Summer 2019: Fabulous France

France was our last stop on our unbelievable summer vacation before heading back to the West Coast of North America. The French leg started with a bit of a panic when we learned that there was an Italian train strike on the day we were to travel, so we started extra early to make sure we were able to get on a train in Corniglia and could hopefully make our two connections to Nice. Thanks to our wonderful host Simona warning us, it all went without a hitch. We made it to Nice early in the afternoon, ready to explore this beautiful town.

As with so much of what we do, our time in Nice was centered around food. The night we arrived we started our very scientific research project: who has the best gelato in Nice. Our favorites were the chocolate sorbet at Fenocchio, the stracciatella at Roberto’s, and the mint chip at Glacier Rossetti. All of the gelato was delicious, but our favorite of the whole two months was still easily Alberto’s in Corniglia.

Collage Nice Food TourWe spent much of our first full day on a food tour with Nadia of Nice Food and Wine Tours. We heard a little about where the celebrities who make Nice their playground go, and we tasted some amazing chocolates, olives and wines. We walked the charming public market where we tried a couple of tasty treats that we’re adding to the list of foods we want to learn to make when we get home: socca, a chickpea-based crepe that is fluffy like an omelette, and pissaladière, a caramelized onion tart that usually has a sardine on top but Chez Theresa makes it without. We also had a delightful lunch in one of the many beautiful plazas in Vieux Nice (Old Town) along with the delightful folks we shared the tour with, two sisters and their daughters and a young woman travelling on her own from the US.

IMG_2014Our best meal was one we had on our tiny balcony of our Airbnb. We had a small view of the Mediterranean Sea as we dined above the tourists making their way through our little pedestrian street. We found sauce and fresh ravioli at Maison Barale, the ravioli made in the special Niçoise way with small dumplings not fully separated making them look like a chocolate bar. Add a tasty salad, and (once we went out for more gelato) it was exactly what we wanted.

Collage Nice exploringWe spent a couple of days exploring. One day we went to The Matisse and Chagall Museums. The Chagall definitely left us wanting to learn more about his work. Another day we climbed to the top of Castle Hill overlooking the city where there archaeologists are in the process of learning more about the fort that was there.

 

Nice was wonderful, but it was time to head off to the climax of the trip — Paris. Paris was everything we hoped it would be, and as with so many cities like it, the full two months of our vacation wouldn’t have been enough to fully experience everything it has to offer, much less the measly five days we had. Our time was kicked off with a surprise. After settling in to our Airbnb, we set off to explore some of the sights. Our way was blocked by what we quickly figured out was the final leg of the 2019 Tour de France. After dinner, we thought we’d check it out, assuming there would be too many people to see anything interesting. However, we found a little spot on a curve where we were able to get close enough to the route to see. About five minutes later, the peloton rode by very very quickly. It was fun!

IMG_2075The biggest chunk of our time in Paris was spent in the many incredible museums. The Louvre was of course incredible. We planned ahead enough to get 9:00 am tickets; we hightailed it to the Mona Lisa before the crowds became unmanageable. We spent time in the Islamic Art collection before finding our other must-see pieces — Liberty Leading the People, Winged Victory, and The Venus de Milo. Then we just wandered through the many galleries, getting distracted by whatever caught our eye, appreciating the many ways people experience the art, and being generally overwhelmed by the splendor of the building and its contents.

Collage Paris museums 2We also loved l’Orangerie with its stunning permanent installation of Monet’s Water Lilies, as well as the Orsay and its late 19th to early 20th century art, including of course the Impressionists. Rodin is one of our favorites, and of course Parisians love their own. Tom also took a spur-of-the-moment trip to a museum set up in Eugene Delacroix’s studio.

Collage Paris cultureWe also of course went to a few of the countless incredible cultural sites around Paris. Sainte Chapelle’s stained glass windows are incredible. We mourned the loss of post-fire Notre Dame. While Melissa took a shopping day, Tom saw the eerie Conciergerie where enemies of the revolution were condemned to the guillotine, and he also saw two Holocaust memorials — one specifically remembering the deportations from France and the Shoah Memorial. He also ducked into the Opera house to check out the Chagall ceiling we read about in Nice. Our favorite view of the city came from the top of Sacré-Cœur in Montmartre.

Collage Paris food tourSpeaking of Montmartre, we took an enjoyable food tour of the neighborhood with Secret Food Tours. We once again had great luck with tour partners, including a couple from Seattle, the woman from Mumbai (more on them later)! We went to the shop of a master chocolatier who was named Meilleur Ouvrier de France (MOF), the highest honor available to a number of crafts and a title one holds for life. We had amazing macrons, tasty crepes, and again finished with a fabulous lunch with wine tasting along with our fabulous tour partners.

