Category Archives: Expat

Lunch under a mango tree

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We got out of the hundred degree heat to head to the most famous restaurant in Hampi–The Mango Tree. It is the only restaurant in India that I have visited where my driver, the kids and I could all sit down and order exactly what we wanted at prices that we could all afford and with the peace of mind that the food was safe to eat.

You find the restaurant by walking through a banana plantation. On the way, the tour guide pointed out these little miniature ferns that would close up when you touched them (much like sea anenomes). They made Carson very happy. Below, right, the restaurant is located in the backyard of a family’s house.

    

The setting was to die for. Lovely lounge like seats under a shady mango tree.

I had a traditional thali veg lunch, hummus and veggies, and then I ended my meal with rice pudding garnished with fresh coconut. And I mean fresh!  The kids ordered french toast, fried rice, french fries, and watermelon slices. They loved the food!  Carson had a nutella crepe for dessert.

  

We gazed at this view as we ate. Or rather I did. The kids gobbled down their food and then happily scampered about the complex under the shady trees until I was ready to go.

After spending over an hour soaking up the ambiance of the Mango Tree restaurant, we had a renewed spirit and energy to see the ruins of Hampi. Our afternoon was much more cheerful than the morning!  To drive to our next destination, we headed past active archeological sites and recently excavated ruins. In the bottom left picture, they plan to excavate the banana fields all the way to the mountain in the distance.

  

Perhaps our favorite stop of the day was the Lakshmi Narasimha temple. There was so much to see, it was hard to focus on any one thing. The statue itself is the largest in Hampi and carved from one piece of granite. The tourguide enthusiastically started telling me the story of this god–half lion, half man–the fourth incarnation of Vishnu.  The story, as told on the official Hampi website. It is such a good story that it is worth repeating:

“Vishnu kills the demon Hiranyaksha during his Varaha avatar. Hiranyaksha’s brother Hiranyakashipu wants to take revenge by destroying Lord Vishnu and his followers. He performs penance to please Brahma, the god of creation. Impressed by this act, Brahma offers him any thing he wants.

Hiranyakashipu asks for a tricky boon. That he would not die either on earth or in space; nor in fire nor in water; neither during day nor at night; neither inside nor outside (of a home); nor by a human, animal or God; neither by inanimate nor by animate being.

Brahma grants the boon. With virtually no fear of death he unleashes terror. Declares himself as god and asks people to utter no god’s name except his. However his son Prahlada (who a devoted worshiper of Lord Vishnu!) refuses. Repeated pressurization on him yields no results for Hiranyakashipu. Prahlada declares the omnipresence of Lord Vishnu.

Narasimha (being a man-lion god form) kills Hiranyakashipu. He comes out to kill at the twilightt (neither day nor night);on the doorsteps of his palace (neither inside nor outside); uses his nails to kill (neither animate nor inanimate); puts him on his lap before killing (neither earth nor in space). Thus making power of the boon ineffective.”

As the tour guide was telling me the story, Carson starts reciting the story with him. He knew the story by heart. So did Kaden. Turns out it is the basis for the Holi holiday.

As fascinating as the statue and the story was, there were just so many other things to see at this site. Long tailed monkeys–a pack of mothers with little babies. The kids LOVED watching these monkeys and Kaden took some great shots of the mommas and babies.  

    

Below, right, one baby monkey kept trying to nurse from it’s mother, and you could tell the mother was just DONE. They were high up on the top of a ledge and she kept pushing the baby away. I was worried the little one would fall but he held on tight!

    

Also located on the same site was a very large example of a Shiva linga. The statue symbolized male and female components and is a place to come to pray for fertility.  The kids were equal parts fascinated and a bit grossed out by this statue.

     

The site was also teeming with local  people as it is an active site for religious worship.  And the kids were playing in the water, and the ladies were cooling off from the heat. And the goats were wandering by. India.

Another site that we almost skipped, and I’m glad we didn’t was the Queen’s Bath  (below). More like a spa retreat, the Queen would come to this structure to have a soak, sun bathe, get her hair and nails done, and more. Below, right, Carson clammored down to where the swimming pool used ot be.

