Sunday, December 8, 2013

Traveling India

The past two days have been a bit of a blur, traveling all over rural Trichy and beyond in Southern India, taking three flights to Nagpur, and traveling around the rural area here. (One note for foreign travelers to India - you have to go through security again at each new airport when you are making connections. Had I been alone, I would've stood around trying to find the way to transfers - since I had my boarding passes already for the day.)

I feel lucky to have experienced places in India that most tourists would never see. However, in doing so, I have also seen what a struggle it is for the people we work with to meet their basic needs. While many of them have been able to build toilets or construct a private water point, they have to work very hard to repay their debts. They are beautiful and vibrant people, full of hopes and dreams for themselves and their family's futures.

We met a particularly remarkable woman today who has been able to build a lovely home, a toilet, a water point and a successful goat business. She recently sold off most of her inventory to marry off her two daughters. She told us, "Before we were able to get a loan to build a toilet, the men did not see us as equals. Now that we have been able to build toilets, we have been empowered. Now we have a voice." She was asking the staff I was with about ways she can help other women in her small village start a business so that they are able to have a better life as well.

A lively discussion took place about maybe starting a canteen lunch program for local students and bachelors. Most of it was not translated for me but I could tell by the reactions from the women that they were thinking about it as a real possibility, giggling when bachelors were mentioned. Sometimes I forget that I can't understand what is being said. Some things just make sense without words.

When you walk from house to house, village to village, things can start to blend together. For a brief moment I thought, "another toilet? another tap?" But then, I saw the pride in each woman's face as she shows us how water comes out into her vessel or how clean she keeps the toilet and I want to see more.

The man in the bottom right corner is Kathirvel, a 65-year old "retired" mason who has worked to build over 200 toilets in his community over the past year. He works for the women who have taken out WaterCredit loans and it takes him two days to build each one. He is visited by many people who come from far away to meet this community hero. He chatted with us briefly and went right back to work. Namaste.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Real India

In my last post, I was giving myself a hard time for sticking around the office and my hotel. Today I got out and experienced India fully, complete with eating with my hand this lovely South Indian lunch above. The staff in the office were giving me a hard time about using the spoon they provided, so I dug in, literally today.
Also, for those of you who know me, I can be a bit of a picky eater and avoid sauces or food I don't recognize always. I wanted to put on the record (Mom) that I tried everything on my plate.

I spent the day with one of the partner organizations we work with. In the morning there were presentations and Q&A time with the Community Health Workers who go into the villages and educate people on the importance of having a toilet in their home. They also teach hygiene education in the local schools. The kids sang me four songs about the importance of clean water and sanitation and asked me to return with a song - I chose Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star, which they clapped along to.

After visiting several of the classrooms, the headmistress (left), and Jayanti, my co-worker in the India office (right), had photos taken outside of the school's toilet block. I am pretty sure it's normal for visitors to come and be most excited about the toilets.

The teacher of the first-year students was teaching them the alphabet, using the floor as a chalkboard. I thought this was my best photo all day.

Tea time is very serious, so we stopped on our way to visit some of the villages (and yes, the toilets there) at this roadside tea shop. This was only half of the group of men and boys standing directly in front of me, watching me drink my tea. The other half scattered when I started to take a picture.
After tea, we visited three villages and met women who serve on water committees and work together to save money to lend to each other for water and sanitation improvements. After the visits were over, one of my other co-workers picked Jayanti and I up for dinner at his house with his wife and two sons. Dinner was delicious and the children's dance recital video we watched for two hours was interesting but I was so tired that I turned down the last tea of the day. Thanks for stopping by!

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Today in India

Sometimes when I travel, I try hard to find interesting things to see/do/eat so that I have "good" things to blog about that hopefully will entertain anyone stopping by here. That's not to say that I am trying to contrive things (too much) but it definitely keeps me moving so that I can create something. When I used to travel for my old job, I would find places to check out after work so I could share something interesting about my travel, even if I'd been working all day.

I've been working for the past three days in the India office (sitting at a desk all day, except at lunchtime when I move 10 feet to the table and back) and eating my meals before and after in the hotel. I like to explore new places but sometimes it's too dark to wander around or seems overwhelming when I don't speak the language or know what anything is on the menu. (I will be traveling more with a colleague starting tomorrow for the rest of my trip, so I would imagine my blog posts about India will be enriched from here on out.)

