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.

New Year’s in New Delhi

Our visit to Delhi started with the saddest part of the trip — saying good-bye to Julie and Meagan. They were such lovely travel partners, and as we said in our introductory post, it is so nice to have people from our other life in the United States see our lives here in India. We try to describe it, but it was wonderful to have them experience it with us.

Saying good-bye to Julie and Meagan also meant saying good-bye to our wonderful driver Arvind. If you have traveled in India you know, you can get wonderful drivers and you can get frustrating drivers. Arvind was beyond wonderful. It’s such a game of roulette. You hire this person to spend hours and hours and hours with you for several days, and you have no idea what you’re going to get. Arvind didn’t force himself into our conversations, but he participated when appropriate; he never did the blatant “I’m getting a kickback” trick of taking us to somewhere we just didn’t want to go; he rolled with our crazy notions; and he stepped in and let us know when are notions were just not going to work. If you are one of our India friends or if you are traveling to Delhi/Agra/Rajasthan, hit us up. We’ll give you his contact info.

We decided to only spend a couple of days in Delhi in favor of spending a couple of extra days at our end-of-vacation heaven in Hampi. As a result, we had to narrow our priorities. Tom wanted to see Gandhi Smitri, a museum at the site of Gandhi’s assassination. We wanted to not travel a terribly long time to anything. We wanted to find our favorite wine we discovered on our trip to Nasik, York Arros, not yet sold in our home state of Karnataka. Finally, we wanted to limit our time outdoors; the air quality fulfilled Delhi’s stereotype.

Our first full day in Delhi, which happened to be New Years Eve, was spent at a couple of sites Melissa had already visited.  Lodhi Garden is lovely, with three ancient tombs that were part of the evolution toward the Taj Mahal. The park was also filled with several school groups having a good time and what looked like corporate events playing camp games. Then we went to Humayun’s Tomb, an even closer relative of the Taj. It is spectacular. It has been recently restored, so it is in great shape. There is also a huge construction project creating a new garden near by which is going to make the area an unforgettable experience, if it isn’t already.

On our way out of the Humayun’s Tomb, we had two experiences that made us love this attraction even more. First, there was a small museum in the old gatehouse to the tomb. One part of the museum explained the history of Humayun (which is a little crazy, and worth a quick read). The other part of the museum was an explanation of the groups involved in the rehabilitation of the tomb and the construction of the new park nearby and their efforts to reach out to the surrounding communities, many of which are very poor. We had no sooner been discussing the loss of a generation of Indian craftsmen to the large construction projects in the Arabian peninsula, but we read the story of these groups training the people in the local communities in the trades needed to build the parks. As Americans, we took pride in the fact that our State Department is one of those partners. On our way out we had our second experience that moved us so much. There was a small stand selling art created by the community members trained in the crafts that adorn the antiquities. We were moved enough that we bought a couple of pieces, both to support their efforts and because they are beautiful.

Our hotel, the Lalit New Delhi, has several bars and one nightclub. We figured it would be safe to assume that Baluchi, the fancy Indian restaurant upstairs and far away from the noisy spots, would be a nice romantic way to ring in the New Years. It was fun. It was delicious. Intimate and romantic? Not so much. A DJ was set up, playing music loud enough that we had to shout at each other to be heard. We stopped rolling our eyes at the empty dance floor about 10:30 when it started filling up nicely with very satisfied revelers. We, we had to admit, were the weird ones here. We had a lovely dinner and a bottle of our sought-after Arros (of which Tom only had two glasses, which will be important in moments). We left a little before midnight so we could ring in the New Year just the two of us, perhaps watching the fireworks from our window. Modi’s ban on fireworks seemed to work, as there were very few, but we were very glad we went upstairs early. It was nice to have that bit of quiet time. And then about three minutes in to the New Year, Tom’s first, and only (knock on wood), bout of Delhi Belly struck with a vengeance. His 2019 can only get better from there.

