Three Fabulous Days in Jaipur

Jaipur is a truly magical city, steeped in history and filled with beauty. This was Melissa’s second visit to Jaipur, but Tom, Julie, and Meagan got to experience it all for the first time. With so much to see and understand, and a fair amount of distance to traverse, we opted for a driver and guide on our first day. We started off with the impressive Jantar Mantar, an 18th century astronomical/astrological installation created by Maharaja Jai Singh who was also the founder of Jaipur and the creator of four similar Jantar Mantars in other parts of India. These instruments are accurate within 2 seconds and can be used by astrologers when calculating birth charts, very important here in India when people are making major decisions about things like marriage or business opportunities.Jantar Mantar

From there we headed to the nearby City Palace, part of which is still occupied by the royal family and part of which is a lovely museum. It was initially constructed in the early 18th century, but has been expanded by successive generations, each creating their own beautiful courtyards, gardens, or reception halls. It’s truly stunning.City Palace

The City Palace was by no means our only palace of the day! We also stopped at the Water Palace which can only be viewed from afar and the Hawa Mahal – not truly a palace, but a place from which the royal ladies could observe activity on the street while maintaining purdah which requires that women’s faces be hidden from strangers.

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The amazing Hawa Mahal, or Palace of the Winds, where women could be concealed while watching the street.

Then we finished with the Amber Palace, a true marvel. The Amber Palace was constructed from marble and red sandstone during the 16th century, but was then expanded by further generations, as is typical. Sitting high on a hill, it is also called Amber Fort in acknowledgment that palaces were places of protection, occupied by the military as well. It’s easy to see why this location with its sweeping vistas would be selected as an easily defensible location. Inside the walls, though, it is stunning with carved columns, mirror mosaics, and painted ceilings everywhere. We loved it and could easily have spent many hours there is we weren’t so eager for our next stop: Elefantastic.

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Elefantastic was recommended by a friend of Julie’s and we’re so glad we learned about it in time to incorporate it into our visit! It was started by a 4th generation mahout, or elephant tender, whose early years had been spent in the family business of providing elephant transportation up the long hill to Amber Palace. Rahul inherited the elephants from his father and decided that he wanted to do something different. He loved these animals and respected them, and wanted to give them happy lives. Walking up and down a steep hill all day with tourists on one’s backs does not equal a happy life. He instead created an elephant sanctuary where he continues to care for his family elephants as well as elephants that have been adopted from rescue organizations that remove them from abusive circuses and zoos. With 24 animals to care for, tourism is essential – they eat a LOT which requires steady income. As a tourist at Elefantastic, though, you don’t ride the elephants. Rather, you commune with the elephants. We got to hang out for a while with 3 elephants who were very happily enjoying some sugar cane. They were unrestrained in any way and seemed to enjoy being scratched and hugged. As the afternoon light started to fade, we headed out on a walk around the grounds with a huge, gentle 52-year-old elephant. Rahul told us that no one in his family thought it was a good idea to create a sanctuary instead of a transportation business, but it’s working. Our visit was peaceful and awe-inspiring. We love elephants even more now, if that’s possible.

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Our second day was a bit less jam-packed. We started with a visit to the City Museum, which is housed in a stunning building and filled with art and antiquities. We then headed out on a walk through the bustling, chaotic streets of old town, where we got to admire dozens of colorful storefronts always trailed by the cacophony of the vendors: “Hello, Maa’m! Come in, Ma’am!” “Beautiful pashminas, Ma’am!” “Sir, it’s free to look! Come in!” We resisted all invitations, opting to just take it all in, before going on a little shopping spree at Anokhi, full of lovely hand block-printed clothing.Jaipur City museum

Our third day in Jaipur took us out of the city in search of Bhangarh, the ruins of a 16th century town, rumored to be haunted. We encountered no ghosts, but did revel in the palpable history around us, as well as stunning desert scenery.

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We had two delightful dinners in Jaipur – the first at the Peacock Rooftop Restaurant at the Hotel Pearl Palace – very tasty food and such a pleasant environment; the second at Peshawri at the ITC Rajputana – a fancy and delicious meal to celebrate Melissa’s dad’s 74th birthday. He would have loved it.

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Jaipur is such a stunning city with so much to see and admire. It might have been hard to leave if we weren’t so excited to move on the Ranthambhore in hope of seeing tigers.

Bihar: The Ancient Center of Buddhism and Learning

We’ve said it many times before: India is a land of contradiction. No where is that more clear than in Bihar, where Melissa has been working one week every month for the past year, which she wrote about last year and will certainly write about again soon. Tom was finally able to visit just after Thanksgiving when her November and December weeks kept her in Patna over a weekend. We were able to do some of the touristy things Melissa has never had the time to do, seeing, experiencing, and learning about the rich and vital history of the region while at the same time witnessing the extraordinary poverty and trying to reconcile Melissa’s experiences in the hospitals and what we all hear about the state with what really should be the pride of all of India.

We had two major goals over the weekend: experience and ponder the Bodhi Tree where Siddhartha Gautama attained enlightenment and became the Buddha, and tour Nalanda University, thought to be the first residential university in the world. These utterly unique sites illustrate two elements that represent the very best of India: The rich religious tapestry which includes the birth of four of the world’s great religions, Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, and Sikhism, an important element in the history of a fifth, Islam, as well as untold numbers of other faiths, from Baha’i on down to very personal, individualized faith communities; and the historical priority placed on education.

