On Nearing Fifty…

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I have started pondering over my life as I head for the completion of half-a-century of my earthly existence. Do I reminiscence … look back in time?

I do miss my childhood a little bit…. But, at some point, I got stuck on the age of sixteen. My eleven-and-a-half-year-old son told me I was more like an eleven-year-old. My irritated neighbour in China once told me I behaved like a twelve-year-old. I myself prefer sixteen as the sweetest of all ages because that is when between the threshold of childhood and adulthood, life holds out maximum possibilities. One has not pinned down on what exactly one wants to do in life but one is getting there. One looks and feels energetic and beautiful. One feels like an empress who can conquer the whole world. There is nothing to lose by expressing oneself as one is. At the threshold of fifty, I feel pretty much the same.

Life with it’s endless possibilities is starting out for me again. My children are growing up into independent young men. I look forward to their future and revel in it. My eighteen-year-old is now like a friend. I can talk politics, literature, history, discovery and exploration with him. My husband started out as a good friend and continues through life as my closest one. I am like an empress in a household of geeky men who cannot manage without me. I pretty much feel as I did at sixteen, tyrannical and beautiful…give or take forty odd kilos of weight added on to me through my years of wisdom and truth.

The whole world is open to me. I can go where I please once my younger son is a little older. Right now, I travel vicariously with Marco Polo and with Captain Nemo. I read and dream without having the necessity to worry about my future. The three men in my life worry about theirs and mine too ! So, I live in the moment and carpe diem.

I am not in fact sure if I do want to travel physically to all the most scenic spots in the world as the plumbing and the hotels may not meet up to my stringent standards. For instance, Easter Island looks most inviting with it’s bare elemental beauty and the fantastic rock formations, yet the hotels seem more like seaside resorts by the beach. I know some do not have air conditioning. While some travellers wrote that they found a volcanic rock jutting out in the middle of their room exciting, I prefer to relish such things outdoor. I have dust allergy, need clean air and air-conditioning to be comfortable every night. So, such an excursion may not be my cup of tea.

I would love to go to the Antarctica base and shake the staid penguins’ hands/ wings. However, I would not want face the bone-chilling cold. I would love to travel in space but I do not want to travel for more than a few hours. So, travelling vicariously does very well for me.

I have developed a bad left knee that would not be an asset if I wanted to go to Machu Picchu or travel on camel back across the Egyptian sands to visit Tutankhamen’s fabulous tomb. There are so many places I would love to visit and see. I wish teleporting like in Star Trek were a reality. Then, I could visit all the fabulous places of the world from the comfort of my home.

I can eat what I like… Of course doctors tell you otherwise, but the ultimate choice is mine. When I was a child, my mother used to force me to down an egg, toast, fruits and milk at the start of each sunshiny school day. Now, I am free to eat what I like…black coffee at breakfast each day…and a sweet biscuit or a chocolate with it. I can try different kinds of cheeses on my toast and eat no fruit and eggs at breakfast!

Doctors would call me obese but I would call myself mature and plump. My doctor told me I had misused my knee…it is getting better with a herbal supplement that my elder son picked up at the supermarket, Shallaki or Boswellia. Maybe, I will do the steep ascent of Machu Picchu after all… Of course a good hotel near at hand is a must.

My threesome are very keen to visit and spend a few days in the Kruger National Park in South Africa. I am not. Some of our friends went there and hobnobbed with monkeys and foxes and whatnots at breakfast, lunch and dinner. My brother-in-law who lives nearby in Johannesburg found a lion lounging in a bathroom in Kruger Park. As animals are not my favorite creatures and I do not fancy dancing with elephants, I would prefer not to live inside the park…

The best part of closing in on fifty will be that I will get closer to sixty than I have ever been. I really want to hit sixty because a fortune teller in China told me I will be very happy and attain great things in the sixtieth year of my existence. Could it be success as an author or grandchildren or would I be thrilled to turn a silver blonde and leave my hair undyed? Which would it be? After all, hairdressers are the only people who ask me if I am thirty something! I can never explain to them I am sixteen at heart and forty-nine in real years…

I am sure an elephant in Kruger National Park would understand!

