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Reading Rebecca West, Delhi Metro & KG Marg

Originally published in The Delhiwalla

City Life - Reading Rebecca West, Delhi Metro & KG MargAt 1,200 pages in tiny ant-lettering, it was an unwieldy choice for Metro commute reading. More than once during the course of the month I spent reading it, I questioned this decision. And yet there she was, bulging out of my old black leather bag, in her own black cage and cover, telling anyone in the women’s coach of the Delhi Metro who bent their heads to peek, that I was spending August on a vicarious journey through a country that did not exist anymore.

“To my friends in Yugoslavia, who are now all dead or enslaved.”

This epigraph to Rebecca West’s travel writing tome, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon: A Journey Through Yugoslavia, haunts the narrative that describes the six weeks she spent in the Balkan region in 1937. As she played that time in history with what went before it, I dove right in beside her, even as the monsoon played hide and seek in August 2014 in Delhi. Shielding her and myself from the rains, I jostled with ever increasing commuters on the one and half hour Metro ride each morning and returned to her on my way back as I traveled home. Time stood divided to the before and after I was last with her.

Only once did a fellow passenger, perhaps watching me mark my reading presence by underlining a line in the book, ask, “What are you reading?” Caught as if in the celebratory light of a red carpet, I first showed her the cover and then responded, hardly masking my excitement, “I discovered her while reading another book, Robert Kaplan’s Balkan Ghosts years ago. He carried this book around during his journey.” And now I was carrying her, not on a journey through a forgotten world, but to partake in the joys of reading that flow sparingly in the slivers of everyday life in the city. Surrounded by the muscular Shiva display on the latest Amish book or the runny hand of Chetan Bhagat’s Half Girlfriend, I played the fool, balancing the shifting sands of Yugoslav time in one hand and the jolting motions of Delhi’s lifeline in the other.

A Moveable Feast, Hemingway’s Paris parlance, may have been a fitter choice for these environs, slipping in deftly between moving fingers and barely hanging purse. But Rebecca West’s is a far removed world that casts a spell that only arrival station announcements can break. Dead kings die again, heirs are thrown off balconies and before the sun has set on countries and borders that no longer exist, she has managed to turn Delhi into Dalmatia. As my eyes darted to the end, I was intensely aware that despite how heavily her world sat on a dangling wrist, I had discovered and devoured a treasure.

Tip-toeing through a ravenous coach in the Delhi Metro, clutching another printed and bound life in my hand, I often turn back to that time with West. Her words rush back amidst the cacophony of the commute and I yearn to journey with her all over again.

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Rote Beete Suppe (Beet Root Soup)

It was 1975. Two Indian friends were visiting a common German friend in East Berlin, then capital of the German Democratic Republic. That friend’s parents had years ago left their Nazi occupied country and settled along the Polish-Ukraine border. She had found her way back to divided Germany. That evening she served them a pink, sour soup. It was something she’d learned from her mother.

It had enticed the taste buds of my Father-in-law, one of the visitors, so much that he learnt the recipe from her. Making it several times during his stay in the country, he eventually forgot all about it when he returned to India in the early 80s. That is, until recently, when the sight of Saure Sahne (sour cream), leftover from my mushroom soup experiment, brought back the unique flavour of the beetroot soup and he delighted us with blending it all together again.

The dish is a popular soup in Eastern Europe, finding its way into Poland and Germany, through people carrying stories and special recipes along as the settled in newer parts in the region, in the aftermath of the war. The elaborate version of this soup, with many vegetables and even meat, is referred to as borscht (in Russian) and by differing names as dialects change across borders. This is a red hot (or pink depending on how much sour cream you like in it) soup not only in its form but also in the debates surrounding its origin.

This dish has now travelled to me, sans borders and the limits names and places often impose on people, travelled like all good things do, free as stories from life should be. And now I’m sharing it with you.

Rote Beete Suppe (Beet Root Soup)

This recipe serves two.

Ingredients:

1 big bulb (or 2 medium or 3 small) of Beetroot

200 gm Saure Sahne (Sour Cream)

2 tsp Butter

Salt to taste

Method:

Peel, wash and clean the beetroot bulb. Chop it into small pieces, preferably squares.

