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

Spring Break in Assam!

Assam is a state in Northeastern India where a cluster of 7 states jut off fromUntitled the diamond of India, bordered by Bhutan, Tibet, China, Myanmar, and Bangladesh. The language sounds different, facial features are different, and the culture is different (women fare far better here than in many parts of India). The dress looks very similar, however, and, while there are local delicacies, the food is also quite similar. We chose Assam in an effort to see something special while escaping the summer heat closing in on much of the country. We also wanted to take a shorter trip for spring break since we were planning to move soon after. From the time we touched down mid-morning on Sunday to the time we left on Thursday afternoon, we were nothing but happy. Assam was amazing.

We spent our first three nights at the Diphlu River Lodge on the border of Kaziranga National Park. This meant a 4 hour drive from the airport, along twisting roads lined by farms and rice paddies with mountains in the distance. We were excited, and the vistas were beautiful, so the ride flew by.

Diphlu River Lodge was a dream come true – our cabin was one of 12 luxurious cabins on stilts surrounding a central rice paddy with a gazebo in the middle where we could recline with good books or a deck of cards (we did both). The property overlooks the Diphlu River which feeds into the mighty Brahmaputra River. The building where we ate all our meals is called The Machan. This is also where we also played cards in the evening while drinking wine and looking desperately for wild animals on the opposite shore (we only saw non-wild cows). The food was definitely mellowed for the delicate international palate, so we found it a bit bland but perfectly fine. The best part was that they arranged all of our activities (safaris and boat trip) each day and handed us a schedule over dinner each evening that began with the time for our wake-up call. No decision fatigue for us. Overall, we would recommend Diphlu River Lodge whole-heartedly.

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Kaziranga National Park is the home to two-thirds of the world’s 3,500 one-horned rhinoceroses. While we were there, a census found that that population has increased by 12 in the past three years despite floods last monsoon season that didn’t do right by the rhinos. The population is up to 2400 from a few hundred in the mid-1970s. The park is also home to several other endangered species, including the Bengal tiger, Asiatic water buffalo, swamp deer, and Asian elephants, among many others. We had an amazing time exploring the park and all of the different facets.

Our tour of Kaziranga took place in three phases. On Monday, our choice was limited

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Great Hornbill – it’s huge!

because of the rhino census taking place in the park. The only part of the park that was open was in the far eastern section, a part of the park most known for a wide range of bird life. We never knew so many types of storks and herons and egrets existed. We saw wild parakeets, hornbills, and four types of kingfishers. We saw owls and eagles and vultures. Our guide Anuj, who stuck with us for all three trips into the park, seemed particularly excited and knowledgeable about the birds. He was able to spot all kinds of varieties of species while other jeeps kept speeding by. It was breathtaking.

On that first trip, we were so excited to see elephants and rhinoceroses in the distance, little imagining what was in our near future. Then came our second trip. On Tuesday morning, we went to the Central section of the park, where we saw elephants up close, along with hog deer, swamp deer, buffalo, and, yes, rhinoceroses. One crossed the road between us and the jeep in front of us, turned and eyed us trying to decide if he should charge, and moseyed off. Wow.

Then on Tuesday afternoon, we visited the Western section of the park, where we couldn’t believe the numbers of animals we saw. Our cameras were not quite up to the task, so most of our pictures look like big landscapes with small, uninteresting smudges. You’ll have to just take our word for it when we say that it was magnificent.

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It was clearly spring in Assam because there were baby everything! Baby elephants, baby buffalo, baby deer, and baby rhinoceroses. When we weren’t in the park, we saw baby cows, goats, and pigs lining (and sometimes filling) the road. Melissa was in heaven.

On Monday afternoon, we took a break from Kaziranga and went on a boat trip down the Brahmaputra river. The Brahmaputra is huge, running through China, Tibet, India, and Bangladesh. In fact, it’s the tenth largest river in the world, and there are some parts of Assam where it’s actually 20 km across! It was so beautiful, but so easy to imagine the destruction it causes when the monsoon hits each year.

On Wednesday morning, we decided to skip the village tour and the orchid garden so we could take a morning to sleep in after three early mornings in a row and just enjoy the beautiful grounds of our hotel. It was a bit sad to leave at 11, but we were looking forward to exploring Guwahati, the capital city of Assam and we had a 4 hour drive ahead of us to get there.

