Kerala India Part 2 – Injuries, Amma, backwaters, and misty mountains

It could’ve been karma or just dumb luck. As we were checking into the ashram of Amma, the Hugging Guru, I fell and twisted my ankles requiring a cast on my right ankle and wrap on my left knee. I’d had on my big backpack, which had grown unacceptably heavy during our travels, and was handing my sister’s pack to her when I fell on a step, and the added weight exacerbated the sprains. When the wheelchair arrived, the name of the manufacturer was….Karma.

In any case, I’d long wanted to see Amma, known as the Universal Mother, and get a hug from her, and I thought it would be great if Elise got to see one of India’s few female gurus. We were disappointed to learn that she was leaving for a US-Japan tour, but we decided to stay one night at the ashram, a sprawling campus with pink high-rise buildings and a temple surrounded by dense palm trees that is home to 3,500 followers, most clad in simple, but elegant white saris, to understand a bit more about Amma’s philosophy. We were in luck, however, because she appeared in the temple for 1.5 hours of devotional singing that evening. (No photography is allowed at the ashram, so the photo below is from amma.org.)

The songs were melodic and thought-provoking and sometimes a wee bit terrifying. We could follow the lyrics, translated from Malayalam, on large screens. After the first song, Elise applauded..but was the only one. Everyone looked at her and she curled up in a little ball of embarrassment, poor Sweet One. One line, in particular, struck me: At the end of time this one is alone and afraid and asks: “Why have you not yet come for me, Mother?” The question remained unanswered. Other songs made clear that we are part of a universal whole. There were many references to lotus feet, a metaphor for the divinity of spiritual beings. I thought about how we all need a Universal Mother to heal us and to comfort us, most especially my own Mom, who had had a terribly unhappy childhood thanks to an unloving mother, and tears streamed down my face.

From time to time, Amma would ecstatically throw her head back and her hands up on the air. For some reason, I loved that. One of her musicians was a dude with long white hair and beard wearing an orange kurta and Hipster frames whose vocal accompaniment – a kind of droning – my Western ear could not follow or comprehend. I bought one of Amma’s CDs, in part, in the hopes that I could figure out whether there was rhyme or reason to the accompaniment.

When we’d registered, we had to give our real names as well as our spiritual names. I had never been asked that before so I spontaneously adopted the name of a friend, Shanti (Peace), I’d met long ago in Japan who’d been a follower of Osho. My sister gave her Jewish name, Rachel, and Elise chose “Unicorn”. A devotee we met from Westford, MA, whom we know only as Sreya, was like a guardian angel, giving us the lay of the land, wheeling me into the temple to see Amma, shushing followers who insisted that I be moved to another spot, and explaining how to get food and supplies. After Amma had left the temple, she tried to wheel me to a spot where I might get one of her famous hugs, but, that night, it was not meant to be. We met another American, Gina (her real name), who was in India studying classical Indian dance. She and Elise took to each other immediately – they were like big and small versions of each other. She was dressed in gorgeous flowing prints and had a dot on her forehead. When I asked her about the dot, she said, “Oh this?” as she touched it and it fell off. “I bought it. It’s for dance.” Looking at the ground, “Doesn’t matter. I have a bunch.”

I’d been in pretty good spirits in spite of the injury up until I was back in the ashram’s tiny hospital that night waiting to get my cast. It was pouring rain outside and wretchedly humid and the pain in my legs had spiked. I started crying. When the cast was finally on and Lisa, Elise, and I returned to our room, the crying got worse. The room was a bleak little cell with fluorescent tube lighting and only 2 beds. Even in my pathetic state, I knew that the point of the place was not to enjoy luxury but to transcend the physical world, but it was too much. There was a large ridge at the base of the bath door which I could not hobble over on my own. “I won’t be able to go to the restroom by myself or even brush my teeth!” I wailed. Elise said, “There’s a sink right behind you.” “Oh,” I said (and I think they may have chuckled under their breath). But the crying continued until after I’d gone to the restroom with Lisa’s help, brushed my teeth, and gotten into PJs, and a cool breeze had started to bring down the temperature in the room.  But poor Lisa had to fetch an extra mattress, which came with no bed frame, so she plopped the thing – a big icky vinyl slab – down on the floor and tried to cover it with sheets as best she could. She worried that the gecko we’d seen and other insects would crawl over her at night. It was about as bare bones as you can get and I’m surprised she wasn’t crying, too.

In the middle of the night, I used a blue bucket that was in the room to go to the restroom, rinsed it well, and hobbled back into bed, pleased that I’d found a solution that allowed my sister to sleep (and which fellow wilderness campers would appreciate).

The next morning I woke up refreshed and in a great mood! I suggested that we stay another night, but Lisa and Elise shut down that idea immediately, which I guess I understood, so I packed up. I told Lisa what I had done with the big blue bucket thinking she’d appreciate that I’d let her sleep, but she looked terribly distressed. “How am I going to shower?!” she cried. Luckily, unlike our previous lodgings, we discovered that the bathroom actually had a shower head on the wall and so the bucket was not needed for bathing.

En route to Alleppey where we wanted to do a houseboat tour of the backwaters, we kept an eye open for medical supply stores so that I could get some crutches. The first one we stopped at had only walkers, but the second one had crutches for just $17. The name brand? Again…Karma, lol.

In Alleppey, we checked into the Ramada, which had views of boats plying the backwaters. The food was decent and Lisa and I enjoyed our first tall, cool beer in ages. After the hardship of the day before, it felt good.

The next morning we decided to do a 3.5 hour day tour of the backwaters instead of staying overnight in a houseboat, since the one we’d wanted that looked super clean was booked, and, anyway, all the houseboats dock at 6pm, so there’s no being lulled to sleep on a moving boat.

