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Sunday, May 22, 2011

My Eat, Love, Pray Moment....

Back in February Doug and I visited an Ashram for a 48 detox.   We actually had won a stay from a charity silent auction back in November.   Our Ashram was as commercial as an ashram can get because it's part of a chain - Ayuravedagram (    Before I take you inside the visit, here are a couple of terms that might help you understand the experience:

Ayurveda - ancient practice of medicine that originated in Kerala, India (southwest coast, see my blog on All that with a broken foot)  The traditional Hindu system of medicine, which uses diet, herbal treatment, and yogic breathing.
Ashram - A hermitage, monastic community, or other place of religious retreat for Hindus or a place of religious retreat or community life modeled on the Indian ashram.

Restaurant  Doug and I arrived on a Friday evening just after work and in time for dinner.  We entered the reception area which was a magnificent Keralan house with amazing antiques and incense burning.    Our first plan of action was to set our appointment with a doctor for the next morning and our schedule would flow around that.    We made our way to our room even though it was dark and raining via unlit brick paths.   The room was basic, low beds, wool blankets however the bathroom had a very nice concrete modern shower.    A small flat screen was positioned about shoulder height in front of the bed.   I was 1) happy it was clean 2) glad there was a TV 3) liked that we had a nice porch to sit on.    Doug was not happy we had two twin beds that were as soft as crushed concrete....Thankfully he brought his own contraband with us - gin, tonic and glasses.   Yes the Ashram is alcohol and smoke free- but we are rule breakers.    

After we settled, we walked to the restaurant that served Vegetarian only meals buffet style.   After nearly 10 months in India, I am quite used to this and have figured out my favorites and what to avoid.  Our meal started with hot cumin water.  A little strange but oddly satisfying.   We munched on our meals and watched the other guests pour in.    Older couples, some singles from Germany, a few Indian women and several expat couples like ourselves.     This would be interesting.

Our next day began at 630 am with Coffee service to our room, I was thankful this vice was allowed.    We enjoyed our filtered coffee and then proceeded to the 730 am Yoga course which was in the hall adjacent to our room.    I have been an avid yogi for about 8 years but mostly practicing Bikram.    It's always different when you go to a new place- the teacher, the flow of the asanas and the general facilities greatly impact your ability to focus and enjoy.  This was Doug's first ever yoga course!  We purposely did not sit next to each other as to minimize my competitive spirit.  I think he liked it and he was definitely surprised how sweaty you can get.     We enjoyed a vegetarian breakfast and then headed over to doctors appointment.   After a quick questionnaire, he determined that my body type (Dosha) if Pitta-Vatta and Doug's is Pitta-Kapha.  Now you can go very deep into the science of this analysis, where you alter all the food you eat, the rhythms of your day and exercise to suit your body type.  The belief is that if you match your intake of food to your dosha you will achieve a healthy weight and minimize illnesses.     Our prescription was a hot oil massage and steam bath.  Sounded good.

We headed over to the treatment center only to be stripped down (separately of course!) and made to put on this paper undergarment that was reminiscent of a sumo wrestlers uniform.   Up on the massage table (face up) were one liter of hot oil was poured very slowly over our bodies.  Still not terrible, but then the double massage which was akin to to an aggressive beat down took place for the next 30 min.   Given the amount of oil I was sliding all over the table, praying this would be over soon.   As abruptly as the massage started, it ended and I was put into a steam box.   It reminded me of old cartoons where villains were put into a box in the town square with only their head exposed.  Yes that was me, however the temperature in the box was well over 100 degrees F.   After 10 min, I was ready to expire and was pushed into the shower.   Washing the oil off and getting dressed was the most enjoyable part of the experience.    Doug and I compared notes and found the "treatment" to be identical and unfortunately identically painful.    The rest of our day was followed by a Veg lunch, a long nap, yoga, veg dinner and then a repeat of the same the next day.    We could have stayed until 5pm on the second day but after a double yoga course, second torturous massage and steam bath; we busted out right after lunch.     Back home to Palm Meadows and we cracked open a beer and potato chips, feeling we needed a reward for being so good.

For all of you who feel inspired to go to an ashram and detox; I challenge you to take stock of what it means to render control of your schedule, food and daily routine....I am not sure i will ever do it again! 

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Taj Magic

Visiting the Taj Mahal, Agra at Sunrise
Emma holding up the Taj

check out the reflection in his shades

Our room at the Oberoi Hotel
view of the Taj Mahal

The Oberoi, all rooms face the Taj
In March we journeyed to Agra, about 5 hour drive south of Delhi to see the Taj Mahal.   The Taj is a monument of love.   It was built for a wife who died in childbirth.    While the monument is widely recognized as a symbol of India for those of us outside of India, seeing it in person is an out of this world experience.    We sprung for the fancy smancy hotel, the Oberoi Agra.   I won't tell you the price for two rooms for one night but I think we have rented a beach house for a week in Florida for the same price!  However, you only go around once so we decided to do it up right.  We were there on March 20th which also happened to be Nolan's ninth birthday.   The hotel was very accommodating, bringing us a chocolate cake at dinner.   I am not sure he will remember this as his most fabulous birthday but I certainly will!     We arranged for a private guide via our hotel and decided to go at 730 am for a sunrise view of the Taj.   The marble has a translucent look that gives you a feeling that the Taj is breathing.     While Doug and I were visibly moved to be near such a remarkable man made monument, the kids were ready to go after about 10 minutes.  Fortunately our guide was very creative and had us pose for fun shots - holding up the dome, catching the reflection of the Taj in Doug's glasses.    It's a journey that I am glad we made even if it seems touristy.    Until you see the Taj in person, you cannot visualize it's grandeur and tribute to love. 

