Hampi and Badami

A final blog post from India. A few weeks ago we took another cycling trip up to the regions of Hampi and Badami. It's about a 6-7 hour drive northwest of Bangalore:

This area is part of an ancient set of empires that ruled in India during the 6th-7th centuries, and there are lots of ruins to see, which we did by bicycle. Hampi is also recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

We arrived early in the morning, and started out with a short ride to get a sense of the landscape and, ostensibly, to see some old rock formations.

But, as always, we got distracted by baby goats. The people tending them invited us into the field to hold the young ones. Sam's hand got nibbled.

The next morning we made a very early start to watch the sunrise at the top of a hill (575 steps at 430 am is no way to start a day), where there is a temple devoted to what is considered to be the birthplace of the Hindu god Hanuman, who is half-human, half-monkey (mostly human body, monkey face), and all business. We see lots of young men with Hanuman stickers on their cars in Bangalore. In any case, it was a beautiful sunrise, and, as you might expect, there were also some monkeys around. Some Russian travellers had the bright idea to bring some bananas, and much hilarity ensued, but not so much for one particular guy.

Then we rode to Hampi, and spend the day looking at what was left of this ruined empire.

Of course, there is presently still lots of farming in this area. So many onions and chiles!

And yes, more baby animals...

We ended our tour in Badami, a small town that is famous for a gorgeous series of temples carved into the surrounding sandstone hills. 

While in Badami, we met the Indian rock climbing champion who encouraged us to give his local hills a try. The climb was exhilarating but not a little scary near the top (at least for me). 

When we rose early the next morning, we heard music coming from somewhere nearby in the village. The band was still playing when we returned after a long day of riding. It turns out that the musicians had been hired to go door-to-door through the entire village to invite all of the residents to an upcoming wedding. Who needs fancy stationary?! This is much more fun!

We also went to visit an old textile shop and were able to spend a little time watching an incredibly skilled man working an old loom (I later looked this up and it is a Jacquard loom).

Alissa got a few pics:

I was able to grab a couple of short videos so you can see it in action. It is an impressive piece of machinery.

We finished up eating in the kitchen with the owners of a restaurant in town, which sounds kind of fancy, except we sat on the floor and ate with our hands (when in Rome...). But it was fun to watch these women making rotis (basically, Indian tortillas).

The past five months here have been enriching and challenging in equal measure. We've learned how to make a mean cup of South Indian filter coffee, jostled our way through crowds, added hot chilies to all kinds of food, lost and gained front teeth. We're so grateful to have had this amazing opportunity to adventure together. Even so, we're both excited to get our hands on a good burger, breathe some fresh air, and relax over the holidays with some of our dearest friends and family. Next stop: Los Angeles! We'll keep you posted. 

Cycling in Sikkim

As most of you know by now, Sam and I spent 11 days in October biking through Sikkim, a small Indian state nestled in the eastern Himalayas between Nepal, Bhutan, and China (Tibet). Here's a map: 

We flew into the small town of Bagdogra, then drove another seven hours to Gangtok, the capital of Sikkim, where we picked up our bikes. We spent a couple of nights there getting accustomed to the terrain and the steep climbs that would characterize our next week. On our first morning there we woke up to this view and watched clouds drift by below us over breakfast. 

As we wondered around Gangtok before setting off, we also were able to see a lot of the festivities that were happening in celebration of Durga Puja, a Hindu festival that celebrates the goddess Durga. Lots of lights, singing, and just general religious fervor. There were a series of performances by local singers and dancers, and we had a good time watching a group of young kids performing a version of a famous dance/song from a film. (You can tell these teenage boys are still a little shy about performing publicly...kids are kids everywhere).

 

 

On the way back to the hotel we also ran across a small temple that was white hot with people celebrating: 

The following morning we got the bikes ready and set off, headed mostly downhill to the next town nearby. 

 

We also ran across what looked to be a funeral procession.

And here is an "action" shot of Lissy cruising a bit down a gentle slope (calm before the storm).

 

We spent most of our days riding hard up and down switchbacks. The terrain is some of the most beautiful we've ever seen, made up of mountainsides, curtain-like waterfalls, and lush valleys where orchids grow wild. Most families make their living by farming but the hills are so steep that they have to create terraced fields in the hillside to hold their crops. The farming in the state has been entirely organic since 2013 and it produces much of India's famous cardamom. Beauty comes at a cost though: the steep hillsides mean that the area is very prone to landslides. We crossed many sections of "road" - by car and bike - that looked as though they were ready to crumble into the valleys below and saw the remnants of cars crushed by falling rocks. 

In the evenings we visited local sights, often Buddhist temples. The nuns in the photo below invited me in to see their boarding quarters. The girls were in their early teens and had been at the monastery since before their 10th birthdays. They may eventually leave to marry and start families, but for now their days are filled with chanting and chores. And puppies.  

