Monthly Archives: January 2019

Reflections from Hinterland Village Yoga Retreat

Although I haven’t finished posting about Rajasthan, I am home now, and would like to post about the retreat.

The yoga shala (studio)

I am not sure how to even begin this post describing my 6 blissful days at Hinterland Village. As I sit here in the airport, waiting for my flight back to Delhi to start my endless journey home, I feel as if I am in a dream-like state. Perhaps I imagined this whole trip; it seems just too good to be true.

My sister-in-law, Cat, described this place as akin to returning to the womb for a week. All is comfortable, all of our needs are met, our desires anticipated before we even have a chance to ask. We are fed healthy food, our laundry and cleaning is taken care of, we are given a suggested itinerary everyday, everything is optional, we have no responsibilities other than to just…be. Unni (the owner) was like a father to all of us, meeting with each of us individually every day to touch base and let us know what our schedule would be. He has such a gentle, beautiful aura about him. 

One day I had a raw, scratchy throat. He presented me with this thick dark brown paste in a recycled jar and a spoon with instructions: “take a quarter of this spoon 3 or 4, even 5, 6, or 7 times a day.” I shrugged, obediently followed, and by the next day, I was feeling completely back to normal. Natausha and I affectionately called the remedy “poop in a jar” because of the colour. I laughed that at home, I would never take any medication without doing a bit of research; yet here I was, blindly following Unni’s direction. We decided we are grateful Unni uses his powers for the forces of good. We wondered what would happen if this was all a ruse, and in reality, he was an evil genius who would use all of us sheep to help him achieve world domination. The way he anticipated our every need was uncanny, almost like he had spies everywhere, even in my own brain.

Being in an environment with relatively no distractions, where no decisions have to be made about anything, can be therapeutic. We have a lot of time to think, to meditate, to gain perspective. An average day looked something like this:

6am wake-up

6:30 – 8:30 yoga

8:30 Breakfast

9:30 – 10:30 Philosophy

10:30 – 11:30 Guided Meditation

1pm Lunch

3:30 tea/snack

4:00 – 6:00 yoga

6:00 juice/snack

8:00 dinner

In the free blocks of time in the schedule, there were many options. Unni would book us for ayurvedic massages every second day, as well as organized excursions for those who are interested. I had three massages, all different, and went on three excursions. One day we went on a boat trip over lunch on the backwaters, another day we just went into the nearest village, and yesterday we went into Fort Kochi to do a little bit of shopping and check out the vibe.  Unni also scheduled in some special programming, including an art class, cooking demonstration, and a session about chanting. I also used the free time to do a lot of journalling, catching up on the blogposts, and even doing a bit of songwriting. I also managed to go swimming every day in their pool. The wifi signal was very patchy, so I gave up trying to do anything meaningful online, which was better in my opinion, because I wasn’t worrying about my electronic devices as much. I could just focus on being present in the moment.

Unni and his family run Hinterland as a self-sufficient, fully sustainable homestay. They do not waste even a drop of water.  They collect all of it, filter it, and reuse it to water their large organic crops. Ninety-five per cent of the food served at the retreat is grown onsite on their organic farm, even the rice. They use solar power to heat the water and to power the electricity. They also have a small store onsite where you can buy resource books, essential oils, and have clothing hand-made to order.

There is a menagerie here: dogs, cats, ducks, geese, guinea fowl, silky chickens, turkeys, even an emu, that run free all over the property during the day, but then go back to sleep in their fenced-in area at night. Their antics, and the cacophony of sounds was definitely amusing. There is, of course, a large population of both indigenous and migratory birds that make their home here as well.

Emma the Emu

While we were visiting Hinterland Village, the local temple was holding a four day festival, which resulted in loud music, sermons, praying, drumming, and chanting over the loudspeakers at all times of the day and night, sometimes even at four in the morning. There seemed to be a constant stream of people coming and going to the temple to join in the colourful celebrations. Generally it added to the varied sound landscape in a good way, and helped challenge me during meditation class, when I had to work hard to block out the sound and focus inward. Under the gentle guidance of Jayesh, our meditation facilitator, I was able to make breakthroughs in my meditation sessions I had never been able to achieve before. It will be interesting to see if I can continue with my progress when I am back to real life at home.

