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.”

Bus riders
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.

Buddha selfie
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.

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.

Summer Travels

There are many perks of our current overseas life (the challenges have been covered in other posts), and one of the perkiest perks is the chance to travel together during the summer. As a teacher, Tom is used to summers of freedom, but usually watches Melissa leave for work most mornings with time carved out for a short vacation together. This year was different. With seven weeks free for travel, we made the most of it!

The summer was carved into two distinct parts: joyful time with friends and family in the US and blissful travel in Spain. While in the US, we made the most of every opportunity to soak up love and feel the strength of our connections with people in Portland, Hood Canal, Seattle, and San Diego. We had solo dates with each of our nieces and nephews, we had high quality time with family and friends who are like family, we made an Indian feast for 30 people (with a lot of help!), we shared in the celebration of Melissa’s grandmother’s 100th birthday, and we ate at (almost) every restaurant we’ve missed. It was a truly wonderful time that reminded us how important it is to us to stay connected even from a great distance.

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Spain was everything we hoped it would be. We fell in love with Barcelona and now dream of somehow living there some day. The gorgeous Modernisme architecture, the feeling of history everywhere you go, the delicious tapas, the wonderful (and affordable) wine, the cafe culture in every plaza, and the beautiful Mediterranean Sea all beckon loud and clear. At the very least, we will return to see the completed Sagrada Familia in another eight to ten years – what a marvel! Other highlights of Barcelona included meandering through the magnificent Parc Guell, relaxing in plazas with glasses or pitchers of delicious sangria, visiting the Picasso Museum and the Fundacio Joan Miro, wandering the narrow alleys of the medieval Barri Gotic, eating at Monvinic and Disfrutar (the latter with two Michelin stars), and just generally reveling in the beauty around us. Armed with Rick Steve’s walking tours, we feel like we saw a good chunk of Barcelona.

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After a week in Barcelona, we headed to Logroño in the heart of La Rioja wine country. Our hotel was a beautifully restored medieval structure on the Camino de Santiago at the edge of Old Town. We spent a couple days wandering around the lovely old town, driving out into the gorgeous countryside, and going to the Vivanco Wine Museum – well worth the time.Vivanco

We miscalculated a bit when we thought we’d go see some wineries on Sunday, all of which were closed. Happily, though, we found that the Frank Gehry-designed Marques de Rizcal was open for a glass of wine in their visitor center, and we managed to then talk our way into the main building, usually closed to gawkers.Marques de Riscal

One evening, we joined in the touristy fun on Calle Laurel. Each place serves its special tapa and a glass of wine — choice of joven or crianza — for an astonishingly low price.IMG_0750 We enjoyed each treat at the bar or a standing table. We quickly started sharing so we could visit more places! Although the vast majority of them were not vegetarian friendly, we still managed quite a feast with spanish tortilla, vegetable tempura, a cheese plate, patatas bravas, and a queso fundido sandwich. The highlight of our time in La Rioja, though, was our two day tour with Rebeca and Robert of Rioja Like a Native. This coincided with our 7th anniversary and was a true treat.

After five nights in Rioja, we moved on to Girona, an ancient Roman city that was further developed during the Middle Ages. The city walls still stand, offering incredible views, and the crazy maze of narrow streets is a delight. One highlight was definitely a visit to the Jewish History Museum, located in the heart of the Jewish quarter that was destroyed by the inquisition at the end of the 15th century after previous centuries of persecution. It was awe-inspiring to learn about their fierce commitment to their religion and culture, heartening to learn about times of peaceful integration and coexistence, and devastating to learn details of the Inquisition, which was glaringly missing from the rest of the history we came across throughout our time in Spain. They have done a beautiful job of telling the story and amassing artifacts, including many tombstones from the old cemetery. Girona was great – we ate well, we drank well, we walked a ton, and we loved the sense of history surrounding us.

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After a night at the Barcelona Airport Hotel, we began our journey back to Bangalore, feeling happy and peaceful and ready to go home.

 

 

Rioja Like a Native

A highlight of our time in Spain was our tour of La Rioja wineries with Rebeca and Robert of Rioja Like a Native. Over two days, we toured six diverse wineries, had two lovely lunches, gazed at the gorgeous Spanish countryside, and had a generally delightful time. Melissa had contacted Rebeca months ago with just the vaguest suggestion of what we would like to do, and somehow Rebeca managed to create the perfect plan, with a combination of old and new, small and large, family and corporate.

