Happy Thanksgiving, fellow Americans! Though I am missing the pumpkin pie, festive turkey decorations, and boozy post-feast food coma with my family, I am THANKFUL for the stellar weather and to have Marc and Stella here with me.
This year Thanksgiving falls a few weeks after Diwali, India’s famous Festival of Lights. Instead of sticking around for the fireworks, we went south to check out Sri Lanka. If I had to sum up the trip in five buzzwords, it would be: “beaches”, “food”, “Buddhism”, “hospitality”, and “infrastructure”.
Our trip was short, only five days, and after reflecting on the amount of time we spent traveling here and there to our sightseeing stops, I think I could have planned it a little better. I would caution the ambitious traveler that the island is bigger than it looks on the map, and maybe it would be a good idea to pick a half or a quarter of the island on which to concentrate if intending to stay in one hotel the entire time.
We used a small family-owned hotel in the southwestern coastal town of Hikkaduwa called Villa Birdlake as the base for all our excursions. The shower water pressure was awful but that is my only criticism for the place. The room was appointed with traditional furniture and had a lovely balcony with a view of the lake. The staff were very warm and attentive, and the restaurant, well...honestly, I don’t know why it wasn’t full at all hours because the Sri Lankan food we had there, both breakfast and dinner, was AMAZING. Apparently their cook has been with the family for over thirty years.
Since our hotel was in the south, we started our sightseeing there. With the help of Jagath, our friendly rickshaw driver and tour guide, we tuk-tuk-ed along the scenic coast to the fort city of Galle, where we explored the old Dutch and British sections of the city and walked to the lighthouse, which sits on a pretty stretch of pebbled coastline. We had a delicious lunch of local seafood at Elita, located just feet away from the lighthouse, and took a stroll through the old city to check out the art shops and boutiques that dot the cobblestone streets. The next day we continued our rickshaw-ing for a tour at Handunugoda Tea Estate. It was a beautiful departure from the commercialized feeling of the tourist-trap “spice gardens” which line the regional roads, and the staff told us about not only the tea varieties but also the additional trees and flowers on the estate. We also got a peek at the processing facility where they are using equipment that has been running reliably for over 100 years!
On the way back we stopped at Unawatuna to take some pictures and dip our toes in the ocean. It’s one of the south’s most beautiful beaches, though I doubt Sri Lanka could possess an ugly one. I could have shipwrecked for at least a month with no complaints and I hope to return when the weather is more favorable (we had variable rain and clouds).
Our third and fourth days were swallowed in both transit and sightseeing in the middle of the island. For the six-hour drive, we set out in a much larger vehicle at 5am and headed north to Sigiriya Rock Temple. Our "tour guide" stopped 4 hours into the trip for breakfast at one of the most uninspiring, commercial spots on the highway, and we had a mediocre buffet breakfast surrounded by travel-package tourists, the type with fanny packs and camera-adorned necks -- it was a foreboding indicator of all future stops to come...
We arrived at Sigiriya Rock Temple where we were disappointed to learn that our "tour guide" was actually a driver and that we'd basically be on our own when it came to the sightseeing. We hired a tour guide at the temple for $15.00, and set out with him for the 1200 steps to the top of the rock. He told us a bunch of interesting information about the construction of the temple, the artwork in the caves, and the history around the area without getting out of breath, an impressive feat in the heat that climbing as steadily as we were. If you're considering coming here, I would suggest arriving early in the morning; there's a decent amount of effort required and it does get quite hot.
Our excursion to the rock temple ended around tea time, and after so much driving we were ready to find a hotel for the night and relax. We chose Cinnamon Lodge Habarana, a resort about 15 minutes from Sigiriya, which ended up having a fantastic spa, great food, and an absolutely beautiful pool. We planned to head out to to see the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic in Kandy, The Golden Temple, and the caves at Dambulla the following morning.
After being properly caffeinated (the hotel also had great coffee) we set off, and a few hours later found ourselves at an unimpressive "spice garden" which was set on a road that had at least ten other ones just like it, another awful stop by our driver. A bored "guide" walked us through the garden showing us sad looking plants we'd seen a million times before, and then took us to an area where we could conveniently buy products made from those plants...I picked a little moisturizing cream up in a small, unassuming plastic tub because I had run out of mine, and he wrote up the bill. He sneakily left off the decimals and zeros and was quick to take my card. Suspicious, I stopped him before he ran the charge to confirm the amount, and only then discovered that the "18600 rupees only" bill (thought is was Rs. 186.00, about $3.00) was actually 18,600 rupees...well over $150.00. I was floored at how obvious they were about to scam me, and we made a bee line for the van before I could explode and spit vitriol at them for taking advantage of people like that.
A short time later, we were at the caves at Dambulla. Another 300-ish step climb led to several rooms tucked into a mountain filled with Buddha statues and a beautiful cliff face that gave sweeping views of the mountains in the distance. We didn't hire a guide, as we had been smart enough to take our Lonely Plant - Sri Lanka book with us, and tried to eavesdrop on the tours in-progress, which were being given in Spanish and French...
Our next stop was Kandy, a sweet town perfect for a weekend, but first we needed lunch. The driver pulled into a restaurant, a white, sterile-looking building with absolutely no character and at least large 6 tour busses parked in a lot. I had finally had it with him and told him to put the car in park while I looked for an actual restaurant. I headed to Trip Advisor to do recon, and we ended up at the Honey Pot, a cute little restaurant on the river with great Sri Lankan food and a nice view.
Regarding Kandy, there are a bunch of interesting things to do and I wish we had planned two days around it. Shopping, a beautiful botanical garden, temples, the lake, theaters. Unfortunately that was not the plan. Instead we spent two hours at the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic (without a guide, which was a mistake) before it started to pour, extinguishing our plans to stop at both the Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage and the botanical garden -- such a shame. Our driver didn't have any alternative ideas, and truthfully I wasn't sure I wanted to press him for such, so we started the long drive back to Hikkaduwa,
Back at our hotel, we had one more night of amazing Sri Lankan food followed by some reading and a restful night's snooze under the mosquito net with the sounds of pouring rain in the jungle. We woke up to the smell of a delicious traditional breakfast of egg curry, red string hoppers, and coconut sambal, and enjoyed one more morning chat with our hosts and a nuzzle with their resident mutt, Brownie, before saying our goodbyes and setting off for the journey home. It was a good vacation, in a warm country, and I hope to return sometime to soak more of it in.
It's hard to describe the feeling of reaching the highest lookout of an Indian fort and seeing the landscape spread out below. There’s something about being a little sleep-deprived from waking up well before dawn to drive there, the exhaustion of having just climbed to the top, the cool morning air, the knowledge that you're in a place with almost 400 years of history, and being surrounded by the natural beauty of the area that makes for a surreal experience. I wish I could capture it in this blog post or with my camera lens, but I can’t, so you’ll have to do it yourself and see what I mean.
This week I visited Lohgarh Fort, about an hour and a half away from Pune, and it ended up being the perfect day trip: it wasn’t so far that I got antsy from the drive, the roads were in great shape, trekking at the fort was easy enough that anyone could do it, and there was a great restaurant in the area where I was able to freshen up (clean bathrooms!) and chow down on some delicious food before heading back to the city...
The fort itself is well maintained and the climb to the top is made less difficult due to the newly laid (and LEVEL) stone steps; the installation is still in progress but looks to be almost complete. There are food stalls and monkeys at the base and through the lower portion of the climb so if you take food, just know that they’re hanging around. I didn’t see any bathrooms in the immediate area, but I wasn’t looking for them either.
The fort structures are massive and still have a lot of old intact architectural features: several giant wooden doors with anti-elephant spikes, embellished stone carvings which decorate thruways, and cannons, which seems to be a bit strewn about but there nonetheless. When you reach the top, the fort opens up to a giant plateau, which is covered with beautiful, tall grass that sways in the strong breeze which passes over. There are lots of footpaths that meander this way and that, pass some small temples, many vantage points of the valley below, and eventually lead onward toward the "Scorpion's Tail" (pictured at the bottom), a peak that seems to go on forever. I didn’t have time to walk all the way so I don’t know how long it would take, but I hope to go back and attempt it. It looks like a great place for pictures, a picnic, and a snooze. There are also several water wells, most of which are so clean (still!) that they are crystal clear and host a variety of frogs, fish, tadpoles, and freshwater crabs. If I were adventurous enough, I might wager that swimming in the big one (seen below) could be quite a bit of fun!
One thing I didn't see at this fort which was a nice contrast to the others I've visited is trash. With the exception of a stray wrapper here and there, Lohgarh seems to be taking care of itself rather well. It really goes a long way in ensuring that visitors can admire the surroundings in the natural, majestic state they're meant to be.
To reach there from Pune is easy. Google Maps gave me directions that would have ended up being much longer so I’ll save you the trouble by shortening it. Take Google Maps directions to Karla Caves and before you make the right turn to go the caves, make a left, as if you were to go to Bhaja Caves. You can ask directions from the locals about how to get to the base of the fort from there since it's only about 10 minutes from the main highway. The road is quite straightforward –it's small but in great shape, and goes through a little village then off to a bunch of tight switchbacks and steep inclines until reaching the entrance on the right, which you'll know by the food stalls which line the pathway. The road offers a few good photo ops: a waterfall, a vista, and the beautiful mountains in the background.
On the way home I highly suggest stopping at Sunny Da Dhaba on the Old Mumbai-Pune Expressway. It's on the right side if you're going in the direction of Pune so you'll have to make a u-turn to reach it, but there are big signs for it. They have a full bar, hookah service, attentive waitstaff, tidy tables, and a big menu of northern Indian dishes. The serving sizes are generous (I placed one order of kebabs and it would have been enough for two) and they make a really nice masala buttermilk if you fancy it.
I have to confess, visiting home isn't something I really look forward to. Not that I don't love seeing my family and friends, or eating until my appetite for nostalgia has busted my gut but, holy Hannah, it's just...a lot. The time in transit, the planning, the unexpected expenses, the self-imposed sense of obligation to see people, the disruption of daily routines, the jet lag, the reminders of unresolved business/interpersonal issues, the "to-do" and "to-buy" lists...it all adds up. I have to say though, I think we're starting to get the hang of it.
This trip home was great, so I thought I'd share some things which were key to saving me time, sanity, and energy...
1.) MAKE a "to-buy" list ahead of time, and sort it by store
Throughout the year, I kept a running tab of things I needed to buy from the US. With the ever increasing availability of imported items at places like Nature's Basket, Royal Dry Fruits, Dorabjees, I've gotten good at finding just about everything we had in the US right here in Pune, but there are still some things that can't be got, things for which the Indian equivalents are just not up-to-muster, and things are INSANELY expensive due to the importation cost.
