2015 and On the Road Again…

In 2014, we embarked on a journey to explore the world through the lens of organic agriculture, fair trade, small & local businesses (primarily food, beverage & books!). The ultimate goal is to find a spot that seems right for the next chapter, whether in the U.S. or abroad. And so, we’re about to set off again, this time for South America. Stay tuned…

We live in a wonderful world that is full of beauty, charm and adventure. There is no end to the adventures we can have if only we seek them with our eyes open.          Jawaharlal Nehru

Indian Umbrellas

Indian Umbrellas

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Into the West…

Welcome, Wyoming!

Welcome, Wyoming!

Much of the drive across Wyoming was flat flat flat, with the glorious presence of vast cloud banks.  I’m reading “Open Road” by Phil Patton, and he says “At 65 miles an hour, experts say, the driver sees five times as much sky as at 45.  Roads are drunk with the principles of perspective.”  So far, so true!  We’re not home-hunting in Wyoming, but headed west for the Grand Tetons and more camping, so we we’re testing the 65 mph views (or better, as speed limits here hover around 75 mph and so the perspectives must be that much better!).

About the Clouds...

About the Clouds…

Though we’re on a local food/farm to table/craft-brewing oriented journey, we’re learning that “local” doesn’t necessarily equate to “good,” though it more than often does mean quirky or quaint, and usually “nice.”  The Broken Wheel Truckstop and Restaurant was a refueling station, with a basic truckers’ breakfast (we passed up on the steak and eggs) and kind waitresses who kept pouring the coffee.

Breakfast Spot

Breakfast Spot

On the other hand, sometimes local means both kind people with a mission and really really good coffee.  Being “West” also means they get to have some real fun with their branding.  I liked the cowboy-themed packaging of the Brown Sugar Coffee Roastery in Riverton, Wyoming (http://brownsugarcoffeeroastery.com/)  and their coffees are FairTrade USA certified too!  NOTE:  if you’re curious about why I care about Fair Trade, check out :  http://fairtradeusa.org/  for more about what Fair Trade means to the small growers and farmers around the world.  Also, my earlier blog about our visit to the Fair Trade/organic farmers in India might be of interest!

Howdy, Pardner!

Howdy, Pardner!

Primed by Brown Sugar’s coffee, and hours and hours of driving later, we gained our first view of our home (tent) for the next two nights in Grand Teton National Park.  And found there was a little more snow than we’d planned on!

The Grand Tetons

The Grand Tetons

A Little Snow...

A Little Snow…

Here’s where words, at least mine, can’t measure up.  Our hike around Jenny Lake…

And the Hikes!

And the Hikes!

And then, we were off to Boise, Idaho and a wonderful weekend of wedding celebration activities!  Was it the wedding and reuniting with friends, the farmers’ market and wonderful museum that gave us pause, and had us house-hunting?  More on this, next time…

C’est Vrai, C’est Pondicherry

At long last and after a brief respite, we’re back in the U.S. and in the process of planning the next trip (a cross-country drive). But before that, here’s a recap of our final, lovely and restful days in India:

After the short flight from Cochin to Chennai, and then the inevitable 3+ hour drive to Pondicherry (or Puducherry as it’s known these days), we arrived at the lovely Hotel de L’Orient (http://hotel-de-lorient.neemranahotels.com/) in the evening – leaving the pleasure of discovering the city to the morning light. After checking out our lovely room we walked the block or two to the promenade – and strolled along the Bay of Bengal, along with hundreds of residents who were enjoying the refreshing breeze.

The hotel is another Neemrana Hotel project; the “de L’Orient” was converted from an 18th century school building into a gorgeous, unique guesthouse. We had dinner in the outdoor dining room the first evening, under a shady neem tree, and enjoyed a great buffet breakfast the next morning in the loggia – so that we could have breeze from the overhead fans…it was HOT! Person after person told us that we were visiting at what is considered the end of the real tourist season (the first week in March.) Breakfast had a particularly French feel – delicious croissants, pain aux chocolate, yogurt, baguettes and Neemrana’s housemade pear, plum and mixed fruit jams, which we’d enjoyed at the other properties in Bangalore and Coonoor.

De L'Orient Key

De L’Orient Key

Lobby Figurines

Lobby Figurines

Walking in Pondicherry was a real treat – the former French colony has lovely old homes, many painted in a lemony yellow color to designate that they are still owned by the French. Our guide told us that there are 5,000 French families in Pondicherry, and it seemed like there was a Lycee Francais on every other street corner. A favorite visit was to the Sri Arulmigu Manakular Vinayagar Temple, celebrating the Hindu god Ganesha. There are 32 sculpted reliefs of Ganesha on the wall of the temple, which are incredibly detailed and colorful – http://www.manakulavinayagartemple.com/Types.htm. At the end of the day, an elephant is brought to the temple and offers blessings to those who bring appropriate offerings of grass, nuts or flowers. My handful of grass resulted in a good tap on my head from Lakshmi’s (the elephant) strong trunk.