I'm Padi Certified!

At the Dive Shop - Euro Divers on
 Kandooma Island, Maldives

If you have read my earlier blogs, I committed to learning to scuba dive based on the words from my husband "what will we do when our kids grow up."   The classroom session was easy to pass and being competitive, I was driven to have a high score.   The pool test was a bit more traumatic for me, feeling claustrophobic I freaked out about five times in the first ten minutes.   However, I passed and actually figured out I liked the scuba.     Fast forward 6 weeks and we have landed in the Maldives to complete our open water certification.   The first dive was in a closed off lagoon area where we would demonstrate everything we learned in the pool.   Walking across the beach to the dive dock I was feeling queasy.  I started to sweat, shake and panic that now I would have to remove my mask in the ocean and real fish would be near me.    Doug was very understanding and told me I could skip.  It would save us money and I should only do something I wanted to do.   Mentally I tried to pull it together and the alternative of sitting on the beach with a beer seemed like much more fun.    However I rallied, if i failed the test in the ocean it would be a sign but I would never know until I tried.   To my surprise, I LOVED it.   I was able to take my mask off, clear the water, hover, remove my tank and BCD under water with no problems.   After our test dive we signed up for the following morning to complete our first open water dive.   It was amazing, we went 12m deep (36 feet) the first trip saw amazing huge fish and I felt very peaceful swimming along the reef.    We completed a total of four open water dives and now can go 18m deep.  Will, Doug and I now want to complete our advanced certification - taking night dives, learning to use different types of tanks and exploring more places in Southeast Asia.    The best thing about the scuba for me was how clear your mind becomes when you just focus on breathing and seeing sights you never imagined you could get close too.    I have had several moments since we have been back in the last two weeks where I just wish we were diving and being 18m under is a nice place to be.

Will & Becky suited up for our dive

Doug is ready to jump in

Warming up after our dive

The Easter Bunny Found us

Easter Morning at the Leela Palace

Easter bunny - Indian Style
Doug and Becky in Leela Garden
Brunch with unlimited Champagne!
Having a family in India means trying to keep things regular, be in a routine, and remember to celebrate the important things.   Easter is a big holiday for our family.  While it has tremendous importance to our faith, it's usually a time we gather with our extended family and eat.    This was not our first Easter away from family, we have taken holidays in the past given the kids usual school break.   For our first Easter in India, William was on a trek to the Himalayas so we planned mass at St. Patrick's and then brunch at the amazing Leela Palace hotel.   If you come to India, you must stay there but if that proves to be too expensive, at least brunch is a must.    Our youngest, Nolan, is 9 years old and very much looks forward to his annual Easter basket.    We break all the rules with Easter and Halloween, allowing our kids to stuff their faces without any parental regulation on intake for the first 24 hours.   Finding the standard Easter Candy in the India was proving to be a problem; thank goodness for Grandma.   A large box stuffed with jelly bellies, peeps, smarties, gummy bears, licorice, starburst, pastel colored m&ms, cadbury eggs and whoppers colored like Easter eggs.    We hid that box and used it for our visit from the Easter bunny.    We even colored our eggs with crayola markers and hid them all over the house.   I would not advise this as the markers leaked through the shells and our hard boiled eggs were tattooed.  Not sure we could eat that, we scrapped the eggs and went right for the candy.    The true highlight of the day was brunch, unlimited champagne for me and a 3m long sweets table that included a chocolate fountain.   The kids were in heaven.   Life is pretty good and Easter Brunch was the icing on the cake!

All that with a broken foot!

Cochin Harbor, fishing boats coming in

Emma- our Lady Gaga

Nolan & Becky washing elephants

Chinese Fishing nets

Ice Cream break

Spice shopping on Jew Street

Antique shopping - crazy stuff behind us
I am a little behind on my blog entries, mostly because I have not figured out how to get the pictures uploaded to shutterfly back to my blog!   Back in February we took a short weekend trip to Cochin, Kerala on the Southwestern coast of India.    Cochin is one of the oldest ports in India with St. Thomas the apostle arriving there and starting the Syrian rite of Catholicism there nearly 2000 years ago.    But more recently the Portuguese, Dutch and English taking up shop there as a key spot on the trade routes.   Shopping or more conveniently I found a tremendous deal for two rooms at a Taj Gateway property (very nice hotel chain in India) and flights.    This was our first weekend trip.    When we decided to come to India we had planned to be travel junkies, exploring one corner of India to all the nearby exotic countries.   However, we live in India which means I have a job, the kids have homework, we need to fit in dentist appointments, shopping for sneakers and figuring out how to get regular things done.  Unfortunately that takes time so squeezing in a weekend trip is not as easy as we expected.    We pulled the kids out of school hopped on the hour flight to Cochin and armed with our Lonely Planet South India book, started our journey.   

