Saturday, February 26, 2011

Valley of the Dolls

You all remember this image from the movie E.T., right? E.T. is hiding amongst Drew Barrymore’s dolls, trying to blend in. Steve and I have been experiencing many moments on this trip that we’ve named “E.T. moments.” The kind of moments that remind us of “Home….home….” with outstretched glowing fingers, dusty voices, and feelings of familiarity that surprise us when we’re 13h45m from our home time zone.

The city of Kathmandu, in the stunning Kathmandu valley (hence the blog title), has been a remarkable change from the feelings, smells, colours, and pace we found during our three weeks in India. It’s a welcome change – even the temp difference which forces us to exchange the thin layers of shorts and tees in exchange for long johns, gloves, and space heaters – that has struck me as being more familiar than other places we’ve been. The world is huge, we’ve proven that over the last 2 months, but there are similarities that stretch from one side of it to the other. Especially, I’ve found, in the bustling city of Kathmandu…

For starters, the colour of the sky as a result of the weather. At first, I couldn’t quite place the feeling of leave-less trees and murky sky that we flew into two days ago. The brown and brick-coloured buildings with their intricate wood carvings took on a more solid and frosty appearance than anything we’d experienced. The weather was on the verge of allowing one to see her breath as we walked through the Garden of Dreams, a mid-city garden mecca located amidst the narrow alleyways and temples. The neo-classical architecture dates back to the 1920s, commissioned by a Nepalese field marshal partial to the Edwardian style and in need of a respite in the city. Now visitors can fork up 130 rupees (slightly less than US$2.00) to stroll through the private garden or have high tea on the veranda. As a first stop in Kathmandu, this was a puzzling one – but not because of the European-influenced garden (which is kinda familiar), but because of the manner in which the dormant flora reflected the sky. I finally pinpointed the feeling: it was the silent moment in New England right before the first big snow, after the leaves have fallen off the trees. We’ve been told there are 6 seasons in Nepal, I have yet to identify the unfamiliar outstanding two (does anyone know?), but having reached the end of their wintertime, I feel at home in a way that I can only recall while strolling in winter coats along Massachusetts Avenue in Boston, or crunching over recently-frosted undergrowth in the east coast woods (much like our time at Shana and Bryan’s wedding in Poughkeepsie).

In addition to the weather, which has followed us around the city, just before leaving the Garden of Dreams, we also stumbled upon a plaque with a quotation from one of my Zaydie’s favourite books of poetry by Edward Fitzgerald, the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam. So nice to have a little reminder of him, while at the same time a reminder of home and sitting across many-a-tables hearing him recite poetry.
Another familiar aspect of this city is the people. Unlike our experience of being both the observer and the observed in India, which lasted the entire 3 weeks, the Nepalese folk we’ve found in Kathmandu have had more of a tendency to continue doing their thing with only quick glances in our direction. Perhaps I’m feeling the sense of familiarity because our experience in India was like no other and but moreso because there is an obvious efficiency in their work ethic that just continue despite the pale people wandering by that is reminiscent of some of my Western experiences. From the vendors who approach us with mandala necklaces and mini chess boards to the receptionist at our hotel, there is an outward gentility toward others that gives me a real feeling of respect and willingness to help, but also leaving me with no doubt that they’ll get it done. A salesman saw us looking at his yak wool blankets and asked if we would like to have a closer look inside his store – Steve and I, ever-prepped for a bargaining game and not in the market to make a purchase at that point, quickly shouted, “No thanks!” The man sensed our apprehension and said, “Not to worry, looking is free, take your time” and backed away. This could have been his sales pitch (that certainly worked), but we later experienced a similar “okay, not to worry” attitude coming from the vendors. This feeling of being allowed the time and space to look at something is certainly more familiar than some of the expert salespeople we’ve encountered in Thailand, Bali, and India. And we’ve many tchotchkes to prove it.


