Romance and its price at the Taj Mahal

After a day exploring New Delhi, we dedicated today to a day trip to Agra to visit the much-anticipated Taj Mahal, the “baby” Taj that the Taj Mahal was modeled after, and the Agra Fort. Since the “high speed” Gatimaan Express train that takes only about an hour and half had now been in operation for a few years, we decided to use that to get to Agra to then meet our driver and guide at the Agra train station.

Our guide, Tushaar, recounted the famous story (and potential myth since it has various iterations) of the Taj Mahal. An emperor of the Mughal Empire in the mid-1600s, Shah Jahan, had three wives, two of whom he wed for political reasons, and one of whom he wed out of love, which was very revolutionary at the time. This favorite wife, Mumtaz Mahal, was a Persian princess who was extremely intelligent and beautiful, and oftentimes consulted him in major decisions he made. She even accompanied him in battles that he fought. She bore him over a dozen children, and unfortunately, died during giving birth to their fourteenth child. They often times talked about what he would do if she were to die, and he eventually told her while she was alive that he would have a great palace built to bury her, where he’d eventually join her. This eventually became a reality. The emperor was devastated that the love of his life had died so tragically and abruptly, so he followed through on his promise and commissioned to have built what would eventually be known as the Taj Mahal, or in Arabic, “the crown palace,” to be the mausoleum to house the remains of his favorite beloved wife.

Rumor has it that it took over 22 years and the labor of over 20,000 men to build this lavish palace, designed in shades of white, beige, grey, and purple marble, and inlaid with jewels on the interior and the exterior, both local (such as the shiny brown Star of India), and foreign (cousins of emeralds and rubies). The technique used to inlay the semi-precious gemstones is unique to the city of Agra, requiring hand-chiseling of the marble to them insert the unique shape of each unique, custom shaped gemstone. And because the emperor did not want the technique to be copied, since he wanted just one unique palace to be the memory of his beloved wife, he chopped the thumbs off of each of the 20,000 workers to ensure they’d never flee and build something similar elsewhere (other iterations of this story claim that he blinded each of them and performed other variations of torture, but this is what our guide told us). The estimated cost, in today’s dollars, for what it took to build this embodiment of undying love and marital devotion, is about $830 million USD. I wonder if that amount discounts the cheap or even free slave labor that Shah Jahan probably used to get this masterpiece done.

Like many works of art and architectural masterpieces, the Taj Mahal is so much more in person than it is in photographs or textbooks. In photos, it looks very bright white, but in person, if you look closely at the minarets, the domes, and the walls, the marble ranges in color from white to beige to grey to even subtle shades of purple. And if our guide never pointed out the gem inlays and the method used to create this type of art, I probably would never have thought much of it and would think it was mass created. The technique employed to inlay the gems is so painstaking and takes years of studying and practice to get correct. After we walked through the grounds of the Taj, our guide took us to one of the family-owned businesses that still uses this same technique to make crafts such as framed marble inlays, tables, jewelry boxes, and table tops. I tried to chip away at the marble myself for a few minutes, but the workers got worried that I was ruining their work, so they immediately took the pointed instrument away from me. The method is called parchin kari (literally meaning “inlay” or “driven-in work”), a decorative art that uses cut and fitted, highly polished colored stones to create images. The stones are glued one by one, and stability is achieved by grooving the undersides of the stones so that they interlocked like a jigsaw puzzle. It’s hard to imagine anyone back in the U.S. being this devoted to a craft to learn a technique as intense and difficult as this one. You truly have to love this to do this.

The Taj is so grand and awe-inspiring, and it’s a romantic, sweet thought to think that a man was inspired to have this built in honor of his wife. Although, I do think at the same time it may have been even more romantic if he chose to have it built as a place to live with his wife while she were still alive, especially given that she bore him so many children. The other thought I have is that although he may have done this out of “love,” a lot of sweat, toil, and literal blood went into this, given that 20,000 men worked day in and out to have this built (and even got blinded or had their fingers chopped off after – what a reward!), and if we factored in real wage living costs into this, $830 million USD may actually be just a fraction of what this palace is truly worth. That is a chilling thought. People’s livelihoods changed all because of a crazy emperor’s obsession over the death of his wife, so everyone else has to “pay” for her death.

