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(Listen to “Ode to Joy” while reading for full effect)
Apr 15th, 2010 by Kate

At that moment, no-one else in the world was as happy as I was- this, I was absolutely certain. I felt like I was a balloon floating away in a warm breeze. It just felt so right- so perfect. It felt like I belonged to the world again. One of the few great things that I loved about my life in my world was there.

There was toilet paper. A whole entire giant roll of it was sitting on one of those extra large holders. I felt like I had never seen so much toilet paper in my life.

And the bathroom was clean.

And it smelled slightly of citrus.

And the walls and floor were yellow and sparkly and spotless.

I felt like crying.

No, I am not being cheesy. When you are in India for a month, you really start to question if once in your life, there was ACTUALLY something existing called toilet paper. It seems like the clouds, always just out of reach. I swaggered over, half in a dream and took a big chunk off of the roll. I then blew my nose just for the heck of it. I regally threw the tissue into the metal garbage can and took another whiff of what I am sure must have been one of those highly toxic antibacterial sprays.

At that moment, I felt like I could raise my arms up and a symphony would strike up Ode to Joy and the whole bathroom would sparkle in gold. I might have actually cried, but I was too overwhelmed to remember.

Our family in India, and “The Dance”
Apr 15th, 2010 by Kate
A day trip outside of Idar with the Wells crew and Jeshel, Mito, and Mama.

A day trip outside of Idar with the Wells crew and Jeshel, Mito, and Mama.

Tess did a great job of summing up our visits to Udaipur and Jodhpur, so I’ll limit my comments on both those cities to the captions on the pictures that I dropped into her post.  That being said, I must add that our time in India improved greatly after we left Delhi, I think that it was a combination of adjusting our attitudes and expectations a bit, and also becoming more accustomed to the very foreign ways of life in India.

A detail of the carving on the temple outside of Idar.  The carvings on the Temples in India have impressed me greatly!

A detail of the carving on the temple outside of Idar. The carvings on the Temples in India have impressed me greatly!

We met a number of travelers along our way, and many of them were spending months traveling through the country – and for most of them it was a return visit.  Being the nosey person that I am, I asked them what brought them back, and over and over their answer was “the people and the foreign-ness of it”.  And I have to agree, the people we met were incredibly nice, and there is certainly is no place like India that I have ever been!  Also, keep in mind that we saw the tiniest of tiny areas – they call it a sub-continent for a reason, and there is as much to see that we didn’t get to as there would be if we’d visited Washington state and thought we’d seen a good representation of the US.  Someday I’ll go back (Jeff and Phoebe are still of the “not going back camp”, Tessa and I might be on our own!) and travel to some other regions and try to get a better “overall” view of the country.

Our family in India... from left to right... Jeshel, Mama, Jeff, Phoebe, Tessa, Kate, Papa, Mito, Dolly (Raj, Shelly and the baby are sadly missing from the shot!)

Our family in India... from left to right... Jeshel, Mama, Jeff, Phoebe, Tessa, Kate, Papa, Mito, Dolly (Raj, Shelly and the baby are sadly missing from the shot!)

The absolute highlight of our time in India was spent in a small town called Idar.  Jeff’s brother’s wife Paru is from this little (75,000+) farming town a few hours north of Ahmadabad in the state of Gujarat, and we went there to meet her family.  Her father and mother have a lovely home there, and opened their arms to us like we were their long lost children.  Papa as we affectionately call him, is a retired bank manager and is obviously very well respected in town (everywhere we went, everyone knew him and wanted to be sure we knew that they were one of his old friends!).  Mama spoiled us rotten – to the point that we really really did feel guilty that she wouldn’t let us raise a finger to help with anything – we had to “sneak” just to wash our own dinner plates!

There was a huge herd of goat in the road and Phoebe and Mito just had to get out and play with the kids!

There was a huge herd of goat in the road and Phoebe and Mito just had to get out and play with the kids!

Paru our sister-in-law, married to Jeff’s older brother Doug) is the oldest of four, and her sister and two brothers (and their wives) all live in the family home.  Mito, Paru’s sister, is as far as I’m concerned, one of my sisters too.  She is a teacher, and has the warmest smile you have ever seen!  We had such a great time with her shopping the markets for all kinds of fun stuff, making up dances, and trying on her zillions of bangles.  Phoebe spent most of her time following Mito around, and even when Mito had students over to tutor, the girls were right there by her side chatting with the other kids and teaching them Montessori ways of doing their math homework!

Raj, the oldest of the boys, is married to Shelly, and the week before we arrived they welcomed their baby daughter!  What a fun time for us to be there – Shelly was recovering at her parent’s house but it was right around the corner from our house so we got to go sneak some peaks at the baby (name still TBD!).  Shelly and the baby are both beautiful and Raj was beaming all the time.  So sweet!  When he wasn’t with Shelly and the baby he was juggling spending time with us and his job as the principal at a local college- he was great to us and we can’t wait till he and Shelly come visit us in the US!

Raj, Phoebe and the new baby!

Raj, Phoebe and the new baby!

Phoebe, Mito, and the baby

Phoebe, Mito, and the baby

And last, but certainly not least is the baby of the family Jeshal and his beautiful wife Dolly!  What an awesome couple these two are!  Jeshal just finished his PhD in chemistry, so had a bit of time off, so was our professional tour guide for the whole week!  We went and hike up to an abandoned castle that overlooks Idar, and ventured further up the mountain to visit a bunch of small Hindu temples dedicated to various gods, and to see two “step wells” that were used hundreds and hundreds of years ago when the castle was occupied.  We also visited another beautiful Jain temple (we think they are our favorites), and a “water tree” that has water bubbling up mysteriously from its roots (the more cynical – and logical – of our family say it is a natural mountain spring, but the locals beg to differ!).  While we were there, Jeshal got a call that his PhD project was going to be published in an American chemistry journal and in the same day he got a great job offer – woohoo way to go Jeshal!!!

Phoebe, Jeshel, and Tessa at the AMAZING "step well" in Ahmedabad.

Phoebe, Jeshel, and Tessa at the AMAZING "step well" in Ahmedabad.

