The Towers of San Gimignano

Have you seen a time machine or made a time travel back into history? Do you believe that such a thing exists! Yes, there exists a time machine in Italy. You have to see it to believe it. It is in a place called San Gimignano in the province of Siena, Tuscany, Italy. The visit to the town called San Gimignano takes you back to the middle ages. And then you never want to come back. This UNESCO World Heritage town is a representative town of 10-15th century and it is preserved in pretty much the same state.

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So come along for a virtual tour of San Gimignano, You will yearn to go if you have not been there yet. You will surely pine for it, if you have already been there.

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The walled city of San Gimignano dates back to the middle ages. Its existence began as an Etruscan village from 3rd century. It was saved from Attila the Hun by the bishop of Modena, San Gimignano, and therefore the city was named after him. The city prospered because of its location on the “Via Francigena” which was the major pilgrimage route to Rome from France and the north as far away as Canterbury. San Gimignano was a prominent resting place for the pilgrims.

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There are eight entrances into the city which date from the 12th and 13th centuries. You are standing at the main gate called Porta San Giovanni.

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This gate was built during the 13th century and its peculiarity is the external segmental Arch that is surmounted by a guardroom that is supported by six trilobated hanging arches. You will also notice a small bell tower of a 16th century church, “La Madonna dei Lumi” just behind the gate.

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On the left side of the gate you see the part of a fortress. It was dismantled in the 16th century and stands as the ruins in current date.

Let’s enter the town.

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On entering the gate, you start walking on the stone paved main road “Via San Giovanni”. The road is wide enough to allow two horse-carts pass side-by-side comfortably and also allow people to walk on the sides of the road at the same time. But the road appears narrow due to tall stone-built houses on both sides of the road.

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The houses do not leave any space between them and give us the impression of walking on a road enclosed by giant stone walls on both the sides. Albeit the stone walls have arches in the bottom and shuttered windows above them. What lies behind these arches and windows is something that tired pilgrims of Middle Ages must be eagerly waiting for – a place to eat, drink, sleep and shop.

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There are cross-roads and alleys along the main road leading to different parts of the city.

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They have steps, archways and distinct road lamps. Though very tempting, we are not going a take turn into any of the alleys to explore them. We are walking straight to the city center.

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The towers that you see at the end of the road is where the city center is.

San Gimignano is also known as the city of towers. The city has an interesting history of towers. As mentioned earlier, the small town of San Gimignano lies conveniently on one of most important medieval pilgrimage routes. Its inhabitants exploited the situation well. The constant influx of pilgrims made them quickly rich. And then, as always, the families of San Gimignano wanted to show off their wealth to the world. Though they desired to build palaces, the town did not have enough space to do so due to densely constructed houses within the surrounding walls. But the rich families found a way out.

In medieval times a tower was the symbol of economic power, mainly because the building process was not simple or cheap at all. So the rich families turned toward building towers over their houses instead of building palaces. And then began the competition among the merchant families for building higher and higher stone towers over their houses. At the peak of competition there were 72 towers in San Gimignano of which only 14 now remain. The competition reached such ludicrous height that the city council made a law to forbid building a tower taller than the main communal one, known as Torre Rognosa. To bypass this law, merchant families built two towers next to each other.  Though each tower was shorter than “Torre Rognosa”, when added together the height of two towers was more than Torre Rognosa!! Thus they went on to prove that they had enough wealth.

Interesting, isn’t it? Let’s take a look at those towers and the houses of those rich merchants.

dsc_8955The scaled down model of San Gimignano during its heyday

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dsc_8889The Two Towers by Salvucci family

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Piazza della Cisterna is the most beautiful square of the town. It was originally lined with workshops and taverns. In the middle there is an octagonal travertine well that gives the name to the square. The well was built in 1273 and enlarged in 1346 by Podestà Guccio dei Malavolti.

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The Palazzo Comunale (Municipal palace) of San Gimignan has been the seat of the civic authority in the comune since the 13th century. It is located on the Piazza del Duomo close to the Collegiate Church. The building and Collegiate Church are at the heart of the medieval town, and are part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site of the “Historic Centre of San Gimignano”. The building contains important fresco decorations.

