musings on travel, international living, development aid, politics, turkey (the country more than the meat) and anything else that comes to mind...

Saturday, May 26, 2012

From Thailand: Lady Gaga and the Male Identity

Last night we saw Lady Gaga perform in Bangkok. Despite the fact that never in my wildest dreams did I think I would be saying those words together in a sentence, the concert was absolutely amazing and I'm very happy we were able to scalp tickets outside before 'Poker Face' came on (coincidentally a song that may or may not prompt me to poke Lauren in the face everytime I hear it).

During the performance Madáme Gagá (as she should be known in France) made several 'speeches', the first of which was a rather humorous homage-of-sorts to the royal family preceeded by a bit of defiance (something to the effect of 'I'm not a tool of the Thai Government no matter how difficult you bastards made it for me to perform here'). The most interesting moment for me though, at least with regards to the title of this post and in addition to the unique spectacle of each song, was a heartfelt (or well acted) profession of love for Bangkok.

It became apparent to me fairly quickly that Bangkok was a special place, especially in terms of the open expression of ones sexuality. In my short time in Bangkok I have noticed, and become increasingly interested in the phenomena of, the seemless integration of people of all walks of life, sexualities and appearances. Picture a very masculine man walking with his arm around a beautiful Thai woman who is arm in arm with a third man who is, to all outward appearance and inward self identification, a woman. Quite a normal scene in one of Bangkok's copious high fashion malls.

The most well-known examples of this are the ubiquitous 'lady boys' - essentially men dressed as women - some of whom perform in cabaret-style shows and some of whom are tragic pawns in a very real sex trade. In the west such cross-dressing, usually complete with makeup and jewelry, would at least be noticed by passers-by and at most (unfortunately) put the person at risk of physical and/or verbal abuse. In Bangkok, however, as a friend pointed out, even tall, broad-shouldered western i.e. decidedly not Thai men in dresses wouldn't even get a second look by most commuters on the train.

It's normal here... in an extremely refreshing way.

This gets to Gaga's infatuation. According to her, she grew up in a strict household where self-expression was stifled. It wasn't until she arrived on the lower east side of Manhattan upon turning 18 that she was finally able to be who she always imagined herself to be (Lady Gaga I guess?). To her, Bangkok symbolized everything lacking in her childhood. Freedom of expression. Acceptance. A place largely devoid of judgement. Liberation from societal norms.

Whether as a result of my own journey through life (albeit a straight life), some imaginary hopefullness or real societal movement, I feel like change is afoot. Gay marriage is discussed regularly by politicians, military officers and armchair pundits alike. POTUS (i.e. no drama Obama) has come out in support of gay marriage in an election year. Maybe nothing truly has changed. Maybe rural kids from conservative America (for example) still do harbor unwavering bias and bigotry towards those that are different. But... maybe not as much as their parents...?

Lady Gaga is, by virtue of her well-known and well-crafted persona, both a benefactor of and great contributor to this movement. She is an outspoken supporter of being open about who you are or believe yourself to be. Be proud that you were born that way, she says on her tour posters, meaning not necessarily how you were physically born but rather how you identify. Thais identify themselves in every way imaginable and are accepted as such. Thailand, at least according to Lady Gaga, has it right.

In case this wasn't confusing enough, the Thai male identity goes beyond transgender-ness (I think I just made up a word). Forever primping in the mirror (which, to be fair, Turkish men also do incessantly), it is not uncommon for straight men to wear bows and berets, eye shadow and lip gloss. It is the eternal pursuit of beauty, symbolized by Thai women and idealized by the men, even at the price of an adrogenous result that has little to do with sexuality and all to do with self-confidence and beauty.

Part of me wonders whether the exuberance with which Thais crowd the spectrum of sexuality is, in some way, a self-perpetuating phenomena. In other words, if people were not as accepting, would as many people openly identify themselves the way they do?

Doubtful. But then again, if that were the case, it wouldn't be Thailand!

Friday, May 25, 2012

From Thailand: Monks, Meditation, and Mopeds

Odds are you've been to Thailand. Or know someone who has. Or at least want to go. It offers an interesting culture, all the western comforts/delights your Aunt Peggy Sue requires and excellent value for money (as opposed to Juba where $100/night got you a tent and a bucket). It's a bit like this - Istanbul is to Middle East light as Bangkok is to Asia light. Bangkok is a regional airline hub and Thai Airways is a member of the Star Alliance. You get my drift.

