Copenhagen: 

 

Tom had a perplexing start to his day. While we were waiting for our latte’s at a table, we noticed a giant Rubik’s Cube right next to us. Obviously, being the engineers we are, we started solving it piece by piece. Ironically, neither one of us could remember how to solve the last layer, so we had to leave it behind with only 2 out of 3 of the rows solved. I also learned that my boyfriend is a nerd; Apparently he attended Rubik’s Cube club meetings while he was in college. 

 Our first stop was the National Museum of Denmark. Housed in the Prince’s Mansion, one of the earliest Roccoco buildings in Copenhagen, the National Museum has the largest collection of Danish cultural history in all of Denmark. Its  exhibition covers 14,000 years from prehistoric times to present-day lives. It would have been easy to spend our entire day there, but Tom and I had a lot more to see (not to mention, we’ve pretty much had our fill of museums for this trip). My favorite part was their collection of dollhouses, I always wanted one as a little girl. The scaling of each piece of furniture and the detail associated with it has always fascinated me. Tom couldn’t share my enthusiasm, because well, I’m pretty certain that he has never been a little girl. 😀

 We grabbed some Smørrebrød for lunch, a traditional open-faced sandwich of meat, fish, cheese, or spread, on a buttered piece of rye bread, before heading over to the Parliament building. Officially, the building is called Christiansborg Palace,  a metonym meaning, “Castle of the Realm.” It is the only one in the world the houses all three branches of the government, the executive, the legislative, and the judicial powers. We took two elevators to the top of the tower, the tallest tower in Copenhagen, and were greeted with some scenic views of the city.
 After returning to ground level, we took a closer look at the Børsen, the old stock exchange. We passed by it yesterday during the walking tour, but I wanted a closer look at its spire. Built by Christian IV between 1619-1614, the building is known for its  the Dragon Spire which consists of four dragon tails wounded together reaching a height of 56 meters. I really admire the expressive artistry that older buildings have. It’s a tradition that has been lost and overtaken by a desire for modern, sleek shapes. At the same time, it would be unrealistic to build elaborately carved or scuplted details into structures these days since I’m sure the cost would be astronomical.

 We stopped by a few historical churches and then took a stroll along Nyhavn. Nyhavn is a man-made port dug between 1670 to 1673 by Swedish prisoners of the Dano-Swedish War. It was constructed by Christian V and served as a gateway from the sea to the old inner city, Kongens Nytorv the “King’s Square.” The harbor area was notorious for beer, sailors, and prostitution. On our walk yesterday, Benjamin mentioned that the first tattoo parlor in the city was opened here, and the artist had a two sided machine. Back in those days it was common for sailors to put their names on their lady-friends, but it was also bad business for the woman. So if the woman handed the artist a few extra bucks, a wink, the tattoo artist would us the semi-permanent needle on his machine, allowing the name to wash away a few days later rather than being permanent. The famous fairytale author, Hans Christian Anderson also lived along this street for 18 years. 

 Our last stop today was to the Rundetaarn, or “Round Tower.” Originally built by Christian IV in the 17th century, the cylindrical tower is made of masonry with alternating yellow and red bricks, the colors of the Oldenburgs. It also has has an equestrian ramp rather than a staircase; this design was chosen to allow a horse and carriage to reach the library and for heavy and sensitive equipment to be transported to the astronomical observatory on top. Tom and I walked up the 7.5 turn helical corridor, and I couldn’t help but ask, “Are we there yet?”

Stockholm: Ticking Hands of Time

 We woke up first thing this morning and grabbed breakfast to-go during our walk to City Hall. Stockholm City Hall is the center of governance for the municipality, and also the location of the Nobel Prize banquet every year on December 10th. You may recall my previous post from Oslo concerning the Peace Prize. However, it is the only Nobel Prize that is presented in Oslo rather than in Stockholm. This is because Alfred Nobel specifically wrote this request into his will. Originally there were only 5 awards, Chemistry, Physics, Literature, Medicine, and Peace to award individuals who had made significant contributions to the progress and welfare of humanity. The Economics award was added by the Swedish Central Bank in 1968.

