Archive for December, 2007

While travel has innumberable benefits, one of the greatest is perspective.  When you see how others live and the challenges they face, you can better understand your place in the world.  Although I’ve visited many places, I’ve never found a better place to learn perspective than in India.  I’ve always said that I wish all Americans could spend just a few hours in India so they could realize how blessed most Americans are.

Shanna’s father is involved with an organization called CRY, a non-profit whose primary goal is to provide education to children in India who would otherwise go without.  CRY has projects throughout India, including several in Delhi.  Using his contacts, Shanna’s father organized a trip to one such project for me, Shanna and her parents.
Quickly after turning off a main road outside Delhi, we came upon a slum area like nothing I’ve ever seen.  The ground was a dry, dusty dirt that looked as if it hadn’t seen water in years, and the “homes” were makeshift tents that had been built with scraps found in the garbage dump located a few hundred yards away.  As we walked through the village, we were swarmed by children and intrigued adults whose clothes were mostly ripped and filthy dirty.  Many of the children were without clothes at all, and shoes were a luxury in which few had the means to indulge.  Our hearts sank.

The representatives of CRY, including one of the teachers from the village, led us around this village and two others within walking distance.  The villages are mostly made up of nomadic people who have left their prior homes and made their way to Delhi in search of a better life.  If this way of life is any improvement to their prior one, I can’t even begin to picture what that one must have been like.  The villagers spend their days attempting to make money any way they can, including “ragpicking,” where they sift through the garbage left at the dump next to the village in hopes of finding anything of value. In a perverse manner of environmental service, much of their success in ragpicking includes finding and selling recyclable goods (such as plastic water bottles).  The remainder of their time is consumed with basic survival, including the daily carrying of water jug by jug from a nearby water source with – to say the least – questionable sanitation levels.
In these villages, where basic needs are barely met, education of children is an afterthought.  Many of the children start trying to earn money for their families – including by way of begging – soon after they’re able to walk.  In some cases, parents have to be convinced that education is a valuable use of their child’s time.  After all, every hour in school is another hour where money is not made (and food purchased with that money is not put on the table).

With its funds, CRY has set up schools in each of the three villages we visited.  In one case, the school met under a tent; in the other two, children learned in a windowless stone hut.  Noticeably absent were any of the items you see in most classrooms in America: no computers (you need electricity for that…), no chairs and no desks. Some of the children simply had a small chalkboard and a piece of chalk – we were told that this was preferred to pencils and paper because a constant supply of paper would be cost-prohibitive.

Even with these seemingly insurmountable hurdles, the smiles on the children’s faces were impossibly big.  They took turns singing us songs they had learned in school, most of which were laden with inspirational lyrics.  Shanna’s mom, a pre-school teacher in Michigan, taught a few songs to the children.  They were quick learners and seemed starved for interaction.  As we made our way out of the village, we passed by one of the classrooms where the children were sitting outside in a circle (on the dirt, of course) and playing a modifed version of duck, duck, goose – a playful escape from their dim reality.

We all came away from the experience with deep appreciation for the life we have at home, sadness for the inhabitants of these villages, disbelief that this can exist just a few miles from the opulence that exists in parts of Delhi, guilt for the excesses of our lives and resolve to support organizations like CRY.

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Until last week, all of my impressions of Indian weddings were based on Monsoon Wedding, my favorite movie of all time.  Little did I know that some Indian weddings are of a variety even better than the ones seen on the big screen.