In a grinder mix the chopped beet root and sour cream to make a paste.

In a pan heat 2 tsp butter, add a little salt to taste, add the beetroot & sour cream paste.

Stir for a minute and add water according to the consistency you want.

Once boiled, cool it.

Add Black pepper as per taste and coriander as garnish.

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The Thing About Grey

It pulls me in from the crowd, makes me go weak in the knees, colors my dreams. Out of a thousand things in rainbow shades, I am extremely likely to pull out the grey. It’s hot stuff, if you ask me.

Let’s suffice it to say, I have ‘a thing’ for grey, referred to (quite unfairly I feel) as the color “without color”.

The crowds may chant bleak, boring, old and sad to its face, but I find there’s much beauty and fun to be had in it. Of course if this were the 18th century, and Paris, I would have been quite the ravishing enchantress about town in my swishing grey gown.

Charlotte_Walsingham,_Lady_Fitzgerald_by_John_Hoppner

Or a happy fly on the grey wall buzzing over Whistler’s Mother as she sat in perfect composure for this portrait.

James_Abbott_McNeill_Whistler_-_Portrait_of_the_Artist's_Mother_-_Google_Art_Project

Wikipedia offers a grim reflection on one of my favorite hues by (horribly) stating:

In Europe and the United States, surveys show that grey is the color most commonly associated with conformity, boredom, uncertainty, old age, indifference, and modesty. Only one percent of respondents chose it as their favorite color.

And goes on to make matters grey-er by quoting color historian Eva Heller.

“Grey is too weak to be considered masculine, but too menacing to be considered a feminine color. It is neither warm nor cold, neither material or spiritual. With grey, nothing seems to be decided.

Bah, Humbug I say!

Let a girl salivate o’er grey

Ogle at the grey sweater-chest,

slip on a plain grey dress,

jump off the steel-grey train,

dance under the glowing grey rain.

Images via https://www.pinterest.com/manikadhama/

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To Alwar and Back in a Heartbeat

One fine saturday…

Storytellers of Wonder

The yellow of her odhni, of the mustard in the breeze, of the unabashed sun.

It is the color that follows you through the dusty roads that lead out of Delhi and towards Alwar, the ‘Gateway to Rajasthan’. Sitting to the north of the capital city Jaipur, this erstwhile princely state now beckons weekend free-wheelers to Havelis-turned-hotels, the Siliserh lake, and the nearby Sariska Tiger reserve.

We drifted out of foggy Delhi for a taste of the Haveli life, if only for a night. With the Aravali hills flanking the road in the distance, we were headed to Burja Haveli, an over 200 years old abode reminiscent of traditional Rajasthani architecture, now renovated as a heritage property.

The Haveli in its heyday probably celebrated in solitude. Today the burgeoning town and its accouterments surround it. And yet when you step inside, not without being greeted cheerily by Hari Singh

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Dear Delhi

On a dark winter night I met you again,

While waiting for silent dreams to unfold,

We found the words to hang on a string,

You knelt and made promises of gold.

 

We fought like lovers, discarded memories like friends

Till fate drew swords and made life its prey.

 

I planned an escape from your confounding ties

You veiled the truth under a jealous sky

The spell cast shadows on twisted stone

Caged tales grew wings that never learned to fly.

 

You now smell of rain and scattered suns,

Of guilty secrets in crowded trunks.

We share the remains of borrowed time

creating new threads for a forgotten rhyme.

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Sun, Sand and Snafu

Life is what happens between holidays.

Or so I thought, till a February trip this year made me realize that on occasion life packs itself into carry bags and pops out at inopportune moments, bringing along many first-time-worsts.

For the first time in her seventeen month life, my little girl threw up in the car on our way to the airport. A forty minute early morning drive in the city had done what a ten day road trip from Srinagar to Leh to Manali had NOT done six months earlier. I should have been forewarned of the trials to come even though the twenty dollar now-smelly t-shirt was screaming ‘Frankie says relax’.