The British Raj wreaked havoc on the entire subcontinent, but no where more so than in Bihar. What had once been the bread basket of all of India was ravaged, both by the British insistence that farmers plant indigo and opium to be sold in China and Europe profiting exclusively the  East India Company, and by the British jealousies of Indian products, industrial and agricultural, which inspired the Raj to forbid Indian producers to compete with British products. The result was the death of the soils of Bihar, which led to Bihar now being the poorest state in India, and instead of all Indians taking pride in Bihar’s role in making India what it is, many Indians will say things such as, “India would be better off if Bihar weren’t part of it.”

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All over Bihar, this seems to be just how one rides the bus.

After a night in Patna, our first stop was Bodh Gaya, where Buddha attained enlightenment. We loved the temple complex that surrounds the Bodhi Tree. Being one of the most important religious sites in the world, and with our experiences with crowds elsewhere in India we expected throngs of people and the chaos that comes with them. What we found instead was indeed a very peaceful spot, with many people paying respects to be sure, but it is so well organized that there were all kinds of peaceful spots to sit and contemplate. People were paying their respects in all kinds of ways, from sitting in meditation and prayerful circumambulation, to one man who made at least two complete circuits while we were there, lying prone on the ground, placing a marigold flower at his head, standing, then stepping forward to the marigold, then lying prone again, and repeating, all the way around the tree and the temple next to it, an act of devotion that was inspiring to watch. According to the story of Buddha’s enlightenment, Siddhartha Gautama spent seven weeks in meditation on the site, each week in a different spot before attaining enlightenment under the Bodhi Tree. Each one of those places is marked as its own place of reflection.

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Cameras and phones aren’t allowed in the Bodhi Tree temple, so here we are at the nearby Great Buddha Statue.

Surrounding the temple itself are a number of Buddhist seminaries representing sects from around the world as well as monuments constructed by those various sects. The most impressive we experienced was The Great Buddha Statue, erected by the Daijokyo Buddhists of Japan and consecrated by the Dalai Lama in 1989. It is surrounded by 10 disciples demonstrating the various mudras, or hand positions. It is stunning.

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Clockwise from upper left: carvings surrounding one of the temples, the feet of the 80 foot standing Buddha statue, the typical courtyard, with monks’ cells around the edges and a platform for addressing them in the middle, and Melissa made Tom pretend he was teaching at the monastery.

After taking in the center of the Buddhist world, it was time to see what used to be the center of the academic world. So central that Siddhartha Gautama himself studied there. The ruins at Nalanda University weren’t from Gautama’s time — they date back to the fifth century CE, while Gautama studied there in the third century BCE. As a result, much of the iconography and temples are dedicated to the Buddha with some shout out to the Vedic texts and traditions (which would later be the foundation of Hinduism) Gautama himself was there to study. At its height in the fifth to twelfth centuries CE, it supported 10,000 students and 2,000 teachers as well as the surrounding community required to sustain such a large institution. The site was excavated starting in 1915, and the result is a complex that includes several temples, the ruins of the living quarters of the monks, and the site of what was once the largest library in the world. It is clear by the number of school groups who were there on a Sunday that it is clearly an important site for those who live nearby. Even with the crowds, our favorite temple was set apart, and therefore had fewer people, where the feet of what had been an 80 foot standing Buddha remains. It was overwhelming.

Across the street from the archaeological site is the Archaeological Museum. It’s a small museum but dedicated entirely to artifacts found in Nalanda, and it was established from the early days of the dig. The pieces run the gamut from Buddhist iconography and Hindu images to coins and other secular pieces. The school groups also took a trip through the museum, meaning we had those moments of being the most interesting thing in the room to these kids who act as if they had never seen people so ghostly pale as we are, even though that room had items thousands of years old representing the roots of their faiths.

We had some time before Tom had to catch his flight back to Bangalore, so we stopped off at the Bihar Museum, a brand new facility whose spaces were still being developed. There were several interesting exhibits on the history of Bihar which, as we’ve said earlier, is the history of India. There were some other interesting exhibits describing traditional crafts of the region. It will be interesting to see how they continue to develop the museum. The building itself is a lot closer to what we in the West expect out of museums than anything we’ve seen in Bangalore, which are often not at all temperature controlled, haphazardly equipped with fans to control air flow, have various levels of light control, and seemingly stuck into pre-existing spaces. The Bihar Museum is made up of intentional spaces with a strong attempt to control the climate for preservation purposes and quite successfully tells the stories they were trying to tell.

The museum is an example of an interesting thing we noticed in Patna in particular: there seemed to be a concerted effort to invest in public spaces. There are beautiful parks and a couple of very interesting museums. However, this is where the India as a land of contradictions thesis plays out. In the context of India, Patna is a small city, about the same population as the Portland Metro area. In addition to the pride one sees in those beautiful spaces, the garbage piles up, the slums are heartbreaking and everywhere, and most buildings seem in some level of disrepair. Melissa is discovering in her work that Bihar doesn’t necessarily need further national investment — it needs a culture shift. Corruption is present throughout India, but until the culture of corruption in Bihar is addressed, more investment will simply mean more corruption.