Interestingly enough, City Hall is not an old building. It’s celebrating only its 93rd birthday this year. Designed by the architect After City Hall, we stopped for lunch before heading over to the Vasa Museum. The Vasa is a the only almost fully intact Ragner Östberg in 1923, he desired for the building’s structure and facade to look old without actually being old. Ragnar drew inspiration for the interior rooms from a variety of historical eras, but also made major design changes as the building progressed and his whims of fancy changed. 

 

The Blue Room (although not actually blue) recalls the elegance of a wide open Italian piazza, an assembly space for various events and banquets. Knowing that patrons would be making their entrance via the grand staircase, Ragnar included a star on the far-opposite wall. It is said that if a person focuses on that star as they descend, they will maintain proper posture while all eyes are focused on them; and so far, no Nobel Prize winner has ever tripped or fallen as they enter a banquet in their honor. 

 The Gold Room is opulently decorated in colorful gold mosaic, bringing to mind the glitz and glamour of the Byzantine Empire. The artist and his assistants only had two years to complete the room’s walls prior to a certain event that had to take place on a specific date for historical reasons. As a result, some mistakes were made with no time to correct them. The depicted castle is missing one of the three crowns (this was supposed to depict Tre Kronos, the Castle of Three Crowns), and the king riding the horse is without a head due to scaling errors (although it is historically accurate since the king was eventually beheaded). 

After City Hall, we stopped for lunch before heading over to the Vasa Museum. The Vasa is a the only almost fully intact (98% original) 17th century ship to ever be recovered. The ship was built on the orders of King Gustavus Aldophus in due part because of a military expansion campaign he initiated with Poland-Lithuania and his desire to enter the Thirty Years War. At the time, Sweden’s political and military power was an afterthought and neighboring nations barely acknowledged its presence. Gustavus is widely regarded as one of the greatest military leaders of all time. He was progressive in his governance, innovative in his military weaponry, raised Sweden to be a Great Power.

 The Vasa would have been the first double-decker war ship of the time, and one of the most powerfully armed vessels in the world. She was constructed under contract by private Dutch entrepreneurs between 1626 and 1627. The ship was richly decorated in symbolic carvings illustrating his ambition for Sweden. However, due to severe time constraints, and a lack of expertise (as no one in the country had ever built a double-decker), the Vasa’s final design proved too unstable and top-heavy. 

 On her maiden voyage on August 10, 1628, she was only 1300 meters out of port when a wind caused her to keel and ultimately sink. Fortunately for us, the ship-channel she sank in has a low salt content. This allowed her to lay relatively undisturbed and remarkably well-preserved for over 300 years. The Vasa did not sail again until her hull was lifted from the harbor floor in 1961.

 

I was personally astounded by the size of the ship. She is the first thing you see when you enter the museum, and she simply dominates the room. I couldn’t stop taking pictures of her intricate carvings and exquisite detail.

Our take-away from the day is that time is a double-edged sword. For some, time is a luxury, while for others, time is a looming specter. In both the cases of the Gold Room and the Vasa, had the designers had sufficient time to complete the tasks at hand, we believe that the inherent flaws could have been avoided. 

 Speaking of time, Tom and I spent the rest of our afternoon enjoy the Swedish tradition of Fika. Fika is equivalent to the British Tradition of tea-time, where people take a break from their day to savor some coffee and sweets. We went to Vette-Kaffen a traditional Fika institution. It was both tasty and relaxing. 🙂

Oslo: City of Tigers

 

We started off our day with a latte and cappuccino from Tim Wendleboe. Its known as one of the best places to get coffee in Oslo, and also serves as a micro-roastery and training center for all things related to the art of coffee. Tim has claimed multiple championship titles including that of “World Barista Champion.” Tom, the coffee conossieur, said that it was probably the best coffee he has ever had, and I’d have to agree.  

Walking further south to the historic city center, we passed Damstredet, a street that has preserved the charming, small town character of Oslo with its pedestrian-only access and wooden houses. Unfortunately, since it was snowing, the sloping drive up to it simply seemed too precariously slippery to the both of us.  

We spent our afternoon strolling around Old Oslo and passed the Storting Building (Parliament). Oslo’s parliament was established in 1814, but it was not until 1836 that a government proposal was approved for the construction of a permanent building. The location of this structure was finalized in 1857, and a competition was held for the architectural design.  Even though Heinrich Ernst Schirmer and Wilhelm von Hanno won, their proposal looked to much like a church and was thus struck down. Eventually, Swedish architect Emil Victor Langlet was chosen, and the parliament moved into their new permanent residence on March 5, 1886. In 1860, the building cost 957,332 NOK to construct. That’s $31.3 Million dollars in present day value!