On our first day, we started with Bodegas Bohedal, and toured the facility with Leire. Her father is now the winemaker, while she is responsible for all inventory, purchasing, and sales. With a highly refined palate and winemakers on both sides of her family, we expect she’ll eventually take the winemaking reins. In the meantime, one of her responsibilities is showing tourists like us around the winery, telling us stories of generations of winemakers and offering us a unique tasting of a single vintage of tempranillo aged in three different oak barrels: French, Hungarian, and American. Much more difference than we’d imagined! And all delicious.Bohedal

From there, we made our way to Haro, a small town that became a wine region hub when French grapes were destroyed by phylloxera and French winemakers came to practice their craft in Spain. Wineries clustered around the train station to make it easy to get the wine back to France. The town is full of these so-called centennial wineries. We stopped at CVNE (also called Cune due to a long-ago misreading of their name). Their barrel room was designed by Eiffel (yes, of the tower) and is a marvel in its own right. The wines were lovely – Melissa selected one to be her birthday wine this year.Cune

Then we drove to the beautiful medieval town of LaGuardia. High on a hill with a protective wall, this carless town pulses with history and offers spectacular views of the countryside. After a lunch in a restaurant over a cave, we made our way to Bodegas Carlos San Pedro Perez de Viñaspre. There we met with a winemaker whose family has been growing grapes for 500 years in Rioja and who works in a winery over a 600 year old cave which has been used for storing wine for at least 300 years. Wow. It was a fascinating tour where we learned about joven wines which are made for drinking right in the coming year with minimal aging.

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Exhausted from our day of touring (and drinking), we happily collapsed in our lovely room back in Logroño, reflecting on what a perfect combination of wineries we had seen that day. All so different, all so good.

The next morning, Rebeca and Robert picked us up and drove us to Bodegas Valentin Pascual in Cenicero. This family winery makes wine the same way it’s been done since the Romans first brought wine to Spain: carbonic maceration which ages the grapes in stone vats where they are then stomped (during what sounds like a great party!) so that the juice makes its way by gravity down to the giant barrels in the cellar. The ancient setting, the old equipment (including the candle that serves as a CO2 monitor), and the delightful energy of our guide (the son of the winemaker) made the whole thing so fun to see.Valentin Pascual

For a huge contrast, we went from there to Ysios, a large, modern winery that uses all of the latest techniques to create only Reserva wines. While we kind of wanted to prefer the traditional approach, we truly did love these newfangled wines. Had the price not reflected the high esteem in which they hold themselves, we would have seriously stocked up.

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After all that tasting, we were ready for lunch. Rebeca and Robert took us to the most idyllic picnic table overlooking vineyards, in a rare shady spot. They laid out a wonderful lunch. It was perfect! While there, they gave us keychains that Robert had made for us of Rioja corks with copper Euro coin tops in recognition of our 7th anniversary. It was such a sweet gesture, and we will treasure them and the memories they bring up for us.Picnic

Satisfied from our tasty lunch, we headed for our final winery, Bodega Classica, perched on a high hill and looking like it’s always been there. Rebeca and Robert hadn’t been there before, and I think we were all a bit surprised to learn just how new it was. Bodega Classico was less than ten years old and was part of a huge wine organization that churns out 4 million bottles per year under a variety of labels. The woman giving the tour was lovely, though, and truly passionate about wine. And the wine itself was very good indeed.Classico.jpg

Apart from the pleasure of visiting these wineries and seeing the beautiful countryside, it was also a delight to spend a couple days with Rebeca and Robert who made us feel at home, answered every question we had, and ensured that we enjoyed every moment of our time with them. We’re so very glad we chose Rioja Like a Native for our anniversary trip.20180731_183125.jpg

Tom’s quick side note: We loved Spanish wine in general. One thing that we loved about it was the price. One of the many bits of knowledge Rebeca and Robert laid on us was that wine is taxed as a food, not as alcohol, which keeps the price of amazing bottles of wine under five euros. Spanish wine comes in four main classifications: joven, which is very young, not aged in oak at all, and is ready to drink now; Crianza, aged two years, at least six months of which are in oak; Reserva, aged three years, one of which is in oak; and Gran Reserva, aged five years, 18 months in oak. The way we understand American classifications, Reserva just means the pick of the grapes. But then again, old old wine regions like La Rioja have very many rules to protect what it means to be a La Rioja wine.