We passed rice fields, small villages, men unloading boats, women up to their waists in water washing clothes, and an old woman in a sari fishing with a simple stick and string. There were tiny canals and large, busy waterways where the houseboats chugged along, one after the other, some with blaring music, others with groups of kids waving and screaming Hello, most with a few relaxed passengers. My injuries were no issue on the boat. I lay down on cushions and relaxed to the point of almost falling asleep. It was pretty wonderful.

Next stop was Munnar, famous for its tea fields. We checked into the Parraket, which had balconies with fabulous views of the sculpted, mountain-side tea fields, which were like an ever-changing canvas as the mist appeared and disappeared, and the fields went from muted green to glimmering emerald.

That evening, we saw a classical Indian dance performance called Kathakali, with elaborate costumes and highly stylized movements and facial expressions. The staff carried me down the stairs on a chair – my first Bat Mitzvah moment! At one point, Elise was called on stage by Lord Shiva’s wife, Parvathy, dressed as Kattalasthree (performed by a male actor). She handed invisible items to Elise, who was supposed to handle them appropriately. She managed to eat the right way, but when Parvathy gave her a drink, Elise squished it like food and the crowd roared.  Afterwards, Lord Shiva, disguised as Kattalan, fought Arjuna. I loved the vocals and drumming and Lord Shiva’s sprightly personality (below in green and black).

We moved downstairs to a martial arts arena to see a Kalari performance. Lisa was enthralled – here were three of her loves rolled into one: yoga, martial arts and gymnastics. The guys battled it out with swords and metal whips and poles, and then jumped through rings of fire. Afterwards, the performers let the audience take pix in the fight pit and then took their own selfies with Elise. Then they made quick work of carrying me up two flights of stairs to the entrance where our favorite driver and tour guide, Shefi, was waiting for us in his trusty Toyota.

We returned again to Kochi, and Lisa packed for her return to the US. She also very kindly took our camping gear and other stuff with her that we weren’t going to be able to use anymore thanks to my injury. After 10 days together, it was very hard saying goodbye!

Shortly thereafter, my orthopedic doctor discovered that I had deep vein thrombosis (DVT) in both legs due to the week of little activity while my sprain healed. I was admitted to the hospital immediately and given blood thinners and compression stockings. While I waited in the ER, scared, Elise returned to the Marriott with a hospital staff to pack up our stuff, and then came back to the hospital in a hotel car with some warm soup, which the Marriott had gifted us. I was so grateful for everyone’s help. Elise had a little bed in my room, and the nurses made sure we were comfortable. The food was surprisingly good – freshly made masala dosa for breakfast and Aloo Gobi and dal for lunch or dinner. Given that the DVT was in my lower legs, not, thank God, in my thighs where risk of pulmonary embolism is significantly higher, I was discharged two days later.

I recuperated for a week at our beloved Kochi Marriott, where we had come to know many of the staff on a first name basis. They helped me at the breakfast buffet while I was on crutches, carried items to our room, presented us with pens with our names on them and a photo mug, recommended Ayurvedic treatments, answered questions about articles I’d read in the Times of India, treated Elise to soup and spring rolls, and even brought surprise desserts to our room! It became a home away from home.

I had a number of random impressions that week. En route to the hospital, we passed a shop called Women Love Dots (a bindi or fabric shop or something more salacious?). There were billboards with students’ faces and their test scores, and the paper ran a full-page ad showing the results of the national engineering exam, in which the girls had beat out the boys for the highest scores. Signs offered aerated not carbonated beverages and big stores were hypermarkets not supermarkets. Instead of the present tense, the present progressive was often used, eg instead of Where do you come from?, Where are you coming from? It took me some time to understand that a head nod that seemed like No might actually be a charming, friendly Yes, and I was surprised when I started catching myself nodding.  

At the nearby LuLu Mall, I came across some Indian tunics and dresses I considered buying. When I posted them to Facebook, I was told by a resident of the SF Bay Area, where the cultural appropriation debate is raging, that it would be “inappropriate” if I wore them, as it would be if Caucasian women wore African dresses or non-Latinos wore Day of the Dead face paint. I was relieved when my expat friends nonetheless encouraged me to buy them, and a friend of Indian origin living in SF wrote that she found it “endearing” when non-Indians wear them, particularly the shorter tunics, and that it would be inappropriate only if, say, an ornate dress meant for a wedding were worn as a costume. Similarly, an African-American friend told me that it is fine if Caucasian women wear African dresses, so long as the intent is not to buy something inexpensive and then recreate it to sell at a profit. In my own experience overseas, people seem genuinely pleased to see visitors embracing aspects of their heritage. When Elise went trick-or-treating in Cuzco in a Day of the Dead costume, dozens and dozens of Peruvian parents asked to photograph her with their kids, of whom many were dressed as Elsa. It was beautiful. (My blog post about this is here.) What I take away from this is that, while the debate has an important role to play in the US, I am heartened that there are people there, as well as many overseas, who still appreciate such well-intentioned instances of cultural exchange. They can help break the ice, foster discussion and even friendship, and, in turn, challenge stereotypes – all basic building blocks of civil society. 

On a lighter note, that week I also discovered an Indian comedian, Hari Kondabolu, on Netflix, who proclaimed that Indians LOVE mangos. He said he wanted to do a show in which people sat around eating mangos and commenting on them. When asked who would watch such a show he said, “Oh I don’t know…one BILLION Indians?” Indeed, when  we shopped for groceries at the hypermarket, we saw a dozen different varieties. I felt ripped off that I’d only ever seen a single variety in stores in the US.

