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.

 

 

Visiting Kashmir

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

20190601_102101
The view from the hotel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The morning sun hits the houseboats across the lake

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Spring Break 2019

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

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

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Chinese fishing nets

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

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

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Kittens at our homestay!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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beautiful Villa Maya before catching our flight home.

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

Winter Adventures, 2019

We have been extraordinarily blessed with visitors during our time in Bangalore. We also have taken full advantage of Tom’s vacations, experiencing as much of the amazing diversity India and Sri Lanka have to offer as we can possibly fit in to what is suddenly feeling like a short amount of time. For our 2018-19 Winter Vacation, we got to revel in both visitors and amazing India. Our sister/sister-in-law Julie and niece Meagan made the trek around the world to spend the holidays with us, including Christmas. It was a little bit of home and family at a time of the year when we miss both tremendously. Together we explored ancient sites, Wonders of the World, crafts in the making.

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Meagan and Julie at Bangalore Fort

We started vacation with a few days showing Julie and Meagan around our lives in Bangalore. As with most international flights, they arrived in Bangalore crazy early in the morning, and after giving them time for a quick nap and some mango jammers, our goal was to keep them awake and be out in the light. We took a tour of the Canadian International School and a walk through our neighborhood, Malleshwaram. We capped off the day with a nice home cooked meal thanks to our once-a-week cook, Bharti. The next day we took them on the now-familiar tour of our favorite sites in Bangalore — Mavalli Tiffin Room, LalBagh Botanical Gardens, Tipu Sultan’s Summer Palace, and KR Market. Intermixed in all of that was some serious Ticket to Ride playing, but we promised Meagan we wouldn’t disclose the results . . .

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Tom and Julie in a tuk tuk between sites in Bangalore.

It was wonderful having them see our lives for a few days. We have a hard time describing it to people who haven’t been here, so it is always great to have people come and understand what it is we’re up to. On the other hand, Bangalore doesn’t have more than a couple of days of touristy things to experience, so after a little bit of shopping, we were off to the bulk of our vacation in Rajasthan.

 

We started our adventures in Jaipur, one corner of The Golden Triangle of India, where we toured forts, a medieval astronomical observatory, and a palace. Then we were off to our nature experience in Ranthambore National Park while staying in a tent-lodging resort. Next off to Bundi for our small town experience, and more forts and palaces. Then we were off to Agra, to experience the never disappointing Taj Mahal. We said good bye to Julie and Meagan in Delhi, where we spent a couple of days over the New Year, then off for the last few days of break in the ancient town of Hampi in our home state of Karnataka

It was an amazing trip, once again thanks to an incredible amount of work by Melissa. To try to keep these stories to a reasonable length, we’re separating out the various legs of the trip into separate posts. Please follow the links to read about the details of each place, or at least as many of the stories as you can bear. We always appreciate when you share our experiences with us. Thank you for taking the time to read.

Hampi

As soon as we learned about the UNESCO World Heritage site in Hampi last year, it moved to the top of our list of places to visit. And yet we kept putting it off because the logistics were daunting. Hampi is in Karnataka, the state where we live, but in a remote area reached by an eight hour car ride or a ten hour train. To make it even worse, there’s apparently nothing of interest to see along the way. And then they launched a direct flight to and from Bangalore. Suddenly it seemed possible! It was still a challenge to get there, requiring a very early morning flight from Delhi to Hyderabad, then getting our bags and changing airlines for the flight to Vijayanagar airport where we were picked up for the 45 minute drive to our hotel. We were there by early afternoon and immediately in heaven.

We decided to finish winter break with a ginormous splurge in this place that we were so excited to visit, and stayed at Evolve Back. This is the kind of place that would never feel like an option in our normal lives in America, but can be in reach (if we really stretch!) while here in India. Every detail of this place is perfect, from the luxurious room to the fabulous food to the educational tours. And everywhere we went, there were smiling, competent staff who truly seemed to enjoy their work. We wanted to see the fabled ruins of Hampi, but we also wanted some time to relax and reflect on the year that was and year to come. This was the perfect place for all of that.

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We took two separate tours while we were there, one with a small group and one with just the two of us. Our guide was amazing and taught us all about the monuments we were seeing and the history of the empires that occupied this place. There is evidence of people settled in this area as early as the 2nd century AD and references to Hampi in ancient texts, but it really began to blossom in the 11th century and hit its peak in the 14th-16th centuries when the Vijayanagar empire made Hampi its center. At its height, Hampi was one of the largest settlements in the world, second only to Beijing. In the mid-16th century, however, it was conquered by Muslim invaders who destroyed the temples by removing their idols and drove the people out. From that time on, it was abandoned.

The Archaeological Society of India has been working in recent years to uncover forgotten structures and restore the entire 16 square mile city. It’s a huge undertaking, but oh so worth it.

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When not gazing at historical buildings, we were awe-struck by the rocky, hilly terrain. It was so beautiful to behold.

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This was truly the perfect place to finish our perfect winter break.