Bihar deserves better. It is the cradle of Indian culture, and as such Western culture has its roots in this state. The people are kind, and the landscape is breathtaking. We dream, along with our Bihari friends, of a day when all of India looks on Bihar with pride instead of the scorn it faces today.

Travels with Melissa’s Aunties

Linda and Sue arrive!

We love visitors – totally, completely love them. Not only do visitors let us revisit familiar places to see them with new eyes, but they also give us the excuse we need to visit unfamiliar places. Travels with Melissa’s aunts Linda and Sue reminded us just how big and exciting our city is, how gorgeous the Galle Face views are in Colombo, how fantastic the Mahabalipuram rock carvings are, and how delightfully French Pondicherry is. We got to love those places anew, and we got to explore some new places too!

While in Bangalore, Melissa took Linda and Sue to see the central market, Tipu Sultan’s Summer Palace, the Bangalore Fort and and the Big Bull Temple. All four of us got to enjoy a day in the Nandi Hills at Tipu Sultan’s Summer Fort and the Bhoga Nandeeshwara Temple.nandi-hills1

Our first stop out of Bangalore, took us to Colombo, Sri Lanka. We only stayed there for one night, but splurged on the beauty of the Galle Face Hotel, a historic site with beautiful ocean views and spectacular breakfasts.

Ah, the splendour of the Galle Face Hotel and the joy of putting your feet in the Indian Ocean for the first time!

While we had visited Galle with Rachel and Laurence last year, we hadn’t actually stayed in that charming old town – this time we spent two nights in the heart of Galle Fort and made the most of it: the sunset views from the wall, the historic buildings, the great shopping, and the kottu (amazing dish made from chopped up paratha and veggies). The Antic Guesthouse was the perfect base from which to relish it all.

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From Galle we headed to Yala National Park where we stayed at Cinnamon Wild, a jungle resort right on the edge of the park. We saw crocodiles in the lake, wild boar wandering around the grounds, and spectacular bird life everywhere. We were warned that leopards and elephants sometimes made their way down the resort’s paths and so were required to have an escort to get from our cabins to the main building where we ate after dark. Sadly, no such exciting thing happened while we were there, though. Our outings took us to the ruins of an ancient buddhist monastery that once housed 10,000 monks and on a safari where we saw many cool animals (but no leopards no matter how hard we tried to will them to appear).  It was all so enjoyable, sitting by the pool, watching the wildlife, sipping wine with a view of the lake, or just relaxing on our decks.

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It’s always hard to leave Sri Lanka, but we knew good times were ahead of us back in India. Last year we lingered in Mahabalipuram, but this year we made it an afternoon’s stop-off on the way to Pondicherry. The carvings are well worth the trip and easily viewed in a few hours, still arriving in Pondicherry in time for the evening promenade.

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Pondicherry was Tom’s last stop since he had to return to work (vacation is never long enough!), but Melissa and her aunties got to carry on to Rajasthan.

We arrived in Jodhpur and checked into our home for the night, although it turned out to be a spot we might not have chosen if we’d had a bit more information – it was far from the part of the city where all of the buildings are painted blue so we never got to see that. More of an issue, though, was the two flights of stairs to the room (not a favorite of Sue’s knee) and the fact that the restaurant didn’t serve anything that was sufficiently spice-free for Linda and Sue to enjoy it. A dinner of nothing but parathas only takes you so far. The next morning, we decided to find somewhere else to eat and discovered The Filos a mere 4 minute drive from our hotel. Such friendly service and delicious food – we highly recommend it for anyone traveling to Jodhpur! With only about 20 hours in Jodhpur, we couldn’t see much, but we did make it to Mehrangarh Fort. Mehrangarh is a 15th century palace carved into the cliffs overlooking the town and is a breath-taking marvel. It was a bit distressing, though, to see the handprints (some of them clearly of young girls) left by the fifteen wives of the Maharaja on their way to throw themselves on his funeral pyre, a practice known as Sati.

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After our delightful Filos breakfast, we were picked up Shayam who drove us 75 minutes into the desert to our next stop at Mihir Garh. Despite our intentions to drive straight there, we couldn’t resist a stop at an incredible place selling gorgeous textiles and other handicrafts of the region. We thought we’d be there for 30 minutes, but it turned into a nearly 2 hour spree. Poor Sue had tolerated as much shopping as she could stand at the end of the first hour and was practically begging Linda and Melissa to leave by the time we finally headed out of the store with plans already in place to return. We all agreed, though, that we found beautiful things. On the return trip, Linda and Melissa both ordered beautiful coats which we hope to see in San Diego along with all the other purchases.Textiles

Mihir Garh was amazing from start the finish. Melissa found a great deal online and proposed it to Linda and Sue, still thinking it might be an excessive splurge, but they were game! Everything about it was beautiful from the grounds to our rooms to our private pool, and everyone there was so kind. When we arrived, we felt like royalty with umbrellas carried by attendants to protect us from the sun as we walked through the entryway. At dinner, we met actual royalty when we were welcomed by the son of the current royal family who built the hotel. Everything there was designed by the family using products, handicrafts, and artisans from the area. This was a magnificent place to relax for a few days, reading books, drawing, and gazing out over the desert in between perfect meals by the pool.