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Well, Well. Now that we have reached the heart of medieval town, it is time to return. Like all shows, this time-machine show also has to come to an end. If you can afford you can opt for a detailed version of this show by choosing to stay in this town for at least one full day if not two.

I had to leave and here is one shot on my way back to Porta San Giovanni from where my tour started.

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My heart was dying to go back and live those medieval times as long as I can. But the constraints of reality were pulling me outside the walls of San Gimignano.

I step outside the walls of the town and I look around. And I witness the insanely beautiful Tuscan vistas all around me.

And then the Shakespearean debate started playing on my mind. To be, in the beautiful reality of Tuscan landscapes and explore them further; or not to be, and return to the medieval times and explore the towers of San Gimignano, further and further.

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What would you do if you were in my place?

 

Watching the World Pass by

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I clicked this photo on a bright sunny summer day somewhere in Europe. I noticed this gentleman in the window quietly watching the world pass by, something that we yearn for all our life, and I envied him.

A train of thought ran through my mind …

Childhood is full of fun and play. Before we realize, the childhood is over. We are grown up. All our dreams of personal independence (financial and otherwise) and self-reliant living are now ready to come to reality. We want to pause and rejoice the moments of carefree childhood and quietly watch the world pass by before stepping into the next phase of our life. But the lure of personal independence has already put us on the path of working life. There is no time to pause and watch the world pass by. We keep yearning….

The working life is full of ambitions. We love, live and thrive on the ambitions. The ambition to be somebody, the ambition to reach a certain position at work place, and the ambition to reach a certain level in society. The struggle on the way is very exhausting yet fulfilling. The work always takes priority over life. Our ambitions, to reach somewhere, make us firmly believe that one who stops is finished. And so, though we want to, there is not time to pause and watch the world pass by. We continue to keep yearning….

Somewhere down many years of life, we reach the position we strive for. We have saved the money we wanted to save to buy those precious moments to pause and watch the world pass by. We are now standing in the window on a sunny summer day like that gentleman. We have nothing to achieve, nowhere to go, and nothing to live for except watching the world pass by – something we yearned all our life.

As soon as this train of thoughts flashed through, my mind transported itself into the gentleman’s body and I started watching down the window. And suddenly I received the shock of my life as I realized, that actually, I am being bypassed by the world – the world that I yearned to watch pass by! That shook me to the core and my mind was thrown back into my body.

BUT, that realization now keeps gnawing me every day.

 

High Altitude Vacations – Part II

<–  High Altitude Vacations – Part I

Expect the Unexpected #1: Altitude Sickness

The first unexpected that one comes across is Altitude Sickness. It is also called Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS). As altitude increases, the effective oxygen in air reduces. Effective oxygen at 8,000 feet is roughly 75%, at 12,000 feet it is 40% and at 18,000 feet it is half of effective oxygen at sea level.

This low levels of oxygen causes altitude sickness. It manifests itself in the form of headache, nausea, and fatigue. This is very common: some people are only slightly affected, others feel awful. But in its acute form excess fluid build on the lungs and causes breathlessness. And in its worst form fluid starts building in the brain and it causes confusion, clumsiness, and stumbling. The first signs may be uncharacteristic behavior such as laziness, excessive emotion or violence. Drowsiness and loss of consciousness occur shortly.

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Shot on the banks of Chandrataal (14,100 feet). One needs to walk about 1 km from the parking lot or about 3 km from camping ground to reach the lake. You can see young people short of breath, with heads down and/or just lying down on the banks of the lake due to altitude sickness coupled with the walk.

Altitude sickness can happen to anybody irrespective of age, sex, or physical condition. Some people get it and some people don’t. If you haven’t been to high altitude before, it’s important to be cautious. If you have been at that altitude before still it is better to be cautious.

The only cure for AMS is either acclimatization or descent. Human body has amazing ability to get adjusted to altitudes, provided we climb only 500m per day. Unfortunately, in today’s world of fast travel we invariably end up ascending more than 500m per day and give very little time to our body to acclimatize.

