Archive for the ‘Travel’ category

A Tale Of Two Countries by Diane

April 18, 2010

We’re sorry we haven’t blogged in ages.  We make no excuses, it wasn’t intentional, we just stopped writing about the great travels we were taking.  We haven’t stopped the traveling  – we’re moving around SE Asia and enjoying our time here even more than we imagined.  Through it all, Michael has captured great images and we’ve uploaded a small grouping of them now.  Two of our recent trips are really worth sharing so here’s a snippet of description to go with those photos.

February 2010 – Incredible, indelible, indescribeable, intoxicating India
Kerala is the shining jewel state of southern India.  We wanted a slow and easy way to take our first India vacation so we opted out of the Taj Mahal and the challenges of the North.  We chose well.  After two days in the dusty, trashy, noisy, chaotic streets of Cochin and the charms of the old Jew town quarter, we drove high into the hills to the tea plantations of Munnar.  The cool mountain air and stunning nature was cleansing, sweet relief.  This is the India you never knew existed.  The next time you are letting your tea steep, take a moment to imagine the steep slopes on which those leaves grow.  You cannot help but appreciate the effort and artistry that convene in this common cuppa, and to understand why so many cultures imbue it with reverence and ritual.  There’s magic in them there leaves.  Next our expert driver navigated the mountainous switchbacks to take us to the coastal backwaters of colourful Kerala.  The houseboat rental through this region was the highlight of our trip. Life is lived on these waters is sparse simplicity but according to an ancient traditional rhythm.

Every moment in India is one of contrasts; ordinary vegetables enlivened with perfumed seasonings, stifling heat refreshed by white bright smiles; and so many shades of brown, weather-worn people, wrapped in a dazzling rainbow of cottons and silk.  The whole journey felt like a feast for the senses and India’s “other-worldly” quality lingers long in our hearts and heads.

For the photos, click here.

March 2010 – Pursat and Phenom Penh, Cambodia

A year ago, for our 10th wedding anniversary, we sponsored two children from rural Cambodia.  For Easter this year, we decided to go and meet them and spend some time in their villages and see how we could help out.  We collected heaps of clothing, books and toys, caught a 6am flight to Phenom Penh and then took a 4-hour drive North to the small town of Pursat. A group of Americans started an organization called Sustainable Cambodia back in the 90’s, after visiting there and realizing they simply had to do something to make a difference. And what a difference they’ve made.

They focus on water sourcing through well digging, water catchment and purification and schooling.  We spent three amazing days visiting the poorest villages we have ever been to, distributing the clothing we brought, (which fell grossly shy of the need) and savoring the spirit of these warm, smiling, hopeful, even-when-hopelessly-poor people.  We put shoes on feet that had never worn shoes before, watched as women and teenagers blushed and giggled when handed new panties and received more than our share of blessings from people who were as grateful for our presence as they were for the supplies.  We bought each of our families a bicycle, that will be used by every member of the family over the course of a day.  We were VIP’s at a “diarrhea party,” which was a role-playing skit put on by the older students to teach the very young about cholera and the importance of using water filters.  It was a serious subject but as we’ve come to see in this country with a tragically serious past, it ended like most events–loads of laughter, hours of dancing and non-stop singing.

We spent Easter weekend in Phenom Penh, reveling in the Frenchness of it all– great coffee, bread and bistros.  It’s gentler than Hanoi and less seedy than Bangkok and it has a peaceful pace that envelops you.  There are lots of NGO’s (non-government organizations) operating retail and arts and crafts shops as well as restaurants, all in an effort to make amends for the atrocities that befell Cambodia.  And it’s working!  My favorite hours in the city were spent watching motorbikes, laden with lives and livelihoods, pass in front of our hotel window.  We went to help others and we received more than we gave.  A Happy Easter in deed.

For the photos, click here.

Our time in Asia is ending in a few months, we’re still weighing our options and frantically trying to decide if we can squeeze in Laos, or Nepal or Japan, or should we go back to Bali, Siem Reap or Phuket!  Good choices all.  We’ll keep you with us in our hearts and look forward to the chance to share some of our stories with you when we meet again.