Dolly is a professor of education at another local college, and while she was busy a lot preparing for the graduation ceremonies, we still managed to spend some really fun times with her.  Part of the graduation festivities included an awards program, along with a student/teacher cultural talent show.  Dolly was actually in charge of this, and she and Mito cooked up a plan for Phoebe to dance in the show.  OH MY!  The three of them would lock themselves up in one of the bedrooms night after night and all we would hear was the JayHo song from Slumdog Millionaire playing over and over and over again.  The day before the show, Mito and Phoebe got up in the morning with a plan to find Phoebe a costume for her big performance – so off we went into town to hit up EVERY SINGLE clothes shop in the entire town to find JUST the right black and sparkly outfit.  Of course she also need bangles, earrings, a nose ring, and red and blue glitter… hum…

Finally, the night of the big program… we got to the college amphitheater and there were hundreds of people there, including a couple hundred children Phoebe and Tessa’s age who go to the primary school that is part of the Teacher’s College.  Phoebe got totally nervous when she saw all the kids, but as the program got started and she saw the other performances, her confidence grew that she could put on a good show.  Oh and she did not disappoint!  The crowd was SO excited to see a little blond person – and to have her dance to an Indian song – priceless!  The music started, the lights dimmed and the disco strobe kicked on, and Phoebe DANCED!  The crowd was clapping and singing and she was, well, she made it through about the first 10 moves they had practiced and then got overwhelmed and started free styling!   Kicks, twirls – and then the cartwheel!

In Phoebe’s words “so I was like dancing along and I totally forgot where I was and I could barely hear the music cause everyone was screaming and so I did a cartwheel and the crowd went wild so a did a few more!”

It was bedlam!

(And yes, there is video, and we are totally saving it for when she is a teenager and we need to blackmail her into behaving, which will happen, I can assure you!)

Finally, the song ended, she took her bow and cartwheeled once more for good measure and the performance was done.  She was a hit, and for the rest of the program she and Tess (who was also quite famous and sought-after in India too among the kids) went from isle to isle in the crowd visiting with the kids and being the American goodwill ambassadors they have become.

We had an amazing time with our family in India, and are SO SO grateful for the time that we spent with them.  I have told my brother-in-law Doug that if anything ever happens to him and Paru, that we’re keeping her (and her family) and getting rid of him.

Phoebe’s Photo Journal of Johdipur
Apr 15th, 2010 by Kate

I kept saying, “Mom, Mom, can I have the camera”.

We walked back to our hotel through the market and I saw so many things that I wanted to take pictures of such as cows with crazy horns, ladies in saffron robes pushing carts of raisins, and tiny little stores with men in them selling anything you could imagine!  These are a few of the pictures I took…

These are only 20 of the 183 cows I counted on the street near our hotel.

These are only 20 of the 183 cows I counted on the street near our hotel.

There were raisin carts everywhere, as well as bread slice carts and fruit carts.  I like the hussle and bustle of this street!

There were raisin carts everywhere, as well as bread slice carts and fruit carts. I like the hussle and bustle of this street!

Come to Raisin Mountain Charlie!

Come to Raisin Mountain Charlie!

Even in the middle of the city, the woman in brightly colored sarri's look like tropical birds.

Even in the middle of the city, the woman in brightly colored sarri's look like tropical birds.

In the cities in India, there are little tiny shops that sell everything from paint...

In the cities in India, there are little tiny shops that sell everything from paint...

... to rope...

... to rope...

In America, a load this big would be put in the back of a truck, but in India they just say "put it on your head for heaven's sake"

In America, a load this big would be put in the back of a truck, but in India they just say "put it on your head for heaven's sake"

A pretty mom with the bread slice cart behind her.

A pretty mom with the bread slice cart behind her.

Married people wear bangles, little girls wear bangles, everybody EVERYBODY wears bangles.  Its crazy.  You can buy about 10 of these bangles for 50 rupee or one American dollar.  I love them.

Married people wear bangles, little girls wear bangles, everybody EVERYBODY wears bangles. Its crazy. You can buy about 10 of these bangles for 50 rupee or one American dollar. I love them.

Fabric merchant's shop

Fabric merchant's shop

In India, some people put eyeliner on the little babies because they think it makes their eyes look bigger.  But their eyes are big to begin with!

In India, some people put eyeliner on the little babies because they think it makes their eyes look bigger. But their eyes are big to begin with!

These kids were on my street washing their hands in the public faucet.  I wanted to take their picture, but they wanted their picture taken WITH me and not BY me.  So my mom took it.  They look more like American kids then most of the kids I saw in India.

These kids were on my street washing their hands in the public faucet. I wanted to take their picture, but they wanted their picture taken WITH me and not BY me. So my mom took it. They look more like American kids then most of the kids I saw in India.

This was the secret door leading to our hotel.  From the street you had to crunch between a flower merchant and a store selling pots and pans to get to the stairs that led up to the entrance.  It was actually a Hari Krishna temple, but half of it was converted to a hotel.  I was really surprised to find this nice little quiet garden in the middle of the crazy city.  My mom said the place had amazing potential.

This was the secret door leading to our hotel. From the street you had to crunch between a flower merchant and a store selling pots and pans to get to the stairs that led up to the entrance. It was actually a Hari Krishna temple, but half of it was converted to a hotel. I was really surprised to find this nice little quiet garden in the middle of the crazy city. My mom said the place had amazing potential.

I took about a million more pictures, but that’s all I’m going to post for now.

Tessa’s take on India
Apr 15th, 2010 by Tessa

India.

Where do you start?

New Delhi

We started in the capital, New Delhi. A city of cows, honking cars and assorted laundry boiling under a haze of smog- a virtual assortment of chocolates from a brand that my mom doesn’t like.

“AND THIS IS THE INTERNATIONAL AIRPORT!?!”- Kate Wells.

It is true that their largest, and in fact, capital’s airport seems to be in the middle of a mass of tented houses and slums (for lack of better words). The parking lot was, in fact, a dirt parking lot and we were all in a somewhat temperamental mood after having to haggle and yell at the taxi drivers.

Now, it is very well to keep in mind that I have a VERY strong dislike of Indian food. And when I say dislike I mean that I seriously dislike it. So we set off into the world of India with our 4 backpacks, some tea, and a large container of peanut butter.

We passed Indian food restaurant after restaurant, and eventually came to our “Pearl Plaza” hotel. We hiked up the first floor with our back packs -then the second, then the third, then the 4th until we arrived panting on the 5th floor, where we dropped our backpacks into the room with a sigh. No phone, no pool, no pets (and no internet) had me feeling like King of the Road.