On my list this year: calorie-free water flavorings, Quest Bars, Reynolds Aluminum Foil, Glad Cling Wrap and Ziploc bags, solid stick deodorant/antiperspirant, gym/casual/dressy clothing, bikinis, Yankee Candle Tarts, Neosporin, Aleve, Bulk Supplements, Frontline for Stella, a gas grill (yes, seriously).
I probably spent four whole days just shopping, and having my lists sorted by store helped me out a lot. Also, I chose to shop where things would be cheapest, in Florida, as opposed to NYC, which was a total strategic win for us.
2.) Take an empty suitcase, even if you don't think you'll need it.
There will be shopping, there will be gifts, and you will leave with more than when you arrived. We made this mistake twice now and this time it cost me having to buy a new suitcase...next time, we'll get it right! Let my blunder be a lesson to you!
3.) Try to keep a daily routine.
I am an introvert who loves having a structured daily routine, and I am happiest when I am either solo or with just a few people at a time. I found that during our trip home, keeping certain daily routines provided me with a sense of normalcy and structure which allowed me to recharge my energy, get some solitary space, and enjoy my time with others much more. For me, this meant getting up every morning around the same time (usually before everyone else), eating my regular breakfast, and going to the gym. And as silly as this might sound, I made an extra effort to stay hydrated and keep my nutrition in check, which my body thanked me for again and again!
4.) Buy a SIM card online.
Being the forward-thinking, time-saving genius he is, Marc bought us two T-Mobile SIM cards on Amazon and had them shipped to our house in NY. It only cost us about USD $50.00 for both, which is half the price we paid when we walked in to Verizon last time for the same exact thing. All we needed to do when we arrived was register the cards online and we were set up within minutes. With jet lag setting in, this was one less irritating thing we had to check off the list upon arrival.
5.) US expats, prepare for sticker shock. Rental Cars are NOT $23 a day.
One of the most annoying things is having an unanticipated expense pop up. In my case, this came in the form of car insurance. Because we live outside the country and do not have a car or a car insurance policy, we needed to take the extra insurance from the rental car agency. So instead of costing the advertised rate of $175.00 per week, we ended up spending closer to $600.00 after taxes and fees. Our credit card company did provide some insurance, however, it wasn't nearly full coverage so we needed to opt-in for the additional policy provided by the rental agency. Eep!
6.) PREPARE TO CONSUME.
I've gotten pretty serious about taking care of my body over the past year (we only get ONE, after all) but I knew that while I was away there were certain things I was absolutely going to eat no matter what.
To pass the time while I was on the plane and reduce the likelihood of going on a full-fledged free-range-graze-a-thon, I made a list of all of my favorite foods and committed to just splurging on those. Things from my childhood, things that I couldn't get in India, favorite restaurants and brands. Once I arrived in the US, I stocked up on all of my usual staples at the grocery store so that I could keep my nutrition on point while enjoying the feel-good stuff too. I had a lot of fun tracking down all the delicious things and devouring them...
6.) Splurge on a business class ticket.
It's a long way from here to the US. By the time we drive to Bombay, take the midnight (or later) flight out, connect at another international airport, arrive, clear customs and drive home, it usually takes two to three days. Since we only do this trip once a year, we decided that comfort on the journey was worth the extra expense. And in reality, we were SO RIGHT. Large, lie-flat seats, priority boarding, the business class airport lounge, and healthy airline food made the long flight much more bearable.
7.) Limit planned activities.
We love our family and friends, each and every one of them, but being so over-scheduled last time was awful. This time we basically just told people where we'd be, welcomed them to join, and then just played it by ear when it came to planning our days. It took out a lot of the headache and left us time to actually enjoy ourselves. We were able to go on a few dates, spend un-rushed days at the beach, linger over dinners at home with family, and even have an impromptu picnic in Central Park before Marc left...like I said, we're getting the hang of this!
8.) Choose a NON-holiday with favorable weather to travel
Reasons for this are two-fold. Firstly, when living in the US, I loved visiting family during the holidays. But as an expat living thousands of kilometers away with the busy airlines, stressed out families, and jacked up holiday pricing on virtually everything I have to say that choosing a random two week period at the end of the summer and into the autumn was the way to go. And since our "homes" in the US are in popular tourist locations, it was nice to be there after the tourists left.
Secondly, and this is so super selfish, traveling during cold weather or "it-might-get-cold" weather means packing extra clothing and shoes (the worst, so heavy and clunky!), which means less luggage space on the way home. If you go when it's warm, you'll have to pack less and you'll get way more empty space to fill with treasures to take back!
9.) Take some alone time and visit the places that bring YOU joy.
The fact that this was my vacation could have easily gotten lost in the shuffle among the people to see and things to do, much as it did last time. During this trip, I made it a point to put in a few buffer days by myself (yes, without Marc!). I could get into my [stupidly expensive] rental car, drive to my heart's content, sing to my favorite songs, stop at Starbucks whenever the mood struck me, take all the side trips I wanted to see and do alllll the things that make me truly happy. Being able to drive myself without coordinating with anyone else in itself was a really gratifying experience.
10.) Bring snacks from your country to share with folks back home!!!!
I stuffed our suitcases with yummy goodies from India when we went to visit. They started some fun conversations, and people enjoyed them a lot more than I thought they would! The big winners of this trip home were: Brittania Packaged Cakes, Bourbon cookies, Parle G biscuits, Hing Jeera Peanuts (and any spiced nuts, in general), and bakarwadi...too bad I couldn't bring any Vada Pav home...
Here 's a typical scenario: I meet friends for dinner at a place with outside seating. I'm not one to brag, but we really have the nicest weather here and dining al fresco is something that can happen at almost anytime of the day, during almost anytime of the year...we're pretty spoiled in that way.
We sit down, order drinks, then all of a sudden one of us gets a mosquito bite or just starts feeling buggy, in general. A few hands simultaneously and immediately produce an arsenal of repellant, we slather up, and the night goes on, crisis (or crises) averted...because remember how Dengue Fever went around during monsoon last year and, like, four people we know got it? Yeah, no thanks.
I've seen this post a bazillion times on other blogs, I know it's probably overdone and passé and SO 2013, but I thought it might be interesting since the things I carry here are a little different than the things I carried at home...
My favorite bag at the moment is my Henri Bendel Carlysle Tote. It's roomy, understated, well-made, and structured. Unfortunately, while it is perfectly fine alongside my old life of sky-high heels, loud prints, and work dresses in Jersey, it just doesn't work here (I basically wear jeans and the same pair of Havianas' day after day) so it sits in my wardrobe in its protective cloth bag and waits for its day in the sun while I continually opt for my old standard: a Longchamps Le Pliage tote bag.
Inside the Big Bag
My Cosmetic Bag
Because why not, right?! After some coaxing (haha, just kidding...like I need coaxing to travel), a friend and I decided a little rest and relaxation was in order. She was just back from traveling, and I wanted to unwind a little before our trip to the US...seemed like a reasonable (deliriously ridiculous) excuse to take yet another vacation, amIright?
Jet Airways has a flight for ~Rs. 25,000, which is just shy of three hours duration, that leaves Pune on a Friday around 8pm, and returns on Monday morning at 5. This makes for a perfect, quick adventure, especially for people who have a Monday-through-Friday or who want to go with someone who does. It's fast, it's relatively inexpensive, and it's super convenient...if you live in Pune, I don't know why you're still reading this blog. Go book your ticket then come back to this.
We just came off an Indian summer so it wasn't life-ending for us, but it's worth noting that right now is the hottest time of the year in Abu Dhabi and temps are butting up to the 45ºC (112ºF) mark. As you're looking at all the pictures here, pretend you're standing in front of an open oven and you'll have an accurate representation of how it was there for me. Even the sea water was 33ºC (92ºF). If you don't mind that, CONGRATS! Off-season travel here might be just the thing for you...apparently it is for me, since mostly all of my trips in the past two years have unintentionally followed this trend.
We stayed at the St. Regis Saadiyat Island Resort, a Starwood property, which was about 30 minutes from the airport. I would describe it as more of a 'mega resort', mostly just because when I went to use the gym, I found out it was a few minutes walk across the from the hotel, past a few restaurants, a shopping arcade, then down a pathway...all still on the resort grounds. Even still, the staff did a great job of making it feel more intimate than it was, which is really nice since I don't usually like the institutional feel of traditional resorts. There are also 'super luxury' villas which can be rented, a helipad, and a ton of other onsite amenities so...yeah. It's huge. And gorgeous. And it's on a beautiful beach with hotel attendants and white sand. To add to that, the interior scheme is all done in a composed seaside motif with neutrals, blues, and lots of fresh flowers, which got my brain into instant vacation mode. Thumbs up from this beach girl, St. Regis!**
The aim of the weekend was to keep it low key and relax, so we just did a few things. Lots of shopping at Yas and Marina Malls (in my opinion, Yas was WAY better), the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, and our resort...I had already done the dune desert tour and falconry thing in Dubai, and it was incredibly hot so we tried to limit our day hours spent outdoors to only the true must-see locations which, for us, were the mosque and the resort pool.
The Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque was pretty and peaceful. It's new, like most things in Abu Dhabi, but maintains an atmosphere of being almost ethereal and timeless. Before going in, I left my ID (my old NJ driver's license) with the staff in exchange for an abaya, which is the required attire for women who aren't dressed to the standards the mosque requires. I was wearing tight pants that day and did not have a headscarf, so on it went.
We walked the perimeter of the exterior, a long gallery of columns with inlaid marble flowers and golden crowns, before heading to check out the interior. Once there, we removed our shoes, and were welcomed by a huge entrance of marble, inlaid with intertwined morning glories. It was gorgeous and it was everywhere: on the floors, the walls, and the throughways. Inside, it was air conditioned, and we walked barefoot on the hand-knotted wool carpets that covered the entire floor. The mosque website says its the biggest hand-knotted carpet in the world. Wow!
There are huge, colorful chandeliers, and some interesting glass windows, which I'm sure we would have learned more about had we taken the tour, but it was too hot to linger and we tried to make our time there brief. If I go back during cooler weather, I'd take the tour because when I got home and read the Wikipedia article (a.k.a. the most reliable source on the internet) I realized I missed discovering a LOT of stuff there.
After braving the heat for 45 minutes, we got a taxi and made our way to Yas Mall so we could get our shopping fix. Compared to a lot of other cities in India, we have a decent variety of international brands at our local mall in Pune, but the shopping in the UAE can't be beat.
One of my favorite things about the malls in the UAE is the smell that comes from the perfume kiosks in the center of the hallways. They are frequently burning incense with some amount of agarwood, or oud, which gives off an invitingly rich, earthy, amber-like fragrance. I regretted buying a bottle of perfume in Dubai, so made sure not to repeat the mistake. I picked up a fragrance from Touch of Oud, though especially fell in love with a Molton Brown unisex fragrance, an indulgent blend of saffron, oud, and frankincense called Shisur...it was just too much of a splurge to justify on an impulse.