Oh My Mumbai by Diane

August 31, 2008

It’s been over a month since I spent three days in India and every memory teases my every sense.  You hear about it, you imagine it, you read about it, yet nothing prepares you for the assault on your psyche.

Dreamy illusions are shattered upon arrival at the Mumbai airport.  Think of the seven seas, full of people.  Churning crowds making carpets of color, restless and roving fields of families and dark, exotic faces full of hope, adventure, hunger, purpose. It seemed, in the space of a few minutes, that everywhere I looked I was seeing something I’d never seen before.  Clearly, ordinary life in India is extraordinary to outsiders.

We left the terminal and walked through a massive muddy field that is the airport parking lot.  (Photos would support the similarity to Woodstock….) It was 11pm and the place was teeming with people, though I would quickly learn that India overflows itself 24/7.  Our driver un-wedged our car and as we exited the airport I saw a well-dressed man drinking from a puddle while another man stood proudly in his underpants, bathing in the same muddy puddle.  I thought “ok, there’s my Nat Geo moment, I’m good with this,” while I unconsciously squeezed my purse and took comfort in my 32 oz. stash of bottled water. 

To get an idea of the scale of what you see, imagine a stadium full of people.  Flatten it, wrap it in saris of every hue and acres of white cloth.  Throw dust on it, raise the temperature to 100F, add an ark of animals and a caravan of chaos and start walking into this textural landscape.  What’s that smell?  What’s THAT smell?  Nothing smells like India.  And this was just Wednesday night, July 9th,2008. I asked my colleagues the next day what everyone was doing on the streets the night before.  “Huh?  What kind of question is that?”  I quietly scolded myself with the current travel promotion slogan “Incredible India.”  Those massive crowds of people on the streets at night were just living their lives. Heaving heaps of humanity.  I had felt sure they were waiting for something.  I’m sure they’re still there.

As a true first-timer, I knew goal #1 was to avoid the dreaded Delhi-Belly.  This pretty much means fruits and veggies and anything uncooked is off-limits.  It’s kind of unfortunate because the array of fresh foods is mind-boggling but I learned quickly the variety of curries and kormas and steamy towers of naan certainly made for three heavenly days of saucing and sloshing.  Yum. The Indian food I ate in India was nothing short of divine. Never have I been so blissfully unaware of what I was eating yet delightfully aware of the festivity of flavours in my mouth!

Mumbai is a city that works, clearly with the aid of daily miracles.  My colleagues travel almost 2hrs each way to work every day.  The site of their new office is in a neighborhood that looks forgotten by technological progress. They cannot bring their lunch or pc’s or carry anything on the trains because it is too crowded.  10-12 people die every day on trains in Mumbai.  Every day. This apparently is just an unfortunate fact when you deal with numbers so large.  A small section in the daily paper lists the train fatalities in this city of 18 million. Everywhere you look you see signs of growth and decay.  Buildings are being erected next to crumbling offices and stores.  People in business attire are doing deals with men herding goats and disfigured women selling fabric or chillies.  The air is laced with passion – I close my eyes now as I write and I see smiling faces full of fervor.

Cows, indulgent in their protected status, wander east to west across the visual landscape, looking healthier than the people who part in their path. Truly, I have never been to a place where the voice in my head kept saying “close your mouth, don’t stare, smile, don’t look surprised.” I had to keep censoring myself or I might have started levitating from the magic of the madness around me.   