Agra

~See car accident post.~

Jodhipur

We stood at the “from Delhi” carousal a couple days later in Jodhipur. I had gone in 9 months from looking at the sidewalk and thinking “that is Japanese ABC gum” to thinking about how we had ABC gum at home and how I missed the sidewalk in front of our house. It’s strange what you start to miss. I could also look at the bottom of my flip flops or keens and think about how the ABC gum there was like the ABC gum at home.

It didn’t help much that the thing I was looking at on the floor was probably not ABC gum, so I followed my parents out the door with my backpack over my shoulder.

One of about 20 old temple buildings in the garden - pretty cool!  There were a bunch of drunk guys there that kept trying to get us to have barbeque with them - it was just like Hance Park back in Phoenix!

One of about 20 old temple buildings in the garden - pretty cool! There were a bunch of drunk guys there that kept trying to get us to have barbeque with them - it was just like Hance Park back in Phoenix!

The garden was CRAWLING with monkeys.  It freaked Phoebe out a little after "the great monkey attack" in Kyoto, but they had little babies so Phoebe mellowed out.

The garden was CRAWLING with monkeys. It freaked Phoebe out a little after "the great monkey attack" in Kyoto, but they had little babies so Phoebe mellowed out.

Eager to get on with our tour of the city as soon as possible so that we could go visit my Aunt’s relatives in Idar, we jumped to-it and wedged in a trip to a garden on the first afternoon before going to our hotel.

Getting a tour guide is like picking a straw. You could end up with the short end of the deal or you could end up with the longest piece. I now understand why our family is not a tour group family. After just a day of going to three sites and being told everything three times, I was only a straw away from strangling the guide. I found that nodding enthusiastically and smiling usually got me points for good behavior though.

Me in front of the Jaswant Mausoleum.  I will refain from further comment.

Me in front of the Jaswant Mausoleum. I will refain from further comment.

And now I will address the "caste" system in India.  Cultural tradition or not - its is just plain STUPID.  These little boys should have been in school, but they aren't allowed to go to school because they were born into the "musician" cast.  Ah, whatever!

And now I will address the "caste" system in India. Cultural tradition or not - its is just plain STUPID. These little boys should have been in school, but they aren't allowed to go to school because they were born into the "musician" cast. Ah, whatever!

The Majahrah back in the 1930's made a "poverty prevention plan" by building the largest palace in the world.  Now a third is the current Majahraj's house, a third museum, and third 5-star hotel... hum...

The Majahrah back in the 1930's made a "poverty prevention plan" by building the largest palace in the world. Now a third is the current Majahraj's house, a third museum, and third 5-star hotel... hum...

This is a picture from on top of the fort (that is really high up on a mountain).  Johipur is also called the "Blue City" because of all the houses that are painted blue.  They say that the blue houses are for the Brahmin class, but our tour guide said that's a rumor.

This is a picture from on top of the fort (that is really high up on a mountain). Johipur is also called the "Blue City" because of all the houses that are painted blue. They say that the blue houses are for the Brahmin class, but our tour guide said that's a rumor.

Udipur

By this time, I liked India’s hidden (possibly buried under the rubble and trash) charm and mom was starting to get used to it. Our hotel was a small, surprisingly stylish building down a small alley. We loved the Kaeser Palace!!!!! It was owned by a man, his wife and his little brother named Lucky. Lucky was probably one of the first people who was eager to help us who we didn’t know of before the trip in India. He gave my mom the right amount to pay for camel shoes, helped us tremendously with our room arrangement, and directed us to the nearest internet café when the internet was down.

In that city we also met some children. Their father worked at the shop down the way and their house was a three room apartment(ish) down the alley closer to the lake. One of the girls was 9 and the other was 15. Bittu and I did henna, walked around town and folded origami.

Our friends in Udipur

Our friends in Udipur

Udupur is also famous for its palace on the lake that you can see from our hotel. Mom had big plans to go and eat lunch there like it advertised on their website. So we stalked off to where the tuk-tuk driver told us the ferry was. Chaos rolled out like a nice carpet onto the floor. Mom got in an argument with the guards who wouldn’t sell us tickets to the island, we stalked off to a tourist-information to figure out what was going on, and found that we couldn’t go to the island because it was hotel guests only. From there we stalked back to the guards to find that we could buy afternoon tea on the palace that went up to the water. We bought the tickets for high tea, went up to the palace and were told that high tea was full and that we should go to the pool to be served. We went to the pool to find that there was not high tea, or anything vaguely like high tea, going on. The waiter who spoke English pointed out to us that there was no high tea anywhere in the palace and that we had been over charged by 500 rupees (approximately 30 rupees to the dollar) for our admission fee. We called the manager; sat in an office for a half hour while we argued with the guards over the fact that we had been overcharged 500 and that there was no extra money in the cash box. Mom screamed (editorial comment from “mom”… I did not scream, I spoke to them firmly!)  at them for pocketing the money off of tourists and after sitting in the office for another hour and a half waiting for the top manager (and reading a very interesting article on Alice and Wonderland in the news paper) we decided just to leave. Mom had to go over and “yell” at the guards on our way out one more time about the principle of the thing before we left.

(caption by Kate)  We didn't really want to go their dumb ole island palace anyway, we found a perfectly lovely place to have dinner and watch the sun set that was WAY better than the palace.  AND they didn't try an rip us off for $60 bucks!  So there!  :-)

(caption by Kate) We didn't really want to go their dumb ole island palace anyway, we found a perfectly lovely place to have dinner and watch the sun set that was WAY better than the palace. AND they didn't try an rip us off for $60 bucks! So there! :-)

The road to Idar

So from Udupur, we sardine packed back into our car and set out for the Jain temple halfway in between.

It was better than the Taj Mahal and it deserves more recognition.

One hundred and forty four pillars of intricately and uniquely carved white marble laid out symmetrically house small statues of Jain gods and large 600 year old trees. An aura of peace falls over the place in the sunlight and the high priests come to give free tours and practice their English.

The Jain Temple.  It was AWESOME!  Every single inch of the entire place was intricately carved, and it was massive.  Our tour guide was the head priest and we learned so much about their religion, it was really interesting!

The Jain Temple. It was AWESOME! Every single inch of the entire place was intricately carved, and it was massive. Our tour guide was the head priest and we learned so much about their religion, it was really interesting!