Tom’s Tales: Trek to the Himalayas

I took my first Melissa-less trip since moving to India. Along with three colleagues, I chaperoned 28 young folks to the top of a Himalayan mountain. Even with torrential rain, a little bit of snow, and some freaky heat, the only real problem was the Melissa-less part. It was an incredible trip, like a magazine spread.

The way Canadian International School’s schedule sets up, Grades 12 and 10 finish with classes in late April in order to take IB and IGCSE exams full-time (I’m working myself up to writing about my somewhat strong feelings about such things). While they are out, we send our grades 11 and 9 out on excursions. The grade 9 kids went to the Andaman Islands, an Indian state in the form of an archipelago about two-thirds of the way toward Thailand across the Bay of Bengal. Grade 11 kids went three places: Thailand, Dehradun to work with Habitat for Humanity, and the Himalaya.

With the help of Indiahikes and our fabulous guide Geet, we climbed Kedarkantha, a 12,500 foot peak in the state of Uttarakhand. We took 28 kids to try to get them out of their comfort zones and challenge their sense of self.

We started and ended at our “base camp,” which was actually an adorable little guesthouse in Gaichawan Gaon, a crazy eight hour drive from Dehradun. Perched on the side of a hill in a valley that makes the Columbia River Gorge look like a ditch, the seven girls and four of us adults slept in one building with private rooms. The 21 boys were divided between two dormitory rooms. The grounds were swarming with cows, sheep, and dogs, the last of which would soon follow us all the way up the mountain. That first dinner was our first one with the incredible, very un-camp food-like meals IndiaHikes would feed us over the next several days.

The first night in the mountains we experienced a heck of a thunderstorm. The way the rooms were set up, we were able to go to sleep to quite the light show. All the while, we were feeling for the other group of CIS trekkers who left a day earlier so were out in tents during that storm. One result of the storm was that we woke up to a dusting of snow in the hills above us. Nearly half of our kids had never experienced snow, so it got them mightily excited for the adventure to come.

Our first day on the trail presented us with six hours of some pretty rigorous hiking. Mid-way we came across a cute village where some of the men have set up an omelet and Maggi station for hikers. The kids loved it. Once we got to the campsite, we got dumped on by another thunderstorm. This time, it was our turn in the tents. Jeremy, Ganesh (the other two male chaperones) and I were distressed that our tent that had a little leak in the downhill side of the tent where the water was gathering, and that there was a river running underneath the tent. Then Elsa (our one female chaperone) described her tent as “a swimming pool”. The three guys were ok by comparison. The most impressive part of the storm was when Geet and another one of our hosts came around in the worst of it with tea and a kati roll. Otherwise, the three of us played cards in our damp tent until dinner time.

Day two was easier and beautiful. The first sign that the weather would be better was when I got up in the middle of the night for reasons old guys like me have to get up in the middle of the night. The sky was full of unbelievable numbers of stars. The walk involved several pastoral high mountain meadows with our first vistas of the expansive scope of the Himalaya. Once we got to the high camp we found the remnants of the six inches of snow the first trekking group was getting while we were flooding our tents. We arrived early enough that the kids had a fabulous afternoon exploring the area, playing games, having snowball fights, building snowmen, and resting for the early wake up the next morning. I had a concern about my blood oxygen levels, so I decided to not push it. I found a nice place to rest while watching storm after storm roll down the valley, almost entirely missing us. One short snow flurry got the kids fired up, and then it was time to prepare for our early summit push and get to bed early.

Summit day was incredible. The kids did great. One student turned around after falling ill, so 27 of our 28 students made it to the top despite a couple of them having quite the struggle. We were so proud of them. Meanwhile, the summit lived up to what one might expect from a Himalayan peak. The size of each mountain, the size of the visible part of the range, the size of the valleys. Everything was like nothing I have never seen before. After spending some time taking in the views, we started heading down. There were several stretches the kids were allowed to slide in the snow, so that was a good time.

