Article in SheLoves Magazine: The Final Paratha

Dear readers, 

At the close of our journey and the retirement of this blog, I want to send you a sincere ‘thank you!’ for following us on the Daily Paratha. Thank you so much for your comments,’likes’, and encouraging emails. Though we were far from home, the Daily Paratha helped us bring our friends and family along for the journey — thanks for being a part of it!

Here is a link to today’s issue of SheLoves Magazine, which features my piece on one Chin woman’s story of strength and perseverance on her own life journey: Sweet Tea and Sympathy for Invisible Women.

Thanks again, kan lawm edhonnobad!

Lindy and Kyle

Goodbye Mizoram, Goodbye India

I always heard that no matter how wonderful a time you’ve had in India, when you’re sitting on the tarmac, ready to leave, you’ll no doubt be glad of it.

It’s not true.

On July 5th, Kyle and I sat in our Dragonair seats with tears rolling down our faces. The customs officer had stamped red ink into our passports, “Departed Kolkata” and the only Indian soil left for us to stand on was the monsoon mud clinging to our soggy sandals. Our hearts were throbbing with sadness as our nine-month adventure was coming to a final close.

We had to say two goodbyes — one to Mizoram and one to India.

Back in February, when we drove away from Aizawl to visit Malaysia, I looked back on the hilltop city from a distance, imagining it was my final goodbye. I truly wondered if in five months I’d be sad to leave or not. We had been living a cramped, kitchenless life, full of cultural adjustment, and it was just plain hard.

But leaving now, in July, instead what I saw was a colourful city of beauty and love. I looked back this time to think of the beautiful people we were leaving — our warm landlady with the sparkling eyes; the papaya vendor who gave me the Mizo name, Partei (little blossom); our neighbour, the baker, who carefully iced our farewell cake in the shape of a Canadian flag. I could almost see my favourite cat, the one we named Claude, basking in a sun ray, waiting ready to rub her face all over mine.IMG_2464(Pi Khumi was our landlady and one of my closest friends in Aizawl.)

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As we drove away, our driver, Hminga, noticed my teary eyes and started teasing me about being ‘lungleng‘, a Mizo word for the feeling of longing for a place or person at a distance. Hminga was mostly referring to my long hug with Claude the cat. Claude will be lungleng as well, he said, “Meow meow meow. Meow Meow.”DSC07622DSC09962(I love Claude!)

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We had spent a wonderful last week in Mizoram, solidifying our relationships, enjoying goodbye teas, and doing as much last-minute shopping as we could fit in. It had become completely impossible to live without Lopchu tea from Darjeeling, sugarcane candy stirred by ox-power, and tiny dried, red chillies that could make you cry. So we had to get some to bring home. We looked afresh at familiar sights, appreciated our beautiful home a little extra, and simply enjoyed to the fullest that last week of our Mizo life.IMG_0001(Pi Ruati, Zampuii, and Hriati — friends from the Baptist House, where I used to spend a lot of time.)

IMG_2427(Our last home-cooked meal in Aizawl: rajma, fried eggplant, and roti.)

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The once cold city was full of love and warmth when I looked at it for that last time. It took time and effort to get to the point where I would feel sad to leave, and I’m so glad I did.IMG_0335(Pu Hminga and Pu Jessie dropping us off at Lengpui Airport.)

Already lungleng for Mizoram, we hit the streets of Kolkata — just two days before heading home. It’s monsoon, and the rain was intense. Giant puddles form, ankle-deep to cover half the road at times. The humidity is so high that my glasses fog up just exiting a building to the outdoors. Everything is damp. But everything presses on. Green-and-yellow auto-rickshaws fill the streets with passengers’ umbrellas hanging out the sides to cover the exposed doorways, protecting themselves from the rain; hand-pulled rickshaws are still used, the operator soaking wet while the passenger sits behind him, covered in a tarp; and pedestrians hop the puddles, some soaking wet and giggling, others taking temporary shelter under the eves when the rain is heaviest. The whole city had transformed since we last saw it in December.IMG_2465IMG_2471IMG_2470(Watermelon season!)

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We had a wonderful time shopping and eating our last bites of paneer tikka, chana dal, and tandoori naan. We savoured every bite. Even with only two hours left in the country, we were still filling ourselves with mango lassis and veg pakoras. India’s cuisine is truly unbeatable.IMG_2466(Getting fitted for a sari blouse.)

IMG_2472(About to enjoy a box of fresh Haldiram’s sweets.)

It has been an unforgettable adventure. I’ve fallen in love with India, and while this may be the end of a chapter, I see myself returning many times over. It’s a place of possibility and flexibility, it’s quirky and crazy, it’s beautiful and it’s hideous. Really, India is everything, can be anything, and I am thankful that bits of it are everywhere in the world, part of it with me now, in my heart forever.IMG_2477

The Bridge to Burma

On Wednesday, Kyle, our friend Taia, and I hit the road eastwards to escape the hubbub of Aizawl city life. Nine hours of hairpin turns in a Sumo truck named Pony-O took us to a town called Champhai. The journey was rough; I coped with only by use of headphones mended with thick wads of packing tape, Rufus Wainwright’s album anthology, and a determined sense of adventure.

We arrived in Champhai in the late afternoon, our Sumo seats littered with piles of wrappers from Cadbury chocolate bars, Wai Wai instant noodle packages, and Haldiram’s shahi mix snacks.

We were completely unequipped for the significant drop in temperature from Aizawl’s roasting 35C. The rainy season had hit Champhai full-on and the humidity was through the roof, making everything perpetually damp. When the one sweater I brought got drenched from a sudden monsoon storm (which left me hiding in a poultry feed shop for shelter for nearly an hour), it never fully dried for the rest of our trip.