Since the darling and I now smelled like rotten vegetables, we needed to change barely one hour into the trip-not-yet-begun. For the second time in one hour, there was another first. I had not packed an extra set of clothes in the baby bag, which is the sort of rule that invites you’re-too-irresponsible-to-be-a-mother sort of looks. In my defence, these looks were accompanied by disbelief over how an always meticulous (and ardent-bordering-on-obsessive-compulsive) packer like me could have screwed up so bad.

And then it got better. I couldn’t find the keys to our suitcase. I could’ve sworn they were in the baby bag in that easy-to-reach pocket right next to the prayer book. As it turns out, no amount of earnest chanting (and carrying prayer books to holidays) can save you from the travails of life, or self-inflicted torture. Karma bites.

To prove a point to the voice in my head (which was the ME certain people want me to be), I decided to carry my daughter’s and my stuff in one cabin-size bag. “Then we won’t have to wait at baggage claim”, exclaimed the imposter, still in my head. Trusting other people’s instincts can only get you so far and no matter how hard you try it will not allow you to fit an oversized bag in cabin space. Like a harried version of myself, I was exchanging items between bags and struggling to squeeze things into tiny places, all the while smelling like a rat or a cat or our dog that has been out in the rain too long.

I settled into my seat dreaming of the shower I would take as soon as we got to the hotel. The dreary drumrolls of air flight routines had begun and we were off.

~

Two significantly uneventful flights and five hours later, we were at the Veer Savarkar International Airport at Port Blair. A few minutes before landing we had been warned against taking pictures of the airport as it was a defence base. As with all instructions in this country, there were men with enough bravado (and little sense) to unashamedly flout them.

From the early morning winter chill of Delhi, we had travelled to the sultry sun of the Andaman Islands. My efforts to save my little baby’s pearly white face from the tropical sun were all in vain. She refused to wear a cap. It was yet another failed attempt at satisfying the imposter in my head.

We made our way through undulating streets and very well-behaved traffic. There were no red lights, only sweet postured traffic policemen and women maneuvering sensible drivers. It was a whole new world from the mainland madness of the country’s capital city.

At the hotel the tour manager exchanged identity cards for room keys while we drank an orange colored drink that was an excessively sweet and bizarre version of something else. The clock chimed in the afternoon note for twelve. Before heading to our rooms we were instructed to rest and be downstairs by three.

At the room I dug into the baby bag to find the suitcase keys while the little girl busied herself at the desk phone, making imaginary calls to real people.

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Sure enough the truant keys had found their way at the bottom of the bag. I raised my arm in triumph, “See I told you I hadn’t messed up”, trying to satisfy the imposter in my head more than anyone else.

Then we washed and washed, scrubbing all scent of early morning Delhi off of us. Mother dear also went ahead and washed all the messy clothes. God bless her. I decided to inaugurate the funky dress that a friend had picked up in Goa. This wasn’t Delhi. I could wear what I wanted, baring as much skin as my heart permitted.

~

The blazing afternoon sun signaled lunch time and we were ready to experiment. Bengali guests provided express instructions for fish replacement; tuna for surmai please. Prawns and assortment of fish completed the table settings and we ate like hungry hyenas.

With heavy stomachs and happy hearts we set off in the direction of the Cellular Jail. Once inside, there was no escape from history. It was in the brick columns and tiny cellars. Countless names etched on stone walls bore testimony to the reality of the horrors. Everything begged the question: What made one human being treat another in this manner? And the vacant corridors shared their secret: A man will treat another in any manner only because he can.

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We stepped inside solitary cells and stared out the window above. If walls did indeed have ears what stories could they tell us?

We were peeking into history at the lives lost within the Cellular Jail but would it all count for something? It was easy to take a moment out of our humdrum lives and pretend like we were heartbroken at the sacrifices. But feelings of nationalism that arise in memorial tourist spots stay within the stone walls. Once outside the reality of our own lives take over.

Like the fact that for the first time in my daughter’s seventeen month life, I had packed everything in the baby bag but left her milk bottle on the table in the room. That was a jolt from the blue. It didn’t help that I had never done this before. I didn’t want to believe that I had lost all semblance of functional behavior. Fortunately most of our tour group hadn’t returned from the Jail environs so I begged the cab driver to rush to the hotel. We were back just in time to catch the group headed towards the Corbyn Cove Beach.