One amusing side note: we heard an amusing story about the origin of the baguette (a little bit of research calls into question the story’s accuracy, but it’s an amusing story). According to our tour guide, when they were building the Paris Metro, many people from around the country converged to help. They brought their lunches with them, which invariably included bread which of course needed a knife to slice. The workers also found knives useful to help settle scores with coworkers with whom they might not see eye-to-eye. The resulting carnage inspired bakeries to bake bread that didn’t need a knife to enjoy, hence the very tear-able (but opposite of terrible) baguette.

Collage Paris wine tourAs we settled in to lunch, our guide happened to mention that they were piloting a wine tour the next day and wondered . . . “YES PLEASE!” we and the couple from Seattle answered before the end of the question. The next day we went on another walking tour of Montmartre, this time hearing about the history of wine in the neighborhood. There is still a small vineyard on the shady side of the hill producing a truly terrible wine. We drank wine and ate cheese at a variety of outlets. It was delicious, and all we had to do was answer some reflection questions about the tour itself and be interviewed for a marketing video.

Part of the motivation behind the wine theme of our vacation is our anniversary, which we try to celebrate in a different wine region each year. We’ve been to Southern Oregon, Walla Walla, Willamette Valley, and La Rioja. We missed our sixth when we moved to Bangalore, and we thought it would be fun to make a blow-out of it for our move back home. Our plan put us in Paris for our anniversary for the romance of it all, knowing it isn’t actually a wine region, but has lots and lots of good wine. Melissa found a cute little restaurant in the Latin Quarter that had a number of tasty vegetarian dishes, and we just had a lovely night of it.

 

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For sure, one of the many reasons we know we will be back to France is to visit some of the many wine regions available. Paris is just such a lovely city, and France is a wonderful country with, despite its reputation, fabulously warm and friendly people. It was the perfect way to end a truly once-in-a-lifetime vacation.

Summer 2019: Idyllic Italy

As mentioned previously, we had a couple of goals when planning this summer’s adventures: explore exciting but less-traveled and slightly risky places, and go to places we know we love. With some fabulous adventures in Armenia, Georgia, and Bulgaria under our belts, it was time to head back to Italy. We last visited Italy in 2012 to celebrate the birthday of our amazing friend Maya. Then, we did a whirlwind tour of Rome and spent a full week in Tuscany and fell in love with everything about the country. This time, we decided the whirlwind tour would be of Pisa and then we’d spend a serious chunk of time in the Cinque Terre.

Before any of that could happen, we had one quick stop. By a quirk of scheduling and the consequence of a bit of a brain fart, the best flight we could find from Sofia, Bulgaria to Pisa was through Rome . . . with a 13 hour layover. That gave us just enough time to spend the night in Fiumicino, the airport-centric town just outside of Rome. When in Rome, what better thing to do than to find great pizza. So we did. We had convinced ourselves that we had found great pizza in Bangalore. We suppose we did, given the context. Brik Oven Pizza and Bene both serve very good pizza that satisfied our frequent craving for chewy, traditional Neapolitan pizza. But Pizzeria Quarenta reminded us pretty quickly that really good pizza is very different from great pizza. We also were reminded that the Georgian and Bulgarian approach to dining, where all food comes to the table very quickly and at the same time, is not the norm around the world. Italy moves at a slower pace, and it was time to kick back and enjoy it.

We didn’t expect much out of Pisa. Melissa had visited for one day in 2004, and Tom had never been. Thanks to that scheduling quirk, we landed in Pisa early enough to wander and explore the city one day and do the Leaning Tower and surrounding piazza sights the next before getting the train to the Cinque Terre. We found Pisa to be charming. Tourist choked and centered around their main attraction, obviously, but charming. With a couple of self-guided walking tours on line to guide us, we set out to explore. We saw a huge Keith Haring mural, a funky and tiny old church right on the river, and an incredible old square with an impressive statue of Cosimo de Medici. We explored the 1575 botanical garden, a lovely oasis surrounded by the rush of tourists, clearly situated with the lovely view of the tower in mind. We also simply fell in love with the skinny, twisting alley ways that serve as streets in so many European cities like this one. We wrapped up the day with a beautiful meal at Ristorante Galileo, where the waiter said that he had worked in a Willamette Valley winery and that Oregon makes some of his favorite wines!Collage Pisa roaming