Ganesha Temple Decor

Ganesha Temple Decor

Another incredible visit was to the Sadhana Forest (www.sadhanaforest.org) outside Pondicherry, where we visited a young relative who was starting an environmental internship. Sadhana is 70 acres of formerly arid, eroded land that is being transformed into an indigeneous tropical dry evergreen forest through the volunteer efforts of dozens of people from around the world. Over 29,000 trees have been planted over the past 10 years, watered and cared for by the volunteers. Through water management and retention efforts including building earthen dams and trenches, the organization has raised the aquifer’s level by 6 meters, and dramatically improved the water table for the rural residents. I walked around in awe – from the handbuilt bamboo and coconut palm multi-story buildings and dormitories to the communal kitchen, recycling center and solar array, the entire enterprise is an incredible, inspiring testament to what can be accomplished through devoted, passionate, hard work, and many many caring people.

Sadhana Buildings

Sadhana Buildings

From Pondicherry we went north to Mahalbalipuram (arghh, once we’d finally figured out how to say that correctly, we learned that this town is now called “Mammallapuram”), a fishing village with a quaint French flair, a nice beach with traditional fishing boats, and good restaurants. Mammallpuram is known for its shore temples and ancient outdoor sculptures carved from single enormous boulders and rock formations. Generations of stone carvers have thrived here, and as you drive the narrow streets there are dozens of small businesses with sculptures ranging from tiny, easily transported carvings to enormous sculptures that you’d need a crane to lift into your garden, assuming you’ve got both the garden and the budget to transport it there!

Mammallapuram Shoreline

Mammallapuram Shoreline

Our too short visit to Pondicherry and Mammallapuram ended with a late night dash to the Chennai airport for our long flight home. Five weeks in India were not enough, by far, and we’re already thinking about where to go when we return! The far north and the distant south. I’ll post a selection of India photos in the next blog, without the lengthy text. I hope you enjoy…Namaste.

Holy Cow...Farewell

Holy Cow…Farewell

Kerala Idyll

The drive to the backwaters of Kerala in Kumarakom was, yes, long! But in part fascinating, as we drove through a small village celebrating a temple festival, and traffic came to a stop as two parades converged from opposite directions on the little more than one-lane road. There were a few police officers standing around waving what we’ve been calling “swagger sticks.” But the traffic didn’t seem to pay much attention at all, and it was to the peril of the parade participants and the bystanders as buses, log trucks, tuktuks and cars tried to wend their way along the route. It took us at least an hour to go about 2 miles – and that after we got out of the car and walked along the parade route. Why sit (even in the cool car) when we could experience the excitement of a village parade? We probably added an element of novelty to the festivities as well!

Young men were carrying enormous pyramid-shaped wooden frames covered with multi-colored foil flowers – in a sort of wooden yoke across their shoulders. As the band of flutes and drums played, the men started twirling, until they got dizzy and passed the contraption to someone else.

Village Parade

Village Parade

We eventually made it to the houseboat dock, (after an amusing elephant in a truck scene and an extraordinary sighting of over 20 eagles soaring over prawn fishing boats) where many traditional boats, known as Kettuvallam, were tied up. The hand-off to our crew of two was rather lackadaisical, and they didn’t speak much English – in a way this was fine as CW and I could just chat and ponder the view instead of asking the unending questions we’ve had throughout the trip. Our 60’ long boat had an open, but covered sitting/dining area with a built in bench running along the side of the boat where I enjoyed reclining and watching the scenery pass by. We had a small bedroom with tiny combined toilet/shower area (this is typical), and there was a kitchen and crew area in the back of the boat. We were really surprised by how many houseboats there were; it felt a bit like “houseboats on parade,” as you can see in the photo.

Houseboats on Parade

Houseboats on Parade


Afternoon Banana Fritters and Coffee

Afternoon Banana Fritters and Coffee


Backwaters Houseboat

Backwaters Houseboat

A backwaters overnight trip is probably not for anyone who needs a lot of movement or exercise! We spent a couple of hours the first day, including the late lunch, cruising the smaller canals and out into Lake Vembanad. There’s not much to do but watch what’s happening on shore and on the water – and it is beautiful and fascinating – village life on the water; women doing laundry by stepping down into the water on old stone stairs, slapping the laundry rhythmically against the side of the steps; children were swimming, old men were fishing, and long dragon-prowed boats were delivering huge sacks of the rice harvested from the paddies all along the back waters. And it was hot. 35 c or 95 F, and humid – so when the boat wasn’t cruising, the air was still, warm and moist, recalling my least favorite part of living in Singapore.