Leaving China

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Chapter 10

My utopia is a world where Khayyam and Tagore would walk together, crossing the barriers of time, space and age…

It would be an island in the bright blue ocean with lush green vegetation where birds and plants would proliferate. Arthur C Clarke and Asimov would be discussing the future of mankind with Aldous Huxley and George Orwell. Perhaps, someday Marco Polo would dock on it in a ship with Kublai’s crew… And I would sit there with my I pad and invisibly watch and record all the action! It would be a bit like Asimov’s Gaia, except the collective mind would draw borders at telepathic communication. The weather would be eternal spring and it would be sunshine forever. We would all be in touch with the most positive in our mindset.

A dash of Nikolai Tessla playing with his lightening rods and Shakespeare directing his plays in a natural theatrette, made with a circular chain of low lying hills…the sky would be bright blue with white clouds…and maybe, sometimes, Mozart and Beethoven would create music by the seaside with instruments that never got wet or spoilt. Indian maestros like Mallikarjun Mansur would match the sound of the waves in open air concerts and Bhimsen Joshi would sing Meghmallar to bring on a sprinkle of rain. Occasionally, the Beatles would go crazy with their guitaring. And Jean Pierre Rampal would create and play a Jazz piece called Utopia!

I know it all sounds insane but I had the opportunity in China to get more in touch with all these things. What was fantastic was I had friends who could relate to these things and not get peeved by talk of my Utopia. I was amazed that people did not find my ideas or tastes boring and traditional. Some of my expat friends spoke of greats from their culture and I learnt more. There was a feeling of give and take. Local Chinese appreciated the fact that I wrote. A local friend told me that it was good I wrote my book on China. They wanted to translate it. But, I had a flight to catch…back to Singapore.

We had a two week wait in a hotel before we boarded our flight out of China. The new ruling had it that we needed to be within the country when they checked on the things we were taking back home with us. The rulings in China can change anytime and you need to comply to them and move on. My utopian ideal was one thing but it was really tough living out of suitcases for two weeks, even though it was in a five star hotel. But, there were people who seemed to like it. One day we met an American who lived in the hotel permanently. He and his visiting teenage son were returning to their room when he paused to remark on Surya’s antics as my younger son was singing something crazy and doing weird walks along the corridor in a bid to dispense his extra energy. It was hazy outside and we could not do our usual walk for the high PSI levels.

At home, Surya would have read, played a game or watched a movie. In the hotel, Aditya had a different room. We didnot allow the kids to rent movies. And he had to create his own entertainment. So, he did…except we had an amused audience of the American and his son… To me it was really strange that a person, even if he were living alone, would choose to stay in a hotel on a daily basis. It would be so restrictive. You could never cook yourself a gastronomic delight from your heart! You could never do up your room with your choice of colours and paintings. You could never argue in loud voices with your family. You could never invite your friends over for a meal cooked by you. You could never try out a new musical instrument in the later hours of the evening. But your laundry would be done without an effort and you would never need to shop for groceries!

Trying out a musical instrument in an apartment is difficult too…coming to think of it. I remember, in China, a friend’s husband practiced his guitaring in their pent house apartment every night. The neighbours downstairs found it unacceptable and complained regularly. We were luckier in China. When Aditya practiced his french horn, our Finnish neighbour upstairs was really delighted. He wanted to know if Aditya could play the Finnish National Anthem on the french horn. We have never had issues with boys practising the piano, guitar, recorder or clarinet at home but we had issues with Surya jumping in his bedroom at 10 pm in Singapore to get the pool water out of his ear. I had an irritated teenage neighbour who lived downstairs standing outside my door and shouting. I had to call in the security to calm her and her parents and escort them downstairs. Quite an experience for us!

In China, locals could inconvenience us by abstaining from presenting themselves in time or completing the assigned work in time but we had always found them very courteous in their behaviour towards foreigners. So, the shouting really came as a shock to us in Singapore. The feeling I get here often is that people are disatisfied and unhappy. In China, the feeling was of an upsurge of happiness and hope which is why it was easier for me to visualise my utopia while I was there.