That brings me to today. I read a story the other day about a guy who captures his everyday life in pictures, even though it may not be particularly exciting stuff. His photo blog on Instagram has built a large following and he just posts objects or scenes from his everyday life. In a society where everything is innovative, high-tech and shocking in some way or another, I think it's easy to look past things of perhaps lesser excitement. These things, though, tell a story, like my day below.

The feast on the left is like all of my lunches this week - containers and baggies full of lots of sauces, curries, rices, plant parts, etc. that I can't remember the names of. However, what I can remember is how everyone comes together for lunch and swaps all the things they've brought, tempting each other to try things in the tiniest containers (which is a warning sign to me that the item is either very spicy or very bitter, or both!) and giggling when I say something is too spicy.

The tea on the top right comes to me twice a day, sweetened with condensed milk, in the morning and afternoon. Although I can't spell her name, there is this lovely woman in the office who takes care of the cleaning and the beverages everyday. In the morning she brings two biscuits, tea and water with little plastic plates on top. She clears everything away with a smile and comes back in the afternoon with more tea and water.

Finally, the last photo is from the fourth floor balcony, which is the floor our office is on. The street below, at this particular moment, held one cow grazing in the trash, a man on a two-wheeler, a woman walking, and a construction site. There is an abandoned looking preschool across the street which reminds me of places I've seen before that I've thought were old but were in fact new.

Thanks for enjoying my day with me, may you find beauty in your day as well. Tomorrow I am visiting one of our partners' offices and I will finally make it to the field to see our work firsthand.

Monday, December 2, 2013

Warming Up in India

I arrived in India on Saturday night (or morning, I guess it was 1am) and spent the night in Chennai. Sunday I hung around the hotel, caught up on three weeks of work emails and then flew down to Trichy (where our office is). It usually takes me a day or two to start getting the hang of things when I get to a new country and my experience so far has been great. The people are friendly and helpful and I have enjoyed my time so far.

Today, I went to work after a good night's rest (not feeling too jet lagged, thankfully) and a nice Western-style breakfast. The office was quiet and I enjoyed spending time with the people who were in the office (everyone else is traveling). At lunchtime food was ordered for me and I sweated through my first authentic Indian meal. It was delicious but my tastebuds are going to get a workout. So many flavors and spices even in simple dishes. Definitely not like the Indian food I have had in the U.S.

Before I left the states, one of my co-workers tipped me off to max as the place to shop for great, work-appropriate clothing for India (thanks, Janet!). Luckily, there was one right next to my hotel that I stopped by after work. I bought three half-sleeve tunics and a scarf for under US$30. I am here a few more days, I might be back before I move on to the next city this weekend.
Afterwards, I headed down to one of the hotel restaurants and had some dinner. The spicy golden prawns (left) were gum numbingly hot, but still tasty and the cheese dosa was yummy and almost as long as my arm.
I am pretty sure all the black tea I had today is responsible for keeping me upright all the way until now, and it's after 9:30pm. Thanks for stopping by and seeing what I'm up to!

Friday, November 29, 2013

Down Under - Day 19

After a leisurely morning, we headed to explore Piha Beach and...
...a hike to Kitekite Falls. Since this is our last day in New Zealand, we decided to stick close to where we're staying and soak up the surroundings.
And, of course, what day wouldn't be complete without an exceptional meal? Today was no exception as we thoroughly enjoyed a three-hour lunch at The Refreshment Room on our way back to repack everything to head out tomorrow. A local favorite, this Italian gem is something we would've missed had our host not suggested it.
We feasted on: (from left, clockwise) risotto w/greens, mozzarella and candied onions, homemade ravioli w/spinach, mushrooms, pecorino and sun-dried tomatoes; chickpea and cheese fries with aioli, herb dip; bitter chocolate cake with in-house made salted caramel ice cream; and Brian's bowl of ice creams - hazelnut & Frangelico, espresso and stracciatella. The whole thing was delicious and was washed down with hard cider, pino gris and espresso.
Our footsteps on the beach unofficially marked the end of a fabulous vacation. Thanks for following along!