Backwaters of Kerala

Backwaters of Kerala

It was disappointing, after having seen all the quiet backwaters and the still lake, to find that we were going to dock and spend the night back at the busy, noisy boat mooring area. (Nothing I’d read indicated that we wouldn’t be somewhere away from civilization for the overnight part…) There was air-conditioning in the bedroom, the sound of which helped to mute music and conversation from neighboring boats – only a foot or two away. After breakfast, we cruised again for an hour and then returned to the dock to continue our journey by car to another part of the backwaters on Lake Vembanad, near the town of Kumarakom.

At the Abad Whispering Sands, we had our first true “resort” experience in India. Our cool, large and simple room overlooked the lake, hammocks suspended under the coconut trees, and sweetly, a number of Indian honeymoon couples. But it was only the international guests who enjoyed the “yoga in the pool.”

Pool Yoga

Pool Yoga

The big adventure for this brief resort stay was a long walk along one of the tiny lanes trying to find a coffee shop, and hopping into a convenient tuktuk to ride into the town of Kumarakom, where we had our first seafood in India at the “Hotel Dubai.” Then into a local sweet shop/bakery where we found cardamom chai and a pastry to celebrate this “non-birthday” for Leap Year baby CW.

Kumarakom Canal

Kumarakom Canal

From the backwaters we drove to Cochin (Kochi), a wonderful old Kerala city that between the 16th to 19th centuries was occupied by the Portuguese, Dutch and British. We stayed at the Koder House in Fort Kochi (the old city), a 200-year old home built by an early Jewish family; various early maharajahs had been both tolerant of and welcoming to other religions, and many Jews settled in Cochin from the 1500’s on – though now, only 7 Jewish residents live in the old city. We visited the lovely and poignant Jewish Synagogue, and strolled the lanes of what is commonly known as “Jew Town.” After the creation of the state of Israel, most Cochin Jews emigrated, leaving behind lovely old homes, and a way of life that had existed in Cochin for hundreds of years.

Koder House

Koder House


Koder House Guest Room

Koder House Guest Room

Cochin is one of my favorite stops on the trip – the history, the culture, the variety of people and ways of life were dazzling. Cochin is famous for its “Chinese Fishing Nets,” of which only a dozen or so remain in the old city. By getting up early in the morning, my stroll on the seaside promenade was quiet, except for the men working the fishing nets, lowering them via lines of suspended small boulders, letting the nets rest in the water for about five minutes, and then levering the huge nets back up with their catch. Stall owners hovered nearby waiting to purchase the fresh catch – and I’m sure we ate some of it later in the day.

Cochin Fishing Nets

Cochin Fishing Nets

We reluctantly left Cochin and flew across southern India to Chennai, driving south to the old French colony (until the 1960’s) of Pondicherry (Puducherry, these days.) This was a real treat, and more about that soon. As I write, we are sitting in a small rooftop restaurant in Mamallapuram, south of Chennai, preparing for our midnight drive to the airport for a 4am flight to London and home, so this blog will be posted after return and a day or two of jet lag. Namaste, and wishing you safe travels and to journeywise.

JourneyWise Note:

Other than the real “cold,” we haven’t been sick or had digestive problems…Here are some of the precautions we’ve taken: (some may seem silly, but hey, it’s worked!)

Teeth: NEVER used anything but bottled water, to wet the brush, rinse the mouth, clean the toothbrush…

Eyes: I wear contact lenses so, after cleaning lenses with solution, ALWAYS rinsed with bottled water, and after removing from case, I rinsed the case with bottled, NOT tap, water.

Drinking: ALWAYS drank bottled water, not even the purified and filtered water offered at some hotels and restaurants. We did often have masala chai and coffee from stalls, and were pretty sure the water was safely boiled…and we carried personal water bottles everywhere and refilled them from the large bottles of water we bought to keep in the car.

Cleanliness: Even though I’m not a fan of using antiseptic lotions and wipes at home, they were always by my side in India. I had a small generic bottle of antiseptic spray that I used on my hands frequently, and antiseptic wipes that I’d use to clean my face, neck and arms after any hot, sweaty activity – which was pretty much everything we did except in the highlands. Otherwise, we either did small bits of laundry in the hotel sink or had pieces sent out – laundry prices were incredibly cheap (10 rupees for undergarments, 20 for a shirt. 100 rupees approx. $1.60) And, we were a little dirty and a little smelly some of the time!

Periyar and Beyond

Periyar Entrance

Periyar Entrance

We had a long, meandering and beautiful drive through the hills heading south to reach Periyar Tiger Reserve, located in the Cardamom Hills and Western Ghat mountains on the Kerala/Tamil Nadu border. We’d eagerly anticipated this couple of days in the wilderness and had booked one of the Gavi Eco-tents (www.periyartigerreserve.net/cottage-tent.html) to sleep in. Almost nothing about our two days at Periyar disappointed!