While we waited at the hotel to leave China, we caught up on some more sightseeing within Suzhou. There was this ancient temple called Ling Yan temple in the water town of Mudu. I and my sons had been to it once during a summer we spent in Suzhou in 2009, I think. My husband was working. The view from the hilltop was fantastic. I still remember a monk who helped us find our way to the temple on top of a steep hill and disappeared mysteriously. He was very excited when he saw us and insisted on calling us mother and the little buddha from India. I do not know which one of my sons he was alluding to but I am guessing, it was Surya as he was obviously the little one!

imageWhen we went back the second time with my husband, we discovered the temple had a lovely garden at the foothill with peacocks strutting, and occassionally dancing, around. There were  some ancient Indian artefacts too in the temple. It was evidently founded by an abbot called ‘the light of India’. We were not clear about the Indian connection but there was something there. After savouring the views and exploring the temple as we walked back to the car, we came across various vendors, including a palmist, who insisted on telling my future. He wanted his palm crossed by a red note…100 rmb… We were forced to give in. A crowd collected as he foretold a glorious future for me. He said I would be very happy when I turn sixty! Now, at the threshold of fifty, I am desperately waiting to reach sixty so that I can see what are the fantastic things life holds out for me…will I become a princess with silver blonde locks, will I become a popular author, will my husband and I win a lottery and go on a world tour or, most excitingly, will I become a grandmother and have the opportunity at last of spoiling babies rotten…

With such happy thoughts, I bid adieu to China. As the flight took off from Shanghai, I had my last glimpse of the city of fabulous night lights and futuristic buildings and looked forward to a new adventure in Singapore, the city of the Merlion.

Flight of Fancy

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Uninhibited

Like a feather, I drift.
I float, I flit
Across the skies,
Uninhibited by ties.
Along my flight,
I watch the sunrise
Through the web of leaves
On sleepy trees.
The wind blows the tangled mess
Till the trees look better dressed.
Below, the coastline froths with white
And reflects the rising sunlight.
Painted gold, I hear the swish
Of trees or waves, I know not which…
Hills and mounds that lie below
They change and come and go.
Lifted by a strong breeze, I fly
Till I merge into the infinite sky.

Leaving China

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Chapter 9

Happiness is a subjective thing. People feel happy for different reasons and in different places. I found happiness among friends and people in Suzhou. When I left Singapore, I was convinced that I had lost the ability to make friends. It came as a pleasant surprise in Suzhou that I had not.

I found friends with no effort. People were appreciative of what I had to offer. China started out as a country which for me was shrouded in mysteries. The people who mingled with me had all come from different countries, including China. Perhaps, I got in touch with the positive energy within me. I do not know why and how it happened. Did it happen because I had started doing pranayama five days a week? Or, was it because I had no expectation from the people around me? Whereas, in Singapore, I did?

Perhaps, when we travel, we learn to accept things as they come. We become more open about people, cultural rituals, things and places. By cultural rituals, I mean social norms as well as the cultural heritage of a people brought up in a particular way. Imagine, when Marco Polo crossed over the Pamirs, through the Uzbek territory into China, how many different varieties of people, languages and cultures had he experienced? In those days you had no electronic translators. How did he grapple with the languages? His father, Nicolo Polo, could talk the language of Tartars, the account says. He had picked it up as he travelled across the continents! When we travel nowadays, we have our electronic equipment or little books with translated phrases to cope with foreign languages, cultures and people. We have our pre-conceived notions too and try to fit the country and people in that. For instance, in Singapore and Malaysia, often Indians are associated with vegetarianism and Bollywood. There are many in India who eat all kinds of meat, fish and non-vegetarian food and are not appreciative of the song, dance and culture of Bollywood, just as there are many Americans who may be vegetarians and non-representative of Hollywood! Pre-judging a person by the norms of a country or a race, I have learnt, is always inaccurate. Putting people into boxes of nationality and culture is an error I would not like to be guilty of. Can you factory produce people in pre-conceived groups with labels? Aldous Huxley actually wrote a whole book about it… Brave New World. He based the boxing, or rather the bottling of embryos, on intelligence levels and economic needs. Schools were set up and the products were educated to suit their stations and cultural needs in life. It was rather a bleak scenario he painted.