Champhai is a beautiful place. It is Mizoram’s third largest town, with a population of about 20,000. The town is settled around a rare patch of flat land (phai, in Mizo), which is used for wet rice cultivation. June is planting season, and we saw plenty of farmers up to their knees in small, rectangular lakes, planting bright green sprigs into perfect rows. At night we could see the entire town’s lights reflected perfectly in the fields. A few small hills emerge from the plains, giving the landscape a stunning uniqueness, and providing convenient, elevated places for farmers to live.Image

It doesn’t take long to explore the entirety of Champhai’s city-centre; it is rather limited. Due to Champhai’s close proximity to the Myanmar border to the east, shops are filled with curious Myanmarese food products, identified by the curvy, loopy Burmese scripts. A thin line of vegetable vendors serves the town from small, wooden stalls lining a main road, and the internet café consists of one, dusty computer tucked into the corner of a room, moist with humidity, where the shopkeeper had to install Mozilla Firefox before we could attempt to use the internet.Image

Champhai is poor – much poorer than Aizawl. The roads are poorly maintained, many of the buildings are crumbling, and the people dress much more simply. Again, due to being nearby the border to Myanmar, Champhai is a centre for drug trafficking and alcohol smuggling, the latter also being illegal in Mizoram, a dry state. During just a few minutes of observation over tea from OK Restaurant in the centre of town, Kyle witnessed several drug deals, out in the open (next to the beef-intestine soup vendor), one of the dealers evidencing his addiction with deep, crater-like track marks on his legs.Image

I spent a single day exploring Champhai and hiding from its torrential rains, while Kyle and Taia went on an expedition to Kelkang village (pronounced KALE-kang; if you say it any other way, locals will not understand you). They were off to conduct interviews about a curious revival that took places in the 1930s.Image(Pu Pianga’s wife shows Kyle how to do the traditional weave.)

The next day we set out for Zokhawthar, the village which borders Myanmar, a bumpy hour and a half southeast of Champhai. Interestingly, Zokhawthar is only one half of the village, as the village actually spans fluidly across the two countries, conjoined by a bridge over the Tiau River, which acts as a natural border. The Myanmar side of the village is called Rihkhawdar.ImageImageImageImageImage(Just lookin’ at Burma!)

Locals can cross freely between either side. The bridge is painted half brown and half red to distinguish the exact point of crossing into the next country.Image

The bridge is the portal to India for thousands of economic refugees from Myanmar’s Chin Hills – the hills that span the Western fringe of Myanmar. They come in search of employment and a better life, blending in with Mizos perfectly as they are ethnically the same. In fact, once Chins learn the Mizo language, nobody can tell the difference. Life is still economically difficult for Chins in India, as they have no recourse to government services and are not permitted to obtain permanent employment without an Indian citizenship card. This means minimal wages at manual labour, and high costs for any medical services and the like. But still life is a little better in India for a lot of Chins, and they are waiting it out, hoping that soon Myanmar with democratize and they can go home.ImageImage

It was only by a misunderstanding that Kyle and I were able to set foot in Myanmar. It’s not something foreigners are typically permitted to do. Taia crossed the bridge to speak in Mizo to the Myanmarese border guards, but Taia misunderstood their patchy understanding of Mizo to be consent for Kyle and I to cross over. We were elated. We tentatively crossed over to the red side of the bridge, relishing the moment, and then onto Myanmar soil, but in a matter of seconds the border guards quickly communicated that there had been a misunderstanding and that we needed to return to India immediately. We dragged our feet a little, rubbing Myanmar soil into the soles of our shoes, and then headed back to safety on the brown side of the bridge.Image(Kyle and Taia.)

Zokhawthar village itself is tiny and muddy, and offers little to see apart from the border crossing. Most of our time in the village was spent lounging with jovial Indian policemen, wandering the dirt roads, and then later watching World Cup while drinking the ice-cold Dagon brand beers that the police officers ironically gave us. Dagon beers, which confusingly feature a picture of a roaring lion, contain a surprisingly high 8% alcohol and are as sweet as cider.Image(Zokhawthar police.)

Image(Children playing in a typical Zokhawthar street.)

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After a night of hoping the noisy, squealing roof rats wouldn’t crash through the bamboo-thatched ceiling and onto our heads, a Sumo jostled us back to Champhai, and then the following day to Kelkang, for me for the first time.Image(Zokhawthar Tourist Lodge.)

Image(We had our rice breakfast at this tea stall.)

Image(Drinking sweet tea while waiting for our Sumo back to Champhai.)

We had dressed up for Sunday evening church and arrived at the massive, concrete building just in time. As a reflection of the 1930s revival, Kelkang is currently experiencing a revival, which is so far represented by a lively church service every, single evening since June 12, 2013. The whole village of about one hundred homes attends.Image

Mizo church services usually accommodate a tame circle of ‘dancers’ in the centre of the church during worship time, walking in rhythm, round and round, singing the swooping Mizo hymns with their arms out and eyes closed. But I had never seen anything like Kelkang. It wasn’t just that the entire church packed itself into a dancing circle to enthusiastically praise God, but it was the fact that a dozen or so members – mostly women – seemed to be possessed or overcome by the Holy Spirit. Some were heavily convulsing as they danced; some were doing hip-hop style moves with their eyes closed, dancing into the pews; some were flapping their arms up and down like birds; many people were yelling; and at the end, when the music stopped, several women grabbed onto each other to stumble around the dance floor, appearing to be pushed and pulled in every direction, and then ended up falling down onto the concrete floor, convulsing and shaking for a whole half hour afterwards while the sermon was being preached. It was completely out of my comfort zone, but fascinating to see.Image(Pre-service, people were already dancing as everyone was arriving.)

Everyone transformed back to ‘normal’ after the service was done and, since the advent of foreign visitors to the village is extremely rare, every single villager wanted to shake our hands, each offering us a gigantic smile. It was quite fun, actually; the crowd felt innocent, good natured, and genuinely pleased to make our acquaintance. A hoard of children surrounded our truck as we pulled out, yelling, “au revoir! Bye Bye! Chibai!Image

Only six days after we arrived in Champhai, we made the long return trek to Aizawl. We arrived back, feeling as physically wrecked as after our initial arrival in India, and when we rolled into Mission Vengthlang, our neighbourhood, we were flooded with that feeling of ‘coming home’.