The stars of this show were my cousin, Priya, and her now-husband, Druv.  Our family poured in from around the U.S. and throughout India to join in the celebrations, which kicked off with a cocktail party that would put Bollywood to shame.  There was a rose petal-lined red carpet that led to a huge, red tent, crowds grooving to bhangra tunes and waiters bearing trays of multi-colored kamikaze shots.  Enough said.
Next came the traditional pre-wedding application of henna to the hands of many female family members (myself included!) and to the hands and feet of the bride.  (The henna-application process requires some patience; Priya sat still for hours as the artisans applied the herbal mixture, and then for hours more while the whole thing dried.  The intricate designs will last for weeks.)
The next day brought the somber ceremony that marks the bride’s transition from her home to the home of the groom.  (Priya, like most Indian women, lived with her parents until she got married.  Now, she’ll move into the house that Druv shares with his extended family.)  As you may have seen in the movies, the groom arrives at this ceremony aboard a white horse, accompanied by a parade of his singing and dancing family members and by a horn band.  (Sadly, the horse and the band weren’t allowed inside the military area where the event was taking place, so we didn’t get to see them, although we heard them coming.) The evening was capped off by a traditional Hindu wedding ceremony, which took place at about 2:00 a.m.; what a different world!
The following day ((As you can tell by now, the length of Indian weddings is measured in days, not hours.)) brought festivities put on by the groom’s family to celebrate the addition of its newest member.  Out came the red tent, along with hordes of waiters passing every kind of Indian appetizer imaginable, a buffet line that Derek is still dreaming about and the most opulent clothing and jewelry I’ve ever seen.  The wedding celebrations came to a close a couple of days later with a Sikh ceremony that honored my family’s traditions.

Having grown up on the other side of the world, I haven’t had a chance to spend much quality time with my many family members who live in Delhi.  Priya’s wedding gave me not only that chance, but also the opportunity to experience all of the colorful splendor that comes with an Indian wedding. The whole thing felt like a very fancy American wedding that had been dipped in colorful paint and then rolled in glitter.  We absolutely loved it.

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It’s a unique experience when you realize you’ve discovered perfection.  Seconds after crossing through the tropical forest abutting the beach and dipping our toes in the poster-board white sand, Shanna and I looked at each other with all-knowing eyes.  We instantly knew that we had just stepped onto the most beautiful beach in the world.

The Andaman Islands have been on my travel radar-screen for several years; I’ve long heard stories of their remoteness and untouched underwater treasures.  Their location in the middle of the Bay of Bengal – east of India, south of Burma and west of Thailand – has kept tourists away thus far.  The only real influx of people onto the islands was during the early 20th century, when the British capitalized on the islands’ remoteness by establishing prisons here to house Indian revolutionaries during the British colonial period.
Shanna and I had no intention of visiting the islands on this trip.  In fact, it wasn’t until I thumbed to the back of my India guidebook that I realized that the islands were a part of India and accessible by airplane from a nearby city.  Luckily, tickets were available, and we were on our way.

After landing in the capital city of Port Blair, we quickly made our way to the jetty where we caught a 2 1/2 hour ferry to Havelock Island, one of the only islands in the Andaman archipelago with any tourist facilities at all.  Upon reaching shore, we caught a taxi for a 20 minute ride to our beachside cottage at Beach No. 7. (Unimaginatively named, the beaches share the same number as the nearest village.) Soon thereafter, we made our way to the beach and stumbled upon paradise.