Fortunately, our second full day in Delhi was not very heavily planned. Tom had an easy time of the recovery, and we set out to see a couple of sites. The day before we tried to visit the Gandhi Smitri, but it was closed on Sunday. We were worried it would be closed again on New Years Day, but thank goodness it wasn’t. Melissa visited during her trip with her brother Jesse, and the way she described it made Tom want to see it, too. It’s one of those places that simply inspires awe knowing this man who changed the world, who laid the ground work for others to change the world, walked here, met with important people here, inspired countless here. And the reverence with which they established the memorial to his assassination shouldn’t be surprising but is simply breathtaking. They went to great lengths to tell the entire story of Gandhi’s life, both at the site and around India, Britain, and South Africa. They touched on his many and profound flaws, which to us make him all the more human and astounding, but the story as presented does kind of err on the side of deification. Still, it is an inspiring site. It reminds us all that we need to be more like the Mahatma. Maybe not exactly like him, but more.

The teetotalling Gandhi wouldn’t approve, but that just leaves the hunt for wine.  Scattered throughout the two-and-a-half days, we took three different walks through the Connaught Place neighborhood in search of Arros. We had pictured buying a couple of bottles: one to share in Hampi and one to take home to Bangalore. We finally found one wine shop that sold York, but not Arros. We were more and more thankful for that New Years Eve bottle we shared. Again, if you are travelling in Delhi, Rajasthan, or Maharashtra, let us know. We’ll give you some money if you pick some up for us.

Our last night in North India was lovely. We had a drink in the lobby bar at the Lalit. We tried to play a little rummy, but we were promptly told to put them away. Apparently, cards aren’t allowed in bars. In a land of arbitrary rule enforcement, this seemed like a weird place to draw the line. Then we walked to Sorrento, a highly rated Italian restaurant not too far from our hotel. It didn’t disappoint.

We had to wake up early the next morning, because we were off to the last stop of this wonderful winter break . . . Hampi!

The Wonders of Agra

We feel great about our time travelling in India, partly because we have seen some obscure sights and overlooked experiences as well as really amazing things that make every must-do list, including staying on a houseboat on the backwaters of Kerala and walking the promenade at sunset in Pondicherry. The one thing that everyone around the world wants to see but people in India often don’t quite get to is the Taj Mahal. Melissa went to Agra with her aunties Linda and Sue the month before our visit with Julie and Meagan, but Tom had yet to make the trip. It is really unbelievable that something that has that much hype and sets that high of expectations can actually surpass it all, even on a second visit.

It’s a famous story, but indulge us as we set a little context. The Taj Mahal was built in the years 1632 to 1653 by the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan. Its primary purpose is a mausoleum and memorial to his favorite wife Mumtaz Mahal. As we are to learn in the next few days, he took cues from previous mausoleums built in Agra and in Delhi. He took all of the most awe-inspiring designs from those buildings and cranked them up. In order to do so, he employed great craftsmen from throughout Asia and built it completely out of marble mined just west of Jaipur, where we started this adventure. He also indulged his seeming OCD-inspired love of symmetry, giving every angle, every detail, every element a partner on the other side of the building. As a result, viewing the building is a different experience from every angle, and those experiences change by the moment as the sun moves through the day.

We started the day wishing each other “Happy Taj Mahal Day”, but we really had no idea how true that would be. The Taj would work its way into every thing we did all day long, starting, of course, with our visit to the Taj itself. We had read a lot of advice, confirmed by Melissa’s visit there earlier, that we should get there first thing in the morning for two important reasons: You get the colors of the rising sun on the iridescent marble, and the crowds are more manageable. We bought our tickets online months in advance for the earliest hour available, 6:00 am. In very un-Indian fashion, the website and purchasing process was remarkably smooth, and we got exactly what we were after — until we got to Agra and were told that they didn’t start letting people in until there was actual light, which meant that we wouldn’t be let in until 7:30. In other words, in a very Indian fashion, they were selling tickets for entry times that weren’t actually available.