After a few more follow-up appointments, both my orthopedic surgeon and cardiologist gave me the green light to continue traveling, so I donated my crutches to the hotel, took a deep breath, and booked our fights to Thailand.

Kerala, India Part 1 – My sister Lisa joins us!

My sister Lisa finally arrived in India to join us for a travel adventure in Kerala! It almost didn’t happen. There were the usual travel hassles: finding flights, the unnecessarily complicated visa application, the length of the journey (24 hrs), vaccinations, etc, as well as the jitters that most world travel newbies feel before journeying to a country halfway around the world. (Her trips to Europe hadn’t evoked such feelings.) But after scoring a free flight as a credit card sign-up bonus and receiving encouragement from me and her world-traveling friend, Heather, Lisa conquered all obstacles and showed up smiling and radiant in Kochi with gifts and needed supplies for us.

I’d traveled backpacker-style years ago from Delhi to Udaipur to Jaipur and Mussoorie, and had faced some challenges I wasn’t sure my sister was ready for, so I thought I would ‘ease’ her into India by booking a room for us at the Kochi Marriott, a five star hotel starting at only $75 a night. Split two ways, it was cheaper than our bare bones lodging in Bolivia! (Soon enough, though, she’d be experiencing bare bones.) It turned out to be the perfect place to begin our journey. They upgraded us to a suite, and when the chef learned that Lisa was vegan, he gave her a customized tour of the vegan dishes that where part of their enormous Ramadan buffet. Chef Ganesh then whipped up extra dishes just for her and brought them to our table. We were thrilled. The other Restaurant staff, Front Desk, Concierge, and Housekeeping staff were also all infallibly helpful and friendly. #kochimarriott

The next day, we took a backwaters tours in Kochi where a gathering storm made the light and colors surreal.

There were resorts along the banks, primitive huts, and this post-apocalyptic-looking building.

We traveled overland to see the iconic Chinese fishing nets at Fort Cochin Beach, a subject we would see again and again in paintings on hotel walls. For me, they were interesting because I wanted to try my hand at photographing them, but I quickly realized that, to my gentle-hearted, vegan sister, they symbolized misery and death for millions of fish. Accordingly, my photo is nothing like the idyllic paintings in our hotel.

Whether due to pollution or to freighter traffic, no one swims at Fort Cochin, but there was an enormous crowd milling about on the beach under brooding skies.

As she is much like my sister, Elise hates seeing animals exploited. Instead of asking for a ride on this poor camel, she asked if she could pay to feed it, but the owner had no food so she just petted it instead. 

The next day, we set out for Alleppey to do a houseboat tour, but when we arrived, we learned the workers were on strike, so we decided to continue on to Kovalam, the southernmost point on our itinerary. Our driver was more than happy to oblige. Along the way we happened upon a Krishna-Radha festival, where the town was ablaze in all manner of lights. Lisa described it as “1,000 Christmases”. The brash, blinking lights in the shape of various deities were over the top.

But I simply loved the long strands of colored lights hanging from trees in quiet corners which made me think about the magic of childhood. French-Romanian playwright Eugene Ionesco’s quote seemed apt: Childhood is the world of miracle and wonder; as if creation rose, bathed in the light, out of the darkness, utterly new and fresh and astonishing. The end of childhood is when things cease to astonish us. I also thought of John Singer Sargent’s painting Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose in which two little girls light Chinese lanterns in a lush garden at twilight – one of the loveliest representations of the magic of childhood I’ve ever encountered, and I recalled my own wonderment as a kid catching fireflies on balmy evenings in our yard full of fragrant lilacs. I decided that I would find a way to surprise Elise by recreating these lights at an upcoming summer evening party for her.

When we finally reached Kovalam late in the evening, we checked into The Leela, a grand, airy hotel set on a cliff overlooking the beach. There was a poolside terrace restaurant, giant vats of rose petals floating in water, and slate walkways with rock pools in open-air hallways. It was a relief to have arrived at such a place after the 220 km drive, during which our driver overtook hundreds of vehicles (speed up, slow down, speed up, slow down ad nauseam). In the case of one particular truck, however, which reeked of some ungodly rot, we were grateful for his ability to speed past other vehicles.

At check-in, we were given shell necklaces and coconuts to drink, and then we headed out to explore the beach.

Given the incomparable service at the Kochi Marriott, when we sat down for dinner, we felt a wee bit neglected by the wait staff, but Chef Gurudeep more than made up for it the next morning when he gave us a marvelous tour of the many dishes in their breakfast buffet. We had various curries and masala dosas – thin crepes stuffed with potato and chutney, and discovered Kumbil Appams, steamed jackfruit rice cakes wrapped in banana leaves. Unlike the boxed cereals, donuts, and other junkfood you get for breakfast in the US, this was real food and deeply satisfying.

After some yoga on our balcony, we hit the pool, where Elise did cannonballs and then pulled me around on a float (so relaxing), and then we hit the beach. Unfortunately, there were red flags along the shore warning of strong riptides, so we didn’t risk going into the water. There was a lively local scene further down the beach where everyone seemed to be smiling or laughing.

Although The Leela was lovely, it had some quirks such as the heavy, antique-y, wooden bath doors that didn’t close right and a damp smell in our room which did not justify the price, so we decided to move to a guest house recommended by Lonely Planet that offered Ayurvedic treatments.

Our transportation there was comical. The resort golf cart brought us to the edge of the property, and then the three of us piled into one tiny rickshaw with our 4 big bags. We had to get in and out a few times to make everything fit. The taxi drivers watching us looked incredulous and offered to take us instead. I told them it wasn’t a matter of price, it was that we wanted the experience of riding in a rickshaw. It turned out to be fun! and the price was an astonishing 29 cents for .7 km.