It’s hard to believe that now that we’ve finally acquired the feeling of home, it is nearly time to leave. We have nine days left in Mizoram – nine full days of wrapping up, packing up, and tying up loose ends. Neither of us can believe that it’s almost goodbye and neither of us are really quite ready to go.Image

Reluctant Entymologists in a Blog about Bugs

–with guest blogger, Kyle

Our adventure to Lunglei began as any good adventure should: with our caravan pulling over to the side of a dark, jungle road, cranking up an ABBA track, and having a jungle dance session with the Baptist Relief and Development Programme Director, an eighty-two-year-old white man, a Mennonite, and two anti-drug-trafficking police in camouflage, one armed with a handgun. When ‘Mamma Mia!’ ended, we all piled back into our respective cars in reverent silence. It was probably the first time such a group had danced to ABBA on such a jungly road in the whole history of the world.

Though the town of Lunglei is only 150 kilometres from Aizawl, the windiness of the roads and the danceableness of ABBA ensured that the drive took nearly six hours—like leaving Vancouver at lunch to reach Abbotsford by dinner. The roads were woefully windy, the music dangerously danceable.

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Our mission to Lunglei was varied and meaningful. Lindy had her scholarship programmes to check up on, and fiery inter-NGO conflicts to calm down. I had archives to raid and old people to interview. But I don’t want to write about any of that here. I just want to tell you about bugs.

Lunglei has a way of catching you off guard. Take the following sentence, one actually spoken by our friend Pu Dawnga there while he reminisced about sleepovers in rice-field huts. Tell me, in his sentence, at which point Lunglei catches you off guard:

“You wake up in the morning to the sunrise, the birds chirping…the cool, fresh air…finding the traps…eating the liver…eating the intestines…”

Perhaps it was by the liver, but surely Pu Dawnga had you by “the intestines.” When we first arrived in Lunglei, the bugs seemed innocuous enough, not unlike the preamble of Pu Dawnga’s story, with the happy birds chirping and whatnot. For instance, each night a great grid of grey moths—hundreds of them—would politely order themselves on our outdoor wall in front of a fluorescent tube of light, all lined up in neat little rows as if they were enjoying a drive-in movie. And devout mantises, like tiny green monks from bug monasteries, would show up here and there, privately praying their prayers and not really bothering anybody too much.

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But then we get to the part of Pu Dawnga’s story where we learn how birds chirping can quickly turn into a steaming plate of jungle intestines.

It was in our hallway that I saw the first spider, though at first I couldn’t believe my eyes. In my peripheral vision, it looked like a black, big, severed hand, and about that size, too, floppily pulling itself along. In goosebumpy horror, we scanned the hallway. There was another—slightly smaller, maybe the size of a hockey puck, with longer, thinner legs, but a chunkier body—by the other door. We slept that night with our lights on. I wore a Virgin Atlantic eyeshade. Lindy just kept her eyes open the whole night.

The cockroaches in our room seemed so much smaller after that. Besides, (1) a love for God and, (2) a love for each other, the third and final pillar of our marriage is that, (3) Lindy kills all cockroaches and Kyle kills all spiders. I got the short end of the stick in Lunglei. Literally, I had a short stick, the end of which I held every time we went anywhere in our compound. At one point, I had to kill one of these spiders (a third one, still giant) and this battle, I imagine, has since entered into Lunglei folklore. By the end of it, there were splinters of sword in my hand, and the dragon lay in a slain mess on the floor, and I won the gorgeous damsel’s heart, too.

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We continued to be terrified for the rest of our stay. Once, at night in our little, yellow room where Lindy slept on the left side of our mattress-on-the-ground and I on the right, Lindy had a dream. The setting of the dream was our little, yellow room, and, in the dream, Lindy was sleeping on the left of our mattress-on-the-ground. She awoke (in the dream, not from the dream) to see the gigantic floppy spider perched atop my back, like a pet but from hell. She screamed (in the dream…and also not in the dream), “Kyle! It’s on your back!” At that point, her nightmare ended, but mine had only just begun, as I leapt up from bed and tore around the room for the light and my sword.

The rest of our visit was a strange mix of delightful company, delicious dinners, and abject horror. We spotted a single bolta—those gigantic yellow hornets that haunted us way back in December’s West Bengal. Sawmtea, Pu Dawnga’s youngest son, would walk in after dinner holding two horrendous beetles: “Which do you want to challenge the praying mantis?” And, at some point, someone handed Lindy a monstrous locust, which slowly began to wriggle out of her death grip.

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Sawmtea’s complete fearlessness of things which we feared completely taught us that fear can be, in part, informed by culture. While all Mizos laughed off our spider encounters (through their smiles, they’d even inform us that those spiders sometimes ate bats, and that their fangs packed a poisonous punch), the Mizos were nonetheless jaw-droppingly terrified to see Lindy’s iPad photograph of her holding a cute and fluffy little caterpillar back in Canada. Our friend Ngaka—a twenty-year old guy—said he would “run a kilometre” if confronted by such a monstrosity (the caterpillar, not Lindy – Ed.). Another fellow, who I hadn’t seen in years (and whose name, to be honest, I’d completely forgotten), shook my hand, told me how happy he was to see me again, and promptly asked if I remembered that caterpillar we’d once seen in Darzo village. For me, that memory was only slightly less dusty than his name, but, for him, that caterpillar had turned into the stuff of lore.

When we finally left Lunglei, having lost much sleep and gained much character, we thought we’d left the bugs behind. But that’s the thing. You haven’t left the bugs. The bugs are hiding in your mouthguard case.