I don’t usually say I have favorites, but since I’ve been wanting to see this building since high school when I studied art history (and of course, because the U.S. is racist, and Advanced Placement Art History completely skips over all of Asia in favor of Western European and American art, I had to read about the Taj Mahal and Persian art in general on my own), I can honestly say that this really blew me away and is one of my all-time favorite buildings I’ve ever seen, next to Falling Water, the Frank Lloyd Wright home in Pennsylvania, and the Hearst Castle in San Simeon, California. It inspires me to want to see even more Persian art… how can I get there?

Traffic in India

We awoke to our first full day in India together this morning, here in New Delhi, where the humidity today was at 85 percent, and the temperature, depending on the time of day, was anywhere between 85 to 92 degrees Fahrenheit. I’ve never been a fan of humidity and dislike it when people rave about how good it is for one’s skin; I don’t care how good it is for my skin if I am stifling for air to breathe and get through the day. Who cares if you have great skin if you can’t breathe and die?

I can’t say more things about how intense and overwhelming the traffic has been. We took advantage of Uber in the city and also did quite a bit of walking, which apparently is not “normal” here for people who are not of lower classes. Upper class people get driven; lower class people walk. Since we’re foreigners who are visiting this country on holiday, by default, we are “upper class.” “Autos” or motorized tuk-tuks kept stopping to ask us if we wanted a ride, and when we said no and that we wanted to walk, they gave us befuddled stares and said we didn’t need to walk if we could get a ride. There are dotted white lines along the roads to indicate different lanes to drive in, as well as a double white line in the center of the ride to denote traffic going in opposite directions, but none of that mattered since there was absolutely no semblance of any order whatsoever. The dotted lines sometimes didn’t exist, and they didn’t really need to since no one really saw them or paid them any attention. A road was simply a road to drive a vehicle or walk on. Our own Uber and auto drivers would drive across the double-white line into oncoming traffic to then make turns. Autos along the road would almost drive into each other before swerving at the last minute to avoid each other. The autos, which at best could fit three passengers plus the driver, would stuff in as many as six or even people into the backseat. And we haven’t even gotten into the fact that it wasn’t even just auto and cars along the road; there were also pedestrians walking in all directions, with and against the traffic, plus cows and the occasional goat. We even saw chickens coming from who knows where and walking into the streets. Somehow and quite luckily, I didn’t see one chicken fatality.

Although New Delhi is the capital of India, it felt far less like a government city today and more like an enlarged rural area. The roads are paved, but if they weren’t, I wouldn’t have thought anything of it given how overwhelming and chaotic the traffic flow was. The crowds, the humidity, the frenzied traffic and total disorder: this is actually kind of how I imagined India to be. Although I will say that contrary to what others have warned me about (because it seems that everyone has an opinion on India and its lack of cleanliness), it’s nowhere as dirty as people have told me it was; I’ve seen similar if not worse levels of filth and trash in places like Cambodia, Vietnam, China, Brazil, and even parts of South Africa where the slums are.

All the smells and the chaos of India right here

After a seven hour flight to London, a four-hour layover at Heathrow, and another nine hours from London to New Delhi, all I wanted was to just teleport to India and get this trip started. Luckily for us (and especially Chris because he’s an Uber addict), Uber is readily available in pretty much every major city in India, so we “ordered” an Uber to pick us up from the airport late tonight to take us to our hotel. As we rushed through security and had our e-visas cleared quickly, I took a deep breath and realized… wow, the New Delhi international airport is redolent of cardamom and rose water. Yep, that’s it. Now, I know for sure that I am truly in India. All these beautiful spices and flowers are going to surround me for the next ten days (as well as the smell of sewage and garbage and fragrances of human and cow and dog and goat pee and poo, but.. we’ll get into that later).

Unfortunately, although English is technically a national language of India… well, guess what: not everyone knows how to speak it. So we experienced massive communication issues trying to tell our driver where exactly we were, and Chris couldn’t understand him, so we waited over an hour for this guy to show up when he ended up cancelling. We eventually did get another Uber who took us on a smooth ride to our hotel… in the midst of an endless sea of “autos” (really, motorized tuk-tuks), scooters, and lanes that have dividing lines but really are not real lanes because no one is following anything, even the double white dividers in the middle of the road. I’ve seen some really orderless traffic in China and in the middle of Vietnam, but New Delhi truly takes the cake for the level of insanity and complete chaos.

