Thursday, May 2, 2013

Humbly Hospitable

This is dedicated to all the families and friends who opened their homes and hearts to me during these last eight and half months. They will all likely tell me I didn't need to write this, but it must be shared.

India is the land of hospitality. Whether one has money to put milk on the table or not, you will be offered tea. Whether a car is available or not, you will be offered a ride. Whether they were planning on eating that one dish you love that night or not, they will make it for you (in large quantities). This entry is far overdue and has been constantly in my mind since I arrived here in August.

For those of you who don’t know, prior to my coming here for this chapter of my life I had only come 4-5 times before. And, those times were only for a maximum of three weeks. I’d traveled to most other continents in the world, but hadn’t ventured to discover the land of my ancestors. I always had a hard time defining my level of culture and my coming to India was a solution of sorts.

I’ve learned many things for this place. I won’t try and summarize what I’ve learned because I think it would be a bit premature and hopeless. However, hospitality and selflessness are two things I can wholeheartedly say I’ve experienced and hope to keep with me. I can’t begin to express the amount of love I’ve experienced while in India. So many people have opened their homes and treated me as their own child.

My time in Ahmedabad is, of course, crazy near and dear to my heart. As you may have heard, we lost my mother’s mom and nephew within a span of two weeks late fall. It was a tragic time and the loss is still being felt today. Both losses came only a few weeks after I had moved to my masi (mom’s sisters) home. And while we were all grieving, I grew incredibly close to my family there. I had tears in my eyes as I type this now.

The hospitality I felt living there was incredible. I was immediately taken in as a sister and daughter. My masi would take me shopping as if I were her own and help me pair kurtis and salvaars. She’d help me match my dupatta and make my favorite dishes at home (kitchidi and baath ni mutiya, for anyone asking ;)). My masa would give me the love and motivation my own father would give me in the States. He’d ask me questions about my day and help me understand some of the Indian nuances I was facing. Priyanshi, my cousin sister, would make me laugh and introduce me to her friends. I could ask her anything and everything and she’d help me find an answer. She is my younger sister now and I’m going to miss hanging out with her terribly.
Priyanshi (cousin-sister), Priti-masi (mom's younger sister), Saurin-masa (masi's husband), and me 

Priyanshi and I

Mother daughter bonding

My masi and masa were dying to meet some of the girls I volunteered with so they hosted pani puri night at home- (from left to right: Jinal, Tapasya, me, Stuti, Madhavi). Tapasya, Stuti, Madhavi and I traveled to Rajasthan a few weeks after this picture was taken.
My mom’s elder sister and husband in Varodara, as well as their daughter in Bangalore, also opened their homes and hearts to me. My masa (mom’s sister’s husband) became my personal encyclopedia. I would ask him everything under the sun and he would respond with an answer, or call a friend and ask. I learned so much about life from him. He taught me about my ancestral religion- Jainism- and taught me about how to live a happy life (apparently the key is selflessness and honesty). He inspired me to read more and to keep being curious.
Mota-masi (mom's elder sister) and Nilesh-masa  (mota-masi's husband- the man who knows something about everything)
Gandhi family trip to Palitana (a Jain pilgrimage sight)

Celebrating Priyanshi's birthday in Bangalore (Gandhi sister reunion)- from left to right: me, Evan, Niyati-didi, Kriday, Rachana-didi, Priyanshi
A funny picture from our Gandhi sister reunion in Bangalore :)
Anand is where my father is from and where I spent Uttrayan- Kite Festival (so many festivals in India I still haven’t blogged about). My family there held a three-day extravaganza for the holiday. There were other family members from abroad visiting at the same time. My bhabi (cousin brother’s wife) and I had a conversation one night about how creatively they had planned the weekend. There were games, prizes and talents shows. I am a bit intrigued to see if we can bring that sort of fun to the Doshi’s in the west (yes…I’m thinking Mother’s Day weekend guys).
Some of my cousins in Anand (and guest appearances by some others), from left to right: Priyanshi,  me, Nidhi, Nishu, Prapti, Devangi, Purna, Hemabhabi
Visiting Mumbai turned to be a consistent event. Every couple months I’d find myself in Mumbai and overwhelmed with a number of places to stay. Family friends would open their doors to me and offer their help regarding my travel plans. My time would always be a little flustered because I’d want to meet so many people and not leave without saying hello. I’m still in shock as to how amazing it has been getting to know some of our family friends on a more casual level. There is something special about being able to plop down on a couch and just have a random conversation about life. The spontaneity of it strikes an appeal to me.
Hiloni-bhabi, me and Shilpa-kaki
My dad's cousin Kuldip-kaka, Shilpakaki, and I one of my last nights in India
Hanging out at home in Ghatkopar with my cousins Purna and Prapti
Even while traveling around India (in Rajasthan and Kerala) I received messages to confirm my safety and happiness. I am floored at this love and would like to sincerely thank all the hosts I’ve had while here, this trip would never have been what it was without your generous hospitality.