For the past year or so, I have worn a mouthguard at night. It stops me from grinding my teeth when I have bad dreams about terrifying things, such as, say, cockroaches. So, when we got back to Aizawl, I was just continuing a nightly ritual when, without really looking, I opened up the case, popped the fitted guard in my mouth, and closed the case. The next morning, I opened the case to put the guard back in. There was a Lunglei cockroach in there. (You can tell a Lunglei ‘roach because, when Satan created them, he made them a much lighter brown, backs striped and moist). The cockroach was a bit dazed and hungry, wondering where his delicious plastic mouthguard had been the previous night. I gagged. Lindy ran to my aid and got rid of the beast. That ‘roach had ridden all the way back to Aizawl in my mouthguard case, gorging himself for six windy hours on the microscopic, mouthy molecules on the mouthguard that I had just had in my mouth the whole night. I’d even kissed Lindy goodnight. And thus, when you leave buggy Lunglei and think you’re safe, think again. The door might just hit you on your way out, and by “the door might just hit you,” I mean you’re basically gonna have a cockroach in your mouth.

Nowadays, back in the north of Mizoram, we’ve not totally escaped the bugs, though they are much diminished in number. Perhaps terror drains southwards. Still, the other day Lindy did have a dead cockroach in her mouth: pieces of it fell out of an instant coffee machine into her cup, and she’d chewed some before she realized it wasn’t lumps of Nescafe powder, but thorax.

Another day, she found the lumpy carcass of a fat praying mantis, big as a mouse, dropped off at our front door, no doubt a gift from one of the friendly local cats whom we feed Thai Canned Fish in Tomato Sauce (50g).

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And another day still, I started finding these metallic-brown stick bugs all over our house. I pointed out the massive infestation to Lindy, who only rolled her eyes and told me that her father had once noticed a similar infestation when Lindy lived back home.

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But most recently of all, while Lindy was checking on our laundry drying in the sun, I heard the telltale, wavering pitch in her voice that denotes Major Bug Problem.

“Come quick!” she called. “Something terrifying is laying eggs all over my dress!”

I’m sure in that moment that we both thought back to the lyrics of that fateful roadside jungle dance party.

Mamma Mia. Here we go again.

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Doing the Hanuman Hop

“Hanuman said, ‘Dear brothers, Sri Rama has infused special powers in my life. I am sure I shall be able to cross this ocean in one jump.’ Everyone was delighted and shouted ‘Jai Sri Rama’. Hanuman made himself big and tall and flew off to the distant Lanka across the ocean.” –Ramayana

At the end of March, Kyle and I did ‘the Hanuman Hop’ from Kochi over to Sri Lanka. We were met in Colombo, Sri Lanka’s capital city, with a wave of wet heat – 37⁰C and 70% humidity. I began to pour sweat immediately.

We were there to visit our friends, Jonathan and Vera, global workers, and their little boys, Paul and Daniel. After many hard years spent in Ukraine and China, Jonathan and Vera were able to share with us their beautiful beachside home, complete even with a shower (What luxury! So long, bucket baths!) and air conditioning!Image(A panorama from Jonathan and Vera’s apartment building roof.)

We spent about half our stay in Colombo. Our time there was relaxed, mornings spent enjoying the warm, undulating waves, and watching fishermen pull in their nets, loaded with silver fish flipping frantically together for an audience of dozens of hungry onlookers. The scorching afternoons were spent indoors, reading, napping, and making shark rescuer submarines out of plastic bottles and straws.  In the evenings we enjoyed Vera’s cooking and Sri Lankan delicacies, followed by great conversation over Ceylon (Sri Lanka’s former, British colonial name) teas.DSC09603(Having burgers at Cheers Club — the kid-friendly section of Cheers Pub.)

Vera’s Western home cooking was so good that we didn’t know we missed it until we tasted it. Every day we enjoyed French-pressed Kirkland roasted Starbucks coffee; we had penne with homemade pasta sauce, using her mother-in-law’s authentic Italian recipe, topped with *gasp!* real parmesan cheese; we ate grilled cheese made from melty Velveeta and whole wheat bread, veggies and dip on the side; fajitas stuffed with spiced chicken, fresh lettuce, juicy tomatoes, and real cheddar cheese; and homemade granola with fresh milk (not from an unrefrigerated box!). We also tried Ukrainian chocolate, perhaps one of the most delectable in the world. All of this felt just as novel and gourmet to us as having feasts of blue cheese, grapes, and port wine in Canada. What a treat!Image(Fresh bread at a nearby cafe.)

One morning Jonathan took us on a walking tour of Mount Lavinia, their neighbourhood, and we explored the stunning, five-star Mount Lavinia Hotel. The hotel received its name from a Sri Lankan dancer. In the 1800s, the hotel was the home of the British general, and when the talented Ms. Lavinia came to give a dance performance, he fell in head-over-heels in love with her. As the story goes, the general built secret passageways and entrances in order to smuggle Lavinia, his lover, into his home and when the mansion was later converted into a hotel, it was named after the Lavinia legend.

We wandered down afterwards, to a turtle conservation centre, which looked after a variety of rescued sea turtles, including hawksbill, green, and even a rare albino, sadly most of whom had suffered maiming by fishing equipment. Some of the turtles there were over one hundred years old, which is still only half of their lifespan! We got the chance to hold a few full-sized turtles. How surprisingly heavy they were! And how ferociously they flapped in protest of being removed from the water, whapping their tough flippers against the backs of our hands.The most amazing thing, though, was to feel their soft bellies inhale and exhale, pushing our fingertips in and out, as we held them.Image

Later on the trip we had the chance to release, from a different conservation centre, the most adorable, tiny, turtles – their two-inch long shells mottled and black – into the ocean by night. As we watched them swim into the rough break, the waves big and angry and the babies tiny and vulnerable, both Kyle and I got an unsettled feeling. While we knew that this was a journey they would inevitably have to make – and, heartbreakingly, in nature only one to three of one thousand baby turtles survive – we found out later that their chances of survival are significantly decreased if they spend their first few days in a ‘conservation centre’. We learned that baby turtles are born with a built-in food sac that is meant to help them complete that hard journey from the beach and into the deep. In a ‘conservation centre’, they consume that energy and have nothing for the road. Futhermore, they don’t have a chance to bond with their birth beach, confusing the natural phenomenon of mature females returning to the beach on which they were born to lay their own eggs. Essentially, turtle baby ‘conservation centres’ are there for tourism. I only wish we had known that before we were reeled in.Image(At the Mount Lavinia conservation centre.)