What makes the perfect beach?  A combination of crystal-clear water with countless tints of turquoise depending on the positioning of the sun in the sky; impossibly white sand free of rocks, flotsam and, of course, litter; waves that rise to a level to produce ample sound as they crash near the beach, but not so violent as to incite occasional fear for one’s safety; a slant to the ground that enables you to walk down a gentle, smooth slope to the ocean and quickly immerse yourself in the ocean waves; a backdrop that includes a towering tropical forest instead of t-shirt shops and high-rise hotels; a complete absence of boats, jet skis or planes dragging signs advertising $5.99 seafood buffets or 2-for-1 drink specials; a water temperature that is refreshingly cool, allowing you to swim comfortably for hours on end without feeling hot or cold; virtually no other beachcombers and zero beach salesmen harassing you with offers of massages, Rolex watches, sarongs, ganja or any other item that they think you’d be interested in; active marine life on the beach, including hermit crabs and seashells with their inhabitants still alive and on the move; and a westward position providing sunsets that quiet all voices. Yes, Beach No. 7 was all of these things and more.
After standing in disbelief at the beach on which we were going to spend the next 4 days, we went to dinner at our hotel.  As we placed our order, someone from the hotel notified us that a leatherback turtle was on the beach laying her eggs–an event that biologists wait lifetimes to witness.  Without hesitation, we grabbed our flashlight and headed back to the beach.  It was completely dark other than the faint light of the millions of stars overhead as we walked down the beach searching for the ancient creature.  After a few minutes, we came upon the giant turtle–clearly exhausted after climbing up the beach and digging a hole in the sand in which to lay her eggs, which should hatch into mini-turtles in a month’s time.
Slowly, the eggs were laid and the process of burying the eggs began.  With alternate strokes of her rear flippers, the sand was professionally shifted to fill the hole.  Once complete, she began the seemingly endless process of turning her giant frame back toward the ocean and then crawling the 100 feet back to the cool waters of the Bay of Bengal.  On several occasions, I wanted to lend her a hand, but my years of viewing the Discovery Channel and Animal Planet have taught me otherwise.  When the turtle finally reached the water and swam out of view, Shanna and I both knew that we’d experienced something that could not be bought.

It was hard to imagine any other experience that could make our stay better than it already was, but it came after a long boat ride to an isolated island off the coast of Havelock Island.  Shortly after deflating our BCDs (Buoyancy Control Devices) and descending 45 feet under the sea, we were rewarded with coral so colorful it would make a clown blush.  Unlike many places where I’ve dived, the coral was full of life – no signs of clumsy divers or uncaring fishermen destroying the reef.  The many reefs were supported by a seemingly endless variety and number of fish and other aquatic creatures.  After witnessing such a display of life under the sea, I came away from the dive site feeling small and insignificant.

When we boarded the ferry to leave the islands, I was struck with great disappointment that our time here was finished, but also a sense of pride as a traveler for finding an unblemished paradise.  Havelock Island is nature at it finest.

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Munnar tea fields
After the houseboat docked (sad! We weren’t ready for the trip to end…), we climbed aboard an antique-looking Ambassador (the ubiquitous car of India) and set off on an arduous, 4 1/2-hour drive into the hills of Munnar.  Munnar plays home to a number of tea estates and spice plantations, whose greenery combines to give the whole area a Sound-of-Music-like feel that seems far removed from the general chaos of the rest of India.  During their imperial days, the British used to come here to escape the heat, and with good reason: the higher the Ambassador climbed, the more the temperature dropped.  
Munnar tea fields
Although we didn’t have much time to spend in Munnar (the Andaman Islands were calling our name), we were able to visit a tea museum, where we got a brief lesson on the art of tea production.  We also stopped to watch a group of women harvesting tea leaves; waist-deep in the impossibly green and manicured tea trees, they gave us a new appreciation for all of the hard work that goes into creating our cups of Lipton.

After a long day of flying and the discovery of a new airline nemesis in Jet Airways (Air Asia may have had interminable delays, but at least they didn’t destroy my backpack!), we stepped out into the tropical air of Kerala, a meandering and idyllic state in Southern India.

Interestingly, in 1957, Kerala became the first state in the world to freely elect a communist government. Despite Communism’s relative failure in other parts of the world, the Keralan system boasts an impressive track record. Labeled the “most socially advanced state in India,” its 91% literacy rate is the highest of any developing nation and it’s 73-year life expectancy is 10 years higher than the rest of India.
Upon our arrival in Kerala, we found our way to a lovely homestay in Fort Cochin, with hosts Mary and Harry. Enjoying the incredible meals that our hosts offered up, we basked in the knowledge that we were back in a country celebrated for its food. Bring on the curries, the puri, the spice!