Leaning Tower of Pisa day was great. Tom felt very similar to how he felt at the Taj Mahal several months before. How can something with so much hype live up to it? Surely there must be an element of herd mentality propping up the excitement, right? In the case of the Taj Mahal, we all agreed that it completely surpassed the hype. So gorgeous, and every little bit of it planned and executed exquisitely. The Leaning Tower was close. It was beautiful and worth every bit of the hype it receives. It is funny, though, that a city whose second biggest claim to fame is the scientists and mathematicians that came from there, Galileo and Fibonacci chief among them, that Pisa is best known for a failure of engineering.Collage Pisa tower

Our plans worked out perfectly. We reserved tickets for the tower for early in the day, so we had plenty of time to explore the cathedral, baptistery, cemetery, and museum there on the square. They are all stunning and beautiful, and it left us plenty of time to grab lunch at Pastamania (amazing and affordable!) before grabbing our train later that afternoon for the Cinque Terre.IMG_1867

Oh, the Cinque Terre. Oh, how we love the Cinque Terre. We decided to stay in Corniglia because we had read that it was the quietest of the five villages. It sits on the top of a cliff and visitors arrival by train at the bottom. The main route to the town from the train is a set of 382 stairs, but there is a small shuttle bus for those who need it – we happily took advantage of the shuttle with our luggage. Our lovely Airbnb host Simona met us and took us to our home for the next five nights. It was so perfect. The town is tiny and full of beautiful views and old buildings and delicious food. Our favorite grocer made tagliatelle for us even though, as a good Northern Italian, he was appalled that we were putting a homemade arrabiata on his fresh pasta instead of his pesto. We had a bit of fine dining at Mananan (reservations verrrrrry required — it’s a tiny place with a ton of demand, though we were able to get our reservation just a day before). We also had (at least three times though should have been more) the best gelato either of us have ever had at Alberto’s.Collage Corniglia

We were really in the Cinque Terre for the hiking, though, and it was lovely. Corniglia is in the middle of the five towns: Manarola and Riomaggiore to the south and Vernazza and Monterosso al Mare to the north. There are basically two trails — the popular trail that follows the coast line and the national park trail in the hills above — that link the cities. Because the coast line is almost entirely slate cliffs, landslides are common and cut off the lower trail. Throw in a little good old fashioned corruption, and those trails can stay closed for a good long time. While we were there, the trails between Corniglia, Manarola, and Riomaggiore were closed and apparently had been for some time. The train connects them all, too, as does a ferry that connects them all except Corniglia. Our plan was to combine all of those modes of transportation to take in all five towns while also doing a good amount of relaxing in our five days.Collage Hiking.jpg

We started with the hardest of the hikes the first day — up and over the hills above and between Corniglia and Manarola. It was hard, comparable we agreed to our hardest hike in Tusheti, although less than half the length. It was also incredibly beautiful, comparable to anything we have ever seen anywhere. Views of the beautiful Mediterranean Sea at every turn, with the lovely villages perched on the cliffs, and lighter crowds than than the lower paths. It took us through vineyards and gardens, tiny villages and isolated forests. Just simply lovely. And hard work. The next day we decided to relax in town. Melissa did some writing and drawing; Tom swam in the sea. The third day we took the train to and from Monterosso for a beach day. We rented chairs at one of the resorts, basked and swam and generally relaxed. The last full day we took the shore hike to Vernazza, and Tom continued on to Monterosso while Melissa took the train. We met there and boarded the ferry which took us past all five of the towns to Riomaggiore, where we explored and took the train home. In each town, we were guided by the Rick Steves guidebook that Simona shared with us in our Airbnb, helping us to understand the unique flavor of each town and find the best restaurants.

We’ve been trying to note the wines and food we’ve had along the way. Being Italy, we knew we were in for great food with which we are intimately familiar. We had wonderful pastas and pizzas all along the way. We were reminded that we definitely need to up our pesto game. The only foods that were new to us were a delightful and apparently traditional walnut sauce (different from a pesto) that was delicious on ravioli, and a nice and popular vegetable tart with potatoes and vegetables.Collage Food

The wine of the Cinque Terre is different than the wine in other parts of Italy. It’s mostly white wine, but they make a number of delicious reds as well. We never had what they are most famous for, sciacchetra, a super strong, super sweet wine.