This place attracts fascinating people from all over the world. The week I was there, I met people from England, Belgium, Denmark, Israel, France, Australia, Germany, Thailand, Sweden, The Netherlands, and the US. Everyone has an interesting story of what brought them here, and these stories add to the flavour of the experience. I also particularly enjoyed observing how the energy shifted every day, as new guests arrived and others departed. Somehow, everyone was instantly accepted into the community, made their contribution, and then continued their journey. I especially loved bonding with Cat, and my roommate, Natausha, from Alameda, California. We spent a lot of time laughing together, and that added another amazing layer to my experience.  We were able to connect in meaningful ways, yet still gave each other the space to have time on our own.

Also noteworthy was sharing Shabbat with two women from Israel, Cheryl and Ruth. We requested a few candles to bless, some homemade grape juice for me to say kiddush over, and chapatis instead of Challahs for Hamotsi. We sang some songs from the Kabbalat Shabbat Service together, and it was beautiful. 

Last but not least, I cannot forget to mention the yoga and meditation component of the retreat.  Doing yoga in a natural setting, using a real tree as a focal point for my “tree pose”, listening to the nature sounds all around me was magical. We were exposed to several different teachers, each with their own style and sometimes, coming from completely different backgrounds. Yoga here is taught very differently than it is in the West. It took some adjustment at first, but I really appreciated the learning, and am looking forward to incorporating some of my new experiences into my classes and my personal practice.

At home, if I am lucky, I might do one hour of yoga most days, and try to fit in a bit of meditation at least once a day. Practicing the postures a minimum four hours every day and guided meditation for at least an hour, (if you don’t count the meditation component of our yoga classes) had an astounding effect on my body, my mind, and my soul. At first, the amount of activity left me exhausted, but surprisingly, my body adjusted, and I instead started to feel energized by the practice, even when I was tired, even when it was very warm. I came away with many insights about myself and goals for when I return home.

The morning view from the yoga studio

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India Adventure #13 – Rooftop kite flying in Jaipur

Jan 2

Today was the Bubbie’s 70th bday extravaganza. We had a wonderful breakfast in the common room of our homestay – we have really loved Indian breakfasts so far. Erez was feeling under the weather, so he stayed behind in bed.

We headed to the Amber Fort first (some of our kids are having “Fort and palace Fatigue”) We drove driving by the Wind Palace – Hawa Mawal –  the most photographed spot in Jaipur on the way. It is  basically a facade that the Queens and their handmaidens used to sit behind to watch the proceedings in the streets, because people were not allowed to see them in public.

The Amber fort was pretty amazing – the inlay work and carvings were exquisite.  The construction of this fort was from 1599 to 1667. There were Harem apartments for 12 queens and countless concubines.

One of the highlights was the mirror palace. It was a room that was completely covered by intricate mosaics with semi-precious stones and special curved mirrors. No photos we took could do it justice.

Here is a great description I found on an Indian historian conservation site:

“The reason behind why this mahal was made by glass because in ancient days the queen was not allowed to sleep in open air but she loved to see the stars while sleeping. So the king ordered his architects to make that kind of mahal which could solve the problem.And the architects built Sheesh mahal which was built with stones and glass and in night the reflection of two candles in glass looks like stars in whole room. And second reason was that for palace built. The King used to shift from Sukh Niwas to Sheesh Mahal in winter season. The ceiling mirror glass reflection of the candles keep the room warm. Now days entry in the Sheesh mahal is restricted however from the outside we can see the beautiful art work of the glass in the Sheesh mahal and with a flash light pointing to the ceiling we can easily see the stars in the morning “Din mai tare”. 

After the fort we had lunch, and then did a drive-by for a photo op at the lake palace. Our guide Kush left us at that point and we met up with another guide named Ummed. He met us for a walking tour of the market and to learn about the kite flying culture in Jaipur. 