After The Leela, our new accommodations seemed dingy, although they had just been scrubbed clean. Instead of a proper shower cabin, there was a faucet on the bathroom wall and a big blue bucket with a dipper to pour water over oneself. Splash too much and you get the entire floor wet and the toilet, too. At the start of our travels when I was unsure how long our funds would last, I’d opted for many such rooms and I think I’d finally had enough. Lisa, though, was surprisingly positive about the room. She told me that she had stayed in very basic rooms when she did her Master Yoga Teacher training at the Kripalu in Western Mass. I shouldn’t have complained…it was soon going to get much worse, lol.

But first, we got to experience an Ayurvedic massage from this wonderful lady with kind eyes. When I learned that she had traveled an hour and half from her village to provide us with treatments, I gave her a big tip and my shell necklace from The Leela as well as some red beads from Fiji which matched her sari perfectly.

In the evening, we set out to find a vegetarian restaurant, but Lisa got nervous as it grew dark so we popped into a German-owned restaurant on the main drag and ordered take out. We had tea while we waited, and Elise showed her Aunty her drawings. It was beautiful seeing their interaction – Lisa was so patient and positive, and Elise reveled in all the attention.

Indian visa madness, food adventures, and a wee bit of luxury in Kuala Lumpur

Our visit to Kuala Lumpur was supposed to be a short stopover between Sydney and Kochi, India, where we were meeting my sister Lisa. As this was to be her first travel adventure halfway around the world, I’d planned to arrive before her so that we could make sure everything was in order and pick her up from the airport. However, thanks to the astonishingly glitchy visa application website of the Government of India (GOI), which froze repeatedly, returned blank payment pages, and failed to recognized IDs it had generated, etc, my visa was not approved in time for our flights. GOI “tech support” was an oxymoron. No matter what glitch I happened to be facing, their advice was always the same: Reapply. But before I could, I had to wait for the creaky system to spit out confirmation whether payment had processed or not, since simultaneous applications could be cause to deny a visa. Maddening. One tech support told me: “At any given moment, there are 1,000 people applying for a visa.” So, naturally, there will be glitches? in spite of the fact that India is the second largest exporter of IT services in the world, with IT power centers in Bangalore Hyderabad, Chennai, etc?

To make matters worse, although my Chase Sapphire Reserve visa card offers trip interruption insurance, a rep with an irrepressibly cheerful voice I spoke with said that our missed flights would not be reimbursed, because visa issues represent “a change of plans” and are not covered. (Ironic, since I was trying to stick with plans.) I will report back here whether this absurdity is actually the case.

But the biggest problem of all was that, as time wore on, I was getting knots in my stomach thinking that my sister would arrive alone in India and feel scared.

There was a silver lining to all of this, however. Given the lower cost of living in Kuala Lumpur (56% cheaper than Sydney, according to expatistan.com), as well as sponsorship of our travels by Elise’s wonderful godfather, Tony, I was able to book much nicer accommodations in KL than I had in Oz. For the first time, I used “infinity pool” as a search term on booking.com, lol, since Elise had been longing to try one out, and found one at the Royale Chulan Hotel. I learned too late, however, what every 10 year-old apparently knows: it’s a “real” infinity pool only if it has a glass wall. But the indoor skating rink(!), fabulous buffet, and very helpful manager more than made up for that.

One thing in particular that struck me about the Malaysian people is that they are extraordinarily empathetic about the loss of loved ones. Many asked where Elise’s dad was, and when I told them that he had died of cancer in 2015, each and every one of them stopped what they were doing, softened their voice and expressed sincere condolences. A taxi driver even waited until I had finished telling a few stories, saying “To get back to what you told me, I am so sorry about his passing.”

After two days there, we moved to The Majestic Hotel to be closer to the center of town. As Marriott members, we got upgraded to a suite. As we walked in, Elise squealed with delight and ran all around the room patting things – I’m guessing to make sure they were real. She immediately got in the tub for a bath, and then put on a robe and chatted with her friends in Europe. Truth be told, after a week in a Sydney youth hostel where cleaning staff seemed to ignore the restrooms that required the most attention, I was ready to follow suit.

As the visa saga wore on and we needed to stay longer, we tried a third hotel, Traders, which was connected via long underground passageways to the impressive Petronas Towers which lit up the night sky like giant faceted gemstones. They were splendid, but looking up at them from the ground near the entranceway, I shuddered, thinking of the Twin Towers in NY, and wondered whether the conspicuous consumption taking place in the Western-style stores there made them a target for terrorist attacks. Comforting, however, was the fact that Malaysia appears to have had far fewer attacks than neighboring Indonesia, and the State Department travel advisory designates it a benign Level One, i.e. exercise normal precautions.

The towers are so tall my lens couldn’t capture them in one shot, so I took multiple shots from the ground up and auto-merged them in Photoshop. Still, the towers look much shorter in this photo than in real life (and Elise looks like post-blueberry Violet in Willy Wonka).

The Towers are featured in a number of movies, such as the 1999 film Entrapment, which set the climax on the skybridge.  170 meters above the ground, the skybridge is not actually attached to the towers, but slides in and out of them to prevent breaking as they – gulp – sway several feet towards and away from each other in high winds. Other fun tower trivia includes the fact that, in 2009, French urban climber Alain “Spiderman” Robert scaled to the top of Tower Two with his bare hands and feet in just under 2 hours. His first two efforts had ended in arrest. How on earth did they nab him, I wonder? Yank him in with a hook? Point a gun at him at the 60th floor? Git in here, Spidey, or we’ll shoot.