Coinciding with our trip, is the 2016 World Biathlon Championship, so we strolled through a pop-up market celebrating this event with kids participating in mini-versions, and were even able to take a picture with the mascot. 

Next, we passed the Nobel Peace Center which celebrates the history of this prestigious award. Ironically, Alfred Nobel, is the inventor of dynamite, and it was a premature obituary condemning him for profiting from the sale of arms, that inspired him to establish the Nobel Prizes. 

It is in the adjacent City Hall that Malala Yousafzai was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize on December 10, 2014. You may recall her as the brave girl that fought for a female’s right to education in Pakistan, was subsequently targeted with an attempted assassination by the Taliban, and after achieving a full recovery, continues to promote her message around the globe. “One child, one teacher, one pen and one book can change the world.”

Travel: The Other Side

We did something completely off the beaten path today by visiting a slum just north of downtown Mumbai. Nick had helped establish a Pre-K school here about eight years ago, and wanted to check on how it was doing. It’s inspiring to see someone put their heart into something and invest their time and knowledge into helping others, and still care enough to check its well-being so many years later.

You can imagine that I was feeling pretty apprehensive about the experience. While I knew that it would be educational, the opportunity to witness a slum in India first-hand intimidated me.

At first, I didn’t want to face the sadness that would overwhelm me, facing the stark truth that the luxuries I enjoy as an American are just that, unnecessary but expected. As one born in the USA, with opportunities afforded to me by hard-working immigrant parents, its easy to take everything we are given for granted. It’s so simple to think that the small unhappinesses and struggles we may experience are insurmountable, but in the cosmos of things, it’s but a small ripple.

Secondly, I didn’t want to make the locals feel like I was going to visit them as a tourist. My features make it impossible for me to fit in and I knew that not only would they be looking at me in curiosity, but they would also be wondering why I was there. I was concerned that the dwellers would feel like they were on display for a camera-snapping foreigner to watch, like they were in a snow globe village.

In the end, Nick and I went; he even commented that the conditions in the slum were a lot better than he recalled. Rather than propped up shacks made of scaffolding and tarp, I saw brick and mortar buildings, with weighted scaffolding as roofing. Along the paths cutting through the streets, you could see clothes drying on a line; there were vendors for everything from flowers and incense for the temple to little snack shops.

One thing that is different about the poor in India in contrast to other parts of the world is that you can see that the government cares. A lot of slums enjoy the benefits of electricity, cable, and running water. And often, despite springing up illegally on government land, the police do not forcibly remove families to make way for development. Rather, there is a government mandate that requires developers to build apartment-style housing to accommodate the displaced, but only if a majority of the slum community votes for it.

Unfortunately, due to funding issues, Nick was not able to find the school he so lovingly spent hours organizing. He had helped with organizing the lesson plans and worked with the sponsoring company to provide all the classroom essentials the students would need. It made me sad that Nick was not able to witness the longevity or expansion of all his good work. 😦

You may have noted that there are no pictures in this post. This is intentional. Over 2.2 Billion people across the world live in poverty. It is important to Nick and I that we don’t paste more pictures of slums and squalid conditions across the internet. How these people live is not an attraction, it’s not something to be remembered, it’s something, that as a community, and as humans, we work together to put in the past. Rather than something to be framed and on display in an art gallery, this way of life, these conditions, need to end and become a faint memory.

 

 

Travel: Venice of the East

imageNick and I actually delayed our travels to the city of Udaipur by a day because we wanted to visit the Fort. Hence, rather than a 7:30 AM bus, we caught a 6.5-hr sleeper bus. Since it was a non-AC bus, we were feeling pretty optimistic that it would not be too cold. After all, how often does a typical commercial bus have openly ventilated windows? Much to our dismay, even though each cot had its own glass-enclosed cubicle, the windows to open air were not tightly sealed, and therefore it was impossible to limit the amount of penetrating cold desert air.

imageEven worse, I woke up at 3 AM with a pressing need to use the toilet, with no possibilities in sight. I was concerned that even if I asked the driver to pull to the side, the language barrier would prevent him from fully understanding that I needed him to wait for me. I was terrified that he’d drive off and leave me, in the desert, by myself, in the middle of the night. A long struggle later, Nick finally woke up, and he made sure the bus driver didn’t leave me behind (though he was concerned when he felt the wheels of the bus inching). 😦  There is never anything glamorous about popping a squat in a dark ally out of sheer necessity.

