Summer 2019: Gorgeous Georgia

While planning for this opportunity to have a dream summer vacation, we wanted to include stops that were both life-lister sorts of places and regions that had intrigued us thanks to stories we heard from our well-travelled friends in Bangalore and other places. Armenia was a certainty, thanks to Melissa’s friend Madlene, so we looked for places that drew us and were convenient from Yerevan. We have friends who claim Georgia as their favorite place and hope to retire in Tbilisi, and several of our wine loving friends in Bangalore had insisted that Georgian wines are the best in the world. So Georgia it is.

Our time in Georgia was split into three different phases: first exploring Tbilisi, second trekking in Tusheti National Park, and finally relaxing in the heart of Kakheti wine country.

During our three days in Tbilisi, we went at a pace that was consistent with our desire to prioritize relaxation on this trip, so decided to focus our exploration on Old Tbilisi. This area is popular with tourists, and deservedly so. There is something charming on every corner, whether a beautiful building, a playful fountain, or a talented musician. We explored the 4th century Narikala Fort (although most of what is visible dates to 16th century fortifications) and the nearby botanical gardens; walked many times through whimsical Rike park and over the Peace Bridge; rode the giant ferris wheel high on the hill at Mtatsminda, an amusement park built around a Soviet television tower, accessible only by funicular; wandered the lanes of old town and saw the ancient thermal baths; visited a couple museums; and ate fabulous food.

 

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From Tbilisi we were picked up and driven over the unpaved Abano Pass, which we now know is one of the most dangerous roads in the world (yikes! Maybe because of the20190630_100311 landsldes? “Alcohol” was the answer of one of our new friends), arriving in Shenako, a Tusheti village. On the way, our driver stopped to introduce us to our guide, which was the first we learned of having a guide at all, and explained that our luggage would be carried on horseback. Irakli was a giant with a sweet smile and warm handshake, but no English at all. With our lack of Georgian, communication was pretty limited for the next few days.

Our planned trek was 79 kilometers over six days, most days involving climbs up and over mountains. When planning this trek, Melissa had the idea that planning a serious physical challenge in our summer vacation would leave us with no choice but to prioritize fitness during our final months in Bangalore. It turns out that there was a

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choice after all, and our other Bangalorean desires won out. Between the altitude and lack of preparation, we were working hard in our first couple days. We are proud, though, that we could do it, maintaining a reasonable pace even on our second day of eight hours of hiking over two significant mountain ridges, the difficulty confirmed by most people’s response when they heard the path we took: “You went THAT way?” Ultimately, our conditioning wasn’t the problem. Melissa’s feet were. Finishing day two with six painful blisters, we bandaged them up and continued on to day three, a 14 kilometer hike on a timber road with a slow, steady incline. We arrived in a remote village, now with eight blisters. Running low on band-aids, and conscious of the very ambitious treks over the next two days, we were forced to reconsider the plan. Rather than going on, the next day we walked back to our previous guest house in the charming village of Dartlo to regroup, still hoping to reroute and trek the next day to a nearer village that would keep us on track for our finish in Omalo. Ultimately, the next morning we accepted a ride from a kind French filmmaker and photographer who took us to Telavi two days early, when it became clear that Melissa could not put shoes of any kind back on her feet without crying. We were sad not to complete our loop, but still proud of trekking 53 kilometers in four days, and delighted by the gorgeous, remote nature that we saw during that time.

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Telavi is in the heart of one of Georgia’s famed wine regions. Happily, the guest house where we planned to stay was able to take us a couple days early so we had time to relax in a beautiful place while Melissa’s feet healed. We babied her feet surprisingly successfully. She stayed off of them almost completely on our first day in Telavi, thanks in part to our fabulous hosts‘ delicious breakfast and dinner, removing the need to go out for meals, then the second day we spent being driven between wineries, tasting wine, and touring ancient churches and monasteries (with Tom obsessively checking on Melissa’s feet). On the last day, with Melissa’s blisters completely manageable, we took a leisurely walk around the charming town of Telavi, checking out the market, old town, the 900 year old Giant Plane Tree, and the last king’s castle.

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Georgian Food and Wine

One of the reasons we wanted to visit Georgia was for the food and wine that we’ve heard celebrated by many different people. We were not disappointed.

  • 20190707_183054Khachapuri is a kind of stuffed cheese bread that varies from region to region, all of them delicious. Adjarian khachapuri is a boat-shaped yeasted bread filled with a cheese mixture, then topped with a soft egg yolk that is stirred into the cheese while eating (Melissa preferred hers eggless). Throughout Tusheti, Imeretian khachapuri looks kind of like a big round quesadilla stuffed with a mild sheep’s cheese and fried in lots of oil, and in Telavi it is similar to Imeretian khachapuri but is somehow less greasy and more cakey.
  • Walnut sauce is served with all kinds of vegetables and makes everything wildly delicious.
  • Salads of all kinds are served at every meal: carrot salad, cole slaw, egg salad, potato salad, and a basic tomato and cucumber salad.
  • 20190707_182724Khinkali is a stuffed dumpling, mostly stuffed with meat (one fellow traveler described with ecstasy sucking the juices out of a mutton khinkali he had recently enjoyed) but we were able to find vegetarian versions almost everywhere we went. We have a theory, that one could write a pretty interesting book about flatbreads around the world, because flatbread seems to be found in every culture we have been exposed to. It is becoming increasingly clear that dumplings would make a pretty interesting book, too. Georgia’s version are large, plump, you eat them with your fingers, and they are delicious. As as added bonus, we were treated to a khinkali forming lesson in Shenako by our wonderful host Daro.
  • 20190707_182806Lobio is a bean stew that can be cooked until nearly the consistency of refried beans, and is served with corn bread and pickled cucumbers, carrots, and herbs. Yum.
  • Churchkhela is described as a healthy candy made up of walnuts and thickened grape juice from the wine making process. The first two we tried were amazingly delicious, but we were warned to be careful about what we buy, that some producers use artificial coloring and lower quality ingredients. We thought we chose well, but the one we bought for travel food didn’t live up to the first two we tried.

There’s a lot going on with meat as well, but we ate very happily without it.

IMG_1781The wine is made differently here in qvevri which are large clay vessels lined with beeswax, generally underground with just the top of the vessel accessible. Our first tasting was a little alarming, when we didn’t particularly like any of the four wines we tried. We weren’t ready to give up, though, and visited a different place the next day where we enjoyed them all, and found one we really liked, called Mukuzani. It was a little telling when we learned that Mukuzani is made with the same grape, saperavi, as the more overwhelming wines, but aged for some time (different for each wine maker) in oak barrels, what they called the European method. Our favorite stop on our wine tour outside of Telavi was Shumi winery, partially because they make some very good wines, but it was also simply a beautiful and relaxing place to be. Georgia is famous for its amber wine (which we call orange wine in the US). Our favorite amber wine was made by our host at our guest house in Telavi. It was lovely.

Georgia has an amazing amount to offer. We now understand why our friends want to retire there one day. It is lovely and bustling and has every bit of culture one would want. With that, we were off to Bulgaria, richer for having experienced this beautiful place.

Summer 2019: Amazing Armenia

Leaving India was surreal, not knowing when or whether we’d return, and not really knowing what life will look like when we return to Portland. The transition was greatly eased by our arrival in Armenia, in part because we chose Armenia for the chance to start our dream summer vacation with a friendly face.

Madlene Minassian, Melissa’s friend in LA, had always spoken of her love for Armenia20190623_231849 and her desire to return. When Madlene and her family moved to Armenia and Melissa moved to Portland, they remained connected through Facebook, and Madlene’s photos of her beautiful city and stories of the 2018 Velvet Revolution fueled our desire to visit.