On Jan 14th is the International kite flying festival in Jaipur, and little did we know that kite flying could be so intense. We were hosted by a family that owns a compound that includes a beautiful guest house and rooftop cafe. They explained that kite flying from the rooftops is a way for people to blow off steam as well as get some vitamin D after working all day. There are any different types of string, some are cotton, some are vinyl, and other have glass covered, “sharpened” string, so that their kites can cut other kites down. It is a bit crazy. We took turns flying kites off of their roof, and several times, a neighbours kite would come, and cut our kites down out of the sky. Teva was the one who kept encourage us to seek out other kites to cut down, and then actually succeeded in “defeating” a couple of other kites – some of the time, by complete fluke. It was lots of fun. Our hosts were very gracious, feeding us delicious hors d’oevres and refreshing drinks. If you are even in Jaipur, you should check out

We finished off Bubbie’s birthday day with a special meal, home- cooked by our homestay hosts. They even made a cake and had sparkling wine to celebrate.

I asked Maxine if she ever imagined she would spend her 70th birthday in India on a rooftop flying a kite over the city at sunset…I think the answer is obvious.

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India Adventure #12 Jaipur

Jan 1

We had to get up super early as we had to catch a 9am flight to Jaipur. We were sad to say goodbye to Hari and Pari, but were excited for our next adventure. We were met by our guide. Kush and our driver, Brij. Jaipur is the capital of Rajasthan and was founded in 1727 by King Jai Singh. It is a very well planned city. It was built on a grid system, and also has divided highways. One thing we noticed, was that in Jaipur, most people wore motorcycle helmets while in Udaipur, hardly anyone did. The current population is around 3.5 million people.

Jaipur is know as the Pink City because there is a bylaw that all buildings need to be painting with a particular Terra Cotta shade which glows pink in the sunshine. The main buildings downtown were originally painted pink to welcome H.R.H. Albert Edward, Prince of Wales (who later became King Edward VII, Emperor of India), in 1876. There are many beautiful buildings all over India that used to belong to the royal families, however, after Indian Independence in 1946, the royals lost their status and gave much of their property back to the government. Many of these places are now historical sites, some converted to hotels and museums. Most royal families have still held  onto some of their assets, and many live in smaller parts of their palaces, not open to the public. 

One artifact that stood out in the City Palace was the largest silver object in the world – a water vessel made of 14,000 melted-down silver coins. He made two of these vessels to take with him to England when he went to visit because he only wanted to drink water that came from the Ganges River.

In the “audience room” there were portraits of all the kings of Jaipur with a small blurb about who they were. There were many interesting stories. First of all, if the current King did not have an heir, he would adopt an heir. This of course would result in many power plays from different branches of the family. Only two of the kings were sons of kings, the rest were adopted. 

Some noteworthy stories: Jai Singh lived in the 17th century and was very interested in Astrology and Astronomy. He built all sort sorts of instruments to measure things in the heavens which still stand today. For example, he built several sundials, and was able to measure the exact time by the longitude and latitude specifically of Jaipur which is not the same as Indian Standard time. There is a notice everyday based on his formulas how much IST is off from the “real Jaipur time”. he also built instruments to measure the earth’s rotation, and specific measurements for every one of the zodiac constellations.

Another of the kings, Maharaja Ram Singh II was interested in photography and is credited with introducing photography to India in the 1850s. He set up many self portraits, (the first selfies?) as well as photographing many of the members of the court. He also took many photographs of places in India, and now they serve as a historical record.

One king was actually declared King in utero. His father died while his mother was pregnant, so they declared him the king as soon as he was born.

Next stop was the Dera Amer Camp. This family homestead hosts several elephants who used to work at the Fort giving people elephant rides up the ramparts. there are 400 elephant giving rides there. This family rents the elephants so that instead of working, they can hang out at their homestead and relax. They are there for tourists to feed and interact with, as well as go on nature walks. Our elephant’s name was Rangmallah, which means colourful necklace. When we went on the nature walk, Rangmallah came with her handler. He rode her to keep her on track, but we were content to walk beside her and admire her beauty. At the rest stop we were given non-toxic paints to decorate her with like the local people do. I was not 100% comfortable with this, but our naturalist guide assured us it was not harmful to her, and the colours would come off in the morning when she bathes. The boys painted her for a bit and then Rangmallah headed back to her home. the staff prepared a beautiful dinner for us starting with appetizers by a bonfire. 