In Guwahati, we stayed at the Baruah Bhavan Guest House, a truly lovely spot. The guest

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Sitting area in our room

house is fully furnished with charming antiques, and staffed by kind and helpful people. And the location can’t be beat – we were just a couple blocks from a walk along the banks of the Brahmaputra. Guwahati feels entirely different from Bangalore. The buildings are old and ornamented, and somehow reminded us of New York. We walked a lot and took in as much as we could, although we were challenged by the air quality. Melissa had a sore throat and we both had gritty teeth after a few hours of walking around. We were saddened to then read that the charming city of Guwahati has one of the highest black carbon pollution levels in the world. We couldn’t resist the urge to get back out and walk around some more the next day, but we were happy to spend some of our time indoors at the Assam State Museum. A highlight of our walk was a visit to the Kamakhya Temple high on a hill. We didn’t want to the spend the 2-7 (!) hours it was likely to take to get inside so we contented ourselves with a walk around it, which gave us an interesting glimpse into the narrow, curving walkways of the neighborhood.

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By the time we were heading to the airport, we were ready to return to the relatively clean air of Bangalore, but still blissfully happy with our Assam trip. It was a wonderful spring break!

 

Melissa’s Musings: Changing the World at Shanti Bhavan

Visiting Shanti Bhavan is like visiting the future of India as it should be. Thanks to a visit organized by the Five Oceans Club, I was able to travel with a group to Shanti Bhavan on Saturday. I left filled with hope for the world, and deeply inspired by these kids and the incredible mission of this school.MV5BYzBmNDg0MGUtZjBiYy00YmNhLThlNjgtN2Q3M2VmN2FhNDA0XkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNzQzNjYwMDM@._V1_QL50_SY1000_CR0,0,675,1000_AL_

If you’ve seen the documentary “Daughters of Destiny,” you’re probably already inspired, and this blog post will just flesh out some more details for you. If you haven’t seen it yet, it’s available on Netflix and you should watch it immediately!

Shanti Bhavan was founded in 1997 by Abraham George, a successful Indian-born businessman with an incredible vision of how to radically interrupt the cycle of generational poverty that stifles over 25% of the Indian population. He looked at what he was able to offer his own children – a safe and loving home along with educational and extra-curricular advantages – and imagined offering that to children who would never otherwise have it. The children of Shanti Bhavan come to the school at 3 ½ – 4 years old, visiting their families only for holidays. All of their physical needs are met (safety, shelter, nutritious meals, clothing, and needed healthcare); they are nurtured by housemothers and faculty that appreciate them as individuals; and they receive a world class education that covers not just academics, but also leadership and critical thinking skills along with dance, music, and art. The support does not stop with graduation from high school, but continues through university and even graduate degrees, providing ongoing education and mentoring for as long as it’s needed. These children of the poorest of the poor, the so-called “untouchables,” can become leaders in their communities and in their nation, helping India move toward a society where everyone’s potential is recognized, valued, and realized. Dr. George expects that every child he helps will be able to impact the lives of 1,000 more children during their lifetime.

My journey to the school started early in the morning as I headed to Koramangala, a neighborhood in South Bangalore. There we met up with others and got on the bus for the 1 ½ hour drive to the school on the border of Tamil Nadu. The other 20 or so participants on our social awareness tour included people from India, the UK, Sweden, and the US, many of whom brought their children. Some had seen the documentary, some had read The Elephant Chaser’s Daughter which was written by a graduate of the school, and some had just read a blurb about the trip and decided to go. We were all eager to learn more, and to particularly figure out how we might be able to be a part of this exciting vision.

Arriving at the school, we were greeted by some of the most poised 11th graders I’ve ever met. They shook hands and introduced themselves with confidence, they smiled and asked questions, they articulately responded to any query. These impressive kids were our guides for the tour. John and Nandini took my group of 6 around the school, showing us into different classrooms where children happily greeted us. Saturday classes are just half the day with free time in the afternoon, so our morning tour caught them all in their classrooms. We also saw the computer lab, the chemistry and biology labs, the libraries, the dorms, the cafeteria, the lovely grounds, and the non-denominational prayer room.