The hotel buffets and Twin Towers restaurants provided opportunities to explore Malaysian food, including the national dish, Nasi Lamak, made of coconut rice served with anchovy hot chili sauce, fried peanuts, cucumber, and egg wrapped in banana leaves, a tidy, healthful, delicious, portable snack, and one we may well include in the travel cookbook we plan to create. We also tried Sayur Lodeh, veggies in coconut curry, and tasted various Chinese steamed buns stuffed with sweet potato, mushroom, and red bean paste. Strangely, the food Elise most likes seems to resemble her headband puffs.

The cultural highlight of our visit, though, was the Museum of Islamic Arts – a spacious, airy, modern building with five domes and gorgeous ceramic tapestries flanking the entranceway.

The embellished Qur’an and manuscripts were works of high art.

Elise particularly liked the gallery of miniature mosques and thought of how her dolls might visit them. She also had a nice science lesson at the exhibition on healing traditions in Islamic medical manuscripts where she learned that human arteries, veins, and capillaries, when laid end to end, can stretch around the Earth two to four times (a fact that would later be heartening to me as I waited for many smaller veins to open up to compensate for blood clots in my calves).

Back at Traders Hotel, Elise put the finishing touches on her drawing of a little town in a magical world, which has towering cherry trees the size of Singapore’s Supertrees with blossoms as large as beach balls, which the people of the town hang on their doors for good luck. Visitors to the town like to take boat rides in the lake at night, where the moon shines brightly and the cherry blossoms fall into the water releasing pixie dust. The central structure is the mayor’s house. To its right is a swanky high-rise hotel and an orphanage.

In the meantime, my Indian visa finally came through…the day after Lisa had arrived in India all by her lonesome. And yet, when the hotel car I’d booked for her failed to show, she grabbed a taxi like a pro, checked into the hotel, and then slept for a whole day, safe, comfortable, and blissfully unaware of all my unnecessary worrying.

Snorkeling with sharks in Fiji!

Fiji had been on my bucket list for as long as I could remember, and, thanks to a university course I’m taking in travel journalism, I had become interested in writing an article about island-hopping in the South Pacific, and so I had even more reason to visit. I’d assumed, though, that it would be difficult to get there and that the flights would be cost-prohibitive. But then I discovered some great deals on direct flights from Singapore, and joyously booked our tickets to Nadi and then a ferry to the tiny Yasawa Islands, which curl like a cat’s tail off of the west coast of Viti Levu.

Our first stop was Nacula Island in the north of Yasawas. We met a great group of people and the lodge was delightful. The cabins had vaulted ceilings decorated with an island motif and long curtains that billowed in the ocean breezes.

Our beach was pleasant, but it had low, flat rocks which made it less than ideal for swimming. Fortunately, it was a short boat ride to nearby Nabula Island – my vision of tropical paradise – where we went snorkeling.

There was, however, an unpleasant surprise lurking just below the surface of those perfect turquoise waters: sea “lice”. They sting but leave no mark. One sting is a nuisance, but a dozen stings all at once is enough to drive one away shouting obscenities from the infected area. Not what I expected. They seemed to be more prevalent around schools of fish, so we learned to stay clear.

Back on Nacula, a staff from the lodge brought us to a nearby village to meet the chief of the island, who was descended from a long line of chiefs. He gave us blessings and then welcomed questions from our group. I was interested to know what the most pressing issue was that he faced as chief. He told us that it was the destruction of the cassava plants, a staple in their diet, which had required food aid from the government in Viti Levu. (I immediately decided I would make extra purchases at the village crafts shop.) I asked him about his ancestry and he said that the people of Fiji originally came from South Africa in large, seafaring canoes, though such canoes are no longer a part of their culture. Having learned about our own ethnicity from DNA tests, I would love to know more about his ethnic mix.

Wifi was non-existent, so we played cards and read books after dinner. A group of Danes laughed and sang around a fire, but their voices eventually faded and we heard only the roar of the surf as we fell asleep.

Two days later, we headed south to Naviti Island. On the ferry, Elise created a new character – a sweet, shy, blue-haired elf named Orchid.

On Nativi, we ran into some of the friends we’d met on Nacula Island.

After taking some photos, I claimed a beachside hammock in the shade of palms and was – at long last – able to truly relax.

Given the daily lodging/food/activities/transportation-related logistics…and homeschooling, my own coursework, photo editing, blogging, etc, that level of relaxation doesn’t happen often, so when it does, I add the experience to a special collection of memories to return to in times of need.

My first such experience was at the Baltic Sea when I was nine years old. It was low tide and I had discovered a little sand bump in the shallow water the size of my body. I lay down and was amazed at how dreamily comfortable it was on the soft sand in the warm water and told myself to always remember it. Another such experience took place in a cool, slate-walled pool in a boutique hotel in Paris where Elise’s Dad gently pulled me through the water as I floated on my back, eyes closed. Sigh.

In the meantime, Elise learned how to extract the goodness from coconuts Fiji-style. On a specially made bench with a built-in metal tool, she scraped the white coconut meat into a bowl. It was much more moist and flavorful than any coconut we’d ever had.

But then…she was shown how to squeeze the coconut milk from the shavings into a cup, and when we took a sip, we were astonished at how delicious it was! We learned that, in the islands, freshly extracted coconut milk is kept for at most one day, and I wondered how we might manage – without adding a bulky coconut bench to our minimalist apartment – to get a steady supply back home.

We did some more snorkeling and saw a giant, electric blue starfish, multicolored Christmas tree fish, and a giant clam. We watched the clam shut in stages: click (one inch), click (another inch), click, click, click until it was completely closed.