The receptionist at our hotel, who I mentioned earlier, is a no-nonsense gal. She’s sweet and respectful when we asked to stay a few more days, inquired about laundry services, etc., and then when we turned away, her voice rang out above the sound of the guitar being strummed by a fellow foreigner staying at the hotel as she instructed the doorman, server, and travel agent all at the same time about various jobs they should be getting on! You might be thinking, “Sarah, how is that an E.T. moment if the woman was just doing her job?” I can honestly attribute that feeling to my tickled egalitarian heartstrings which get plucked when a woman exerts herself in a culture where women’s rights are not equal to men’s (interesting blog post about that HERE.)
Aside from those obvious similarities that have made Kathmandu an instantly-comfortable home for 12 days, there are smaller ones as well: the smell of the fire pit at the café we visited last night bringing out memories of numerous Westfalia-based camping trips with our Vancouver peeps; hearing the attempt of an American accent when the musician sings at the bar; the almond shape of my cousin Sophie’s beautiful eyes reflected on some of the locals’; the feeling of a thick duvet on a cold winter night in Massachusetts; the taste of the local Nepalese dumpling dish (momo) that Steve has cooked as a late night stack in many of our kitchens; etc. We’ve been collecting these moments ever since we embarked on our journey 2 months ago, but for some reason, in Kathmandu Valley (of all places), I’m sensing home even more than usual. 

Have you had any “E.T. moments” while abroad that you can remember?


Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Oh Mondovi, River of My Dreams

Before I begin, I’m going to preface this blog post with a note about my mental state, which is in turn prefaced by this disclaimer – I’m very fastidious about sunscreen. At least 30 SPF, spending time in the shade, the works. But apparently Goa is only a few yards from the surface of the sun and has thwarted my careful efforts. Sarah has now taken to referring to me as “Cranky Lobsterboy” and I’m writing this blog post standing up letting five layers of aloe dry into a thick husk on my skin. (No, no picture, I just told you I was cranky.) So, disclaimer written, here we go.
Goa only became an Indian state in the mid-1980s, before that it was run by the militia who in turn took it from the Portuguese who had been running the show for 450 years (which still doesn’t explain why there are so many signs in Russian around, but I digress). We stayed in the capital city of Panjim, which akin to Bangalore, is not a particularly tourist-oriented place. But unlike Bangalore, Panjim looks like it has been plucked from Portugal, shaken out of any Portuguese people, dropped into India, and fallen somewhat into disrepair. It’s enough to almost trick the mind into thinking you should be looking for a boulangerie (or at least a place that sells aloe lotion. When you ask, shopkeepers generally smile knowingly at your lobster-esque appearance and shake their head).

One of the days in Panjim we took a long cruise up the Mondovi River to check out Old Goa from the river and poke around a spice plantation (the blog title is a little shout out to Rollaway, the band Sarah sings with who released their new album recently). Old Goa, just up the road from Panjim, used to be the capital city and was known as the “Rome of the East,” during which time it had a larger population than London. It was a huge trading hub and is dotted with massive churches left over from this era (1600-1800s). The city eventually lost its influence as a trading hub to other larger ports and in the mid-1800s was hit so hard with malaria and cholera that it was completely abandoned in 1835. Completely abandoned! I kept thinking of what London would have been like if it had been completely abandoned during the Black Plague.

Even now, Old Goa is only a shell of its former self (the guidebook recommends not staying the night here) and only the massive churches built long ago remain, though most are crumbling and some are in ruins. It’s a bit haunting to see them jutting out through the jungle as we cruised by on the river. Along the edge of the water, there is a bustle of fishing activities amidst the ancient stone walls and entranceways that remain.

Ok enough of the boring history lesson, onto the real reason we’re here:  describing how a pair of pale travelers with weak tongues did tasting the wares at the spice plantation. Fortunately I had not yet acquired my current *ahem* rosy hue, though by the end of our time at the Tropical Spice Plantation, I’m sure my cheeks were just as red. They seem to grow a little of everything at this massive place including pepper, basil, beetil, cardamom, vanilla, and many others. We got to touch and taste the spices on the trees, bushes and roots on which they grow, then sample the finished product in a traditional Goan clay pot lunch. Delicious and spicy.

With enough rice and water to soothe the palate, we did quite well.

On the ride back along the river we passed many of these fishing boats with the long bamboo poles sticking out. We, very naively, assumed the poles were spears and we very impressed that they could see the fish much less skewer them in the turbulent water. But as we watched, we realized that nets are attached to the poles and are thrown out and brought in by hand as the boat skirts the current.  I assume we didn’t catch on because our picture of a fishing boat is à la The Perfect Storm, with big nets hanging from metal arms manned by guys in Irish wool sweaters speaking with nearly unintelligible accents.  