Another great day…

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India Adventure #12 New Year’s Eve in Udaipur

Dec 31

This morning we got to wake up 15 minutes later for yoga class – Hooray! These classes have been very different from our classes at home. There is very little instruction and no modifications are offered. She did some hands-on adjustments i.e. pushing some people deeper into their poses. If anyone could not execute the pose perfectly, her comment was: “If you do this everyday, you will then be able to do it”. I tried not to laugh out loud when she was teaching us alternate nostril breathing. Many of us were quite congested with colds, and were having trouble breathing through one nostril or the other – when this was mentioned, the answer was the same: If you do this everyday, your nose will not be blocked.” Overall, I really enjoyed the classes, and picked up a few pearls I will use in my classes. It was an eye-opener though. I am looking forward to seeing how the classes will be taught in Kerala on my retreat.

I was trying to fly under the radar, and not realizing this, Hari’s son Al, outed me to the teacher on the first day and told her I was a yoga instructor back home. She seemed shocked, in fact, asked three times to make sure that I was actually the person he was talking about. I realize I do not look like your average yoga instructor  – this did not bother me in the least, in fact, I found it quite amusing. yoga is for everyone, not just the super-fit.

We started our sightseeing after another amazing breakfast. The first stop was an inactive Hindu temple called Saas Bahu. It was built in the 10th century, and was destroyed by a moghul king in the13th century. The relief carving work in the temple was incredible, although all of the faces have been cut off by the Moghuls, according to the prohibition in Islam of “graven images”. 

Our next stop was an active Vishnu temple, built in the 7th century.  Because it is an active temple, we were not allowed to wear shoes, bring in our cameras, or wear any leather. Within this temple complex there are a total of 108 temples – a spiritually significant number in Hinduism. (put in examples here) Every Hindu god has their own special day, and as luck would have it, Monday is Vishnu’s day. The Royal family of Udaipur comes to this particular temple every Monday to pray. The temple was very busy – lots of people, lots of monkeys scampering around, and there were drummers and other traditional instruments being played as the crowd lined up to pay their respects at the shrine. It was an interesting, colourful experience.

There were many relief carvings at this temple, each depicting a different story. The guide showed Aubrey a relief carving showing forced bestiality as punishment for rape.  I felt badly for the animal being used for the punishment.

We had lunch at an outdoor restaurant called Urban Dhaba. We were the only patrons, which might normally be a red flag, but the food was a delicious assortment of homemade “Rajasthani village specialties”  Our host, Hari explained that we would taste food here that we will not find anywhere else. It was wonderful.

Our next stop was the Monsoon Palace. It is high atop a hill, and is often above the clouds. The views of the surrounding hills overlooking the city were absolutely beautiful. It was built in1884. The palace offers a panoramic view of the city’s lakes, palaces and surrounding countryside. It was built chiefly to watch the monsoon clouds; hence, appropriately, it is popularly known as Monsoon Palace. Previously owned by the Mewar royal family, it is now under the control of the Forest Department of the Government of Rajasthan and has recently been opened to the public. The palace provides a beautiful view of the sunset.

After the Monsoon Palace, we dropped the kids at home and headed for a walking tour of the market, including the spice vendor that our guide Lalit’s mother buys her spices from. I am pretty sure we paid fairly steep “foreigner prices”, but I am happy to have everything I need to start replicating some of the delicious food that I have been lucky enough to eat while we have been here.