After India and Bhutan, Lauren and I were looking for some time to relax after (but still during) our vacation. We contemplated the beach, but after seeing Lars and Galina's apartment in Bangkok (trust me, it's nice) we decided just to take it easy there. Focusing on getting massages (more on that in a later post) and our Myanmar/Burma visa, we also fell prey to the many shopping opportunities in Bangkok. Anything you want is there. Real or fake. Expensive or cheap.

Rested and with newly minted Myanmar visas in tow we were doing just fine. Until we started getting the itch. That ever-present, nagging itch that will probably haunt me for the rest of my life...

So off to Chiang Mai we went!

Nestled in the hills in northern Thailand, Chiang Mai is backpacker/biker/aspiring man-o'-eastern-religion heaven. Stay at a very nice, yet affordable, hotel and lazily experience the place. Take fantastic naps. Enjoy the fact that there's a moat around the old city. Haggle at the night market. Have fun!

Being the intrepid travelers we are, we rented a moped to see the sights. Only after a nap of course. Never mind that practically everyone (including tourists) over the age of 12 rides one and they're slightly more difficult to operate than a shopping cart... Hello adventure!

Wind in our eyebrows (hair was covered by a helmet of course - safety first!) and sunburn starting to make it's mark on our arms, we headed up the mountain (I think I can I think I can) to the Wat Phrathap Doi Suthep monastery, stopping at the random pretty waterfall along the way. The top afforded fantastic views of flat Chiang Mai and typically ornate Buddhist architecture. And plenty of tourists.

But for me, the most interested part of our stay in Chiang Mai was the appropriately named Monk Chat in which we participated last night. It is what it sounds like. There are monks. With whom you chat. About anything. About everything.

Our expat monk friends (they were both from Vietnam just in Chiang Mai studying) predictably discussed Buddhism, their daily routine (meditate, walk around the community to collect food/money, study, meditate some more, etc.), and the normal stuff (name, age, family demographics, etc.). Then, when we thought the conversation was close to over, Lauren asked if they had any questions for us.

"Yes. Can you explain Christianity please?"

Uh... sure...?

And that's when the conversation became interesting. Pooling all of our collective Sunday School- and Children's Bible-garnered knowledge, we did our best. I thought we did rather well actually, but the conversation soon fixated on the idea of penance after wrongdoing. Buddhism teaches you to never do bad things. If you do you will suffer in the next life in a manner directly proportionate to your crime. 100 years in the fiery depths for murder, etc. The fact that one could, in theory at least, do wrong and be forgiven by God was strange to our friends. Hard to fathom for them. Hard for us to explain given the language barrier as well - the monks apparently chat with tourists mostly so they can improve their English. And my Thai is... well... yeah.

You see, Christians believe that God knows when you have truly transformed to a point where you won't do it again. Only then do you get a chance to go to Heaven. Oh, and you have to believe in Jesus - remember that guy?

But they weren't as interested in Jesus. They really wanted to know what happened when/if you did bad things. Basically, they wanted to know what were the religious deterrents to crime and barriers to recitivism if you could just be forgiven. Are there strict religious (rather than secular i.e. laws of the state) guidelines? When does it make sense to integrate religious and state laws (in Bhutan and Thailand there is little, if any, separation), especially when wearing your boots to bed is a crime in Oklahoma? They're interesting questions and ones that deserves much more comparative research and general smarts that I obtain. The whole conversation also brought into focus the awkward reality that we were talking about our religion to people trained in and who practice theirs everyday.

After Monk Chat we meditated. Well, more like there was a monk at the front of the room explaining how to do meditation and we tested it out. Sitting. Standing. Walking. Laying down. Unfortunately, I was really bad at it. The whole idea is to clear your mind so that you open yourself up for some higher level of eventual enlightenment. Who knew it was so hard not to think?! Ask my family and friends and they'll tell you I regularly don't think... But this was different. Try it. For the next minute (or 5 or 10 or 60), be very still and don't think about anything. Ready. Set. Go!

See, I told you it was tough! The fan whirring. The dog barking. The sweat trickling down my back. Samples at the Whole Foods. Mopeds and mortality. Ideas for the next blog post... Apparently it takes practice and I'm not even close to being there. But, in any religion (or way of life for that matter) I do see the benefits of it. Imagine what we could accomplish if we could only clear our minds of the clutter of our constantly connected world. Imagine a mental blank slate, a new beginning from where to launch yourself. Imagine the calmness created in your soul by simply vanishing.