For someone who has seen beaches dime a dozen, this garbage loaded beach in Port Blair was a significant let down. But it was a start to the adventure trail we were to follow over the next few days. My little darling slept through most part of our time at the beach. We posed for pictures, bargained (unsuccessfully) for hats and got the “Are you from Delhi?” comment for the first among many times during the trip. “You always know a Delhi-ite” the hat-seller added with a smile that made us believe it was all meant in good humour and was not a disparaging comment on our bashfulness.

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Lounging on chairs by the beach cost us ten rupees so we decided to vacate them instead of paying the exorbitant amount (in good natured Delhi spirit). The almost forty grand holiday was fine but no ten rupees for chairs please.

Soon it was dark and the beach was in closure mode. The last item on the day’s agenda was the Light and Sound Show at the Cellular Jail. I had never been to a light and sound show and was thrilled at this opportunity. As we made our way to the second row from the front, I prepared for a wondrous night under the open sky of Port Blair.

The show began well past the printed start time. The story of the island and how a beautiful place could turn into a witness of man’s excesses against man unfolded before other people’s eyes. I experienced more through my ears as I spent the entire one hour walking in and out of the venue (via the back door) in order to entertain my dear daughter who did not sit still for more than 30 seconds. While the voiceover (which sounded like Om Puri) took everyone on a journey through history, the two of us climbed up some stairs then down some stairs then out the door behind a dog.

Maybe it was the day that had started too early or the warm breeze and twinkling stars but all I really wanted to do was head back to the hotel and sleep. Perhaps it was a wonderful show. Based on what I heard but couldn’t see, I thought it dragged on for too long and our collective pity couldn’t keep up. I had already tagged it under ‘Hand me a copy of the transcript instead’.

~

The next morning began with checking the alarm to see whether all was alright with the world. Bright sunlight streaming into your room at four in the morning is not a normal occurrence for Delhi dwellers. Who knew we wouldn’t need the alarm here at all and the sun would suffice. After a round of daily ablutions we were out and about on our way to the islands of yore.

In life-jackets and happy hats we stepped onto wobbly boats that would be our transport for the day.  After running amok on land the little one hated to be confined on a speed boat with her ill-fitting jacket and adult company. But she had no choice. Her mother was going to take her everywhere. After feeling like actors in a done-to-death drug movie racing forth in speed boats, we reached the shores of Ross Island. We were greeted by a deer rummaging through broken coconut shells and the man selling the fruit-water for twenty bucks a piece. This we would pay for, to create our tropical holiday picture postcard.

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Now on land and out of the bright red life jacket, my daughter was happy to be so close to an animal that wasn’t human. She ran after it when it wasn’t looking and shrieked when it looked in her direction. After several wasted photo opportunities of fitting the baby and the deer in a frame, we walked on towards other sights.

Giant creepers had captured the once alive printing press where the British establishment presumably wrote stories explaining their presence on another’s soil. The hollow chambers were left to fulfill a photographer’s desires of the perfect shot.

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The empty swimming pool spoke of extravagant luxuries of certain men while others languished in tiny cells on another island not far away. But somewhere beyond the lost world was a feast; the eyes mesmerized by the colors nature could conjure up, the slanting trees, the distant lighthouse and the ubiquitous spoiler – a honeymoon couple with the hennaed hands covered in dutiful bangles and the curious look of the beloved whose eyes wandered elsewhere. Having been warned against countless mosquitoes, I was surprised to find more marriage malaria around me than the repellant creams could cure.

It was early afternoon and the sun had begun to make us uncomfortable. Not to be undone by nature, we made our way to what sounded like a dangerous place. Viper Island was an open jail for women during the British reign and derived its name from the snakes that infested its jungles. Our guide informed us that three to four women were tied together and abandoned on this island to fend for themselves, it being generally accepted that they would die of hunger or from snake bite if they ventured into the jungle looking for food. Just as we stepped off the boat a signboard warned us against throwing garbage on the island and implored us to use the dustbins. Something had happened here since that signboard came up because there wasn’t a dustbin in sight and everything from plastic bottles to food wrappers found its (un)rightful place on the island.