 

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The daily assembly was a highlight that started with a prayer for the teachers, a prayer20180203_105347 (2) for the students, and singing the school song about all the things these children can become.  I was impressed to see a 4th grade girl get up to speak to that day’s virtue: Gratitude. She stood up straight and spoke 20180203_110007 (2)loudly and clearly to a room full of her peers, her teachers, and a bunch of strangers. She was followed by four high school students presenting stories from that day’s news. Not only did they have to speak without notes about current events, but they had to be prepared for questions from anyone in the room, many of their peers posing probing and thoughtful queries. Assembly closed after two beautiful songs by the school chorus.

 

Before lunch, we sat down with Dr. George and his son Ajit, now the full time Director of Operations for the school. Both are passionate about Shanti Bhavan and its children. Dr. George considers every one of the SB students to be his own children, and treats them as27336979_1244823358952193_8099425119779596785_n (2) such, acknowledging that they probably get more of his attention than his own sons received. This point is backed up by a laughing Ajit who says that he wishes he’d gone to Shanti Bhavan. Both stress that Shanti Bhavan is not run by money, but by love. They hope to soon break ground on a second school in Karnataka, with a long term vision of multiple schools around India to increase the impact of their efforts.

During lunch, I had the chance to speak with two Australian couples that have been volunteering at Shanti Bhavan for many years. One couple came for the first time eight years ago, after retirement, intending to go somewhere else the following year. They’ve returned now every year for the last eight, explaining that “these kids have gentle claws” that pull them back. The other couple has been joining them for a month each year for the last four years. They love their time at Shanti Bhavan, however tiring it may be, and fully intend to keep coming.

The work of Shanti Bhavan is already making a difference with graduates now working for prestigious organizations, making more in the their first few years of work than their parents would earn in a lifetime. They support the education of younger siblings, provide stable housing and medical care for their parents, and are already beginning to make steps to improve their communities while still in their early twenties. Their potential impact is unlimited.

But you know what is limited? Money. While Dr. George was able to start this school with his own money earned as a successful businessman in the US, the 2008 crash and a devastating scam have long since exhausted those funds. The school now survives through donations which must be constantly sought. When I visited Anu Life, I offered to buy purses and bags for interested folks back home (that offer still stands!) in an effort to support their efforts. I can’t offer you anything tangible in exchange for your support of Shanti Bhavan, but I can promise you bountiful good feelings from the knowledge that you are supporting something that matters. Donations to Shanti Bhavan are not lost to administrative costs, but go straight into the children of this incredible organization. If you don’t have money to spare for this cause, consider sharing their vision with friends who may. And consider volunteering at this school that will highly value your expertise and the love you can give to these amazing children.

Ready to learn more?

Take a look at the school’s website: http://www.shantibhavanchildren.org/

Check out this video of Ajit George talking about the school: https://youtu.be/5wiazRknkOk

Ask me anything. If I don’t know the answer, I’ll research it for you.

 

Winter Break 2017

Among the benefits of moving to India is the incredible opportunity for travel, both in this immense and diverse country, and across the region.  We do our best to take full advantage. For winter break this year, we were joined by our dear friends Rachel and Laurence for a three week exploration of Tamil Nadu and Sri Lanka. After three weeks of full-on togetherness, we’re happy to report that we all still like each other.

This was a slightly complicated trip, with many components but none that we’d leave out in retrospect. In Tamil Nadu, we started our journey with three days with our friend Kaveri’s aunt and uncle in Bokkapuram. It was the perfect start! From there, we went on to two nights in the charming little city of Mysore. We then flew to Chennai where we were picked up by a kind and competent driver, Raman (from Marvel Tours), who drove us to the backpacker beach and rock carving town of Mahabalipuram for two days, the French-influenced coastal town of Pondicherry (or Puducherry), and then to his inland hometown of Tiruvannamalai. We then drove back to Chennai for the flight to Colombo, Sri Lanka.

After one night in Colombo, we went to the so-called cultural triangle of Sri Lanka where we stayed centrally in Dambulla for three nights, but took trips to the ancient ruins of Anuradhapura, the only slightly less ancient city of Polonnaruwa, and climbed the monolith of Sigiriya. We followed that with one night in the lovely lake town of Kandy before continuing on to our Airbnb, just a short walk from the beach and activity of the tourist town of Hikkaduwa. After three nights there, we packed up for Rachel and Laurence’s continuing travels in Shanghai and our final night of vacation back in Colombo.