Just don't imagine it while meditating. That's against the rules.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

From Bhutan: Photos!

Check out the photos from Bhutan! As explained ad nauseum before, it's an amazing place. Stunning. These are probably photos that I'm going to have to revisit later as I'm not sure I was able to truly do the place justice with the iPad iPhoto app. But here's to trying!

More to come from Thailand and Myanmar next week, especially since we just got our visas for Myanmar!

Stay tuned...

Friday, May 18, 2012

From Bhutan: Gross National Amazingness

Apologies in advance for the long post... but if you've ever been interested in going to or learning more about Bhutan I encourage you to read on. Also, there just might be a twist that'll also be worth your time, especially if you know Lauren and me. Nevertheless I realize that it's still highly likely that my mother will be the only one to get all the way through... Pictures to come soon!

Only 8 pilots are qualified to fly into Bhutan's Paro International Airport largely because the approach involves winding through the Himalayas. The interwebs tell me that only 28,000 tourists visited Bhutan last year (compared with 500,000 in neighboring Nepal). Almost the entire country sits about 7,000 feet.

In other words, Bhutan is out there. Odds are you've never even heard of it... right? I definitely hadn't before seeing a glimpse of the royal wedding on tv last year. So much color, so much tradition, so much... wait, where is this again?

It's a shame really. Bhutan is, hands down, one of the (if not the) most beautiful places I've ever had the pleasure of visiting. Hands. Down. And now it represents a folded page corner in the storybook of my life.

Stepping off the plane in Paro last Monday, I couldn't help but think (or maybe I even thought it out loud...) "what is this, the most beautiful place on earth?" The landing strip is surrounded on both sides by tall, tree-covered hills. The air is crisp and clean (a welcome respite from Delhi). Fellow tourists immediately start taking pictures. I immediately started planning the surprise.

To back up, even getting to Bhutan is not easy. Basically, if you're not Indian, you have to book through a local travel agent to the tune of at least $250/night all-inclusive and fly on the obnoxiously expensive Drukair, Bhutan's national airline. The $250 is a non-negotiable government-imposed minimum; not exactly backpacker territory. More on the government in a bit.

We booked through an eenie, meenie, minee, moe online process and landed with Bhutan Footprints. All in all we were extremely satisfied with our trip and would definitely recommend BF. More than just a selection on the feedback form, our time in Bhutan with BF exceeded all of our expectations. Particularly Tin Lei, our amazing (and eternally patient) guide and our non-stop-smiling driver whose name Lauren and I can't, for the life of us, remember...

Most tourists come to Bhutan to trek the glorious mountains. According to Tin Lei, the most challenging of these treks is lovingly referred to as the 'Snowman'. 23 days hiking 6 to 7 hours a day and camping in tents, often on top of snow. Intense. There are apparently other shorter/easier ones but that one was definitely the one that stood out.

Although we'd love to come back to do a trek, this time we were confined to only four nights i.e. just a taste. First two in Thimpu, the capital city of this mountain kingdom for so long isolated from all but the most intrepid of travelers. Second two in Paro which, in addition to hosting the only international airport because it has a valley (barely) long enough for a runway, is the staging point for day hikes up to the Tiger's Nest. More on that too in a bit.

Almost as if it were a government requirement (turns out it's one of the few things that isn't), the buildings in Thimpu are all adorned with traditional ornge, blue, red and black dominated window trim, painted symbols of luck, prosperity and fertility, and other fun stuff that essentially turns the capital city into one large piece of art.

Everywhere you go in this world you can find handicrafts. Everywhere you go they claim to have the best 'this' and the most impressive 'that'. Only in Bhutan, the one place where no such claims were issued by its modest people, might this actually be true. To preserve the national arts (there are 13 of them to be exact, including painting, sculpture, wood work and embroidery), the government selects the most talented prodigies from all over the country to study at a school in Thimpu that we were lucky enough to visit. And, naturally, we ended up testing the global boundaries of Mastercard and Visa after wandering from classroom to classroom watching talent manifest itself.