As it was New Year’s Eve, we were torn about what to do.  There were many parties we could go to, but the admission prices were quite high. Considering that we had to get up before 6am to catch our plane to Jaipur, we opted to order some food in, and have a quiet evening. Hari presented us with many beautiful gifts on our last night. We were overwhelmed by her generosity. Besides choosing something personal for each of us, she also gifted us with one of her framed pieces of artwork. The walls of their home are covered with her amazing art. She is extremely talented. After we received these gifts, we had to repack our bags as the weight limits for domestic flights are much stricter than the international flights. Most of us tried to go to bed early, considering how early we were going to have to wake up, but it was more challenging than we thought: Udaipur is definitely a party city. There was loud music playing late into the night, and of course there were many fireworks displays at midnight. I woke up and watched some of them from our balcony. 22 years ago tonight, Aubrey and met in person for the first time. Because of this, I always feel very hopeful on New Year’s Eve, I always see the possibilities. Happy New Year Everyone!

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India Adventure #11 – Udaipur Day 2

Dec 30

We woke up too early, again. We woke up for yoga class, so that made it better. None of the boys wanted to get up so early, and Maxine and Melody took a pass as well. That left Aubrey, Koren, Michelle and Al (Hari and Pari’s son who was home from abroad for the holidays). We learned our lesson from yesterday, and did not leave our shoes outside.

Whenever we arrived back home from yoga, Hari would give us a delicious glass of lemon water. After lemon water we would gather the rest of the group for breakfast. Today’s offering was muesli, flattened rice with “catfish snacks” mixed in, and some little crunchy snacks  to sprinkle on the rice that we were told were optional as they were spicy, but we did not find them spicy. This was just a “light” (Ha!) breakfast as Cooking class was starting at 10:30. 

We were joined by a mother-daughter duo,  Lisa and Raphaela, who crowded into Hari’s kitchen to learn how to make Chicken masala, baingen bharta (aubergine), paneer kaftan (cheese and potato balls), naan, chapatis, sweet chapatis, tamarind sauce and cilantro lime sauce. Everything was fascinating to make and tasted absolutely amazing!

After lunch we had four different activities scheduled. First was an ayurvedic massage. We didn’t really know what expect, so weren’t able to warn the boys, who had never experienced any type of massage before. There was a certain amount of variation between the massagers, but none of us were asked about injuries or any history whatsoever. The massage certainly did not feel as clinical as they do at home. I think Noam was a bit taken aback by the fact that he had a female masseuse who gave him a full body massage. Teva decided that he did not want his sweatpants off, and he had been put in a room with Melody, whom I think the women assumed was her son. She was a bit taken aback when they asked her to strip down in front of Teva. Even with the language barrier, they managed to indicate what they were and were not comfortable with. we all had a good laugh when we compared notes later.

After the massages, Aubrey, the boys and Melody went for a sunset camel ride on a flat road, as opposed to the hilly, rugged terrain from our last camel ride. Aubrey said that the ride felt more bumpy, more like riding a horse. The third activity was a Scientific Hand Analysis, by Hari’s husband, Pari. To do the analysis, Pari took a scan of our palms with a computer scanner, including our finger prints. He then, based on patterns and lines in our hands and fingerprints told us what we are meant to do, and what our path should be. It was very interesting. Only the adults, and Erez had their palms analyzed, Michelle took a pass. the final activity was Mehndi (Henna). Several took advantage of getting more henna. When we were out and about, Someone complemented Erez on his Mehndi, but then added: “You know that’s only for girls, right?”

We had planned to do a second yoga class at 7pm, but the traffic was so crazy that we ended up turning around and cancelling the class. This three day period was so busy in Udaipur, and traffic volumes were ridiculous. We returned home to freshen up and then ate dinner at another wonderful outdoor restaurant called “Tribute”. Because it was chilly, they had charcoal burning in metal cages on top of stands. They would place these coal baskets close to the table to warm up the clientele. These were portable and were moved to wherever they were needed. We were home from dinner around 10pm.

So far, our days have started early than usual, been extremely busy, and we have been eating dinner much later than we are accustomed to at home. As a result, we have been collapsing into bed at night, hence the backlog of blogposts – thanks for being patient.

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India Adventure #10: A Crazy busy day in Udaipur

Dec 29

Early morning yoga in Udaipur still meant getting up before seven. And despite the inside location, only a short tuktuk ride away from our homestay, it was cold. The yoga took place in the meditation room of an old hospital dedicated in 1885. The opening section was an effective cardiopulmonary warm-up. The instructor was firm and knowledgeable. She corrected us at times, when needed. “Smile more and stretch more” was her mantra.