Along the way, especially in Sri Lanka, we discovered a number of foods we want to add to our ever growing list of foods we want to learn to cook:

  1. Roti (or, charmingly, rotty), a folded, griddled wrap we had in Hikkaduwa.
  2. Kottu, a Sri Lankan hash whose primary ingredient is paratha.
  3. Pineapple curry, something Tom was more taken by than Melissa, but who doesn’t want some pineapple curry?
  4. An eggplant and caramelized onion dish that was everywhere we went in Sri Lanka and even eggplant-hating Tom enjoyed, especially at Bookworm Library in Hikkaduwa where the caramelized onion flavors overwhelmed the eggplant.

It was a wonderful trip overall. Details are in our individual posts, but it’s worth noting some of the interesting differences between India and Sri Lanka. First of all, Sri Lanka is clean and green everywhere you look and generally smells good. We may have just been sheltered from it in our touristy places, but there wasn’t the kind of obvious poverty that one sees in India, and the infrastructure (e.g. roads) is much better. This may be related to the fact that Sri Lanka has a 96% literacy rate (as compared to 86% in the US and 74% in India).  There are as many temples in Sri Lanka as in India, but most of them are Buddhist. We’re used to seeing Shivas everywhere, so it was surprising to see Buddhas on every hilltop. And the fruit was outstanding – best pineapples and melons ever, very nice mangoes and oranges, and Rachel was particularly delighted by the plentiful passionfruit. On a very superficial level, we’d say that Sri Lanka is like India light. If you’re interested in visiting India, but you’re a bit nervous about the chaos and anxious about logistics, consider Sri Lanka. It’s easy and beautiful and friendly. We’ll definitely be back.

Point of order taken by Tom: Melissa worked herself crazy for this trip. With some assistance from Laurence, Melissa planned and planned and planned, finding us the wonderful mix of hotels, from super fancy to super affordable; transportation that required more attention in Sri Lanka than it should have; and what I feel like must have been all of the important sights in all of the places we visited. This coupled with the fact that while we were toying with going north to Rajasthan she basically planned a second, nearly complete three week vacation. I can not tell you enough how much I appreciate the work she put in to this. It really was way more wonderful than I dared to hope for. She’s wonderful.

One final note. Many of the (best) photos are taken by Laurence. Thanks, Laurence!

Winter Break #9: Hikkaduwa

After a long couple of weeks of nearly constant travel, we were ready to set up camp forh 0 a few days on the Southwestern coast of Sri Lanka. A four hour drive from Kandy took us to Hikkaduwa where we met our Airbnb host Nissanka and settled in to our home for a few days.

Hikkaduwa is a cute little town. It is definitely set up to cater to tourists, but that was ok for our last little stretch. Our goals while here were to find some of the traditional Sri Lankan food we’d only nibbled around; to sit on the beach and swim in the Indian Ocean; visit Galle, a town to the Southeast; and just relax. We did all of those things.

Our food experience in Hikkaduwa was one of extremes: unbelievably delicious or maddeningly frustrating. The frustrating came at Mama’s, where the food was disappointing enough to not overcome the pretty lousy service and an incredibly loud live band. The frustration was slightly alleviated by the fact that the beach was feet from where we ate, but it was a meal we were ready to forget. We were also disappointed to not have the chance to cook our own meals at our Airbnb. It was a beautiful home that provided a fabulous few days, but the air conditioners and fans were insufficient to overcome the heat anywhere but in the bedrooms. It didn’t make us super excited to cook a lot of food and add to the heat. We settled for eggs and fresh mangoes and pineapple for breakfast and more fresh fruit cocktails from our resident mixologist Laurence. Not too shabby, we realize, but we had also hoped to cook at home one night.

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Delicious Kottu

The unbelievably delicious came in a number of places. For lunches, we hunted down the best rated versions we could find of some of the Sri Lankan food we had read about and had nibbles of in other places. We found the Sri Lankan version of roti at No.1 Roti Restaurant (that’s the name, not descriptor) on the main drag in Hikkaduwa. Sri Lankan roti is really a folded roti (flatbread) wrapped around delicious fillings and then grilled. They come in sweet and savory, and they are delicious. In the Galle Fort neighborhood of Galle we found Hula Hula Cafe for Kottu. Kottu is a sort of a hash made with chopped up paratha, spices, and whatever else you choose to put in there: veggies, cheese, egg, meats. We loved it.