I hope to have the opportunity to be as good of a host as people here have been for me.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Magical Munnar

Early apologies for the abundance of photographs. Too much beauty in Munnar to not share with you.

The rolling hills, cool atmosphere and tranquil surroundings made Munnar the sweetest treat. We stayed at a humble, adorable guest house named Zina Cottages. The host Velu was never seen without a smile. We tested that theory when we unexpectedly extended our stay there another night after he had already booked people to take our room.
Tea picking seen en route up the little hill to our guest house
The view from the "road" above our guest house. Went for a walk here our last morning in Munnar.
The view at the bottom of the hill- Eucalytus forest alongside a creek. I love this picture.
 The three days there were spent enjoying the natural beauty that surrounded us from every angle. After Mani, the auto-rickshaw driver, dropped us off at our guesthouse the first day, we decided to ask him to be our guide for the whole trip. So each morning he would meet us at the guest house and drive us to somewhere new. Destinations are pretty far apart so hiring a car or rickshaw seemed most efficient.
This is the best, and possibly the least realistic, ad for a rickshaw.
The first day we visiting Forest Flower Garden and drove around the mountainous town. We kept asking him to stop so we could take pictures and absorb the gorgeous surrounds (I can’t say that enough). We saw the most beautiful flowers at the garden and I fell in love with Dahlias. 
Bri, Mona and I admiring the beautiful flowers
Dahlias for days- new favorite flower!

I don't know what this flower's name is but I love it and know I've seen it in the west. Can anyone tell me its common name?
The most special part of the day, however, was the walk we did in a local valley village. We spent 45 minutes walking through a random village near Kundale Lake. We made friends and got some fresh carrots, as well as admired the tranquility of a creek in the hushed atmosphere.
Brianna, Mona, and I before we hiked down and around the village
Farm fresh
Mmmm- fresh carrots! Raw veggies were hard to come by, so we really enjoyed this treat 
Homes for the people living in the village- India really knows how to use color

I recorded this pristine creek because it sounded exactly like those CD nature sounds, but this was better since it was right in front of me.  
Day two was spent trekking in the Chinnar Wildlife Sanctuary. We hiked 3 km to a beautiful, empty waterfall to swim. It was quite warm out and the treat of a cold water dip at the end of our trek was so worth it. We saw an insect similar to a secoida and heard its loud shriek (sounded like a rickshaw). Later we found a dead one on the floor and admired the beauty of its wings. Mother nature at its finest.
Yay- I can still do it! Tried to do my inverted nameste but the picture didn't turn out as well.  
Group pose in front of Thoovanam Waterfall (a reward after our 3 km trek in the heat)
And now we....JUMP!

We think this is India's version of a cicada. They're as loud as a rickshaw (not kidding) and camouflage insanely well against trees.
Our last day, or extra day, was spent at Cinnamon Garden learning about different plants and trees. We saw how cardamom, pepper, curry leaves, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, turmeric, allspice, and cacao grow. The most amazing was cardamom as we learned it grows pods next to the stalk and leaves of its own plant. Another interesting one was turmeric- I knew it was a root, but to taste it directly from the root was delicious and impressive.
The green pods here are cardamom and the stalks behind are part of the same plant
Our tour guide, Philip, gave us paan leaves to eat. Mmm... 

The second half of our last day was spent at the “Tea Museum”. We were very lucky to have the process explained to us by one of the employees. Without that opportunity we wouldn’t have learned anything. Unfortunately the museum is barely related to tea and much more focused on the company’s manufacturing tea and the history of Munnar. A full entry on the tea making process to come…

Tea blog-entry teaser... 

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Pooram in Thrissur

Traveling without adventure is not fun, right? Well here’s a good one: we were emailed two days before our arrival to Thrissur (the location of Pooram- a gathering of hundreds of thousands of people) that our hotel booking was canceled.

Had we already received a confirmation email over a month before? Yes.

Were there any other hotels available for a reasonable price? No.

Were we really really frustrated with An understatement, but yes.

That little bump in the road was a miracle in disguise though. My friend Brianna had been “couch-surfing” before we met and had amazing experiences to report. By the way, couch-surfing is an online community connecting travelers with local residents who are open to hosting people at their home for free. I had heard her amazing stories and was intrigued and excited. So, we went on the website and started messaging folks in Thrissur. Within a day, Aniket emailed us back and confirmed that he, his mother, and auntie would love to host us- unfortunately, his wife was out of town. His sincerity was evident as soon as we met him at the train station on Saturday evening.