We enjoyed one big tour day of Colombo city proper. We visited the Colombo National Museum, which had an excellent collection of objects, but unfortunately had no air conditioning or air flow. That museum managed to make it a relief to leave the building, escaping into 35⁰C weather. On the positive side, they did have an eleventh-century, ornate, elephant oil lamp, which amazingly self-regulated its consumption of oil by using the elephant’s body to store oil, and when more was needed, the elephant would literally pee some out into a tray below it.

We also visited an eighteenth-century, Dutch church, guarded by a cat so friendly that it plunked down directly on my feet when I started to scratch it. The most striking element of our visit was when I realized, looking at the gravestones surrounding the church, that people in the 17th and 18th centuries were truly lucky if they made it to forty years old. Gravestones marked people who held prestigious positions, such as general or physician, reaching the end of their lives at twenty or twenty-five. Marker after marker memorialized babies and young children. Sure, it’s a well-known fact that we have exceptional lifespans today, but never did it quite hit me until I saw that memorial collection.ImageImageImage

Our tour of Colombo also included a visit to Pettah Market, an expansive clothing bazaar that sent Kyle into such an immediate shopping panic that I suspect our stay mustn’t have been longer than three minutes. But, really, how many pairs of Ali Babba pants does a person need, anyways?

Finally, the tour ended with a feast of hoppers, a Sri Lankan favourite. Hoppers are a sort of Sri Lankan crepe, fried to come out in a bowl shape. They’re thin and crispy at the top of the bowl, thick and fluffy at the bottom, and you enjoy them with hot, chili chutneys and sambal (onion chutney). Our favourite hopper had a fresh egg fried into the bottom of the bowl. It was completely delicious!Image

Sri Lankans enjoy some very special foods. Their bread and butter is rice and curries, and they also enjoy treats such as pan kottu, thin, spiced strips of roti made into a pad thai-type dish; thick, creamy buffalo curd from clay pots, drizzled with Sri Lankan treacle, made from kitul palm sap; and puff pastries filled with sambal. Fish is a dietary staple there, as well as – like in India –dal (lentils). Fast food is called ‘short eats’, and then, of course, there’s hoppers.Image(Rice and curries topped with papads.)

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There are only two unfortunate things about Sri Lankan cuisine. First, (and this could just be me being a coffee snob) their coffee reminds me a little bit of earthy, silt water. However, it typically came in gigantic teapots, so you always had more than enough. Second, apart from only a couple exceptions, their restaurant service is as slow as Mizoram’s appalling internet! Each time we’d go out to eat – no matter how small the snack – it would take an hour and a half…if we were lucky. And, of course, a 10% gratuity is already included. Thankfully, spiced deliciousness almost always made up for the wait.Image(That’s a lot of coffee!)

We attended an evangelical church service with Jonathan and Vera on the Sunday we were there and were incredibly surprised to find the church, not only out in the open, but large and well attended. The service was in English (we learned that some Sri Lankans are raised speaking only English, not Sinhala or Tamil), the format was familiar to the typical North American protestant, and even the songs were your usual Chris Tomlin-type.Image

Furthermore, after nearly thirty years of civil war, which ended only in 2012, and came with persecution of minority Christians in Sri Lanka (for not being Buddhist, Sri Lanka’s dominant religion), we certainly expected the church to be a little more below board. Actually, it was impressive to see how quickly Sri Lanka has snapped back from so many years of conflict between Sri Lanka’s two major ethnic groups, Sinhalese and Tamil. When I needed to buy a new pair of glasses in Colombo’s Majestic City mall, even the optometrist and the technician were laughing with each other, pleased to inform us that he is Tamil and she is Sinhalese and, Look! We are working together!Image(My technician friend.)

Kyle and I took an express bus that afternoon to the southern town of Galle. We stayed in a beautiful homestay on the outskirts of town and took a full day to explore Galle Fort. Galle Fort is a fantastic, quaint, almost European-looking town developed within a closed circuit of 16th century Portuguese ramparts on the ocean that the Dutch fortified in the 17th century. The fort was originally built for Sri Lanka’s booming spice trade, and though the ramparts are now old, they were so well-built that they completely protected Galle Fort from the devastating tsunami that hit Sri Lanka in 2004. Galle Fort is a lovely, tourist destination and made for a great day of wandering through handicraft shops, stopping for enormous, white teapots full of silt coffee at restaurants, and giant sea turtle-watching from the ramparts.Image(Our homestay room near Galle Fort.)

ImageImageImage(A typical street inside Galle Fort.)

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We explored the fort’s Dutch historical sites, such as a large church with a beautiful, white façade, which left us inspired by its beauty but also frustrated by the fact that the wooden benches inside had been carried in on the backs of slaves. We also visited the Galle Maritime Museum, which was advertised as flashy and modern, but in reality, was a dusty place where staff kept only the minimum number of lights on in order to conserve power. Kyle was pleased to see an inscribed, stone declaration etched by the famous Chinese navigator, Zhang He.ImageImage(The Maritime Museum)

Image(This monitor lizard was about three feet long!)

Image(One man’s collection of colonial knick knacks.)

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The next day we moved to the southern tip to Unawatuna Beach where we kicked back and enjoyed, with about two hundred Russian tourists (you can tell by the men’s speedos), the brown sugar sand and the brilliant turquoise water. The sanitation of the beach restaurants was less than desirable, apart from the readily-available, sealed Lion beers, brewed locally. We took an excessively sweaty walk up to an enormous statue of the Buddha on a hill at one end of the beach and, despite my best efforts, my shoulders were still pink by the end of the day.ImageImage(I feel like Starbucks might have a problem with this.)