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None-the-less, the “get there as early as possible” advice was spot on. The place is incredible. Even though they do a masterful job of controlling the number of people on-site, there are some impressive crowds all jockeying for the iconic photos. Those crowds in no way detract from the appreciation of one of the most beautiful objects in the world. The gardens are large and beautiful, allowing people to spread out and do their own thing. We’re not sure what to say about the Taj Mahal itself that hasn’t been written, except that everything that’s been written is true. Every detail is intentional and gorgeous. Even though it is beyond ostentatious, Shah Jahan didn’t cover every inch with something ridiculously beautiful; he balanced those things with the simple beauty of the stone itself. Those gardens are underappreciated, too. They are serene and beautifully cared for and serve to frame the Taj Mahal in breathtaking ways. What a start to a great day.

From there we went back to our hotel for breakfast. We decided that after having slightly more rustic lodgings in Ranthambore and Bundi we would spring for the ITC for Julie’s and Meagan’s last major stop in India. It was beautiful and restful and the food was delicious. It was nice to have a rest before our packed afternoon.

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Our driver Arvind picked us up to take us to the less famous sites around Agra. Agra Fort was originally built in the early 16th century, but as with all of the forts we visited on this vacation, it was destroyed, rebuilt, added to, and conquered any number of times. What exists now is part of the fort as it was when the Mughal capital was shifted from Agra to Delhi in 1638. It contains halls for public audience, a few mosques, and a bazaar in which the women did their shopping. The most remarkable piece is the portion of the fort in which Shah Jahan was “imprisoned” by his son Aurangzeb after Aurangzeb usurped him for draining the treasury in order to build the Taj Mahal. There are stories that part of what inspired the usurping was that Shah Jahan was planning to build a replica of the Taj Mahal in black marble across the river to serve as his own mausoleum. We have also read that those stories are apocryphal. If one has to be in prison, this is the way to be. We had heard that Shah Jahan had a view of his beloved Taj Mahal, and we pictured that meaning that being in prison in a fort looking at the monument to his wife was some form of torture. Not so. He had the run of a good amount of the fort, and the space set aside for his personal space is beautiful, made of similar marble to the Taj Mahal, with much ornamentation that is reflective of the work the craftsmen Shah Jahan hired did on the Taj Mahal. It’s not prison as we would think of as prison.

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From there we visited a couple of other mausoleums. Itimad-ud-Daula’s Tomb is just up river from the Taj Mahal and Agra fort. It is called the Baby Taj for a reason. It has many details that would serve as inspiration for the Taj as we know it. It’s beautiful, and maybe a little over the top in terms of decoration. Every inch seems covered in decorations. Shah Jahan seems to have learned that sometimes less is more in terms of decoration, but he also learned that more is more in terms of size.

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We asked Arvind to help us find Chini ka Rauza, the tomb of Afzal Khan, Shah Jahan’s vizier. Neglected but found on the banks of the River Yamuna, the grounds are a peaceful refuge from the tourist choked sites around town. The remnants of the ceiling paintings are beautiful.

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Finally, we watched the sunset over the Taj Mahal from across the River Yamuna at Mehtab Bagh. Wow. What an end to an amazing day of appreciating the most beautiful building any of us will ever see. We all agreed that we pretty much did Agra right.

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Our fabulous travel companions Meagan and Julie at our farewell dinner.

Dinner was back at the hotel at Peshawri, the sister restaurant to both where we celebrated Melissa’s father’s birthday in Jaipur and one of our favorite restaurants in Bangalore, The Royal Afghan. As expected, it was delicious. It was an amazing end to a spectacular day, and particularly poignant because the next day we were off to Delhi for our sad farewell to Julie and Meagan and our quick tour of a few of the many sites Delhi has to offer.