Like all of my travel destinations, Abu Dhabi did not disappoint me when I went to the grocery store, a French one called Géant, which was absolutely GIANT. Deli counters, cheese counters, fruit counters, a dry fruits sections, spice counters, produce sections, a berry section, bakery, etc. -- this place had EVERYTHING, and in fact, I think this is the best place to get souvenirs. It's also just something fun to do everywhere I go, and I always discover something new. This time I found laban, an unsweetened liquid yogurt drink with a hint of mint. It was briny but refreshing in contrast to the heat. I also picked up some Lebanese Coffee with cardamom, which has been divine in my espresso machine, iced, with cream and sugar.
The next and final day we repeated the shopping + pool itinerary and enjoyed our final hours traipsing around the resort. We took fequent dips in the pool, stopped at a restaurant called Turquoise for a pre-dinner drink, then enjoyed our last meal at Santoya where I ate the best salmon dish I've ever had. The salmon fillet was in this velvety tamarind sauce and had a large crispy salmon skin resting on top with some greens underneath. The texture/flavor complementation was out of this world.
Our flight left Abu Dhabi a few minutes behind schedule, but as it was a midnight-ish departure, I could barely process what was going on; my mind was already switched off. I slept, for the first time in my life, through the entire flight and even had a whole row to myself (!!!!!!!!!) to stretch out. We arrived in Pune around 4:30am, cleared immigration in minutes, and headed home for a few hours sleep before jumping back into the daily grind.
I'm sure it's obvious but I highly recommend Abu Dhabi for a weekend and, for families, I think it would even be a great place to spend a week, given all the activity-centered things to do. It seems there is a hotel for every budget, and once you get tired of lounging at the pool there are a ton of other options nearby: Formula One racing, super giant movie theaters, water parks, desert dune tours, malls...plenty to keep parents and kids occupied. Also, it seems that providing excellent customer service is a top priority among hotel staff and anyone, really, in a customer-facing role. We never had to look far or hard for an answer to a question or a helpful face, which I would imagine is a big plus when traveling with kids.
Thanks for a great time, Abu Dhabi!
** I was not endorsed by any company to stay anywhere or visit anything or to provide this feedback. The opinions expressed are merely my own impressions and observations as a traveler. I think a good experience deserves sharing, and I sure did have one here :-)
It's monsoon time again in Pune which, for me, means I've made the switch from my usual masala taak (spiced buttermilk) to masala chai (preferably from Diamond Queen in Camp), perfect for warming me up on these chilly days. I just love this time of year, and I especially love writing while listening to the rains pouring outside...
Our contract here is for three years so technically we're at the halfway point though that can change...you never know. I'm very happy here and as time goes on, I find myself thinking "if I stayed, I could...[x, y, z]". I've become pretty fond of this place...nah, honestly, I've fallen in love. The weather, the pace of life, and the people I've met are great and most of all I really like who I am here. I wonder how long I could stay on as a tourist after my X-visa runs out. Not that I'd actually do it, but just to know I could if I really wanted to makes me feel better.
This isn't to say that the expat experience has been without its downs. I haven't written about them on the blog, but, to be candid, I've had plenty of hardships with this move. I've watched most of my relationships with people in the US slip away in slow motion through calls and emails that became less frequent until they stopped all together, the action itself documenting how irreversibly irrelevant and un-relatable I'd become. I've grappled with my identity through an unsuccessful job hunt, failed fertility treatments, attempts to find fulfillment through hobbies and volunteering, and the feeling of being strangled by too much free time and an active mind. The loss of human connections and the darkness of losing perspective on who I am could have been enough to send us packing, but life goes on and we either adapt or we collapse under our inability to face change. Since I'm stubborn and unwilling to accept failure, you can guess what I did.
Making good on a suggestion given to me by another expat, I figured now would be a good time to write about the things I've learned so far through this experience. I hope that it's helpful, or at least entertaining. If you've been in my shoes, you'll have to let me know if you can relate to any of these!
1.) Expat life can be a lonely, lonely place. See my introduction for explanation.
2.) There IS such a thing as "finding one's self". I didn't believe it, but it's true. Over dinner last weekend with friends, we discussed how although expat life is sometimes difficult, in a way it is an absolute freedom that affords us a rare opportunity to discover our true identities, desires, and values. We are living in a host country, but we are exempt from the expectations the locals place upon each other. We are seen as transient, passing through like clouds do. At the same time, since we are not there, we are exempt from the expectations of our home countries. This leaves us with a once in a lifetime chance to design (or redesign) our lives as per our true nature and wishes, and to realize our authentic selves without external expectations. I'm not sure if this just applies to the first expat assignment or subsequent assignments since this is our first, so hopefully I'll be able to shed some light on this in our next country, if we are so lucky.
3.) Patience is a skill. Being an expat in India really helped me fine-tune my patience, although I'm not sure its fair to pin the blame on India. All I know is that here, sometimes (a lot of times) things don't get done on time...or even relatively on time...or things just don't get done at all and no one bothers to tell you...or you get something completely different than what you expected...or...or...or...
4.) Pay attention to what people do and treat them according to their actions, not what they say. How someone acts is the most pure form of communication out there, completely unaffected by flowery language, excuses, or placation.
5.) "No expectations are the BEST expectations" and "keep an open mind". This was a piece of advice I got from one of my clients before moving to India. She stressed that situations are not always as they seem and that things might not be done on time or in the manner I expect, for many different reasons. She also said I needed to keep my ears, eyes, and mind open to accept that there would be lots of differences. Most people don't take advice if it's free, but this one I did and it has served me well. There are many cultural customs, habits, and mannerisms that differ between India and America which appear equally strange to one another. No one culture is "correct" and its worth it to make the effort to learn about the differences instead of getting flustered and shutting down. People just want to be understood and appreciated for who they are, not held to standards that don't apply to them.
6.) Beggars are humbling. The poverty here is everywhere. After being here for a year and a half, I know that "milk for baby" is sometimes a scam, the peacefully sleeping toddler in the 40º heat might be drunk, the alms usually go to someone else at the end of the day, small children can be rented by beggars to enhance the look of desperation, and limbs are broken and rebroken for the same reason. Whether I give or don't give, something about seeing abject poverty will always make me feel like I could be doing something more. Because I could...and although I do give, I don't give all the time. I could give my entire life to help and it wouldn't be enough. This is humbling.
7.) After moving, adjusting to this lifestyle takes a loooonnnng time. How long did it take me? A year and a half. As Jerry Garcia put it best, "what a lonnnnng, strange trip it's been". Coming to India and adjusting to our first expat assignment has been a wild, wild ride. The whole of 2014 was a series of rolling crises and triumphs too plenty to count. I found myself looking up flights to the US at 3am, crying for no reason, doing things that were uncharacteristic of me, withdrawing from everyone and everything, and generally being a total spaz. Then there would be a moment when things seemed so perfect and surreal that I was waiting for the sky to fall. Here's more on the science of expat adjustment, and here is a blog post I found by another expat that describes it much better than I could :-)
***If you're reading this and going through the same thing, please don't worry, it gets better!! And if you're bad at adjusting, it won't and you'll go home. Either way, it ends. ***
8.) It's not better or worse, it's just different. In the beginning, it is easy to say, "back in [insert country here], we do it this way..." I can't tell you how many times I said that, and how often I hear it from people who are new to town. The truth is once we get here, we're here, not there, and in the present moment, it really doesn't matter how things are done there. It's best to learn the local processes for things and try to adapt as quickly as possible.
9.) Indian accented English and Hinglish is necessary from time to time for certain people to understand. I felt like such a jerk the first time had to use Indian-accented English, but the auto driver who would not understand my American English somehow had no problem at all when I switched up my words a little. The same also happened with the Domino's guy, the washer repairman, etc. It happens out of necessity sometimes. It was embarrassing at first until I realized that if I was "doing it right", no one noticed I was "doing it right" and I just sounded normal, if that makes sense.
10.) Change is constant. I was looking over old pictures from our first days here, noticing how many lovely people we've met who have already left. It reminded me that this lifestyle is all change, all the time. Being adaptable and giving in to the flow of change is an absolute necessity.
11.) Detachment from material things is beneficial. Our entire house was shoved into a steel container which was put on a boat with a bunch of other containers just like it, and sailed on the ocean across the freaking WORLD to us. In monsoon, the air gets damp and it rains a lot. Sometimes, a maid doesn't understand how to read the labels on clothing, see the value in a handblown Italian decanter, or understand that the patina on a copper pot is sometimes applied on purpose and doesn't really need to be scrubbed. What do all of these things have in common? Yes. If you really can't live without something, leave it in safekeeping somewhere else or take its well-being personally into your own hands at every turn. Things get broken, things get destroyed, and sometimes things grow little legs and just walk right out your front door.
12.) The expat social scene is like college but with better alcohol and more interesting people. This could be a blog post all on its own but I am certainly NOT going to be the one writing about that! I've got some secrets of my own, after all ;-) As the new kid in town, one may find themselves with lots of invitations to parties, friendship "first dates", coffees, clubs, groups, and cliques. This is super fun because there's so many opportunities to have a really good time and plenty of new faces to meet; it's kind of like finding a rebound after a breakup, but on the flip side of that, most rebounds don't last. Minimize losses and hurt feelings by being strategic about choosing compatible friends instead of just filling up the calendar with anything and everything.
13.) Home visits are not vacations. Not in my experience anyway. We've been to visit the US once and it was nice to see our family, but it was over-scheduled and crazy. We planned a much more low key visit home this summer and are looking forward to recreating our normal beach holiday like we would any other year.
We're just getting back to our usual routine after 9 days spent in northern Vietnam. It was an impulse trip inspired partly by Anthony Bourdain's Parts Unknown, and also our craving for a bowl of pho, the last of which we ate well before moving here.
We found Vietnam to be a great place, with one exception: the weather. It was over 40ºC most days and by noon we had to stop whatever touristing we were doing and head indoors. Our best purchases there were a handkerchief and a paper fan; both of which got a LOT of use!
In our time, we focused primarily on the north and central highlands. Vietnam is a large country with lots of different things to do and see, and we're happy we chose to do it this way instead of reaching further south. All said and done, it was an amazing experience and worthy of a return trip so we can see the south...perhaps during a cooler season.
While we have lots of fun memories from this trip, the pictures will probably tell the story just as well, so here they are:
HANOI - we flew into Hanoi and spent a day here before taking the four hour drive to Ha Long Bay for our overnight cruise. Following that we took the overnight train to Hue.