Image(If you feel like buying bread or pastries in Unawatuna, this autorickshaw has a lot to offer!)

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We travelled also to a Handunugoda Tea Centre, a 200-acre tea plantation in the area. We had a wonderful time learning about tea making, including which leaves on the bush are used for different types of tea, what types of equipment are required for tea processing, and what processing is required for different teas. This particular plantation used almost all century-old equipment for their processing.Image(Tea leaves drying.)

Image(The plantation was also harvesting latex into coconut shells.)

Image(Sipping sapphire oolong in the garden.)

The specialty of Handunugoda is virgin white tea. The plant practices the ancient Chinese method for producing this exclusive tea. Tea leaf buds are snipped off of the plant into a bowl at dawn, using scissors wielded by gloved hands. It is said that the sweat of the worker can impact the pure flavor of virgin white tea. The tea is treated gently and isn’t fermented. Traditionally, the Emperor’s lips are the first human contact the white tea makes. (Also, traditionally, only virgins are employed to harvest the tea, but I doubt if Handunugoda follows this requirement.) Today, the cost of the tea is higher than silver! At the end of our tour, we got to taste about thirty of the teas Handunugoda produces, including their virgin white tea. To my dismay it tasted rather like cabbage water.Image(Spooning tea into a sampling glass.)

DSC09841(We spotted stilt fishermen on our way back from the tea plantation.)

We bussed back up to Colombo and had a magical, final dinner with Jonathan, Vera, and the boys. We went to Nugu Gama, a buffet restaurant in a re-created, traditional Sri Lankan village setting. It was a hot night, a storm had been brewing, and the clouds let torrential showers loose on our arrival. We took refuge under soft-lit, bamboo-thatched shelters, our meal serenaded by giant droplets pounding and a three-piece band (violin, hand drum, and harmonium) gently playing Sri Lankan folk songs. Paul and Daniel were mesmerized and later overjoyed when the musicians let them try their instruments. We sprinted back and forth between our shelter and the buffet house to load up our plates with unbelievable dishes, including black tomato curry; whole, mud crab curry; string hoppers doused in fresh coconut milk; coconut curried cuttlefish and prawns; spicy pineapple and guava chutney; and about twenty more sensational dishes, including traditional sweets wrapped in banana leaves (which I obliviously ate, still wrapped, while the band looked on, surely in stitches).DSC09907DSC09906DSC09925(Me, Kyle, Vera, Daniel, Paul, and Jonathan after our dinner.)

We left the next morning while it was still dark, sad to leave beautiful Sri Lanka but excited to return to India, the country which has surprisingly started to feel more comfortable, like home.

“At last Hanuman jumped in the waters of ocean and decided to return to his friends on the other side of the sea.” –Ramayana

 

 

Meanderings on the Malabar Coast

The Konkan Express train chugged down India’s west coast, from Mumbai to Goa, overnight, cradling us side-to-side as we slept. By day the four of us sat in a little compartment on maroon, padded benches, and by night the walls of the compartment folded up into three tiers of surprisingly comfortable bunk bedsImage

We woke up the next morning to the sound of the train’s hired tea man walking up and down the aisles, advertising, “Chai! Chai! Garam chai! Chai!” in a voice turned robotic from years of announcing. The chai was delicious, and afterwards we all took turns hanging out the open train door, enjoying the hot breeze, and taking in our first glimpses of Goa’s lush scenery and its stunning network of blue, backwater mirrors, speckled with egrets standing proud in their white, feather suits.Image

During our taxi drive into Goa proper the air smelled like flowers, and in the evening Kyle and I ventured out for an evening in Panjim, the old, Portuguese part of town. Goa was emancipated from the Portuguese even more recently than the rest of India was from the British, and the streets in Panjim almost seemed to transport us to Portugal itself. The European-looking lanes were narrow and winding, lined by tall, white-washed, stucco houses topped with red, terracotta tile roofs. The ambiance was warm and the lighting at night seemed to colour everything golden. We came across a team of artists, working together on gigantic paper mache sculptures of gods, humans, and animals. They were putting together a float to celebrate, with the city, Holi, Easter, and Carnivale, combined – and outward reflection of Goa’s multi-religious openness.ImageImage

That evening marked the beginning of our South Indian seafood extravaganza, starting with fresh, garlic prawns, as well as Goan soup, which apparently tasted just like Grandma Jackson’s famous, homemade chicken-noodle, and giant Kingfisher beers that cost only $1.

We all spent the next day at Anjuna Beach. Paradise. We passed the hours admiring the white sand and sapphire blue ocean from the luxury of umbrella-covered beach recliners. The fee to stay was, once every hour or so, to spend a dollar on delicious, fresh-squeezed pineapple juice, or an avocado shake, or a banana lassi, or a fresh lime soda (sweet), or another giant Kingfisher beer. In between drinks, we would take a dip in the warm waves and then, with our eyes closed, enjoy that tickling feeling of salty drips sun-drying off of our skin.Image

Our final day in Goa was a whistle-stop tour. We first admired two colonial cathedrals, constructed, strangely, across the street from one another. One of the, Bom Jesus, houses the mysteriously still-intact body of Saint Francis Xavier, himself (minus his big toe, bitten off by a particularly devout, or hungry, pilgrim). The next stop was the spice plantation. Two trained elephants greeted us there, followed by a posse of playful monkeys, and then our bubbly tour guide, Puja. Puja showed us the origins of black pepper, green cardamom, red chillies, cashew nuts, pineapples, cinnamon, allspice leaves, cloves, and betel nuts, and at the end of the tour, cooled us off by pouring a cup of shockingly cold spring water down our spines, and then warmed us back up by giving us a shot glass of caju feni, a mouth-puckering hard liquor brewed from cashew apples. Finally, we visited a very odd, ‘fully automated’ museum, where flashing lights and fanfare and a disembodied voice guided us through scenarios recreated in plastic of ancient Goan village life, including ancient Goan village breastfeeding.ImageImage(The Three Musketeers of the spice plantation.)

