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Posts Tagged ‘travel’

Dad with a turban

“Hey Al, what do you think of this?”

I looked up from the enormous pile of intricately designed camel leather shoes. My dad was sporting a large colorful turban and laughing to himself.

“Are you really buying that?” I said.

“Oh, I already did. The guy was wearing it so I know it’s really great. It makes me look like the Maharishi.”

“You mean Maharaja.”

“Yes!”

Traveling in India with parents is one part hilarious adventure and one part I-am-an-adult-so-I-must-not-get-frustrated-or-embarrassed-by-my-relations.

They arrived on a Thursday night after I had stood nervously at the outdoor arrivals area waiting for them. I knew I couldn’t miss them in the sea of Indian faces – especially my mom’s shock of blond hair. I waited and waited, nervous that they would get lost or go the wrong way. Daniel kept laughing at me and reminding me that they had survived their entire lives; they could make their way out of an airport. But this was India and this was foreign to them and I wanted more than anything for them to love it here as much as I do.

When I saw them I ran out, excitedly. They were fine – and as ready to embrace India as I was.

All of us at VT in Mumbai

Their first days in Mumbai I tried to warn them about everything- don’t brush your teeth with tap water; don’t eat that tomato until it’s been cooked; no ice; wash your hands; look the other way when you’re crossing. Every time they would just remind me that they were only eating things I gave them and that they were following me, so I shouldn’t worry.

The funniest thing is that once again their biggest problem was with me: while buying my mom a kurta in Bandra’s winding stalls on Linking Road my dad stopped me mid-haggle.

“You’re arguing over $2! You’re being rude to a grown man!”

“It’s not being rude- it’s just how business is done here! He offers me a price, I counter with something much, much lower, then we argue, we both say we’re insulted, I begin to walk away, he offers me a new price, I counter. Trust me, Indians haggle much more than I’m haggling now.”

But everywhere we went it disturbed them that their little girl was always wary, always ready to argue over a price or a bill. I’m so used to it now that I don’t even notice. But they certainly did.

Mumbai's dhobi ghat

They were, however, much happier with Mumbai than they were with my haggling.  They loved the gothic architecture of South Mumbai. They were amused by the plethora of Indian tourists wanting pictures with them at the Gateway of India – villagers who wanted to show they’d seen a real-live white person. They marveled at the fishermen as they cut off fish heads and re-tied their bright blue nets. They listened intently as our guide explained the dobi ghats, the vast outdoor laundry business.  My mom chatted up our tour guide at every stop trying to understand each complexity of this new place she was in.

All my fears about India overwhelming them were unfounded. They took in every sight, asked every question and continuously seemed amazed by the beauty amidst the chaos. I was really proud that they were enjoying ‘my’ city so much.

Mehrangarh fort

But the trip must continue and so off we went to Rajasthan – the capital of tourist India but the place that inspires so many dreams of Maharaja’s forts and palaces towering over cities and colorful saris against a desert backdrop.

We started in Jodhpur and the Mehrangarh fort there took my breath away – I’ve purposely stayed away from every place I was visiting with my parents so I could be as surprised as they were. And this truly was stunning- 400 feet up a steep hill and very well preserved. It was built in the 16th century and when you walked up the ramparts into the fortressed walls, you felt like you were stepping into another time.  We wandered around, listening to a particularly engrossing audio guide, and enjoyed the scene. I also enjoyed watching as my dad sat down to ‘learn’ sitar with a musician, decided to take pictures in a funny maharaja photo booth and put on the aforementioned turban.  For all my attempts to be a non-tourist, it was hard to resist watching.

A view of Jodhpur, the 'blue city', from above

 

Mom with one of the cows she loves so much

Dad's new best friend selling him a painting while on an elephant

The hijinks continued as we made our way to Jaipur. We stood in line for an elephant ride up to the Amber Fort and I was finally vindicated – after warning everyone, once again, that being polite would only make all the sellers think you were willing to buy something, my dad politely declined a painting a man was trying to sell him.  For the next 20 minutes the man whispered in his ears, tapped on his shoulders,  lowered his price and generally berated my dad. When he asked for help I just reminded him that my brand of helping would be construed by him as ‘rude’. When the guy followed him up the ramparts even as they were on the elephant I couldn’t stop laughing – the polite tourists finally gave way to realistic understanding of the new culture (although, just to make it stop, my dad did buy the painting).

It’s wonderful seeing India through fresh eyes and it’s really a treat to see the majesty that Rajasthan has to offer. Tonight we drive to Agra and tomorrow morning at sunrise we’ll be greeted by India’s greatest treasure- the Taj Mahal.