Yerevan, the capitol of Armenia, is a relatively new city with proud ancient roots. It became the capital after WWI when Armenia was divided, with part of its land (the part with the previous capital) becoming part of Turkey and the rest becoming part of the Soviet Union (more on that later). The city’s roots go back to 8th century BC, but the modern city was designed in 1924 by a Russian Armenian. The layout is lovely with many public spaces nestled in the amphitheater shape of the city that rises up the hills surrounding the central core. It feels very European (although that may just be in comparison to India) with countless fountains where people congregate when they aren’t sitting in adorable sidewalk cafes or secret garden wine bars and restaurants. It’s a quiet city in the morning and an effervescent city at night. We loved wandering around, admiring the flowers everywhere, the ice cream shops on every corner, and the stunning buildings constructed from tufa, a colorful Armenian limestone. We also enjoyed the stories and tasty brandy at the Noy brandy factory.

IMG_1653We made a few very good choices, mostly thanks to Madlene and her family. They spent a day showing off the city they love, including Vernissage, an amazing market of everything from traditional crafts to Soviet-era antiques to rugs from every region surrounding Armenia. They even took us on our first Metro ride to the train station to buy our tickets for our trip to Tbilisi a few days later. While there, Madlene showed us around an old Soviet train union building a friend of hers is rehabbing into co-working space, a cafe, and a general gathering place. The bulk of the day was spent at their summer home in Garni, a village just outside of Yerevan, that had belonged to the family of her husband, Arthur Ispiryan, for many generations.

Wandering around the city with Arthur was a thing. He is a celebrity on many different levels. He is a renowned jazz vocalist but was blacklisted when he started speaking out against the Armenian government that had taken on the characteristics of the Soviet system that most of Armenia was pleased to shed. After the entirely peaceful revolution of 2018, Arthur was elected to the city council on the ticket of the new political alliance that is working hard to make the country more democratic, more transparent, and less corrupt. Wandering with him means some people murmur and point at the rock star while others approach to shake his hand and give him a “God bless you.” Most amusingly, Arthur is frequently besieged by constituents who want him to know about the people in their lives who still live by the old rules. This is where you can see the kind of person Arthur is. He listens patiently, empathizes with their plight, and speaks softly. For being such a celebrity, he is also humble to the point of being shy and soft spoken in a way that forces people to listen.

picnic collageHe and Madlene and Arthur’s mom are also incredible hosts. Two other families were visiting from LA, so they threw all of us a wonderful party at the summer house in Garni where Arthur’s mother lives full time during the summer.  We ate apricots from nearby trees, three kinds of cherries from their trees and those next door, and drank rose juice that Arthur’s mom makes from the roses in the yard. After some time relaxing in the yard, we visited Geghard, a 4th century monastery carved from the cliffs. Being with Arthur meant an amazing treat – a quartet was there for another event, but wanted to sing for him in the cave room known for its amazing acoustics. It was impossible not to tear up while witnessing such beauty. After a return to the summer house for a fabulous dinner, we visited Garni, a 4000 year old Hellenistic temple. When Armenia became Christian in the 4th century, all of the old pagan temples were destroyed and churches were built in their place with the exception of this temple at Garni because the local princess asked to keep it as a summer residence. It was a powerful sight even visiting in the dark. The Armenians with us were all awe-struck and filled with pride for their heritage.Temples Collage

This connection that Armenians across the diaspora feel for Armenia is amazing. Of the 10 million Armenians in the world, only 3 million of them live in Armenia. The rest were dispersed by the search for a better life, by the horrific brutality of the Armenian genocide, and by the deadly 1988 Gyumri earthquake. The adults who have lived most if not all of their lives outside of Armenia talk of buying homes and returning. The adolescents who were visiting for 3 weeks talked of their sadness at the prospect of leaving and hopes to return soon, perhaps to stay.

Tour CollageWe were joined by more diaspora Armenians on our big tour day. The 14 hour tour included a lot of bus time interspersed with incredible sights. We saw the beautiful Shaki Waterfall, the 9th century Tatev Monastery with an even more ancient 5th century church on the grounds, the incredible views from the Wings of Tatev (the longest reversible cable car in the world), and Karahunj (Armenia’s 6,000 year old Stonehenge). We tasted wine in the region where folks recently discovered an ancient winery, also 6,00 years old. Throughout the day, we were treated to views of the beautiful scenery of Armenia – high desert, dense forest, towering mountains, and wildflowers everywhere. It was a long and delightful day.

20190626_101140On our last day, we visited Tsitsernakaberd, the Armenian Genocide Memorial Complex which was built in 1967 in response to Armenia’s agitation with their Soviet overlords.  The memorial is truly moving, bringing many visitors to tears. In 1995, a museum was added which powerfully tells the story of Turkey’s incredibly brutal efforts to completely eliminate the Armenian people. Turkey seized the chaos of WWI to advance their plan, only stopped by the end of the war and Russian intervention. With a powerful need for protection in their vastly weakened state, they agreed to join the Soviet Union which dominated life there for the next 70 years. The photos were painful and the facts even more so. 

Food collageAlong the way, we had all kinds of good food, including traditional Armenian at Lavash and snacks at sidewalk cafes that line the streets and parks. We also celebrated Melissa’s mom’s birthday at India Mehak, our first Indian food in nearly a week! It is such a beautiful city, we mostly just enjoyed walking around gaping at the various styles of buildings, old Armenian, Soviet, and modern. Madlene confirmed what we had noticed about the streets of Yerevan, that they are really safe. Adolescent children, including her adorable sons David and Shahen, roam freely without a worry, and have done so since they were 9 years old.

Street collageWe left Armenia so aware of all the things we didn’t get to do, but so grateful for the things we did. This beautiful, charming, welcoming city is one we can easily imagine living in, and would certainly love to visit again.

 

Melissa’s Musings: What I’ll Miss

India is everything.

It is every wonderful thing you can think of. It is majestic mountains, stunning beaches, and jungles filled with thrilling wildlife. It is rich historic and cultural traditions and20170826_120536 worldly cosmopolitan sensibilities. It is color, color, and more color from the flowering trees to the painted houses to the vivid sarees and kurtas worn by women everywhere. It is amazing20170826_115014 craftsmanship that produces anything from filigree jewelry to inlaid wooden tables to carved marble using the same techniques that have been used for countless generations. And the food! Oh, the wonderful food!

It is also every terrible thing you can think of. It is horrific poverty living unseen right next to unimaginable wealth. It is traffic without rules and without sidewalks. It iswp-image-692897576

burning piles of garbage that make you gag as you walk by. It is open sewers running into lakes that catch fire in the middle of busy neighborhoods. It is profound overpopulation taxing the available resources and perpetuating the broken system that provides education, quality healthcare, and opportunities only to the lucky few. It is generations of desperation that lead people to act in manipulative and corrupt ways even when they no longer need to.

India is also everything in the middle. Normal people living their normal lives, going to work, taking care of their families, and occasionally enjoying the wonderful things or suffering from the terrible ones.

India is everything. In the midst of this vast everything, we’ve created a life that we are now dismantling. As we pack and sell off our belongings, I’m reflecting on the things that I will miss when we leave, from the tiny and insignificant to the more profound.

I will miss my friends. I have loved being a part of an international community, getting to know people from around the world who all find themselves in Bangalore for different20190612_144945 reasons. Some are here because work brought them or their partner here. Some are here because they fell in love with someone whose home is here. Some are here because their Indian heritage summoned them back. Some have always been here because Bangalore is home. I love hearing stories of lives so different from mine, and finding those common threads that connect us.

I will miss Farrah and Kaveri in particular. They are my co-authors of a book aboutKaveri and Farran Bangalore, and now beloved friends. Farrah introduced me to Shanti Bhavan and was my co-manager of the OWC North Region. Kaveri and Farrah 2Kaveri taught me more about culture and India than I ever imagined understanding. Together, they have given my time here joy and meaning, and it has been such an honor to get to know them while getting to know this big, crazy city.

I will miss the view from our 16th floor apartment, looking out over a bustling little neighborhood with the downtown skyscrapers in the distance. I will miss the mysterious fireworks that we can see somewhere in the city on most evenings while sitting on our balcony (maybe it’s a sporting event? maybe it’s a wedding? maybe it’s just people having fun?), and I’ll even miss the mysterious drumming from the temples or processions that we never understand and occasionally resent as they keep us awake.

I will miss the children with their enormous eyes and happy smiles, calling out “hello, auntie!” or “hello, mam!” or “hi, what is your name?” as I walk through a neighborhood or park.