The alternatives to a slow 500m/day climb are –

(1) Carry a personal portable oxygen cylinder with you. Many tour operators carry oxygen cylinders with them as a precaution,

(2) Use drug like Acetazolamide (Diamox) to accelerate acclimatization. This drug is said to create conditions very similar to high altitudes conditions in our body. This helps body acclimatize faster provided Diamox is taken two days prior to the beginning of ascent.  Unfortunately, I have seen people start taking Diamox only after they start experiencing AMS and then Diamox worsens the condition. Please consult your doctor before using Diamox or any other drug. Take Diamox two days prior, if you have to. Be ready for its side-effects.

(3) Carry camphor with you. Bheemseni Camphor is the preferred variety of camphor. Keep inhaling it. How does it work? Some say it helps decongest your breathing track allowing you to take in more air, some say it attracts oxygen molecules from the air which then you inhale and some others say it’s a placebo effect. Whatever it is, I have always used camphor and it has worked for me.

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Wear a porous pouch filled with camphor pieces around your neck.

Best is to allow body to acclimatize normally by ascending at 500m per day. Talk less. Restrain yourself from exerting and running around in excitement (though it is difficult to restrain).

Expect the Unexpected #2: Medical Assistance

God forbid, no one should need medical assistance at high altitude destinations. Why? Because most of the places are in remote locations without proper medical practitioners in the vicinity. Medical facilities are available in large towns but the remote location you are in may not have it. Rushing to the nearest large town may mean a day’s arduous journey or using air ambulance. It’s doable, it’s costly, but worse is that we lose time.

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Langza village – 13,780 feet above sea level with a population of 150. (Based on the board placed by govt.) The nearest medical center is in Kaza which is 16 km away. Manali is 212 km away and Shimla is 460 km away.
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Roads and heavy traffic on road leading to Khardungla pass
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Long and winding roads that lead you to nearest large town

Many of us move around with our life-time partners like BP, Diabetes, Cholesterol, Thyroid, and so on. Carry sufficient quantity of your regular medicines with you. Make sure you make sets of your medicines according to your daily schedule and split the sets across different pieces of luggage. Luggage pieces have tendency to get lost during travel. So carry at least one set in your hand-luggage.  This set should contain sufficient medicines for entire vacation.

In case you fall short of your medicines, you may not get the same brands in the local pharmacy. Carry the prescription with you so that the local doctor or pharmacist can suggest alternate drug to you. Do not depend on calling your doctor at last moment because expect the unexpected #3.

Expect the Unexpected #3: Telephone connectivity

So you are at 14,000 feet altitude in xyz village in a homestay. You suddenly realize that you have exhausted your stock of BP pills. Your tour companions have extra stock and you can possibly borrow. But tablets are not the same. You want to consult your family doctor because there are three more days to go. You start dialing your mobile-phone only to realize that there is no range.

This situation is not a fiction. Many high altitude destinations do not have telephone connectivity – neither land line nor mobile range. In quite a few places only one mobile operator operates – BSNL – that too if it is post-paid card. (This is true as of writing this blog. Things are changing and improving over the years!!) So carry a BSNL card but do not assume you will be able to always connect. Keep your near, dear ones and, last but not the least – supervisors at work, informed that you will not be reachable for few days.

I know of a very high ranking official in 24×7 global software services organization went for vacation in Kailash-Manasarovar in Tibet. He became unreachable for consultation during a crisis situation at work. On returning to work, when he faced his CEO he realized that he would have been better-off by taking refuge for life-time in one of the Buddhist monasteries in Tibet.

Expect the Unexpected #4: Electricity

Many high altitude destinations get electricity supply only for a few hours, that too if they are connected to a grid. So, you may have cell phone range but may not have electricity to charge your cell phone. So carry power banks with you.

Many villages now have solar panels installed. That generates energy to power solar lamps. But you are unlikely to find room heaters in these places.

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Solar panels at Dhankar Monastery (12,774 feet above sea level)

Read on……

High Altitude Vacations – Part III –>

 High Altitude Vacations – Part IV –>

<– High Altitude Vacations – Part I

High Altitude Vacations – Part IV

<–  High Altitude Vacations – Part I

<–  High Altitude Vacations – Part II

<–  High Altitude Vacations – Part III

Expect the Unexpected #9: Your driver and the route

Keep your driver in good mood. Keep him awake! Do not allow him to speed. Drivers from plains drive much faster even on treacherous mountain roads than the drivers who come from mountains.