  

The last large complex that we visited included the Lotus Mahal structure–part of a ladies only complex where the women would stay when the men were away. They kept the place cool by pumping water up to the second floor (what Indians call the first floor) and then streaming water over the sides of the structure to create natural air conditioning. 

   

Above, right, watch towers where Eunichs protected the ladies. Below, the gallant elephant stables!

Above, Carson and I pretend to be elephants.

  

We decided to cool off with a fresh coconut near the elephant stables. The electrolytes from the coconut really bolstered our energy! And heck, I paid Rs. 15 for this coconut. I hear Gwenyth Paltrow pays $20 for the same drink back in NYC!

Above is a modern temple near Hampi. The kids really loved the collection of gods and goddesses displayed. We had a long conversation about this temple with our tour guide. Even Srinivas our driver joined in the conversation helping us to identify the characters portrayed.

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Blessed by an elephant in Hampi

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Bright and early, we set out to explore Hampi–the capital of the Hindu Empire from the 14th to the 16th century AD. The name of the ancient city was Vijayanagara. What is striking about Hampi is its vastness. You can look in any direction and as far as the eyes can see, the ruins of the ancient city continue. 10 square miles of ruins and counting. Archeologists worked to uncover the city in earnest beginning in the early seventies and they are still at it today, unearthing markets, palaces, and buildings of all kinds beneath the mud of banana plantations and present-day buildings. It was a fascinating place to see history uncovered even now.

We started our exploration of Hampi at the Mustard Seed Ganesha, located on the foothills of Hemakuta Hill.

   

The Ganesha above has a snake tied around his belly. He ate too much and the snake is keeping his tummy from busting open from all of the food!  Below, the kids were all smiles as we began our day.

  

It was hot, hot, hot in Hampi. Like almost 100 degrees hot.  Our tour guide (above) had a lot of knowledge about Hampi, but he was not very kid friendly. I ended up listening to his spiel and then giving the kids a 30 second version of whatever I thought they would want to know. You can see their crabbiness even at this first stop! Sigh.  Below, pilgrims visit the many temples scatter about the boulders.

   

The kids were most interested in the little things, like these holes carved into the boulders. They are still used for cooking today when the pilgrims spent the night on the mountain for certain festivals. And right, 500 years ago and more, they split these massive boulders by driving wood into holes and then filling the holes with water. The expanding wood eventually would crack the boulders. Carson thought that was fascinating.

  

We walked up and over the bolders to the Virupaksha temple–the oldest temple in Hampi.   It believed that this temple has been functioning uninterruptedly ever since its inception in the 7th century AD–one of the oldest functioning temples in India!

     

A highlight inside the temple is to receive a blessing from the black elephant, Lakshmi. She is in her mid-twenties and was rescued as a baby after they found her mother dead. She is amazingly well trained. Our tour guide claims that she knows the difference between Indians and foreigners (perhaps by a tap of the stick from her trainer). From locals she will give blessings for a rupee coin. From foreigners, she expects a Rs 10 note. She takes the coin or bill from you, hands it to her owner, and then blesses you on your head. It was great fun.

This crowd was getting a chuckle out of watching the kids and I get our blessings.

  

The temple included some intricate paintings telling famous Hindu stories. To see the paintings better, Carson lay down on the floor of the temple and looked up.

     

Outside of the temple the kids chose hats from a vendor along the street. They were quite pleased with their purchase!

Outside of the temple has historically been the Hampi Bazaar, a street lined with shops, vendors and more. But just six months ago, the government razed the street with plans to dig for more ruins around the temple area. Hampi as a modern town struggles over tensions between the ongoing excavations and the people who have settled and set up their lives in this town. All misplaced businesses and people were supposed to be relocated, but you know how that goes!  I read in a newspaper article, “The government has identified land to settle the displaced families, at a distance of 5 km from the Hampi market. However, since that plot of land has been used as a cemetery, the locals are not willing to move there.” We did find some cold drinks, though. And we got to pretend to be goat herders as we walked down the eerily vacant street.