I will miss zipping around town in the back of a nimble three-wheeled20190614_081018 auto/rickshaw/tuk-tuk (names are interchangeable) with a driver who miraculously steers through crevices in traffic that feel smaller than the vehicle.

I will miss the trees of Bangalore: the huge old rain trees with their 20190610_163547thick branches and abundant shade, the flowering trees planted long ago throughout the city to ensure that something is always blooming (right now it feels like we are surrounded by gulmohar trees dense with bright orange blossoms creating a colorful canopy throughout the city), the palm trees that sway high above us.

I will miss my weekly power walks around the old Sankey Tank reservoir with a wonderful group of women, followed by coffee and continued conversation.

I will miss the temples that dot most blocks throughout the city, some large and ornate,20190524_074631(0) and some just tiny structures housing deities next to trees wrapped with ribbons.

I will miss getting into a taxi and seeing the deities on the dashboards: maybe a plump, ganeshhappy elephant-headed Ganesha; maybe a flying Hanuman, the monkey god, flying from the rearview mirror; maybe an ornate Lakshmi, the goddess of abundance, blessing the day’s work.

I will miss the gorgeous bright colors of Indian women’s clothing. A bright pink20190610_163120 patterned kurta over chartreuse leggings in an opposing pattern with yet another color or pattern introduced in the dupatta, a scarf draped over the front of the body and trailing down the back. A red and gold saree draped beautifully around a woman while shopping or working. A wild rainbow of color whenever passing by a bus stop.

I will miss the casual, seemingly effortless grace of saree-clad women swaying down the street with baskets balanced on their heads and children perched on their hips.

I will miss the strange thrill of approaching a 7-way intersection without lights or stop signs, navigated by a crush of cars, buses, motorbikes, pedestrians, and cows, everyone calm and unconcerned as they make their way through.

Speaking of cows, I will miss the wildlife of the city: the calm and stately cows that wander down lanes and highways alike, stopping for a rest wherever they please; the goat and pig families that happily root through the garbage piles or rare grassy spots in empty lots; and those whimsical, pesky monkeys that always make me smile no matter how many times I’m told of the dangers they pose.

And the food! I will miss the food: crispy dosas filled with spicy potatoes, accompanied by flavorful coconut chutney; rich, smoky dal makhani that has simmered over a fire for 24 hours before serving; delicious breads stuffed with potato or cheese or onions (or a combination of them all!); weekly meals prepared by our own incredible cook who introduced us to foods we never imagined; the decadent brunches at the big hotels, full afternoon affairs with free-flowing drinks, bountiful food, and often good friends to share it all.

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I will miss the incredible travel. It has been so amazing to always have a next trip to anticipate, and to have seen so much of the diversity of India and Sri Lanka. I will be processing all that we saw for years to come. And I suspect I’ll get antsy now that I’m used to such frequent travel!

There is so much more I could mention, but really I will just miss my life here, one that has allowed me time to breathe, time to draw, time to just stare out the window. I know that soon my mindset will begin to shift and I will begin to look forward to our life back in Portland, but for now I am filled with gratitude for this experience and a bit of sorrow at its ending.

 

 

Tom’s Tales: India Through the Books I Have Read

As our two years in India come to an end, I have struggled with how to communicate what the time has meant to me and what I have learned about myself and the world around me. I think I need to get some time between me and some of my experiences here to really be able to articulate what I have learned about myself. It might be that I never want to put those things down for posterity; maybe I should leave them to philosophy beers and the cone of silence around a sailboat. It all feels so personal.

That leaves what I have learned about the world. Those who know me know I have opinions. A lot of them. Opinions that are at once closely held and open to incorporating new perspectives, and did I ever get exposed to a variety of perspectives. We were exposed to profound cultural experiences through our friend Kaveri’s company CultureRings. We had new experiences around Bangalore with Five Oceans, another of Kaveri’s projects with another friend Neha. I asked annoying questions of my Indian colleagues who never acted annoyed but answered generously and honestly. And we tried to observe and ask questions about what we were seeing. We tried to talk to as many people from as wide of a variety of positions in life as we could while assuming (an easy assumption to make) that we knew nothing about what was really at work around us. I am no cultural anthropologist like Kaveri, but I know enough about sciences, both social and otherwise, to know that what we have gathered is far from a reliable sampling, so any observations and conclusions I might write here would be way to lightly informed.

So I thought I’d stick to the books that I read. I tried to read as many books about India as I could that helped explain what we were experiencing and what people were telling us. What follows is not meant to be particularly profound, just some book reports that connect to my experiences and how the books helped inform my understanding of this amazing country.


The Hindus: An Alternative History, by Wendy Doniger.

img_0148Hinduism is a far more complex faith than I ever imagined, even taking into account that it is a religion involving thousands of gods. Doniger’s central thesis is that any explanation of Hinduism depends on whom you ask. There are a few central tenants, three primary gods, and common ancient texts, but she draws a picture in her readers’ minds of what she calls the “Zen Diagram,” a play on a venn diagram made up of countless circles, all interlocking with each other but with no central connecting piece on which all circles agree. When the monolithic Christianity, Islam, and Buddhism started to make inroads in what became India, the many branches of Hinduism came together into what the rest of the world now sees as a unified faith.

Much like how the Catholic Church pre-Luther used Latin to control its faithful, Brahmins (the priest and teacher caste) used Sanskrit to mold the faith into something that would maintain their influence. Doniger makes the argument that the caste system is nowhere in the ancient texts but was created by Brahmins of centuries ago in order to control the people. They then convinced people that only they were allowed to read and write Sanskrit so no one could argue otherwise. By the time people broke the stranglehold on those ancient texts, the caste system was imbedded in society to the point that it was impossible to extricate it from the social structure. Plus, the British came along and found the caste system quite convenient to create the divisions necessary for authoritarian imperialists (are there other types?) to impose their will, so it became all the more intractable.

Like the caste system, Doniger argues that many of the elements of Hinduism that tend to divide people come not from the texts or traditions but from the British. Just after we first arrived in 2017, the Supreme Court of India struck down an old colonial law that made acting on one’s homosexuality illegal. Doniger claims, as the gay rights movement has long claimed, that there is nothing Hindu about such laws, but it is another legacy of Britain’s attempt to impose their values on India. She also makes the point, even though she works very hard to make sure that hers is not a political book, that the people who support laws like it are the Hindu nationalists who hold almost all of the power right now, Hindu nationalists who claim that India is and should always be a Hindu nation rather than the pluralistic nation most of the world sees, Hindu nationalists who claim to be protecting values they attribute to Hinduism that actually come from the British. The tension between what constitutes “Hindu” or how one defines “Indian” are the root of some of the controversy surrounding The Hindus. In fact, Hindu nationalists were so unhappy with Doniger’s take that Penguin Books pulled its publication for a short time.

The primary knock against Doniger is that she is an American, not Indian, so how can she really know. As someone outside of the faith, she is able to look at the elements of the Zen Diagram for what they are without taking a side. From that purely academic perspective, she suggests that Hinduism is historically an open, progressive, and unifying faith, a notion anathema to the direction global politics are going right now.

Fundamentalists and nationalists of all parts of the world use division to prop themselves up while making the people they hope to control fear the “other”. It is true in India just as it is true in the United States and everywhere else nationalism is rearing its ugly head. Fear makes it far too easy to “other” the people around us. It takes strength and fortitude to stand up to it. Here’s hoping Americans and Indians alike can lift up the voices who are there to remind us that we actually like each other when we stop being afraid of each other.


Elephant Chaser’s Daughter, by Shilpa Raj

Book cover - elephantThe largest group of people who have been “othered” for a long long time are the lower castes, the dalits, formerly known as “untouchables”. When one of those dalits, B.K. Ambedkar, wrote the constitution in the late 1940s with the caste system expressly written out of official Indian culture, there was hope that perhaps the divisions of the country based on the social standing of the family one was born into would no longer determine one’s future opportunities. Just as slavery and Jim Crow were outlawed a long time ago in the US but the racist social structure that persists keeps African Americans from realizing every opportunity, the caste system in India is still very much a reality, unofficial as it may be.