HA LONG BAY - we stayed on the Syrena Cruise boat, which had excellent service and great food. After returning to dock we drove back to Hanoi to catch the late afternoon overnight train to Hue.
HUE - we spent two days in Hue devouring the city. We ate everything in sight and did all we could in terms of cultural sites. We left by train for a two hour ride to Danang, which passed through beautiful scenery, some tunnels, rice fields, and cliffs overlooking blue water and sandy beaches.
DANANG - what a great location!!! We stayed at Pullman Beach Resort, a place we'd happily recommend. The service here was fantastic and they have a killer pool and bar on a private section of China Beach. Hoi An, a UNESCO world heritage site, is located about 30 minutes away by car and would also be worth a trip back on its own. It's a cute town with great shopping (the custom dresses looked adorable!), interesting history, and a lot of excellent restaurants.
Hey Hey, it's Memorial Day! Our second in Pune!
We celebrated with an American BBQ at our friends' house and pigged out on buffalo tenderloin, corn on the cob, tortilla chips, homemade guacamole, and a SLAMMIN' banana cream pie made by one of my favorite people. It was a good, good day :-)
Lately, life has been kind of quiet and I haven't really done anything blog worthy, so the inspiration for this one came friends back home, many of whom ask us about how we do daily life stuff here in India. We were putting groceries away yesterday I thought it might be fun to do a fridge tour and give a little info on where we get stuff, how much it costs, and what we're eating here when we aren't entertaining or dining out.
There are a handful of places I go, in order of preference, for different reasons:
I go grocery shopping twice a week to stock up because I've noticed that vegetables don't last as long here and we have a seriously small refrigerator with an even smaller freezer...see? A few other expats we know a bought standalone freezers or secondary refrigerators to supplement their space.
We don't eat much bread so I keep it in the freezer for the occasion that we do have it. That's a "9-grain loaf", and I've found that most of the bread here is terribly low in nutritive value. No Ezekial here! This was $.55. Above the ice trays is a frozen, a homemade pizza from our friends, a 1-lb salmon filet from Firangi Foods, some streaky pork bacon ($8.50 p/lb, Dorabjees, I took the big package and split it up), a big buffalo tenderloin ($10.17 for 1 1/4lb), and three boxes of buffalo mince/ground meat ($2.93 for 1/2 lb). The meat is all Firangi Foods. Cow beef is illegal here so we go for buffalo, which is great minced or on the grill.
We keep our Lavazza Espresso in the fridge (Dorabjees, $9.42), and our lettuce and butter in these great storage containers we got in the states.
Eggs seem to come two ways: in a plastic tray that holds 30 eggs and can be bought on the roadside or in shops for about $2.50, or in packages that hold just 6. I've yet to see a regular dozen. They are sold at room temperature only. We buy these, Keggs, which are nearly organic, whatever that means, and "safe", as opposed to the other brands which are...unsafe? I'll never understand product marketing here. Anyway, they're $1.50 for a pack of 6. Danone, more commonly known as "Dannon" in the US, makes yogurt, which is called dahi here. We get it in 14 oz. containers of low fat yogurt for $.94 each. They also sell the little flavored varieties too, and make a yummy mango one. We go through 12 eggs and 3 containers of dahi per day in our house.
This drawer is expensive real estate. Domestic butter is sold very inexpensively if you don't mind the taste, but we cook simply and when butter is a major flavor, like in omelettes/eggs and on vegetables, the taste matters. I haven't seen any American brands, but we love France's Elle & Vire, which we buy in an 8oz package for $6.30. Cheese is always touch and go here. Sometimes I use the deli counter where they cut it from the wheel but 65% of the time it's rancid. I don't know if its a hygiene problem, a case setting problem, if it goes bad with temperature variances in transport, or if they just keep it way too long. Anyway, I've been burnt too many times and cheese is expensive, so we just buy the Ford Farms prepackaged stuff at Dorabjees. Even that sometimes is a little funky, but most of the time it works out great. Each of these varies from $8.00 - $11.00 for just 7oz. The little green box with the green dot inside it indicates this is a "veg" item. These markings are on most foods in the grocery store to inform customers who observe certain dietary principles.
It was late in the day when I went shopping so there aren't any veggies in here from Shivaji Market, but the selection at Dorabjees is pretty good. The green beens (top left) were $.60, the sweet potatoes (no yams here!) were $.40, and the limes were about $1.00. On the right, the asparagus was $.78 per each bundle, though it's a lot thinner than it's European or American siblings. Mushrooms were $.78 a package, bags of fresh mixed salad was $.77, ginger was $.31, brussels sprouts were $.1.25 a pack, and that awesome Thai Herb bundle was $1.13. Still don't know what I'm going to do with it, but I'll find a recipe! Couldn't pass up a bunch of herbs I've never tried before!
This is not an exciting shelf. It's got 2 pounds of chicken breasts which we got at Dorabjees for $5.00, some Atomic Horseradish which we brought back from the states (have yet to find pure ground horseradish here), and leftovers: Dijon maple baked chicken breasts and sliced cabbage.
Condimentsssss......from the top left: homemade coconut/mango vinaigrette (I get a wine bottle full of cold-pressed organic coconut oil for about $3.50 here at a local shop), pre-peeled garlic in a glass jar ($.47), Green Tokri basil and Sun Dried Tomato Pesto (Green Tokri makes delicious sauces, these were $1.87 each), Maille mustard which we got in France last year, and Nordic Naturals Omega-3 capsules. I got these online and they were mega expensive, like $60.00, but I trust the brand. On the bottom shelf is some Hoisin sauce, another half-finished jar of pesto, bacon grease (I've become very resourceful in this country), our friend Blair's homemade strawberry jam from this winter's crop, Lemon Curd which we got in Dubai, and Rose's Lime Marmelade, given by a friend.
Top left is some homemade lime pickle that our maid Elizabeth put together for me, Mother's Recipe mixed pickle, a super sour condiment that goes on everything (my own opinion. This is not shared by Marc). Branston Smooth Pickle, from Dubai, one of my favorite spreads ever, Mirin rice wine for Chinese recipes, capers, rice vinegar, Worcestershire Sauce, an essential in our house, Kikkoman Spicy Teriyaki Sauce. Mostly all of these came from Dorabjees. On the bottom is ketchup, a can of Tuborg beer, American Garden BBQ sauce (this company seems to be very common here), Ricola Nighttime tea from France, a jug of filtered water from our filtered water tap at our sink, and a liter of Provilac whole milk. We get Pride of Cows delivered to our house twice a week, but picked this up to try for $1.08 a liter.
I've been having a great time experimenting with new foods and have learned some great tips from Elizabeth, who is always willing to give me her advice when I bring home an unusual item, like this pink amaranth, which she told me to sauté with garlic, a little salt, and olive oil, just like spinach. If you see this at your local CSA or fresh market, pick it up! It's packed with vitamins and tastes awesome!
I'm always curious to see how other people eat and what's in their fridges, so I hope that this was interesting. I'll save you from a whole other 4 shelves of pantry items just in case it wasn't :-)
Another weekend, another vacation. Life’s been really hard lately.
Since we couldn’t be at home on Long Island to celebrate our usual Easter holiday dans le style Français, we chose to hop on a plane to Chennai and catch a pre-paid taxi for a three and half hour trip to the closest thing…Pondicherry (or “Puducherry”, depending upon one’s perspective). From friends’ accounts of their own experiences, I knew it was one of those places we’d either love or loathe, but the consensus from all was that our four day stay was likely two days longer than it needed to be.
Aside from booking flights and our hotel, we kind of winged this trip and decided we would just figure it all out once we got there. The flight was short, only an hour and twenty minutes, and after getting a taxi from the pre-paid counter, we were off on our three-hour car ride south.
We stopped along the way for some snacks, and the road was touch and go with traffic since we arrived near rush hour, but we still somehow managed to make the time Google Maps gave us. I’m still amazed at the accuracy of Google Maps here in predicting time in transit.
The weather was a throwback to Kochi, a balmy 35-40C (about 95-104F) during the day with high humidity, and we opened the door to our hotel room with utter relief at the wall of air conditioning that fell on us as we walked through the threshold. It was 10:00pm and we were spent!
After a little lingering over the Chennai Times, eggs and coffee, we started off on our early morning wander through town. It was already hot, but we put on our best “we’re used to this” faces and trudged on through. We went to the seaside promenade, strolled through the clean and manicured Bharathi Park, and checked out the houses, which had been kept in their glory with bright colored walls and detailed iron balconies.
By 9 ‘o’ clock I was begging for sweet mercy from the heat, so we gave in to one of the “100% Air Conditioned Ferrari ride” offers through town. The Ferrari, by the way, is just a funny term for a rickshaw with the windows open. For $8.00USD, we got a two hour tour through the whole town, which was enhanced by the fact that we were out of the sun and getting a breeze as we put-putted down the road. The driver stopped so we could take pictures, and gave us some information about what was what and where we were. It may have been the best investment of the whole trip.
Later that afternoon, we took a ride out to Auroville, “a universal town where men and women of all countries are able to live in peace and progressive harmony above all creeds, all politics, and all nationalities”, to learn about the history of the community at their information center and take the meditative 1km walk (in the crazy heat) to visit the Matrimandir, their landmark building (Auroville.org, 2015). We learned that the residents make a lot of different products that are sold online and in stores in Pondicherry, so we kept a look out and found a great boutique in town on Bazaar St. Laurent Street that houses a multi-room hoard of Auroville products. We stocked up on a bunch of gifts and some goodies for us, too.
I don’t think our four days in Pondicherry was too long, in fact I think it may have been just right for us because it allowed for a nice balance of touristing and relaxing.
In addition to the charming buildings, an awesome café on Rue Suffern called Café des Arts, cute boutiques to fit every budget and fancy, and the picturesque promenade, we attended a beautiful Easter Mass at Eglise de Notre Dame des Anges, a sea-facing Catholic church that was within walking distance of our hotel. The church was decorated with flowers and the detailed painting on the interior was spellbinding in soft hues of yellow and blue. It marked the end of our time in Pondicherry, and left us with a memory that will linger for quite some time.
Cited: Auroville.org, (2015). Welcome to Auroville / Auroville. [online] Available at: http://www.auroville.org [Accessed 15 Apr. 2015].
One of the most awesome things about being in India is the ability to easily coordinate domestic travel. Sure, it might take three plane rides and a four-hour drive through the middle of nowhere to reach most destinations, but wow is it amazing to be experiencing all that this beautiful country has to offer!!
My dream trip since we’ve arrived was the Taj Mahal. I grew up as a kid seeing it on TV, paintings, magazines, and imagined it with a fairytale sort of wonderment, the regal, white marble against a cornflower blue sky. I wanted to see if the magic would still be there as I had pictured it in my mind.