There is squalor everywhere but it is vibrant and alive with frenzy.  I did not feel any sense of stillness. Of course Yoga originated here  – necessity is the mother of invention.  There are slums that are so vast they are on the map.  They are permanent residences for hundreds of thousands of people – shanty-towns many, many square miles large. They are cities unto themselves and it’s hard to believe that there is anything on earth unavailable here.  (If you have ANY interest in India, please read Shantaram.  The Australian author has hero status in Mumbai.  He has captured life in India as well as any Westerner could hope to.) There is unimaginable traffic.  It took us four hours to go less than 40 miles and at least two of those hours were spent crawling through jam-packed city life.  There can be five or six lanes of traffic flow, going in as many directions. It appears congenial, somehow, as it trickles along. But the magnitude of this traffic is hard to comprehend.  It is not unusual to see cars perfectly perpendicular to each other, engines running, drivers talking on the phone, moving only inches per hour. Games are played on the hoods of cars, meals are cooked and consumed in the midst of all this and everywhere, wherever one can turn their back to the crowd, there are men peeing.  I have never seen so many men standing in the position – I started to call them X-men, for the shape the back of their bodies create while emptying their bladders. I wondered where the women let loose.  

July was the middle of Monsoon season and I cannot possibly explain the strength and suddenness of this kind of rain.  It’s glorious.  It’s a shower of relief on a nation of need.  It pounds for hours and then disappears without warning.  I could barely focus on my work when it was raining.  I felt giggly and stimulated and utterly in awe. You see it, smell it, hear it, feel it – no longer are the words “it’s only rain” in my vocabulary. My colleagues were delighted that I appreciated the rain, because they too rhapsodize about it.  And their country.  They seem fiercely patriotic and proud of their diversity.  British colonization brought a degree of western civilization and India seems to have integrated the best practices of that time.  Never in so short a visit to any country have I felt I had been transported to a culture so rich in traditions, history, and tribe upon tribe of related but distinct people.  The diversity is as staggering as the whole of it.  My colleagues from Mumbai, 6 men and two women, were from 7 Indian “countries” and collectively they spoke 28 different languages.  Indians do everything with gusto, except making decisions. There is always something else to consider.   The famous Indian “head wag” must be seen to be believed. They wag for yes and for no.  In disagreement and agreement they shake their heads to and fro, up and down, ever subtly. Men and women wag, and it’s done so often that you forget you are observing it.  To Westerners, the meaning is often unclear.  I decided the wag was a cultural trait – a kind of readying of the head to speak and conspire. It was the only way I could focus on what was being said. I had to keep explaining India to myself, just to keep my moorings.

Bound for the airport, I had been in the car for four hours and I was physically exhausted from keeping my thoughts to myself.   My final meeting was at the airport Hyatt and I admit that walking into that hotel lobby felt like crossing to safety.  The air-con washed over me and I realized I was experiencing the euphoria of relief. From what?  Just observing Mumbai city life?  I spent a few minutes deconstructing my thoughts and impressions.  Then I ordered a glass of wine and a hamburger, to feel the full American-ness of my appetite.  My colleague fidgeted a bit and then said “you do know that won’t be a beef burger, right?”  Oh that’s right, I was still in India, despite the fresh familiarity of all things Hyatt.  We split the veggie pizza, he being Hindu, me just religiously hungry.

If you’ve read this far, it’s clear impressions of India are embroidered in my mind.  I have omitted almost as much as I’ve included, because it’s just not possible to say it all, and say it well. A visit to India is a glimpse into another world.  I’ve written only a fraction of what I remember from only a three-day visit to one city.  Put simply, there is not another place on our planet like India.  Incredible India.

I’ve been Shanghaied … By Diane

July 22, 2008

In mid-June I visited my Chinese colleagues to help their business-in-infancy.  I arrived and followed greeting guards to the longest line I have ever stood in in my life.  No less than 500 people, all of whom needed to pass through one metal detector.  My first thought, thank God I have a muffin and something to read!  My second thought: how weird that they have all these “tell us how we’re doing” signs and rating cards all over the place.  Like you’re going to tell them, on arrival, their system needs an overhaul?  In a country that hangs almost as many people as Singapore?  Never mind.  Read, snack and wait.  Exiting the airport I was amused by the pile of cigarette lighters with the “one per person” sign.  Seems China is doing their best to give back to travelers.  If I was a smoker, after 1.5 hrs in line, I’d have grabbed two. 