There are some efforts under way to do something about the divisions. There is a strict quota system, setting aside a number of positions in universities and many work places for “scheduled” and “backward” classes. This comes with its own stigma, however, as many Indians feel this puts these people at an unfair advantage.

Raj helps dispel that notion. She tells her own story of being born into a very poor community with very little hope for a future different from her parents, set-asides or not. At the age of 4, representatives from a brand new school, Shanti Bhavan, came to her village to interview her parents and ended up inviting her to come spend the next 14 years getting a world class education. The school was the brainchild of Abraham George, an Indian man who had struck it rich in the United States. He never lost the idea that he would do something to address the inequities in his home country. He decided to start a school specifically for children of lower caste families, providing them with an education and global perspective that would allow them to succeed to the point where they could lift up 100 other people, starting a chain reaction that might actually level the economic field.

Raj tells the story of living in two worlds. She spent most of the year at Shanti Bhavan, a protected environment with teachers and aunties who loved the children in their care and imposed expectations very different from how they lived in their villages. A few weeks every year she lived with her grandmother in her village. Her family life was complicated and rife with drama and horrible, heartbreaking moments. But they were her family, and she remained committed to them. One of the things that makes Elephant Chaser’s Daughter so riveting is Raj’s honesty. She doesn’t claim to be perfect; in fact she is unbelievably upfront about mistakes she made and people she hurt. The result is a beautiful and complete portrait of a girl trying to figure out how to make it in a world that but for this ridiculous stroke of luck was completely stacked against her.

4bff087b-d563-4704-a569-0a4e2b57b32fThis is where I have to admit that I am biased. Melissa and I (mostly Melissa) have had the opportunity to meet and get to know Shilpa. She is a wonderful, gracious young woman who knows how lucky she is to have the opportunities she has and is dead set on making sure she spreads those opportunities to as many people as she can. When she spoke to a group of our very privileged kids at CIS, she enthralled them. The thing that my students told me most grabbed them comes back to Shilpa’s honesty; she truly answered their questions rather than repeating canned answers. We had the honor of going to the Shanti Bhavan graduation for one of our last weekends in Bangalore. Shilpa was a gracious host and tireless organizer. We are excited for her as she heads to Hofstra University on Long Island, New York to start her PhD program.

Judging from the kids we met and the eight classes of alumni Melissa has been working with, Dr. George’s vision is in the process of being realized. One of the things that was most impressive about our weekend at SB was that Shilpa wasn’t unique by a long shot. So many of the kids were kind and warm and laser focused on lifting their parents and their communities into a life of wider opportunity. During the graduation, Dr. George reminded them of the promise they made to lift 100 other people out of poverty when he told them, “That is not a promise you can break.” I don’t believe they needed such a strong reminder. They are on it. It is the kind of change that Dr. George is inspiring, all of those kids are committed to, and books like Shilpa’s are highlighting that is really going to make India a more equal society.


Games Indians Play, by Viswanathan Raghunathan

img_0149A year ago I wrote about what I had learned in my first year in India. Raghunathan addresses many of the things I was having (and I still have) a hard time getting my head around. He has a particularly amusing take on the chaotic process that serves as queuing up. As an Indian who spent a significant time of his life in Europe, he asked himself why does Indian culture, a generous, outward thinking culture, have these self-destructive characteristics that allow people to push and shove and jump a queue and require a bribe and chuck garbage on the side of the street and otherwise act less than generously.

Screen Shot 2019-06-12 at 1.49.41 PMRaghunathan frames the question around game theory of economics, particularly the Prisoner’s Dilemma. Two suspects in a crime have the opportunity to lighten their sentence. If both suspects betray each other, they will receive two year sentences each. If I betray my partner, but my partner remains silent, I will be set free while my partner will receive a three year sentence. If both of us remain silent, we both serve one year sentences. Simple behavioral economics points to the easy answer: By remaining silent, the total number of years served in prison is either two (split between us) or three (served by only one). The worst case is both betraying each other for a grand total of four years split between us. So both should know to remain silent, right? But what if my partner doesn’t know to be silent? Then I’m screwed. Raghunathan posits that the “I’m screwed” part is primary in his fellow Indians’ decision making. Corruption makes life more difficult for all of us, but if others are doing it and I’m not, then their lives are easier and, say it with me, “I’m screwed.” If we trusted each other to do the right thing, then we could all be better off, but the right thing seems to happen so rarely that I’m going to do what’s right for me and my family right now. The negative long term consequences aren’t for me to worry about right now if ever, so I’m not going to worry about them.

This was an interesting and frustrating read at the same time. It really did help confirm for me that some of the things I have struggled with are real and not just me, like the need to yell at people in order to get what I need. Until someone feels the pain that comes from them not doing their job, they aren’t going to worry about it. The problem with the book is that it leans a little heavy on the self-hating side, particularly since it offers no solutions. People treat strangers badly, so that’s just the way it is because no one wants to be the one to break the cycle and serve the longer sentence.


Inglorious Empire: What the British Did to India, by Sashi Tharoor

Book Cover - IngloriousI expected Raghunathan in Games Indians Play to at least bring the self destructive behaviors he describes back to the Raj, the period of time that Britain ruled India, because it is an easy connection to make. He doesn’t do that, though, for good and bad. It is a convenient excuse which sometimes feels like a cop out, but he also fails to look for any of the underlying causes of the acceptance of these behaviors. Tharoor, in the engaging, brilliantly written and researched book Inglorious Empire takes a different tack. He looks in detail at what the Raj did to this country while challenging Indians to see history as a way to identify the cycles at work in Indian society that need to be broken in order to go forward and not use past crimes of the Raj as an excuse. Tharoor lays a foundation for figuring out how to make India a global superpower again, but it involves coming to grips with the fact that many of the social structures that Indians hold dear are holding India back and were designed by the British to do just that.

When the East India Tea Company first set foot in what would become India, the South Asian Subcontinent accounted for 26% of the world’s economy and wealth. Today, it is somewhere in the 3% range. And this is up from 2% when Britain finally left India. How this happened was simple and simply brutal.

Indians were building ships better than anyone else in the world. British rulers didn’t like that the ships were competing with their own, so they ended production. British planters saw plentiful land to plant crops they wanted — tea and indigo among them — and tore out farms and forests in order to grow them. They did all this while taxing farmers in ways that rivalled the sharecropping system of the American Reconstruction, keeping farmers in a subservient class they would never climb out of. The result was that 60 million Indians have died in famines since the 18th century where famines simply hadn’t existed. Pre-Raj, in times of crisis the region had enough resources to support each other, but Britain refused to make the changes necessary to save lives and also refused to allow other countries to help. The latest famine was in Bihar, the state where Melissa worked, in 1966. Bihar was once the breadbasket of India and the cultural center of at least two major religions. Now it is the poorest, most desperate of Indian states thanks in large part to the Indigo plantations and what they did to the soil.

The British saw unbelievably beautiful gems and other items that symbolize the wealth they lusted after, and quite simply stole them. The most ostentatious of these thefts was the Koh-i-Noor diamond, which was “collected” from the owner as a way to pay off taxes seemingly designed to be unpayable. To make matters worse, because it didn’t live up to some Western standard of what an extravagant diamond should look like, it was re-cut, diminishing its size and some say value, and installed in to the queen’s crown, where it remains today.

Somehow, they did all this while instilling in Indians a sense of the indispensability of the Raj itself. I heard the consequences of this attitude frequently during class discussions. The English gave us a power grid. The power grid was designed by English to work well in England. Here in India, power outages are such a part of every day life, no one skips a beat when suddenly everything goes dark. If the power grid were designed by Indians, I would bet that this wouldn’t be the case — it would be designed to withstand the particular needs of this place. The English gave us trains. If Indians were building some of the world’s best ships, I’m guessing they sure could have developed a train system that would rival any in the world. Besides, the British were in such fear of Indian technological know-how, and to protect their own economic interest, they refused to allow Indians to build Indian trains — they were all built in England. The English gave us education. It is well documented that the Indian education system of rote memorization was specifically designed by the British to quash any chance of large scale Indian critical thinking which might lead Indians to wonder if the British were actually all they say they were.