Since Delhi is only a two-hour direct flight from our town, and the Taj Mahal is only a three-hour drive from Delhi, we decided we could probably see most of the major Delhi tourist sites and the Taj Mahal over a weekend without Marc having to take any vacation days from work. He’s really trying to save them for our summer trip to the US.
Organizing the trip was incredibly easy. I made a reservation at Devna, a lovely boutique hotel located in a leafy, quiet neighborhood nearby India Gate, then asked if they would be able to organize a car with a driver for the entirety of our vacation, including airport pick up/drop off, sightseeing in Delhi, and transport to/from Agra. Since it was a short trip, anything we could do to limit the amount of time figuring out logistics was worth it.
We arrived in Delhi late on Friday and went straight to the hotel so we could get up early in the morning and begin our tour of the city. Since Saturday is still considered a working day, we didn’t have much of an issue with traffic. We saw India Gate first, drove around to see the Secretariat building and the President’s House (well, the front gate, anyway), spent some time checking out Hamayun’s tomb, and then stopped for lunch before heading out to Agra. We chose The Garden Restaurant in Lodi Garden, which we found to have excellent food and a lush, green space that was the perfect backdrop for relaxing and enjoying our meal.
The drive to Agra was ideal, and I would even go so far as to say it was one of the highlights of the trip. The new Yamuna Expressway is an absolute gem, first of all. Smooth asphalt, clearly marked signs, guardrails, rest stops, modern and efficient tollbooths, reflective lane dividers…it’s an absolute marvel. The countryside to Agra is also pretty, with small brick factories, farms, and villages dotting the bucolic landscape of trees and fields.
We seemed to be following (or driving into) a cold front and arrived at Agra, where it was struggling to get past 65F and had started raining. The city was dirty and unremarkable, and the streets were small and congested; a far cry from the sparkly new highway on which we’d just arrived. It seemed as if our sunrise visit to the Taj Mahal would not be as grand as we thought.
The weather remained awful and by sunrise it was pelting us with rain and a chilly wind that went straight to my bones. As soon as we entered the grounds of the Taj Mahal, however, it didn’t seem to matter much. I brought an outfit so we could take our picture in front of the Taj Mahal (yes, for real) and changed back into my bummy clothes immediately afterward.
We walked with the guide, who was also arranged by our hotel, and learned as much as we could about the building and the legend of the Taj Mahal from his perspective. It’s a fascinating story that’s as complicated as the tomb itself, and definitely worth reading about. You’ll find that if you start digging there are as many different stories about the true identity and history of the Taj Mahal as there are inlayed flowers in the structure (that’s a lot).
We decided to skip the Red Fort because the weather deteriorated throughout the morning and opted to get an early start on our drive back to the airport. We were home by dinner, and happy to have had the chance to see the ethereal Taj Mahal, at long last.
In February I went off Facebook “for Lent”. Now, to be honest, the whole “for Lent” thing is 97% bull because, a.) I don’t practice my faith that fundamentally and b.) at a core level I believe that seeking a closer relationship with God and ourselves happens constantly, not just during the season of penitence. Giving up puppy posts (ok, those are actually cute), annoying political rants, click bait, and vague statuses from attention-hungry people with little to no self-esteem is not my idea of an exercise that will truly bring me closer to God or self-understanding.
I did it for a few different reasons. First, I wanted to reallocate my energy and attention on identifying and investing in the key relationships in my life and, second, I wanted to work on living with greater intention. Meaning, I wanted to start doing things for a reason, not just to fill time, to make others happy, because I should, or out of obligation.
The past six weeks have been all about growth. I’ve learned to say no to things I don’t enjoy, I’ve concentrated on school, I’ve spent time with friends here and connected more with ones in the US. I've been exercising 6 days a week with a trainer who challenges and inspires me, I’ve travelled to some awesome places with Marc, and I’ve let go of some ideas and habits that have been sucking positive energy from me for years. For the first time in a long time I am feeling calm-happy, from the inside.
Since Easter was the day I said I’d be back, I logged on to FB to troll and get up to speed on the past two months. I can see I’ve missed a lot. But really, I haven’t missed it at all. Most people weren’t ever sharing things with me, specifically, to begin with; they were sharing them passively, with anyone who would look, searching for approval, justification, encouragement, kind words, and validation…myself included. As a result of social media, the way people communicate has changed, and many of us are oblivious to the loss of true human connection and interaction in our lives, which is a byproduct of that.
I could vehemently write how Facebook is ruining the art of conversation and degrading the essence of friendship, but I’m fairly sure that everyone is up to date on the pro/con arguments (or just doesn’t care) and I don’t feel the need to recreate the wheel. I also don’t plan to deactivate my profile (though I'm not reinstalling the app on my phone or logging on every day) and judge those who don’t because, as an expat, I have found Facebook to be one of the most helpful platforms in terms of getting connected to resources, something incredibly important when settling into a new country. Also, I’m pretty sure I’d lose touch with a lot of family and friends who are now spread all over the globe, and I am SO not ready for that.
I’m am glad, however, I took the time to disconnect, and I encourage anyone thinking about it to just go ahead and take the plunge. It’s amazing what you can see when you’re looking forward instead of down at your phone. :-)
Marc and I decided to take advantage of a long weekend recently over Valentine’s Day to travel to Kochi and see what all the hype of taking a houseboat in Kerala was about. We had 5 days including travel, with so we decided on the following itinerary:
We flew into hot-and-steamy Kochi on Friday evening and easily found the pre-paid taxi counter in the airport, which accepted cash only. Our cab driver was a speedy lane-weaver (with a really great singing voice and an uncanny ability to recall former US presidents) who did not think to pull the seat belt hookups from behind the terrycloth Indian flag towels that he used as a rather artistic substitute for proper seat covers. We spent the drive making sporadic small talk and I pretended not to think of the speed at which and likelihood that we would be propelled through the windshield upon collision with one of the many long haul truckers we passed on the highway.
Arriving to Fort Kochi with life and limb intact, we checked into our hotel, had dinner and called it an early night so we’d have energy to explore the area in the morning. The humidity and the still-present warmth hinted to us that the following day was likely to feel like a sweaty gym sock, so I fished out my hat and sunscreen to place by the door before passing out.
After a breakfast of idli and sambar, a thick and mildly spicy lentil and veggie soup, we took a short walk to the Chinese Fishing nets at the recommendation of our host. Unfortunately the first thing that caught my eye was the filth. There were these great, big graceful nets at the water’s edge, a historic feature of the area, and in the foreground on the shore were longboats for fishing, made by hand from mango wood, all in a sea of modern rubbish -- discarded styrofoam, wrappers, diapers, and other junk that had been either washed up or tossed aside. I actually felt my heart sink. With many places we’ve visited, I often ask myself, “how could a place with such history, such natural beauty and potential have been neglected like that?”
Rubbish aside, it was an interesting place – we stopped at the Dutch Cemetery, which appeared to be off limits to tourists, and nipped into the Santa Cruz Basilica, with its colorful saints, neon lights, and fresco interior. The inside is an amalgam of sights, a visual cross between India, Italy, and Las Vegas.
Our "DIY Google Maps Tour” of Fort Kochi (we just walked around using our phones) was over by about 2pm, and the mid day heat was pretty steamy – as in, I could feel sweat dripping down my back and my front. We threw in the towel, literally, and decided it was time to scoot. We hopped a ride to the Ramada Resort, located about an hour south, halfway to Allepy where we’d board the houseboat, and spent the drive feeling utterly indulgent, basking in the sweet air-conditioning. The rest of the day was spent lounging by the Ramada’s long, well-maintained pool, and reading (I was reading Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese at the recommendation of a friend – awesome book).
The next day, we took the drive to Allepy. The hotel driver had a CD filled with Boney M. tracks and really enjoyed singing Belfast, inserting “break-fast” for “Belfast” and laughing each time for effect. It was contagious, and eventually we succumbed to the groovy disco beats, singing along with him to such classics as Brown Girl in the Ring, Hooray! It's a Holiday, and Gotta Go Home, among others. We wanted to pick up some booze on the way, so we pulled up first to a government liquor shoppe, which had a line about 50 men deep. In the interest of time we decided to pass it and head to a hotel instead where we paid a little more – it was still under Rs. 500 ($10.00 USD).
We made it to the boat in Allepy on time and were introduced to the crew – a cook, a captain, and an assistant. We were off by 11:15am with our welcome drinks in hand and what seemed like hundreds of other houseboats heading the same way.
After an initial traffic-jammed waterway route we settled into our cruise and started to coast down the smaller canals. We docked at the end of the night, bought some fish from a local shop, and the cook put together an incredible Kerala meal. I noticed immediately a difference in the rice, which was long and fat. It had a very mild taste, and served as a base for picking up the various chutneys, pickles, and sauces that accompanied it. Our empty plates made him smile wide afterward, and we got to learn a little bit about him.
He said that his father had owned a restaurant and that he learned at a very young age about both houseboats and cooking -- as a result, he can both operate a houseboat and cook incredible food. It reminded me of my childhood. My father was a carpenter who cleaned chimneys on the side and he used to let me tag along to his jobs on weekends. I loved it because he didn’t shy away from letting me do a little heavy lifting or dirty work that would have me covered in soot. I remember how proud we both were when I was able to do something he’d taught me – there’s something, a rich simplicity, in learning organically like that.
We got lucky with mosquitos, as we had not a single bite, but were sure to bring lots of Odomos just in case (side bar: I hear a lot of chatter about Odomos vs. DEET when people talk about mosquito repellants so here's a link to a study which concluded equal efficacy when compared to DEET). We stopped at a village to walk around and take in the natural beauty of the area; long swaths of golden fields of rice separated by dirt retaining walls on top of which small dirt paths has been created for foot travel. The canal-front residents each seemed to have a sort of all-purpose station for water access, where they washed dishes, clothes, and each other throughout the day, a scene we saw play out dozens of times throughout our cruise. We were greeted with mostly happy faces from the locals, and the little kids practiced their English on us as they waved. It was really sweet.
Back on the boat, the captain pointed out lots of duck farms, kingfishers in trees, jackfruit trees, bird nests dangling from branches, and bats hanging from coconut palms, among many other sights that were equally as beautiful as the last, and during the evening we were serenaded by music from the loudspeakers in the area. Sometimes the music was devotional, other times it was for enjoyment, but always it seemed the perfect soundtrack to the slowly changing scenery down the canal.
We cruised and stopped like that for the whole trip before returning to Allepy, and hunkered down for a two-hour ride to the airport.
The whole experience, our itinerary, the food, and the ease with which we were able to sort out logistics while there made this an excellent trip worth circling back around for. We had read many reviews on different houseboat tour companies at Trip Advisor before booking ours, and some of them are downright scary. Bugs, no water, swarms of mosquitos, sicknesses…some of them are really awful! We booked with a company called Nova Holidays Houseboat and for our needs I’m happy to say we were perfectly satisfied.