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Down Under - Day 18

We spent our Thanksgiving feeling happy to be alive (and to have survived the adventure we embarked on above). Driving north from New Plymouth towards Auckland, we stopped in Waitomo to check out the glowworm caves with the Black Water Rafting Company.
Before we headed into the cave, we had to practice jumping backwards off a 8' ledge with our tube to prepare for doing the same thing over waterfalls inside the cave -- I KNOW -- I thought I was going to pass out. Surprisingly, I survived the trial run, with Brian close behind me.
After our dry run on land, we headed into the cave. I don't know why I thought there would be this big hole you walked right into but there wasn't. It was narrow and cramped. After another safety briefing (and a group photo that didn't turn out), we walked through a stream of water, carrying our inner tubes. We stopped at one point to turn off our headlamps and learn about the glowworms, which are actually maggots who have eaten and glow to attract flying insects into their web (as they simulate sunlight).
[This is a stock photo, but we were in this same spot, doing this backwards jump.] As we walked along, we came to waterfalls (which we needed to jump), rapids (that we needed to ride), and some slower parts of water (where we held onto each others feet like a big snake) and enjoyed the cave. It was exhilarating and made me glad that I didn't know that much about the whole thing because I might have missed it all together -- being afraid of heights, small spaces, having inches above your head to breath while on your back, water in the dark, etc.
After that adventure, which was the #2 highlight of the trip for me, after our day sailing, we drove a few more hours back to Auckland where we are staying for the next two days before we head out - Brian home and me to India for work. We checked into our last Airbnb digs for the trip and walked to get some fresh fish and chips from the local takeaway. Unfortunately, the picnic tables by the beach are a magnet for ducks. The second we headed for them, ducks surrounded us on all sides. We didn't give into their beady little eyes, not for a second!
Thanks for checking in and reading up on our adventures. Happy Thanksgiving to all!

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Down Under - Day 16 & 17

Yesterday we drove about six hours north from Wellington to New Plymouth which is on the west coast of the north island. It rained the entire time until we got to our next Airbnb accommodations. We decided to stretch our legs along the Coastal Walkway before we headed to dinner. Along the way, we found this sculpture, called the Wind Wand, which moves around in the breeze. At night you can see its red light bobbing around over the town. Afterwards we had a delicious dinner at Arborio and unwound. 
The next day we decided to do a couple of hikes - one in Egmont National Park (above) and another along the other end of the Coastal Walkway. It was a beautiful day but the clouds hung around the volcano, preventing us from getting a good photo. We brought a picnic along with us and ate lunch along the way. After we got good and tired, we had some dinner and headed back for some showers and relaxing.

Monday, November 25, 2013

Down Under - Day 15

We started the day off with some of the best coffee in New Zealand and breakfast at Ti Kouka Cafe. I had a mocha and a soft boiled egg with Vegemite soldiers (look at me trying something new!). It had been forever since I'd had a soft boiled egg - may favorite part of the whole thing was its hat.
We then headed to Zealandia which is a nature preserve working to restore a valley back to the way it was before people came to New Zealand, bringing invasive species and destructive forestry habits. Apparently there were no land mammals original to New Zealand besides two types of bats. In the alcove behind the sign above, you could push buttons to make different bird call songs and summon them. This didn't work very well with multiple buttons being pushed by several people at once. We went on a guided walk, saw some reptiles and birds, and learned more about the sanctuary.
We stopped by the Zealandia Cafe before we headed out and had an amazing lunch. I had the pumpkin, spicy tomato, and cheese quesadilla and Brian had a lamb pie.
Brian then headed off to check out Weta Cave while I got a haircut. We spent the rest of the afternoon reading and deciding where to have our early Thanksgiving dinner since we likely won't be near much when it is actually Thanksgiving.
We decided on Logan Brown. It was super fancy and delicious. Brian had pork and I had kingfish, along with white asparagus and truffle fries. We devoured two desserts - the dark chocolate panna cotta and the caramel filled donuts with black pepper meringue. We were glad we had a nice walk home to help everything settle a bit.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Down Under - Day 14