The first view of the tent was just as expected – a large one room tent on a platform and suspended beneath a palm-leaf covered roof. There was a separate, private bath/shower room behind the tent, accessed through the screen door at the rear of the tent. The tent and bath area were basic, and just what we’d anticipated, although the view down to the lake was even nicer than we’d hoped for. There was electricity in the tent, though the 5 minute, unlit walk to the outdoor restaurant was quite dark in the evening (glad we brought small flashlights on the trip), and perfect for star-gazing. The deep, amazingly dark evening sky and brilliant, countless stars were spectacular.

Gavi Tent Periyar

Gavi Tent Periyar

Inside the Tent

Inside the Tent

Periyar is what I’d describe as a “forest-jungle” and many areas are quite densely forested, making it a challenge for wildlife viewing from the back of a jeep. There aren’t the “big five” to see as we’d looked for in South Africa, but we did see the fabulous Malabar Giant Squirrel, Nilgiri Langurs, Gaur (a large, endangered Indian bison), Sambar (an Indian deer, of which we saw many) and many birds. Elephants were evidently close by as the fresh dung and HUGE elephant tracks we saw in the river bank proved, and the elusive tiger was not to be seen. Our guide, who has worked in the park for 14 years, said he’d only glimpsed the tiger twice in that entire time. There are currently 46 tigers roaming the 357 sq. mile park.

We had a great 3+ hour hike with Narayan, our guide, who was in flipflops, and I don’t know how he negotiated the steep hillsides; I was very happy to have my hiking poles with me, and sturdy boots. He took us a bit off the beaten track once he realized how enthusiastic we were about the park – we hiked along the nearly dry Pamba River to one of the waterfalls, and along a tiny track where a couple of tribal families lived in makeshift tents with no running water or other facilities. They survive by harvesting wild crops and making the incense used in Hindu temples – by harvesting the bark from a particular tree and processing it into a sticky, aromatic resin.

Tribal Smile

Tribal Smile

Vista with Red Trees

Vista with Red Trees

Two jeep safaris allowed us to go much deeper into the park – and again, not much wildlife, but the scenery was spectacular, including the bright red, new leaves of one which our guide referred to as “Mora” or “Moro” – but my online research hasn’t confirmed the name or type of tree – any ideas?

Many visitors come only for a day visit, but we’d stay overnight again – the quiet night, glorious stars overhead, and thrill of knowing that we were inside a tent protected by electric fencing to keep the elephants outside the perimeter were all a real treat.

Periyar Sunset Shades

Periyar Sunset Shades

After two nights at Periyar, we loaded up the car again and headed for the Kerala backwaters for a night on a houseboat… our Kerala adventures next!

The Highlands of South India

We followed the Coonoor stay with a long drive to Munnar, another highlands area growing tea, coffee and cardamom south of Coimbatore. Though only about 200 kilometers from Coonoor, the drive took nearly 5 hours; getting from here to there in India is always interesting, and takes longer than you’d think due to roads winding their way through the tiniest of villages, up and down the hills, and through traffic and traffic accidents, and around many many cows…

Tea Puckers at Day's End

Tea Puckers at Day’s End

Rocky Munnar Tea Garden

Rocky Munnar Tea Garden

Bustling Munnar was lit for Sunday evening shoppers and diners, and after checking into “Tea County,” (http://www.teacountymunnar.com/) a large resort not far from town, we drove back downtown to find Saravana Bhavan (www.tripadvisor.in/Restaurant_Review-g303881-d1986714-Reviews-Saravana_Bhavan_Munnar-Munnar_Kerala.html) (Sorry for the long link – another fix I have to figure out.), where we found a mix of locals, and international and Indian tourists eating dinner. This is as close as we’ve come to finding a “banana leaf” restaurant such as we used to enjoy so much when we lived in Singapore. Here, the plates are plantain leaves instead, but the waiters still come round with tiffin pails of various “gravies.” In India, a gravy is what we might call a curry – a wet sauce of various flavors mixed with a variety or a single type of “veg.”

After eating dinner we had fun poking into the tiny local shops after dinner – each merchant seems to specialize in something, and yet there’s always a competitor just across the lane!

Munnar Vegetable Seller

Munnar Vegetable Seller

We’ve been looking at buckets and bathing pots and ladles – having become used to the sit down on a stool (or not) bath system in many of the places we’ve stayed. Most hotels and guest houses have separate hot water heaters in the bathrooms so you need to turn the switch on a half hour before bathing, and then fill a large bucket with the water which you can then sluice over your body/hair with the provided large ladle or cup. In better hotels there are overhead shower heads too, but I’m getting proficient at washing my hair and at least essential body parts the bucket and ladle way – and do appreciate how much more water efficient it is than just letting a shower run.