At night, the male staff performed a dance in long grass skirts (the female staff were conspicuously absent) and then put on a fire show on the beach. Elise freaked out when a dancer put the burning baton on his tongue, though afterwards she was allowed to touch the flame, and while it was hot, it did not burn.

The next day we walked with one of the two Swiss families we’d met through the rainforest to the other side of the island to reach Honeymoon Beach. Another postcard perfect place…and this time no sea lice. Bliss.

The last island we visited was Waya Lailai, which had a dramatic mountain rising high above the coastline. Our cabin was up a steep walkway lined with blossoms.

The men were busy bludgeoning special tree branches to form them into cord to tie bales of leaves onto the thatched rooftops of the bures, or cabins. They sat around a giant satellite dish as they worked – a fun contrast of modern and ancient. I told them about the Uros people of Bolivia who form floating islands out of reeds on Lake Titicaca (my blog post about our visit there is at this link). They seemed to listen intently, as if they were actively considering whether they could do the same with their materials. (How cool would it be to return to Fiji in 10 years and see the floating islands of Waya Lailai? lol)

The high point of our visit was snorkeling with sharks. Reef sharks are harmless, but we still felt a bit of trepidation at first. Our guide splashed a chunk of fish around in the water to attract the sharks. They showed up quickly.

Although they were shorter in length than Elise (my illogical measure of danger), I held onto her as we snorkeled to keep her ‘safe’. She got tired of my hovering, though, and pushed me away.

Special thanks to Katie Storey for these underwater pix.

At one point, the water suddenly turned dark, and a group of much larger sharks appeared. (Cue the Jaws soundtrack.) These were definitely longer than Elise(!) so I immediately swam over to her and grabbed onto the fabric of her swimsuit.

And then I saw one of the guides wielding a long, metal prong. Had the wrong kind of shark arrived? Was this a weapon to ward them off?! I pulled Elise towards the boat and popped above the water to ask the guide what the prong was for. He told me it was to spear small fish to attract more sharks. Whew! We were not in any danger, but to this day, every time I think of the large sharks circling below in the dark water, I get a chill. Elise, of course, remains unfazed: “Sharks are so cute! They are one of my new favorite animals!”

My article with tips on making world travel affordable

For those seeking to make world travel affordable, you might consider eliminating expenses at home, being flexible in your destinations, skipping the travel agent for flexibility in booking flights with discount airlines, securing large frequent flier mile sign-up bonuses with travel credit cards, and using certain booking services to save on lodging.

My article appeared in the Mount Holyoke Spring Quarterly, which is dedicated to international stories. If you care to read the issue, click HERE.

The artwork for my article was created by twins Anna and Elena Balbusso, award-winning Italian artists who’ve illustrated over 40 books and whose work has appeared in the New Yorker, NYT, Le Monde and many other publications. What I love about the illustration is that it features Elise and me facing each other with a zigzag path between us with animals and structures representing our travels – a lama at Machu Picchu, where Elise fed and petted lamas, a monkey like the ones we saw at an animal sanctuary in Bolivia, a seal like the ones we swam with in the Galapagos. There is also a pagoda representing our travels in Japan and an elephant that symbolizes our upcoming visit to an elephant rescue in Thailand. I inquired with their publicist about purchasing the rights to the artwork, but the $5K price tag would cut too deeply into our travel budget, so for now, we will simply enjoy looking at the illustration in the MHC Spring Quarterly.

Singapore’s Supertrees and Sentosa Island

There are some places on earth that are so naturally beautiful or imaginatively designed that they send you straight back to childhood when discoveries still had the power to blow your mind. Well, Singapore’s Supertree Grove at night, where 18 towering, otherworldly supertrees glittered and flared to the thunderous refrain of O Fortuna, was one of those places. Photos only hint at the magic.

The trees are about as tall as a 16-storey building and are covered with 200 species of orchids, ferns and tropical flowering climbers. Some harvest solar energy and others serve as air exhaust receptacles. Elise and I took the elevator up to the walkway between the trees that is 22 meters high and 128 long. The dazzling, slightly ominous-looking Marina Bay Sands Hotel (Espheni base in Falling Skies?) glowed in the distance. When we walked into the hotel, Elise, who enjoys watching the antics (and luxury purchases) of famous Youtube stars, gleefully pointed out a Lamborghini in the valet parking.

Also somewhat mind-blowing, though in a more dreamy Oh man, what a lifestyle! kind of way, was our wonderful friends Barbara and Christian’s waterfront condo on Sentosa Island on Singapore’s southern shore. Centuries ago, the island was called Pulau Belakang Mati, which meant ‘Island of Death from Behind’, likely due to attacks by pirates. Its current name, which means ‘peace’ and ‘tranquility’, reflects today’s luxury lifestyle on the island.  Barbara, a fabulous cook who literally saved our Thanksgiving dinner in Prague by coming to my rescue with her cooking savvy and calming disposition, serves up delicious dishes on her terrace overlooking the Straits of Singapore. Many floors below is a sprawling pool where she swims every morning and then soaks in the jacuzzi, where blossoms drop from the trees and swirl in the soothing water.

She took us on a bike tour of the marina, where we saw a yoga studio for humans and their dogs.

We also saw a strip of stunning waterfront homes which have pools integrated into the design of the home. Simply awesome.

Singapore has some of the lowest crime rates in the world thanks to strict laws and ubiquitous surveillance cameras. Taxi drivers carefully adhere to the speed limit, there is no spitting or smoking in public places, and women leave their purses hanging from their chairs behind them. A very welcome thing for this traveling mom! However, one drawback is that one doesn’t dare take photos of private property, so the pix above I borrowed from this website.