Credit: Nikhil Kulkarni

Credit: Nikhil Kulkarni

When we finally arrived at our hostel around 6 AM, they had given our beds away (even though we had called the previous day to give them fair warning)! Nick and I ended up having to squeeze ourselves into two very small chairs with a blanket to catch a little more shut-eye.

 

Needless to say, we did not feel very rested when we finally awoke, and had a pretty lazy day.

Credit: Nikhil Kulkarni

Credit: Nikhil Kulkarni

Udaipur, often called the “Venice of the East” for the its beautiful lakes, was founded in 1559 by Maharana Udai Singh II as the last capital of the Mewar Kingdom. It was during this time that the City Palace first came into existence. In reality, the City Palace is not merely one palace, rather it is a sprawling complex consisting of many different palaces that were constructed by 76 different kings over the course of nearly 400 years.

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Credit: Nikhil Kulkarni

 

The royal family, the Sisodia Rajputs “Worshipers of the Sun God,” built each palace to face east, in order to greet the rising sun. The exquisite facade of the 11 palaces spans a total length of 800 ft, and a total height of 100 ft. A unique trait of the architecture is that, since the total structure was built over an extended period of time, one can see a diverse blend of different styles. Each characteristic of the Rajasthani, Mughal, Medieval, European, and even Chinese Architecture is paradoxically homogenous and unique at the same time.

 

It is said that the Maharana (distinct from the term Maharaja) built his palace atop the hill following the advice of a hermit who he had found meditating at the summit.

Travel: Agra Cantonment

We woke up at 4 AM today, because we needed to catch the 6 AM Shatabdi Express – India’s Fastest Train – to Agra for a day trip. Needless to say, it was a long day as our transit time was 2-hours one-way, assuming that everything is executed flawlessly.

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Credit: Nikhil Kulkarni

Agra, a former cantonment of the British empire, is the home of the Taj Mahal, one of seven wonders of the world. It is an eye-catching structure consisting entirely of white marble and its impossible to miss the light reflecting off of its surface as the sun creeps higher in the sky.

 

Its origin story is one of love, despair, and tragedy.

imageIn the 17th century, Shah Jahan, one of the Mughal Emperors, lost his third wife, a Persian princess named Mumtaz Muhal during the birth of their 14th child in 1631. The following year, construction of the Taj Mahal began. Over the course of 20 years, this project enlisted the labor of over 1,000 elephants to transport building materials from all over India and Asia. In addition to the iconic white marble that the building is known for, 28 other types of precious and semi-precious stones were inlaid into the ornate design.

 

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As this was a period of prosperity within the empire, a skilled labour force of twenty-thousand workers were recruited from all across India. A total of 37 men were selected to form the creative unit behind the Taj Mahal.

 

There were sculptors from Bukhara, calligraphers from Syria and Persia, inlayers from southern india, stonecutters from Baluchistan, and individuals who specialized in everything from turrets to the carving of marble flowers.

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Credit: Nikhil Kulkarni

Not too soon after the Taj Mahal’s completion, the Shah was deposed by his son, Aurangzeb, and imprisoned at Agra Fort. It is said that he was given a cell with a window facing the Taj so that he could gaze at the resting place of his love. Shah Jahan was later buried in the mausoleum next to his wife.

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As a young professional trying to balance the scales of career and ambition between passion and family in the 21st century, it is difficult to imagine the depth of emotion, much less, the hollow shadows that the Shah must have felt on his wife’s passing.

 

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I feel that so much of my generation tends to trivialize the word love, that it’s merely a word to convey feeling, but the term amor speaks volumes more. It means depth of commitment, being willing to compromise, accepting the flaws of your significant other, and most of all, not giving up on your relationship when things get rough. You have to be willing to fight for it.