When we went to get our shoes from outside the room, four were missing. Noam spotted a dog on the roof, who promptly ran away once noticed, and the four shoes were found where the dog had been. Melody and Noam each had a wet shoe from dog saliva, with Noam’ soles pulled out, but unfortunately, Zev had one sole bit in two. He was not pleased.

Without any acceptable alternate solutions, the group headed out for a tour of the city, while Koren and Zev headed to the mall to find sneakers.

Jagdish Temple and some of the Hindu theology we learned about:

Lallit and three tuktuks joined us for the day, starting with a Pancha Et Mundi, a white temple right at the edge of the market we explored the previous day. This temple is 350 years old and better known as Jagdish Temple. It remains active (evident by the rag-like flag flying from the highest point. Five of the 33 million Hindu Gods are represented within: the centre is for Vishnu, the God of preservation, and the temple is most known as a Vishnu Temple; the front left is for Ganesh, a God of good luck and new beginnings, his elephant head at most entrances; the back left is the Sun God, which makes the sound Ohm; the back right is the Goddess Durga, the most prominent mother Goddess; the front right is for Shiva and his wife Parvati. The horse carvings represent power but are unusual on a temple. The elaborate carvings are typical outside Hindu temples. But Jain temples are very plain outside with carvings only on the inside, not to show off.

The three main Gods are Brahma, the creator, Vishnu, the preserver, and Shiva, the destroyer/regenerator. This cycle represents the life cycle, including reincarnation, until enough karma is collected to elevate to Nirvana and escape further human lives. 

Each of these main Gods is married: Shiva to Parvati, and she represents power; Brahma to Sirvasati, for education; and Vishnu to Laksmi, for wealth. Women were originally equal to men, but after the Mogul influence, women were protected and kept behind veils.

The five mothers are very important in Hindu culture: your own mother is first; Durga is second; third is the cow; fourth is basil; fifth is the Motherland.

There are forty-five regions in Rajhastan, thirty-two states in India (of which Rajhastan is the largest), and seven city-states (including Delhi) managed by the central government.  

Hinduism birthed Sikhism, Jainism and Buddhism in India.

Cable Car Adventure:

After the temple, we braved the now-busy streets in a tuktuk and waited for the cable car to take us to the top of a hill. The system was very orderly, with benches on which to sit in a tiny park while awaiting our number posted on an electronic sign. Then we filed into line, with metal barriers so narrow we could only stand single file. From the front of the line, the next group of people to board waited on benches by one of the two cars. The view of the city from the cable car ride was beautiful in scope.

From the top, we walked along a stone path towards the mouse temple. Lallit met a young man along the way who then spent a few moments with two sleight of hand magic tricks with balls and coins. It was predictable but he was skilled enough I could not see the tricks. The kids were amazed.

This temple is not the one where the floor is absolutely teeming with live mice, but there were a few in cages at the entrance. Although an active temple, it was not too impressive. There was a large tree within the temple, watered often by people to ensure they will have water in the afterlife. This tree was for Shiva.

Each of the Gods are represented by specific animals or plants. Vishnu is the eagle, Shiva is the snake or bull and the tree, Brahma is the swan. Many of the Gods are dead ancestors elevated to God status based on their good work on Earth. Teva thought the ancestor God prevalent in Udaipur and seen by this hilltop temple was creepy, perhaps based on his caricature face and smile. He did make the comment prior to knowing it was the picture of a God, but I would support his sentiment.

Instead of waiting for the cable car again, Noam and Teva really wanted to walk down the stair paved path from the top. Apparently it is a good ten minute walk up. With play along the way, we got down in about eight minutes and Noam realized the bottom of the path was not at the end of the cable car. So, we walked back up, hoping to catch the others before they left the top. About ten minutes and most of the way up, we heard the others calling to us from the cable car to go back down. Despite being on the wrong side of the valley, the tuktuk would be awaiting us there. So, we walked back down, which was the back-up plan all along, and found a tuktuk driver at the bottom of the path. We did not recognize him but did figure he was the right guy based on some stilted english about one and two (we were in three tuktuks as a group). And so we ended up driving to meet the others at a midway point.