The consequences of all of this can be felt everywhere today. Indian education is still very much based on the system set up by the British. Families who can afford it can send their kids to international schools like CISB, but our friend who manages a water technologies group here in Bangalore said that he has to continue to require job applicants to provide their grade 10 exam scores, so unless a student is going overseas after graduation, this actually puts them at a bit of a disadvantage.

Travelling around the country, we have seen over and over again evidence of the lie that somehow India would have fallen behind the rest of the world if not for the Raj. Indians were doing things with technology and engineering that Europeans could only dream of, from the tombs of the Mughals, the crowning achievement being the Taj Mahal, to ancient Hindu temples, this country might even have gotten out in front of these technological advances. By dismissing Indians as less-than, I truly believe the world lost out.

Which brings us back to Games Indians Play. A lot of those behaviors can be traced directly back to the behaviors encouraged by the Raj. Positions of influence were bought and sold, habits that infect any chance this country has of getting back to its position of global leadership. Corruption is everywhere, pollutes everything, and kills people. Melissa saw it in the health system in Bihar, those who interact with police see it in how they go about their daily jobs, and everyone deals with it in the political system while trying to figure out whom to support in order to move the country forward. All political parties of any influence claim to be the ones to solve the problems of corruption, but they all buy in to the corrupt system. Until the system rewards anything other than self interest, none of this is going change, people will continue to die, and this otherwise extraordinarily generous culture will only progress in fits and starts.


Behind the Beautiful Forevers, by Katherine Boo

Book Cover - BehindSpeaking of heartbreaking and corruption seemingly designed to keep the masses down, Behind the Beautiful Forevers. Boo describes life in Annawadi, a slum near the Mumbai airport. This is a story of people simply trying to survive. They occasionally make decisions that feed the stereotypes that allow the haters to point to them and “other” them, but they are really simply trying to survive. She follows a few families over the course of a few years, painting a picture of their tiny victories that are completely swamped by their crushing everyday lives. Every hope they have that something might change is quickly extinguished by the ubiquitous corrupt self interest, from the neighbor just trying to keep her family afloat to the city planners that allow the slum to happen in the first place.

Many times this book confirmed a thought I’ve had throughout my two years in India. I want every one of my anti-regulation friends in the US to spend a month here, see what a lack of regulation looks like. In our day-to-day lives, it shows up in the pollution of every river and stream, the smog so constant it has our asthma-ridden friends fleeing the country, and garbage on every street. We see it in employers’ ability to discard their workers simply because they are afraid the workers are getting too comfortable and in the persistent poverty even when people work six twelve hour days every week. Boo describes it in the sewage pond adjacent to Annawadi, the garbage that provides the kids of the slum their illicit trade, and their fleeting brushes with reliable work.

There are efforts underway to address every single one of these issues. The lake around which I would walk every day is getting cleaner because a newly built bioswale filters out the sewage and other pollution out of one of its worst feeder streams. Businesses have requirements surrounding how many people they need to hire. There is constant talk about reducing the amount of one-time-use plastics in our daily lives. However, until the corruption issues are dealt with, there is a limit to the effect these efforts are going to have.

Read this book. It definitely has more of a universal appeal than most of the others I enjoyed these two years.


The Inheritance of Loss, by Kiran Desai

Book Cover - InheritanceI figured I had to read at least one piece of fiction, and this was on my Kindle. How’s that for a high bar? This was an OK book. The patriarch was able to make his way up in the Indian Civil Service, a system the British put in place to curry favor with some Indians who were then treated with privilege not afforded others. Along the way he bought in to that privilege and thought pretty highly of himself. There are a few characters to cheer for — the cook, his son, the niece — whose lives are hard.

The problem I had with the book that there were just too many threads Desai was trying to weave. By the time she got back to the characters I cared most about, I didn’t care very much any more, and by the time I started caring again, she cut away to something else.

It does illuminate a couple of interesting elements of Indian life. There’s the British-oriented patriarch and the privilege to which he thinks he is entitled contrasted with the scorn or apathy with which he is treated. It is interesting to see the consequences of aligning one’s self with the British at least for one person. There is the issue of the Marxist separatists (one of the many threads that could have been an interesting stand-alone story), separatism being an issue people are dealing with now in Assam, Bengal, and Kashmir. There is the idealism with which many people think about the United States contrasted with the harsh reality of life if they are able to get there.


An Indefinite Sentence: A Personal History of Outlawed Love and Sex, by Siddharth Dube

Book Cover - IndefiniteI mentioned above that soon after arriving in India, the Supreme Court overturned Section 377, the British colonial law that banned acting on one’s homosexuality. One of the first conversations I had with who became one of my most dear and trusted colleagues pointed to the silence in which the law and cultural norms around homosexuality forced our gay students to live. The confluence of these events made it a subject I was interested in but had a hard time finding the right avenue for learning. About the time a grotesque act of homophobia at school inspired a profound symposium around working to embrace all people, Dube released An Indefinite Sentence, his memoir of growing up gay in India then working in the United States, India, and several global institutions as an advocate for gay rights, for sex worker rights, and to help stem the AIDS crisis.

Dube tells a profound and gripping story of the evolution of his understanding of his own feelings and place in the world and the evolution of gay rights and the AIDS crisis both in the West and here in India. Sadly, none of the abuse he faced is surprising to me. Neither is the joy he feels as he reflects on the progress the world has made.

When I first started teaching and students would ask my feelings about the anti-gay ballot measures that were still making their way through Oregon politics, I would often tell them that I truly believed that by the time they were my age gay marriage would be a thing that simply happened and was celebrated, just as interracial marriage was something that happened and was celebrated. Where it was baffling to my students of the early 2000s that interracial marriage had shockingly recently been illegal, it would be baffling to their kids that gay marriage was illegal. Boy, did I call that one. It happened way faster than I ever hoped. I think India is about in that place now. Just as homophobic policy makers were making life more difficult then in the US, homophobic policy makers have a ton of control here now. Just as the youth I was working with then overwhelmingly embraced their gay classmates, most of the youth here embrace LGBTQ+ folks. There are spasms of homophobia, and the people who see their homophobic world view slipping from the mainstream get mad and loud, but they get overwhelmed by the love.

The book also brought up an important issue all Americans need to ponder, ponder hard, and then vote on. One of the most destructive elements surrounding the effort to control the AIDS epidemic in India and around the world were the policies of all American presidents from Ronald Reagan to George W. Bush. As a global superpower, and for a time the only global superpower, Americans seemed to think that in the name of helping others stem this killer, we could impose our values on them (never mind that not all Americans held those values). As a result, people died. It doesn’t matter how well-meaning people were. People died. It’s not just the abortion issue which seems to get all of the press, that the American government cannot give funds to agencies who even counsel women about the choice of abortion. Americans from Gloria Steinem to crime-and-punishment folks of all types have lived by an American-centric definition of human trafficking that has swept up desperate women who have found their only way to support their families in sex work. Human trafficking is a scourge that itself has to be solved, but not all sex workers are trafficked. By ignoring that we fail to address the underlying issues addressed in so many of the books above, that more Indians than there are total Americans live with so little hope that some of them sell their bodies.


Some notes:

  1.  Thanks, Sandeep Thakur, for suggesting Sashi Tharoor. I accidentally read a different book than the one he suggested. I think he suggested An Era of Darkness. It also sounds good, but I don’t regret reading the one I read. Also, Sandeep is just one of the nicest humans I know, so there’s that.
  2. I read several other books, too, many of which were really good. These were just the books I read about India. However, I would be remiss if I didn’t celebrate my dear friend and mentor Nancy Minor’s first book Malheur August. Strong characters, lovely writing, fabulous book. Not being in Portland, I can’t say for sure, but it sounds like you can get it at Annie Bloom’s Books in Multnomah, and at Powells. You can get it at that behemoth online retailer that will remain unnamed here, too, if you aren’t near Portland. Also, by the way, Nancy is another one of those nicest people I know.
  3. Thanks, Melissa for being my partner in all things — adventures, mundanities, and curiosities. I would be dumber and far far less happy if you were not part of my life. Thanks for not only being yet another of the nicest people I know, but showering me with your niceness every single day, even and especially when I’m out of sorts.