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And of course there was a dog. What was his story I wondered? Was he born on this island of doom and had his ancestors lived to see the certain deaths of their female human companions?

The thick jungle cover in the center of the island looked every bit the snake infested place that gave the island it’s name. With nothing to do except imagine the deaths that we couldn’t really imagine, we were on the boat again, making our way to North Bay.

The last and final stop for the day was the North Bay beach near Port Blair famous for water sports. The plan was to indulge in all activities of the getting-wet variety. For someone who is often breathless under a cold shower, I was walking on eggshells as I signed up for scuba diving. This was going to be a big personal win for me, if I could tick it off the still-under-consideration bucket list.

Full of false bravado I decided to be among the first four to walk into the ocean. This was no Woolfian walk with stones in my pocket. I had the comfort of the oxygen cylinder strapped at all times and the diving instructor attached to the hand. It took me several head-under-water practice sessions to be comfortable enough to float along. What finally did the trick was telling myself to meditate. The slow breathing pattern of this land activity (which I’ve been meaning to do for all goodness sake but have never begun) helped in calming nerves that don’t like trying to swim in the pool back home. The slow rhythm of my breath and the colorful sights that greeted my eyes made me forget land-life’s travails. I met my mother ten feet under and we posed for posterity before floating back to shore. The water hadn’t been as clear as I’d imagined and there really weren’t too many fish in this sea, but I was happy for having faced the water enemy.

Quick lunch and diving stories made way for the remaining activities of jet-ski and something called a ‘sofa ride’. While the former was an exhilarating riding experience, the latter was the opposite of a sit-back-and-relax-on-the-sofa deal. It was horrible. With space for three, my brother, mother and I sat in, with only two soft side-handles to hold. The ride made us jump off the seats and was bumpier than any surface transport I’ve been on. A splitting headache resulted from this misadventure and was only cured when the damn thing dropped us ashore.

Dry land and dry clothes helped me back to good cheer and we rocked our way back to Port Blair in the speed boat just as the sun danced in orange hues across the sky.

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Back at the hotel, it was hog time galore with endless arrays of fish, prawn, crab and lobster dishes. Fully satiated and tired, we slept soundly till the next day awoke us.

~

Mission Havelock began with a choppy two hour ride on a private ferry, which made many a lady request for a sick-bag. My little girl of the throwing-up-in-car fame was surprisingly stable and kept her fluids within. As we disembarked at Havelock, the pleasant winds were a welcome change from the burning sun of Port Blair.

The day was supposed to be take-a-rest day, with no pre-planned activities. My family was the first to reach the hotel and before stepping into the rooms we strode towards the private beach. When we reached the clearing, past the cottages and coconut tree, time stood still and then there was light. We knew why this was no-activity day. The spectacular view of the quiet sea, with the solitary boat in the centre, made for perfect lazy day activity. In case someone had doubts, the hotel had placed hammocks everywhere. They really wanted you to lie back and relax. After several wide-mouthed wow’s we rushed to our cottage to change into water friendly clothes and quickly ran back to the beach.

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Sitting in the shallow green sea, I could hear my cousin say, “We had wished not to find our way back home” when I’d asked about his Havelock trip two years before. While the adults in the family practiced their swimming routine, I entreated my darling girl to enter the water. Every attempt at lowering her feet into water was followed by loud wails that broke all codes of acceptable beach behavior. It was finally her grandfather who ignored the wails for a second and wet her feet just a little before handing her into mommy’s arms. Who would have thought that this little girl now splashing and smiling away had been howling at the thought of the same only a few seconds ago.

We were only drawn out of the water after an hour by hunger and the plans to explore two other beaches on the island, with the promise of a perfect sunset at one of them. Racing through the bath and sea-food special biryani, we split into scooter and auto-rickshaw riders, with the mother and toddler settling for the boring three-wheeler.  Narrow lanes lined with coconut trees on one end and the rocky beach front on the other carried us through. I ached and sighed at how amazing the ride would be on a bike. Before we stopped at the Kala Pathar beach, I had decided to trade places with my father seated behind my brother on a scooter. Surely granddaddy could babysit till our next stop while young and wild and free mommy enjoyed the sights astride a scooter.