After (electronically) emptying our pockets, Tin Lei took us to some sort of zoo-like place to see the Takin, the national animal of Bhutan. Bhutan is a Buddhist country. Very Buddhist. So much so that the Abbot - the head of all monks in the country - is on equal footing with the King. The palaces (ornate yet functional) are equal part government offices, equal part monastery; a dual system of political and monastic rule. For your child to become a monk is a source of immense pride. The history and tales of monks and deities permeate all aspects of society. Therefore, it's no surprise that the Takin, one of the most awkward (and dare I say ugly) animals I've ever seen, was 'created' by a monk centuries ago. Known as the 'Mad Man', this particular monk was revered across the land for his degree of knowledge and enlightenment despite the fact that he was, in almost every way, non-traditional. Asked to perform a miracle by some doubters, he told them to bring him a goat and a cow. After slaughtering and eating them he placed the bones of the goat skull on top of the bones of the cow body and voila!!! the Takin was born.

What made Tin Lei's time with us extra memorable was his obvious personal devotion to and never-ending knowledge of Buddhism, constantly on display. Like when we had the distinct pleasure of visiting the Tango monastery high above in the hills surrounding Thimpu. Ironically, the Tango is a monastic dance academy... just kidding. Bad joke. Sorry. However, Tango is an academy for young monks and is also home to the 7th reincarnation of the monk who founded the place. Reincarnation and rebirth are a large part of the culture and is one of the ways that Buddhism continues to be such a strong way of life. In case you were wondering, there is a rather exhaustive process of testing the authenticity of reincarnation... Other than the stunning views and Lauren gazing out over her queendom, Tin Lei's explanation of the six different parts (or perhaps stages is more appropriate?) of the Buddhist universe, depicted (as it was at Tango) in a circular globe held up by the teeth of a demon-like god, was comprehensive and fascinating.

Like Buddhism, the Bhutanese government's presence is felt at every turn. From the ridiculous $250/night to the national dress to the menus at restaurants (not kidding), they're everywhere. Yet, in this mountain kingdom of barely 700,000 people, it seems to work. It's been this way so long and the government is gradually allowing democracy to creep in; poverty is consistent (I don't really want to say low because life in the village is apparently pretty basic) and most services (education, health care, etc.) are free. Not only did Tin Lei and the rest of the locals we met seem content with their lives and government, their happiness is measured! By Gross National Happiness (commonly referred to as GNH) to be exact. Not sure exactly how this is measured (if anyone has any info on this please let me know), but every year school children, during their school holidays so they don't get into other types of trouble, go out to the village and find out just how happy everyone is (or more accurately, claims to be). Odds are you've heard of the concept at least in passing; now there are conferences (next one's in Brazil and I really want to go) and special meetings with heads of state on the topic. "GNH, coming soon to a census interview near you!"

As we were driving from Thimpu to Paro on the morning of day three, Tin Lei began talking to us about the Tiger's Nest. No trip to Bhutan was complete without experiencing up-close-and-personal the monastery in (literally in) the hill. Turns out he was right!

Back in the day, a Tibetan monk turned his 'consort' i.e. lady friend into a tiger and then rode her (through the air I believe) to the site of what is today known as the Tiger's Nest. Bhutan has a long and complicated relationship with Tibet, now further convoluted by China's ongoing rule of Tibet that, among other things, has caused modern-day Bhutan to look to India for a military and political ally over China (which, given cultural and other reasons seems to me like more of a natural partner). India jumped at the opportunity to hedge against it's biggest regional pain in the neck and now provides infrastructure, military and other support to Bhutan.

But back to Tibet. Buddhism came to Bhutan from Tibet. Although the types differ today (yellow hat, represented by the Dalai Lama, being from Tibet and red hat from Bhutan), the history is undeniable. Most of the Buddhist monks who have made lasting impacts on Bhutan came from Tibet. Yet wars were fought (three to be exact) and feelings were hurt. It's complicated. I don't pretend to know all the details but it would definitely make a fascinating thesis topic.

The hike up to the Tiger's Nest took about two hours (roundtrip, including lunch halfway, took us 4 hours and 47 minutes, but who's counting...?) with a short tea/photography break in the middle. Breathtaking in the metaphorical and physical sense, the hike and the fact that we really had to work for our reward made arrival at the monastery all the more special. Sweaty, tired, amazed and still planning my surprise, I trudged up the final few steps (of which there were quite a bit more than a few), all the while telling myself that if the average age of visitors is 50s-60s... certainly I could make it to the top too!