Buddhists worship the elements, which are represented by the colors on the ubiquitous prayer flags: blue (sky), white (wind), red (fire), green (water), and yellow (earth). They believe that the movement of the flags in the wind perpetuates the prayers written on them, so they're hung everywhere throughout the region. Temples also have prayer wheels with inscriptions on them that followers turn continuously to keep the prayers repeated. 

As most of you know by now, the terrain was challenging and we're a little worse for the wear. I crashed while careening down a hillside, smashing up my mouth and right arm pretty badly. The mountains kept three of my front teeth. 

SH: Let me interject here and just say that: 1) the crash was horrific (I was riding behind her); and 2) she is insanely tough. A brief gallery of the day's events below.

 

Being injured is a great icebreaker though. Many people were curious about what a white, road-scraped woman was doing there and it led to some interesting conversations. This woman was making gravel - by hand. She sat atop a mound of small stones, chipping away at them with a hammer. She got shy when I asked whether I could take her photo but gave me permission after some encouragement from the other women around her. She wore the ornate facial jewelry common among older women in Sikkim. The pieces are handed down through generations, though many younger women have stopped wearing them because they're considered old fashioned. We met the Bhutia tribesman in the photo on the right while hiking near Yuksam. He assured me that the crash was good karma, gave me a few ground nuts he had collected, and let me check out his traditional knife. 

We spent the final days of our trip in Darjeeling, made famous for its tea. From a peak just outside town we were able to watch the sunrise on Mount Kangchenjunga, the 3rd highest peak in the world, and got a glimpse of Everest in the distance. We were also happy to run across a very cozy English pub, a remnant from when India was under British rule and Darjeeling was one of their favorite places to cool off during the summer months.

We hope that these images give you an idea of the region and what we experienced. We have many more pictures and stories that we hope to share with you all in person soon! We're headed off on another biking trip, a much, much gentler one, this weekend. Time to get back on the horse! ;) 

xo, Alissa & Sam 

Weekend in Coorg (late September)

 I know we are waaaay behind on blog posting, but we wanted to put up at least a few pics of our recent trip to an area of South India called Coorg (don't worry...pics from the trip to Sikkim are on the way). 

Coorg (also called Kodagu) is in southwest Karnataka (see highlighted region in the map below). The Coorgis come from a warrior clan and are one of the only (if not the only community) in India that are allowed to carry weapons. The men are often seen carrying large knives, usually tucked into a belt behind their back. Coorgis are also called Kodava people and have their own distinctive dress (particularly the way that women wear their sari), culture, and language, though many Indian communities seem to have this kind of uniqueness.

But, before the trip, a side note. One of the crazy things about living in India as a (relatively) wealthy foreigner is that you can afford all kinds of things that you would never be able to back at home. Coorg is something like 300km/190miles from Bangalore. We don't have a car, and the bus and train rides seemed quite long for a weekend trip. So, we hired a driver a few days before this trip using taxi-type service, but the driver never showed up (we were scheduled to leave at 7am and the driver cancelled the trip at 630 that morning). So, we thought we were out of luck, but using a taxi app called Ola, we asked for another driver and one showed up immediately. I mean like, 5 minutes later. We wondered how this guy was ready so quickly for several days away from the city. Well, he spoke little to no English, so we had a difficult time communicating with him, but he didn't realize at first that we were: a) not traveling across the city, but more like 5 hours westward [he kept scrolling on the Google map route on his phone for nearly 5 minutes], and b) that we were not coming back for another 4 days. But this guy just dropped whatever it was he was going to do later that day, and for the next 3 days (!), and ended up driving us everywhere we wanted to go the entire weekend. Luckily, they had a room for him out back at the place where we were staying, but the whole thing is odd in that he just rolled with the situation in a way I could never imagine happening in Montreal.

Okay, enough of that. The drive was long but pleasant, as our driver also had an obsession with keeping the music on, kind of loud, and fixed on some station playing old Indian music. Alissa and I both got a kick out of this song as we were riding with the windows down, and just kept singing it the entire weekend.

We stayed at a place called Spring Dale Estates (yes, fellow Arkansans, Springdale!), which is a beautiful, family-run 100-acre coffee and pepper plantation that was a welcome relief from all of the noise and pollution of Bangalore.

We arrived in the evening and took a beautiful stroll around the plantation with our host (Mrs Ravashi), who owns the place with her husband but seems to run the entire operation on her own (her husband is a dentist who started a dental school nearby). She is also extraordinarily tall and was impeccably dressed the entire time, even during our walks through the muddy plantation.