 

Beautiful Bundi

We wanted to make sure that we would have a well-rounded experience with our winter travels, which meant hitting the hotspots like Jaipur and Agra, but also venturing a little off the beaten path. Bundi certainly shows up in the guidebooks, but it’s small and attracts few tourists. After seeing the incredible sights there, that seemed remarkable to us! This little town is so charming, with beautifully painted buildings, carved balconies, and stepwells everywhere. We loved it!

We stayed at the delightful Hotel Bundi House, run by two young men who answered every query with, “Anything is possible!” They had a rooftop restaurant with nice omelettes and aloo parathas for breakfast, pakoras for snack, and a full menu for dinner. There was no alcohol on their menu, but when we asked, “Anything is possible!” and we soon had wine and beer available to us. When we asked for an early breakfast the next morning, again, “Anything is possible!” and they opened early for us. Continuing on with the crazy cold theme that we started in Ranthambhore, we were perpetually shivering, but happy.Hotel Bundi House

Meagan was great about eating unaccustomed Indian food for every meal every day, but she had hit her limit by the time we hit Bundi. Surprisingly, there was a well reviewed Italian restaurant in Bundi where we were all pretty happy to eat pasta and pizza for a change. On our way to the restaurant, we wandered around this adorable town for a while, seeing temples, cows, and brightly painted doorways on nearly every block. The open sewers that line every lane are unfortunate, but serve as a reminder that modern conveniences have not yet made it to every corner of India. It’s good to occasionally be reminded just how fortunate we are.

On our first morning in Bundi, our driver Arvind picked us up to go see some of the sights for which we needed a car: the Sukh Mahal, the 84-pillared cenotaph, and the Raniji ki Baori. The Sukh Mahal is a small summer palace on the shores of a large lake, sometimes called the Kipling Mahal because apparently Rudyard Kipling stayed there briefly while writing Kim. There was very little information available about it, but we enjoyed strolling through once we managed to evade the angry little dog who nipped at Tom’s ankle (no broken skin!).

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The 84-pillared cenotaph was truly a sight to behold. It was constructed in 1683 with some stories saying that it was built in honor of the Maharaja’s foster brother and others saying it was in honor of his childhood nurse. All stories claim that it is mysteriously impossible to count all 84 pillars. Tom and Melissa tried and did not get to 84. Is that because of mysterious magic or fewer pillars that claimed? Either way, it’s truly beautiful.84 pillared cenotaph

The Raniji ki Baori is a stunning stepwell built by the queen in 1699. From the outside, it doesn’t look like much of anything, but the inside simply takes your breath away.Raniji ki Baori

After those sights, we asked Arvind to drop us off at the Bundi Palace, an easy walk from our hotel. This palace should truly be on every must-see list. The pillars are beautifully carved and the walls are painted with crushed gem stones so the paintings retain their vibrancy despite the centuries that have passed and the lack of preservation. We had an awkward moment of white privilege when an attendant offered to show us the locked bedchamber of the Maharaja’s second and favored wife, hastily adding that we had to go quickly because he doesn’t take Indians inside because they scratch at the delicate paintings. We really wanted to see this amazing space, but felt really weird about the exclusion of our fellow tourists and the odd accusation that they would scratch the paintings given the chance. Nonetheless, we went inside and were duly awe-struck. A little later in a less patrolled area of the palace, Melissa saw young Indian men scratching at the paintings until a guard came and yelled at them. So strange.

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Meagan and Julie elected to head back to the hotel for a rest while Tom and Melissa climbed the hill behind the palace to get to Taragarh, the 14th century fort at the top. This fort is completely unpatrolled and unmaintained, which seems tragic given how beautiful it still is. The path and foliage are overgrown and aggressive monkeys are all around, but it is completely worth the climb. Plus, you can experience near solitude up there – a true rarity in India where there are usually people all around.Tarhgarh

After seeing the paintings and courtyards of the palace and fort, the painted walls and courtyards of the town made perfect sense. They have replicated the grandeur on a smaller scale throughout the town, clearly for many generations. There is ancient beauty around every corner in this town that deserves far more tourists than it sees.