Make sure the driver knows the route of your journey. There are no road signs at many places. Carry printed maps with you. Remember Unexpected #3. You GPS is likely to go dead in mountains. Do not depend on drivers. They may not admit but they also may not know the road. Do not hesitate to stop and ask directions from any human you come across if you are not sure where you are headed to.

You will need to be well aware of alternate routes in case the planned route gets blocked due to landslide or heavy snowfall or unexpected downpour.

Make sure you vehicle is filled up with enough fuel. Refilling stations are few and far away. Some of them may be running dry and awaiting a refill themselves. Some others may ration the fuel to each vehicle. Please ask how far away the next station is when you refill. Conserve your fuel.

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Carry music of your choice along. Otherwise the driver will play music of his own choice – most likely local – loud and monotonous beat. After all, he needs to keep himself awake. If you like to listen to bhangra tunes all day, great. Otherwise carry your own stock with you.

Now this one is going to be very difficult. If you are on a photography tour, you need a very patient driver. You want the driver to stop every now-and-them. You are likely to ask him to slow down even when you are in the fastest lane on a four lane highway from Chandigarh to Shimla!!

The trick to make your driver patient is to teach him basics of photography composition. Everyone loves selfies and drivers are no exception. Once they start seeing how a good composition makes them look handsome in their selfie, they themselves will start slowing down and stopping at right places. Keep appreciating them and improve their photography skills. Once they are hooked, it will pay rich dividends in return.

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Stages of transformation of our driver 1) Dis-interested, 2) Posing for a photo, 3) Delighted

Expect the Unexpected #10: Home Stays

Home stays is the best way to experience the local way of living. They are good, rooms are comfortable, food is simple yet tasty and the hosts are caring. But…but, you may not get commodes for your morning chores. If you can do it squatting, nothing like it. Otherwise brace yourself to face the unexpected.

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Road leading to the home-stay in Langza.  The only way to reach is walk on the dusty roads.
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Home-stay room in Langza
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View from Langza home-stay room
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Home-stay in Losar
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Dining room in home-stay at Losar

Expect the Unexpected #11: Living in Tents

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Shot in the early morning hours just before the sunrise

The thought of spending night in a tent next to Pangong Tso or Tso Moriri or Chandrataal is very exciting. Not just the thought but the experience itself is very thrilling. But it comes with its own challenge. The temperatures in the night fall below 5 degree C and even go minus. There are no heaters in the tent. The oxygen levels are lower at night than during day-time. All this results in a disturbed sleep and heavy breathing.

My friend recently attended half-marathon at Leh. The organizers called the participants a week prior to the event so that they get acclimatized and fit for the run. They also arranged a visit and stay of two nights at Pangong Tso in tents. The temperatures at night were closer to 0 degree C. My friend said, 60% of them experienced disturbed sleep and heavy breathing at night.

If you are unable to bear the cold and if you get a choice, stay inside four walled accommodation than a tent.

Expect the Unexpected #12:

This is last but most important. Take all the precautions and rest assured that everything is going to be OK. Just focus on your trip and ENJOY!!!

So what is the unexpected# 12?

Well, the unexpected is, you will never ever enjoy your favorite NatGeo TV shows any more. Instead, you will keep coming to high altitude destinations more and more.

I did and I will. Just expect this unexpected will happen to you as well.

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<–  High Altitude Vacations – Part I

<–  High Altitude Vacations – Part II

<–  High Altitude Vacations – Part III

High Altitude Vacations – Part III

<– High Altitude Vacations – Part I

<– High Altitude Vacations – Part II

Expect the Unexpected #5: Food

You may be able to adjust with the taste and limited choices of available food at high altitude destinations. But finding food joints while you are on the road is far more difficult than finding food of your choice. For hours and hours you will find yourself travelling through mountains without any soul to feed you.