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After a stop at the textiles place on the way back to Jodhpur, we boarded a train to Jaipur – every visit to India needs at least one train trip, right? In truth, sitting in the AC Chair Car is not so different from sitting in a standard Amtrak car back home, but it’s still pretty fun. We arrived in Jaipur after 9pm and were picked up by our hotel, the wonderful Pearl Palace Heritage. We expected to be somewhere a bit rustic, a bit basic, but still charming – well, it was plenty charming, but there nothing rustic or basic about it. Every room is decorated differently, every bit of hallway is ornamented, and we were in heaven. It was just a short walk to their sister property, the Pearl Palace, where Melissa and Linda had dinner at the Peacock Rooftop Restaurant the next night. They told us that they will be adding their own rooftop restaurant, swimming pool, and fitness center and I suspect that their prices will double when they’re done. Go now!Jaipur hotel

With only one full day to enjoy Jaipur, we hired a guide. We headed straight toward the Amber Palace, stopping off at the foot of its hill to admire an ancient stepwell before continuing on. It was a bit of a walk in a bit of a crowd, but with lots to look at. All was going well until we noticed that Sue was suddenly a bit green. The infamous Delhi belly had struck! She thought she’d be ok waiting for us in the first of the four levels so we found her a shady spot and Melissa and Linda continued on with the guide to see it all before leaving.Amber Fort

It was stunning, but our delay made for a stressful ride back to the hotel for Sue. Once she was safely in bed with the hotel staff racing around town to find ginger ale (so kind!), Linda and Melissa headed back out with the guide visit the Jaipur city palace and museum, the Jantar Mantar (18th century astronomical instruments built by the Maharaja in five sites around the region – Melissa and Jesse visited them in Delhi), view the water palace, and stop at yet another handicraft place where we saw gorgeous handmade carpets, among other things.

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The next morning, with Sue feeling a bit better, we started the drive to Agra, meeting up with a guide to take us to the Agra Fort. Although the Taj Mahal gets most of the Agra hype, the Agra Fort is pretty amazing. It’s huge and intricately ornamented (particularly the rooms built to house/imprison Shah Jehan who built the Taj Mahal, but was deposed by his son who wanted to protect the royal coffers from the plan to build a second Taj Mahal in black marble). From there, we got our first views of the Taj Mahal in the slightly hazy distance. In Agra, we opted for a charming homestay called the Coral Court, relatively close to the Taj Mahal which we planned to visit the next day for sunrise. On the downside, again two flights of stairs up to our room; on the upside, the kind staff served us dinner on the rooftop and we got mehendi (henna) on our hands!

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The next morning, Sue stayed at the hotel to continue her recovery (much to our sad dismay) while Linda and Melissa went to the Taj Mahal. Melissa was prepared to be underwhelmed after hearing so much hype for so many years, and was then completely awe-struck. Once you start taking pictures at the Taj Mahal, you can’t stop – every angle, every detail, every inch seems to warrant another photo, and then you need a few more because you know your photos simply aren’t doing it justice. What is there to say that hasn’t already been said? We’ll let the photos speak for themselves, even knowing that they undersell it.

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From there, all that remained was a drive to the airport in Delhi. No visit to India is ever long enough to see it all, but Linda and Sue certainly tried!

 

Dussehra 2018: Wine Weekend!

Back in the beginning of this adventure, back when we really had no idea what was in store for us, we made little games of thinking about the things we love doing back in Portland and whether or not we’d be able to do something similar in India. One of the first things Melissa found and said, “I want to go there!” was Nashik, the closest thing India has to a wine region, complete with the largest winery in India (Sula), the oldest winery in India (Grover Zampa, which we have visited in Bangalore), and a good number of small, up-coming wineries. After last year’s exciting and overwhelming Dussehra in Mysore, we thought it would be good to do something relaxing and low key, like finally going to Nashik.

Tom has been resistant to spending a lot of time in the big cities in India. We live in one, he says. I want my vacations to be different, he says. He finally relented and agreed to start our Dussehra vacation in Mumbai. We spent two days simply being in awe of a beautiful city. At the urging of our friends Aaron and Tamara, we sprang for a luxury hotel right in the heart of old Mumbai, the Taj Mahal Tower Hotel. It helped that our home base for the short stay was somewhere we never wanted to leave. After arriving, we had wine by the pool (where we discovered, again at the urging of a friend, this time Angelina, York winery and their delicious Arros, but more on that later). We had incredible breakfasts in the now-standard Indian fancy hotel breakfast buffet style. We ate dinner at Souk, which billed itself as “Lebanese” but was really all kinds of Eastern and Southern Mediterranean, and was AMAZING. We had a room that looked over the Gateway to India (more on that later, too). The staff couldn’t have been nicer, the room couldn’t have been more comfortable, and the setting couldn’t have been more beautiful. We are very very lucky.

The hotel is beautiful, but we were particularly impressed by its history. Aside from being the site of the 2008 terrorist attack, it has a really interesting story. Jamsetji Tata started a company, Tata, which is now India’s version of American corporations that have their hands in every bit of American life. Tata owns everything from Starbucks India and Tetley Tea to a huge car company and chemical companies. When, as an already-dominant industrialist, he was refused service at the fancy all-white hotels in the city then known as Bombay, he decided to open a hotel that was worthy of his great city, and wow did he ever. He put those damn Brits to shame. Like much of Mumbai, it takes from Hindu and Muslim design influences. I can’t find confirmation of it, but part of their story is that the Quit India Campaign worked out of the hotel.