He picked us up in an AC car and we all exhaled in relief of the cool air. He drove us around and showed us some of the decorations that were up for Pooram.

We arrived at his home around 10:30PM and his mother greeted us with a smile, broken English and mango juice. The next morning at breakfast was when we got to know more about the family. They are actually Maharastrian but relocated to Kerala about 25 years ago. I learned they were Jain (religion - same as my family) and began asking more questions about the religion and sharing what I knew and learned with Brianna and our other friend Mona who was traveling with us. Then I learned Aniket has a brother who in an architect in Ahemdabad. I left the breakfast table stuffed (so many mangos) and feeling very much at home.

Aniket walked us down to the temple area where Pooram was taking place. The festival is a competition between two temples (Krishna temple named Thirumbady and Bhagwati temple named Parmekavu) and involves 51 elephants adorned with decorations to show dedication to the temples. Here is a quick video from the day before of the showcase displaying what would be used to decorate the elephants. 

The festival goes on for a day and a half straight (7AM Sunday – 4PM Monday). The first event we attended was around noon where somewhere between 9-13 elephants walked up to the Thirumbady temple. From there they receded back to Swaraj Road (a 3 km road encircling the temple). After the event, we walked around and found some of the decorations for the next event. 
One of the elephants leaving the temple
Some of the decorations that would be used for the event in the evening
The second event we attended was Kudamattom (kuda – umbrella, mattom – changing) where 15 elephants from each temple compete in the changing of umbrellas. Each temple takes turns showcasing an umbrella (the middle one is always a different color). This went on for about an hour and a half as each temple showcased over 50 umbrellas. Over 100,000 people gathered to witness the competition and the crowd cheered for whichever umbrellas they were most impressed by. Each temple started off with mildly decorated umbrellas and concluded with polka dots, neons, and even LED lighted umbrellas.
The first elephant (of 15) coming to greet the audience of thousands. The center elephant always enters first and is adorned more extravagantly than the others.
All fifteen elephants lined up competing with the other fifteen elephants located about 150 yards away
Note the crazy crowd (entire crowd was probably 50 times this many people) and the fact the center elephant has a different colored umbrella and additional decorations
The final event we attended is called Vedikettu- a firework display at 3:30AM. It was a…memorable experience. Aniket reserved tickets for us to view the fireworks from a building on Swaraj Road. We were required to be at the building by 11:30PM, so in true India form we arrived by midnight. The fireworks, as promised, began around 3:30AM. What we realized first was that our definition of fireworks was different from Thrissur’s definition. What went off at 3:30 seemed more like bombs to us. I learned later that each explosion was propelled by a 30-40kg bomb that created a crazy loud flash in the sky and shook the crowd with its force. Windows in the building we viewed from taped the windows to ensure they didn’t shatter and car alarms sounded effortlessly. The “fireworks” were done by each side as part of the competition. After about 5 minutes of explosions there was a 15-20 minute break and then the other temple showcased their “fireworks”. After that round most people left. We stayed because Aniket told us the next set were slower and more beautiful. They were- similar to the Disneyland fireworks I’m used to, these were beautiful and colorful.
Aniket, Mona, Bri and I waiting for the fireworks to begin- I feel like 3:30AM in a terrible inconvenient time for fireworks
A collage of the pretty fireworks - after the firework-bombs were done
We were so fortunate to have an amazing host for our time in Thrissur. His mom (Shweta auntie) even gave us a cooking lesson the next day and we tried to make those Kerala parootas we were obsessing over.  More on that cooking lesson later. 
Aniket in center with his mom to the right and his grandfather's sister to her right, Bri and I enjoying the amazing food and company

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Adorable Alleppey

The bus from Amritapuri to Alleppey- the one that started moving while I was still trying to get on- was just about 3 hours. We stayed at the Gowri Heritage Home in Alleppey, a beautiful bundle of about 15 rooms and huts in a lush garden. The management was a group of friendly and laid-back men in their 30’s. They seemed to have the best job, hanging out with their friends while making friends with happy travelers. I ended up chatting late with them one night after coming home from dinner and they ordered late night bites (parathas included- win!). It felt somewhat like a wholesome fraternity.
Our room is to the right, with the tree growing through the bathroom.
By the way, we had a tree in our bathroom
The city of Alleppey is known for the backwaters- most people come and stay in houseboats. We decided against that since it was crazy expensive and we hadn’t heard great reviews about the experience. Instead, we hired a boat to cruise through the backwaters one afternoon. We saw villages with homes only accessible by water and ooh’ed and aww’ed at the lush landscape filled with rice patties. There was also a cute side cafe where we enjoyed a coconut snack. 
Mona, me and Bri on our boat tour
Trying to enjoy the coconut snack, but struggling very much to get the meat out- well captured, Bri. 
If I were to do it again, I would either take the local “bus” or a canoe through the backwaters. We had fun on our little boat, but the noise of the motor should’ve been avoided. In either case, the narrow canals were the best.
North canal lined with boats and trees- red jacaranda tree peeking out in the back