Next stop: the Vitalla Temple complex. This section of Hampi is perhaps the most famous and the most preserved. The temple was built in the 15th century to honor Vishnu

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Above, right, Portuguese and Tibetan on the temple walls. You can tell by their facial structures and the design of their coats, says our tour guide.  Below, you can see inscriptions on the walls behind Carson’s head. These inscriptions were at the entrance of the temple complex and signified the architects of the temples.

Below, bracelets as temple designs and monkeys on temple walls

   

Below, the most famous building in the temple complex. The pillars sing and they even used to host concerts here based on the different pitches of the pillars. Now you can’t bang at the pillars because they were getting too damaged.

Below, I love this picture of the kids taking a rest in the shade. They had had enough of the tour guide and instead giggled and chatted together while I went around hearing about the site. Of course, within five minutes they were surrounded by Indian tourists wanting to take their picture. As usual!

The part of this temple that they loved was the shapeshifters. Some of the carvings of the temples are actual many animals/images at once depending on how you place your hand.  Carson, below, is making the shape of a lion then moving his hand for it to look like a flying monkey.

   

The Stone Chariot is a the stunning centerpiece of the complex. Considering the best preserved chariot in India, it originally had stone horses leading it. But mogul invaders destroyed the horses and they were replaced by the elephants. A Geruda (half eagle, half man) drives the chariot.

    

To get to and from this set of holy sites, we had to take a golf cart to get up the hill and back down. We were very pleased to get back in the cart and get into the air conditioned van. I told the tour guide–“That’s it!” Take us to a restaurant. We need to a break. We were feeling cranky and dizzy and needed to rest!

Summertime and the living is easy…

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We have one week left in Bangalore. And it is HOT here!  April and May are summertime. Schools are closed. Vacations planned to get away for the heat!

My ambitions seem to falter with every increase of mercury as the temperatures go  up and up. My processing speed now seems to mirror our painfully slow dial up/data stick internet. Thinking quickly, getting work done efficiently by U.S. standards just doesn’t even seem comprehendible. Checking email is a 20 minute process just to open the messages.

Maybe this slowdown is a blessing. I have completely reevaluated my expectations of what counts as a productive day. I take one task at a time and I am grateful if I accomplish that task.  Perhaps I can take this new normal back with me in the U.S. and help to use these measures to carve out a more “normal” pace of productivity at home. Lightning fast internet speeds, access to information right in my pocket is fun. But it also creates its own exhaustions. Doing one thing at a time has its merits.

The kids have slowed down as well, and they seem quite happy to “do nothing” with much less exclamations of “I’m bored” than I hear at home. Being out of school, they have been sleeping late, staying in their PJs until the afternoon.

Granted I am letting them play on their screens more than usual. But I know that they are awaiting the punctual 5:30 knock on the door from the neighborhood posse for the evening game of Cops and Robbers. Or an occasional night swim, game of cricket or football. The whole neighborhood seems to come out after dark, really. Sitting in the courtyard visiting with one another. The puppies come out to play. The heat is just too much during the day.

Sanskriti, Pratham and Mehir came a knockin’ this evening to round up the kiddos.

The festivities end when Mehir and Sanskriti, the oldest kiddos at 14 and ethical compasses of the group (well, usually,), decides that it is time to for everyone go home. Usually that end point doesn’t happen until after 9 at night. Carson comes home so tired  that he often falls asleep changing into his PJs and before he has had his dinner.

When we go out, evening excursions  are more appealing as well. The other night we headed to UB City for a bite at Café Noir.

Carson had fun with this poster at the UB City Entrance

The kids had fun getting soaked in the fountains.

  

Then we drove past the lit up parliament buildings on the way home.

With a stop at Baskin and Robbins for some ice cream. We stopped to watch a few minutes of the cricket match that had the city at a standstill—the Bangalore Royal Challengers versus the Rajasthan Royals.

Below, weddings are still in full force during the summer months!