In the meantime, Elise and I explored some of Singapore’s international culinary delights at hawker centers with dozens of stalls, including steamed buns and gyoza. We also had custom-made bowls of Chinese soup where you fill a bowl with all of the raw ingredients you want and then the cook parboils them in broth for you, and you top them off with seasonings.

Ethereal cemetery at Koya-san

At long last, we reached Mount Koya, site of the ethereal Okuno-in cemetery and sacred temple. I had visited this place nearly 3 decades ago and it has had me in its spell ever since. Ancient, solemn headstones, many covered in moss, line the pathway to a temple lit by thousands of lanterns which have, according to tradition, been burning for more than 1,000 years.

Elise’s introduction to the cemetery was during a night tour given by a good-natured monk who described the significance of the headstones, bridges, symbols, temple, as well as teachings of Kobo Daishi, the monk who founded Japanese Esoteric Buddhism, and who is believed to have been meditating in a sealed chamber at Okuno-in since 835.

In spite of the size of our group and the cheeriness of our guide, Elise and I had goosebumps at times. It was spooky seeing the faint outlines of the headstones just a few meters from the path where the light dropped off.

The monk explained that the Japanese practice both Shintoism and Buddhism, the former to celebrate beginnings, such as births and weddings, and the latter to commemorate death. He pointed out the full and partial moon shapes in the lanterns, which represent the range of human emotions. He said that we should strive to be open and bright like the full moon, rather than subject to, say, anger or depression, which reduces us to a fraction of our full selves.

Before we crossed one of the bridges, he warned us to walk carefully because anyone who falls dies within 3 years. He said this almost gleefully. He also told us that anyone who cannot see their reflection in a well near the bridge would likewise die in 3 years. Fortunately, we did not fall, and, the next morning – gulp – we checked for our reflections and saw them deep in the well.

At the third and final bridge, beyond which no photography was allowed, we purified ourselves by splashing water on the statues of Buddha, and then followed the monk to Kobo Daishi’s mausoleum, the most sacred part of Okunoin. Drawing our attention to the tall, gilded, lotus flowers, he told us that Kobo Daishi taught that lotuses can grow out of even mud, and that, like them, we should strive to live beautifully in spite of challenging earthly conditions. I reflected on how I’d allowed myself to get cranky when things did not meet expectations during our travels (eg suboptimal accommodations, delays, airline strikes, etc), and decided to concentrate instead on how fortunate we are just to be there.

The monk chanted so that we would receive blessings. Our group was quiet and I saw that eyes were shining. There seemed to be an element of respect or big-heartedness or something in the air, and my (type A/stressed-out/gotta-manage-it-all) self felt strangely at peace.

The next day we had no trouble feeling as open and bright as the full moon as we sampled a sublime vegetarian Zen Buddhist meal. It was a joy lifting up the tiny lids to see what delicacy lay beneath. There were more than a dozen different dishes including silken tofu, miso soup, veggie tempura, salads, pickles, various unidentifiable root veggies, and fresh fruit. We were in heaven. I could not recall the name of the restaurant, so I checked the receipt. It was in Japanese, so I drew the characters (花 菱) into this fun website to get the romanized spelling: Hanabishi.

At a shop nearby, Elise spotted a giant Totoro and sat down next to it, mimicking the bus stop scene in Miyazaki’s My Neighbor Totoro, where Satsuki and little Mei first discover (the initially somewhat sinister) Totoro.

Elise loves Totoro and carries a baseball-sized version of him with her, which she photographs like a stolen garden gnome.

After lunch, we made our way to a temple for sutra writing, the meditative practice of tracing kanji characters representing spiritual teachings. I loved seeing Elise carefully produce proper-looking characters with her calligraphy brush.

Eons ago I taught myself enough kanji to pass the first two levels of the exam of Japanese for foreigners, and had started working towards the third level when I decided to leave Japan for a fellowship in the German Parliament. Learning the strokes, stroke order, meaning, and pronunciation of each character required attention and time. It was then with a delicious sense of recklessness that I traced the characters at high speed (though with the proper stroke order), giving me an undeserved feeling of mastery. This was completely contrary to the point of the exercise, but it made me as happy as a little kid singing now I know my ABCs

We dedicated our scrolls to the good health of our loved ones and paid a small fee to have them stored at Kobo Daishi’s temple.

We revisited the cemetery which had a very different feel during daylight. A monk chanting quietly clunked by in big wooden shoes.

We saw tiny bibs that had been placed on statues for the protection of children.

We also saw our lovely French friends Frederique and Caro, and Totoro posed for the obligatory stolen gnome travel photo.

Tea-making in Uji and wheelchairing around Byodo-in Temple

When I graduated from college, I was sure I wanted to study international relations, but at that time, while I knew a bit about American and European culture and geopolitics, I knew precious little about Asia. I didn’t even have a single Asian friend. So I decided to participate in the Japanese Exchange and Teaching Programme (JET), which brought 2,000 native English speakers to Japan to teach in schools. I was placed in Uji, a tiny town in the south of Kyoto Prefecture famous for Japan’s finest green tea.

The day Elise and I visited Uji, I had 3 goals: experience a tea ceremony, show Elise Byodo-in, the temple featured on the back of 10 yen coins, and introduce her to my old host parents. She had somehow hurt her leg while climbing the mountain at Fushimi Inari Shrine and was limping a bit, so when I spotted a row of wheelchairs at the entrance to Byodo-in Temple I asked to borrow one. There were many so there was no danger of our taking one from someone with greater need.

Elise spotted a window where beautiful, handmade temple stamps were being offered for 300 yen. She asked to have one for her journal, but they informed us that the stamps are considered so precious that they cannot be added directly to a standard journal. We were allowed, however, to purchase a stamp on a small sheet and add it later.