Visiting Kashmir

Melissa had wanted to visit Kashmir since we arrived in India nearly two years ago. She grew up around her parents’ Kashmiri artifacts and photos and imagined it as the most beautiful place on earth. You might imagine that nothing could live up to that kind of ideal, but Kashmir did. We only had four days for our visit, using up Tom’s last two available personal days, but we squeezed in as much as possible.

Traveling in a conflict zone is not something to do casually or without the right guidance and support, but luckily we knew just the right people to help us. CultureRings, a tour company focused on travel that teaches you about the culture and people of the places you visit, is run by our dear friend Kaveri Sinhji. We told Kaveri that we wanted to see both the natural beauty of Kashmir and meet the craftspeople who have made this region famous for artistry. She then partnered closely with Devika Krishnan who has worked extensively with the craftspeople of Kashmir. Devika created a beautiful itinerary for us and arranged for her friend Ramneek to guide us through the entire experience. We were both safe and delighted the entire time.

Our first day was a wee bit sleepy. To cram in as much as possible, we decided to take a 5:45 am direct flight that required us to get up at 3:00 am to head for the airport. On the upside, we landed in Srinagar at 9:05 and had a whole day ahead of us. On the downside, there was a fair amount of yawning. Our driver, Yusuf, from Mascot Travels was amazing. He greeted us at the airport and, from that point on, was always there for us right up to the last moment of leaving us back at the airport on Monday afternoon.

Yusuf drove us straight to our meeting point with Ramneek, and we began the two hour journey to Pahalgam. Because it was the last Friday of Ramadan in a state that is 96% Muslim, the roads were clear and the drive was easy. We were always conscious of the “conflict” due to the armed men stationed on every block of the main roads of Srinagar, and the incredibly good highway (probably the best we’ve experienced in all of India) that was built to facilitate ease of military movement. But our attention was focused much more on the stunning people we passed and the magnificent scenery. The dress in Kashmir is different than we’ve seen elsewhere. Tom was surprised that it was20190602_185143 (2) so different from what he had seen last year on his Himalayan trek. Most people, men and women, wear the pheran, a long loose garment that looks like a big shirt with three buttons at the top. In the chilly mornings, we saw men wearing a second one over the top that looked almost like a giant loose overcoat from the back. In the cold of winter when the snow many be seven feet deep, people keep warm by carrying a willow basket lined with a copper pot full of hot charcoal inside their pherans (that gives you a sense of their looseness).

For the most part, women’s heads are covered, but to vastly differing extents. Some wear a scarf set back on the head, seeming to hang from a large bun. Some wear a scarf covering the whole head and wrapping around to hang over the shoulders, and then tuck their hair and scarf behind their ears. Some wear a large gathered scarf that fully covers the head and wraps tightly under the chin leaving only the face visible. In the minority were women actually wearing niqabs that revealed only the eyes. In the vast minority (but still notable) were women who wore burkas, completely covered including a dense netting covering even their eyes. Those who weren’t wearing black were wearing bright, beautiful colors.

At this time of year, the shepherds of the nomadic Gujjar and Bakarwal tribes are in the midst of their annual migration up into the mountains. As we neared Pahalgam, we began to pass Gujjars on the road, sometimes with cows, sheep, or goats with long hair and curly horns, sometimes with their small horses, and sometimes just walking in groups. They have a distinctive look, with brightly colored clothing, embroidered saddle blankets and other ornaments on their horses, and small round hats on the women’s heads and long mustacheless beards on the men. Beautiful green fields and snow-capped mountains provided an idyllic backdrop.

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20190531_124611We arrived at midday at the Pahalgam Hotel, started by Ramneek’s great-grandfather on the banks of the Jhehlum River Tributary. With Ramneek’s nephew involved in the business, they are now into the fifth generation with this lovely hotel, and it is clearly treasured by everyone, family and staff alike. Our room had a separate bedroom, two bathrooms, and glorious views from every window. We were in heaven.

 

 

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The view from the hotel

After a delicious lunch, we had a brief rest before heading out to the workshop Ramneek has created for Shepherdcrafts. In a Gujjar home, used during migration, we visited with a group of women who are using their traditional embroidery skills to create products to appeal to a contemporary market. It has been a challenge. After an initial burst of great success, the conflict in Kashmir intensified in 2016, cutting off tourism and eliminating buyers for their beautiful work. The women are clearly frustrated – their lives are hard and it’s disappointing to make the time for extra embroidery only to have it sit on a shelf without a buyer. Ramneek is determined, however, to figure out how to make this work. In addition to encouraging people to visit Kashmir and meet these skilled artisans, she is also looking for ways to find a broader market outside of Kashmir. The goal of this effort is truly to improve the lives of people who struggle. The entire room was very proud of a young woman there who had completed 10th standard in school – a bare minimum in the US, but a major accomplishment for this nomadic tribe. Another woman has a daughter who completed 12th standard. With more education, women don’t marry in their mid-teens, they have fewer children, and they are able to better provide for the children they have.20190531_161447

After admiring their work, we took a short walk to the Himalayan Cheese Factory, an artisinal cheese factory started by  Chris Zandee, a Dutch man who married a vivacious Kashmiri woman, Kamala. They wanted to create something positive for the community, something that could provide real livelihood for people while fostering a sense of pride in their beleaguered region. Chris grew up on a farm and had learned cheesemaking from his father, so it seemed worth a try. He sources milk from 150 different women in the area, making a point of paying every 10 days. Even a woman with only a half-liter to spare can expect to receive a small amount of money on a schedule. Chris is certain that this has literally saved lives, giving women the confidence to take their children to see doctors, knowing that they can afford to pay them. He gushes about how much he has learned from the community as well, about how business can lift up a community when the priority is not shareholders. Aside from the social enterprise, this is really good cheese! The gouda and cumin gouda were truly outstanding. Sitting in the lovely yard outside the factory with the river and mountains in view, happily eating bits of cheese and sampling local honey was a delight.Collage 2019-06-10 21_07_36

We took our leave in the late afternoon, a bit sleepy and bleary-eyed, and headed back to our lovely hotel with Ramneek who took us to visit the shop that she has created there. She sells many handmade Kashmiri items from the many artisans that she works with in Pahalgam and Srinigar. Everything there is beautiful. We were particularly taken with some embroidered wall hangings created by a Gujjar family with a particularly talented deaf boy who has taken up embroidery. Ramneek has worked with him for years, nurturing his natural talent and rolling her eyes when he periodically runs off to be with the men for a while, always confident that he will return to do this work for which he has such a gift. She also pointed out to us the work of some of the artisans we would meet the next day, getting us excited about what was to come.

20190531_131953Given our general sleepiness, we had an early dinner, once again absolutely delicious. We were quite taken with the kalari cheese, a local delicacy that looks like a flat disc, tastes a bit like a combination mozzarella and halloumi and is served fried until crisp. Similarly, we found that the Kashmiri paneer is also more mozzarella-like with a sort of chewiness that we had never before had in paneer. Yum. That night we slept in the total darkness and perfect silence never experienced in Bangalore. We woke early with the birds, which is a very pleasant way to rise. Tea was served to us in our room and we enjoyed some time gazing at the gorgeous view while sipping our tea and easing into the day.

20190601_105525After tasty idli, sambar, coconut chutney (made from dried coconut since we are now far from palm tree country), and the local morning bread called lavasa, we drove up toward Aru. The original plan had been to have tea with a Gujjar family in this stunning area high in the Himalayas, but the woman we were to meet had gone into labor the night before. We mentally sent her good wishes while stopping to photograph this amazing area with flowing glacial streams, wildflowers, and the ever-present snow-capped mountains. With a few more days in Kashmir, we definitely would have done some amazing trekking. As it was, we reluctantly turned the car back toward Srinigar.