Later on that day, our driver was so pleased that we had enjoyed the wonder of the Jain temple, that he brought us to another one, unaware that today was a holy day and that there was going to be a giant throng of people going to this green temple which was still in use. We were followed by a giant mass of people until gawking citizens cleared a way in our path for our giant parade. We had small boys following us with arrows*, a group of guys about 20 who were making kissy faces at my mom and I, a little group of beggars and a small group of giggling girls that wanted to pet our hair. We went in to the temple, and I tried my best to avoid the people blessing you with the wet yellow bindies (the smell makes me nauseous) as we were shoved and pushed through the crowd.

*WHAT WERE SMALL 8 YEAR OLDS DOING WITH ARROWS?

This is at the green marble temple.  She how my dad and Phoebe have yellow dots (blessings) on their foreheads?  One, the yellow stuff stinks (gag!) and, two, they ask you to tip them - what's up with that?  Eveyone wants a tip in India!

This is at the green marble temple. She how my dad and Phoebe have yellow dots (blessings) on their foreheads? One, the yellow stuff stinks (gag!) and, two, they ask you to tip them - what's up with that? Eveyone wants a tip in India!

Idar

So we arrived at Idar late in the afternoon. I didn’t feel good and was sick for the rest of our stay there. I had a fever and the sniffles. Where does all the snot come from? It’s a mystery to me. Poor Metoo, Jeshal, Raj, and Dolly had to deal with me being sick and not wanting to go to temples the whole time we were at their house. They dragged me around with them in the car and I had a strange craving for only fruit. So I ate watermelon for the week we stayed with them.

They drove us to Ahmadabad the day we were leaving so that we could go to UAE. In the time before our flight we went to the malls and tried to find a DDR machine without success.

We left India with a sigh the next day.

Back to Beer!
Mar 31st, 2010 by Jeff

I lost my way with the beer blog after the Philippines. I think it had to do with my getting Dengue fever, which hit me full force in Australia. I just didn’t want to drink anything alcoholic until I recovered. I think it took me about two weeks to get back to 100%. I then allowed myself to have a few cold ones; I guess I just lost my desire to write about it. But in the spirit of “a little hair of the dog that bit you” (and the fact that some of the comments and emails out there requested and update), I thought I’d get you all caught up on my sampling.

Once I was finally recovered enough to enjoy a nice cold beer, I was already two weeks into our time in Australia. The first thing I discovered about beer down under was that it was expensive there. If I recall correctly, a six-pack of premium beer there set me back about $16 (the beer money savings was probably the only good thing about me getting Dengue). While in Australia I sampled a number of beers, but was not really impressed with anything I tried there. I’m sure there has got to be something good there in the microbrew category, but I just didn’t stumble into it. I loved everything else about going “Down Under”, so I guess I’ll just plan on a second trip there to find out what I missed.

While the beer in New Zealand wasn’t any cheaper than in Australia, I did find a better microbrew selection (maybe I was just fully recovered and ready spend a little more time looking). My two favorite breweries there were Mac’s and Monteith’s. On the second night we were in Auckland, we ventured out with our new friend and couchsurfing host, Lorenzo, to a party, thrown by the nicest bunch of South Africans you’d ever meet. We were told to not worry about food but we might want to bring some beverages. We drove off to the party planning to stop to get some beer. After striking out at two different bottle shops (liquor store to you and I) we finally found one open. The store had a very large selection and I walked out with two different selections from the Monteith’s brewery. The first was their summer ale (don’t forget I’m down-under and in their summer in January). The second was their red ale. The summer beer was a golden lager with a little spice and a bit of honey. The red was a take on the traditional Irish ale where they added burnt malts to give it the red color and some nice chocolate notes which balanced out the hops, so the beer was not to bitter. Both beers went down quite nice with the sausages they were serving from the grill. Kate and Olivia (my sister-in-law) definitely liked the summer ale over the red, and we continued to seek it out and drink it throughout our time in NZ.

As I noted earlier, I also really enjoyed the Mac’s brews. They offer a Black Stout, a Red Ale and a Golden Lager, all of which I could drink on a regular basis. But I especially liked their Great White wheat beer. As I had noted in earlier blogs, I really like unfiltered wheat bears in the tradition of Hoegarden, and this particular beer did not disappoint. It was crisp and refreshing with a hint of orange and some floral notes coming from the coriander they add during the brewing. However, their ads say you might detect aroma of bananas and bubblegum, but I think that is just wrong for beer (and I wouldn’t say I detected that, even if I did). The only disappointment came from the packaging, as I am collecting bottle caps for my nephew Jack, unfortunately this brewery uses a plain pull top bottle cap which is effectively destroyed when you open the bottle.

Lastly, I also really enjoyed Speight’s beer while we were in the city of Queensland. I sampled both their dark beer and a golden lager. The golden lager was just simply well done. It had a nice refreshing flavor that went down smoothly after a day of jumping out of planes (or shopping in Kate’s case). Their Old Dark was also good. I just wish I had more time to explore these breweries beers in a little more depth. I’ll put that on my to-do list for my next visit to NZ.

In front of the brew house in Queensland

In front of the brew house in Queensland

Unfortunately, my beer samplings diminished significantly after leaving New Zealand. It seems the whole microbrew craze has not caught up with Thailand, India, The United Arab Emirates (that one I can understand), or Egypt. While I did drink beer in all of those countries, it was typically your garden variety Heineken, Tiger, and Carlsberg licensed for mass production outside of their original countries. The one exception to that is probably Thailand with Chang beer and Singha. While Chang beer is probably more iconic of the two brands I prefer the Singha with my Thai food. To me it was just a little better at putting out the fire left in my mouth by the green or red curry I had just eaten.

Now that were in Europe, I’m looking forward to sampling some of the local fair. I saw a number of breweries last night on our bus trip to downtown Madrid. I may just let the girls shop as I sit on the sidewalk and quaff a few.

Cheers,

Jeff

Road Terror, the Taj Mahal, and other TOTALLY over-the-top forts and mausoleums
Mar 28th, 2010 by Kate
Okay, look closely now - we COUNTED 11 people on the roof - and 26 inside!!!  This is a nine-passenger van!  The most amazing thing is that we saw more than one van like this that had at least 20 more people in/on it!

Okay, look closely now - we COUNTED 11 people on the roof - and 26 inside!!! This is a nine-passenger van! The most amazing thing is that we saw more than one van like this that had at least 20 more people in/on it!