In the museum, there were stunning Buddha figures, a giant metal bell, and a gorgeous room with painted walls with buddhas arriving on a swoosh of air from the mountaintops. The patterns and colors – orange, gold, red and turquoise – were so beautiful fireworks were going off in my head. I was in agony that photography was not allowed.

Outside, we took a pleasantly strenuous path uphill which, unbeknownst to us, would eventually turn into a downhill path with large, shallow steps. The wheelchair pitched forward somewhat precariously each time we went over a step, causing us to laugh hysterically, but Elise wanted to stay in the wheelchair. Anyone observing from afar would have thought that I was an Extremely Bad Mom. Elise joked that she might actually break her leg, which would justify the wheelchair even more than her pulled muscle.

On our way out we stopped at the prettiest Starbucks I’ve ever seen that had a rock garden surrounded by lush greenery. It struck me as culturally brash, however, that it was occupying the best real estate in a strip of shops dedicated to selling Japan’s finest green tea.

As we made our way down the street, we noticed the heavenly scent of green tea emanating from one particular shop, Mitsuboshi-en Kambayashi Sannyu. I was hoping we might be able to observe a tea ceremony, but instead we were offered a lesson in preparing tea ourselves, which was even better. The owner, 16th generation tea master, Kambayashi Sannyu, told us that his shop had been the official supplier of tea to the Emperor during the Edo Period. He took us through the shop museum which had framed orders for tea from the Tokugawa Shogunate and a parade of tiny dolls transporting a huge pot of tea on foot representing their early missions to Edo (Toyko), a journey that took about two weeks.

He was clearly proud of his connection to the Emperor, rapidly flipping through magazines to show us photographs, but, interestingly, he seemed even more proud of a certificate of award from the 1876 International Exhibition in Philadelphia.

As we left, he flashed us a photo of what will become the 18th generation Mistuboshi-en Kambayashi Sannyu tea master: his cute, little, 3-year-old grandson.

In the tea room, his son, 17th generation tea master, had us rotate an old-school stone tea grinder (today it’s done mechanically), and we saw how the dark green tea leaves turn into a brilliant green powder.

He then taught us how to prepare the tea: place two spoonfuls into the cup, tap the spoon once on the ridge of the cup, add hot water, and whisk the tea briskly until it foams. Then clasp hands together and say itadakimasu, take a tiny bite of a sweet (in this case, a red bean paste confection), rotate the cup twice, and sip. When finished, rotate the cup back once, and say gochisosamadeshita. The taste of pure Uji tea is richer and yet more subtle than any other tea I’ve ever had. It was wonderful.

Nourished and satisfied, we took the local train 2 stops to my old neighborhood. We’d arrived on a different train line than the one I used to use, so I asked directions to Junese, my old host parents’ beauty salon while Elise petted a fluffy Pomeranian. As we walked, nothing looked familiar, until, suddenly, there it was – my old street! – transformed with a big, glaring grocery, but still, my old street. I marveled at how fast the nearly 30 years had passed since I’d lived there. When we reached my host parents’ salon, however, it was closed and their home was completely dark and I felt sad. Elise, however, managed to make the most of it by playing on the playground in front of my old house at the end of the street.

1 Golden Temple + 1000 red Shinto gates

Today we visited one of Kyoto’s most iconic sites: the Golden Temple. I was first taken to see it nearly 30 years ago as a freshly trained English teacher with the JET Programme. I was in awe, and I thought Elise would be, too. But the crowds were thick and we felt rushed as groups of tourists vied for photo ops, and the day was hot and sticky, etc, so our visit ended up feeling more perfunctory than magical. Elise did, however, enjoy the samples of traditional Japanese snacks for sale at the tea garden.

We said prayers for our loved ones and headed next to Fushimi Inari Shrine.

The path to the entrance was lined with food stands. The sign at this one looked, um – how to say it? – the opposite of appetizing.

Unlike the short path around the Golden Temple, the route up and down the mountain at Fushimi Inari was nearly 4 km and passed through 2,000+ red Shinto gates. As we got closer to the summit, the crowds disappeared.

There were many mini shrines along the path with statues of foxes, which are regarded as messengers.

As we neared the top, Elise asked “Is it going to be what heaven looks like?” When we got there, it looked like same as the path we’d been on, just level. And there were Oreo cookies for sale.

A soft, cool rain started to fall as we headed down the mountain, and in the falling light, the magic missing from earlier in the day was suddenly all around us.

Nijo Castle light show, Kimono Roboto, and packaged eyeballs

To make up for a lazy day of zero exploration, we finally dragged ourselves out of the hotel after nightfall to see the light show at nearby Nijo Castle. Everything from the massive, stately walls, to the cherry blossom trees and gardens was aglow, and there was a light show on a towering wooden gate reminiscent of Miyazaki’s magical Spirited Away with flying birds, dragons and swirling cherry blossom petals.  And, of course, because Japan would not be Japan without something a little futuristic and weird, there was a multi-media show called Kimono Roboto with a moving C3P0-type robot in a kimono flanked by two twisted, blob-like robotic arms. The footage behind them alternated between close-ups of gleaming robot heads and staggeringly gorgeous models in kimono strolling a moody beach. For just a flicker, I felt the same dazzle that I felt eons ago photographing NY Fashion Week, and I felt happy.

Afterwards we shopped for food. It was a treat seeing shoppers in kimono as if it were the most normal thing in the world. But then we discovered a package of what looked liked clear eyeballs in the refrigerated section next to seaweed and potato salad. I couldn’t even bring myself to google what they might be.