The Everglades, Southern Florida

Last weekend, casting around for something to do that would involve a “long drive,” we decided to explore the Everglades, southern Florida’s breathtakingly wide expanse of swamps, mangroves, and prairie land that stretches almost the entire span from its west to east coasts. Our first stop was Captain Doug’s airboat tour near Marcos island, which took us at a good speed through the watery mangrove swamps. Madhu posed with a baby gator before we got into the boat, and a short ride later, we encountered a friendly but lonely raccoon who came out of hiding to meet and greet us and be fed by our boat captain. Disappointingly, we didn’t see any other wildlife, except for some birds (cranes and pelicans).

We drove up to the Big Cypress National Preserve after that, further east on I-41, and caught fleeting glimpses of a Manatee. We also went on a long 2-hour hike through the woods on a hiking trail running the length of Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park — again, not much wildlife to speak of, but we did see some interesting birds, and later that day, I caught a glimpse of a stately bright-red Cardinal.

The next morning, bright and early and shortly before dawn, we commenced a long drive to the Shark River Valley, the other end of the Everglades, near Miami. That was to be the highlight of our sojourn through the Everglades: we had planned to go on a 15-mile bike ride through this part of the forest. The trail was paved and easy to navigate, and it etched a circular path along which saw a lot of alligators sun-bathing with their eyes closed and mouths half open. Some of them were giant reptiles, and in places there were whole packs of them, partly submerged in the swampy water. From the observation deck we also managed to spot a couple of turtles. The ride back to our starting point was a bit more difficult than the ride in, because the wind was blowing against us, and our bikes didn’t have gears, so we just had to pedal doggedly until we covered the remaining 8 miles of the trail. But we did it, and were none the worse off for it.

Having made it this far east, we decided to plug on further along I-41 and hit Miami. The contrast between biking amidst alligators and negotiating Saturday afternoon city traffic on a Miami freeway was stark, to say the least! But we caught some spectacular views of the Miami skyline, and then headed out to Miami Beach, where we enjoyed a view of the Atlantic while sitting on the beach and reading our books for a couple of hours.

I drove most of the way back from Miami to Bradenton and have finally overcome my fear of the expressway ūüôā I am now on my way to becoming a gator-spotting, road-hogging beach bum. Starting to feel at home in Florida!

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A View from Florida

Marriage and a chance relocation have brought me 10,000 miles from my native India to the sunny climes of western Florida, in Bradenton-Sarasota. While the palm trees lend a familiar tropical flavor to my new surroundings,  the challenges of driving on the right-hand side of the road, the expansive shopping plazas, and the manicured and landscaped lawns confirm for me that I am indeed back in the United States of America, right at the time when election fever is mounting and the debate over health care is once again at center stage. The last time I was in the United States was right before Barack Obama was elected, in the summer of 2008; there will be another 9 months of suspense before we know whether Obama is going to make it back into the White House next year. Speculation is rife. But while  the election drama unfolds, my husband and I are enjoying our explorations of this coastal nook of Florida. One thing I like about this state is that there are large bodies of water everywhere; even outside our apartment, overlooking the balcony, there is a large pond that ripples gently in the breeze all day long, giving this area a resort-like quality. Living here is like being eternally on holiday.

We’ve been to two beaches so far: Siesta Keys and Lido Beach. Both have vast expanses of white sand and pure, clean waters. The sea gulls and pelicans are very tame here; they fly close to the shoreline and are seemingly unafraid of humans. The sunsets at the beach are spectacular; a few weeks ago we actually watched the sun dip below the horizon at Lido Beach against a reddish-orange backdrop. The beaches were not crowded went we visited them — in fact they were somewhat deserted. But I am sure that the sands will be teeming with vacationers when my first summer in Florida eventually rolls around.

So far, we have visited:

The Dali in St. Petersburg (http://thedali.org/); Orange Groves and Winery (http://www.floridawine.com/); The Pier at St.Petersburg; International Plaza in Tampa; Sarasota beaches; Downtown Sarasota, where we hung out at the 5 O’Clock Club (http://caroline941fl.web.officelive.com/default.aspx)¬†and listened to The Bonesha

kers after downing a shot (only one!) of tequila. We’ve eaten well at Main Street in Lakewood Ranch and have sampled some offerings from the Sarasota Film Society, most notably¬†The Artist and A Separation. ¬†We even managed to catch some classical piano music (Chopin’s works, played by Russian pianist Eleonora Lvov).

Next on the agenda: The Everglades.

Travel: Rome and Florence 2012

Colosseum

Outside the B&B, on Via Collina

It was a cold day in February when my husband of 6 days and I landed in Rome. There was still slushy snow on the ground and a tantalizing nip in the air. The driver of our airport shuttle — a sleek black Italian-made vehicle — whose name was Fabiano (spoken with a sing-song accent on the third syllable [Fab-ee-AHN-o]) efficiently conveyed us to our cozy bed and breakfast in an imposing building with large doors on a quiet street near Via Settembre on the north east side of the city. It was late in the evening when we arrived, and the roads were largely free of the clutter of rush-hour traffic. Rome looked shiny and elegant in the artificial light of the street lamps.

Inside La Baita

Bruschetta

Dinner was simple fare — bruschetta followed by thin crust pizza with wild mushrooms washed down with some wine at a small but tasteful pizzeria (La Baita) down the street from where we were staying. The decor and ambiance were a far cry from Pizza Hut’s. There were candles and wine glasses on the tables, and wine bottles decorated the delightfully old-world brick walls. The waiter threw in a free and deliciously lemony digestif at the end of the meal — a distinctly European touch that I was experiencing for the first time.