Munnar is where we had our first ayurvedic massage and medicinal steam bath. One word – FANTASTIC! At Swatic Ayur Centre (find reviews at TripAdvisor), I was gently managed by Saranya, who led me to a simple, very warm room with a wooden platform on which she had me lay down. She poured warm oil over my back and commenced with a series of stroking massage movements – up and down, in a u-shape, s-shape, figure 8; she pulled and stroked the muscle groups from the tips of my toes to the tips of my fingers…it wasn’t like any other massage I’ve had, and was completely relaxing. Then I sat in an old-fashioned steam bath with a towel over my head – it was HOT and 15 minutes was a few too long for me, but I emerged red as a tomato and thoroughly steam-cleaned. We just made it back to the hotel before crashing for a pre-dinner nap.

Smiling in the Tea Garden

Smiling in the Tea Garden

The highlands are a completely different geographic region of India, and reinforce my understanding that the country is so immense and complex that assumptions are useless, and accepting anything and everything that comes along is a good strategy for peace of mind. We go next to the Periyar Tiger Reserve…stay tuned.

Road to Periyar via Lockhart Tea Valley

Road to Periyar via Lockhart Tea Valley

Monkey in the Breakfast Room

After two plus weeks in North India and covering over 2000 km overland, it was time to turn our sights South – and so we reluctantly left lovely Udaipur and flew first north to Delhi and then to Bangalore – a total of about 3 hours of flying. The Udaipur airport was new, large, and empty. We counted a total of only 5 flights out scheduled for the day. Apparently some political kerfluffle has limited flights between Jaipur and Udaipur, and squelched a lot of the tourist traffic (or so we were told…politics is proving an endlessly interesting and multi-sided subject here.)

South India Itinerary

South India Itinerary

Following our alphabetical route map for South India, we go:
A: Bangalore
B: Hosagunda
C: Chickmaglur
D: Kollegal
E: Coonoor
F: (this is really on the map as G) Munnar
G: Periyar
H: Allepy Backwaters
I: Cochin
J/K/L: fly to Chennai, car to Mahalibalipuram, Pondicherry

India Makes My Heart Go...

India Makes My Heart Go…

By late afternoon of our Udaipur departure, we were delivered to the Villa Pottapatti, (http://villa-pottipati.neemranahotels.com/) a Neemrana Hotels property in Bangalore. Neemrana is buying or leasing wonderful old homes and other properties throughout India, and with minimal changes converting them into a version of a homestay, albeit with professional staffing and branded amenities. We were delighted at Villa Pottapatti to meet its owner, Mrs. Reddy, whose husband’s family had built the house in the late 19th century. She was sitting in the garden dining area when we came out for breakfast, and we spent an hour learning all about the house, the family, the neighborhood…and, how very different everything is from when she arrived as a bride over 50 years ago. It felt like we were guests in a lovely old home with a hostess who sent us out into the neighborhood on a treasure hunt.

Villa Pottapatti

Villa Pottapatti

Pottapatti Neighborhood Rose Seller

Pottapatti Neighborhood Rose Seller

Selling Apples by Bike

Selling Apples by Bike

Our first week in the South would test our energy – we’d be in six different beds each of six nights, including one spent on the local overnight train to Hosagunda (definitely not the lux train for tourists, we each had a bottom berth of three stacked, and were separated from the narrow aisle by a non-working curtain.) For most of the first week in the south we were guests of former business relations when I worked with Honest Tea. The first few days were with the Phalada Agro team (http://www.phaladaagro.com/). Phalada is an award-winning supplier of organic and Fair Trade ingredients, ranging from turmeric and coconut to spearmint and tulsi and I’ll write at much more length about this wonderful, motivated company of change-makers after getting back home.

We visited the Bangalore processing plant and test garden, visited Mr. CMN Shastry’s organic farm and excavation/reconstruction of an 800 year old temple in Hosagunda, and travelled by car to Chickmaglur where we visited an organic coffee grower and learned how cardamom is grown! Whew.

Phalada Nursery

Fascinating temple visits along the way included Halebad and Belur – where the craftsmanship of the stonework was breathtaking – the incisions were deep, crisp and incredibly intricate, after hundreds of years. The temples themselves were more geometric than anything we’d seen so far, and I was awed by it all…the detail, the age, the clear devotion of those who conceived of and built the temples. And – the sculptures of the elephants that surrounded the base of both temples…hundreds and hundreds of roughly 12” long by 8” high elephants marching around, in and out of the undulating base.