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Kerala

In Kerala you can almost feel the world creaking to a halt and demanding that you stop along with it. Whether standing to watch waves crash against a cliff or gazing into the hazy distance of the backwaters, all you can do is just stand still and watch as the beauty of the world happens right in front you, slowly but deliberately.

The view from our hotel in Varkala

After running around Sri Lanka, arriving on the beach in Varkala was a welcome change. I’m not normally a person who likes vacationing on beaches, but Varkala was a little moment of perfection.

Fishermen with their nets in Varkala

We were staying on Odayam beach, away from the tourist-hub on the cliff and a place where fisherman outnumbered tourists.  I found myself watching them, wondering what they must think of this recent foreign infiltration of their beaches. They didn’t seem fazed – some fisherman sat carefully carving and piecing together oars, while others tied up fishing line.  The small bungalows and boutique hotels that had started to pop up around them didn’t change the work they had clearly been doing for generations.

We spent the day in the most relaxing of fashions – staring at the sea, swimming in the sea, and eating.

Incredible huge prawns

The fisherman certainly weren’t for show – at night when you stroll along Kerala’s cliff-front hub (if you walk a little bit off course you’ll find yourself in a straight long drop down into the sea), you can survey the wares at each restaurant because they keep the seafood right out front. You can make a decision based on what you see – does that marlin look fresh to you? How about this barracuda at the restaurant over here? Or how about the huge tiger prawns that look more like lobsters? You pick your food after looking at it up close and then the price haggling begins. It’s quite a way to start a dining experience before you’ve even sat down.

It was a much-needed respite from reality. Swimming in the waves and having a cup of tea looking out at the horizon it felt a little bit like we had found our own secret place in the world. I would have been sorry to go except that I was even more intrigued by Kerala’s more famous attraction: the backwaters.

View of the backwaters from the tip of our boat

Having read Arundhati Roy’s the God of Small things many years ago, I’ve always been intrigued by the depth and beauty of her descriptions of the Keralan backwaters. I had always wanted to languidly cruise through the canals and jungles I’d pictured in my mind. I worried that the proliferation of backwater tours and houseboats might ruin the experience – but I was ready to take the chance.

We boarded our very own houseboat early in the day and began slowly making our way along the backwaters. The beauty of this experience is that there is literally nothing to do but sit and gawk at the beauty of it all. As the boat cruised along we attempted to read or have conversations, but they continually got interrupted by someone saying, “Oh wait, but look at THAT”. And the ‘that’ they were usually pointing at was a far-reaching landscape.

A view of the backwaters as the sun goes down

The backwaters look like something you’d only see in a movie that has an other-worldly setting. Small plants grow up in the middle of each canal or lake, as though they are rooted only in water. We found ourselves first in an expansive lake with palm trees and bird-filled paddies in the distances and then later in smaller canals, bordered on either side by a jungle of trees growing straight from the water.

A woman doing laundry in her backwater-adjacent home

In many of these canals entire villages flourished, their pace of life dictated by the narrow strips of land they lived on and the water-buses that ferried them and their neighbors around. Like the Varkala fishermen, I wondered how odd it must be for these people living this rural, water-logged existence to see the ever-growing stream of boats with white people staring back at the beauty of their lives. But our captain seemed to think (however biased he must have been) that the growth in the industry was positive, since many of these people now were able to get higher-paying jobs in tourism.

A typical houseboat on the water

It was a bizarre experience, sleeping on a boat while mostly trying to avoid the onslaught of mosquitos that had come as night fell. But enjoying breakfast and a cup of tea in the morning light was really priceless. I could understand why the place had inspired such vivid prose from Roy.

We left the boat and headed for our last stop – Kochi, an old Portuguese colony at Kerala’s northern end. It was a sudden change from the rural waters, but it was made all the more easy after being welcomed at Sui House, a 3-room bed-and-breakfast run by a wonderful family who also specializes in selling antiques (so you can imagine how beautiful the furniture was). After an explanation of the sights to see we went exploring.

The beautiful Sui House

The main attraction, for us at least, in Kochi was the city’s 16th century Paradesi synagogue (The oldest in the ‘Commonwealth,’).

Inside the synagogue, courtesy of Creative Commons since no photos were allowed

It was a strange sight seeing a colonial-era Jewish house of worship in the middle of an Indian town, but it was beautiful. It was made funny by the fact that everyone calls the area where the synagogue is located, “Jew Town.” I guess that would explain why the owner of the hotel had no problem asking, “Are you Jew?” The population has dwindled (it’s estimated less than 20 Jews still live in Kochi) but enough people have stayed along to make sure the synagogue remains – and it was really beautiful. Kochi is the kind of city you imagine colonial India to be – still as crazy as ever, but with the architectural and culinary flourishes left over from a past era. It was a fitting way to end our trip.