Our cell phones never lost data or cell service (okay, maybe for a few hours when we were docked near the little village), and I felt like we were always safe and taken care of. The crew on the houseboat was great, the scenery was beautiful (although I’m not sure I would call it pristine, per se), and it was super easy to do in just 5 days. We could have probably even made it work in a three-day weekend if we had decided not to explore Fort Kochi. I would highly recommend a stay at the Ramada, especially if you have kids, and caution to bring sunscreen, floppy hats, and bug spray because, even though we got lucky, I can see the potential for lots of buzzy visitors in Kerala.
Yep, you read that right. After a fruitless search, I have concluded that finding a job here is probably one of the hardest things I've ever tried to do. So, I put my tail between my legs, threw in the towel on the job hunt, and have decided to bring grad school up from the back burner. Who needs to save for retirement or plan for the what if's anyway, right?
Classes started Thursday and I'm finding my new student rhythm, trying to fit my readings and assignments into the other parts of my life. It's going pretty well, a little tight time-wise, but it'll even out. It's an online program, which I'm happy about because that means I can take everything with me wherever I am in the world, and I won't need a separate visa since it's a UK university.
Before the rush of new classes, a friend and I went to visit a dairy farm about an hour away from us. It's run by our friend Ana, a Maine native, who makes awesome cheese for a few restaurants here and in Mumbai. Her husband oversees the needs of the goats, buffalo, and cows that supply the milk, and she was so gracious to give us a tour and show us the animals.
Her place is like an Indian Petit Trianon, away from the city and filled with nice things to see, hear, and smell. She has an actual backyard with grass, a killer view of the hills, fruit trees, herbs, flowers, peace and quiet, and a farm on top of that. I mean look at that, is that not perfection?
I went home with a cooler full of cheese that afternoon (ricotta, mozzarella, chèvre, and feta) and for dinner Marc and I devoured an entire plate of it -- so GOOD! Later I made caprese skewers, a beetroot and feta salad, and some mini Italian Ricotta Pies...talk about farm-to-table!
Since Marc has some off-time coming up, we decided to take advantage of it and book some travel within India, something we've been looking forward to doing. Of course since we have our new camera and GoPro, I'm sure there will be some colorful posts coming up -- Kerala, Chennai, Delhi, Agra, Pondicherry, Goa...can't wait!
In other news, a Dunkin' Donuts and a Sephora opened up here in the mall (whaaaaat?!), Marc had his first golf lesson and nailed it, and we just had our first annual "wellness exam" (spoiler alert: we're both fine), which was basically an all day affair where we went through a battery of tests at the hospital: hemogram, blood group & RH factor, fasting blood sugar, postprandial blood sugar, HBA1C, lipid profile, routine urinalysis, routine stool analysis, chest x-ray, ECG, thyroid function test, serum creatnine, abdomen and pelvis ultrasound, treadmill stress test, serum calcium, urea, blood urea nitrogen, mammogram, PAP smear, pulmonary function test, 2D echo, HBSAg, eye exam, nutrition counseling, ENT exam, gyno exam, and a followup with a doctor to go over all the lab results...for $150.00!!!!! I still can't believe all of that was only $150.00.
Well, my next post will probably be travel related, I always have so much fun writing those :-)
Here are a few snippets from the past few weeks!
I was ambivalent about planning our first trip home. On one hand, I really didn't want to deal with the cold of winter and all of the extra luggage we'd need, but on the other, a reunion with friends and family was long overdue and we didn't want to delay it any longer.
We put Stella in the care of friends, packed our suitcases full of treasures from India, and settled into our 30 hour transit from Pune to New York. A ten hour flight landed in London where we took a full-day, private tour given by the great folks at London Magical Tours, and an eight hour flight that night to Newark put us at home in NYC just around two in the morning on December 21st.
Our first order of business was to grab some grub. We went to the late night pizza place around the corner from home and shoveled 2 beautiful, crispy, gigantic slices into our faces while watching a drunk guy try to get his little brother (who was wasted, passed out on the table), to drink water and eat pizza while talking to his friend about the fist fight he just had over his cell phone in a donut shop downtown. Ahhhhhh, New York City.
We spent Christmas on Long Island with Marc's family and did all the things we love -- a walk on the bay beach, an early morning stop at Jack's Stir Brew, a drive to Montauk, fresh seafood from Stuart's, exchanging gifts after Mass on Christmas day, and some cat naps at the fireplace. Being there really put us in the holiday spirit.
After Long Island we drove to southern New Jersey and spent a few days with friends at their new home. We got Pete's Pizza from Columbus Farmers Market, went to Sunday mass at St. David the King (our old neighborhood church), did a drive-by at our old townhouse, met up with family from my side for dinner, and took a trip to stock up on goodies from Whole Foods and Trader Joe's. I also bought a few pairs of jeans, something I had been dying to do for months!
Our next stop was sunny Florida where we stayed with my sister and her husband in Tampa. She is expecting her second baby in February so there was a lot of excitement around that, and she was sweet enough to give me a sneak peak of the little guy at her ultrasound appointment! We made cookies and went to her baby shower, spent time with my two year old nephew (who I'm pretty sure will remember me now!), and rang in 2015 quietly with a nice dinner at their place. Everyone was in bed by 1am...I guess we're really adults now?
After the new year we saw my mom and dad, who live about 45 minutes north, and did some touristing, which included a trip to Weeki Wachee state park for the mermaid show -- if you are ever in the area, you HAVE to see this place!!
A quick flight to Philadelphia gave us just enough time (we had a 12 hour window) for dinner and drinks with friends before driving to Maryland the next day for an overnight with family. We were greeted in the morning by the first and only snow of our trip, which was beautiful but made for a slow drive. On the way down, we made a brief pit-stop in Delaware for two very important purchases: a Nikon DS5300, and a Go Pro -- hooray for soon-to-be better pictures on the blog!!
Maryland was awesome, it always is. I have this aunt who is basically a domestic goddess when it comes to entertaining, and every time we go, it is perfect. Her table is the place to be for great conversations, family stories, delicious food, and a fair amount of good-natured heckling. She even got a Smith Island Cake for dessert, my fave!
We drove back up to NYC in the morning after an awesome breakfast, and spent our last few days there. We ate a massive French lunch with Marc and my mother-in-law at Bistro Vendome, caught up with friends over dinners at Betony and Kanoyama, watched two of our favorite people get married in a flawless wedding on Long Island, and had quite an eventful lunch with Marc's family at home.
On Monday morning before heading back to Incredible India, we played a 2 hour long logic game called "Does Your Bag Fit Your Luggage Allowance?". We had way too much baggage (pun absolutely intended) and, in the end, needed to redistribute the overweight contents at least three times, taking them to be weighed at the local laundromat each time, and eventually having to borrow a suitcase from Marc's mom so that we could fit everything in. We were SO ready to be home!
I wish I could say that I loved all of our time in the states, but that's bullshit. Our trip was crazy and I will never repeat something like that ever again. It was 21 days of absolutely non-stop travel by plane and car which covered 6 states, 23,000 miles, and over 50 people. It included no time to rest, and no time for either of us to be alone. Although I enjoyed seeing everyone, rolling it all into one "vacation" had me walking a thin line between "fine" and "insane". Toward the end I became a seething, teetering, goblin-under-the-bridge, prone to unpredictable bouts of tears, despondent periods of dissociative silence, and irritable meltdowns. In hindsight, I was probably not so much fun to be around in the last few days...or on the way home, for that matter.
Thankfully (SO THANKFULLY), the day I woke up in my own bed in Pune, I felt brand new. I watched the sun rise over the mountains onto an ordinary morning, and made Marc his breakfast while he got ready for work: a latte from our new espresso machine, a bowl of Bagrry's muesli with sliced, fresh, in-season strawberries, and a small dish of Sat-Isabgol psyllium husk next to a glass of water. I moved around as the pitter patter of Stella's paws on the travertine floors followed me, and the combined smell of methane from the local landfill and smoke from the previous night's bonfires prompted me to turn on our A/C unit. My WhatsApp chat groups became relevant once again, reminding me of golf lessons, ladies lunches, meet ups, and salsa classes, and I headed out to meet my neighbor for lunch.
This morning I made Eggs Benedict (the English Muffins too, 'cause we can't get those here) and as we were eating in bed under our new duvet cover, I realized that for so many months I had pined over this trip, to the point of physical illness, only to discover that I was chasing a vapor. Home isn't "there" anymore, its wherever we are. We can visit, we can reminisce, but this trip was proof that that chapter is over and we just have to keep movin' on, all of us. I'm looking forward to having new adventures, to seeing new places, to meeting new people, to nourishing our relationships with friends and family back in the states, and to enjoying another year in India, where each day is "same same, but different".
Here's to a 2015 filled with a whole lot of that :-)
One of the last "tasks" of the year in our house is to send out holiday cards. As many things are here, I thought it would be too much of an effort so I planned on doing a mass email. I even had a draft set, until I saw the awesome UNICEF holiday cards at Archie's...sold!
We got them all ready to go and put them in envelopes (which didn't have any adhesive to seal them) and this morning I set off with our driver to check out the post office...my first time since moving here. I left the envelopes opened so that the post office could verify that it was just paper inside and brought tape with me so we could seal them on the spot. I don't know if this is necessary, but I take EVERY possible precaution when doing anything here to save time and headaches. In the end, it turned out to be (I think) a good idea.
We went to a small one which was fairly new and it had the basic feel of any post office in the US. Sort of bare bones inside, with 4 "multipurpose" windows, a row of steel chairs against the wall, and an empty writing station with a tub of blue goo on it. When it was our turn, the attendant told me it would be one price to mail the cards if we left them open, and another if we sealed them -- uh thanks but no thanks, I'd rather see the cards go on their way sealed. After weighing and counting, I bought stamps and she told us to go to the writing station along the wall to seal them and put on the stamps.
The tub of blue goo turned out to be adhesive for the envelopes. Our driver grabbed half the pile and started gluing them shut far faster than I could do my half with the Scotch Tape. I guess envelopes here don't typically have those lick-and-press glue edges?
The stamps were pretty old school. I'd gotten used to the laser cut, self-stick ones in the US so much that I almost didn't know what to do when we were handed the flimsy, perforated paper sheets. For ten minutes we both meticulously folded and tore the exact number of stamps for each envelope, trying not to tear them too much!
Once they were done, we just handed them to the attendant and they were on their way. She said they'd reach their destinations in about 15 business days -- right around Jan 1st. Not too bad!