So our trip from Delhi to Agra didn’t go as smoothly as we planned.  Our eight hour car ride turned into 11 hours in the car, with one car accident, one fist fight, three very bad side-of-the-road restaurant meals, one carsick kid and one carsick parent, no fewer than 3 motorcyclist hit with our rearview mirrors, and hundreds upon hundreds (I am NOT exaggerating here) of barely avoided collisions with large colorful overload trucks carrying everything from tires to asphalt, chickens to people.  I was sitting in the front seat to try and quell my carsickness, and from my vantage point I was FOR SURE the worst parent in the world for putting my kids through the misery (and sheer peril) of this car ride.  In the eleven hours we on the road, we saw EIGHT overturned trucks (of the brightly painted variety), two car accidents that involved fire  and blood, about 2,000 various animals wandering though traffic (1,500 of which were cows), and one car-into-the-back-of-said-brightly-painted-truck that resulted in a person without a head.  Nice.

cows

cows in townThere actually may have been more examples of death and mayhem to report, but I decided to put on my i-pod and close my eyes for the last four hours of our ride home.  I only opened them when the driver slammed on the breaks so hard my seatbelt choked me, or when I’d hear “THUMP” and look around to see that the motorcyclist, pedestrian, or cow that we’d just sideswiped with our side mirrors was still moving.  If I had to re-count the most stressful 24 hours of my life, this ride would account for 11 of them.

This is the "Little Taj".  I know it looks nothing like the Taj Mahal, they call it that because appearently it was the first time the King made the entire inside with white marble which made it much more light and bright inside... or at least that is what we THINK the guard told us...

This is the "Little Taj". I know it looks nothing like the Taj Mahal, they call it that because appearently it was the first time the King made the entire inside with white marble which made it much more light and bright inside... or at least that is what we THINK the guard told us...

The one positive thing that came out of our “journey” was that when we pulled over for the second time after our accident (so the 7 men in the van we hit could beat up our driver), we stopped at this really really pretty mausoleum that was the pre-curser to the Taj.  Everyone called it the little Taj, and while I can’t for the life of me find the paper I wrote the name of it on – I have a few great pictures!  If anyone out there knows the name of it, please give us a holler and I’ll update the blog!

Our first sighting of the Taj was from a busy street in Agra that was situated high above the river valley that winds behind the Taj.  The pollution was pretty bad, but even through the haze you could see how magnificent it is.  Thankfully, some wise person a long time ago had the foresight to keep the rest of the city at arm’s length from the grounds, so there is a 2km swath of river and grassy-ish plains surrounding the sides and backside of the Taj Mahal grounds.

That building in background is the "gate" leading up to the Taj Mahal entrance (looking at it from the Taj).  As you can see it is pretty impressive in its own right.

That building in background is the "gate" leading up to the Taj Mahal entrance (looking at it from the Taj). As you can see it is pretty impressive in its own right.

We had pre-arranged a guide (his name was “Money”- god I love being a tourist and being at the mercy of tour guides) to bring us to the Taj Mahal and to the Agra fort, so after meeting up with him we made our way to the west entrance of the grounds.  There are actually 3 entrances, the west one was reserved for the royal family (and that’s where the tourists now enter), an east one that the locals and current employees use, and a south entrance that was where the actual Taj construction workers used way-back-when.  The passageways for the entrances are located within a huge rectangular wall/building complex that creates a giant courtyard.  On the northern side of the courtyard, mostly blocking your view of the Taj, is a massive arched gate building that provides a pretty spectacular build-up to finally seeing the Taj.

Throngs of people bottleneck at the arched gate because as you walk through the largest arch, it makes a perfect framed view of the unbelievable building.  You can not help yourself but to stop and add to the bottleneck of humanity.  It is truly an amazing sight (sadly, no photo could do it justice), and just seeing the Taj made our entire trip to India worth it.Taj through frame of gate

As you pass out of the gate, your perspective changes as the expense of the grounds of the building are visible.  The gardens are just like you see in the photos, green and pretty and with fountains lined up perfectly dissecting the middle of the vista.  We were bummed to find the fountains empty for cleaning, and missed out seeing the famous Taj reflection in the waters, but your eyes are SO drawn towards the building, we quickly forget the fountains.Taj Mahal

We spent a bit of time doing the hokey tourist photo ops that our tour guide insisted that we take (pushing the Taj over, jumping over it, putting your finger on the top of the dome, and catching the reflection of the Taj in our sunglasses – oooh so cool) and then we went to see it up close.Taj dome & tessa

Taj phoebe jumping

Taj w familyThe entire building is giant blocks of white marble, and the closer you get the more you need your sunglasses.  Phoebe didn’t have any, and could barely open her eyes once we were on the main level of the building looking up at it.  From afar you have no idea that most of the surface of the building is intricately carved – but aside from the dome, every square inch is covered in carved vines, flowers, patterns, and Arabic inscription (the king who built is was Arabic, the architect Turkish, and the beloved wife who it was built for was from India).  Also, there is quite a bit of color on the building (I always thought it was all white) in the form of semi-precious inlays.  The thing that surprised me the most though was that the building was really small inside.  There’s one room with two stone coffins (very high ceilings obviously, but not such a big room considering the size of the building), and a few very small anti-chambers around the edge of the burial room that didn’t seem to have any purpose other than to provide light into the center room.  I was really shocked that is was so small inside – for some reason I thought it was sort of like a palace with many rooms.  Hum.  The other thing I didn’t know about the Taj Mahal is that it is not just symmetrical from the front view, it is totally symmetrical on all four sides.  The “back” of the building looks over a very wide river (it was really shallow when we were there) and if you stand in “line” with the entrance and look across the river, you can see where the king was going to build his black Taj Mahal for himself!  I had heard this story, but thought it was a rumor – but no, he totally had plans for his own fabulous mausoleum too.Taj marble detail

This is behind the Taj looking towards the river and the land the King was going to build the black Taj on.  Check out the kids riding the water buffalo across the river - totally India!

This is behind the Taj looking towards the river and the land the King was going to build the black Taj on. Check out the kids riding the water buffalo across the river - totally India!

As it turned out, the King’s plans were VERY expensive, and his son decided to overthrow him anyway – so in the end, the king was imprisoned in a very nice wing of the Agra Fort (they call them forts here – but they are actually VERY amazing royal palaces) and he spent the end of his life with a lovely view of the Taj Mahal from all of his windows.