Our reluctance was short-lived, however, when a couple hours later we pulled up to a dock on the huge Nigeen Lake and were seated in a comfy Shikara, sort of like a gondola20190601_134630 with a roof. We journeyed across the lake and ended up at the beautiful Mascot Houseboats. Houseboats in Srinagar have mostly been in families for generations. The fifth generation now runs this boat. The entire boat is ornately carved, from doors to walls to ceilings, and furnished with gorgeous antique furniture and carpets. While these boats are on the water, they are all permanently docked and do not rocking at all, but the views are magical, across the lake to the greenery of the far shore and up to the surrounding mountains. We were expertly cared for by Manzoor and his partner who served all of our meals and made sure we were always happy.

After lunch, we met Yusuf, our driver, and Ramneek took us into the old town of Srinagar. The old part of town is full of charming old two to three story buildings with high peaked roofs and ornate window frames. Many reminded us of houses more common in Portland than anywhere else we’ve seen in India. While the new part of Srinagar is at lake level and in danger of annual flooding, the old part of town is elevated and safe from water. It is not, however, safe from the ravages of time and an economy that can’t support preservation, thanks in large part to the continuing conflict. Many of these beautiful buildings have broken windows and hanging shutters, which broke our hearts.Collage 2019-06-12 07_07_26

Our first stop in Old Town was a Sufi shrine, Khankahi Shah-i-Hamdan. This 14th century shrine was rebuilt in the early 18th century, and is ornately carved, inside and out. We could not enter the shrine, but enjoyed walking the perimeter and were then invited to look through a window. The exterior is lovely, but the interior is magnificent with painted carvings covering the walls and ceiling above a beautiful carpet where people were praying.

From there we traveled a short distance to a small storefront in which a coppersmith works his magic. He used to do everything by himself – shaping the copper, carving patterns into its surface and then polishing it to a shine – but now he focuses on shaping the copper while other partners in the business do the other parts. Copper is considered an essential in Kashmir where everyone eats off of plated copper plates and bowls, drinks from copper cups, and decorates their homes with copper vases, samovars, and lamps.

The coppersmith then walked with us to the woodcarvers shop where we watched themIMG_1526 carving intricate patterns into walnut and pine, making chests, stair railings, and table tops among other things. We couldn’t resist a big carved mortar and pestle. Now we’re really ready to make our own masalas from fresh spices!

We were now ready for a bit of nature, so Ramneek took us to Nishat Bagh or “garden of delight”, a stunning terraced Mughal garden created in the mid-17th century. We were amazed to see so many flowers that we recognized from home – hydrangeas, irises, roses, begonias, and so many more. We assume that even though we are much further south, the elevation creates growing conditions similar to those in Portland.20190601_175125

After the garden, we were ready to return again to our lovely floating hotel where we sat on the roof, soaking in the view until nearly time for dinner. Dinner was delicious, particularly the Kashmiri paneer in gravy. Yum. The night was a bit of a challenge for us. It turns out that Saturday night was a particularly special night of Ramadan with prayers going all night. Through our windows we could hear prayers through loudspeakers echoing across the lake from at least three different mosques all night long. Melissa finally drifted off, but Tom barely slept. As dawn came, the prayers finally stopped, but we were awake anyway. We had tea delivered to our room and moved slowly until breakfast. Happily, we were served the best aloo bhaji we’ve ever had, light, airy pooris, and girda (very like lavasa) with local honey.

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The morning sun hits the houseboats across the lake

After a slow start, we again found Yusuf and went to meet Ramneek who took us to the home of a family of weavers where we watched one man spinning thin pashmina thread onto spindles in preparation for weaving, and watched two other men working magic on a loom as they wove a colorful, intricate pattern into what will eventually be a large pashmina shawl. We got a serious education there into pashmina creation. A real pashmina is made from the soft hair of high altitude goats from Ladakh. These goats are shorn twice a year for their soft wool, but are in no way harmed in the process. The shepherds prize the well-being of these goats as their livelihood depends on them. There used to be a kind of wool from the undersides of juveniles and harvesting it used to actually kill them. This, however, has long been outlawed. In order to be considered a real hand made pashmina, with a certificate of authentication to prove it, the wool must then be hand spun into fine thread by women who do this specialized work. That fine thread is then woven on large looms by men, sometimes creating a featherweight fabric and sometimes creating a very dense and heavy fabric. People associate pashminas with incredible softness, but in fact the most expensive one have a bit of stiffness to them from the density of the weaving. Because tourists expect softness, some weavers will add rabbit hair to the thread or wash the completed pashmina with fabric softeners. Many completed pashminas go back to the women who embroider them in finely detailed patterns. This traditional and amazing artform is now struggling for a number of reasons: the ongoing conflict keeps tourists away so they don’t see the work that goes into making this product, uneducated tourists are then eager for bargains and happy to buy machine-made shawls made from different wools or synthetic fabrics embellished with machine embroidery, corruption has diluted the certification process, and other states seeing the interest in pashminas have begun to make cheap versions that they ship into Kashmir to sell there to people who can’t recognize the difference. The younger generations are not eager to go into a profession where you may have to invest 3-6 months of your life into creating a single garment for sale. Hopefully marketing strategies people like Ramneek are working on can ensure a continued demand for this special, skilled work and keep this amazing craft alive.

Ramneek told us that if we saw anything we liked, we should just take a picture of it because we could always come back again; we really appreciated this advice as everything was so beautiful that it would have been easy to buy something without yet fully understanding the extent of what would be available. Our next stop was in the home of another family of craftspeople. We started by sitting with a young woman who was embroidering a shawl. Her sure fingers moved quickly and the pattern was so pretty. She had also brought along a pashmina that she was embroidering for herself and had nearly finished.  It was gorgeous! She voiced the frustration that the men could work all day at their crafts, but the women had so many other responsibilities in the home that their hours for work were much shorter, but she still had a smile on her face most of the time.Collage 2019-06-11 19_24_58

After sitting with her for a while, we went into the next room where the painters sat. One woman sat painting an intricate floral design on kleenex boxes, a man and woman sat together painting a four piece metal tiffin set, and the embroiderer’s husband’s uncle, a master papier mache artist, Maqbool Jan, showed us the entire process of making a papier mache box. Usually someone else forms the boxes or bowls or whatever else they’re making while he focuses on the painting. When we got to the painting part, it was obvious why. He seemed to so effortlessly create a beautiful pattern of flowers and birds on such a small scale, it was breathtaking.Collage 2019-06-10 20_56_15

After admiring their work and learning all about it, they invited us to join them for20190602_143705 (2) lunch, seated on the floor in their dining room with food arranged on a cloth on the floor. Everything was delicious and it was a pleasure to sit with the family. Some of them joined us even though they were fasting, but a couple of the men were eating because of health conditions. After lunch, we were taken to a room where we could see all of Maqbool’s finished products. Wow. Just, wow.Collage 2019-06-12 08_09_40

Ramneek and Yusuf then took us to Parimahal or “garden of the fairies,” another 20190602_165435stunning Mughal garden. This one is high in the hills with a very steep terrace and strong retaining walls that are almost fortress-like. Each of the seven levels has a different feeling, all of them beautiful. We finished the day at a tea house where the walls are covered with a mural painted by Maqbool Jan. There we sampled Noon Chai, a popular salty tea in Kashmir to which you add crushed, dried corn. We enjoyed it more when we thought of it as soup.

With that, we concluded another amazing day and returned to our houseboat, which was mercifully quieter than the previous night. The next morning, after breakfast and checking out, we went to Ramneek’s office where we met the papier mache artist from the previous day. He had brought pashminas, woven and embroidered by his family, for us to admire. The perfect patterns in the weaving, the beautifully intricate embroidery, and the story behind them made them to hard to resist. We ultimately bought two that will become heirlooms for our family. 

After another drive past military personnel on every block, a large military convoy that stopped the angry traffic, and multiple checkpoints, we arrived at the airport for our return journey. Yes, Kashmir is a conflict zone with reminders in not only the military presence, but also in the graffiti: “Freedom for Kashmir,” “Islamic State,” “Zakir Musa,” an Al-Qaeda affiliated militant killed last month, and everywhere “Azadi” which means freedom. It is also one of the most beautiful places we’ve ever been, full of the natural beauty of mountains and water and flowering plants as well as the man-made beauty of architecture and traditional crafts honed to perfection through generations. We knew that we were in safe hands with Ramneek and Yusuf and strongly recommend that people visit this amazing place with the right guides. We left wanting nothing but to return.

