Thai curries and stir-fries and soups, Oh my!

Chiang Mai is known for its terrific cooking schools, so we signed up for a class at the shiny, cheerful Baan Thai Cookery School. It was a sensory experience from start to finish.

At the local market, we held and sniffed lemon grass and different varieties of limes, basil, ginger and other herbs and spices, and learned that the smaller varieties of garlic and chilies pack a bigger punch than the larger ones (with the teensy ‘Mouse Poop Chili’ – พริกขี้หนู – being the hottest). We also learned that soy and mushroom sauce make fine vegetarian substitutes for fish and oyster sauce.

We were given some time to explore the market on our own. I happily bought some lychees and tiny bananas, while poor Elise kept staring at the ground after almost having stepped on a cockroach.

We saw lots of durian for sale. In Kuala Lumpur, I had a tiny nibble of durian ice cream and was shocked at how bad it tasted. It has such a strong, putrid odor that it’s banned in many hotels and public places. It’s a riot to see a row of signs with a red X through cigarettes, weapons…and a fruit.

The course offered a choice of different appetizers, stir-fries, soups, and curries, Elise decided to go for classic Thai dishes: spring rolls, Pad Thai, Tom Yam soup, and green curry, while I chose papaya salad, cashew stir-fry, coconut milk soup, and Koa Soi, a spicy noodle curry.

And at every turn we were treated to a new heavenly scent – the fresh zest of a cut lime, the commingling of spices in a hot wok, the tanginess of a crushed garlic/chili/sugar/lime dressing. Even the implements – thick, round, wooden cutting boards and tall, clay mortars and wooden pestles – were satisfying to the senses.

It was also a feast for the eyes, from the colorful raw ingredients arranged on platters and glistening curry paste in tiny bowls, to the bubbling bright red or milky green curries on the stove top, to the finished dishes sprinkled with crispy noodles or nuts and garnished with cilantro.

We got to eat each dish as soon as we finished preparing it. My favorite ended up being the coconut milk soup, and Elise’s were the spring rolls and green curry soup. Some variation of these dishes will likely end up in the travel cookbook we plan to create!

Afterwards, we tackled some math homework and then went for what we’d hoped would be a leisurely swim, but monsoon rains appeared out of nowhere and drove us back indoors. It wasn’t quite the perfect ending to a perfect day that I’d hoped for, but the soothing sound of the rain pounding all surfaces was a fine consolation prize.

At long last….elephants!

On a Scandinavian cruise in 2014 with Elise’s Gran, I met a fellow traveler whose son was volunteering at an elephant rescue in northern Thailand. These many years later, we finally made it there and Elise loved it! Said it was the highlight of our travels so far – and given that we’ve had various adventures in 13 different countries, that says a lot.

The place was Happy Elephant Home, which allows visitors and volunteers to feed and bathe the elephants. They have a No Hook/No Riding policy (the wooden box saddles are particularly harmful to elephants’ spines and outfits touting such rides should be avoided). The adult elephants were rescued from logging and circus work, and the little baby, Via, now almost two years old, was born at the refuge. Elise adored him, and from the looks of it, he liked her, too.

We were given bananas to feed the elephants, and were told that they have a distinct preference for ripe bananas. Indeed, when we gave one of the adults little green bananas she tossed them aside and reached into our baskets for yellow ones.

There was a flash of monsoon rains which drenched everything and everyone. I held my camera under my wicker banana basket to try to keep it dry while I shot. The rain also made the muddy path to the river even muddier, though my rubber-soled sandals kept me from landing on my butt in a muddy puddle. One person’s flip-flop disappeared completely in the slimy goo and made a squelching sound when she pulled it out. In that moment, I had a flashback to the meticulous/time-intensive pre-trip gear planning, and felt the effort I’d taken to choose sandals had been worth it.