As we left Kerala behind to go back to Mumbai I couldn’t help but try to spend my last moments soaking it all in, because that to me was the best of Kerala: taking the beauty from the beaches to the city and enjoying it at the pace Keralans seem to demand from its visitors. I hope I can someday make my way back to stand still and enjoy once again.

(Also – there are a few new signs added from this trip to the Amazing Signage tab at the top, if anyone was hoping for more!)

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Malaysia

Anyone who knows me will have noticed by now that a major character in my life has been missing from this blog: Food.

Yes, my favorite thing in the world has gone unmentioned because, while I loved the sights and people and culture of Indonesia, I found that the food didn’t knock my socks off. I got into the Nasi Gorings and the Pisang Gorangs (that would be fried rice and fried banana to those of you who inexplicably do not speak Javanese) — but, as they say, it wasn’t anything to write home about. When I crossed the border into Malaysia, however, I found enlightenment.

Where did I find it? In the form of cheesy crabs.

What is a cheesy crab you might ask? Well, it’s very simple and yet while you’re eating it you can’t possibly imagine ever eating anything else again. You take crab meat out of the shell. Mix in some cheese. Put the mixture back in the shell. Then bake. Whoah nelly.

Georgetown architecture

Daniel and I began our time in Malaysia on the island of Penang, which is known as the culinary capital of Malaysia. The main town, Georgetown, has beautiful colonial architecture and is a UNESCO heritage sight. But none of that really matters while you’re eating cheesy crab.

And not just cheesy crab. We also had this dish that consisted of fresh oysters cooked (baked? fried? who knows) into an egg mixture with some herbs and a tomato sauce on top. Or, at another restaurant, we had a lemongrass prawn curry whose sauce I could have just kept eating all day. It was pure delight.

After our food binge in Penang we hopped over to the island of Langkawi. This was intended to be our 2 days of ‘beach time’. Again, anyone who knows me knows that I am not one for sitting on a beach. But Langkawi is a breathtaking combination of stunning beaches, towering mountains, and jungles that come right down to the surf. So while in Langkawi I mostly just read under a tree, looked at the ocean and enjoyed the moment of peace and calm before heading back into Mumbai (while thinking of cheesy crab).

The beach, jungles and mountains of Langkawi

I’d also found some unexpected comforts here. As I’ve been away it’s been continually hard to reconcile the distance that separates me and the people I love. There have been moments where the unfamiliarity has hit me.

But I was lucky enough to have a quick succession of little signs telling me that wherever I am in the world, home is always close by. My first day in Langkawi I was walking along the beach when I saw a sand dollar – it was smaller and more misshapen than the ones we find in South Carolina. But it was undeniably from the same family. A few moments later as I sat reading, I saw that the guy sitting in front of me had a shirt with a palmetto… and a crescent moon… and when he stood up I saw it read “Charleston, SC.” I struck up a conversation with him and it turned out that he had lived in Charleston for a few years and was from Virginia originally. A little piece of home all the way out here with me. I hope that moments like that can help relieve the pangs for home as my days in Asia turn into weeks and months.

We left Langkawi for Kuala Lampur, a complete turnaround. KL (as they call it here) is about as modern a city as you can imagine. We pulled into our hotel and across the street I saw a mall with a ‘Forever 21’ and down the road was a Starbucks. Everything is clean and sleek and anything that hasn’t been built is certainly in the process of being built.

We went to Chinatown for lunch and had another amazing meal. We had laksa, a coconut shrimp soup. We walked around the city’s Chinatown and I couldn’t stop marveling at how the old colonial architecture melded together with the shiny new. It will be an interesting juxtaposition to go back to Mumbai.

But go back we will. Tomorrow night we’ll leave Malaysia and board a plane back to our new home. With our apartment (hopefully? theoretically?) ready for moving in it’ll be round two in the adventures of setting up our life. I think after our time away we’re ready to go back. We’re once again ready to let India take us in.

Addendum:
As I was going through pictures I realized that we were constantly taking pictures of particularly funny signs. Malaysia seems to have an abundance of them. I’m going to share a few below:

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Bali

(Side note: I’ve gotten a lot of emails asking why I haven’t been writing. I see this blog more as a place to share my experiences living in a new culture, not as much a travel blog. So while I’m travelling I won’t be writing every day, but I will be posting a few times. We’ll be back in India June 30th though!)