By lunch time, we made it all the way down to the first camp where we got flooded the first time. On this day, it was warm enough for shorts and sandals, more games, and resting up from that early morning and extraordinary exertion.

One more hike downhill; one more stop at the omelet stop; one more day (of 90 degree weather) at base camp; one early morning drive to the airport in Dehradun. The whole experience was just fabulous. We had some superficial issues with language and some other stuff, but the kids were by and large amazing. As for next year, I’m of mixed feelings. I would happily do this again. I also wouldn’t mind doing an excursion to another part of the world (or at least the country).

Random Notes:

The excursions are done as part of the IB CAS process. IB makes an effort to make learning a more all-inclusive experience. Kids need to participate in, document, and reflect on a number of activities with the goal of making them well-rounded, life-long learners. Kids of course take this process more or less seriously, but we were excited by the number of times we heard the exclamation, “CAS photo!”

Dehradun is the base for an important religious pilgrimage. Hindus believe the mountains are the birthplace of Shiva, and there are four holy places in the mountains surrounding the city, 100s of km away from each other. Travelers take 10 days to visit them all on a trail called Char Dham Yatra (Hindi for something along the lines of journey through the four holy places).

I had a number of experiences throughout the week that just felt like quintessentially Indian moments. For example, one of the things I am most impressed by about Indian culture is that people talk to each other as if they already know each other. Our bus driver took this to a whole new level. He seemed to know everybody. Every once in a while he would stop in the middle of the one-lane, curvy road with a cliff on one side and a drop off on the other, in order to exchange words and a handshake with drivers going the other way. Or the gentleman we gave a ride several miles down the road as he stood between the driver and the front passenger. So many elements of this moment would never happen in the States: a stranger on a bus full of students, standing unbuckled in the middle of a van, someone simply asking for the ride in the first place.

Our biggest hurdle was the travel. Somehow, our flights were changed back in March and no one, not IndiGo (the airline) nor Windstar (the travel agency) bothered to notify us. As a result, about half of the group that was supposed to be in the group a day ahead of us along with one of their chaperones missed their flight. We ended up with, instead of two roughly evenly divided groups, one group of about ten people including two chaperones and one of 32 people including four chaperones. All I know is that we had a great time with all of the kids we had and were super happy to have the addition of Jeremy on our team. It also inspired us to check, or rather ask Melissa to check from home, our flight home. If we hadn’t done that, we would have ended up missing our flight in Dehradun, probably requiring us to stay there an extra 24 hours. Thank goodness we checked. The irony is that our new flights were way better than our original flights, but because both agencies failed so badly with the communication, we certainly aren’t using Windstar again, and we’ll try to avoid IndiGo (though I also get the sense this is SOP for Indian airlines in general).

 

A Weekend in Goa

With only one three-day weekend left in Tom’s schedule before summer vacation, we wanted to make the most of it. We’ve been hearing about Goa since before our move to India,  so it’s been on our list for a long time. Part of what we’ve heard, though, is that is has a reputation as a hippie party town. Hanging out with scantily clad 20-somethings who are trying to pick each other up at yoga class before heading for drinks at the pool isn’t really our thing. So we were delighted when a couple different people recommended visiting Agonda Beach in the South of Goa, with a reputation as a sleepy, pristine place to relax. It totally lived up to its billing.

We took a 75 minute flight on Friday night, and returned home on Monday afternoon. While there, we stayed in a beach hut that opened directly to the beach with a private, shady area to recline and read. Most of our meals were enjoyed at the Sea Star Resort restaurant situated right behind our hut, and most of our time was spent reading, walking on the beach, and gazing at the water.  The only other notable moment of the weekend was discovering our friends were staying just up the beach from us, so we were able to have dinner with them one night. Not much to say about a weekend without much activity, so we’ll just let the photos speak for themselves.

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Perfect view through mosquito netting

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Beach view from our private chaise lounges

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Sunset comes to Agonda

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The beautiful sunsets deserve two pictures.

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Our hut is just to the right of the sign.

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Beautiful beach view from our deck

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Beach cows (and babies!) wander near our deck

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Friendly gecko visited us for breakfast.

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It’s not a great picture of anybody, but dinner with the Bergstrands and Kirti.

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Lovely old Portuguese church

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Boy greets beach cows

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Big, quiet beach