 

A Perfect Weekend

With only four weekends before we leave India, we didn’t want to waste a moment. And yet there we were, approaching the weekend with CIS graduation on Friday night, a vague plan for brunch on Sunday, and nothing else at all. Our friend Farrah came to the rescue with a reminder about the opportunity to visit Chiguru Farm and pick mangoes. When else in our lives will we get to do that?! Melissa sent a message on Friday and we had confirmation of our space in the group by that evening.

Friday evening, however, was all about graduation. It was great fun to get dressed up, Tom20190524_2101504102186851861646486.jpg in his new custom suit and Melissa in her Sri Lankan jewelry, and go to celebrate kids that Tom has taught for two years. The ceremony itself was relatively short and quite lovely with a notable address by a very accomplished 2014 graduate who came from Canada to talk to the graduates about important things like kindness and gratitude. Plans for dinner under the stars were altered for rain (which one can expect nearly every evening at this time of year) so we sat in the cafeteria which was all dressed up with tablecloths and centerpieces.

Note from Melissa: I’ve never attended a graduation with Tom before and it was incredibly touching to see all the kids who came up to shake his hand, thank him for helping them, and tell him how much his class meant to them. One new grad said, “You are the nicest person I’ve ever met. You showed me how to be a good person.” Wow.

The next morning, we were up early, ready to get in our cab and travel 90 minutes south of the city to Chiguru Farm. As we hit the outskirts of the city and began to see the lush density of trees and flowering shrubs, we could feel ourselves already beginning to relax.  Aiding in the relaxation when we arrived was the oddly empty courtyard and lack of fellow tour participants. It turns out we were an hour early. While disappointed to have cut short our sleep, more time for just the two of us to meander around the grounds of the farm was lovely. We were fed a delicious breakfast (and later lunch), had a tour of the farm with explanations from naturalist Kavya of A Green Venture about all of their sustainable practices, and finally picked the last of the mangoes on the trees. It was amazing.

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On the way to the farm, we realized that our plan to save our voucher for a free night at 20190526_0911104182860389203015717.jpgthe Leela Palace to use after we move out of our apartment was not going to serve us since it can only be used on a weekend. Realizing that this was our last free Saturday night, Tom quickly called the hotel and got us a reservation for that evening. After our visit to the farm, we went home, hastily packed an overnight bag, and went straight to the Leela where we were upgraded to the exact room that we’d stayed in for Melissa’s birthday. So beautiful and so full of happy memories. We showered, lounged about, and then went to cocktail hour followed by dinner at Zen and a perfect night’s sleep.

The next morning, we took our time, enjoying our beautiful room, having coffee and a little snack on the Leela patio, and then checked out at noon to head for Sly Granny where we met our teacher friends Nadege, Kitty, and Ivana for a very nice brunch. The food was amazing and the service was well-intentioned if not yet very polished – they’ve just started doing brunch and clearly had not yet figured out how to make sure that each table gets all of the things they’ve ordered and only those things. They’ll get there in time, and it was lovely nonetheless.

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It was the perfect Bangalore weekend to head into our final month in India.

Spring Break 2019

With our time in India ticking away, we wanted to do something special for our last big trip. Our first plan was Kashmir, but the February terrorist attacks made that seem less advisable so we shifted our sights south. Our first big trip back in 2017 was in Kerala, and we had always meant to return. This seemed the perfect chance to do so. Plus, Kerala would get us close to Kanyakumari, the southernmost tip of the Indian peninsula, and a place Melissa was eager to see.

We started the trip with a return to Kochi, a charming seaside town with Chinese fishing

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Chinese fishing nets

nets along the rocky beaches, easily walkable streets, and charming old architecture. It is also home to a Jewish community that dates back to 72 CE and has the oldest synagogue in the Commonwealth nations, built in 1567. Our first visit to Kochi was on a Saturday so we couldn’t enter, but we made sure to time it better for this trip. Photography is not allowed inside, so we can only describe the large rectangular room with wooden benches along the walls, a floor of 18th century Chinese tiles, and Belgian chandeliers hanging from the ceiling. With its stately pulpit and the Torah kept safely behind a beautiful curtain, it truly felt like a place of peace and reverence, and it’s sad to think of this community dwindling.

We stayed in Heavenly Homestay, which provided a room with excellent air

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Kittens at our homestay!

conditioning. This is no small deal when temperatures are in the upper 90’s and the humidity levels are in the 80’s. In the afternoons, we wilted and were very grateful for a place to retreat. Our host suggested that we go see Kathakalli dancing, and Melissa was eager to go. Tom was less enthusiastic, but willing and ultimately very glad we went. We arrived at 5:00 to watch them put on their make-up, which seemed like a strange notion until we realized that the make-up application is truly a performance of its own. They used all natural pigments and transformed themselves while we watched. Then came a short demo of the amazing eye-dancing in which nothing moves but the eyes! This was followed by an explanation of the various mudras and expressions that tell the story, and finally a performance of a tale from the Mahabharata. It was great!

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We had an amazing dinner at History, which has a fabulous menu that describes the history of each dish they serve. The environment was lovely (and air conditioned), and the food was great. We enjoyed it all very much, except for the strangely gelatinous chocolate dessert.

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After a couple days in Kochi, we were ready to move on and headed for the train which was only running a couple hours late. Given that we were embarking on the third day of a lengthy trip, that’s not too bad. We enjoyed a relaxing 4 1/2 hour ride to Trivandrum where we got a taxi to the Leela Kovalam, a little heaven on earth. This hotel is completely open to the elements except in our individual rooms. We were grateful for our cool and comfy room and equally delighted by the lovely spaces and gorgeous views.

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For our last night, Melissa thought we should ask about upgrading from our very nice room with a beach view to an even nicer club room with an ocean view. We expected to pay a hefty price for this bit of luxury and were happily stunned to be told that they would simply move us over. Never hurts to ask! In truth, we think our first room was nicer, but the view in our second room was unbeatable. A highlight of the evening was sitting on our deck, watching the most spectacular lightning storm over the ocean that just went on for hours.

Our morning walks were also a highlight. It was so hot and humid that we wanted to get whatever little physical activity we would have over early, so we took walks on the beach

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before breakfast. One morning, we went to a tasty breakfast at German Bakery at the recommendation of our friends Ben and Christina. Every morning we watched teams of fishermen (yes, they were all men) pulling nets in from far off shore. For each net there were two teams of pullers, in what looked like a combination of tug-of-war and a bucket brigade, as they would pull this huge rope with one man’s job to coil the rope as it came ashore; when the pullers got to the back, they would peel off and head to the front and start over again. As the net got closer, the teams got closer together. Our fascination was heightened by the chanting they were doing as they pulled. One man told us that it was a very local tribal language, kind of a combination of Malayalam (the language spoken in Kerala) and Tamil (the language spoken just over the mountains in Tamil Nadu). It was fascinating, and one of the mornings, we saw them actually finish the process and haul the net ashore, with a catch of a bunch of what looked like sardines. All of that work for a few sardines!

After a few relaxing days, walking on the beach, watching the morning fishermen, reading our books, and generally reveling in our lack of agenda, it was again time to move on.

A three hour drive took us to Kanyakumari, a bustling little town filled with Indian tourists. The town has some impressive temples, a rocky monument to Swamy Vivekananda (who apparently swam to the rock to meditate), a towering monument to a philosopher poet, and a very nice Gandhi memorial, but mostly it offers the daily spectacle of watching the sun set over the ocean on one side of the town and rise again over the ocean on the other side of town.

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Our room in the Hotel SeaView provided for a pleasant (if crazy hot) walk to Sunset Beach for the western view, where we joined several hundred others for the show, and had a perfect view of the harbor and ocean to the east. Leading up to our visit, rains and overcast skies were predicted, so we wondered if it would be worth the trip, but it was! The skies cleared, and the sunset and sunrise both made for quite a show!

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On our final day of vacation, we headed back to Trivandrum for a glorious meal at the

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beautiful Villa Maya before catching our flight home.

It was, like all of our Indian vacations, a trip to remember.