Fire drills when vacation is about to begin

I must have really terrible luck when it comes to fire drills with customers because when I remember the times when really bad events have happened at work, they always tend to be around the time when I am about to leave for vacation or when I am actually on vacation but am still incessantly checking e-mail (which means that the person backing me up has to deal with the drama, which is not great). It happened today again while I was in transit to JFK with Chris and his parents. We got stuck in ridiculous rush-hour traffic (which… I guess starts at 2pm now on a Wednesday during summer time?!), so it took almost two hours to get from the Upper West Side to JFK. As we were stuck in traffic with my phone in my backpack, which happens to be in the trunk, and my computer is obviously packed away, I could feel my Wesoo buzzing on my wrist because my customer is not only calling but texting me, and she never does this unless it’s an emergency. As soon as we got through security and go to the lounge, I had to make three different calls while also Slack messaging four different people to get the problem resolved.  My head hurt. And I downed the glass of red wine that Chris got me in two gulps. I had just enough down time to resolve everything before I could pack everything away and get ready to board our flight.

Please don’t let anything bad happen at work while I am out. The last thing I need is a pile of crap waiting for me when I get back.

Ikinari steak

When people think of New York City, the major landmarks that they tend to think about are the Empire State Building, the Chrysler building, the Brooklyn Bridge, Central Park. When people think of food, iconic places like Katz Deli come up. But when we think of generic foods, we think of bagels and… on the higher end, steak. But does steak really need to be “high end”? Why do we need to have such a high price tag on what is really just another cut of of a cow?

So leave it to the people of Japan to come up with the idea of attempting to make steak more affordable by setting up Ikinari Steak years ago in Japan. To save on space and furniture costs, they initially created this as a ‘standing room only’ restaurant, where you would order your steak (served Japanese style, no less) and your sides, then eat it standing up, pay, and leave. It finally came to New York last year, and while the first couple of locations were kept as standing-only, they finally realized that here in New York, we’re too lazy to stand while eating, so they created a few locations (they’ve been expanding like crazy!) that actually have tables. So we took Chris’s parents to one of the sitting locations near Times Square today before our show, and we were shocked at how good it was given how little (relatively speaking, this is still New York) we paid.

This is definitely going to be a cheap-steak fix when we don’t want to pay Keen’s Steakhouse prices, or when I don’t want to deal with cooking sous-vide anything.

human psyche: the biggest enigma

I was sitting at Argo Tea this afternoon on my lunch break, chatting with my mentee about the start of her summer and her most recent going-ons, when she started telling me about a guy she dated briefly last summer who suddenly started texting her again. They stopped dating because he became too clingy, and she couldn’t deal with his emotional outbursts, which she claimed happened very frequently. I was not happy to hear this… at all.

“What is the nature of these sudden text messages?” I asked her. “What’s he saying?”

She said that he’s been messaging to ask her to meet up. No context has been provided. He’s already asked her to meet him about three different times, everywhere from watching a movie together to just sitting in Union Square to chat.

That just seems so open ended, I responded to her. Why would you two not communicate for an entire year, then he suddenly starts messaging to ask to hang out without any pre-explanation? That makes zero sense, and you should start ignoring him or just flat out saying you will not meet him. Be direct.

She insisted she hadn’t met him, but she clearly is enjoying the attention because she’s been sending him messages that lead him on and make him potentially think she will eventually meet him… eventually.

The human psyche is one of those eternal enigmas that I will never fully understand.. I guess none of us ever fully will, which is why there’s an entire academic subject area devoted to attempting to understand this. I don’t understand why people think what they think, and why they do all the stupid things they choose to do to inflict irritation, confusion, and pain on others. The worst of these situations is when the person inflicting all this ridiculous crap has no idea he’s causing problems. I can guarantee this guy doesn’t think he’s doing anything wrong or questionable. What is wrong with people?!

Persian lentils vs. Indian lentils

I had imagined that for my parents-in-law arriving today that I would prepare a Persian themed meal for them, and so I picked up just over two pounds of New Zealand lamb loin chops while they were on sale at Whole Foods this week. Well, apparently I didn’t think this through and thought two pounds of meat would be more than enough for the four of us… but I didn’t factor in that the weight was mostly in the bones. So I had to think of another protein that would fit my Persian theme. Since my pantry is filled with so many different types of legumes, I decided upon a Persian lentil stew that seemed fairly straightforward and easy to make.

The funny thing about this as I studied the recipe is that Persian lentils are prepared very much the same way that Indian lentils can be prepared; the only major difference seemed to be in the fact that in the Indian lentils I am used to making, there’s always ginger and hing, whereas in this Persian recipe, there’s no ginger or hing, and cinnamon is added at the end. It actually gives a slight sweet and pleasantly spicy note to the lentils that I’d never thought would work before, but I really enjoyed. I could completely see how this could be Persian comfort food in its simplest form.