All along we kept hearing about Koren and Zev meeting us, but each time either the news was false, or heavy traffic (they were in a jeep so could not squeeze through impossible spaces) had sabotaged their plans to meet us. But when we arrived at the restaurant, they were already there. It was well after three and all of us were quite ready for lunch!

A busy afternoon and evening:

The line-up at Krishna restaurant suggested it was popular and good. The dal thali lunch was excellent. We could even tolerate their regular spice. This family style service, where everyone gets the same thing in little bowls (for the wet foods) on a larger plate or directly on the plate (for the more formed foods), is very typical food and service for Rajasthan. It was especially fun seeing the waiter crumble the ball of dried chickpeas onto the centre of the plate, creating a pile of carbohydrate with which to use your hands to pick up the rest of the food. Many did not like the salty lassis very helpful for cooling the mouth. When we left at four, it was hard to imagine needing more food before tomorrow!

We skipped siesta to head to The Queen’s Maidens’ Park, which included the “Rain without clouds” fountain. All of the water jets and fountains are fed by the main lake, eighty feet higher in elevation, so that no electricity is required to run the fountains. In fact, with the clap of the hands, the guide signals the man just out of sight to turn the crank and turn up the fountains to maximum for a minute or so. We got a tour of the extensive gardens, with several different areas, an art gallery (many of a particular stylized sideways people historical paintings, but several really beautiful abstract paintings with wonderful use of colour), an old swimming area with historical plaques, and a rainforest area. For several hundred years, and until the last century, this large park was the only place women in the royal family were allowed to go outside and have fun. Until it was opened to the public, no men were allowed inside the gates at all.

We drove to a natural folk history museum and had a short tour of the museum, displaying different customs, masks, turbans, and mendhi from many different villages and tribes within this state. Then we watched a performance outside that lasted a wonderful hour and included a large puppet show and some cultural dancing. The puppets including some dancing, a trapeze act, elephants, and a funny number with a woman who kept turning into a man and then back into a woman. Apparently the real story involved a man trying to have an affair with his sister-in-law. I kept trying my best to interpret the Hindi for Noam’s (and Michelle’s) benefit.  Some was correct but most was likely far off the truth. The live band and singers for the puppet show and then the dancing really added to the atmosphere. The three women dancing performed well synchronized dances with string and little cymbals all over their bodies. Then, for the finale, a man in a dress did his version of the female water-carrying dance we had seen at Araveli. In the end, he was running around the stage with nine water jugs on his head, after standing on glass or a metal plate or cups. Amazing!

As expected, no one (except the boys) was hungry for dinner at eight thirty, but we walked to the Khamma Ghani restaurant and ate. We had a low table at the waterside, seated on cushions in a restaurant seemingly entirely outdoors, including the kitchen. The lights were beautiful in the night. The paneer was a real highlight, and the chicken grilled over a fire on skewers appears to be a speciality. We rolled home and fell into bed at ten thirty. 

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India Adventure #9 – Goodbye, Araveli

Dec 28

We woke up very early, and had our last breakfast at Araveli. I had very mixed feelings. We had such a meaningful time at Araveli. We made such wonderful connections with the staff and the other families, we were all a bit sad to leave. On the other hand, we knew this experience was only one phase of our time in India, and I was looking forward to all of the adventures to come.

We had a 2.5 hour drive back to Udaipur and met up with Michelle’s daughter, Melody. We were all so excited to see her. Udaipur was described to us as the “Venice of India”, but Aubrey says that it is nothing like Venice. This city of six hundred thousand is not built on canals or water, but it is a vacation and wedding destination thanks to the seven constructed lakes in and around the city. We started with a tour of the Lake Palace and a visit to Jagmandir Castle in the middle of the lake. It was built is 1620 by the Royal Family of Udaipur. Like most of the palaces in India, without any power of rule or tax income, royalty have donated some of their property to the government for museums and tourist attractions, and much has been transformed into hotels to maintain income for the family. 

