after they opened for the evening.  Early on a Saturday night, the restaurant wasn't too crowded, and it was a very cozy atmosphere for solo dining.  I've never felt so comfortable eating out alone.  I ordered crispy salt and pepper tofu and vegetable chow mein for my meal.  There are a lot of fake meat dishes on the menu, but I've never been a huge fan of fake meat, and frankly, I was a little overwhelmed by the number of choices, so I just picked the first couple of things I thought looked appetizing.

Crispy tofu

Friday, January 24, 2014

Last Tango in Argentina

This is a fictional piece based on a tango show in Ushuaia, Argentina.

This is a quaint little town, sitting as it does on the edge of the continent.  We call ourselves the southernmost city in the world.  It's a great tourism slogan.  People flock from all ends of the earth to get a stamp at the post office and buy t-shirts and stuffed penguins at one of the millions of souvenir shops that litter the streets.  That is only during the summer though.  For nine months of the year, this town is the only sign of life in a frozen, desolate wasteland, whose only redeeming factors are the harsh beauty of the landscape and the quiet warmth of its people.

Ushuaia at sunset

It is December now, and tourist season approaches.  The cruise ships have not yet arrived, and the town remains relatively quiet and peaceful.  There is a party tonight at the restaurant.  One of the famous Argentine singers is coming from Buenos Aires to sing tangos.  We love to dance tangos in this town.  During the relentless winters, it's all we can do to keep our spirits up.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

A History Lesson at the Lal Qila in Delhi

Lal Qila, meaning Red Fort in Hindi, is a complex in present-day Delhi built from red sandstone.
It is a complex of buildings that were originally constructed during the time of the Mughal empire in 1638, when the emperor Shah Jahan moved the capital from Agra to Delhi.  It was built as the palace fort of Shahjahanabad, the name of Shah Jahan's new capital.

From the outside, Lal Qila looks exactly like what I'd imagine a fortress to be.  It has high walls and towers that were used to keep watch.  It even has a moat, which was originally fed by water from the Yamuna River, though it is now dried up.

Walls of Lal Qila

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Exploring Fatehpur Sikri

Although I didn't entirely understand the tour guide because of my lack of Hindi skills, I still had a wonderful time exploring Fatehpur Sikri.  Fatehpur Sikri is a capital of the Mughal empire built by the emperor Akbar in the late 1500s.  It was in use for around 15 years and was abandoned because of the lack of water sources.

Approaching Fatehpur Sikri

Friday, January 10, 2014

I should have learned Hindi

It's possible to travel in Delhi and Agra without speaking Hindi, but I really should have tried harder to learn it.

I should have taught myself Hindi
When I went to Fatehpur Sikri with my Delhi host, we hired a guide to show us around.  I'm always nervous about getting ripped off in India, so I try not to speak English.  In this case, that meant I stayed mute and we ended up with a guide who spoke Hindi.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Yellow-Tinted Taj Mahal

I don't want to say that the Taj Mahal was a disappointment because it's difficult for anything that beautiful to disappoint.  However, it wasn't quite the highlight of my recent trip to India that I'd hoped it would be.

Of course, seeing the Taj Mahal in person was marvelous.  I'd seen pictures before, but nothing can compare with the sight of the marble structure seemingly rising up in front of you as you pass through the gate.  As annoyed as I was by the hordes of people pushing and shoving their way through the entrance, I couldn't deny how spectacular it was.

I planned my visit to the Taj Mahal poorly, meaning that I didn't plan at all.  So I ended up visiting on a Saturday during a three-day weekend, two days before the full moon, when the Taj Mahal can be viewed by moonlight at night.

Crowds at the Taj Mahal

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Taj Mahal: Check!

Let the splendor of the diamond, pearl and ruby vanish like the magic shimmer of the rainbow.  Only let this one teardrop, the Taj Mahal, glisten spotlessly bright on the cheek of time...
- Rabindranath Tagore

I was excited when I discovered that the cheapest way for me to get to India this fall was to fly into Delhi.  I figured that I could fly to Hyderabad, where my family is, after a day or two and try to cram in a trip to see the Taj Mahal, one of the 7 Wonders of the World.

The Taj Mahal had always seemed like such an exotic place to me. It is touted as the greatest monument to love, built by the Mughal emperor Shahjahan as a mausoleum for his favorite wife Arjumand Banu Begum, known also as Mumtaz Mahal.  The less romantic part about it is that Shahjahan cut off the hands of the workers who built this marvelous structure so that they could never build another one like it.  It is a beautiful work of art though.

For most people, it seems that the Taj Mahal is India.  But though I've been to India several times, I had never been to North India, which is where the Taj Mahal is.  On this trip, I had the opportunity to spend a couple of days in New Delhi and Agra and visit the Taj Mahal.

The Taj Mahal is not visible from outside the entrance, and the first glimpse of it came as I entered the gate.  As I walked through the gate, it seemed as if the Taj Mahal was rising up out of the ground to meet me.

Note the hordes