Image(Museum masks.)

Image(PJ, about to enjoy pav bhaji, a famous Goan dish.)

Goa had it all: Europe’s quaintness and history, India’s charm and quirkiness, Hawaii’s beaches and luxury, Asia’s affordability and surprises, and, well, Goa’s cuisine!

This time it was the Karavalli Express that took us, thirteen hours down the coast, from Goa to Fort Cochin, Kerala. Though Mumbai was fabulous and Goa was fantastic, it was Kerala that stole the show for all of us. The relaxed, seaside town offered experiences and flavours that we will not soon forget.

One morning, in the cool air of six a.m., we joined a team of dhoti-wearing fishermen on their manually operated Chinese fishing net. All together we yelled a call and response of, “hey jalla!”, as we yanked down on gigantic, weighted ropes that hauled up, on the other end of the colossal contraption, the net holding the night’s catches.ImageImage

We relished in an afternoon of relaxing on a perfectly pristine beach, hiding in the shade of bamboo shelters and swimming in the Arabian sea, so warm that it didn’t much cool you down from the sweltering 35C heat.ImageImage

At every given chance, the four of us rested in a popular art café, surrounded by modern sculptures and tropical gardens, to drink strong, French-pressed coffee and to savour enormous pieces of moist, rich chocolate cake, drowning in milk chocolate mixed with sweetened condensed milk.tImage(PJ and Mom sweltering in Kochi’s 35C heat, in the church where the famous explorer Vasco Da Gama was first buried.)

Image(Christian iconography often reflected the Hindu tradition.)

One evening we watched, in an old, wooden theatre, scenes from the fabulous, traditional Kathakali dance. Actors applied their own makeup on stage, using chemical colour-explosions of mineral-rich stones and coconut oil. They appeared afterwards on stage in full costume – skirts six feet in diameter, headdresses two feet above their crowns, and thick, rope hair down to their ankles – showing off mind-blowing skills in fine-tuned dance storytelling. We saw Bhima, the story’s hero, defeat his greedy, evil, murderous foe, Baka, in a sword-wielding and dramatic, for lack of a better phrase, ‘dance off’. It takes Kathakali dancers a full six years to train; it was an unbelievable performance.ImageImageImage

Throughout our stay, we also continued our fabulous fish feasting at an array of charming restaurants, enjoying prawns in a rich, creamy coconut curry gravy; whole, fried pomfret each bite both spicy-crispy and juicy-tender; Portuguese-style king prawns that must have been five inches long if you stretched them out; curly calamari fresh from the sea (their bones littered the beaches!); and even a marlot with big, kissy lips and cartoon-looking googly eyes, who we hand-selected from a fresh fish market and carried to a restaurant for delectable garlic and lemon grilling.ImageImageImage

We took the opportunity to explore Jew Town, Kochi’s Jewish community, where we enjoyed comparing the minute details in the nearly identical, hand-painted, blue and white Chinese tiles that lined the synagogue floor. Above us hung dozens of unique, sepia-toned, candle chandeliers, imported from Belgium. On our way back, we enjoyed ginger tea (too spicy!), a fresh ginger soda (too bitter!), and ginger ice cream (just right!).ImageImage

And what fun we had on our bamboo-thatched houseboat cruise that took us, all day and all night, through the peaceful, Keralan backwaters. It was just us four, plus our captain, the second in command, and a chef, who delighted us with banana fritters and carrot-coconut salad whenever we felt hungry. We hid in the boat’s shade from the beating sun and simply soaked up the stunning scenery – fluorescent green grass dancing along the shore, the perfect reflection of palm trees in the glass-like channels, little houses painted in surprising shades of pink, blue, and purple, and even the occasional iridescent blue kingfisher bird flitting about.ImageImageImageImageImageImageImage

Kerala was perfect. Even our Fort Cochin homestay host had been so thoughtful, not only to feed us the most gigantic breakfast known to humankind (complete with fresh-squeezed, pulpy watermelon juice), but also to design for our room a giant, four-foot long pair of bright red, upholstered lips – modeled after Ms. Jolie’s, herself – and mount them at the head of our big, squishy bed.ImageImage(Resident kitties.)

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Beyond our amazing time and the amazing food, the friendliness of Keralans cannot be matched, convincing us that Kerala is simply the best place to be. It really is. Everywhere we went we were met with smiles, amazing service, gentle inquisitiveness, and instant friendships, from our homestay host, Patrick, to our autorickshaw driver, Abbas, to the afternoon fisherman, Nelson, to the cappuccino guy in the Kochi airport, Suresh.Image

When the four of us returned to Kochi airport on March 18th – Kyle and I destined for Sri Lanka, Mom and PJ destined for Delhi – I was not ready to leave. I was not ready to leave Kerala and I was not ready to leave my family. Our time together in South India sped by far too quickly. Travelling together was fun and tough and rewarding and memorable; I feel so lucky to have had the chance. I will remember our trip always with fondness and I look forward to both reminiscing and returning.Image

 

 

 

 

Mumbai Fly-by

After two flights and three stomach flues (one of which unfortunately still leaves me repulsed by okra and banana flowers), our group of four – my mom, Kerry, my brother, PJ, Kyle, and myself – arrived in Mumbai (previously Bombay) near midnight, reeling. Our four bulging backpacks bounced about precariously on the Ambassador taxi’s gilded roof rack.

Hotel Kum Kum was our destination. From that first, nighttime glimpse of the hotel’s exterior, it looked like it should have been condemned ten years ago. The thing is, in India, just because a building looks derelict doesn’t mean it is. While Kyle and I are well familiar with this, the concept was new to the other half of our tired troupe. In fact, our arrival at Hotel Kum Kum was rather quite a shock. So was the fact that, while the rooms were clean enough, guests were not provided with a top sheet – only a fitted sheet and a scratchy, wool blanket.