Unfortunately, there was one final glitch in my plan. We had to leave our bags, cameras... everything at the base of the monastery before entering. And there was a pat down. At long last I finally had to bring someone else into the mix. Thus, the security guard at the base of the Tiger's Nest monastery in Bhutan was the first person to know that I intended to propose to Lauren. After paying our due respects to the several monastic holy rooms literally built into the rock, the time finally came as we stood at the peak of the complex overlooking the vast valley below.

And lo and behold, after over fives years of same city, long distance and cohabitative dating spanning four continents, quite a few adventures and countless smiles... she said yes!

For many, many, many reasons (but mainly the last one), Bhutan will always hold a special place in my heart. 

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

From India: Photos!

I made the decision to post pictures online as we go along. Although Lauren and I are currently in Bhutan (having an amazing time - more on that later!), I have finally gotten around to posting the photos from our time in India.

They can be found here.

Thanks to Alex, Vinayak, Meenakshi, Manish, Kavitha and all the rest of our friends new and old that made our stay in India so great!

Still to go on the trip: Bhutan, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, Myanmar/Burma (not necessarily in that order), Australia, New Zealand & Japan!

Sunday, May 13, 2012

From India: I'm Famous in India

Well, to be a bit more precise, Lauren is more famous than I am. As I had mentioned in a previous post, Indians love to take pictures with white people. They probably see me as some massive freak of nature and Lauren is substantially more attractive than I am, so it's understandable that she's a much bigger draw. At the very least neither of us has red hair...

To her credit, she was always a very good sport about it. Her Miss America wave needs a little work but other than that she's absolutely ready for her impending post-HKS fame.

It's weird to think that our pictures are going to be in some random Indian family's living room in between the yellow silk flowers and massive Hindu god mural... or passed around on a cell phone by Indian teenagers as the latest check mark in some sort of never ending scavenger hunt. The price of fame I suppose?

Lauren tried to rationalize this (undeniably odd) behavior by saying that we'd probably do the same thing if we saw Tibetan monks roaming around 6th street in Austin or the Lincoln Memorial in DC.

I beg to differ.

Unless it's a two headed labrador retriever or a Republican in summer not wearing khaki pants and a blue button down shirt, I'm not stopping. Although, now that I think about it, I might just have to stop the next Indian I see in Boston to take their picture; if nothing else to see the confused look on their face.

Thanks for the amazing time India... we're off to Bhutan!

Saturday, May 12, 2012

From India: No Need to Manage Expectations at the Taj

I make it a point to manage my expectations. Don't expect much out of The Avengers and be pleasantly surprised that it wasn't terrible. Expect to be hassled by trinket hawkers and stay calm when you'd really like to ask them why they choose not to understand the word 'no'. Expect no ice cream to ever be as good as Blue Bell. Expect the Taj Mahal to actually not be as amazing as I have envisioned it to be in my head all these years...

Circular logic aside, actually arriving in Agra we were, first and foremost, looking forward to stretching our legs after the five hour drive from Jaipur. After picking up our guide Monika at the train station and after watching her, a 5' nothing young woman just about to complete her Masters in Indian history (win for us), completely own the pushy men at the ticket counter (we had high hopes of taking the train from Agra to Delhi that evening...), we pulled up to the parking lot at le Taj Mahal.

At this point I'd like to point out that Lauren had high hopes for the Taj. Apparently she didn't have the same apprehensions as I do in this regard. After walking through the outer gate into the blinding sunlight illuminating what is without a doubt a legitimate wonder of the world, neither of us were disappointed.

A masterpiece. An architectural wonder. A beautiful blend of Islamic and Hindu styles. A love story?

Built by some king several centuries ago (honestly, if you're really interested in the details there's plenty online), the most interesting thing about the structure was that it was built to honor not the first, not the second, but the third wife of the king. Apparently after striking out in the child-bearing deparment with numbers 1 & 2, he hit the jackpot with numero tres. To the tune of 14 children (win for him) no less! Although he built smaller, consolation relatively alright buildings on the corner of the complex for the others, the one who secured his lineage got the Taj (posthumous win for her).