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River Chenab. You can notice the road winding down from the mountain on right and then going along the Chenab for miles and miles.
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The (one and only) food joint at Gramphu

If you are used to eating food every few hours or your life-time partners (e.g. diabetes) force you to eat at regular hours, be sure to carry food along with you. Always carry sugar packets and Gluecon-D with you. Drink enough water, if necessary add Gluecon-D to it.

Do not be shy to pack few parathas, fruits or poha right at the time of breakfast and carry them along. Your tour companions are likely to laugh at you. But don’t worry. Carry some extra food because these very folks will ask for some share of your food later on. Treat your food as your medicine.

Carry packets of ready-to-eat food products and a good aluminum thermos filled with hot water. Poha and Upma will be ready on the go in 3 minutes. For other food, you may need boiling water for 5 min. Any house on the way will offer you hot water.

Expect the Unexpected #6: Road condition

Following photographs will tell the story for themselves. Expect tyre punctures (sometimes multiple times during the day), landslide and road blocks due to various reasons. Keep slack in your schedule to accommodate all these. If you are on photography tour, you are likely to stop at multiple places on the way. Keep enough slack time for photography as well.

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On the way to Nathula Pass (14,140 feet above sea level)
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Clearing road from the debris of the landslide. You just have to patiently wait and hope that no more debris comes sliding down your way.
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India-Tibet highway. Thrilling, isn’t it?
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Road leading to Kunzumla Pass (15,060 feet above sea level)
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Road leading to Kunzumla Pass (15,060 feet above sea level)

Expect the Unexpected #7: Weather

The weather can change within minutes. You may be enjoying bright sun now but you may experience sudden showers/snowfalls within next 15-20 minutes.

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You see a rainbow only when the sun and rain play hide-n-seek. Shot somewhere in Lahaul-Spiti region.
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Thick clouds approaching Khardungla pass. Rain and snowfall followed in next hour or so. The locals advised us not spend time at the pass but to start moving towards Leh at the earliest to avoid the rain and snow.

Expect the Unexpected #8: Transport

Please ensure your vehicles are in sound condition. Tyres should be suitable for mountain roads. Make sure there is fire-extinguisher available in vehicle. In one of my tours the stereo speaker in one of the vehicles blew off due to short circuit and door was on fire!! If your vehicle breaks down mid-way, there is very little that you can do except getting stranded till some rescue comes your way. The Unexpected #3 & #7 make the situation worst when you are stranded.

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On the way to Nathula pass but can happen anywhere.

Read on …..

High Altitude Vacations – Part IV –>

<– High Altitude Vacations – Part I

<– High Altitude Vacations – Part II

High Altitude Vacations – Part I

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A photograph from 1990 shot from Aiguille-du-Midi (12,605 feet above sea level). Mont Blanc in the background.

– Huff-Puff!!  Huff-Puff!!

– We are at 12,000 feet altitude and oxygen levels are 40% of the normal. I doubt if I can climb any further.

– Oh! Just look around! It’s worth the climb. C’mon! We will be there soon.”

– Huff-Puff!!  Huff-Puff!!

– Ahhh! We are at summit! We made it!

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A photograph from 1990 shot from Aiguille-du-Midi (12,605 feet above sea-level)

And the show continues on TV channel. I was always impressed by these courageous people of NatGeo and similar organizations for exploring our earth at such destinations at heights and depths and also shooting these adventures to show on TV/films later. I envied the videographers and photographers who got the opportunity to shoot along with them. I always dreamt that one day even I would own a good camera. Someday someone will take me to some high altitude destinations and I will be able to do the photography to my heart’s content just like these TV show people.

But how could this happen? All said and done I was, and still am, a couch-potato adept at experiencing adventure travels over TV channels all the time in comforts of my home.

But some dreams come true. That’s exactly what is happening in India. The booming tourism industry coupled with improved means of transportation, better connectivity by air and road, and proximity of Himalayan destinations is bringing high altitude destinations within the reach of all. The advent of digital technology has put camera in the hands of every cell phone owner. High-caliber DSLRs are now within the reach of amateurs and enthusiasts. The ever increasing number of tour operators is ensuring that all kinds of tourists can reach the high altitude destinations – by hiking, or by biking or sitting comfortably in sedans/MPVs.