This was our families first domestic trip which meant figuring out the taxi situation in a new city, navigating a new town and being in a much less cosmopolitan area than Bangalore.    Oh and I forgot to mention, Emma broke her foot horseback riding a few days earlier, so her range of activity was somewhat limited.   She was a trouper.    A walking cast in India is not really meant for dragging on the cement, so we customized a walking shoe out of one of Doug's sandals.   Not a fashion statement but did the job.    I highly recommend the Lonely Planet series for India, each restaurant they recommended in Cochin or surrounding towns was definitely worth it.    We feasted on ocean fish marinated and grilled in banana leaves, a Chinese-Indian fried rice, prawn curry and kingfisher beers.    Since Cochin has long been a desired port and had several ruling cultures - the food is a nice fusion of western and Indian.     

Things we learned on the trip:
- Our family of 5 can fit nicely in an auto-rickshaw.   Becky-Doug-Will with Nolan on my lap and Emma on Doug's lap.  Best use of 30 cents to go three kilometers ever
- The local fisherman still use Chinese fishing nets that have been the same technology since the time of Kubla Khan
- Elephants love to bathe in the local rivers and we were lucky enough to see their morning ritual.  Nolan and I even made into the river to help clean them with coconut shells
- Having two hotel rooms that do not connect make for a much nicer vacation
- Vasco da Gama was buried on Fort Cochin, we visited his grave site
- The oldest synagogue in India is in Fort Cochin and sits on a street called Jew Street, also a wonderful place to get antiques
- You can take a ferry from the mainland out to Fort Cochin for 2 rupees a person (4 cents) but there are not enough life jackets on the ferry for the hordes of people they stuff in the boat
- Emma still remains the most photographed in our family, whether she poses with families, other kids or on occasion single men request a photo with her (which of course I decline), she is our Lady Gaga

All in all, traveling within India as a family taught us that we do really like each other, teenagers can be very helpful to carry the luggage and we cannot wait for the next adventure.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

West Coast Girls are Unforgettable

Mehendi magic!
Katy Perry and Snoop Dog called it right in their song from last summer - California Gurls; west coast girls are very fun.   This past week we had a convergence of people in Bangalore and it was the first time in nearly a year that I got to see my colleague Mary (from San Fran).     I have to say Mary was up on my blogs as she arrived with a generous stack of magazines - Redbook, Cosmo, InStyle, Yoga must have been 5Kg worth of literary candy.     Additionally a mini pillow case of Easter Candy for the kids and some wine make for the perfect Friday night chez moi in Bangalore.   But on to more important events of day 1 in Bangalore.   Mary and a few other ladies needed authentic Indian attire for a formal dinner at the Leela Hotel.     For most of us, this is an exciting opportunity - bust out wear a sari, bangles, mehendi and bling it up.    

I won't go into Mary's shopping experience but I will share with you mine recently and you can note - I've asked around, it's pretty universal.     Getting a Sari is an exciting adventure for anyone; stacks of silks, chiffons, embellished trims and uniquely embroidered choices overwhelm you.   Any store is happy to see me walk in because in general, I am not sure of what sari is appropriate for what which makes selling me anything pretty easy.    No need to change your clothes, the sales attendant (most often a man) will wrap you up and secure the 9 feet of fabric with a mock belt.   Spin around to the nearest mirror and you are transformed.    I now have two saris and one lengha (which i thought was a sari and now have been told it's really for weddings only).  The blouse piece (mid-drift baring top) is usually custom made to fit you like a second skin from an extra piece of fabric attached at the end of your sari.   I have recently found a shop that sells ready made blouses - which makes me happy since I went to a men's tailor the first time and ended up with a CRAZY tight blouse.   I guess we know who that tailor was designing for!     Where things get complicated is when you are shopping for a salwar kameez - more of a dress style top (often to the knees) with leggin' pants.   Being slightly oversized for the south Indian population, I have a tough time getting the dress even over my head.    If I can find a top with a zip, then I conquer the first hurdle often to find my shoulders are cricket player sized and my arms don't move.   If you are not prepared for your normal size in the US to translate to an XXL+ here in India, this can be quite humiliating. 
Two California Girls Looking
Super Fab in Saris!!!
The best advice I received was to go with the flow.  You can always try shopping at the stores in large hotels who often cater to foreigners; you can find a trusty size medium that fits as you expect.   Oh and if your feet are 9.5 or larger (US sizes) you might save your self frustration in the shoe shopping area too...i recently bought some lovely sandals only to find out they are actually considered a size 12 here!   But if you can embrace a new experience, not be hung up on sizes or who joins you in the fitting room to wiggle that kurta or salwar kameez over your head - you might just find a winner that will get lots of oohs and aaahs back in the States.