Watching the Indian fishermen work the nets by hand seemed so labour- and time-intensive, but thinking about it, I realized I’d seen lots of examples of labour-intensive work and I think this might be indicative of a larger truth about the Indian economy and workforce. India has the largest gap between the rich and the poor of any country in the world, and combined with an extraordinarily low minimum wage, I’m wondering if this leads to enough cheap labour that buying the machines to do the work has, in many cases, become uneconomical.

I can think of lots of examples where this may be true. Fishing is done by hand, laundry is done by hand (often in the river and dried on the rocks), even moving dirt and rocks is done by hand where, in our minds, a simple wheelbarrow would have done the job faster and easier. If that is the case, it creates a situation of pretty extreme exploitation. The cheap, back-breaking labour is fuelling the massive wealth of the privileged Indian class. But then again there is so much poverty that paying the paltry amount for someone to carry your rocks around all day instead of buying a machine means those labourors can afford to feed their kids at night. It would be better to give them a decent wage, but when it’s the difference between feeding the kids and not, the lines of right and wrong start to get blurred.

But who knows, it’s only been a few weeks in India and I might just be a cranky lobsterboy westerner who’s realizing that the harder he looks at Indian society, the more complex the picture gets. Has anyone else whose travelled around India noticed this or had other conclusions?

Saturday, February 19, 2011


We now interrupt your regularly scheduled blog post to give you a blog in two parts – the first announcing the winner(s) of our “Guess how much we paid for Valentine’s Day Dinner” contest and the second is related, but a slight detour from our usual travel posts.

Part One: And the winners are…

India is a remarkable place to travel not only because the culture is like none other we’ve ever experienced, but for two frugal travellers, it’s extremely easy to stay within, if not well under your budget!  So, many of you were close…the ballpark 200-250 rupee guesses (thanks, Joel and Noah) were a bit low (that’s about US$ 5.00), but indeed a good guess as we’ve had many meals that were close and/or under that.  The free guess (thanks, Paul) would have been nice, alas, ain’tnothing free in India.  Taking photos (such as the one below) can cost you up to US$2.00.  But the TWO ladies, very near and dear to our hearts, who guessed the same price at $9.00 are:

TIANNA HUSTON and KELLY MCCARTHY!  Indian goodies will be in the mail soon…

We, in fact, paid $9.50 for our splurge of a V-Day dinner.  We shared a delicious Special Veggie Thali (a platter of squash and veggie korma, rice, chapatti, and some other delicious mouth-burning side dishes – US$2.50), a PalakPaneir dish (spinach and potato) + chapatti (US$2.50), one mango and one papaya lassi (US$2.00), and a yummy dessert of nutella, banana, and coconut crepe (US$1.50), plus tax and tip, bringing us up to $9.50.  We probably won’t ever have a V-Day meal that cheap again. 

Congrats, ladies.  We think you two and your respective hubs and fams (yay, Kent, Jake, and Jimmy Mac!) should visit India sometime to try out your price-guessing skills first hand.  

Part Two: A Day in the Life…

Whether it is through the occasional query on family Skype calls or in the emails from friends that read “I know you’re busy…,” I’ve been sensing a curiosity as to how we spend our days on the road.  I would like to take a short break from our usual site-specific post to give you a glimpse into a day in the life of Steve and Sarah.  Of course, every day is new and different with each passing country, city, and cuisine, but there are several daily occurrences that have become as familiar and predictable as…say...a hot shower used to be. 
If you’re curious – read on, if not – Steve will be telling you all about our travels in the Indian state of Goa shortly.

(Please note: Times are relative depending on jet lag, bleating goat noise outside our bedroom, or the frequent need to just go with the flow.)

6:30-7:30ish  Wake up: Sarah is usually cradling her Mona Lisa pillow and Steve is cocooned inside his sleep sack (photos below).  Mona has come in handy, acting as a.) a stuffed animal-surrogate, b.) apillow for airport sleeps, or c.) a meditation pillow for the brief attempts at the end of our yoga sessions.  The sleeps sacks have also come in handy when we’re a.) too cheap/frugal to rent a room with sheets or b.) tooweirded out by the sheets provided.