Our favorite dinner in Hikkaduwa, maybe in Sri Lanka, was at Bookworm Library. It was our favorite dinner despite the bookwormfact that it was our only dinner not on the beach. It was a tiny all veg restaurant (sorry, Laurence, though he didn’t seem to suffer), with about eight tables and a set menu. We quickly learned that the set menu was because it is basically home cooking. A kind woman and a small staff cook a few dishes: some dal,  a ubiquitous caramelized onion and eggplant dish, a curry made with jackfruit, pineapple curry (Tom’s favorite), and other dishes. It took us back to our meals at Mohan and Jagu’s place in Bokkapuram on our first stop, where Jagu and her helpers made for us meal after meal of amazing home cooking. If you’re ever on the Southwestern Sri Lankan coast, this is a must, whether you’re veg or otherwise. But be advised — stop by and make a reservation first. We watched family after family get turned away.

We wanted the final dinner of our vacation as a quartet to be special. Nissanka and a couple of others had recommended Refresh to us. Our first evening in Hikkaduwa we tried to go there, but we were unsatisfied with our table. It’s billed as a beach restaurant, and while we could hear the ocean out there somewhere, we were seated at a table on the other end of the very long and skinny dining area, two sections away from the ocean itself. We talked to the manager and were able to reserve one of the few tables right on the beach. We decided to make that our special culminating dinner. We were not disappointed. The food was very good, not great, as was so much of our food in Sri Lanka. Most notably, the deviled cashew curry was delightful. Cashews in a spicy cashew gravy. What can go wrong? We had seen this “deviled” label on a lot of food, and we think it has something to do with the spice mix. Regardless, what made Refresh so super special was sitting there watching the waves lap up on the shore, feeling like we were some of the few people in an otherwise very busy restaurant. It was lovely. As ever, the rhythms of ocean waves have a way of melting away any stress or worry or sadness over the impending end of a vacation. What a perfect end.

As for adventures in Hikkaduwa, while the main goal was rest and recharging for the return to work (for Tom), we did have a couple of interesting days. One day we went to Galle Fort, which dates back to the 16th century Portuguese colonists and fortified by the 17th century Dutch colonists. Now it is a cute, hip neighborhood with all kinds of shops and restaurants in super old buildings surrounded by a well-preserved protective wall. We had notions that it would be fun to come here, which were confirmed by our fabulous cousins Jim, Kristin, Sienna, Willow, and Kai Devoe-Talluto the week before our vacation, but when they told us they had had gelato at Isle of Gelato worthy of any they had enjoyed in Italy, it became a priority. Mmm. Gelato. To add to the charm of a charming town, Nissanka, our Airbnb host, was so generous of his time to drive us to Galle, about a half hour drive, and home again. He also took us on a little tour of the town that had us wanting to come back for more. It felt more like a town of Sri Lankans than Hikkaduwa, a town of tourists.

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Our other priority was swimming in the Indian Ocean. Rachel scoped out the rarest commodity on the beach — a free bit of shade. We set up camp and took turns swimming in the warm, delightful sea. It was relaxing, rejuvenating, and amazing. We simply love the ocean. Looking out at the water, head to the left, take a left, then take a right — you’re in Seattle (the Canal and Portland get a little more complicated).beachThe last morning in Hikkaduwa meant time to pack up. We bid farewell to Rachel and Laurence at the Colombo airport and spent one last night just the two of us back in Colombo. It was a wonderful end to a vacation that exceeded our lofty hopes.

Winter Break #8: Kandy

Kandy is sometimes included in the Cultural Triangle to its north and sometimes included in the hill country to its south because it lies right between the two. It’s the second largest city in Sri Lanka and was the capitol of the Sinhalese kingdom until conquered by the British in 1815. At its center is a large and beautiful lake made in 1807 with a gruesome history as workers who objected to working on it were killed on spikes at its center. There’s no evidence of that today, though!

After checking in to our lovely hotel with a balcony overlooking the lake, we headed out in hopes of getting ice cream from a place Melissa read about. Sadly, it was closed, as were many establishments because this was the first full moon of the year, an important holiday in the Buddhist tradition. We settled for inferior gelato at the mall, but it was fine. We very much enjoyed wandering through the market full of beautiful produce and then walking along the 3-mile path all the way around the lake. Along the way, we walked past the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic, which apparently holds Buddha’s tooth, rescued from his funeral pyre. A number of temples in Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa had previously made a similar claim because possession of the tooth was an indication of power. The tooth is kept inside a box inside a box inside another box, so people really just line up to the see the box, and many suggest that it actually holds a decoy with the real tooth safeguarded elsewhere. Still, white-clad pilgrims filled the grounds with reverence.