The post office experience this time around was pretty painless, I'd say, but our driver told me that if it was a parcel that needed sending we'd have to go to "the BIG post office" which could take quite a while and was a more complicated process. As always, I was thankful to have him with me to translate as he does when we're in places where the folks speak only Hindi or Marathi.
Today is the end of a ten day folk arts festival, Dastkari Bazaar, held at Pingale Farms in Koregaon Park where, in addition to being awed by the quality and quantity of craftsmen from all over India, I stumbled upon a new obsession, pattachitra painting. I also had an incredible kheema kulcha (chicken mince stuffed in bread which is fired in a tandoor an slathered with ghee) with chana dal and spicy onion chutney.
Among the beautiful saris, tussar silks, painted pickle jars, animal hide lampshades, made-to-order cooking utensils and other handicrafts at the bazaar, I found a stall selling these paintings, created by a family who lives in Raghurajpur, a village known for its artists near Puri, Odisha (or "Orissa" depending to whom one is speaking) on the Northeastern coast of India. The man stationed at the table was Bijay Kumar Bariki, and the paintings showcased the work of himself, his father Akshaya, grandfather, and brother, among other artists. Each one was tied to mythology, and his level of knowledge regarding the twisting and gnarled folkloric storylines in them seemed infinite, especially to a layperson like me. Truth be told, I couldn't keep up with all the names and stories, but I did see immediately that these works of art were something really special. I was mesmerized, through and through.
We moved from painting to painting and through little statements here and there I started to get background on how they are made. The canvas is actually cotton cloth which has been coated with gum, dried for several days, then polished by hand with special stones. The paints are also made by hand using natural materials such as soot, shells, and stones, and the paintbrushes are made from buffalo or mouse hair. With a little digging at home, I found a pretty interesting read on the "making-of" pattachitra paintings here.
I looked at all the big ones at least three times, paying attention to the detail, getting a feel for which ones I preferred and trying to see the stylistic differences he was pointing out between him and his relatives. After a while some of them stood out. Multiple layers of borders, a higher level of detail...it became fuzzy after about the 15th look-over though, so I had to come back with a fresh set of eyes (Marc) to make a decision.
We ended up buying this one, which shows the life of Krishna, and I hope that one day I will be able to explain the story to my kids as well as Bijay himself could do, though I'm pretty sure it will take some solid time with my nose in the books to really understand it all. Perhaps an educational trip to Raghurajpur is in order... ;-)
I thought it would be fitting to follow up my "20 Things I Miss About Home" post with "20 Things I love About Pune" because, if you couldn't tell from this whole blog, there are so many great things that I absolutely love here!
1.) Friends. Of course this is first ;-) I've met some great friends here, and they make this experience even more awesome than it already is!
2.) Street Food. We have tons of food trucks and lunch carts in the cities at home, but the street food here is such a nice departure from the usual. It's cheap, often bite-sized, and they can be found everywhere! I hold off on the sauces and chutneys, and make sure everything I eat is heated past boiling point, but other than that I'm happy to try anything I can!
3.) Chai. I love stopping during my day to take five minutes and enjoy a cup of tea. There are chai stalls everywhere here, my favorite places: Diamond Queen, Southin Cafe, Good Luck, and the stall that has no name near Marc's office. Chai here comes in tiny glasses which hold about 2-4 ounces, and is some combination of spices, milk, water, and tea, the proportions of which are usually a closely guarded secret :-) My favorite tea is a bit less sweet, with more milk than water, and lots of spices.
4.) Shivaji Market. I love this farmer's market more in the winter and summer than I do in the monsoon, due to the smell that it gives off during the wet months. Structurally, it's operating in the same way I'd imagine it did a century ago, with the waste water running through stategically constructed channels and the refuse gathering in piles on the floor around the support beams -- one does have to mind the ground when navigating through but it's worth it. The market consists of vendors, some of which have been selling at the market for generations, which are separated into categories: fruits and veg, poultry, lamb, fish, and beef. It is the best place I have found to get whole ingredients, especially meats and poultry butchered to order. Have had some great conversations with the merchants too.
5.) Lower cost of living. Some things cost much less here than at home. For example, food items (6 eggs $.75, loaf of bread $.65, 1lb tomatoes $.65), medical costs (doctors visit $4.50, specialist visit $8.13, one night in the hospital in a private room $100, 16 doses of Paracetamol/Acetaminophen $.25), and services (manicure $8.00, hour long massage $30.00, hour long foot reflexology $12.00, dog groomer for Stella $25.00, haircut for Marc $3.00). As a matter of fact, just last night Stella got into the trash and an emergency visit PLUS an abdominal X-Ray cost us only $13.00! Stella is fine, BTW.
6.) Home delivery. Stores deliver everything, most of the time for free. The liquor store, the grocery store, laundry service, the milk man, the dog food store. I could even have my blood drawn for testing at home by a mobile lab tech!
7.) Time for Family. I griped for a while about not working but this break from my career couldn't have come at a better time. Hopefully in the next year or so we'll be adding to our family and I'm looking forward to being at home then.
8.) Our sweet home. I would take our home here over any other place we've ever lived...it will be hard to leave!
9.) Being centrally located in Asia. This is an awesome location for travel -- Hong Kong is 5.5 hours away, Goa is a 37 minute flight, Dubai is 3.5 hours, Bangkok is 4 hours, Tokyo and Paris are 8...we really hope to maximize our vacation time here.
10.) INDIA is so DIVERSE! Before we moved to India, everything here just kind of got lumped together in a very general concept of "India". After being here for a short while however, we have seen that there is a staggering amount of diversity! Dialects, customs, dress, food; it has been such a pleasure to discover new and interesting things here.
11.) Thali. It gets it's own number. It's like a combination of a buffet and a Brazilian rodizio. The waiters come around filling up your cups as they empty until you beg them to stop. YES PLEASE!
12.) The Urban Barnyard. I see chickens, dogs, cats, goats, horses, water buffalo, cows, pigs, and occasionally a camel or elephant being led by a handler on a daily basis. I've started to recognize which herd of water buffalo belongs to whom and at what times they go from place to place for grazing. I'm happy that I'm not the only one -- I have a friend here who's been updating everyday on the whereabouts of one camel in particular...it's funny :-) As far as the dogs and cats, I wish there was a better effort put forth on spaying/neutering, but there are a good amount of people take an interest in them by providing food and vet services when they can. Progress, not perfection, I guess.
13.) Shopping. It's funny, this makes both my "20 Things I Miss About Home" list, and the "20 Things I love about India" list! Shopping here is an awesome experience. The haggling, the dizzying assortment of items, the helpfulness of the store clerks, the upselling. There are stores that sell everything under the sun! My favorite shop here looks like the size of a closet, but if I'm looking for something in particular, I just need to say it and it magically appears. The owner knows where EVERY SINGLE THING is, and if he doesn't have it, he will try his best to find it for me. THAT is awesome.
14.) The weather. We have three seasons: hot-as-hell summer where it's dry and gets up to 110ºF, rainy/monsoon season which is wet and a little cooler, and winter, which is dry, cool, breezy, and pleasant. The summer is fine because I'm in the A/C, the rainy/monsoon season we've decided is the season for us to travel, and winter is beautiful! What's not to love about that?!
15.) The active expat community. This is a great place to be an expat. Especially through Facebook and WhatsApp, there's always a class or a party or a day trip being planned and it's an easy place to make friends and meet different people. I've found it to be a very welcoming place as a newcomer.
16.) The Festivals. It seems like every week there's another festival happening. As soon as the firecrackers, colored powder, and banners are cleaned up from the streets, they're replaced with new ones for the next one. It really feels like every day is a celebration here!
17.) Green City. Pune is a rather green city, and in addition to all the parks, most of which are well-maintained, the majority of streets are provided with a nice canopy from the mature trees that line them.
18.) My cell phone bill. I'm going to have some choice words when I have to return to a ridiculous contract if/when we return to the US. My cell phone bill is usually about $25.00 now and that's with international calls.
19.) Mahalaxmi Super Shoppee - This is my go-to store for everything. It's not very big, but it has three floors and is connected to a fruit and veg stand. The third floor is cosmetics, the second floor is housewares/cell phone store/repair shop (they replaced my iPhone battery and my shattered back plate!), and the first floor is the grocery part. They have a ton of imported products in addition to the usual eggs/milk/bread/butter/cheese staples. No meat, but that's ok because that's what the Hyatt and Shivaji Market are for :-) . The guys in this shop are very helpful, nice, and know where everything is.
20.) Short Trips. Fort Jadhavgadh, Parvati Hill, Mahabaleshwar, Fort Sinhagad, Shillim and Lonavala are just a few of the beautiful places that are perfect for a day or weekend trip from Pune.
Do you live in Pune? What do you like most about being here? :-)
We've been here for 10 months with no trips home and I am chomping at the bit to get back for Christmas and New Year's Eve (53 DAYS TO GO!). I just wish it wasn't going to be freezing cold...it's one of the main reasons we wanted to move to begin with. Plane tickets are booked, itinerary has been made (sorry New Jersey, you got the short end of the stick this time) and my shopping list is almost complete. We've gotten asked a few times what we miss most about the states, other than family and friends of course, so here it is:
1.) Driving. Some people love sitting on a beach with a Mai Tai, others like taking a fishing rod down to the dock and settling into an afternoon of catch-and-release...I love driving. I miss being able to get into a car by myself, whenever I want, and driving somewhere, or even nowhere in particular if I feel like it. I miss grabbing a coffee, turning up my favorite music, and easing into a long stretch of highway, cruising past the exits and rest stops in my own little mobile sanctuary.
2.) Shopping. America, you really don't know how good you have it. No, seriously. We are bringing our biggest luggage bags and FILLING them when we come home. Branded items are twice as expensive here, clothes never seem to fit well, and even when I find something nice it usually gets destroyed after five washes in the machine, so we're carving out a big fat chunk of time to stimulate the economy while we're home.
3.) The snow. True, I hate winter and the cold, but I do love a good snow storm. All the anticipation, eyeballing the forecasts, toggling between three open windows of predictions on my laptop, watching the bread, milk, and eggs fly off the convenience store shelves, seeing the first flakes, hearing the muffled sounds of cars driving past and the crunch of my feet on the ground...I'm hoping we get a little precip while we're there.
4.) The Beach/Summertime. Marc and I both spent most of our childhood summers at the beach. Marc on Long Island, NY, and me on Long Beach Island, NJ. This summer, the closest we came to a shoreline was Normandy, and it was definitely not warm enough for a dip. Same goes for Jumeirah Beach in Dubai in September, where it was about 100F at 7am. We won't be making that mistake again, so have decided to return during the late summer so we can enjoy it.
5.) Cooking/Entertaining in general. Love it, miss it like crazy. We've not been entertaining here so much as of yet, but I'm hoping that after we get back we can ramp it up a bit.