7:30-7:45ish  Yoga (yes, Geraldine, yoga).  Happily, yoga has started most of our days.  Our sessions usually last about 30-45 minutes and hardly have us doing no-hand headstands in Hampi, but making (and having) the time for a little stretching in the morning has made our long-walking days and sore backs from harder-than-we’re-used-to mattresses all the more bearable.That, and our arms are looking buff. :)

8:30ish Post- (and sometimes during) yoga music.  Out trusty iTunes has come in handy by reminding us of home with some familiar tunes.  Paul Simon, Gillian Welch, Ray LaMontagne, and The Great Lake Swimmers have set some nice, homey tones for the days.  

During this time, we also embark on some shower and washing up journeys – most of which have consisted of conserving water via Navy showers (turning off the water when soaping up) or bathing in buckets left in the bathrooms.  About 30% of our showers have been sans hot water, but then again, over 80% of our weather has been tee-shirt weather.  It’s an easy trade off.  We’ve both gotten quite good at the bucket baths and brushing our teeth with bottled water.  And, it’s also worth mentioning, I have a new and immense appreciation the western toilet.  I’ll leave it at that.

9:00ish  Breakfast – sometimes included in our accommodations, sometimes not.  We tend to cling to western favourites (eggs, fruit salad, muesli, yogurt) and also, we’ve tended to stick to one place once we find a place we like.  The servers are often sad to see us go when we (mainly Sarah) share that “it’s our last morning here!”It’s nice to feel like regulars on the other side of the world.

9:45ish Packing the bag for the day – Sunscreen, check!  Camera, check!  Bug spray, check!  Kleenex, check!  Digestion-aiding enzymes, check! Books, check!  Water, check!  Money, check!  “Okay, come on, Sarah….let’s go….”  (Yeah, I tend to take a little while to pack up where as Steve could fall out of bed and go.)  Sometimes the bag-packing feels a bit like Mom sending me off to the first day of school with all new my pencils, erasers, folders, lunch boxes, gym clothes, locker combinations, etc., but on the rare occasion that Steve’s gotten a sunburned neck or Sarah’s had the sniffles, it’s nice to have all the supplies readily available.

10:00-1:00ish  A fun local activity!  This can be anything from visiting Buddhas in Bangkok, to touring ruins in Hampi, to roaming through neighbourhoods in Ubud, to browsing for pieces of local art in Sydney.  We find we’re usually good for a solid 3+ hours before the hottest part of the day sets in.

1:00ish Lunch – this can be anything from a local cheap eat to a picnic on the grass with the Tupperware we bought in Melbourne (one of our best purchases by far).  Our picnics tend to consist of hard-boiled eggs, fresh veggies, cheese, and (in India) some “just open and serve” lentil dishes.  

2:00-4:00ish Another fun local activity!  If we were hard-core tourists in the morning, we’ll make our afternoons more low key, or vice versa.  Of course, we always allow ourselves the downtime needed to not run ourselves into the ground during these five months.

 4:00ish  Cold or hot drink and a read – we’ve naturally fallen into the habit of having an afternoon drink (iced tea, lassi, chai, etc.) coupled with either reading, writing, journaling, knitting, catching up on emails, or just people-watching for a few hours before evening time.  Steve’s been a superstar with his writing (book, blog, etc), meanwhile, Sarah alternates between knitting a baby blanket for her childhood friend and hub’s (yay, Kelly and Jake!) baby due this summer, reading, or journaling.  This downtime has been such a lovely part of the trip.  The act of disappearing into a book and/or world-escaping activity has made the exploratory parts of the trip that much more doable.  

6:30-7:00ish  Dinner – like lunch, we’ll either sample the local cuisine or have a picnic at home.  Often this is a great chance to reflect on the day, or to just enjoy each other’s company with a glass of wine and silence. 

Evening time – During this time, we end up doing any number of activities: catch a local dance performance, slowly stroll home the long way, look through our photos, write on the blog, pop in for dessert somewhere, or, really, anything we’re up for.  

So there you have it: a day in the life of Steve and Sarah.  Our days have been so filled with many wonderful things that it’s important to be flexible at any given time during the day to allow for more wonderful things to happen.  But as creatures of habit, the above-mentioned schedule tends to be a fairly regular one.  That is, of course, unless we must take a 12-hour sleeper bus across Indian states, succumb to spending the day in bed due to an unhappy tummy, or are just feeling like lounging on the beach/in a park/at a café from 9:00am-4:00pm.  Part of getting to know the places we’ve visited has been about just being ourselves in different locales.  It’ll be fun to see how new places and additional people (yippee Mom and Pete!) throughout the rest of our trip will alter our daily goings-on.  