Belur Temple Elephants

Belur Temple Elephants

Belur Temple Base Carvings

Belur Temple Base Carvings

Gorgeous Goddess Anklets

Gorgeous Goddess Anklets

In Kollegal, I was truly honored to meet the small scale farmers who are growing organic vegetables, herbs, and spices, under the auspices of the Phalada Agro group. At a Natural Products Food Show in 2013, it was thrilling to hear from Mr. Shastry about the ways in which the farmers and their families are benefiting from selling organic ingredients to Honest Tea http://www.honesttea.com, (and of course, other manufacturers as well.)

Organic Coconut Water, as Fresh as it Gets!

Organic Coconut Water, as Fresh as it Gets!

Beautiful Organic Krishna Tulsi

Beautiful Organic Krishna Tulsi

Every part of the visit with Phalada was inspiring – my work with organic and Fair Trade products has always been motivating, but travelling with the Phalada team was amazing. They are working directly with very small farmers in the Karnataka region who are at the forefront of organic farming in India. These families have 1-3 acre plots that are planted with organic tulsi, corn, watermelon, sugar cane, turmeric…and sell their product to Phalada. Their Fair Trade tulsi sales bring them an additional premium that is changing their lives. The farmland was lush, the sounds of birds and insects filled the air, and the farmers and farm workers seemed delighted to have a visitor from away. I had brought a bottle of Honest Tea’s Heavenly Lemon Tulsi with me to share – it’s not often that the farmers get to see the end result of their labors, and they were excited to see, and taste, the beverage. My few words of Hindi and Kannada (different local languages are spoken all over India) and a whole lot of smiling (I hope) helped them understand how excited I was to actually stand in the organic fields and say “thank you,” for all the work they do.

Kollegal Certified Organic Farm!

Kollegal Certified Organic Farm!

From Kollegal we headed to the highlands of tea country – first to Nilgiri, where our hosts were the team from the Chamraj Tea Estates (http://www.chamrajchai.com/), which also owns Korakundah, a large organic and Fair Trade tea garden. Chamraj’ tea bushes are grown at 6-8000’ elevation, the highest in India. It is an incredible landscape, with the labyrinth-like tea bushes growing on impossibly steep hillsides; hovering above them are the silverwood trees which are “pollarded” or pruned at various times to either shade or allow more sun depending on the need of the plants.

Chamraj runs a 60-bed hospital, school for 1200 students, and an orphanage, all on its property, and partly funded by company and Fair Trade funds. Our host, Mr. Hendrickson, seems to have 10 different full-time jobs, and is passionate about not only the tea he helps to sell, but the company’s responsibility for the community it is part of – anyone in the area is welcome to use the hospital facilities, and the school is also open to the community, not just the children of the estate staff and workers.

Chamraj Guest Bungalow

Chamraj Guest Bungalow

A visit to the Chamraj processing plant reinforced the intricacies of creating fine tea, and a tasting afterwards introduced us to “Frost Tea,” from plants grown at the highest elevations in the Nilgiri.

Tea Tasting at Chamraj

Tea Tasting at Chamraj

Chamraj Tea Hillside

Chamraj Tea Hillside

This second week is a slower paced travel time, as we catch up on sleep and energy after the hectic travelling in the north. And, it’s giving me some time to fully recover from my cold. So, after Chamraj we drove 30 minutes to the highlands town of Coonoor, a former summertime colony for the British as they escaped from the heat of Bangalore. We stayed at the “Wallwood,” an old bungalow and another Neemrana property. Enjoying the crackling fire in the living room, and reading one of the left-behind paperbacks while enjoying a cup of tea was like being transported back to the time of the British Raj. Strolling through Sim’s Park with its hundreds of specimen trees from around the world, and having a coffee at tiny “Cheri Brewing” completed a simple, relaxed day. With that, more to come next time!

By the way, the monkey joined me in the Wallwood breakfast room as I was sitting enjoying a cup of tea and making some notes. The monkey was about the size of a 2 year old child, and sneaked in so quietly that he was about two feet from the table when I spotted him. I calmly(!) and quickly called out “monkey in the breakfast room,” at which time one of the staff came in and shooed it away. Just another thrilling animal encounter in India!

Wallwood Bungalow - Coonoor

Wallwood Bungalow – Coonoor

Please let me know via a “comment” if you have any questions – I’m just scraping the very surface of the notes I’ve made. Food questions? Lodging? Culture? Travel? Let me know and I’ll try to respond with how we’ve become a bit more “JourneyWise” on this trip!

Rajasthan Reprise

CW proposed “Ra Ra Rajasthan” for the title of this blog and I laughed… though we did, indeed, enjoy our two weeks exploring!