For our one full day in Mumbai, we went on a bit of a self-guided, spontaneous walking tour of the fort and nearby waterfront neighborhoods. We started at the Gateway of India. This was completed in 1924 on a working pier in recognition of King George V and Queen Mary’s visit in 1911. Say what you will about the damage the Raj did to this country (and Tom will have a lot to say when he finishes the book he’s reading), but this is beautiful. It combines influences from Muslim, Hindu, and other faith traditions along with the European arch concept.

On our walk from there, one of our recurring bits of amazement was how different from Bangalore it felt. In particular, there is real care taken in how buildings look from the street. One of the first really sage and unexpected bits of advice we received when we first moved to Bangalore was to not judge a building or the businesses inside on the facade. People just don’t put energy in to the exteriors of most buildings, and there seems to be no effort (except in a couple of exceptional parts of town) put in to any kind of neighborhood look. There might be a blah, dirty, a little bit crumbling looking building on the outside housing a crazy fancy mall or restaurant. That’s not so in the parts of Mumbai through which we walked. Buildings are beautiful, and even modern buildings seem to respect the history of the place. The market is clean and organized. The Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya (a vast museum) had an incredible variety of well-curated collections. We could have done without the thick pollution, and our timing at the waterfront could have been better (we hit it in the middle of a sun-soaked day), but it was an enlightening and fun day in a beautiful city.

Then we were off to Nashik. In addition to Angelina’s insistence that we try York winery, we also had advice from our friend Ashi, a native of the region. The result of all of the advice was a pretty much perfect weekend. Even the bit that we didn’t plan turned out to be lovely. Melissa booked us at a Sula property called Beyond, but we got word that we were going to be bumped for the first of the three nights to their larger, more popular property nearby, The Source. The room was disappointing, but we had a lovely dinner at Little Italy, and a tour of the winery was included. Two things jumped out at us at Sula. It is the most popular wine in India, but we had never been excited about it. Melissa likes their Dindori, but Tom isn’t in love with it. We had some really tasty wines. In particular, the Rasa Cabernet Sauvignon and the Brut Tropicale. Yummy. Also, it struck us that, as the largest winery in India, it was comparable in size to the small, family-owned wineries we toured in Rioja this past summer. It’s just another reminder how young and emerging the wine industry is in India.

A Sula driver took us to Beyond, where we intended to stay all along. We had kind of left the details of how extensively we’d tour wineries until we got there, depending on how much time we might want to spend lounging. The moment we got there, we realized that lounging would be a priority. It is a small property in the middle of farms, looking out over a lake, with only nine or ten units. It was quiet and lovely and private. We arrived early enough on Friday that we decided we’d walk to the near-by wineries and spend all day Saturday decompressing, Tom from 3 months working in Bangalore and Melissa from her very busy recent travel schedule.

20181019_144506Beyond is situated at what felt like the end of an idyllic little country road with a couple of wineries interspersed along the way. On the way in, we spotted a little cheese maker, too. We walked the 3 km to the farthest stop, York Winery, the wine that Angelina suggested and we discovered our first night in Mumbai. It was perfect. Lovely setting, comfortable tasting room, charming fellow pouring the tastes, and delicious wine. Unfortunately, because of the state-by-state nature of taxation rules in India, they have yet to sell in Karnataka, Bangalore’s state. But wow. Fabulous. They are doing something a little different than other wineries here. We keep mentioning how young the wine industry here is. Most young wineries here grow their own grapes and develop their wines as their grapes mature. This often means that they’re making wine from vines that haven’t had enough time to develop the complexity that makes a really great wine. York is also growing their own grapes, but they are mastering the wine making process using grapes they know are good. As a result, they are making really really good wine, and by the time their grapes are ready for production, they will know how to bring out the best in them.

Then we walked back to Beyond making two more stops. First was the little cheesemaker we spotted near York. They made cheese that was ok, nothing we got excited about, but the experience was a kick. The tasting was done in the living room of the cheesemaker, and he was so excited about the cheese he made. We shared the experience with a nice couple that had been on the wine tour at Sula, making it all that more pleasant.

Our last stop was at Soma, unrelated to the Soma Vineyards near Bangalore we have written about. The best part of this visit was our conversation with the owner and winemaker. The wines he made were definitely not our thing. He also was so excited about his wines and to talk to us. Unfortunately, we believe he is making a very important mistake. He was most excited about the new wines he was introducing every year. This year, it is a pinot noir, which confirmed for us that pinots don’t grow in this very hot, crazy wet when it’s wet and crazy dry when it’s dry climate. We very much wanted to implore him to master a single grape. Find the one that grows the best in Nashik (we are more and more convinced that Cabernet Sauvignon is it — if India could make itself into the Cab Sauv center as the Willamette Valley has done with pinot, they’d be on their way), master it, shape the Indian wine palate accordingly, then start branching off. Instead, he’s making a dozen different wines, none of which did anything for us.

Then the rest of the weekend was spent reading, writing, and playing at Beyond. Fine meals, tasty wines, nice staff. We couldn’t have asked for more. It was exactly what we wanted. The only final hiccup was a cancelled train to Mumbai and getting overcharged by the cab we hired to get us to the plane, but that stuff happens. Because India. Also, we saw beautiful things, met wonderful people, and relaxed hard. Because India.