The entrance to Agra Fort

The entrance to Agra Fort

One of the many grand courtyards inside the fort.  I had the mistaken idea that forts were for armies, but in India, the kings lived in the forts and wow are they grand!

One of the many grand courtyards inside the fort. I had the mistaken idea that forts were for armies, but in India, the kings lived in the forts and wow are they grand!

Shortly after the King finished the Taj Mahal for his wife, he was overthown by his son who imprisoned him here in the Agra Fort.  At least he had a good view of his masterpiece!

Shortly after the King finished the Taj Mahal for his wife, he was overthown by his son who imprisoned him here in the Agra Fort. At least he had a good view of his masterpiece!

Dehli Oh my gosh!
Mar 19th, 2010 by Kate

India – hum – where do I begin…

girls at Hindu temple

girls at Hindu temple

I knew I wanted to go to India.  I have so many friends from there, my wonderful sister-in-law is from there, and I love many things about the culture (or at least the Americanized version of the culture).  As we have traveled for the past 8 months, many fellow travelers that we’ve come across have spent time in India, and just about everyone said we needed to go experience it for ourselves.

Jeff was “in charge” of India.  To help us plan, and to help us each keep our sanity, we split up the countries and one of us focuses on the research and planning for each country.  He read about India extensively before we left, and communicated with his brother Doug and sister-in-law Paru to help us plan our time there.  We also spoke with lots of teachers and friends from Khalsa (the girl’s school back home) and many friends generously offered us information, places to stay, and contacts with their relatives.  I need to extend a huge thank you to everyone who opened up their heads, hearts and homes to help us plan our trip!

Our original plans were to spend a month in India, but in the end we only spent 2 weeks.  My sister Olivia (of New Zealand fame!) wanted to meet back up with us for her Spring Break from New College, and to make meeting up with her work – we needed to get somewhere further west for her to maximize her 9 days of vacation.  So after lots of back-and-forth, we decided to cut southern India out of our itinerary and head towards Egypt via the United Arab Emirates.

But back to India…

Yes, that is a giant elephant on the highway in Delhi!

Yes, that is a giant elephant on the highway in Delhi!

We flew from Bangkok to the capital city of Dehli (FYI there is a “new” Delhi and an “old” Delhi – both are part of the same city).  I’m going to be brutely honest here – Delhi looked like a war zone.  We were all shocked.  The International Airport was horrid and upon finding our driver, we walked through endless dirt parking lots fill of garbage, stray dogs and beggers.  We read in our guide book that our hotel was nice, but the neighborhood was “somewhat” in disrepair.  We were only a few blocks from the main tourist area – so we though “how bad could it be?”.  HA!  Open sewer ditches, construction debris, sagging overhead powerlines with live wires, cows, camels, donkeys, stray dogs, stray children and all their poop was everywhere!  It smelled.  Okay, actually it smelled REALLY bad.  Oh yes, and it was insanely noisy at all hours of the day and night.

Now I must interject here and swear to everyone that I am NOT being prissy or whimpy or overdramatic.  Jeff went out to get some money and some fruit, and when he got back I was sitting in the window agog at the sites below me.  All Jeff said was “oh just wait until you walk down the street.”

We took the advise of many and hired a driver through our hotel (and as for our hotel, it was actually clean-ish and had hot water if we went down and asked them to turn the boiler on).  We spent the entire first day driving around and around Dehli, seeing a few sites but constantly trying to get our driver focused on where WE wanted to go, rather than where HE wanted us to go – which amounted to stores where he would get a bonus for bringing us plus commission on anything we bought.

GAndi's eternal peace flame - let it burn!

GAndi's eternal peace flame - let it burn!

We managed to make it to Mahatma Gandhi’s mausoleum (in a nice park, with lots of inspiring Gandhi quotes), the biggest Hindu Temple in Delhi, the National Museum (pathetic and a museum conservationist’s nightmare), and did drive-bys of the Ba’hai Temple (really cool looking, like a lotus flower), the Presidential Palace (puts the White House to shame), the Parliament Building (also impressive) and through “the Mall” a long grassy park-like area linking the government buildings and an arch commemorating fallen soldiers (so full of trash parts of it actually looked like a dump).

So we saw some good stuff (trying to be positive!), and felt like we got a feel for a good part of Delhi as we made our way ALL over town.  But we couldn’t help but notice that the oddest thing is happening in Dehli – they are re-doing all of the sidewalks in the entire city – AT THE SAME TIME!  I am not kidding.  Every single solitary sidewalk in the entire city has been completely torn up and the piles of debris have been left in the roadway (making the bad traffic worse).  They are also building an elevated highway through the middle of town and are trying to build “skytrains” too.  These totally torn up roads, combined with the concrete buildings with exposed rebar, shanty huts, pollution, crazed drivers, and animals wondering around REALLY REALLY makes Delhi look like a war zone!

Big Ben, Parliment... okay, just Parliment!  It looks so nice, since I ended my writing on such a negative note, I thought I'd really end with a nice photo!

Big Ben, Parliment... okay, just Parliment! It looks so nice, since I ended my writing on such a negative note, I thought I'd really end with a nice photo!

Dehli is the first place in eight months of travel that I could be perfectly happy never going back to again.

Spray it with bug spray, tuck it in, and pray nothing gets in!
Mar 19th, 2010 by Tessa

“Who has the key?” Phoebe asked automatically as she stepped onto the wooden porch, that really didn’t deserve the right to be called a porch. It was really a bunch of wooden planks nailed to the underside of our cottage with a railing on the edge that would probably drag you down with it if you touched it. The house was on stilts and overlooked the sea. The builders must have been pressed for space because they had decided to build our cottage over the rocks leading into the water. We were IN the rocks to the point that one of our walls was half of the boulder that the right side of our cottage leaned on. Dad, leaned against the boulder and mom sat on the chair on the porch. We spilled into the room like a wave of water spills onto the sand. Dad quickly flicked on the fan and I climbed up into the loft that was serving as our room. I grabbed my book off the ladder on my way up.