In contrast, I prefer Marco Polo’s outlook. He took life as it came. He travelled half way around the world and made his own conclusions and lived and roamed as an free individual. In Saba, Persia, he looked for the grave of the three Magi who blessed the newborn Christ with gold, frankincense and myrrh. He never saw the grave but, because he believed in it, he narrated with conviction.

What has come down to us is an interesting read, chronicling customs and history in a way no historian can emulate. It is an individual perspective, beyond borders, beyond nations, beyond space though mapping an era. Ruminating over world history, I feel after the national borders had been drawn by the power brokers of the world, we lost out on our ingenuity and wonder for the world around us. We spent our time worrying about acquiring wealth, exhibiting money and power and warring over property and boundary lines. That has led us nowhere because, for most common people, it does not matter. What does matter is we have food to eat, education for children, a fruitful and happy life. When has warring over borders ever made any common person happy? Yet, people are willing to sacrifice their lives for a concept that was an outcome of industrial revolution, a nation. It is, as TED speaker Taiye Selasi pointed out, not even a real thing. Why is it we cannot rise above these concepts and live in a world where our introduction is that of a good human being?

Most of the friends I made in China were just good human beings to me. The countries didnot matter. Something clicked for us in a way it didnot click for me when I looked for friends within the confines of the borders of my country of origin, my motherland. I had very less in common with the representatives of my country of birth that I came across in my journey through the world. And, yet, most people try to tie me down to a region. I have moved so often since I got married that if I kept looking for roots, I would feel bereft. I look for what I gathered within me from different places I lived in, travelled to, from people who impacted my thinking, from ideas that help me look for a more positive future…

Some of my friends, like Donatella and Heidi, pointed out to me that what was most important for being friends was that our heart remained in sync. Recently, I had an interesting discussion by email on education with Heidi and Joanna, a Chilean friend married to a Finnish. Joanna, a mother to two sons, one of them being a good friend of Aditya, had lived in Australia for eight years and now she is living in Suzhou. We could discuss the systems from Finland, India, China, Singapore, Canada and Australia. The outcome of the discussion showed that every country had strengths and weaknesses in it’s systems. I would have liked to pick the best of each for my kids. They cannot study in each of these countries but I have at least put them in a system which aims at bringing out the best in the child. It does have it’s hiccups but I would say that I cannot think of a better alternative.

I would like my children to think mankind and not nations. I would like them to be like sunshine, open, free and bright. And luckily for me, they and many of their friends do not think borders atall. Aditya in his English essay in the eighth grade called himself a citizen of the world. My sons speak five languages and have friends from all over the world. They know bad words in probably ten to twenty languages, including Korean and Finnish! That is a start!

In China, pasta is called Yi Da Li mian. The direct translation is Italian noodle. In China, we eat mian and in Italy, pasta, the difference in flavour is from the herbs, garnish and oil used. But, the staple is the same…Historically, there are number of theories about the origin of pasta. Some say Marco Polo carried it back from China to Italy. Some say it was Arabic and some even say, Greek. In China, noodles were eaten 4000 years ago, according to a National Geographic report in 2005. Either ways, the stuff remains most popular through the ages served in an Italian or Chinese way.

I started figuring out all this after moving to China. However, I had to leave China to figure out some more stuff… I had to be in Singapore, missing my friends and my life in China to write this book. I had to think and reflect on why I felt lonely and irritable after moving back and then find the answers.

I missed the vibrancy of life, happiness and the feeling of being a traveller through time…like Marco Polo. I wanted to continue in the society of optimists who made things happen with their positive outlook and enthusiasm for living! I wanted to live perpetually in a world without borders…

Leaving China

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Chapter 4

One of the things I really wanted to see and saw only a glimpse of at Luoyang was the Huang He river. I had read about the Huang He in my teens and then in Coleridge’s poem, Xanadu. He called his river Alph…I have always wondered if it were the famed Yellow river…after all the poem had been penned while he was reading an account of China and fell asleep under the spell of opium…and then he spew out some of the most fabulous lines of poetry, immortalizing himself in the endeavour…

And mid these dancing rocks at once and ever

It flung up momently the sacred river.