We also finally got my kids together with my friend Priya’s kiddos. They are the exact same age and gender. Our schedules didn’t connect until this late date. We went over to their house for some swimming. The kids got along great, but unfortunately Kaden developed a tummy bug when we were there and spent most of the visit on the couch. Carson got it the next morning and both kiddos spent the day on the couch. Nothing as serious as the Dehli Belly, but enough to put them out of commission for a while.

At bedtime, sleep is a challenge in the heat. While luckily it does cool down in the evening, not enough for the house to cool well. We have just one bedroom with an air conditioner in our place, and we put it in my parents’ room where they and Kaden sleep. It didn’t seem worth it to spend $400 US Dollars to buy another one when we are here for so short of time. Carson doesn’t seem to mind the heat of our bedroom.  We bought a small oscillating fan for $40 US Dollars. Couldn’t find any box fans at all. And can’t believe the cost of fans in general!

But the oscillating fan broke with 2 weeks left here. I can’t take the heat anymore,  so I have started to sleep on the outside patio on our roof. The first two nights I accumulated 11 mosquito bites on my face, so it was time to get some mosquito netting and make my bedroom a permanent fixture. Very hard to find, mosquito netting. It’s not used much anymore here. But I finally found some for the hefty price of $20 US dollars. I’m just amazed at how much these things cost here!

I just got everything settled tonight in my open air bedroom. And the skies opened up. Our first rain in four months!  The monsoons won’t arrive until June, so hopefully this was a fluke, and I can return to my outdoor sleeping plan tonight.  I have enjoyed the majesty of taking deep breaths in the fresh air and looking up at the stars as I fall asleep.

Jantar mantar and other final explorations

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On our last morning in Jaipur, we said goodbye to the Varvarigos family. They would be continuing on for four more stops in Rajisthan. We  were going to head home. That morning, we had a few final explorations of town. We were sleepy from our theme park fun the night before, but we didn’t want to wait too long to head out due to the heat. So we made our way to Jantar Mantar.

The Jantar Mantar site was built the the Mahraja Jai Sigh II between 1727 and 1734. It is a collection of architectural astronomical instruments and is really fascinating.

       

Above is the largest sundial in the world, accurate to two seconds.

We hired a tourguide (shown below) at the front gate–a must for this site or else it would be hard to make sense of the machines. He clearly had a presentation and wanted to make it his way. But I kept stopping him and re-explaining the scientific principles to the kids. Since the kids had a solid grasp of earth rotation and revolution, they were able to understand the structures and remained very engaged, despite the heat.  Below right, Carson checks out one of the instruments.

   

Kaden was most taken by the astrological instruments. Indian astrology is taken very seriously. One’s birth day, year, time and place of birth can be made into an astrological chart. Often this chart is matched with a potential spouse and compatibility can determine the wedding date and in traditional settings, even if the marriage will happen at all.

   

After the observatory, we stopped in on a Jaipur institution–Lassiwalla. We tried a sample from the original, the oldest shop in Jaipur. He only offers one flavor–plain in a (disposable) terracotta cup. The lassi is a sweet yogurt drink. The stand next to him offered mango and banana, so we got one of the mango as well. I thought they were delicious, but the kiddos found them to be too strong. So then I had two for me.

I was looking forward to taking the terracotta cups home as souvenirs. But when we stopped in the Anokhi shop (below) for some snacks and some shopping, the taxi cab driver had cleaned the car of the garbage. He couldn’t understand why we would possibly want to keep the cup!  

We found Jaipur to be a beautiful, colorful, and very HOT city!! Ready to catch our plane, though, back to the Garden City of India!

The hidden surprise of Chokhi Dhani

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On our last night in Jaipur, I decided to take the kids on an adventure. Very little was written about Chokhi Dhani. Some guidebooks called it a resort, some a simulated village, and Lonely Planet even called it a theme park. One thing was certain–the website did not provide enough information. It didn’t even say when it opened!

Luckily, we were delighted with what we found. If Disney were to design an India section for Epcot, this is what it would look like–a lovely Rajisthani simulated village, lighted by lamps, with sand under foot. (The place is only open after dusk due to the heat during the day being too much!). Below is the view from the ferris wheel.