For dinner, we made our way to a delicious hotel restaurant called Cafe Mango Garden. They specialize in a “buffet” that they bring to the table. It really seemed to be the Sri Lankan version of an Indian thali with a variety of complementary dishes, all of them very tasty, but none of them featuring mango. After dinner, we went across the street to a hotel with a rooftop bar, where we learned that alcohol was not served today, again thanks to the Poya (full moon). We settled for fruit juices and then went home.

The next morning, we were greeted at breakfast with plain eggs (too runny for Melissa to eat) and plain white bread. Yup, we forgot to say that we didn’t want the boring white people food. How many times will we have to learn that lesson?!

There was no point in lingering over breakfast so we decided on two stops before heading out of town. First, we returned to the market where we bought pineapples, limes, mangoes, passion fruit, mandarins, and cashews for our stay at an Airbnb in Hikkaduwa. Then we went back to the ice cream place that was closed the day before. Sure it was only 10:30, but we were primed for this ice cream! TripAdvisor rates Cool Corner as the top rated restaurant in Kandy – how could we skip it? They make “fried” ice cream, which really means that they mix together the ingredients of your choice and then spread the liquid over a frozen platter that looks like a frying surface. This rapidly transforms your liquid into ice cream while you watch them scraping it over the surface. It’s fun to watch and very tasty, but not a great option with five people since they are made one at a time. Rachel got hers first and was done by the time the third was made. Our driver’s came last, and we all just kind of awkwardly watched him eat it. Still, it was hard to regret such a tasty treat.

We then piled into the car for the 4-hour drive to the beach community of Hikkaduwa.

Winter Break #7: The Cultural Triangle of Sri Lanka

The cultural triangle of Sri Lanka is in the center of the country, about a 4 hour drive from Colombo on the coast. When planning our trip, we were initially excited about the beaches of Sri Lanka but were soon intrigued by stories of ancient cities, cave temples, and mountain top palaces that we just had to see for ourselves.

Our home for three days was Sundaras Resort and Spa, which sounds a bit fancier than it was. There was no elevator, and we were on the 4th floor with Rachel and Laurence 20171230_175949directly above us on the 5th floor. Rooms were basic, but clean, and most showers had warm water. Luckily none of us mind stairs, and we very much enjoyed the pool with 20171230_180628swim up bar serving some lovely fresh juice cocktails (that detail allowed us to relive one of the ways we were pampered in Fiji with Elaine/Mom and Aunts Linda and Sue). We stayed in Dambulla, placing us equidistant from 2,000-year-old Anuradhapura and the

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View from our balcony

relatively youthful 1,000-year-old Polonnaruwa, as well as a short drive from the palace/fort-on-top-of-monolith Sigiriya. As an extra bonus, the cave temples of Dambulla were right down the road and visible from our hotel balconies. It was a busy and wonderful few days.

On our first full day there, our driver took us 90 minutes northwest to Anuradhapura. We had him drop us off at one end and pick us up at the other so we could walk the whole thing. It should be noted that it was hot, most days around 90 degrees with 70%+ humidity, so all the walking was ambitious but totally worth it.

Anuradhapura is a UNESCO World Heritage site with a recorded history that dates back to the 5th century BC, with archaeological evidence that goes back to the 10th century BC. It was a place of great significance, conquered and reclaimed by various rulers over 1,000 years. As we walked around, we first saw the

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Nature reclaims a monk’s dwelling

remaining ruins of the 2nd century BC Buddhist Abhayagiri Monastery that once housed 5,000 people and which the Buddha is supposed to have actually visited. Much of it is being gradually reclaimed by nature, but it’s easy to imagine the thriving center it must have once been. We then walked through the ancient citadel and then continued on to the Sri Maha Bodhi, a temple with a sacred bodhi tree at its center. This tree was grown from a cutting from the Bodh Gaya tree where Buddha attained enlightenment and has been continuously tended for 2,000 years with historical records to back up the claim, making it the oldest documented living tree in the world. The temple itself was full of people, many chanting prayers alone or in groups, creating this reverent cacophony as we walked through. The whole experience was amazing, but after 4 hours in the hot sun we were delighted to head back to the pool at our hotel.