Five miles meandering with a mazy motion

Through wood and dale the sacred river ran,

Then reached the caverns measureless to man,

And sank in tumult to a lifeless ocean;

The yellow river with it’s antique roots in the Tibetan plateau and gushing waters near Xian, the legendary cradle of the Chinese civilisation, was calm in Luoyang. It has been dammed by the government so that it ceases to bring sorrow to China. The Huang He has changed it’s course many times and flooded the lands within it’s reach much too often in the past. Now it has been harnessed to serve the needs of mankind. The river we saw is actually yellow and vast! We crossed the river on a suspension bridge. The bridge was red and broad and swayed as we walked! It was a long walk we had to take to reach the bridge. Sometimes, the river would disappear behind the walls that held it in place. But, what I found most fascinating during my walk to the Huang He were these tiny spotted red and black beetles that line the pathway. The beetles were unique and flat and did all kinds of gymnastics! They were fascinating to watch and I would have stopped for longer if my threesome had not urged me to move on as we had only limited time.

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The driver that took us around Luoyang dropped us at one end of the Huang He complex. He said he would wait at the opposite entrance for us so that we had a good tour of the whole area.  And I had thought we would have a stroll by the breezy river and maybe, there would be a bench where I could sit and gaze at the golden Huang He. Instead, we were back to hiking! We had to walk along the dam, cross the valley behind it, come out near the red bridge, cross over and walk some more to get to the other end, where our transport awaited us. Quite a walk, especially after the  Longmen Grottoes in the morning.

In China, one of the things that always fascinated me were the huge spaces that were given to everything. It was as if everything was big, even insects and beetles!

The distances were also big. But the people were tiny and slim. And the paintings and embroideries were also fragile and dainty…like the little embroidery of the cherry blossom that sits perched in my drawing room in Singapore. It was given to me by Heidi, the friend who filled into the gap left by Donatella and Anu. She came just after they left and we had a lot of fun together. The thing that brought us closer together was was we both saw the world as our home, borderless, beautiful and inviting. We had both lived out of our countries of birth for more than two decades, had our children where we resided. In her family ( two adults and four children), they held passports from three different countries. When they went to the immigration, they were often asked if they belonged to the same family. What bound the family together was not their passport or nationality but the love, care and concern they shared for each other. This is also what bound most of our friendships together.

Heidi organised a farewell for me with ten of our friends and well wishers. And, I think, except for two women, none of us shared a common country of birth and yet we were tied strongly by the bonds of friendship and love. Our countries were India, Pakistan, China, Switzerland, USA, Canada, Italy, Chile, Brazil. We thought of each other as family. When one of us was faced with any calamity, the rest stood by her. We were there for each other’s children and families. When we mingled, political or cultural barriers fell. And there were more friends we had from other countries who had already left or could not make it that day for some other reasons.

We helped organise events, not just socially but even for school together. We held charities and children’s parties. We helped out at school. One of the interesting lessons I had was that in charities in China, expat organisers were there to plan and execute the events but others decided where and how the money collected was spent. When the Japan Tsunami brought disaster to millions, we couldnot redirect any portion of the proceeds from our charity event to Japan but had to donate the funds to approved agencies within China, where they had been promised. Perhaps, it was divine intervention that made me realise nothing was in our hands. It left me feeling empty inside and vary of volunteering for charity!

When the typhoon struck in Leyte, Phillipines, we had better luck. Aditya and his friends fund raised in school and the staff organised to have it sent to the right sources. Perhaps, it was time for the youngsters to take over and for us moms to take a backseat and revel in the fact that our children could outdo us in most things! That was a good feeling for me.

Life in Suzhou was never dull.

When I had lots of mint and beans in my garden, Salma, Maria, Marta and Heidi had their pick. I was so proud of my flowers, fruits and vegetables. I used to distribute the beans among my friends. One day, Surya came home and told me, “ Mamma, can you stop giving beans to all my friends. Peter( Heidi’s son) was complaining his mother forced him to have some horrible bean soup for dinner! This way I will lose all my friends!”

“Why Aditya, you and Adrian picked the beans the other day and enjoyed doing so?”I asked.

“Picking is one thing and eating another,” said my little one. “ Adrian’s mother does not force him to have the beans but Peter is not given a choice. My friends hate it and tell me not to give out beans.”