We didn’t have much time to spare as the sunset awaited us at Radha Nagar Beach. Off we rode, with my cotton dress between by legs and both hands fighting to keep it from baring all. This wasn’t Delhi, but it wasn’t my bedroom either. After the longest scooter ride of my life (which I was inappropriately dressed for), we reached the world famous Radha Nagar beach. TIME Magazine had voted it Asia’s best. Although that was in 2004, this little note always found its way into tour listings. Nine years was a long time for anything, and for nature to preserve itself while humankind came calling, was a difficult feat indeed.

I couldn’t say whether TIME’s nine year old proclamation still held true. I hadn’t seen enough to be fair enough. It didn’t matter as I was not going to let magazine awards decide whether I liked some place. And I did like this one.

We walked along the beach, clicking pictures, watching revelers and laughing at comments such as “Aunty is wearing a diaper” from my daughter, with reference to a lady in a bikini. The cliché sunset for which we had made this journey seemed elusive as clouds blocked our view. An avid photographer struggled with a tripod and a log, setting the latter in desired directions without being happy about the result. A lady stood guard with a digital camera waiting for the perfect sunset. But the sun bid us an abrupt goodbye and we began to walk back, just as my brother made a comment about how all Indian tourists were confined to the area of the beach right beside the entrance while the foreigners had walked along the beach and could be found at the distant end. It was a curious observation and he was right.

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We returned to the hotel with sand in our shoes and the customary holiday tee (which would become a night dress back home) in our bags. The ladies settled in to cane chairs to play cards under the moonlit sky. Never a fan of the game, my girl and I sank into to the hammock and watched the stars as they hid behind the leaves above us. It was the sort of night that made you believe in magic and fairy tales. The wind finally rocked my baby to sleep and I stayed there for a while, cherishing the closeness of her body on my chest and the incomparable beauty of this moment that she would never remember.

~

I’m not the biggest fan of early mornings but this was important. After having been denied a very good diving view at North Bay, we had found a great deal for scuba diving at Havelock Island. We just had to be at the site by six. We reached half an hour after our scheduled time, not without marking another (unexpected) first on the list, the little girl’s scooter ride sandwiched between her mother and her uncle. Her outstretched hands, flowing hair and glorious laughter signaled pure joy, even though it was a five minute ride.

After filling out forms stating that we were fit as a fiddle and wouldn’t kill anyone if we died, I stepped forward again to be among the first three to float away. This time there was no fear, only pure excitement. I decided not to forgo the diving instructions and practice session and acted every bit the novice. While one of my companions decided to drop the diving idea and the other struggled with breathing exercises, my instructor and I began our journey.

The early morning sea was clear and brought forth beautiful sites. We saw an octopus resting among the corals and a sea anemone swaying to our hand wave. A clown fish greeted me with a pinch on my palm while a school of bright blue fish led the way. I could have stayed there forever but land life was calling. As we bobbed our heads out of the water, my instructor looked my way and smiled.

“You did great” he said while beginning to prepare for his next dive.

I thanked him for being the best guide and then told him the secret, “I did this two days ago.”

I was the first to return to the waiting area where everyone eagerly awaited comments. My beaming face answered most of their queries and they were visibly excited for how their dive would go. Every dive was different and brought forth new stories, like my brother who’s instructor asked his name by writing in the sand down below or the friend who hit her father’s bald head with a coral under water.

We were to leave Havelock Island that afternoon by ferry and head back to Delhi the next morning. It was the familiar feeling of leaving behind an old friend. Pleasant memories and forgettable blunders had come together to make a wonderful trip. And now it was over.

~

While planning this holiday, I had a picture in my mind that I wanted to bring home and frame. I knew what angle I wanted and how the light would be. I had decided how we would stand and where we would look. I wanted this picture for us, my daughter who wouldn’t remember anything from the trip and me with nostalgia-laced stories about everything that would really happen.

As with everything else in life, the perfect picture was not the one I had in mind all this time but the one that was clicked when I wasn’t even aware of it.

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