 

Melissa’s Musings: Travels with My Brother

In June 1966, my mother graduated from UC Berkeley and my father graduated from Dartmouth College in New Hampshire. Each, for their own reasons, joined the 5-year-old Peace Corps, and met during Peace Corps training over the summer. My mom was quickly romantically involved with another volunteer and my dad was eager to remain unencumbered, but when her relationship with the other guy fizzled and their friendship strengthened, it was only a matter of time before they got together. While they started out as a casual couple, the surprise of my impending arrival sped things up dramatically. After a quick wedding in Delhi, and a honeymoon around India by train, they were invited by the Peace Corps to make their way back to the US in Spring 1968.

I may not have been born in India, but I’ve always known that if not for India, I would not exist. My brother and I were raised on stories of cobras and tarantulas, cement block houses and outdoor “toilets,” and stunning scenery and temples. Our home was always filled with Indian art and deities. And every celebration or consolation dinner was Indian food. I have always felt a need to see it for myself.

Flash forward 50 years, and I am living in India, reading my parents’ journals and20180930_064424 letters, and preparing to travel with my visiting brother. Jesse and I decided to meet in Delhi, which he would reach after a direct 16-hour flight from San Francisco, and spend a few days exploring the Capitol. We would then go to the villages in Haryana where our parents lived in the 60’s, and finish the northern part of our journey in Chandigarh, India’s attempt in the 1950’s to create a city of the future for the newly liberated nation. Jesse and I would then make our way to Bangalore so he could see a bit of my life in India before we went to Mysore for a day and Kabini for 3 more days in hopes of seeing wildlife. With only two weeks away from home, we did our best to cram in as much as possible. It was great.

My expectations for Delhi were simultaneously very high and very low. I expected it to somehow feel familiar from my parents stories, and I was excited to see a hotel frequently mentioned in their journals and another hotel where they had their wedding reception. I also expected it to be hot, filthy, chaotic, and gray. The reality was a little different. I loved Delhi – it’s beautiful and green and felt so much less chaotic than Bangalore (people drive in lanes!); the monuments are stunning and the sense of history is truly pervasive; and the people were warm and kind, if occasionally a bit bossy (from a random stranger who stopped to ask us where we were going: “No. You should not go there now. It is not safe during the demonstration. You should go there later and do this other thing now. Get into this rickshaw right now.”). It was also difficult to feel my parents in a place that has changed and grown so dramatically since their time there. From a city of 3 million, it has become a city of over 25 million. It’s hard to imagine what it must have been like 50 years ago, although much of the architecture is still there.

Our trip to Delhi coincided with Gandhi Jayanti, an annual celebration of Gandhi’s life and teachings – this would have been great if it hadn’t also meant that most things were closed on Tuesday with short hours on Sunday and Monday. Still, we saw a lot. It felt appropriate to start out with a visit to Gandhi Smriti (Memorial) where he spent the last 144 days of his life as well as being the site of his assassination. It’s a lovely museum and a beautiful tribute to the man.

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Unfortunately the site of his cremation and the eternal flame of remembrance was closed off to the public to ensure security for the VIPs traveling from around the country. We opted for a visit to the Jantar Mantar instead – a sundial built by the Maharaja in the early 18th century.Jantar Mantar

To be sure we missed nothing essential, we opted for a day-long tour that was truly fabulous. We saw the Jama Masjid (where we wished we’d sprung for the few hundred rupees to bring our cameras inside with us), took a rickshaw ride through Old Delhi, visited Humayun’s Tomb, drove past the Red Fort (apparently it’s better from the outside), went to the Qutub Minar, and finished our tour with the Sri Bangla Sahib Gurudwara.

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At the close of our day tour, our driver kindly dropped us at the Oberoi Maidens Hotel. Luckily we had mentioned to our tour guide that we wanted to go to the Oberoi Hotel where our parents used to go for dinner and dancing in the 1960’s. He helpfully told us that the Oberoi we had identified was less than 10 years old and that the one we wanted was usually called the Maidens Hotel and was in a completely different part of the city. Whew! It was a lovely evening drinking in the bar that they surely frequented and eating western food on the terrace which they surely did.Oberoi Maidens Hotel

For our last day, Gandhi Jayanti, there was no reason to leave the hotel in the morning as absolutely everything was closed, but we went in the afternoon to the Lodhi Gardens which could not have been more beautiful.Lodhi Gardens

And that evening, we went to dinner at the Imperial Hotel. I had contacted an old PeaceImperial Hotel Corps friend of my parents to see if he knew where they had been married. He wasn’t sure about that detail all these years later, but he remembered the reception at the Imperial. What an incredible old hotel! And a little magical to imagine our parents walking the same halls on their wedding night.

The next day started the second leg of our trip, taking us into Haryana. This part of our trip was loosely planned with great potential for awkwardness. We knew we wanted to see the villages where our parents had lived, but knew nothing about these places today. Knowing that most Indian buildings are built from local materials with no intention that they should last for more than 50 years, we expected that their homes would be gone – but even if they were still there, their journal entries were too vague to offer landmarks that would help us find them so we decided to just go wander in these strange places and see what happened. We hoped the driver that I’d hired for the next few days would speak English well enough to help us communicate, but his English was limited and he seemed baffled by our desire to go to these non-tourist sites.