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But then Agra beckoned with the ancient beauty that everyone sees! On the way, though, we opted to break up the 7 hour drive in the small town of Abanheri with a stop at the Chand Baori, an enormous 10th century stepwell surrounded by a crumbling palace. This stepwell was apparently the inspiration for the prison in the Dark Knight Rises, as well as the set for numerous Indian films. We’d never seen anything like it before.

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This Bundi and Abanheri leg of the trip was unexpectedly wonderful!

 

Christmas in Ranthambhore

Some years as Christmas approaches, you cling to tradition, requiring everything to perfectly reflect your idealized memories of childhood. Other years, you open yourself up to the possibility of new traditions or even just one-off festive notions. And then in other rare years, you just skip the whole deal in favor of other exciting options. We had thought this would be a year of altered traditions, but it turned out to be much more of a skipped Christmas. This was Melissa’s third skipped Christmas – the first when she convinced her mom to run away to Las Vegas with her for a weekend of decadence instead of a holiday she wasn’t feeling in a difficult year, the second when she was newly returned from Australia and eager to start the drive from LA to begin her new life in Portland – so she found the excitement of  safaris to be a reasonable replacement for Christmas. It was more of a challenge for Tom, Julie, and Meagan who missed the comforting, joyful traditions they love. Still, we all had a lovely time in Ranthambhore. We arrived around 1 pm on December 24th and just had time to check in to the Sultan Bagh Jungle Lodge and grab a quick bite to eat before being picked up for a safari at 2pm.

The safari was amazing! We saw spotted deer, sambar, wild boar, peacocks, lots of cool birds, and – drum roll, please – a tiger!

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When we returned to the camp around 5, we noticed that a stage and huge speakers were being set up in the central clearing between the cabins and tents. We had a while before dinner would be served at 8 so we settled in to play a couple rounds of estimation and hearts, while a man wandered around playing jingle bells on his traditional home made instrument.

It all seemed pleasant and charming until the techno music started blasting from the courtyard, loud enough to create an unpleasant, bassy chest rumble while we yelled to hear each other. Tom raced down to reception, only to be told plaintively, “But it’s for Christmas, sir!” In a country where holidays are all celebrated with loud music and bright flashing lights, they were sure that they were honoring our holiday appropriately. They promised to turn off the music by 9 and actually stopped at 8:30, but it made for some noisy card playing.

When booking our accommodations, we were concerned about air conditioning, and marveled at the idea of air conditioned tents. We should have been more concerned about the cold. It was freezing! Ok, not literally freezing, but 42 degrees Fahrenheit feels really cold when you’ve been living in South India for 18 months and don’t own any winter clothes. It also feels pretty darn cold if your relatives who are supposed to be the experts tell you that you just need to bring a light layer with you. Oops. The bonfire in the clearing was tempting enough to brave the blaring techno – oh, the thrill of warm fingertips and thawed toes! – and we enjoyed the chance to chat with our visitors.

We slept in all the layers we had (Melissa was particularly grateful for Tom’s flannel shirt which became her constant companion for the next week) and woke early for safari number two. The 20% of the park that is open to tourists is divided into 9 zones, each large enough to require hours to explore. On the first day, we went to zone 1 and on the second we ventured into zone 3. Zone 3 had three large lakes which were so beautiful, as well as the remnants of the Maharaja’s hunting lodge of yore. Across one of the lakes, we saw another tiger – it was far off, but so amazing!

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The rest of the day was spent relaxing, reading, playing cards, and napping – entirely delightful if not entirely traditional. For dinner we had a simple, but tasty Indian dinner at 8 pm and then went to bed.20181225_165846

Surely next year will come with all the Christmas trappings, but probably none of the thrilling tigers! For now, we’re off to Bundi!

Three Fabulous Days in Jaipur

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bihar: The Ancient Center of Buddhism and Learning

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.