That’s what Shah Jahan did. Although Mumtaz was long gone from the world, she stayed alive in his memory. He wanted to commemorate her significance in his life, and the empty space left in his world by her departure.

The Taj Mahal was truly a tribute to the joy they shared.

imageNot too far away, is the Agra Fort, a towering fortress where the throne-less shah was held captive. A fort has stood at this location since the 11th century, although the current structure was built by the Mughal Empire. Spanning a total area of 94-Acres, the red sandstone is a staunch guard that dominates the skyline.

As the stories say, Shah Jahan was actually held in the Muasamman Burj, a tower with a marble balcony facing the Taj Mahal.

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After our visit to the fort, it was time to catch our train home. This took a large amount of patience as, despite our 6 PM tickets back, our plane was consistently delayed. First it was by 40 mins, and then it was 1-hour. This soon changed to a 2-hour delay, and progressed further to a 3.5-hour delay. Eventually, we bought another set of tickets for the Shatabdi Express (which is always on time), and managed to get back to Delhi around 11:30 PM. Whew!

Travel: Hinduism and Peace

The one thing about traveling in a foreign country whose citizens are predominately one ethnicity or skin tone, is the complete incapacity for me to blend in. Much like a blonde friend of mine who studied abroad for a semester in Hong Kong, I am a curiosity to the locals. More so an anomaly, because it seems that East-Asians do not often visit India.

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Credit: Juthani1

It is a little strange to feel eyes on oneself everywhere I go. This was best exemplified today when we went to visit the Akshardham. A toddler baby pulled my hair as we were going through security, and an entire school trip of boys all shouted hello and goodbye as we walked past their orderly line. One even ran up to me to shake my hand.

 

. . .If only they had been a few years older, it would have certainly been a major ego boost. 😛

The Akshardam is a massive complex with a Hindu temple, devoted to Swaminarayan as its central focal point. Swaminarayan is the founder of one of the sects of Hinduism. Originally born in Chhapaiya, Uttar Pradesh, India in 1781, he began a 7-year pilgrimage across the country on June 29, 1792 at the age of 11 after the death of his parents.

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Credit: Juthani1

He traveled across India and Nepal in search of an ashram that practiced what he considered to be the correct understanding of Vedanta, Samkhya, Yoga, and Pancaratra, the four primary schools of Hindu philosophy.

 

 

Finally, in 1799, Swaminarayan’s travels as a yogi concluded in Loj, where he stayed as a disciple of Ramanand Swami, and took over leadership as guru after Ramanand died. Swaminarayan passed away on June 1, 1830.

The Akshardham, although a more recent structure that was just completed in 2005, is designed according to ancient Vedic text, and features a blend of architectural styles from across India. It is not supported by steel nor concrete, but is constructed entirely from Rajasthani pink sandstone and Italian Carrara marble. Pictures can’t even begin to illustrate the ornate detail and craftsmanship that was invested into each microscopic niche of the temple. It’s truly an awe-inspiring piece of architecture.

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Credit: Stanislav Sedov and Dmitriy Moiseenko

 

To quantify, the main monument is 141 ft high, 316 ft wide, and 356 ft long. There are 234 intricate pillars, 9 domes, and 20 0,000 murtis and statues of Hinduism’s sadhus, devotees, and acharayas. It also contains 148 scale-sized elephants. This total building weighs a massive 3000 tons.

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Credit: Nikhil Kulkarni

In stark contrast to the elaborate and jaw-dropping Akshardham, Raj Ghat is understated and simple, as one would expect of the burial place of Mahatma Gandhi.  Its difficult not to be overwhelmed by the legacy this great man left behind.

 

 

Not only did he free his nation through peace, but he also inspired countless movements across the world. You can see his influence span from the American Civil Rights Movement to the Occupy Wall Street Moment. So many of the leaders we admire today have used Gandhi as there guiding light, Martin Luther King, Cesar Chavez, Nelson Mandela, and the Dalai Lama are but a few.

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Credit: Nikhil Kulkarni

 

Our last stop of the day was Humayan’s Tomb, the inspiration behind the Taj Mahal, and the resting place of Emperor Humayan.

 

 

 

I shall leave you with one of my favorite quotes:

“Be the Change  you wish to see in the world” ~ Mahatma Gandhi.

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