My mattress was on the floor, so I took a special care in tucking in my mosquito net in to keep the cockroaches out. I stuffed the mosquito net farther under so that the mattress weighed the sides down. I was not tolerating any bugs tonight. I folded the mosquito net neatly behind me so that the entrance overlapped. I swung my legs under the covers. I paused just long enough for a seven inch brown rat to bolt out from under the blankets, run up my arm, over my shoulder and into the mosquito net behind me. I watched it flailing in the net from across the room.

“Wow,” Phoebe said from the top of the ladder, “You just FLEW across the room.”

The Chiang Mai Experience
Mar 11th, 2010 by Jeff

Chiang Mai is a wonderful city in the north of Thailand. We flew up there from Bangkok while we waited for Kate’s new veneers to be made. We had plans for a number of great adventures while we were in this town, including Thai cooking classes, visiting some of the 475+ Wats (or temples) and to have an another elephant encounter.

The first day spent in Chang Mai we used as what I call a utility or down day. This is one of those less glamorous sides of our extended travels Kate blogged about earlier. A number of things typically get done one these days. Usually this is when Kate and I realize that we’ve been slipping in our parental duties and haven’t forced the kids to do any homework in a couple of days, and they need to do some math and writing (much to their chagrin). Also on this particular day I spent two hours going to the train station to book our train back to Bangkok only to learn all the trains were booked for the next week. After making this discovery, I ended up coming back to the hotel to book a plane back via the internet instead. I then made arrangements for a hotel once we arrived back in Bangkok. Finally, I dropped of the dirty laundry for cleaning at the local laundry. By this time it was 3:00. We did make it out after this to the Chiang Mai Museum of Arts and Culture to learn a little about the area and the northern Thai peoples. It was a pretty good museum that had quite a bit of information in English (so I could count that towards the kids schooling – parental duty done for the day!).

The next day we spent a gluttonous day at the Thai Farm Cooking School. They picked us up from our hotel and took us to the local market. At the market our instructor taught us about the various ingredients we would use in our cooking that day. We then made our way out to the school were we walked through their garden to learn a little more about the various herbs and plants we would be added to our Thai dishes. We then proceeded to start cooking.

Kate and Tessa Cooking Phad Thai

Kate and Tessa Cooking Phad Thai

Phoeve and Jeff Pounding on the Curry - Making for quite an appetite!

Phoebe and Jeff Pounding on the Curry - Making for quite an appetite!

We actually used mortar and pestle to pound the ingredients into the various curries we were making. The curry could not have gotten any fresher! Tessa opted for a yellow curry, Phoebe and Kate made green curry and I went for red. Needless to say we all loved our entrees! We then continued with cooking a five course meal. In addition to the curry we made soups, spring rolls, a noodle dish, and desserts (mango and sticky rice!!! Yum!). We all rolled away from the table after the first four coursed and brought the noodle dishes back to the hotel for them to heat up for us as dinner. We are all looking forward to cooking Thai food at home when we get back to our kitchen in the Phoenix!

The following day we decided to explore the Chiang Mai. This included visiting the local Wats. The highlight of the day for us all was Monk Chat at the MCU Buddhist University at Wat Chedi Laung. This is a great program that has been put together to give tourist and foreigners an opportunity to interact directly with monks on a one to one basis. It is an open forum where the monks and the tourist sit around tables and the monks answer questions from the tourist about their lives and living in Thailand as a monk. The discussion was very interesting. We learned many interesting things about monk’s lives. For example a monk in Thailand can choose at any time to leave the monkhood and return to normal Thai life. If he then chooses to return to the monkhood he can, even if he has been married – as long as his wife grants him permission to return. Also of the three monks we met, each had a different objectives or goals for their future.

Chatting with the Monks.

Chatting with the Monks.

One had started as a novice at the age of 12 and was now working his way through college. He was very frank about wanting to leave the monkhood as soon as he obtained his degree. The second monk of the group had begun his time as a monk at nineteen. He was also working his way through the English program at the university, but he planned on continuing as a monk and hopefully traveling to the U.S. It was also very interesting to find out their take on technology and how it impacts their lives. For example they can use computers in their studies, as long as they don’t use them for listening to music, playing computer games or anything involving entertainment. They also are allowed to use cell phones for communication with their families and other monks. Overall this was an extremely enlightening discussion and we all walked away understanding each others culture that much better.

I think everyone in the family agrees that the best part of our time in Chiang Mai was our visit to the Baan Chang Elephant Park for their Mahout for a Day program. In this day long program we were given the opportunity to work directly with the elephants and their trainers (mahouts), and had direct contact with the animals. The day started with another trip to the market to buy bananas and sugar cane. Each elephant eats about 250 kg of food a day. We then came into the camp, changed clothes and were given the opportunity to feed each of the nine adult elephants and the two babies (eleven months and 2 years old). According to the camp owner, this gave the elephants a chance to meet us and to understand that we nice and that we came with food rewards. It seemed that the elephants were just as curious about us as we were about them. They reached out with the trunks to take the bananas and sugar cane.

Kate & Phoebe w elephant

 The also searched the pockets of our mahout clothes for goodies and gave us sloppy elephant kisses with the trunks. During this whole introduction phase we could get right up next to the elephants, pat their heads, stuff bananas in their mouths and scratch them behind their ears. It was quite an amazing experience in and of itself. After this introductory session, we were given instruction on how to mount, ride, and control the elephants. This was a little intimidating for us all. Phoebe was especially brave, and with a little help, she mounted a large female that was probably fifty times her size (3000 lbs) and rode her around in a circle with the help of a mahout on the ground beside her.

Phoebe the Mahout

Phoebe the Mahout

After all this excitement it was time for a break and we had lunch. After lunch we all got to get on an elephant to take a trek into the jungle. Each elephant carried two people. The person in command of the elephant rode on the elephant’s neck right behind the ears and the passenger rode on the elephant’s back.

Phoebe and Jeff - into the Jungle

Phoebe and Jeff - into the Jungle

It was great fun and the elephants seemed didn’t seem the least bit phase by having an extra 200-300 lbs on their backs. (Part of the reason we chose this elephant park is because of there treatment of the animals. They only do one group a day with one trek per day, they do not use seats – which some feel are at least uncomfortable for the elephants and in the worst scenarios are painful for them, and this park is located on a large private preserve area so the elephants can roam when not working.)