“You don’t. I do.”I laughed.

The bean season, luckily for these young men had come to an end and they did not need to partake of these anymore. But, my friends had loved the beans. I was forced to distribute the beans as my kids were also protesting the frequent advent of beans on our dinner table. My driver made a wry face when I handed him a basketful. He was a nice, rotund young man who loved burgers, coke and fries. Later, he told me his mother liked the beans. Evidently, his father and he were pure meat eaters!

Only my ayi loved the beans. She loved the fact that they were organically homegrown. She had grown up on a farm and knew all about fruits and vegetables. Their land had been taken away by the government at some point and they had been given three apartments in town. So, she switched her job from farming to housekeeping.

In Suzhou, the land on which our bungalow stood, earlier was a marshland. One of my former drivers had his childhood home there. Again, the government, developed the land and gave apartments to the displaced families. Some of the Suzhounese had grown very rich trading on these properties. As a result, there is a sizeable wealthy population in Suzhou that is not too well schooled. A generation ago, they were farming and now they own multiple properties, drive Mercedes or BMWs and send their children to universities abroad. The wealth is new and these people do not know how to spend it! They have become the new breed of Chinese noveau riche. You see them worldwide, holidaying, buying expensive brands, gambling in Singapore casinos and reaching out where their ancestors may never have dreamt of treading. Some of them, however, still hold on to ancient practices like not using serving spoons while eating, spitting and hawking, things that have been highlighted in some of Pearl S Buck’s stories. The pity is that the some of the educated non-Chinese have started to ape their bad habits. Perhaps, they think they will become rich too, if they behave like the noveau riche from China.

One of the good things about my friends was one could tell them things directly. I could tell my Chinese friend, Amelia, not to use her own cutlery to serve herself at the table from the common plate but to use serving spoons. She could take it in her stride. She was married to a German and, therefore, living with the expats. She started out a farmer’s daughter and a factory worker and ended up an expat wife. Marriages among the Chinese and expats were quite common. Some of the men left their earlier families to take on Chinese brides. But there were Chinese women, like my ayis, who did not approve of second wives!

Amelia was a first wife and she had three very cute boys. I loved her youngest very much. He was the youngest guest in my farewell and spent his time well exploring under Heidi’s huge dining table every time a woman made a grab for him! After all, at about one year of age, he was the only gentleman at the lunch!

Heidi and I were very different individuals but I had this feeling of déjà vu with her from day one. Heidi has moved to Canada now. She and I continue in touch electronically but it is not the same as meeting for lunches and coffees. I continue to miss those and the involved discussions we had on all and sundry, especially on the need for a borderless world.

Beginning…

Beyond Chaos

Whenever I look at the vast expanse of the sky,
I know, I really need to fly,
To stretch out my wide wings in the breeze
And swish with the lush green trees.
I soar
Undisciplined, wild, crazy,
Forever willing to try
But knowing no bonds
To limit the mind,
Forever willing to pry
Beyond the frontiers
Of time.
Untied, untamed, wild…
This is how I like to fly.
An unbeaten stallion,
Pure, white
High beyond the rainbow,
Floats with translucent wings,
Unrestrained by matter or space,
Or the mad urge to race.
It gallops and flies,
Unfettered by ties
That hold us back.
It soars the wordless infinity
Where light
Becomes night
And everything unites
To a pulsating rhythm
Of an energy
Beyond time.
I ride on the stallion.
I gallop
Till I merge,
Become part
Of the throb,
Annihilated by the pulsating rhythm.
I no longer exist
Except in
Ecstasy.

Leaving China

Chapter 3

The thriller that was the misty land of China did unfold for me as we explored the country and it’s people. One of the most unique experiences I had was during our last trip within China. We went to Luoyang, one of the four ancient capitals of China, the other three being Beijing, Xian and Nanjing.

We had travelled to all the three capitals. In fact, I had been to Beijing four times and still feel very excited when I think of the Great Wall. So, Luoyang was the only one we had left out.