Typical scene in the backwaters
The cutest friends going for a cruise

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Amma’s Ashram in Amritapuri

We took a local bus from Kanyakumari to Kollam and then caught the ferry through the backwaters to Amritapuri to visit Amma’s Ashram.

Where we arrived we were impressed by the warmth of people around us- asking if we need help with baggage, if we had eaten lunch yet, and advising us about the hours of reception. After we checked in, we went to our immaculately clean room and realized we were in a palm tree forest. I’ve never seen so many palm trees in my life. Pictures don’t do the scene justice.
Setting up our beds in the immaculately clean room

Arabian Sea to the right and backwaters to the left, a million palm trees in between
Amma, known by many as “the mother to all”, is considered by many to be a human god. I’m not sure where I stand on that statement, but that’s not so important. Her ashram is home to many people from all walks of life: Indians and foreigners, old and young, rich and poor, single and married, full time residents and short term travelers. It was interesting to learn about Amma as she is known for her embrace- a hug. She travels all over the world and millions flock to her in hopes of receiving a hug from her. Her hugs are said to be the most comforting and remove sorrow from those in her embrace.

She wasn’t there when we visited so no Amma-hugs for us. We did, however, take part in their bhajans (devotional singing) and seva (service) opportunities. There was also a yoga class in the morning we went to and sunset meditation on the Arabian Sea coast.

It was an eye-opening experience and I’m appreciative to all the people we talked to there who taught us about Amma and their admiration for her. 

Monday, April 15, 2013

Comical Kanyakumari

Our first stop on our South India tour was Kanyakumari- the southernmost tip of India. Swami Vivekananda (1863-1902), known as the wandering monk, opened an ashram there on a huge piece of land. He’s known for bringing yoga and the Vedanta philosophy to the west, as well as bringing Hinduism to the status of a major world religion.

The ashram there was very quiet and not active, like the one I stayed at in Neyyar Dam for YTT. Our rooms were…modest to say the least. It was there, though, that I learned the importance of plugging in my “Good Knight” (an electronic mosquito repellent) as the one night I forgot, I woke up with 16 mosquito bites…on my forehead. On the plus side, it was located on a huge property with tons of beautiful birds inhabiting the area and enlightening quotes scattered about. 
Peacock posing for us 
"Earth provides enough to satisfy every man's need, but not for every man's greed" Mahatma Gandhi

Sunsets and sunrises are a very popular thing to do in town and we tried to view both. The sunset was gorgeous. The town is known for being the meeting point for the Arabian Sea, Indian Ocean, and Bay of Bengal. While that doesn’t actually mean anything when you’re staring out at the water, it was a beautiful sight nonetheless. The sunrise, however, was more of an experience than usual. First of all, there were probably 200 people trying to view the sunrise from the same location. Secondly, the sky was crazy hazy so the sight wasn’t really that spectacular. Lastly, and most amusing, everyone stared at Brianna and I felt like I was traveling with a celebrity. Multiple people asked to have their photo taken with her. So, I did what I thought was reasonable and took a picture of them taking a picture with her. So much comedy. I felt like her spokesperson sometimes.
Brianna being a celebrity, me being silly
The beautiful sunrise
With less to do in town, we ended up grabbing pomegranates to munch on and walking around the town close to shore. It was beautiful to see all the colorful homes and try to communicate with the kids and families.
Colorful homes along the coast
Dinner was eventful both nights we were there. Night one was another episode in Indian hospitality. There was a group of travelers on a yatra (spiritual pilgrimage) that wanted to take pictures with Brianna. We obliged and as they were communicating with her I realized they were speaking Gujarati. I was so excited to try and communicate! They asked where we were from and what we were doing there and then invited us for dinner. We accepted and dined with them later. It was such a sweet gesture and I was excited to explain Gujarati cuisine to Bri.
Typical gujarati meal: kitchidi, roti, sabji, and athanu
Dinner on night two was amazing (I’m drooling as I write this) because it was our first encounter with Kerala parathas. Oh my god. They are delicious. Our obsession continued throughout the trip and I’m pretty sure I have a pound or two to attribute to that obsession.
The most delicious streetside treat: fresh parathas