I’m eager to share so much of our journey but the details, surprises, small awakenings, commonplace beauty and poverty are almost overwhelming for the nature of a blog – so instead of well-constructed prose, here are transcribed thoughts from the difficult to read notes I’ve kept in a tiny and now well-mangled spiral-bound notebook; a stream of conscious remembrance as we’ve now arrived in the southern state of Karnataka, through its gateway city, Bangalore and events are overtaking the northern part of the trip.

Jaipur to Jodphur: “across from stepwell is 700 year old temple destroyed by muslim (musselman) invaders, later the tumbled blocks are piled up on each other to recreate the original Hindu temple…broken bits so beautiful, flowers, animals, gods carved with precise detail. Then Raj (our driver) says “Madam Madam come come” with great urgency. He’d seen a cobra nestled in one of the broken bits…and I missed it!”

Remnants with Cobra Nest

Remnants with Cobra Nest

“had lassi at very rustic stall – served in clay cups that are thrown away after one use…appalled me but the clay at least dissolves back into the earth, unlike the plastic cups that are more often used these days…”

Disposable Lassi Cups

Disposable Lassi Cups

Jodphur “early morning start at Amer Fort with elephant ride – quite touristic, long line, but how could we not! A rolling ride up to the height of the fort and astounding views over Great Wall-like wall built around Jodphur eons ago.”

Elephant Back...

Elephant Back…

“Visit to Jantar Matar observatory so much more than expected – it looks like a combination mad scientist, skateboard park, sculpture garden and was built to plot the stars, time and horoscopes in about 1730.”

JantarMantar

JantarMantar

“Another visit to lassi-wallah. Thick yogurt/cream like, made in a large iron wok-like pan, heated, skin is skimmed off. A sweet “butter” (really cream) is spooned onto the top of the cup after the lassi poured in…thick, sweet, creamy, excellent! Spoiled now forever….” Note: food and drinks are a recurring theme!

Delicious Lassi

Delicious Lassi

“another superfast road where the vehicle sounds are amusing and constant. Traffic ballet, keep moving ahead but gracefully – horns are blown and drivers shout, but with an air of tolerance rather than anger – lots of swerving back and forth and a “let’s get on with it, together” spirit.” Note: this does not mean to imply that it’s not sometimes simply FRIGHTENING to be a passenger.

“walked in Jodphur’s Clock Tower Square, discovered M.V. Spice Company. Run by 5 sisters, and were subject of british documentary in 2013 – The Spice Sisters of India. Must look for it!

MV Spice in Jodphur

MV Spice in Jodphur

Streetwise Samosas

Streetwise Samosas

Jodphur to Jaisalmer:
“increasing desert on the drive through sandstone quarries (13,000 of them!), past resting herd of 100+ camels and increasing military presence due to proximity to Pakistan.”

“Walked into Jaisalmer Fort – a living fort with over 3000 residents – tiny winding lanes, lovely 15-16th century homes…some crumbling apart. Incredible yellow sandstone that glows in the sunset and looks like amber where polished by ages of feet passing over the stone.”

Ahhh...

Ahhh…

Beautiful doorway...

Beautiful doorway…

“We spent two days enjoying Jaisalmer, including the complete surprise of seeing the start of the camel festival…early morning arrival at fort gates to see 50-60 teenage girls dressed in their finest sarees carrying urns, very posh border camel guard of the military in dashing white uniforms, splendid moustaches…”

Jaisalmer Fort View

Jaisalmer Fort View


Border Security Camel Guard

Border Security Camel Guard


Desert Festival Beauty

Desert Festival Beauty

“Manwar Desert Resort and Camp – arrived in time for lunch which was buffet style and had good spinach soup. then took open jeep to the desert camp. Lovely setting in the sand with rolling hills with some vegetation, including sangri (desert bean) trees.”

Manwar Desert Camp

Manwar Desert Camp


Lovely Tent Interior

Lovely Tent Interior

From Manwar we drove to Udaipur, where I was down for a day with a fever and painful cough – the jeep ride in the desert complicated the cold by introducing sand dust into my chest, and I’ve been coughing for days since then. So I missed a bit of Udaipur, though it was lovely anyway. Dinner at a rooftop restaurant let me enjoy the view over Lake Pichola as the sun set.

I’m almost finished with “India in Mind,” a collection of essays about India written over the past 100 years. They’re all wonderful writers – so here’s a brief quote from an essay by Jan Morris:
“Of all the world’s countries, India is the most truly prodigious, and this quality of astonishment displays itself afresh every day as the sun comes up…the colossal corpus of India, invests, sprawls around, infuses, elevates, inspires and very nearly overwhelms….” From “Mrs. Gupta Never Rang”, Jan Morris.

India's Smile

India’s Smile


Next, the South!

On the Road and off to Agra

If you’re still with me on this journey – thank you. The combination of poor internet access and my having caught a whooper of a cold in the Thar Desert delayed this post. Enjoy – and I’m on the mend!