Actually, we had all wanted to go to Tibet as our swansong… The pictures I have seen are so scenic and the skies are so blue … But as luck would have it, we could not get our permits for Tibet in time.You need a special permit to go to Tibet. And if there is any kind of unrest, they close off Tibet to all and sundry.

I must admit that I was also a little slow in planning the trip as I was sad over losing my mother the year we were leaving China. I had to travel to India one week before my elder son’s, Aditya’s, grade twelve exam for her funeral. My friends stood me in good stead. They helped me manage my emotions and travel. They kept an eye on my kids and informed the school for me. Surya’s best friend’s(Adrian’s)mother, Marta, offered to host my children.”Just treat us like your family” was what Marta said. The love, support and warmth of these women and my wonderful husband gave me the strength and courage to undertake the journey and face the situation.

Despite the support I was distraught when I returned. The school counsellor, for who I used to report parent sessions in the school magazine on a voluntary basis,was so kind that she spent two hours giving me advise on how to deal with my emotions. And it helped! I must say my extended expat family did for me what a real one would have done for me.

In India, I had my wonderful cousins, their kids and spouses and uncles and aunts to thank for the support they lent. But, it takes time to heal. And it takes time to plan a trip to Tibet. By the time I felt well enough to think of our last holiday, we realised we had no time to organise the permit. My husband was travelling. So, Tibet was out and Luoyang was in.

Luoyang is an ancient city that started around 12 BCE. Fifteen hundred years ago, it was made the capital of the Wei dynasty. The Buddhists there made caves that have come down to us as Longmen Grottoes. This is what Aditya wanted to see. My husband wanted to visit the original Shaolin monastery that has major links to a couple of Indian monks. Surya wanted most of all to visit the stalactite caves in the neighbouring county of Luanchan. They are reputed to be the largest of such formations in China. We had visited such a cave in Guilin, called the Reed Flute cave. We decided to satiate the youngest member of our family first. So, the stalactite-stalagmite cave it was on the first day.

We had found a driver who spoke mandarin. He drove us from the airport to the hotel. He was also willing to take us around for the next few days. We fixed with him to pick us up from the hotel the next morning at 10.30 am.

There was only one hotel in Luoyang that seemed to cater western breakfasts. And as I said earlier in my last book, my threesome always thought much of the morning meal while starting out on a holiday. So, we went to that one hotel. A major discovery that we made was that the staff spoke almost no English. We were given a huge suite and a lot of warm welcome. Eventually, we noticed there were hardly any tourists of non-Chinese origins in the hotel and, subsequently, we noticed, in the town. The western breakfast was laced for high-end Chinese clientele. But, we did get down a good meal before we started on our two hour journey to the caves.

The journey was through hills and very scenic. When we reached the cave, as our driver parked the car, the security and he exchanged what seemed to me to be rapid speech in the local dialect. He told Aditya, who was our family translator for his excellent grasp of mandarin, that we needed to buy tickets and take a tram to the caves and then come straight back.

We went to the ticket booth, bought the tickets took the tram which dropped us at a trolley station. The trolley took us up to the caves.

The caves had interesting formations and were huge. We were asked to follow a guided group. They told us we could be lost in the cave if we went on our own. So, follow we did. And we saw some amazing formations, though the lights were a trifle garish. When we exited from the cave and subsequently, from the trolley that took us back, we wanted to have some family pictures taken. We saw a bunch of security personnel looking at us… A common occurrence in parts of China which are less frequented by tourists, I thought. We asked them to photograph the family. They obliged.

Then, they told us to leave. They escorted us back to our waiting car. We were totally flabbergasted. Our driver informed us that this was a restricted area for foreigners. He did not know this earlier as he had never ferried foreigners to Luanchan. The security personnel had scolded him about it. Foreigners were only allowed in with government guides hired by hotels. None of them would divulge why we could not visit the area. None of the English websites we googled had anything on this. It was truly an amazing adventure!

We returned to the hotel and had a tea-cum-dinner at the Pizza Hut in the neighbouring mall. The hotel fare for dinner was Chinese seafood… Not the perfect thing for four hungry stomachs. The mall had a concert on in Chinese pop. It was interesting and noisy to watch.