Despite the tiny number of daily produced (and trademarked) cronuts being produced authentically at the Dominique Ansel Bakery in New York City everyday, they are popping up all over New Zealand bakeries. "Cleverly" spelled croinuts (maybe to avoid getting sued across the ocean), these croissant/donut hybrids couldn't be avoided by me for long. We started today at the City Market and I spotted this chocolate version. It was super messy (full of chocolate pudding) but so tasty.
After washing down the above pastry with a yummy latte, we ordered two breakfast sandwiches at Food for the People. I had a vegetable frittata and Brian had the bacon and egg butty.
We, unfortunately, got full and missed out on all of the other delicious, gourmet offerings. However, we did enjoy the live music and the beautiful view of the city from the water.
Right next to the market is the Museum of New Zealand - Te Papa. I was a little wary after our last New Zealand museum experience in Auckland, but I was pleasantly surprised by this beautiful collection of New Zealand's arts, culture, history, and ecology. When we walked into the lobby, there was a puppet show about a man in a boat being visited by a mermaid going on for children (although I liked it too).

We walked around three of the five floors for a couple of hours and headed to the gift shop which is infamous (in the guidebooks at least) as a great place to buy souvenirs that are reasonably priced and not tacky. The rest of the day was spent walking around in the sunny, 70-degree day, doing laundry in our in-room machine (yes mom, I am excited about that) and catching up on emails/bills.

We ate dinner at the General Practitioner. While it is no longer a doctor's office, the implements still line the walls. We both had the fish and chips (which were very good) and shared the meringue (which was a bit too sweet, even for me). It was getting cold and windy when we were done so we headed back to the hotel and called it a night.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Down Under - Day 13

This morning we woke up and headed for breakfast at Fidel's. I had homemade muslei with yogurt, bananas and honey and an iced latte. It's cute and funky but I couldn't capture it well enough in a photo to share. Afterwards, we wandered around the streets and did a little shopping.
For lunch, we went to the Nikau Gallery Cafe (which is inside a museum, in case you're ever looking for it). We made it with 5 minutes until the kitchen closed and I am glad we did. Pictured above is the panfried halloumi (cheese), lemon and grilled bread along with the grilled asparagus with mint. It was so yummy with my sparkling, old fashioned lemonade!
For the rest of the afternoon we explored the city and relaxed in our hotel. We decided to spend our evening learning about and watching our first cricket match at Westpac Stadium. We walked over and someone gave us free tickets at the gate. When we walked inside, we understood why - there was hardly anyone there. (The photo above was taken halfway through the game.) It was a nice night to enjoy the match. We started to get hungry and left a little after the second team's "at bat" but we were glad we went.
After the game we enjoyed a delicious margarita pizza at Pizzeria Napoli and enjoyed a nightcap at the Library Bar, which was cozy and had delicious drinks and cheeses (they also have desserts but we had some tiramisu after our pizza already).

I like to include links to places I've gone in case you ever want to go to any of them. Along with that, I thought I might share some things I've learned along the way in case you ever venture down under too (in no particular order):
  • People drive crazy fast and don’t always stay on their side of the road (most roads are two-lane)
  • Unless you plan on traveling all over, you could get by without a car, as most cities are very walkable and have bus systems
  • The sun is intense (I thought we would be fine, but sunburns are easily had)
  • They love Christmas (we saw banners for Christmas parades happening in mid-November, I guess without the Thanksgiving buffer, we’d be the same way)
  • Soda is expensive (a one-serving bottle at a gas station is like $4)
  • Women, I think they use the UK sizing system (where you subtract 4 from the size to get your US size, but things seemed to run a little small across the board so maybe subtract 6 instead)
  • Great restaurants, in multiple cities, run on a Tuesday-Saturday schedule (read "no yummy vittles served on Sunday/Monday," sad face)
  • Anything goes, clothing-wise (I like looking good but it’s not always practical when traveling; we have shown up lots of “nice” places looking a little ragged after a hike and no one seems to mind)
  • I’ve also witnessed quite a few barefooted people inside buildings and stores, this also seems fine with everyone (but gross to me)
  • People are really laid back and nice (the only snootiness I experienced was at the Nespresso store in Auckland, I saw another one in Wellington but I didn't go in)
  • Peanut butter can be purchased in the grocery store but I have yet to see it flavoring anything - candy, desserts, etc. - I love peanut butter!
  • While it is rather expensive to travel here (at least from the US), you can easily stick to a fixed budget for lodging, meals and entertainment 
  • Tipping isn't mandatory (which feels weird), but the good thing is if you still wish to tip, people are stoked about it
  • Unless you are at home (or in your hotel room) there is no brewed coffee option - it's all espresso beverages (which is fine by me!)