Over the next three days, we visited four villages: our mother’s initial placement of Nilokheri and her final home in nearby Kurukshetra, and our father’s initial placement of Samrala (just over the border into Punjab to the north) and his final placement in Madlaude which was much closer to our mom’s villages. Their villages had always been described to us in rustic terms that were nearly unimaginable to American children. They lived in buildings made of cement blocks or mud that had steel sheets for roofs and open windows without glass, there was no indoor plumbing so they used the fields in lieu of toilets and got water from a well, they had no or little electricity and their cooks made meals for them over actual fires. Even knowing how far India has progressed in 50 years, I still sort of expected to see life in these villages looking the same. I certainly didn’t expect to see bustling, prosperous towns of 20-30 thousand people, but that’s what we found.

 

In each town, we walked for about 20 minutes, looking for something that felt old enough to have been there in the 60’s to anchor us to the old stories and sentiments. As we walked, people stared and sometimes followed us. In two towns, we were stopped for happy selfies, including one where I was asked to take pictures using my phone even though they knew they’d never have them themselves.

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To make the most of our time in Haryana, we also looked for interesting sites nearby and definitely found them! Jesse’s research led us to the Panipat museum. We had no idea20181003_130017 what to expect from this museum because online info is minimal and vague. While it seemed worth trying anyway, I questioned the wisdom of that as we drove around twisty dirt roads before entering a fenced area where a group of men eyed us suspiciously. Once inside, though, we knew we’d found a gem. It was hot and dusty and filled with ancient artifacts – tools, pottery, coins, art – and was amazingly well curated in English. The man who worked at the museum followed us on our tour, turning on lights and ceiling fans as we entered rooms, clearly so proud of his museum and delighted to show it to us. We were not, however, permitted to take photos inside so if you’re curious about the impact of the three battles for Panipat or how people lived during each of those eras, you’ll have to visit yourself.

Kurukshetra turned out to be a highlight of the trip. This is an area of enormous historical and religious significance. It is in the heart of the Indus-Gangetic Plain, one of the ancient cradles of civilization, and it is where the principle battle of the Mahabarata was fought and where Krishna’s guidance to Arjuna on the eve of battle was documented as the Bhagavad Gita. The town gets its name from King Kuru, an ancestor of the Pandavas and Kauravas of the Mahabarata and is frequently mentioned in the ancient puranas. You can truly feel history here. We walked around the Brahma Sarovar, a giant reservoir that locals say has always been there and was a gift from Brahma. We then visited the Sri Krishna Museum, which was outstanding – it’s huge and filled with 5,000-year-old artifacts, tons of historical info, and a series of dioramas that take you through the story of the Mahabarata in powerful detail. Much like the Panipat museum, we headed that way feeling unsure or whether this would be worth the time, and were then even more overwhelmed and awe-struck. This museum alone should be a peak tourist destination. We spent 2 1/2 hours there and could have stayed all day! After the museum, we went to Sheikh Cheili’s tomb, absolutely beautiful, but with no information in English. Still, some things are beautiful even without context. Lastly, we went to the Jyotisar Tree, one of the holiest sites in the area, where Krishna is said to have delivered his sermon of the Bhagavad Gita. We expected more fanfare here and were a bit surprised to just see a lovely old banyan tree with a very small temple.

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We stayed at the Noor Mahal in Karnal and could not have been happier. It’s a really beautiful hotel, full of antiques and gorgeous details, with delicious restaurants and traditional music in the evenings. I would recommend it to anyone looking to visit this region.Noormahal

This leg of the trip ended in Chandigarh, a city built in the 1950’s, designed by Le Corbusier for the newly independent country striving to modernize. For students of urban planning, this would be an great visit. For us, it was peaceful spending time on Sukhna Lake, and we got a kick out of the super quirky rock garden (a labor of love built by one man who continues to tend it), but we probably could have skipped it.Sukhna Lake

Then on to a brief visit to Bangalore. Tom and I were a bit disappointed to take Jesse to a surprisingly mediocre MTR experience – we were in the back room, ignored, and told that the food we wanted wasn’t available, only to see it served to the table next to us. We’ll return, but we’ll go earlier and be fussier about where we sit. Then we wandered around Lal Bagh (for monkey viewing), Tipu Sultan’s Summer Palace, the Bangalore Fort, and the beautiful Hindu temple next door. That evening, we attempted to have dinner at Burma Burma, but arrived to late for the first seating and were told that we’d have to wait an hour. Happily Fatty Bao was just down the street and able to seat us immediately for a very tasty pan-asian meal.Scenes from Bangalore

The next morning, Jesse and I took the train to Mysore. After checking in to the Southern Star, we walked to the Mysore Palace, always a magnificent site. En route, we were stopped by a rickshaw driver for a uniquely Indian experience – he struck up a conversation in a super friendly manner, and then told us that we shouldn’t go to the palace until 4pm when we could see the elephant pooja, and should instead go with him to a handicraft market. We told him we didn’t want to do that and he proceeded to drive along side us down the street, becoming increasingly aggressive until we finally lost him at the palace gates. After seeing the palace, we went in search of the 4pm elephant pooja and learned that there is no such thing. Hmmm . . .