Food to suit our palate was quite an issue in Luoyang. We dined in this mall every evening. The last evening we saw a full-sized robotised driverless car. It moved back if it met an obstruction. The threesome in my life could not stop chasing it, walking around it to make it stop… They were so caught up with the antics of the driverless car that they never noticed the huge publicity they were gathering for this vehicle!

The next day, we were off to the famed Longmen Grottoes. They were rambling and impressive. They stretched out by the Yi river over an area of 12 kms. There are 100,000 statues and 1400 caves. The earliest caves date back to 493CE, when the Northern Wei made Luoyang their capital. The caves and statues were made by the local population under the patronage of various kings and the rich and stretch over thousands of years. However, by the end of the Tang Dynasty, most of the caves and statues had been completed.

The area of these caves is so vast that we didnot attempt to cover all of it. But, we did take a boat ride down the Yi river. It was a beautiful view with the caves dotting the entire ride, like giant beehives along the rugged cliffs.

These caves reminded me of the Ajanta and Ellora caves in India, which we had visited with our parents and kids. That was a fantastic trip, though managing a seven member troupe of ages ranging from five to seventy two is not an easy task! But, we did it. The Ajanta caves had been rediscovered by a British hunting party in 1819 in the rugged hilly forests of Sahyadri hills, near Aurangabad. The rock face there is perhaps more rugged than Longmen. The work dates from 100BCE to 650CE. They have paintings, other than sculptures.

The Ellora caves house Buddhist, Jain and Hindu sculptures and temples. They date from 600CE to 1000CE. I found the Ellora to be the most remarkable of all structures I have ever seen. It was carved into high basalt cliffs, about 100 kms from Ajanta. What was most remarkable about these caves were not just the carvings but also the spirit of tolerance reflected by the three religions’ temples existing in harmony in the same complex! There are 600 to 1000 monuments that stretch over 2 kms and reflect the excellent level of craftsmanship that existed in India in those days.

Tucked away among a lot of other sculptures was a griffin-like figure in the main temple. I wonder if it was the heritage of a workman who had come down from Europe all the way to India to earn his daily bread. Could it be that people were moving freely in a visa less world and there was no concept of refugees from deprived nations?

In China, the sheer area covered by the rolling hills and the Yi river was impressive as was the devotion stretched out over a period of many centuries… A bit like the Great Wall without the sad stories. Some of the sculptures had been defaced by the ravages of civilisation and time but it was still amazing to see how much people could do in those days! I wonder if one thousand years into posterity, people will stand outside the Burj Khalifa and make the same observations. And whether the Great Wall, Longmen Grottoes and Ellora will draw huge crowds still?

The last day of our stay in Luoyang took us to the Shaolin Temple in the neighbouring county of Dengfeng. Built 1500 years ago, the temple is another embodiment of Indian-Chinese collaboration in ancient times. The monastery was ordered built by Xiamen of the Northern Wei Dynasty for the Indian monk Budhabhadra, fondly referred to as Batuo in China, who founded the Shaolin group of monks. Martial arts at the Shaolin temple was started later by another Indian monk, Bodhidharma. All along Buddhism, you find this multicultural approach to life which perhaps came to a halt when nation building and borders became of paramount importance to the world taken by the storm of secularism.

I was of course not that keen to go and visit a martial arts temple, however old… But what I saw took my breath away. Set against the rolling Song hills, the temple covers a huge area. We had to take an electric trolley to get to the main building. The main building housed these huge stone cooking pots next to some pillars. These pots were so large that one could stew four or five men in it. We were told the monks cooked in these pots by hanging from the pillars. It was a form of exercise. I wonder how many fell into the cooking pot while practising (or didn’t they!). The trees here again had strange features.

Even for someone as disinterested in Kungfu as me, I was amazed by the show put on by the students. They were flying, leaping and doing all kinds of fantastic moves that you only get to see in movies. It was a unique, outstanding and breath-taking experience! They were fabulous.

The other remarkable thing I noticed in China were the devout pilgrims that always crowded these ancient Chinese monasteries despite the majority educated youngsters calling themselves free thinkers.

As we boarded the flight back to Suzhou, a sadness and longing crept in my heart for the things I was going to have to leave unseen, for adventures which I would miss…for within two weeks we would begin our move back to Singapore.