On this trip I got to see North India again through fresh eyes, travelling with newcomers PJ and Mom. What I discovered is that after six months here, I have developed the tendency to ignore how India looks. I mean, how it really looks. I will gladly admire great, pink puffs of hibiscus, or shockingly green limes stacked into perfect pyramids by street vendors, but I have become blind to the piles of garbage, the urine-stained corners, and the monsoon-damaged buildings streaked black. It has started to look normal to see men in immaculately pressed suits hop over a crumbled sewer cover, black liquid oozing beneath, or to see women in crisp, sparkling saris amble around a giant pile of sand covering what you’d be generous to call a sidewalk. On this trip I became alert to everything again, and not only did it give me an empathetic sense of panic, but it also strangely made me feel defensive – defensive of India – wishing I could block out all of the ugliness so that Mom and PJ could see only the incredible beauty that I’ve fallen in love with. Then they’d fall in love with it too.Image

But of course it can’t work that way. It was their turn to learn to look beyond India’s sometimes grotesque appearance, to choose to see the adorable street dog with a curly tail sleeping peacefully in the comfy garbage pile, the fantastic spray painting of a kingfisher behind the urine stain, and the way the monsoon damage shows nature’s incredible capacity to shape human landscapes. Our trip together was not only a wild adventure in itself, but it was also an adventure for Mom and PJ of discovering, adjusting to, and overcoming the challenges of the appearances, unknowns, and realities – all of that – of India. All in two weeks. While recovering from the flu.

It only took one night and one good sleep for Hotel Kum Kum to transform from uninhabitable into a place of comfortable refuge from the madness of Mumbai. In fact, by Mom’s suggestion, we even rented a room for an extra day, just to have a peaceful place to nap!

Mumbai struck Kyle and I as a very liveable city. The monstrous metropolis buzzes with energy – the energy of thirteen million people – and it’s exciting to be a part of it. The Arabian Sea laps at its edges and a fantastic Marine Drive boardwalk pulls everyone to the seaside. The food – French, Italian, Mughlai Indian – was incredible. The shopping options were wide-ranging, from street vendors selling overpriced churidars (leggings) in every colour imaginable, to boutiques selling hand-block-printed, fixed-price garments. And taxi drivers drove a hard bargain, but never ripped us off too badly.Image(Enjoying sangria and delicious juices at ‘Le Pain Quotidien’.)

Image(Freshly pressed sugar cane juice.)

Image(Mom buying handkerchiefs from a street vendor as a gift for Dad.)

We enjoyed touring the old, colonial buildings, such as Victoria Terminus rail station with its terrifying, bearded gargoyles; got PJ a spontaneous and fetching Indian haircut; visited the pilgrimage sites of the novel, Shantaram; saw the famous Gateway of India and the Taj Mahal Hotel, where Mom and PJ were accosted by a “Jain priest” who tried to charge them Rs. 500 (~$7.50) for eating a little, fennel “blessing” candy, and then thumb-printed a bindi onto their foreheads when they finally paid him RS. 25 (~$0.50); and visited Haji Ali, a stunning, white-washed mosque built up at the end of a jetty, which becomes submerged in high tide, leaving the mosque as its own island.Image(Victoria Terminus)

Image(Flora Fountain)

Image(Mom and PJ at the Gateway of India.)

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Image(Haji Ali)

The most memorable of all, however, was our short tour of Dharavi. Dharavi is Asia’s biggest slum. It’s a city within a city, with an annual turnover of billions of dollars, and is inhabited by about one million people who live within about 2.4 square kilometers. That’s a population density of about 416,700 people per square kilometer.

Hesitant about the ethics of a slum tour, we first found out that nearly the whole tour fee is used for slum schools, and that no photography was allowed inside Dharavi during the tour, keeping everyday life in Dharavi from becoming a tourist spectacle.Image(My single photo of Dharavi, from the bridge before entering.)

We began with a tour of Dharavi’s lucrative industrial area. Folks were busy processing recycled plastic into coloured pellets, drying papads (a spicy, Indian chip) in the sun on woven baskets, fashioning small pots out of cool, red clay, baking pastry puffs, tanning sheep, goat, and buffalo leather, and making curry-cutting soap in giant vats. While I know many of these jobs are tough and even physically harmful, it made my stomach hurt to be confronted with a man in a small room, dripping with sweat, stirring molten, toxic aluminum in a gigantic blaze of heat and light, readying it for recycling. The man, and thousands of others like him, came to Dharavi from their villages to make a little extra money to send home to their families in dire need, knowing that it’s at the expense of their lifespan.

Thankfully, we also got to see the other side of the coin, the slumbering dog dreaming on the pile of garbage – the residential area. It was incredible. Not only to hundreds of thousands of people manage to fit into Dharavi’s small land allocation, but they also manage to thrive there. As we zig-zagged through a dark, residential maze of alleyways so narrow that Kyle’s shoulders touched each wall, we could sometimes peer into tiny, six-by-six foot homes, crammed with people watching TV and enjoying each other’s company. We learned that doctors and lawyers – professionals who could easily afford to live elsewhere – choose to stay in Dharavi for its strong sense of community.

It was another lesson in seeing the good beyond the bad for all of us. In what could be seen as just a sad place of poverty and sickness, Dharavi was also rich in connectedness, friendship, and support.

On a different note, for future travelers to Mumbai, ‘Mumbai CST’ stands for ‘Mumbai Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus’ train station. Not for ‘Mumbai Central Station’, as you might guess. We visited both on our last night in Mumbai, making it to the right station only thanks to an angel taxi driver. We were out of breath and had only eight minutes to spare before our train whistled us on our way south to Goa. Image(Perfectly on time…at the wrong station.)