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Despite that earlier experience, we decided to give in to the next friendly, insistent rickshaw driver and let him take us to a part of town where people are actually engaged in heritage crafts. I was ready to be disappointed, so was particularly delighted by what we saw. At one shop, men were actually creating the gorgeous wooden inlay tables that I always admire in stores. We then watched a man making bidis, small cigarettes – sitting on the floor of his room, his fingers fly and he makes up to 2,000 of them per day. And then we went to a family run essential oil and incense shop that has been in business for 80 years. The smell was a bit overpowering, but it was pretty cool nonetheless. We finished by going to a handicraft shop (perhaps the one that our first driver was so eager to deliver us to) and did some very successful shopping.

The next day, we were off to Red Earth in Kabini, an eco-resort that manages to be simultaneously luxurious and attuned to nature. Not only are they sensitive to the ecosystem, building from all natural materials and growing all of the produce served in the restaurant, but they’re also sensitive to the local community with 98% of the staff coming from the local villages and tribes. The food was great, the surroundings were heavenly, our hut was amazing, the staff were kind, and we had a lovely time.

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The only disappointment was learning that it is impossible to go on a jeep safari from Red Earth and that our only option would be a 26-seat canter. In the previous months, I had contacted them repeatedly about our desire for a jeep safari and was always told that they were first come first served and could not be guaranteed. I was pretty disappointed to then learn that they had never been a possibility in the first place. We went on the canter and enjoyed seeing langurs, deer, elephants, mongooses (mongeese?), and a sloth bear, but were disappointed that the tiger that had recently headed into the brush with her three cubs did not reemerge after the kids on our big bus made a ruckus. Still, I would recommend Red Earth heartily if you just want a stunning place to relax, or if you’re going with a big group and want to all go together on a canter.

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Our trip ended quietly, back in Bangalore with dinner at home and an early flight the next morning. I’m so grateful that I got to share India with my brother, and complete a trip that I’d imagined for my whole life. And I think it would have made our parents very happy.

Melissa’s Musings: On Turning 50

Today I am 50 years old. I am 50. I’ve been saying it like a mantra, a phrase to ward off any descent into petty concerns and trivialities. I am 50. I am older than many people ever have the privilege to be and I am truly proud of having lived so long and seen so much and learned so very many hard lessons.

Today I think of my dad who never saw 50 and missed so much of what he might have done and become. With him in mind, I am determined to make the most of my life and continue to evolve. I think of my mom, widowed with MS and determined to take charge of her life at 50. With her in mind, I will face challenges with confidence and remember to say “yes” as often as possible. I think of my grandmother, 50 years old when I was born and celebrating her 100th birthday this past July. With her in mind, I will remember that while life is short and opportunities need to be seized, sometimes it’s also long and a bit of planning is not a bad idea.

I want this milestone to matter. Sure, I could say, “age is just a number” or “I’m only one day older than I was yesterday” or “you’re only as old as you feel.” But I don’t want to minimize my new age – I want to embrace it. Each decade of my life life has been better than the last and I firmly believe my 50’s will be better yet. I will own my lessons of letting go, finding patience, and standing up for things that matter. I will put love first. I will think less about my face, and more about the thoughts behind it. I will focus less on what my body looks like and more on what it can do. I will pursue challenges because I know I am up to facing them. And I will look for joy and laughter around every corner, and seek beauty wherever I can find it.

When I turn 60, I will look back and say, “Yes, the 50’s were my best decade yet! Now, what incredible wonders are next?”

 

Melissa’s Musings: Reentry

Returning to India is so very different from arriving in India for the first time. Last August, we were equally thrilled, shocked, and frightened. This year, there is no fear, the shocks are few, and the thrills are just what we make of our opportunities. In this same period of time last year (5 weeks), we wrote 27 blog posts! On one hand, I wish we were still so prolific with our blog, but on the other hand I recognize that burst of writing was reflective of the fact that I was completely lost and struggling to fill my days. Now my days seems to fill themselves.

In our first five weeks back in India, we have lived a very full life. We have gone to three wildly decadent Sunday brunches, and out to eat at many of our favorite restaurants. Thanks to Five Oceans, we have gone on a tour of a dhobi (or washerman) community, and I have gone on a market tour and an architecture tour as well as a lecture and workshop on hand block-printing. We have cooked some lovely meals at home, and enjoyed dinners alone and with friends. I have spent one week on a hospital site visit in Bihar and am preparing for more to come. I have conducted interviews with three fascinating people for the book I’m writing with friends about Bangaloreans. I have started a walking group for the Overseas Women’s Club and attended a couple OWC coffee meetings. I attended a Shanti Bhavan fundraiser,  recruited mentors for the Shanti Bhavan Mentoring Program, and conducted reference checks for potential mentors. And I’ve spent countless hours in front of my computer planning for upcoming visits from my brother Jesse, my aunts Linda and Sue, and my sister-in-law Julie and niece Meagan, as well as our Dusshera trip to Mumbai/Nashik and winter trip to Hampi. Whew!

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It’s amazing to me to think that a year ago, I was lost, trying to figure out who I was without a job, how to dress myself in this different culture, where to shop and what to eat, and how to fill so many hours of every day . . . and now I have this incredibly full and exciting life filled with people I enjoy, places I love to visit, and work that I find rewarding and meaningful. What a difference a year makes.