Our biggest thrill was riding a camel! But we could have also ridden elephants, horses, camel carts, bullock carts and more.

Let me emphasize just how very tall camels are. And to get up from a seated position, they must first lift their back legs, which causes you to lurch forward. Then up go the front legs and you feel like you are way high in the sky. I was thinking it would be like riding a horse, but I felt twice as high. Carson was happily snug between mom and sis, but I had to hold tight to Kaden so that she was not afraid of falling off. They don’t strap you in or anything! The ride lasted about five minutes. That was enough! Glad we did it, but we didn’t go looking for another ride the next morning like we had planned.

Thatched huts dotting the park with music everywhere housed all kinds of performers. We saw everything from fire dancing to puppetry to magic.

  

     

We visited a  lovely artisan village with absolutely no pressure to buy. Artisans sat outside each of the displays demonstrating the crafts that were for sale. It was late though by the time we got over there, so things were starting to shut down.

We all wanted to get mehndi tattoos, but the woman doing the art had a limited repetoire.

Carson said, “Do you do monkeys?

“No, peacocks!”

Carson: “How about dragons?”

“PEACOCKS!”

Kaden: “I just want a peacock feather.”

“PEACOCKS!!!”

So, Kaden got a design on her leg. I got one on my arm. As you can tell from her face, she was not happy that it was the full peacock bird rather than just the feathers. And Carson opted for nothing. But I was happy with mine.

Mehndi is henna and is often used to decorate the palms and feet–especially for weddings and religious celebrations (and not just the bride). As you can see on my hand a day later, the henna is darkest on the palm  rather than the arm because the keratin is greatest in this part of the body. This design was very simply–lots of scribbling actually. True mehndi artists do some very intricate and beautiful things!

We  also explored the petting zoo, played carnival games, rode a ferris wheel (okay, the ferris wheel is a bit sketchy). The kids slid down slides. We wandered through a maze. With signs posted saying “please do not encourage tipping” it was so nice to engage with people and wander from activity activity without the stress of figuring out how much to pay. And if we didn’t want to do something, absolutely no pressure at all. It was so weird to not be hassled!

   

My favorite part was the food. While they pushed a traditional vegetarian thali sit down dinner, I knew the kids wouldn’t like that. Plus I have eaten plenty of traditional vegetarian thali dinners for as little as the equivalent of 50 cents. I did not need to pay $10 dollars for one! Instead, we could order from street vendors without worries about getting sick. Such fun! Kaden couldn’t believe that I was allowing her to get cotton candy and popcorn after so many months of refusal. We drank coconut water straight from the coconut. We watched them make “fresh lime soda, sweet!” right in front of us. I got all kinds of chats, including bhel puri and other things I didn’t even know I was eating! So much fun to eat my way across the village!

   Bhel puri!

On the car drive back to the hotel, the kids actually said, “Thank you mommy for taking us there. That was some of the best fun that we had in India!” I agree!

    

Visiting Jaipur–the pink city

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In Jaipur, we stayed at the beautiful Alsisar Havelli hotel. The hotel was originally a palace built in the 1890s. It didn’t feel old though. The place was charming and remarkably clean. The staff was attentive but not pushy and we felt very much at home.

 

Jaipur is known as the pink city for the terracotta buildings of its old town. The last time the old town was painted was for the state visit of Bill Clinton back during his presidency.

Below is the outside of the Palace of the Winds, a beautiful exterior, but apparently too dilapidated for touring inside.

           

Below, these colorful hats were a common souveiner sold in Jaipur

Jaipur has one of the floating palaces of Rajasthan. It also is not tourable, but beautiful to behold. Camel rides were offered right by the photo stopping point for this palace.

Below, these two women were wading through the water near the palace. Our tour guide suspected they were going to swim over to the palace to look for duck eggs laid by the ducks who live on the property. Below right, a streetside vendor of flowers that are usually used for religious purposes.

 

We toured the city palace as a part of our visit to Jaipur. Below is the gate toward the palace plus one of the historic buildings on the palace grounds.