This area has been colonized by Portuguese, Dutch and English settlers alike. As a result, many of its charming buildings have a distinctly colonial feel. We spent two relaxing days exploring the town via foot and motorcycle (an adventure in itself on India’s crazy streets!), watching local fisherman maneuver their huge nets and joining Indian weekenders at nearby Cherai Beach.
Because my father is from Delhi, my family has been to Northern India a couple of times, but, until now, I’ve never ventured down south. The Kerala tourist board proudly touts this area as “God’s Own Country.” Right now, that seems pretty close to the mark. As I write this, we’re partaking in Kerala’s star attraction; that is, we’re floating along its lazy, palm-lined backwaters aboard a houseboat built for two (along with, err, a chef and two drivers). The sun is setting, it’s a balmy 75 degrees, and I just snacked on bananas fried in coconut. Sometimes, long-term travel is difficult. This is most definitely not one of those times.

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A hike through the mountainous areas of Nepal is the holy grail for passionate hikers.  While I don’t think I fit in this category, the hike that we finished a few days ago has been a dream of mine for many years.

There are many different trekking options in Nepal – the most popular being treks in the Everest region (where you can trek to the Everest Base Camp) and the Annapurna region.  Each of these areas offers up hikes lasting anywhere from a day to a month.  After some brief research, we chose the Jomsom trek in the Annapurna region.

With our overly high-tech gear in tow, we (Shanna and I, along with our Nashville friends Kelly and Michael – a/k/a Miguel Leather) boarded a small plane in Pokhara for a short flight to Jomsom that included some amazing views of the Himalayas.  Less than 30 minutes later, we were on the ground and off to find porters to carry our gear for the next few days.
Immediately upon exiting the airport (which consisted of a building about the size of your average garage), a swarm of porters about half my size attacked us.  At first, I was surprised when they quoted us a price of $100 per day to carry our bags.  Then, I realized my math was faulty and they were only asking $10 per day!  After a quick reference check by a woman in a local restaurant (we’d heard stories of so-called porters who quickly port your bags to unknown destinations), we had hired Mr. Bihm (or Beamer as we preferred to call him) and Obada for the nest 4 days.  The combined weight of the pair was around 225 pounds, with 125 of that attributed to Obada.  Guilt overwhelmed me as I handed over my 35 pound pack to Mr. Bihm.

Our trek over the next four days was gorgeous, starting in the arid landscape near Jomsom and ending in the lush tropical area near Beni.  The trek passes through Nepalese villages, crosses raging rivers and collides with large groups of pack mules carrying goods to the next village.  Along the way, humbling views of mountains over 20,000 feet were our constant companion.
The treks in Nepal are sometimes called “teahouse treks” due to the numerous teahouses dotting the trail providing meals, lodging and, of course, tea.  The accommodation in the teahouses is quite basic with prices to match – most cost between $2 and $4 a night (which, in the case of at least 1 guesthouse, was a rip-off; the room was worth $0.82 at most).

The greatest excitement of the trip happened on night 3.  As we ate dinner at a teahouse down the road from our guesthouse in the village of Tatopani, a thief broke into our friends’ room taking away 2 ipods, a digital camera and around $50.  After we relayed the news to our 2 porters, the entire police force of the town arrived and went into action – at first wrongly accusing the owner of our guesthouse who was evidently angry at us for eating at a restaurant down the road.  Then, Miguel Leather and Kelly took part in an unsuccessful chase down the streets of the village when it was discovered that the thief had robbed several guesthouses and was on the loose.
Later that night, Beamer arrived to tell us that the thief’s hiding place had been discovered near the town, several of the pilfered items had been recovered and the thief had escaped the authorities by diving into the turbulent river near the village (where, according to the police, he most likely met his maker that night).  After a quick trip to the police station, Miguel Leather triumphantly returned with the Ipods and camera – the $50 was either on the washed-away corpse of the thief or used as a “service fee” by the local cops (we’ll never know).  Regardless, the recovery of the electronics was a huge victory.