Other interesting facts about the building are that the big man (ok, ok, his name was Shah Jahan) was obviously OCD. Or just obsessive about making every detail of the building symmetrical in some way. Or both - one because of the other perhaps? Needless to say, Lauren (herself mildly obsessed with symmetry : yrtemmys htiw dessesbo yldlim flesreh) was in heaven. 17th century Moghul heaven to be exact. Ironically, the only glaring asymmetry is the position of the king's tomb next to that of his beloved third wife (who died before he did) who's grave is smack under the middle of the dome. Apparently Jahan also planned to build a black marble equivalent next to the Taj and connect them with a black and white checkered marble walkway; unfortunately he died shortly after the foundation for the planned heat magnet (the white marble was hot enough under the May sun...) was dug.

May turned out to be a rather stellar time to visit the Taj. Since we've both spent the last 2+ years living in equatorial hot boxes, we're quite used to living in perpetual states of sweat (me more than her of course; she glows not sweats). Since it's at an odd time in the western school year calendar, there were few foreign tourists. There were a few Indian tourists (the government makes visiting historical sites very cheap for Indians) but they almost seemed more interested in taking pictures with the white people (i.e. us - more on this later) than with the Taj. Especially the tall, light-skinned red-headed girl. She might as well have been a five-legged Hindu god riding on a tiger given the amount of attention she was receiving.

Must-have cheesy Taj Mahal jumping photo
As for the train trip to New Delhi from Agra that evening? Never happened. After walking around in the heat for 2+ hours the prospect of an air-conditioned, comfortable, hassle free car ride was too much for us. Until, of course, karma (we are in India after all) came back to bite us in the form of a flat tire in the middle of nowhere... can't help but think we deserved that.


Thursday, May 10, 2012

From India: Elefantastic!

On Sunday night we decided to travel from Mumbai to Jaipur as our next stop. Thanks to the interwebs and the fact that you don't have to book flights years in advance like the good 'ol days, we left for the airport early Monday morning and were there before noon.

Jaipur is the forgotten (at least to ill-versed tourists like us) corner of the 'golden triangle', also including New Delhi and a subtle little building in Agra called the Taj Mahal. Known for it's precious stones (some of which were used on the Taj) and excellent handicrafts (many of which are currently in the hands of DHL on their way to Lauren's aunt in Maryland - thanks Aunt Sue!), Jaipur also has a fantastic fort and charming old palace that rivals Topkapi in Istanbul; less in terms of current state and more by the easily conjured image of decadence (yes, including multitudes of concubines, wives, etc.) that the Maharajas of old obviously enjoyed.

But, as is evident by the title of this post, the highlight of our time in Jaipur was intimately experiencing something which most of the hundreds of thousands of tourists only catch a glimpse of while being transported from the base of the fort through the ceremonially entrance gate to the palace on the hill.

Usually I spend at least 5 minutes trying to come up with a catchy (and usually cheesy) post title that, among other things, is meant to secure copious amounts of eye rolling from my patient travel companion. Thanks to Rahul, the brains behind Jaipur's #1 rated Trip Advisor activity, my task in this regard was easy!

A quick online search will show you that 'working' elephants in India have a less than stellar reputation for being treated appropriately by their owners. I have to admit, even before googling it and after seeing how other animals (except cows which are revered in Hinduism) are treated, I had my concerns. To show that not all elephants are mistreated and that a deep and touching bond can exist between rider and beast, Rahul thought up Elefantastic earlier this year. Well, that and he's also obviously a stellar entrepreneur... the possibility of making good money off of idealistic, animal-loving tourists (I know at least two and we're traveling together) was also undoubtedly a driving force.

Thanks to an animal rights-inspired Indian law that prohibits elephants from transporting tourists up to the palace after mid morning (don't know if this is an all-year thing or just during the hot months), the magnificent animals basically get to hang out the rest of every day being fed, bathed and entertained by their riders. And, thanks to Elefantastic that day, also by two lovely young British world travelers, Lauren and me!

From a business perspective, it's a win/win all around for Rahul. Priced right at the threshold for what most tourists would be willing to pay for a very personal day with elephants (~US$100) and, with little additional effort, able to produce additional cash off of what they do everyday anyways... yeah, good business model if you ask me.

Once the elephants returned from working at the fort/palace in late morning, we got to leisurely enjoy their company. No rush. No hurry. Feed them. Drink chai. Pet them. Ride them. Paint them (all natural dyes of course). Drink more chai. Talk to them. Love them.