On Wednesday (Day 2) we were up early and off to Agra with a new driver “Raj”, who will be with us until Udaipur. We didn’t have any say in who our driver would be, but are so glad we are in his hands. Raj is our driver, not a certified guide, as are the city guides provided by Journey Sutra, but clearly loves what he does, and enjoys sharing his knowledge about Delhi, and Jaipur where he is from. On the way to Agra we stopped at a rest area on the“super fast” road (according to Raj) for coffee and masala chai. After all we’d heard about toilet facilities, it turned out that this public toilet wasn’t bad at all, though it did look like someone had climbed on the seat to squat as in a traditional toilet in India. The other note here is that despite all the advice to carry tissues for toilet use, there’s been either a roll or an attendant pretty much everywhere – though the tissues have come in handy for frequent nose-blowing due to dust.

The transport trucks, of which we’re seeing plenty, are painted in bright colors and have large black tassels (against the evil eye) and multi-colored streamers hanging from the antenna wires and mirror frames. We passed a roadside stall selling these truck decorations, and I’m tempted to bring one home to help identify our car in a large parking lot!

After arriving in Agra and checking into the Taj Resort, a purpose-built small hotel with a view of the Taj Mahal in the distance, we met our new guide “Kalpana,” our “lady guide.” Journey Sutra has had a local rep at each new city to review our plans and discuss any changes. We dropped our bags off, and then Kalpana took charge and off we went to the market for a tonga ride (horse-drawn cart); CW in front, me in back with Kalpana where it was very hard to see from under the canopy – but the market was still interesting and different from the congested and chaotic Chandi Chowk in Delhi.

Then, to visit a place that is probably recognizable the world over – the Taj Mahal. At first, it truly seemed like a backdrop, it was so perfectly proportioned and so familiar from the many photos and films in which we’ve seen it. It took more than a few minutes to simply absorb and then settle in to a quiet frame of mind. The crowds weren’t terrible. We were there for the sunset, which didn’t really change the color of the tomb – but it was peaceful to sit on a wall and watch the people and the nuanced changes in the white marble. We walked out through the south gate as it was closing, emerging into a narrow village lane, to get lassi (a yogurt based drink about which more later) at “Johny’s” – a real hole in the wall. Kalpana organized a tuk tuk lift back to the car – after the 2 men in the back moved to the front, there were 6 of us in the tuk tuk – a small 3-wheeled vehicle that we’ve seen versions of now from Vietnam and Thailand, to India. The ride cost 30 rupees – about 60 cents.

We’re sure to get more adventurous as the weeks go by, but for dinner, we took Kalpana’s advice and went to dinner at “Pinch of Spice,” where she and her family like to eat. It was good Indian food, upscale but popular with locals as well. Portions were huge. Dinner was followed by a mouth-freshening chaser – a “paan shot,” made of betelnut juice – very refreshing but a little medicinal.

A little more about Agra, and then how about some pictures instead of words? The next morning we got up before sunrise to go and see the Taj Mahal from the “backside” – it was very misty, trash seemed to be swept into piles to make it easy for the cows, dogs and goats to rummage through, and people are living in tents of plastic along the roadside. Barbed wire keeps you from going near the river – but we saw a pale Taj Mahal floating above the river bank. The rising sun turned the sky soft pink lifting to blue, and altogether peaceful. At a small stall at the corner of path towards the river we had masala chai (we watched the stall keeper grind the spices and then boil up the delicious spiced tea…)and channa masala (a breakfast dish made with black chick peas). Kalpana was so cheerful, and laughingly issued orders to people she wanted to get things done with – it felt like she knew everyone in Agra.

Agra’s Red Fort is stunningly beautiful – and I’ll have to stop commenting on how old everything is! I accept that India is like a river – it flows and renews itself and has been doing so for thousands of years.

After a “real” breakfast at the hotel, Kalpana took us to Nevi Ram, a famous Agra sweet shop where we bought gajar kA (carrot) halwa, a Punjabi dessert – delicious in small portions!

An incredible stop on the way to Jaipur was Chand Baori – a stepwell built in about 800 AD. An early and successful piece of water conservation engineering. By early evening we arrived in Jaipur and checked into the General’s Retreat, where the bed was “Maharajah” sized – big enough for three! Marble everywhere, and so far, no tubs. Here are a few photos of highlights so far.

Agra Hotel: Taj Resort http://www.hoteltajresorts.com
Agra Restaurant: Pinch of Spice http://www.pinchofspice.in/about.php

Taj at Sunrise

Taj at Sunrise

Taj Mahal Detail

Taj Mahal Detail

Chai Walla

Chai Walla

Chand Baori Stepwell

Chand Baori Stepwell

Stepwell Detail

Stepwell Detail

Carrot Dessert

Carrot Dessert