6.) Freakin' New York City. Roads built on the grid system, taxis that run their meters, family get togethers, predictable walking patterns, crosswalks, the smell of Nuts 4 Nuts carts, a giant late night slice of pizza, bagels with cream cheese and lox on a Sunday morning, long brunches, dinners so good they spill into the next day, Food Emporium (and Citarella's, depending on my level of nostalgia that day), Central Park...etc...
7.) Grocery Stores. I don't have a picture for this, but I really miss the clever merchandising, the variety, the smell, and the predictable layout of American grocery stores. Whole Foods, Wegmans, Trader Joe's, I'm lookin' at you.
8.) Sushi. We have sushi in Pune, in fact there are 2 Japanese restaurants that offer it, but like most things, "it's just not the same"...case in point:
9.) Autumn. We don't have one, and it's actually made my mascara run more than twice. I seriously get misty-eyed whenever I think about it. I think it's PSL withdrawal; I even sent an S.O.S to one of my best friends with a care package request list of all my favorite fall stuff: Wawa Pumpkin Spice Coffee, Pumpkin Pie scented wax melts from Yankee Candle, molasses, etc...can't WAIT to get that shipment!
10.) Dog Parks. We used to love waking up early, grabbing a coffee on a weekend morning and taking Stella to play at one of the many dog parks in NJ. It was a great chance for her to run like a crazy pup, explore off-leash, jump in the water, and play with other dogs. We also got to chat with other dog owners so it was kind of a fun social thing to do. Miss that.
11.) Wawa and roadside convenience stores, in general.
12.) Thanksgiving. See our last Thanksgiving in NJ here!
13.) Blending into a crowd. Being a foreigner here still gathers attention. I'm really looking forward taking a break from having to be hyper-vigilant in public, and watching out for gawkers, stalkers, and ass-grabbers.
14.) Favorite foods: Baby spinach, cheese, wine, oysters, wild caught salmon, pumpkin, blueberries, blackberries, raspberries, Jersey peaches and corn, lemons, breakfast sausages, half gallons of Silk Original Unsweetened Almond Milk, Amish-made Maple Yogurt from Reading Terminal Market, Philly cheesesteaks, turkey...
15.) Drinking municipal water straight from the tap.
16.) Not having to wonder if it's ok to flush the toilet paper. In most places here it's ok to flush, but when I see a bin filled with wastepaper in a stall, I always wonder...
17.) Smiling. I've had to put on a pretty gruff face here, and I very rarely smile in public. In my experience, smiling too widely at a stranger (and particularly at a man), is often perceived as forward, and is meant to be reserved only for people with whom I am very familiar, like a friend or a relative.
18.) Diversity and Inclusion. When I think about what I miss in the states, I realize that America isn't any one culture, but all cultures co-existing; a true melting pot. I miss KBBQ and karaoke, days at the Russian banya, a bowl of Japanese ramen, the Amish market, shopping in the Italian Market for artisanal meats and cheeses, pho, Chinese New Year celebrations, a soak in an Onsen tub, the Puerto Rican parade in NYC, cart after cart of dim sum on a Sunday morning, Pride events in Phila and NY, a Chinese Hot Pot dinner with friends...I could go on and on!
19.) Philadelphia - my family has had a long run in Philadelphia, c. 1600's, and I miss that city like crazy.
20.) MOVIES!!!!! Before movies come out here, they need to go through review by the Central Board of Film Certification. This means two things: a.) we usually have to wait for movies to be shown in theaters after their US release dates, and b.) the movies which are shown are sometimes censored so some bits are cut out.
We returned from Bali late last Monday night feeling exhausted after a full day of travel through Kuala Lumpur and onto Mumbai, where we got 5 hours of sleep at a hotel before driving down to Pune after sunrise (this is a safety precaution Marc's company asks us to take when driving the Mumbai-Pune Expressway).
It was our first trip there and it was a total whirlwind. Even though our days were packed from 8:00am to lights-out, I don't think we covered more than 25% of what was on our wish list. We split the trip into two by staying in different parts of Bali for each half (Ubud and, later, Nusa Dua) which allowed us to increase the amount of area we could cover, but I think more than one visit is necessary to actually see a majority of this huge and hugely diverse island.
Instead of writing a tome, I made a list of good and bad things based on our experiences...of course I put the good at the end so you finish this post with an impression of Bali that is more lovely than not. We will definitely be returning, in spite of the bad ;-)
1.) Bali's big attractions are SUPER crowded and super touristy. Like Times Square at Christmas. The volume of "low-season" tourism on Bali as a whole was much higher than I had anticipated, and every place we went was swarming with cameras, go-Pros, selfie poles, sun-shielding umbrellas, and "amateur photographers" (read: tourists with fancy cameras who think they're the next Ansel Adams).
2.) Drivers get paid to take passengers to tourist traps. We hired a driver who got a kick back every time he took us to certain places, so we stopped at a random place on the road (a "lookout point") with a view of a pretty poorly maintained rice field in order to get hit up by locals to buy souvenirs (the locals pay him to bring tourists there). Later, after visiting a temple, we were taken to one of the worst buffet restaurants ever, paying $10.00 USD per person for the privilege of eating cold, over-oiled versions of Indonesian dishes (our driver got a free lunch out of it).
3.) The bait-and-switch is alive and well. I bought a sarong at Tampak Siring Temple and when I got home I realized the vendor had replaced it with a much smaller piece of fabric in the same pattern. The fabric had been sewn into a loop and had a stain in the middle. Guess I'll have some nice pillows made instead...
4.) The "feedback forms" at Jimbaran Beach seafood restaurants are NOT feedback forms! After an amazing meal of perfectly grilled seafood on the beach a waitress gave me a feedback form, which I like filling out because I think it actually helps businesses. The next morning at 8:05am, our hotel room phone rang and the voice on the other end told us we had won 2 free nights stay at a group of resorts due to my "feedback form" being selected as a "prize winner" and all we needed to do was come to the hotel to collect our "prize". Yeah, no...
5.) Traffic jams. Especially in places south of the airport, bigger towns, and roads leading to tourist attractions and beaches. Pad your schedule with a little extra time given for travel or, better yet, rent a scooter if you're able!
6.) Pollution and Garbage. After living in a rather polluted and densely populated city in India for the better part of a year, I think my view on trash and air pollution is a little skewed. I actually didn't notice the trash in Bali, I'm just putting this down because other tourists we met had made comments about it.
7.) Legian Street madness. I'm pretty much past the point in my life where I think going out and getting wasted during vacation at a place where I can't hear myself speak is a good time. Legian Street seems to be a 24 hour party with everything available for the taking. We had a beer at a bar while listening to a cover band (the band was actually pretty great) but walking there and back was one of the low points of the trip for me. I got flashed vials of white crystals for sale by two random men, the music was pounding, we passed hoards of drunken, barely-standing 20-somethings, and saw at least three "couples" that didn't exactly look like they were in it for love, ifyaknowwhatImean. I'm sure this place is awesome for some, it just wasn't really for me and I don't see us returning during the evening. Maybe during the day for the beach and shopping...
Bali is indescribably beautiful, and magical, and I can't wait to go back and find my piece of paradise. Knowing what I know now, I'm sure a perfect vacation is out there on that island. The architecture, the people, the sense of community and family that can be seen in any town or village, the beaches, the Balinese homes with their temples and ijuk roofs, the mountain forests, the food, the jungles, the festivals and religion, the arid northeast coast; these are things that make Bali amazing!
As far as highlights go I'd say that the food is where it's at. Come to think of it, the more I travel the more obsessed with regional cuisine I become. I'm no Anthony Bourdain, in fact I don't have the liver to drink as much or the balls to eat half of the stuff he does (though there was that one time I tried balut...), but I am always on the hunt for new ingredients to use at home, recipes to make, and a conversation with the folks who are feeding everyone else.
Here's a list of our Bali highlights...
1.) The FOOD is so GOOD!!!
2.) Watching the sunset with a cold Bintang and eating dinner at one of the seafood restaurants at Jimbaran Beach. No reservation needed, we just walked in, sat down, and chose our giant meal of grilled and seasoned lobster, prawns, fish and sides for about $30.00 USD per couple.
3.) Spending an afternoon at Angseri Hot Spring, which was accessible only by a ten minute walk through the jungle and rice fields. It's a little rustic, but very relaxing!
4.) Driving through falling leaves at Bedugal Botanical Garden. In stark contrast to the muggy, endless summer in lower elevations, we breezed through this forest with the windows down and it smelled like autumn in NJ! Wish we would have brought our sneakers so we could have done the treetop obstacle course that's offered near the entrance!
5.) Eating Klepon (aka, the most delicious thing I've ever tasted) at Tanah Lot. Glutinous rice balls filled with palm sugar and rolled in coconut. In fact, trying a bunch of different Indonesian dessert items...it totally deserves its own number on this list!
6.) Ubud Sacred Monkey Forest. I wish we had revisited this place a few more times. The monkeys are mischievous and adorable, and the scenery is beautiful!
7.) Watching a ceremonial procession through the heart of Ubud. It's a beautiful thing to see these customs and traditions kept alive, even amidst modernization.
8.) The scenery. Bali is absolutely breathtaking and it seems like there is painstaking effort that goes into making everything, small or large, a work of beauty, either by nature or by hand. I can't wait to spend more time on our next trip wandering around and taking it all in again.
We're absolutely crazy about Stella and at home we made sure she had the best of everything. An amazing vet, super high quality food, plenty of time at the local dog park, a fabulous (and overpriced) boarding facility where we could watch her via webcam, and trips to the beach/forest/anywhere-we-could-take-her. She really is our princess -- and yeah, we're those people.
I have had a series of heart palpitating experiences with her, including an absolute tick infestation after picking her up from a (highly recommended) boarding facility, run-ins with bad mannered children (and adults) who think hitting, kicking, or tugging on fur are acceptable ways to interact with a new canine "friend", several failed attempts to introduce a new food (yes, I was titrating), paw pad issues, and a total lack of nearby, fenced-in, dog-friendly green space.
It's been a frustrating sequence of trial and error but that being said, we have carved out the closest semblance to normalcy here and have found some great resources. With the increasing number of dog owners coming to Pune and knowing the stress that comes with relocating a dog, I thought it'd be helpful to make a short list of the primary ones we use. There are a bunch of different places in town, and some of them are really good; these are just the ones we tend to use over and over. I recommend looking around once you've got the basics covered, because I'm always finding something new here to recommend!
If you are interested in seeing how we did the actual relocation for Stella, please look at my older posts here, here, and here! We used Furry Flyers to help us with the documentation needed for importation.
I have found that the best recommendations I get are from fellow expats, so if you are looking for something, speak up, ask around!! Chances are that someone knows someone who knows or knows someone else ;-)