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Khardungla Pass – 18,380 feet above sea level
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Khardungla Pass – 18,380 feet above sea level

Altitude is defined as Normal (0 – 8000 feet / 0 -2,458 meters), High (8,000 – 12,000 feet / 2,438 – 3,658 meters), Very High (12,000 – 18,000 feet / 3,658 – 5,487 meters), and Extremely High (18,000+ feet / 5,500+ meters).

Many popular hill stations in northern India are below 8000 feet of altitude e.g. Mussoorie, Nainital, Shimla, Manali, Darjeeling, Srinagar, Gulmarg, Sonmarg, Pahalgaon. However, the newly popular destinations like Leh-Ladakh, Lahaul-Spiti, Zanskar, Kailash-Manasarovar, Badrinath, Kedarnath, Gangotri, Yamunotri, Valley of Flowers, Nathula Pass, are all “High” to “Extremely high” altitude destinations.

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All right, All right! So what is this blog about?

At high altitudes many “unexpected”s come along with the “expected”s. This series of blogs notes down the unexpecteds that I came across during my vacations at high altitude destinations. It is for those who assume that vacations at high altitudes are no different than vacations at any other place and/or those who have yet to travel to high altitudes. All I would say to them is –

Expect the unexpected…..

So read on….

High Altitude Vacations – Part II –>

High Altitude Vacations – Part III –>

High Altitude Vacations – Part IV –>

Moon Magic

Losar, a small village in the Lahaul and Spiti District of Himachal Pradesh in northern India, is situated at an altitude of 13,400 feet above sea level. It consists of a few houses with a population of about 250. It is supposed to be the coldest place in the Spiti Valley.

We stayed for two nights in Losar on our way from Chandrataal to Kaza. The original plan was to stay two nights at Chandrataal itself and then one night at Losar. But some of our tour members developed altitude sickness after the first night at 14,100 feet altitude of Chandrataal. The tour manager ordered that we descend to lower altitude at the earliest. The camp manager was kind enough to co-ordinate and make our staying arrangements in Losar a day ahead of our schedule. Reaching Losar involved ascending to Kunzum Pass at 15,060 feet altitude before the descent could begin. But the rugged beauty of barren monstrous mountains around us made us forget the altitude sickness altogether.

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It was 4 pm and Sun had started its westward journey.  The evening light transformed the mountain peaks into the thrones of gold for the gods-of-day to arrive after their day’s work and take rest before retiring to their celestial abodes.

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A little while later we could see the god-of-the-night, the Moon, quietly marching into the blue sky to begin its night duty. It was a full moon day. The moon-god was in his full form and arrived a bit early. But he had to wait to take charge as the Sun-god was still completing his last chores and yet to vacate the throne.

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We reached home-stay at Losar when the Sun was about to set. Our rooms were located on the first floor while the kitchen and dining room were on the ground floor of the home-stay. We were ushered into our rooms. We could see the landscape of Losar village right outside our windows. The green patches of farmed land were surrounded by barren mountains in shades of brown and gray. They appeared like well-toned muscles of a body-builder. The setting Sun had showered them with a ting of evening gold.

The lower altitude of Losar made us feel better and we could take deeper breath with more oxygen. No one had the energy to go out for a walk after the journey from Chandrataal. The journey had become tiring due to low levels of oxygen. We anyway had the entire next day for it. So, as soon as we refreshed ourselves we marched to the dining room for a cup of green-tea, but ended-up staying there till dinner. After the dinner, feeling better with delicious food served to us at the home-stay, we walked back to our bed-rooms.

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As we looked at the landscape from our windows, we were stunned. The landscape that earlier looked barren was now shimmering in soft white glow of full moon. The moon had made its magic. It appeared that the Moon-god has gently draped the masculine landscape in white muslin to cover it from the harsh cold winds of Losar while it was in sleep, and ordered its citizen stars to keep an eye on the sleeping baby.

Being a cut-and-dried person, I had not believed in the magic spell of the moon on human mind so far.  But here I was experiencing the moon magic myself.

And today I am proud to say that “Yes, I was moon-struck, at least once in my life time”.