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The next day, we went 90 minutes northwest to Polonnaruwa. Along the way, we were delighted to see a lone elephant at the edge of a lake as we passed Minneriya National Park. Of course, we got out to spend some time watching it wander and eat before continuing on.

While Anuradhapura is really large and spread out, Polonnaruwa is a bit more compact and manageable, although our determination to see it all still meant a lot of walking in the heat.

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Also a UNESCO World Heritage site, Polonnaruwa dates back to the 11th century and much of it is still intact.

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While it was all truly amazing to see, perhaps the most impactful part was Gal Vihara, a 12th century rock temple comprised of four magnificent carvings of the Buddha. As at all temples, we removed our shoes and hats to Melissa’s blistered feet. While Hindu temples often force people into close quarters that inspire jockeying for position, Gal Vihara is built to face out toward a large open area where people stand or sit to gaze and pray, with plenty of room for everyone.

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The dwarfs.

We finished the day at Polonnaruwa with a visit to the Tivanka Image House with a beautiful statue of the Buddha inside and, in20171231_133915 the words of our guidebook, “energetic dwarfs cavorting around the outside.” And of course our day wouldn’t have been complete without a bit of wildlife in the form adorable monkeys and a snake! We then met up20171231_121843 with our driver and asked him to take us to the Dambulla Cave Temples.

The Cave Temples were like nothing we’d imagined. After paying admission, we climbed over 300 steps to breathlessly get to the temples which are basically rooms carved out of the solid rock of the cliff. Inside the five rooms are an incredible number of statues of the Buddha, some clearly carved right there from the stone of the cliff while others appear to have been brought there. The largest is a 15-meter long reclining Buddha with exquisite detail. So very beautiful.

A word about the paid admission. Sri Lanka is an extraordinarily affordable place to visit, even compared to India. These ancient sites are a bit of an exception. We as foreigners each paid between $25 and $40 for each site, astronomical by South Asian standards. However, as we mentioned, most of these are UNESCO World Heritage Sites, and they are beautifully maintained, especially by South Asian standards. They are simply beautiful. We probably would have been happy to pay the fees on any occasion, but now, with the current American administration refusing to pay the US dues to UNESCO, we felt like those fees are important to pay, not just acceptable. These sites world wide must be supported so they don’t fall in to the ruin we have seen in other places. And wealthy countries like the US need to do more than their fair share.

On our final morning in Dambulla, we got up early (kind of a big deal since this was New Year’s Day) and drove the 30 minutes to Sigiriya. Laurence remembered wanting to climb Sigiriya 20 years ago, and we were all pretty excited about it. It’s definitely not a climb for the faint of heart, and not one to undertake without some serious determination. The total climb probably took only about 45-50 minutes, but that entire time is climbing straight up, often on small steps with just tiny railings to prevent a fall down the cliff. But, oh, was it amazing at the top! The early start time was key, since starting later would have meant climbing in the heat of the day in direct sunlight. The views were gorgeous, as were the ruins of the 5th century palace fortress constructed by Kassapa after he murdered his father and seized the throne. Some carvings are much older, and there may have been a monastery there before Kassapa’s arrival, but it’s easy to imagine why a vulnerable king might choose this inaccessible location.

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When we weren’t marveling at antiquities, we spent our time at our resort. We learned that Sri Lankans don’t generally eat dinner out, so restaurants are essentially creations20171231_201421 for tourists. Our dining options consisted solely of hotel restaurants, so we decided we’d be just20171231_201435 as happy at our own hotel as at anyone else’s. And the evening buffet was pretty tasty, served by the charming and very international staff. And we couldn’t beat cocktail hour split between drinks at the pool and drinks prepared by our resident mixologist, Laurence, using fresh limes and passion fruits spirited away from the breakfast buffet.

We debated our New Year’s Eve options and considered staying up until midnight as usual, but we decided that our desire to climb Sigiriya was greater than our desire to greet the new year through bleary eyes, so we went to bed around 10:30. Of course, we woke up at midnight anyway, thanks to abundant but brief fireworks.

Next, onwards to Kandy!