Our last moments of this Italy trip were made a little manic when Simona knocked on the door late in the evening of our last night in Corniglia in order to let us know that there would be a train strike starting before our chosen train to Nice was scheduled to leave the next day, so we needed to be on a 7:20 train instead. She saved us. We got ourselves packed, to bed, and out the door to get to our next destination in plenty of time. It was a little sad to leave such a wonderful country so hurriedly, but this will not be the last we see of Italy.

Summer 2019: Bulgaria

Our route home from Bangalore this summer started in Armenia to see a friend, then Georgia because it was convenient from Armenia and sounded amazing. Our next stop was determined by Melissa’s desire to swim in the Black Sea, so Bulgaria it was! Our eight days in Bulgaria were less about doing and more about being, as we simply soaked up the charms of this ancient, fascinating culture.

We started with four days to relax in the Black Sea resort town of Varna. Our Airbnb was perfectly located on a quiet residential street just a short walk from the city center sights in one direction and the beautiful Sea Garden park and beach in the other direction. We explored the huge 2nd century Roman bath complex as well as the smaller 4th century one that replaced it. We marveled at the archaeology museum with relics back to the stone age and the well-told story of the successive cultures that have occupied the region. We loved the wine, enjoyed the shopska salad, and started each day with banitsa (a cheesy, flaky filo dough treat). And we spent one decadent afternoon in a shady cabana where we could sip our drinks while gazing at the beautiful sea.

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From Varna we took the train through dozens of fields of sunflowers to Plovdiv, the current European Capital of Culture and a delightful place to explore. Its tangle of curving streets and hills made it confusing to navigate, but while lost we happened upon ancient excavations and stunning revival architecture so didn’t mind a bit. In retrospect, we wished we’d spent more time in Plovdiv, or, at the very least, arranged our trip to allow us to see a concert in the ancient Roman theatre that hosted an opera the night before we arrived and a jazz symphony the day we left. Plovdiv had better food, better wine tasting, and even more amazing Roman ruins than Varna.

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We finished our time in Bulgaria with about 24 hours in Sofia – not nearly enough! We thought it would just feel like any other European city, but it definitely has its own character, with incredible parks and pedestrian streets, spectacular religious buildings (from one square you can see a mosque, a synagogue, a Catholic cathedral, and an Eastern Orthodox church – all of them architectural masterpieces), charming cafes, and Roman ruins everywhere. Add some wonderful wine tasting and we were smitten, fantasizing about moving there some day. Who knows what the future holds?

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The food in Bulgaria is definitely not vegetarian-centric. On our way in to Varna, we asked our cab driver what traditional Bulgarian dishes we should eat, but when we told him we are vegetarian, he said, “Oh, that’s tough. There aren’t any.” While he wasn’t far off, the shopska salad, when done well, is delicious. It is basically the basic Indian green salad of cucumber, tomato, and onion, but with roasted bell pepper and a salty cow cheese, and usually with tomatoes oozing with flavor. Banitsa was delightful in all of its forms, including a very spanakopita-like version. Varna’s restaurants are meh. We went to one highly regarded restaurant, Di Wine, which was good enough, maybe better if you eat meat, but most of the restaurant scene is very much centered around the resort-ness of it all, not foodies. We went to two great restaurants in Plovdiv, Hemingway and Smokini.

Collage Foods of Bulgaria
Foods of Bulgaria

Bulgaria was the third country of our trip to claim to be the first to make wine. The most amusing piece of this story came in one of the museums, where the story of wine in Bulgaria included a statement that while we all know wine has been made in Bulgaria for 7,000 years, the only hard evidence we have takes it back 6,000 years. That 6,000 year timeframe happens to be how far back wine has been made in Armenia and Georgia, as well. The history of wine in Bulgaria is checkered by the Soviet era, when Bulgarian wines supplied most of the Soviet Union (of which Bulgaria was not an official part despite two applications to become so), when quantity became more important than quality. At our tasting in Sofia, we asked about the transition back to quality, and our host insisted that they are still working on that transition. We tried to stick to Bulgarian wine in each restaurant, including a full-on tasting at The Sea Terrace in Varna. We also visited Dragomir winery in Plovidiv and a wine store that pours tastes in Sofia. We fell in love with several uniquely Bulgarian types: Melnik, Mavrud, and Rubin, a cross-breed between Nebbolio and Syrah. All in all, there is a lot of really high quality wines in Bulgaria.

Collage Wines of Bulgaria
Wines of Bulgaria

Bulgaria felt like a bit of a risk in our planning, a little bit off the beaten path of the traditional tour. It is an amazing country. Now we’re off to Italy!

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.