They are primarily a coffee planation, but they also grow black pepper, and they used to grow and sell cardamom, but it turns out that the latter is just not cost-effective anymore because it is so labor-intensive. You can see below some young coffee beans that are green and some more mature ones that take on a reddish hue. The pepper plants are vines/creepers, which were really beautifully mixed in with other trees and plants. They still had some cardamom plants, but we did not get any pics.

The next morning we awoke early and went for a stroll, and just spent time soaking up the sound of frogs and birds getting their day started (okay, more honestly, perhaps we were just enjoying the absence of horns honking and construction). Take a listen while you peruse these images:

The estate is basically self-sufficient--they produce all (or nearly all) of their own dairy (milk, butter, yogurt), eggs, vegetables, and meat (primarily chicken and pork). Despite the Indian reputation for vegetarianism, Coorgis are different and are well known to be serious consumers of meat. We sampled pretty much all of it. We had fresh eggs and milk from their cows in our coffee for breakfast (you can see the cows being milked in one of the photos):

Another thing we found a lot of in Coorg, especially in the early morning (and in more rural parts of India generally), are wood spiders. Huge wood spiders. Sometimes they are alone (like in the pictures below) but in other cases there are like 5-6 webs all strung together, which is completely creepy, but also kind of beautiful.

We took two day trips away from our general lazing about the plantation: One to a Buddhist monastery called Namdroling, where we were able to listen to several dozen young monks in training doing some recitation and chanting. It was quite an experience to see and hear all of them in sync, with little obvious direction and essentially no talking between chants (you can hear them beating some huge drums and blowing these enormous horns during the chants as well).  We recorded a little snippet of their chanting you can hear below. You can also see the young monks reading their script that is hand printed on what looked like hundreds of rectangular cards.

The other day trip was to a huge waterfall nearby the plantation, which provided some entertainment in the form of some young boys treating the pool below the waterfall like a birdbath:

and some very nice pics of Lissy:

We had a wonderful time, ate well, slept well, and got to enjoy some relatively pristine and unspoiled countryside. Plus, the coffee was awesome (we brought home a couple of kgs). A few additional random pics of women who were working on the plantation (on this day it was raining and they were spreading manure for the next growing season...yes, we should all appreciate our good jobs), a frog we found when we were walking, and a puppy I almost tried to take home with us. Love and miss you all...more to come soon (promise!)

Walking in Johnson Market

A few weeks ago we went on a walking tour of our neighborhood. We live in a predominantly Muslim area and were able to go inside the beautiful mosque that Sam shared a photo of in his last post. It's also the one shown in the background of the photo on the left below. Our hosts were very gracious.

There is a large market near our apartment - Johnson Market - that is housed in an old horse stable used when the British ruled India. The stalls are now occupied by individual vendors selling all manner of vegetables and meat. We met a few grocers who were keen to show us their wares. We've started buying vegetables from these guys and so far have kept a vegetarian diet when cooking at home. It is illegal to butcher cows throughout much of India as they're considered sacred within Hinduism, so most of what they sell is buffalo, lamb, goat, and chicken. (Already looking forward to Empire Burgers in Breckenridge in January!)

Also, this guy sells seafood. MASSIVE seafood.

After five weeks here we've got a pretty good rhythm and are starting to get smiles of recognition at local businesses. (We're very visible minorities.) Though they don't speak much English, the women I ride the bus with now greet me in the morning. One of them even patted me on the shoulder, which I like to think was a measure of acceptance after showing up to battle the morning commute crowds every day. ;)  

Settling in...

We are getting settled here in Bangalore, working on figuring out what kind of routine will work for us. We've been experiencing the highs and lows of commuting here. Our neighborhood (Richmond Town) is near the center of town, but our work (the campus at the Indian Instititute of Management-Bangalore or IIMB) is pretty far south. Here's a map.

http://bit.ly/2bbrbTY

http://bit.ly/2bbrbTY

Buses are gender segregated here (Ladies in the front, "Gents" in the back), so we actually do spend at least half an hour away from each other, twice a day :) One thing about taking the public bus in Bangalore (at least for men), is you have to just get comfortable with human contact. It can get rather claustrophobic at times:

The campus at IIMB is really beautiful, and Alissa got the better office, but it's quiet and peaceful everywhere. A few pictures below:

The lunch cafe is bustling, delicious, and cheap. The meal you see below cost us $1.50 altogether (not pictured: sweet lime soda for Alissa [delicious] and Fanta orange for me, which I have rediscovered and love). This puppy hangs around everyday, and you can sit and enjoy the view.

We live near a place called Johnson Market, which was apparently built in 1929 for traders and servants of the British (http://bit.ly/2bJYNve). There is a beautiful mosque nearby, and we have found plenty of sweets...and, of course some kind of street gang led by this rooster...

Okay, that's all for an update for now. We are taking a guided tour of Johnson Market tomorrow, so more to come!