 

 

Winter Break #5: Tiruvannamalai

It would be difficult to come up with two more contrasting cities in India than Puducherry and Tiruvannamalai, and it was a little bit of a culture shock moving between the two. While we may have had moments of missing the cushiness of Puducherry, we were really glad that we made the trip inland.

On the way there, we stopped at Gingee, an incredible ancient fort at the top of a mountain. Started in the 9th century and greatly expanded in the 13th century, it was then seemingly conquered and possessed by every ruling power including the Brits. As we climbed the long, long stairs to the top of the hill, it was hard to imagine invading this fort, but clearly it was possible. At the top, many of the structures still stand, from granaries to meeting rooms to a temple and a mosque. The whole thing was awe-inspiring with the gorgeous vistas around us.

After climbing to the top of the one of the two hills, our driver suggested that we go to a small temple at the base of the other. We were tired and a bit reluctant, but agreed to go along. As we walked up, feeling a bit uncomfortable and unsure of what to do, an orange-clad, bearded priest started waving us over. Melissa immediately followed with Rachel and Laurence not far behind. The priest and his wife spoke almost no English but were determined that we should see and appreciate everything this small cave temple had to share, from its ornately decorated pillars to the sacred cave drawings farther inside. It was a remarkable experience that culminated with the priest refusing money and instead insisting on giving us a gift of an orange shawl and asking us to take his picture (which we happily did).

Then we were on to Tiruvannamalai! This ancient temple town is most famous for its annual festival when a fire is lit at the 1200-year-old temple at the base of the hill in the center of town, triggering another fire at the top of the hill, inspiring 3 million pilgrims to sprint up the hill to make offerings to the fire. This fire is supposed to represent the lingam of Shiva, a symbol of the procreation of the human race and Shiva’s dominance over the other gods. Apparently this fire ritual has occured in the town for the last 4,000 years and pre-dates Hinduism.

The main activities of this town are visiting the old, beautiful temple (one of the largest temple complexes in India) and walking the 14 km path around the mountain. We did both. At the temple, we admired the ornate stone carvings done so long ago, watched the temple elephant blessing people (or, in Rachel’s words, “bonking them on the head”), and saw children preparing for the priesthood.

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We then headed out for the walk that was on more of a road than a path. We were in good company with many others walking around the circuit, perhaps due to the nearness to the full moon. Every 100 meters or so, there was a temple or shrine where pilgrims were making offerings. Most of these were focused on the Shiva lingam, but a few featured Shiva and Parvati in their half-male/half-female form, or Ganesh, their elephant-headed son. In between the shrines were ashrams, one after another. This is a town that draws lots of westerners in search of enlightenment while still maintaining its Indian, non-touristy character. Even more plentiful than the ashrams and shrines were the orange-clad elders sitting or lying on the sidewalks. These are sanyasis who have renounced their worldly belongings and survive on the offerings of others, completely devoted to Shiva. Most of them were painfully thin and quite elderly. We understand that there are some charitable organizations in town that try to take care of them, but it must be a daunting task.

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The way we understand it, there are a number of gurus in Tiruvannamlai, not just in the countless ashrams, but sitting in meditation on the mountain. Apparently, people make a pilgrimage up the hill to sit with their guru. We assume this is where the guru-on-a-mountain stereotype comes from. It’s always a bit unnerving when something you assume is a silly, made up western stereotype about these Eastern cultures actually comes from a nugget of truth.

Tiruvannamalai is primarily vegetarian and alcohol-free. On our second night there, we thought we’d explore something else, so Melissa found a restaurant with reviews that touted its rooftop deck, non-veg cuisine, and bar. Strangely, they were baffled by our suggestion that we’d like to sit on the rooftop and took us to their dark, dingy bar where they had various liquors but no cocktails. We noted that we could order rum and Coke separately to create our own collegiate-style cocktails and asked if there were anywhere outside to sit. The young men who worked there were desperate to please us and led us to their garden which turned out to be lovely. Laurence was able to eat non-veg, and we were all reasonably happy (at least until Rachel’s stomach rejected the meal, but that too is part of the India experience).

In retrospect, Rachel was not pleased with the experience of Tiruvannamalai, but the rest of us were glad we went to see another side of India. Next, though, we drove early in the morning to the airport in Chennai for our flight for our next big leg of the trip. Sri Lanka, here we come!

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