Friday, November 22, 2013

Down Under - Day 12

As you may have noticed, we are keeping busy and on the move. This makes finding time to be online a little difficult, so I am bringing to you the rest of the day before as well as today, now that we have now made it down to Wellington. After Hobbiton, we stopped in Matamata for some lunch at Workman's Cafe Bar. I had a lovely egg, cheese and tomato sandwich and Brian had a taco salad. We then drove the hour back to Rotorua and stopped by OGO Rotorua so that Brian could take a few trips down a hill in a big inflatable ball with enough water inside that he stayed upright for most of the ride.

Sorry for the dumb vertical filming; and, in case you were concerned, I don't really think that being born is gross.

After that adventure (which I skipped due to having to be zipped inside the ball and not having my swimsuit), we headed to the Redwoods forest which was right around the corner from our B&B.
Although it seems an odd mix of tropical palm trees, evergreens and redwoods, the forest is beautiful and a lovely walk after being in the car for most of the day. There are several trails of varying lengths that are well maintained. We opted for the 30 minute loop, which only took about 15 minutes.
We decided to have dinner at Bistro 1284 which is famed for its beef and lamb. I had the red snapper (foreground) and Brian had the rack of lamb. The main entrees were very good but the desserts (which the guidebook had praised) left a lot to be desired and at NZ$18 each, were very overpriced.
After dinner, we headed to Hells Gate because it sounded so romantic - kidding! I had always wanted to try hot springs and mud baths and we got both here under the stars. We went late enough that there were only four other people there. It was interesting but I am not sure I will get the sulfur smell off me, ever.
On our way to our next destination, Wellington, we stopped at Wai-O-Tapu to see the geyser and the different geothermal wonders along a short hike. The place was packed and the sulfur smell gave me a bit of a headache but it was worth seeing.
 The rest of the day was spent driving the six hours down to the Southern part of the North Island. We checked into the only hotel we are staying at this trip, The Bolton Hotel.
We walked over to Chow for a yummy dinner of Asian fusion tapas - (seven spice tofu, blue cheese and peanut wontons, five spice curry, and coconut prawn dumplings). There wasn't a bite left when we were done. After dinner we walked around a little night market and sat in a bar waiting on some music to start. When it did, we wished it hadn't, so we headed for bed.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Down Under - Day 11

Today we learned that we should have allotted more time for Rotorua. Originally, we hadn't even planned to go but kept finding references of things to do in this volcanic town. So we chopped a day off a couple of other locations and fit it in. In our one full day, we fit in so many things that I was feeling a bit stressed by the end - Hobbiton, Zorbing, hiking in the Redwoods Forest, twilight mud/hot springs spa, and two meals - and we still didn't do everything we wanted. We started the day off with an hour drive to Hobbiton.
As you may know, Hobbiton is the set for the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit films. The area where everything was built out is a beautiful, functioning sheep farm with over 16, 000 sheep. There are over 44 Hobbit Holes, like the one above.
The "party tree" to the left. (If this makes no sense to you, it didn't to me either, until this trip.)
Most of the Hobbit Holes are just facades but a couple of them you can go inside so that the cameras could shoot that perspective.
It's hard to believe it isn't real!
The "Green Dragon Inn" is fully functioning pub. They serve the Sobering Truth (beer brewed just for the movie at a low alcohol content as to not inebriate the cast during filming), a delicious cider, ginger beer and food.
I think I've run on long enough for one day, I will complete the rest of the day tomorrow. Thanks for stopping by!