A decorated ceiling inside the Vatican Museum.

Day 1 in “Roma” was spent largely at the Vatican Museum, where we were spellbound by ornately decorated ceilings, all manner of sculptures, and of course, the piece de resistance, the Sistine Chapel. (A testament¬† to the efficiency of the Vatican Museum is surely to be found in the fact that we were able to retrieve, with minimal fuss, an iPad we had “lost” near the entrance to the Sistine Chapel. Once we discovered it was missing, we reported the loss to one of the security guards, who with one short call on his walkie-talkie was able to ascertain that someone had indeed turned in an iPad with a black cover at the lost-and-found counter near the museum’s entrance. I couldn’t help thinking that if this had happened in India, we would never have seen our iPad again.) Inside¬† the Sistine Chapel, an audio guide to the frescoes on the walls and ceilings brought Michelangelo’s genius alive for us. In general, I found that the audio guides to be¬† had in a number of Italian museums, including the Borghese, were really useful in helping one to navigate the rich repositories of¬† sculptures and paintings.

St Peter's Square

Michelangelo's Pieta

After we had feasted on the visual delights inside the Vatican,we took a short stroll to the famed St. Peter’s Square and Basilica. Unfortunately it was too late in the day to go to the top of the cupola, but we walked through the magnificent piazza and looked at the art and sculpture in the main hall, where¬† Michelangelo’s Pieta reposes, dimly lit. An evening mass was about to commence, and we saw some priests and choir boys make their way to the altar and begin the prayers while a sacred hush settled over the interiors.

On our way back to Via Collina from the Vatican, we experienced something closer to home when we encountered a man from Bangladesh selling woolen caps and gloves on the street outside the Vatican walls! It was truly astonishing to see how many immigrants there are from the Indian subcontinent in Italy. A few days later, in a restaurant near the Pantheon, we had a waiter who was originally from Calcutta.

We spent days 2 and 3 in Rome visiting more museums (notably the National Museum and the Borghese Gallery, which is home to some fabulous Bernini sculptures) and also touching on the archeological hotspots like the Colosseum, Palatine Hill, the Forum and the Pantheon. Mode of transportation: mostly metro, bus, and our own two feet. The 3-day Roma Pass we had purchased gave us unlimited travel on public transport, and we made the best use of it. Rome is a very walkable city; in fact, if you don’t walk everywhere, you are likely to miss a lot.

The Florence "skyline"

"Trenitalia"

We spent days 4 and 5 in Florence, soaking in more art and history, and ending it all with a long walk by the river Arno, past the Ponte Vecchio. We took a high-speed train from Rome to Florence that took us about an hour and a half. We travelled second-class, which was still comfortable and quite roomy.¬† In Florence we sampled gelato (I had one that was Tiramisu flavored — a case of overkill?), some Tuscan cuisine, the sculptures of Michelangelo (most notably his David), all the art the Uffizi could hold, and some delightful river views. The spirit of the Renaissance¬† is still alive there, amid the cobbled streets, narrow alleyways and medieval architecture, despite the slick and touristy facade. In contrast to ultra-modern skylines made up of chrome and steel skyscrapers, the sight of the distinctive reddish Duomo rising above a teeming vista of old buildings and towers reassures one that in some parts of the world, the forces of modernity have not completely leveled the glory of the past.

City-Scapes: New Delhi-New York-Bangalore

The title of this post was remotely suggested by the title of Amitava Kumar’s travelogue/lit-crit monograph on Indian writers [note to myself: buy it and read it ASAP], Bombay-London-New York. I say remotely, because, as I have just confessed, I have not read it. I assumed it was another Westernized, postcolonial Indian’s narrative of travel to the West, a topic I had¬† grown¬† weary of in the early 2000’s, when Kumar’s book was published, myself having beat a hasty, somewhat ignominious, retreat from New York, decisively bringing to an end — at least for a span of time — my 12-year sojourn in a Western nation.

There is something to be said for not reading books whose titles intrigue you:¬† this kind of ignorance brings with it a certain bliss, giving free reign to the imagination to invest the title with any association(s) one pleases. And so, thinking about Bombay-London-New York and imbuing it with associations of my own invention, being oblivious of the fact that it was not a travelogue, an autobiographical account of a Westward journey (although it does contain these elements), I was able to think about and cast my own life’s journey till date in a similar manner: except that mine would be called “New Delhi-New York- Bangalore.”

It could also be called “New York-New Delhi-Bangalore,” if I chose to locate the origin of the story of myself in New York, which would not exactly be wrong, I suppose; in fact, it might, surprisingly, actually be right. Because, for quirky and inexplicable reasons, my life did, in a manner of speaking, begin in New York, something unusual for an Indian of my generation. The unusualness is something I have had to live with; at times I have had to explain it in great detail to curious people, and then, having become tired of explaining this odd tie I have always had to New York, I swept it under the carpet and began to tell people, when asked “where I was from,” that I am from Delhi — which is also correct. If I were to say that I was from Bombay, that would also be correct. If I say that I am from Tamil Nadu, that is also correct — depending on what it means to be “from” somewhere.

You see, that is the catch. Where are you from? has never been an easy question for me to answer.