 

The airport was sparkling clean and clearly getting ready for BIG things to come.  No less than 2 city blocks length of waiting drivers were outside the gate, (just think massive proportions in all things China)  but none holding a card with my name.  My guy apparently had his phone turned off and spaced it out.  That’s ok, because the taxi ride to the city will live in infamy and shame in my mind forever.  There was smog, haze, rain and cars looking like they’d spent the last 30 years in a dirty snow cave.  No joke, it was a white-out, with outside temps a balmy 75 degrees!  (How will I breathe?  Are shallow polluted breaths better than deep ones?) But breathing didn’t matter because I spent half the ride hiding in the back of the taxi, as my driver honked his way into Shanghai.  We pushed our way through the traffic and almost knocked a helmet-less couple with an infant squeezed between them on a motorbike into a ditch. They glared, I groaned.  We came so close to people I could read the labels on the t-shirts they had wrapped around their smoggy faces.  And then I realized we were driving on the right side of the road.  Had the colonists just given up on China all those years ago?  I would soon find out why. 

 

I stayed in a Japanese hotel in the French Concession area of Shanghai, just off THE main shopping avenue.  I’m tempted to say it looked like any modern Asian city but there were clear differences.  It’s a city FULL of bicycles.  Suits riding bikes.  Dresses riding bikes.  Businesses on two wheels:  noodle men, laundry ladies, water bottle delivery guys.  Bikes full of hoses.  Bikes with four people.  Bikes with cans of cooking oil obscuring the riders.  And just wait till you get to the intersection.  Traffic lights mean nothing and cars plow into groups of pedestrians trying to cross with the aid of the blinking green man.  I saw so many Chinese business men trying to safeguard their ex-pat colleagues across the street.  “Oh just ignore those cars, they’ll hit me before they knock you down, usually they just nudge you.”  My colleagues thought this observation most astute…

 

Speaking of observations, I was sure noticing an awful lot of men in Shanghai.  Where have all the women gone?  I soon realized it was best not to ask that question too loudly, because foot-binding was not the darkest chapter in Chinese history.  Girls from the outside the cities are in high demand, just to even out the marketplace and show that China is a modern business climate.  But there’s another even more fascinating sociological phenomenon going on.  The one-child policy (1979) has resulted in a society without siblings.  They lack the language of families and their lives are predicted and planned at birth.  They are called the Little Emperor generation – 2 parents, 4 grandparents and a whole lot of hope resting on one head of black hair.  They’re spoiled, wealthy (if they’re city-born) and breaking under the strain of trying to be the best, among peers doing the same.  Suicide rates are highest among people under 30.  And the one common thread they all have is the need to get married and have one child, preferably a boy.  Uh-oh. 

 

The architecture was marvelous and modern and ancient and mysterious.  Western choices abound in Shanghai, great wines and food are available everywhere, as is the cheapest, scariest looking morsels of who knows what.  They’re fashion freaks and it shows.  My guess is that I was there during “dressing blind” week.  I’ve never seen such clothes put together on one person and worn on days OTHER than Halloween.  And what’s with all the spitting?  I actually ducked once or twice, to avoid whatever was airborne.  I wondered if it was required to spit once a block?  Or maybe people were just getting rid of the solids they were breathing? I’m told the Chinese are famously filthy and that a trip to the countryside is beyond the imagination of most civilized folks.  Oh, now that’s something to look forward to.  The government is waging a “clean ourselves up” campaign to try to get people to put their best face forward during the Olympics.  They’re temporarily taking dog off the menu, attempting smoking “sections” and giving out free tissues to pedestrians.  Okey-dokey.

 

In short, though this wasn’t short enough, I was fascinated with the visit.  I have never wanted to visit China and now I am intrigued enough to go back.  My hotel alone was an oasis of comfort:  lemongrass-infused towels, peeled apples floating in ginger water, a heated toilet seat with built-in bidet and pressure washer (ok – that was fun AND funny) and the most exotic breakfast buffet I have ever witnessed.  But outside that marble palace people were living VERY differently.  A colleague’s friend told me he moved three times in the first year, to different apartments in Shanghai, before he figured out that the water goes brown and cloudy several times a week all over the city. 

 

Brown and cloudy water is rarely a good sign.