So…

The second time we tried, India let us go. And we arrived in Bali – a tropical mountainous volcanic paradise halfway around the world from where we started in New York.

Mount Batukaru and rice paddies

We drove an hour and a half north to Ubud, which is in the center of the island. When most people think of Bali, they do not first think of Ubud (unless you’ve read Eat Pray Love where Ubud features prominently. And at this point it seems everyone has read it). Bali to most people is beaches, partying and, unfortunately, nightclub bombings.

Daniel and a monkey side by side in the Monkey Forest

But Ubud is a thousand years away from any party central you can imagine. Ubud is an ancient city hidden among jungles and mountains. When we arrived we first went to a forest that is literally called “Monkey Forest.” It’s called this because when you walk inside you curiously find yourself walking along with hundreds of monkeys. Most are waiting for you to feed them one of the bananas you can purchase at the entrance (“Official Monkey Forest Bananas”. The only thing official about them is that they are 10 times the price of a normal banana). But these monkeys live among thousand year old temples in a forest sanctuary. Let me just say it is not something you see every day.

Daniel and Ali in Monkey Forest temple

Our first night we met a driver named Wayan, and we agreed with him that he would take us on our varying excursions over the next few days. Meeting Wayan I think was the luckiest part of our stay in Bali – but as Wayan would say, “You do good things, so you have good karma, so good things come back to you.” That is the wisdom of Wayan. He is a man who owns his own business in partnership with his friends, speaks three languages (English, Japanese and Balinese) and is devoutly Hindu. I think that the wisdom of Wayan should be written down somewhere, so I shall do it here. A sampling:

“No one feel stress as long as they don’t have target. Target means you must make more money than you make now or must get better job. But without target, you just happy living your life.”

or

“I do not understand Muslim Jihad. Why would they want to hurt people? Jihad brings very bad karma I think.”

or, after Daniel asks how the government prevents tax evasion in cash businesses like his:

Me and Wayan on a rice paddy

“Yes, the government doesn’t know what I do. But God does. So even if I get away with it with government, I would not really get away with it. Bad karma.”

Karma. What a beautiful amazing concept. It drives Wayan and it certainly seems like a very good way to live. But, as you learn wherever you go in the world, people can lead happy successful lives but they are still only privy to the knowledge that their society affords them. And while Wayan lives by his karmic wisdom, not everyone around him does. For example, when we ask Wayan if he has a website he says he can’t have one anymore, because its too expensive. But more importantly, it’s too dangerous because the website operators in Bali will take bribes to steal emails from their site and give the emails to competitors. If they pay even a day late the operators will send viruses to their computers.

Seriously.

So Daniel very animatedly told Wayan about how you can build a website for free or even just get a domain name very cheaply. It really hit home that education and technology can do so much to even the playing field in a world where monopolizers will take what they can when they can. So, while I write this, Daniel is currently helping Wayan build his website. Wayan says this is good karma. I certainly hope so, because we need it after our initial difficulties in India.

Gunung Kawi

Prayer march at Besakih

But beyond website building we’ve also been able to explore the incredible and varied sights of Bali. On our first day with Wayan we went to a number of ancient Hindu temples, such as Besakih, which was built in the 14th century at the foot of a large volcano. You can’t imagine a more beautiful view.

Besakih

On our second day we decided to take the more scenic route and go for a hike near Munduk, in the north of Bali. Wayan took us to meet his friend Budi, whose family owns a plantation in Munduk and gives tours of the plantation and the nearby waterfalls. It turned out that Budi was no ordinary tour guide – he speaks 5 languages, has a civil engineering degree from a university in Tokyo, is an architect, and is sought after for his knowledge of coffee, specifically the rare Kopi Luwak coffee (if you’re thinking this is the world’s most expensive coffee that is made after a cat-like creature digests the beans, then you are correct).

Daniel and Budi in Munduk

And yet, when Budi was asked to speak in Denmark about his architecture (he designs and builds villas when he’s not running the plantation or showing people around the plantation. Naturally.) he didn’t enjoy it because the cold was too off-putting. Like most Balinese people he can’t really imagine why anyone would want to live anywhere else.

And when you tour the plantation with Budi you tend to agree with him.

What I’ve come away with from my trip to Bali is that for all the amazing things there are to see, the people here are very special and that whatever their station in life is, they all tend to find comfort just in being from Bali. I think that in itself describes the beauty of the island.

I know this blog is more about people than places, but for the rest of our visit the pictures truly are worth more than any thousand words I could write. I also have included a video – because things like monkeys up close, sprawling vistas, waterfalls and loud bugs that sound like the whole world is coming to an end are things you can only watch for yourself.

Gungung Agung

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