In the meantime, the journey continues…

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Mining the Centuries in Hampi

There seem to be two kinds of tourist attractions in the world – the first, like the dinosaur park in Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure, that leave you more than a little underwhelmed, and the second, like Hampi, where you put up with the loads of tourists, the endless offers for rickshaws and trinkets, and the occasional scam because when you visit the actual sites, your jaw drops.

Hampi (pronounced Haum-pee) is a town built on top of, inside of, and around a massive medieval city that during the 1500s was the one of the major seats of power in India. It’s situated along a river, amidst mountains of building-sized boulders left over from the retreat of the glaciers during the last Ice Age. At one point over 500,000 people lived here, including traders from Asia, the Middle East and farther abroad. In 1565 a massive attack by the Deccans completely destroyed the seat of power, but many of the sites have remained.

Sarah and I began by wandering through the Hampi Bazaar towards the ruins you can glimpse behind the little girl in the picture. (The photos roughly follow the course of our adventures). We climbed up the steps and through the temple, leaving the tourists, shops and noise behind and as we reached the summit of the hills (which strangely resemble the landscape and foliage of Joshua Tree National Park, CA), we looked down upon the Sule Bazaar, one of the less visited and haunting sites around. We were the only visitors in the nearly kilometer long set of ruins, in which nearly all of the stone pillars and temples remain. Intricate carvings of the Hindu gods remain (Hanuman, Krishna, Shiva, etc.) and the stone stalls feel like the vendors that used them 500+ years ago have only just left for the afternoon.

The second ancient site we visited was the Vitthala Temple, which is the best preserved out of all of the sites. It is an extensive complex of temples and public areas, including a stone chariot that used to run and a majestic tree growing right out of the stone courtyard. It was early morning when we arrived so we had the place to ourselves, but as we sat and watched, the tourists began to roll in. Most of the tourists to this site are Indian, with a good dash of Westerners mixed in as well, making it a fascinating place to people watch. In my head, I was busy imagining life here in the 1500s, traveling for months with caravans packed with goods for the marketplaces to arrive at this spot, but watching the women and men in brightly-colored saris and wraps wander through the site, I began to think about the ways in which contemporary culture in India intertwines with the very present artefacts from the past.

I can only offer the most cursory observations as an outside observer for a short period of time, but some things seem to stick out. For instance, the physical way in which the ancient sites are both revered and put to use. There are ruins nearly everywhere you look, and as you can see in some of the pictures, many local houses are built using them as a frame. This is not just a juxtaposition, but also an intermixing of the ancient and new. There are, of course, no examples of sites this old in the States or Canada, but what does remain from the distant past seems to be venerated and put behind glass as opposed to be lived in and used in this way. Which is not to say that Hampi is not respected for its antiquity – the entire village that exists here now has banned alcohol and meat (arg) out of respect for the holiness of the sites. It is just a different relationship to the past than we are used to.

I’ve also noticed that the revered position of the Hindu gods demonstrated by the intricate carvings and temples in the sites is reflected in the culture today. There is a huge number of gods in the Hindu pantheon and you see small, modern temples and shrines throughout the village of Hampi. What you also see is an amazing respect for the temples built in the 1300-1400s. Flowers and offerings dot the sights and I would imagine this is a large part of the reason that many Indian families visit these sites in their travels.

The broad range of Hindu gods also creates a situation where the popularity of certain gods fluctuates dramatically through the centuries. The big ones seem to remain constant, but we’ve seen stone depictions of many gods that have since fallen out of broad public attention (for instance, Naga, a god with a human torso and a snake lower half). The monuments remain though, dotting the ancient sites, and I can only imagine that many more hundreds of years will pass and perhaps these neglected gods will come back into favour, their dusty statues from the 1400s will be dusted off, and flowers will be laid at their feet again.

We will sadly be leaving Hampi tomorrow, and due to some rejigging of our schedule, will be taking the overnight “sleeper” bus to Goa. We’ve heard from many fellow travelers (thanks Anna!) that it’s a beautiful place with a mix of beaches and history and we are excited to arrive.

P.S. It’s blog contest time! Hampi is filled with many local and national artists selling beautiful sculptures, textiles, and jewellery. Write a comment on the blog with your guess at how much our delicious Valentine’s Day dinner in Hampi cost. The commenter who guesses the closest will receive a little prize package from India in the mail. :)