Lunch at Rahul's mother's house was included in our deal (as is dinner I believe although we opted out of that). Not only did Rahul's family, fourth generation elephant owners, live next to the animals, but the riders also lived in the same neighborhood. Those with families had separate homes. Bachelors slept with the elephants. Given the fact that most elephants live upwards of 70 years and one rider spends his entire time with the same animal... that's a lot of together time!

(Side note - I understand that some rights activists would prefer the elephants to roam free. Fair point and in an ideal world I don't disagree. But after four generations and countless elephant-centered cultural activites - weddings/festivals/etc. - the practice of using elephants for work isn't going anywhere... so it was really nice to find a place that cared about them enough to treat them well.)

But back to lunch. The food was predictably awesome, but it was the fact that we were in their living room that made it more unique and special. This is how Jaipur-ians live. The huge tapestry of a seven-trunked elephant. The big, decorative furniture. The unrelenting hospitality.

As if that wasn't enough elefantasm for one day, we also were taken on a 'safari' and had the amazing opportunity to help bathe the teenage 'baby' of the bunch. For the latter, it wasn't until afterwards that we wondered about the wisdom of swimming in the man-made lake that was essentially a bath tub for the area's elephants. As for the 'safari', the quotes around the word are definitely essential. It was more like an uber-cheesy, slow, relaxing walk through the woods on top of an elephant wearing, you guessed it, an uber-cheesy turban. We approached it as such and were fine. Approach it looking to spot copious wildlife and you're in for a disappointment.

In all, I give Elefantastic a solid A. Great idea. Good execution. Amazing animals.

To Rahul I offer the following advice for him to take or leave: keep it as authentic as possible. Don't take your lovely mother out of the equation. Keep it personal. Don't worry about checking to see if we're having a good time every few minutes - trust me, westerners will let you know if everything's not ok. And lastly, keep it as small as possible - given the positive press (and the ever-important Trip Advisor rating), more people will be knocking on your door. Especially during the busy tourist season. The temptation to grow and grow fast will be there. Fight that temptation.

Keep it small. Keep it authentic. Keep it all about the elephants. And your mom, she was pretty great too!

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

From India: Functional Chaos

India is many things to many people. However, it's safe to say that it's probably chaotic for everyone. Not only did I not realize just how chaotic life (especially transportation) is here, I had absolutely no clue how functional said chaos really is.

Don't get me wrong, there's plenty about this place that has little function (or utility) associated with it. The visa process is maddening. I would love to have more conversations with Indians that didn't involve them trying to sell me something. Staring at white people is not an olympic sport.

But I have to admit I'm taken by India. It's a fascinating place that is never dull with hidden gems around every dusty corner. And there's just a certain beauty to how all the auto rickshaws, taksis, motorbikes and pedestrians defy all logic, reason, and laws of physics to get from point A to point B without dying. I imagine it looking from above, in black and white and shades of gray, the different objects mere polygons moving in a steady, functionally chaotic way.

Thankfully, we've been lucky enough to survive all of our taksi and auto rickshaw rides to date (knock on wood) and have immensely enjoyed them in the process. They make absolutely no sense. The lawnmower engines. The tripod of bald wheels that threaten to tip you over on every turn. The sense that there's no way that we will fit into that spac... nevermind, you did it again you crazy mustached auto rickshaw driver. Bravo!

Since I am an ex-expat aid worker with more than one international posting under my belt, I'm naturally able to almost immediately decipher local culture in ways that even Indians living here all their lives could not dream of... So with that in mind, here are some other, (mostly) non-transportation related expert observations about India:

  • Michael Jackson is alive and well, both in terms of music and, more importantly, in terms of style
  • Saris baring midriff are appropriate dress for women of all ages, shapes and sizes
  • India has a complicated relationship with the UK that involves equal parts admiration, resentment, nostalgia and contempt
  • Daddy, mommy, little johnny, little suzy, and little rajanpur riding on one moped together in rush hour traffic totally redefines the concept of a 'family vehicle'
  • Hinduism dominates every corner of society and culture - unfortunately I still can't explain it to save my life
  • I consistently wonder whether Indians think I'm less of a man because I don't have a robust follicle explosion (mustache just didn't seem to suffice here) on my upper lip.
  • Chipatis are tortillas
Stay tuned for more tales from the road, including swimming with elephants in Jaipur and Lauren and Erol go to the Taj!

Friday, May 4, 2012

From India: Possibly the Coolest. Man. Ever.