As celebration for the recovery, we rewarded ourselves with a very lazy day in Pokhara – a beautiful lakeside town – upon return from the trek.  Before we flew back to Kathmandu the next afternoon, Shanna and I had a flight of our own – paragliding off a mountain above the town.  A video of the flight is below.


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Annapurna Trek:

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Many of you already know about our October visit to the orphanage in Yangxi, China.   We fell in love with the girls during our time with them, and we really struggled with the fact that they slept (and, really, lived) in metal cribs with rough, wooden bottoms.  Overwhelmed by their many trying circumstances, we left determined to remedy at least one of them by purchasing mattresses for their cribs.  Such a task surely would have been impossible without the aid of our friends and family, who donated an incredibly generous amount of money to help with the task, and Wensi, an amazingly kind employee of the orphanage’s umbrella agency, who coordinated a Chinese factory’s production of the mattresses. 
We’re so excited to report that 120 thick, washable mattresses have just been delivered to the orphanage and placed in the cribs.  As evidenced by the pictures, the before/after contrast is profound.  We really feel like Christmas has come early this year, as much for us as for the orphanage’s children.  Thank you, thank you to all who helped with our efforts!

Kathmandu.  Long a backpackers’ haven, the celebrated destination of a Bob Seger song and the place where we, along with Nashville friends Michael and Kelly, spent a fantastic few days.
Among the highlights were a walk around the kora with Buddhist pilgrims at the Bodhnath Temple, time spent with the gaggle of monkeys at the Swayambunath Stupa (one of Kathmandu’s most important Buddhist shrines) and a visit to the magnificent Sweta Machhendranath Temple, which we stumbled upon during our Derek-led walking tour the of the city (hey, they don’t call him “Map Boy” for nothing…).  The latter, which is revered by Buddhists and Hindus alike, boasted far, far more pigeons than people and provided a great opportunity for us to watch worshippers making offerings.
We were also lucky to get a quick glimpse of Kathmandu’s own living goddess (although we were forbidden to take pictures of her–the one here was pilfered from a postcard).  The young goddess, known as the Kumari, is believed to be the bodily incarnation of the goddess Taleju.  In order to be chosen as the Kumari, she had to meet a staggering number of requirements designed to ensure that she was, in fact, the goddess’s reincarnation.  Among many other necessities, she had to be a Buddhist girl from a certain caste who has, and I quote, “a neck like a conch shell,” “a body like a banyan tree” and “eyelashes like a cow.”  Hmmm.

For Derek and me, Kathmandu was this trip’s first real taste of the colorful chaos of a South Asian city.  After China, with its cool temperatures and often-gray atmosphere, the city was a burst of warmth and life.  We happily wandered the city’s crazy streets and grew adept at avoiding both tiger balm sellers and wayward scooters.
Better yet, all four of us were delighted (and surprised) to find that the talented chef at the Kathmandu Crowne Plaza could produce a tasty approximation of a Thanksgiving dinner with only a few hours’ notice.  We had all the fixin’s–from mashed potatoes to pumpkin pie–and we’re still puzzling over how he brought forth such a wonderful turkey without the full day of cooking that such a task usually takes us.
Kathmandu cab drivers and hoteliers alike lamented to us about the drastic reduction in tourism that their part of the world has felt in recent years.  Due at least in part to Nepal’s precarious political situation–unrest has rocked the country for over a decade as the Maoists in rural Nepal struggle against the nation’s monarchy and its chosen political system; the situation famously worsened in 2001 when Prince Dipendra, in a rage purportedly sparked by his parents’ refusal to accept his chosen wife, murdered his father, the king, and many other family members–it appears on many state departments’ “exercise caution” lists.  For travelers who do find their way to Kathmandu, these difficult circumstances ironically mean reduced prices and a wide choice of available hotel rooms.  For Kathmandu residents, however, they translate into a staggering unemployment/underemployment rate–nearly 50%–and fervent hopes that a political solution lies just on the horizon.

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