I showed the lentils to Chris, and he said, “That’s Indian.” I responded, “No, it’s Persian.” To which he responded again, “Same shit.” I guess it kind of is. Persians and Indians and Pakistanis were once one people, and now they’re different… but the spices they use are pretty much the same.


Costco clientele

When I was young, I always looked forward to going to Costco. Because of all my fond memories going up and down the aisles, sampling food and drink, and discovering new interesting foods, as an adult now, I still love it and get excited about it. Today, I took Chris to Costco for the first time, and for the first time at Costco, I actually felt really annoyed. I felt like the clientele were being really rude. People were crashing into my cart, seeing that I was trying to get through and refusing to move. Kids were getting right in front of my cart as I was moving, as though they wanted me to run them over. Chris noticed that there was one guy who seemed to be there just to sample every sample station. He asked each person when their food would be ready so he’d come back. Those are the annoying Costco clientele, the ones who are just there to get the free bites and are nuisances to the workers. I asked one worker where the toilet paper was, and he pointed me to the randomly placed paper towel rolls and told me they were there (no, they actually weren’t; the toilet paper is all situated at the front of the warehouse where all the paper/disposable plates/cups are put).

It was my least enjoyable Costco trip. I wonder if it’s just because of this actual Costco. It’s always felt a little more hectic going to this one in Spanish Harlem than the one in Long Island City, and especially the ones in San Francisco and South San Francisco that my parents frequent. People always seemed a bit more respectful, like they actually disciplined their children, and the workers were more courteous when we asked where things were located.

Luke’s Lobster commentary

I’ve always loved crustaceans. I had a short period in my (teen) life when I declined eating it at Chinese restaurant dinner tables because I was too lazy to get down and dirty and pick the crab meat out of the shells I’d have to crack. But other than that, I love the sweet, juicy, fleshy meat of crabs and lobsters, and I feel sorry for people who cannot appreciate how good they are.

The way I have appreciated crustaceans has evolved. I grew up eating crab and lobster the Chinese way, which means either battered in salt and pepper or ginger and scallion and stir-fried. When I got older, and especially after I moved to the East Coast, I started appreciating Maine lobster, simply steamed, cracked, and dipped in some butter. I love lobster rolls Connecticut-style, meaning tossed in butter rather than mayonnaise (Maine-style) and served in a fluffy, toasted bun. I also realized how delicious Maryland blue crabs were after spending a Thanksgiving in Ocean City, Maine, and being completely spoiled with the easily and readily available, fresh, and cheap little crabs of the region.

So it’s been disappointing to me while living in New York when people get excited about Luke’s Lobster, one of the original chains that serves Maine lobster and semi-local crab rolls. The rolls are teeny tiny, even for me. A few bites, and your $16 crab roll and $19 lobster roll are finito. The lobster is mostly claw meat as opposed to tail meat (and we all know the lobster tail meat is really where it’s at). The crab meat is much sweeter than the lobster meat, and as someone who has a deeper love for crab meat, I get it. But then why pay more for the lobster roll, then? After a few years of avoiding it, I decided to use my lunch credit today to get a crab roll, and when I went to pick it up, I was immediately saddened looking down at my bag. The roll was in a skinny container the size of a hot dog bun. That’s all $15 on crab gets you here in New York.

This is another reason to travel — to get better and cheaper access to all the foods you love and can appreciate in different setting.


Appropriate usage of emojis?

The colleagues on my team here in our New York office get along really well. We have our own private Slack channel where we make comments on everything from work and personnel-related questions to the most ridiculous and random banter, complete with moving giphy images and borderline inappropriate commentary on people we know and life in general. We also take coffee break walks and sit around the lunch table when we don’t have lunch time meetings and talk about current events and things happening with us.

Most recently, the topic came up that in the age of the #MeToo movement, it’s as though dating and romantic relationships cannot really move forward the way they once did. When you go in for a kiss, do you actually have to ask permission before you do it, or can you just go in? Or is it possible that could be interpreted as sexual assault? Or, in the case of sending text messages to anyone from colleagues to friends to potential friends-to-life-partners, is it okay to send things like flower or heart emojis? Can those types of “expressions” be misinterpreted as flirtatious or romantic rather than simply being friendly? I was actually a bit thrown off when we started talking about emojis because I use emojis a lot over text and Slack communication, and then I started second guessing myself about how and when I was using my hearts and flowers.

Is this really the era we’re living in, where we aren’t sure when being “friendly” can be interpreted as too friendly?