Truly Seeing…

I didn’t think I’d enjoy reading on my Kindle during this trip, but necessity has forced, if not a conversion, then at least acceptance, that this is a good way to carry along the dozens of books I will read during a 3 month journey. Among the many books I’ve got, I didn’t realize that reading Dan Barber’s “The Third Plate,” would be so meaningful. It contributed the following quote:

“See what you’re looking at.”
Dr. William Albrecht
(1888-1974)
Soil Scientist, Univ. of Missouri

It’s the United Nations Year of the Soil, so I’m delighted that the desire to truly see what I’m looking at is echoed by one of the pioneers of organic agriculture…

Here’s some of what we’ve been seeing on our South American sojourn:

Wisps and Clock...

Wisps and Clock…

Faded Beauty

Faded Beauty

Soaked in color...

Soaked in color…


Oasis

Oasis

Reflection, Lake Near the Sea

Reflection, Lake Near the Sea


See what you're looking at...

See what you’re looking at…

A harmony of sand & sea...

A harmony of sand & sea…

Perched at the edge of the sea...

Perched at the edge of the sea…

Next, some big cities and coffee farms!

And We’re Off….Vamanos!

The next stop on our quest for finding “our spot” is South America – specifically Colombia and Ecuador, where many expats have already found wonderful homes. If you’re a regular reader, you’ll know that last year we spent 4 months traversing the U.S. on the same quest.

We’ll be travelling for three months, trying to stay a minimum of a week in each of a number of different cities, including Bogota, Cartagena, Medellin, and Popayan (in Colombia), and Quito and Cuenca, at a minimum (in Ecuador). Along the way we’ll be visiting a number of organic and/or fairtrade agricultural communities; volunteering when we can.

So, logistics? Three months, altitudes ranging from sea level and a Caribbean climate to roughly 9000’ and rather chilly at night. We’ve got one rolling bag (High Sierra) and one small backpack (mine, Patagonia) apiece, which we hope will get lighter as we go along, giving up old paperbacks, some small gifts we brought along, and discarding clothing along the way. It’s said “a picture is worth a thousand words,” and though I’m not convinced, here are a couple of pics of the packing process:

All I'm taking, except the raincoat.

All I’m taking, except the raincoat.


It Fit, with lots of rolling!

It Fit, with lots of rolling!


Moments from Departure

Moments from Departure

I’ve worked hard at recalling Spanish from a long ago stint as an exchange student in Ecuador (yay, AFS!) courtesy of an app called “Duolingo.” And, we have 4 days of 2-3 hour Spanish lessons beginning the morning of our arrival. Don’t expect any blogging in Spanish though I may toss in the occasional “palabra” so you know I’m working on it!

The first two nights we’ll be at a small B&B called Churro de Queveda, and then we move to an airbnb in the same neighborhood of Candelaria, the historic center of Bogota. Nope, Bogota is not a candidate for our spot, but it is a great place to acclimate, learn a bit of Spanish, and enjoy some good food and culture before we move on. And with that, Buenos Noches de Colombia…

View from Churro de Queveda

View from Churro de Queveda

Detour for Architecture!

The middle part of the country is not-so-kindly referred to as the “flyover” zone – but we’ve enjoyed the drive.  And though it’s not an area that we’ve considered living in, we did take a full day to detour from the direct route to St. Louis, and headed north to Columbus, Indiana, one of the most important cities for architecture in the U.S. – right behind places like Chicago, New York, Boston and Sand Francisco.  The generosity of institutions like The Cummins Engine Foundation and individuals, including J. Irwin Miller, has created a community that enjoys a cornucopia of buildings, sculpture and gardens created by some of the world’s best architects and designers. (http://www.columbus.in.us/)

Columbus Indiana Fire Station

We started at the Columbus Visitor’s Center  and picked up a map to take our own walking tour.  We saw a library by I.M. Pei, and church by Eliel Saarinen, and a Henry Moore sculpture before we’d walked two blocks.  A quick stop at the Zaharakos Ice Cream Parlor was a treat for our taste buds and a feast for the eyes – an amazingly restored shop from 1900 with original marble counters, Tiffany-like glass,  charming syrup dispensers and an old-timey candy store.  And the ice cream was pretty special too! (http://www.zaharakos.com/)

Zaharakos Decoration

Syrup Dispenser

Syrup Dispenser

The afternoon ended with a superb guided tour of The Miller House (http://www.imamuseum.org/visit/miller-house)- a 90 minute visit to a wonderful example of Modernist architecture, and a lived-in family home.  I wanted to leap into the conversation pit and invite friends over for wine and talk!  The house is starkly beautiful and the Alexander Girard interior design filled the house with color, joyful fabrics and folkloric collections.

Miller House Perimeter

For the evening, friends pointed us to the ramshackle Story Inn, (http://www.storyinn.com/) a former general store in a town that almost disappeared, but didn’t.  The winding and rolling back roads were beautiful and we arrived in time for a walk and exploring.  Breakfast was great!  House made raspberry jam and apple butter, smooth Brown County coffee, biscuits and local eggs and best of all, a leisurely hour in conversation before the long drive to St. Louis, Missouri.  Haven’t found a place we’d like to settle yet, but the exploring has been great fun!

The Story Inn

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

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!