92 years young, Boman Kohinoor tapped the overambitious young server on the shoulder. I got this young man was the unspoken message immediately received.It was pretty apparent that he liked us from the start, especially given the fact that the stories (and accompanying laminated proof documents) began almost immediately. The letter from the Queen's Lady in Waiting. The US Ambassador's lunch - that included bomb sniffing dogs and six machine gun weilding bodyguards - during which the Ambassador insisted on the recipe for Britannia's famous berry pulau dish.

Only if you give me the recipe for Coca Cola! he replied without missing a beat.

The obvious star of what has to be one of Mumbai's most charming (and colonialism-inspired) Parsi restaurants and an unabashed flirt, Mr. Kohinoor is sharp as a tack and must be an icon in the local restaurant community. He's also apparently Hillary Clinton's biggest fan:
Possibly @HRClinton's biggest fan is in Mumbai!
Not that it mattered all that much given the entertainment provided by the most endearing waiter (for the record he is the owner) I've ever seen, but the food (topped off by the "world famous" creme caramel) was delicious!

Ever the ladies man, Mr. Kohinoor brought over a super cheesy (and of course laminated) postcard of William and Kate towards the end of the meal.

There's one pretty English Kate here, he smirked with a not-so-subtle twinkle in his eye, barely visible through thick bifocals low on his nose. But these two American Kates (i.e. Lauren and Alex) are prettier!

Oh, he added, glancing at me. And you look more like Harry anyways.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

From Turkey: The Only Good Reason to Get to the Airport Early

The only good reason to get to the airport early turns out to be the Turkish Airlines lounge in Istanbul. I'd expect to see something like this is Dubai or Singapore... but Istanbul? My people have certainly come up in this world! Full support.Movie theater. iMac computer stations with printers. Fresh pide station. Bathrooms that would make most hotels blush. Efes Pilsen. Some sort of children's room from which I immediately distanced myself. Library with pool table. Flat screen tvs everywhere. Did I mention the pide?

I have no clue why I am showing up as Star Alliance Gold on THY's computer system (because according to United I'm just a lowly Silver member), but you won't catch me (or Lauren) complaining. Now if only this translated into upgrades for our bazillion hour flight to Mumbai...

We're off to the subcontinent! (Although unfortunately that means we have to leave the lounge...)

From Turkey: Istanbul's Best Kept Secret

Without a doubt, Istanbul's best kept secret is the Hotel Sumahan. Tucked away in the sleepy neighborhood of Cengelkoy on the Asian side, Sumahan is away from (but just a short complementary boat ride away from) all the hustle and bustle of 20M people in what was once considered not just a suburb of the great city but a separate village altogether.

Fortuitously, my family has maintained an apartment overlooking the Bosphorus in Cengelkoy since well before I was thought of. And no, you may not stay there (unless by some miracle my father allows you to) so don't even ask! This is fortuitous mainly because we can simply enjoy Sumahan and Cengelkoy's other many offerings for a fraction of the cost while still pretending that we, too, are of the Turkish intelligentsia/elite and that one of the several BMW 7 Series (outnumbered in today's Istanbul only by brand new black Range Rovers) valet parked outside is ours.

We love Cengelkoy for it's beautiful location right on the water, the views of both bridges crossing from Europe to Asia and back (including views of the Haghia Sofia, Topkapi and Sultan Ahmet/Blue Mosque on a clear day), the unmistakable charm of Turkish village life in the middle of the city, and the fact that running into a foreigner (i.e. non Turk) is the exception rather than the norm. Of course, we also now love Cengelkoy for bringing us Sumahan.
Champagne, meze and Nook reading on the Bosphorus at Hotel Sumahan

Lauren and I were pleasantly surprised to find that Sumahan offers full hamam (Turkish bath) facilities and other lovely bits of decadence. Although a tad bit pricey (one must entertain indulgences periodically to preserve sanity in our cruel world... or at least that's what I tell myself when the bill comes...), the hamam was well worth it. Top it all off with champagne and delicious meze (appetizers) on Sumahan's private terrace on the water (see picture) and... well... 'wow' is all that comes to mind.

Moral of the story: when in Istanbul definitely check out everything you see in your guidebook about Sultan Ahmet, Topkapi, Kapali Carsi, Beyoglu, etc. But if you're interested in stepping off the beaten path (and if your budget can handle it), definitely treat yourself to Hotel Sumahan. You won't be sorry.