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Down Under - Day 10

Getting on the 6am ferry came early this morning but it finally became worth it when we made it down to Cathedral Cove. Taking the tour guide book's advice, we arrived early (before 10am), got a parking spot and hiked in the 45 minutes down to the cove. We had fifteen minutes of exploration time before it started to pour. Hustling back to the car we must have passed at least a hundred people clambering to get to the cove after us. The parking lot was packed when we got back and we beat the lunch crowd.
The inside of the cove, looking back towards the beach. Brian took this, I am the tiny person on the right in the background.
Tucked away, we found Hot Waves Cafe which was such a treat - real nachos, black beans and all! Brian had a lamb pita and we shared a homemade baked goodie - a Nanaimo Bar - that disappeared so quickly, I couldn't even snap a photo.
After our morning adventure, we drove the rest of the way to our next destination - Rotorua. We are staying at a cute B&B with a super friendly, knowledgeable host who shared enough things for us to check out that we could be here for two weeks, instead of our allotted two days. We had booked a cultural dinner experience (tourist trap) at the Tamaki Maori Village. Luckily, despite the large crowd of tourists, the experience was fun, the performances (singing, dancing, weapons) were good and the food was great.
The night included a walk through the Maori village (which was where all the activities above took place). Brian was volunteered for the Haka warrior training and I volunteered for the stick game (the blur is me beating some dude to the stick, I had already knocked out the other player before this) and the poi dancing (a more reluctant position but they were going to have to do it one lady short, so I offered).
In all, it was a great, whirlwind day. Need to rest up now, we have a lot on the docket for tomorrow. Thanks for stopping by!

Down Under - Day 9

Waiheke Island is home to over 40 vineyards, 25 of them with tasting rooms. We decided on a sampling of four and after breakfast we drove to the east end of the island to the Man-o-War Vineyard. Their wines we tried were bold and smokey and the ocean was only feet away from the sweeping front porch with comfy chairs. From there we headed to Wild on Waiheke, a family-friendly place with outdoor games, and sampled some of their beers and cider, which were very good.
After that, we drove up to Kennedy Point Vineyard, the only certified organic vineyard on the island, and had some lunch and some delicious wines including a 100% Malbec that we considered shipping home but the freight was almost as much as the case. Finally, we ended at Mudbrick Vineyard (pictured in the middle above) for a gorgeous view and some fantastic reserve wines.
Although we snacked most of the day, we still made room for dinner and headed to The Oyster Inn for a delicious meal. I had the gnocchi and shared a yummy lemon tart with lime marscapone with Brian for dessert. I'm pretty sure the 10-minute walk to and from dinner burned off all of the calories from the day. Viva vacation!

Monday, November 18, 2013

Down Under - Day 8

Today we headed to our next destination, but not without a detour to the Waipoua Forest to see the largest kauri trees in the world. These trees are only found on the North island and are among the most ancient trees on the planet. We hiked in to see this one, the second largest - Te Matua Ngahere (Father of the Forest) - with a girth of 1,641 meters and almost 30 meters in height.
After the forest, we drove like mad to make our 5pm ferry over to Waiheke Island where we will spend our next few days. (We made it with three minutes to spare!) After checking into our third Airbnb location, we walked over to dinner at Vino Vino and passed these unique flowers on our way. The view of the ocean from our table was perfect and the meal was delicious - I had pumpkin soup and tempura prawns with a glass of bubbly made on the island. After dinner, we met our hosts and had a few beers with them in their garage. It was a great welcome to the island and we look forward to the adventures that await us tomorrow!

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Down Under - Day 7

Today was another laid back day. We had planned on driving four hours north to stay up near 90-Mile Beach for a night, but we were having such a nice time where we were that we changed our plans. I, of course, felt guilty for canceling on the person we were to stay with (although it was within the cancellation policy limits for a full refund) and Brian, as usual, talked me out of it (like he does when he knows I want to return a gift but feel bad about that too).
I'm glad we stayed longer in our "Hammock" (on the left). We spent the morning reading - I actually picked a book off the shelf when we got here and finished it today. I haven't done that in forever.
At some point I took a shower and we decided to go out for lunch. We ate delicious fish and chips at the Highway 10 Takeaway. Afterwards, I felt like some ice cream, however I didn't pay attention to the sign by the road that proclaimed the biggest ice creams in the Northland. Yeah, so the ice cream I am holding is a SINGLE scoop that cost NZ$4.10. The flavor, hokey pokey, is apparently a Kiwi favorite - vanilla with toffee bits. It was delicious and, together, we almost finished it. Oh yes, also, the redness of my skin isn't a reflection from my sweatshirt. We picked up some after-sun on the way back home.