  

The royal family of Jaipur still lives in this part of the palace grounds (below). The flag signified that they were were present in the palace on  the day we visited.  I finally got the answer from this tourguide of why the royals in India do not receive the attraction of royals in Europe and elsewhere. First of all there are many royal families in India, so royalty is a regional thing, not a national one. But even more so, in India, royals get involved in politics all the time, running for office and otherwise. Thus it is in the interest of the opposing parties to not play up the importance of the glamour of these individuals or it could cost them the election. Thus the continuing intersection of politics and royalty make them not a source of universal press interest or attraction. I also think it has something to do with the fact that most of the royal families also were lackeys of the Brits. But my tourguide disagrees.

  

The City Palace is especially known for it’s amazing doors and archways. I thought that these peacocks were incredible!

  

The palace hosted a few small museums, including costumes and weaponry. Carson and Ducky really enjoyed looking at the weapons!

 

  

After braving the heat in Jaipur, we returned back to the hotel for a long afternoon of swimming and a delivery of a Domino’s pizza!

  

Elephant riding at the Amber Fort

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Arriving in Jaipur, we set off at 7:30 in the morning for the Amber Fort–an adventure that turned out to be one of our most favorite days in India! The palace was lived in by the  Rajput Mahrajas and their families. The Amer (Amber Fort/Palace) was built in 1592 during the reign of Raja Man Singh who was in Akbar’s army. Jai Singh expanded the structure

As we stopped on on the edge of the lake to get this photo, were were accosted by so many sites it was hard to know where to look! To our right–a SNAKE CHARMER! With a live cobra and all. I love the look on Carson and Dionisi’s faces as they gasped the cobra emerging from the basket! Kaden on the other hand wanted NOTHING to do with that snake.

  

Instead Kaden went with Gogo to pet the elephant that was waiting at the left side of us. Add in a few vendors and you have a complete circus. Here, the circus is surrounding my friend Kathryn as we try to board the van!

  

Once we arrived at the Amer Fort, we immediately saw the elephants lined up and ready to take us up the hill! So exciting!

We waited in a line in this beautiful garden, watching this beautiful woman water the grounds. And all the time we were badgered by another circus of vendors. After the debacle at Fatehpur Sikri, Kathryn’s husband Satiri turned to the two of us and said, “If either of you buy anything I am not speaking to you!” And he had a good point. Kathryn and I have a weakness for shopping from the vendors. And if we buy one thing, we are surrounded by ten more. It is quite unbearable. So we were on our best behavior despite being tempted by many things in line. Plus, the prices were too high anyway. We thought at first we were getting quite the deal, but then learned they were quoting us in DOLLARS not rupees, which we had never heard vendors do before. So, no wonder we thought we were getting a deal!

  

Finally, it was time to board our elephant and take the 15 minute ride up the hill. Which felt like about two minutes it was so much fun!

  

  

The scenery was gorgeous, and even up the mountain, vendors tried to sell us things from below!

We even called Daddy from the elephant and said, “We’re on an elephant, right now!!”

  

Entering the main plaza was fabulous. Elephants parading in a majestic courtyard. Hidden in the second floor, musicians played the welcome music that was played for the kings arrival.

 

Above, Carson tries out a musical instrument with strings and a bow. Below, one of the most beautiful palaces I have every seen.

 

Before entering the palace, I found a ramp for Carson to get his energy out with his friends in the hopes that our trip through the palace might be a bit less dramatic than the Taj experience!  Here we are heading up the steps to the entrance!

The marble is nice and cool to the skin out a hot, hot day!!!

 

                               

With such beauty around, the boys were most interested in…. pigeons!

  

Carson checks out the main courtyard and the elephants below from the secret space where the women looked out long ago. And to the right–wine, wine wine!

                        

The mountains were spectacular, and the fortress walls offered supply routes and protection for the palace.

   

Above, Kaden’s self portrait in the main courtyard.

 

Just as we were getting to hot to bear it, there, in the middle of the palace–a Cafe Coffee Day. Air conditioning. Cold drinks. Bliss. If only Fatehpur Sikri had a place to cool down and take a break!