Kate and Tessa on Elephant Trek

Kate and Tessa on Elephant Trek

After our trek, it was time to cool down and clean up. To do this we rode our elephants into a large 30×70x5 ft deep mud water pool. We then proceeded to scrub the elephants down, and get completely soaked in the process. It was great fun. Phoebe even got the opportunity to hop on the 2 year old elephant to sneak around and spray us with his trunk.

The Baby Attacks!

The Baby Attacks!

Scrubbing the ride!  It's wierd to sit on them while you was them.

Scrubbing the ride! It's wierd to sit on them while you wash them.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This whole day was unforgettable and a wonderful experience that I know we will never forget. I highly recommend it to anyone making their way to Chiang Mai.

Up close

Everyone say "Cheese"

Smile – Bangkok loves you!
Mar 6th, 2010 by Kate

Bangkok is yet another massive Asian city full of frenetic sites, sounds, and smells.  We arrived late in the evening after three days of travel to find the driver from our hotel waiting for us with a blessed sign that said “Wells Family”.  Hallaluhah!  We were SO tired, and the thought of dealing with a taxi or big-city mass transit was worse than depressing – but Jeff saved the day and had booked us into a 4-star hotel using some of the points we’ve accured on our Visa – and a nice man in a giant Volvo was there to wisk us away with no haggling involved.  I was so happy.

Big beds, nice sheets, fluffy pillows, warm water WITH water pressure enough to actually rinse the shampoo out of my hair, a breakfast buffet, swimming pool and a real gym – yeah!  Our bathroom was marble and the free toiletries were highly stealable – The down side… our street was one of the better known hooker streets (they seem to congregate around the 4-star hotels rather than the 5-star hotels) and so before we had even spent 24 hours in Bangkok we had to have the less than comfortable discussion with Phoebe about what prostitution is… I was actually surprised we’d gotten this far in Asia without having to have the talk, and almost thought I sneak out of this part of the world without her having clued-in… but its Bangkok, and the discussion inevitable…

I think the biggest difference between our life on the road and our life at home is getting around the big cities.  All big cities have that hustle and bustle vibe, and the cracked sidewalks, funky (not good funky) smells, and tons of sensory input to take in.  However, in Asia so much of the input is SO different than the things we’d experience in even San Fran or Chicago –  I never get tired of walking around, peering into shops and alleys, listening to conversations even though I have no idea what they are saying, and trying to figure out the heck the food vendors are selling and if it looks okay to eat.

I am embarrassed to admit that I totally bought all the rumors about Bangkok and was secretly worried about rampant drugs, opium dens, Thai gangs, and of course the infamous fear of being kidnapped and sold into slavery (not me, the kids!).  And while unfortunately all of those things do exist in Bangkok, we didn’t see one lick of any of it.  The Bangkok we enjoyed was one of fascinating shops and markets, great food, super nice people, big parks, efficient mass transit (elevated train and subways) and medi-tourism galore.   Someday when I’m picked to be an ambassador, I will happily accept the post to Thailand and live in Bangkok!

So I know my mention of “medi-tourism” is going to prompt a bunch of people to email/comment and ask what the heck I’m talking about – its short for medical tourism, and it’s BIG business in Thailand.  I first heard about in on 60 Minutes a few years back, and have since seen a few articles in various mags.  When my crown broke back in China a number of people suggested that I go to Bangkok to get it fixed, and we heard lots of travelers around SE Asia & Australia talking about the great care they’d received in Thailand.  It got me to thinking…

Before we left I had inquired with my dentist about having my 20 year old veneers replaced on my six front teeth.  I broke three of them badly when I was a teenager and while the old veneers were holding up pretty well, I felt like they were looking pretty shabby.  That, along with the fact that they were only supposed to last 10-15 years made me think I should take some proactive steps before I found myself snaggle-toothed one day.  I got a quote from my dentist and almost croaked – $2500 PER TOOTH!  Since our big trip was coming up, and knowing we’ll have two kiddos in braces soon after our return, I decided that I’d wait and see how much mileage I could get out of the old ones (the sacrifices we mothers make!).

As we got closer to traveling to Thailand, I started doing some more in-depth research on clinics and doctors, safety records and patient comments.  The internet proved to be an amazing tool (I take back all the bad things I’ve said about you Mr. Internet, well, some of them, not all of them).  I  read dozens of review and blogs, and finally settled on three clinics that I thought looked best.  I made appointments with two, and the third had a walk-in consultation time so I set off on my first day in Bangkok with addresses and a list of questions in hand.  Ultimately, I decided that they were all good (two of the three were WAY nicer than my dentist at home), and that I would get good care whichever I chose. In the end I made my decision based on the fact that my doctor went to the University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill, and he spoke great English, and he had really nice teeth himself (Silom Dental Clinic and Dr. Lee were the big winners).

I’m being long-winded here so I’ll wrap it up…

Day 1:  Full check-up with Xrays, consultation with the doctor, and the decision to first whiten my bottom teeth with home bleaching trays (rather than the brite smile or laser treatments which he said won’t work as well on my color teeth) so my new veneers would be a better, whiter color than my old ones = $175US (would have been $125 for the check up and $500 for the whitening at home).

Day 14:  Back to Bangkok for appointment #2.  They were shocked at how white my teeth got (I was a bit shocked too, as my bottoms were very white, especially next to the old veneers that were still on and YELLOW!).  They took off my old veneers and put on temporaries, and ordered the new veneers in a color that would match my newly whitened bottom teeth.

Day 21:  Back to Bangkok again (we traveled all over Thailand between appointments and came back each time for only a day or two) for my final visit.  They took off my temporaries and attached my new veneers – and they look AMAZING!  I love them!  They feel great, look great, and a week later I still have to look at them every time I pass a mirror.  Its like one of those things that you say to yourself “ I can’t believe I waited so long to get that done”.  And the price (drum roll please…) out the door – $1500 TOTAL!  Eleven THOUSAND dollars less than my dentist at home!

They do everything at this place – from silly cosmetic procedures like mine to total jaw bone reconstruction – and crowns and bridges in between.  Jeff and I both agree that if we ever need major dental work done, we will definitely consider coming back here.  Just wish they could do braces from across the ocean…

So the moral of my story is, don’t let Hollywood be your source of opinions on a place – had I not listened to friends and family about the wonders of Bangkok I probably would have skipped it… when you see my new smile you’ll be happy for me that I didn’t.

PS.  Sorry there aren’t any pics of my new smile, I’ll post some as soon as I can – we have lousy internet access at our current locale…

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