We made our way to the river and then bathed the elephants (and ourselves). The current was strong so a guide helped Elise reach the elephants in the middle of the river. I waded in with my camera (how could I not try to capture that scene?!) and somehow managed not to drop it or to topple over in the current.

Those giants sweeties seemed to enjoy their bath, but their cleanliness didn’t last long. As soon as they reached their favorite mud pit, the baby lay down and rolled around in it, and the adults threw mud on themselves….and on Elise, lol. She wondered whether she was just an innocent bystander, or whether they were trying to take care of her like a little baby elephant.

All in all, a wonderful experience that we will never forget.

Fun 3D illusion art in Chiang Mai

My intention was to visit the Lanna Folklife Museum, but it was closing early so we went instead to Art in Paradise. It was 4x the price of the other museum, but oh! it ended up being so worth it. You could use their app to capture 3D animations, such as a giant croc snapping at your kid hanging from a tree or her dodging boulders in King Tut’s tomb or cowering before a wheezy shark trying to do a proper Jaws impersonation. There were also gentle scenes. One of my favorites was one in which Elise looked around at falling cherry blossoms on a bridge in Japan. To watch a compilation of the animations we captured, click here or on the image below.

There were also 3D illusion photo ops. Most were paintings that played with shadow or perspective, such as a floating God pouring a glass of wine or a flying carpet.

Other illusions made use of special installations such as rotated rooms, pictures frames that were actually windows, and a fake pool that made you look like you were underwater.

Elise got the biggest kick out of the one that made me look tiny and her enormous (she stood next to the legs of a chair while I sat in the background on the ‘seat’), whereas my favorite was the one of her hanging from a picture frame.

Old Town temples in Chiang Mai

After way more than one night in Bangkok (13 to be exact), I was chomping at the bit to head north to Chiang Mai. And what a lovely place it was! The pace was slower, traffic lighter, and navigation much easier. The Old Town is essentially a giant square surrounded by a moat, and things are either within its walls or north, south, east or west of it.

There are temples sprinkled throughout, each with its own mystique. A few seemed desolate. The silent figures, shuttered windows, and chipped paint of one we wandered into near the Night Market reminded me of the abandoned amusement park in Miyazaki’s Spirited Away.

The magnificent Wat Phra Singh, on the other hand, which had golden dragons flanking its entrance and stunning golden stupas, was a bustling microcosm of activity.

There were people praying before a giant golden Buddha in the main temple and monks sitting cross-legged in one of the smaller halls. With them there, I felt strangely shy about going in, even to make a donation, likely because of the temple signs instructing women not to touch the monks or even hand things to them. The signs also informed visitors that it was inappropriate to use Buddha as a decoration or as a tattoo.

Wat Chedi Luang was atmospheric in a different way. It’s towering, ruined ancient chedi (built in 1441) dominates the temple grounds. Each side of the crumbling pyramid offers new surprises: golden Buddhas, a row of stone elephants, a hall with a reclining Buddha, and donation boxes for various causes. Elise donated to the care of the animals of the temple and to the year of the pig.

Along the path of the Night Market, we stopped for a Thai massage, which come with bonus stretches (lazy man’s yoga).

Afterwards, we ate at a Japanese restaurant. Elise loved her tempura udon, but I was less excited about my zaru soba, which, oddly, arrived with ice cubes in it making the noodles soggy. Having had my share of zaru soba during a three-year stint in Japan, I gently suggested chilling the noodles in ice water and then shaking them out before serving.

After the blah sameness of the rooms of the Bangkok Ibis, we were delighted to have discovered Baan Saen Fang Hotel, a hidden gem with four northern Thai bungalows and views of Wat Saen Fang, which glowed in the night sky. For breakfast, they served bowls of fruit and muesli garnished with morning glories on our front porch. Just lovely.

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

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 glitchy visa application website of the Government of India (GOI), which failed to process payments, my visa was not approved in time for our flights. 

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 our case represents “a change of plans” which are not covered. Ironic, since I was trying to stick with plans.

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, 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, 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.