Udaipur really has to be seen to be believed. Although not much like Venice, it had a lot of charm. In the old city, there was a maze of small streets, quaint bridges. and (like every other place we have visited in India) plenty of random cows wandering around, sometimes in the smallest alleyway, and sometimes in the middle of the busiest traffic circle. It is hard to explain, but I really loved the feeling of this city. At the risk of sounding cliche, it had a wonderful vibe to it. I felt comforted by its energy, both when quiet and chaotic.

After a boat ride to the lake palace taking in the sites, we had lunch at the Sunset restaurant overlooking the lake. By crazy coincidence, we bumped into a childhood friend of mine, Deborah Dalfen, who also works at the same law firm as Melody Burke. What made this small world even smaller, was that India, one of the kids in our group from Detroit, goes to camp in Algonquin park with Deborah’s daughter. It was so great to see her; she looks exactly the same.

In India, weddings are a big deal. Families will regularly host 1000 people for an event, and it lasts often at least ten days. Everyone in Udaipur was talking about a pre-wedding party that was held in Udaipur in December, only two weeks earlier. The daughter of a very wealthy businessman was getting married, so they rented out the most extravagant hotel in Udaipur for ten whole days. The event itself was only ten hours or so, but it took the rest of the time to decorate and prepare for the event, as well as the take-down and clean-up. Beyonce was one of the entertainers. Also, as a gesture of goodwill, and in thanks for taking over the city for ten days, the family fed over five thousand disadvantaged local people for several days as well.

After our lovely lunch, we were given free time to wander a small stretch of the market. Our facilitators gave us clear boundaries and set themselves up in a cafe where we could come and go as we pleased. The boys haggled for a few small souvenirs, and Noam and Teva spent a long time in an art shop, fascinated by one of the artists who specialized in traditional miniature paintings. The detail work was exquisite, all hand-painted with a squirrel hair brush. He was very patient with the boys, answering all of their questions. He even gave them each their own paintbrush, but only if they promised to paint. We purchased a special piece of art from him. Details to follow…

We ate a light dinner at the cafe and then were driven to Enjoy! Udaipur, also known as Hari’s Homestay. We had a heartfelt and tearful good bye with our wonderful facilitators, Varun and Ra’ana, and then were warmly welcomed by Hari and her family. One door closed while another door opened…

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India Adventure #8

Dec 27 – Aubrey deserves all of the credit for this post…

Early morning yoga once again, followed by breakfast. We had to load up with calories as we were going to the build site for the last time, and had a lot we hoped to accomplish. Which is not to say we weren’t loading up with calories every morning, as the food was so good!

After our regular bumpy, twisting, vertiginous drive through villages and farmland, passing many cows and oxen on the street and mostly avoiding the holes in the road and always barely avoiding oncoming traffic, we immediately set to work on the school stair foundation and plastering.

After the first day, we had made a few dents in the one by thirty metre area we needed to excavate to make the foundation. The plastering had barely started. After the second day, the holes had connected and the plasterers had found their groove. It seemed we were making progress. Yet it seemed improbable we would actually accomplish anything tangible towards the stairs for the school and sealing the back of the school foundation wall. 

The pickaxe work was tiring and difficult to maintain for long, aggravated by a high percentage of rocks in the dry soil. Once enough dirt and rocks were loosened, we were able to use our regular or Indian shovels to scoop the dirt and rocks into metal pans, which we carried to the side of the school. The shovelling was really hard with all of the rocks making none of the scoops smooth. The work was tough but fun working as a team. Plus we were only working for about two hours each time. There really was no official marker for the distance from the front of the school or the thirty centimetre depth for the foundation, so we were occasionally advised by one of the community members and twice we made a line with a shoe in the dirt to indicate our border.

Suddenly, a corner was turned and the pit was complete! Large rocks were placed back into the pit neatly created and the masala (technically any mixture, but in this case our regular cement mixture but with rocks in it as well) was poured between the rocks to create the foundation. Whereas over the first two days I had mixed two piles of cement (mostly sifted dirt with one seventh cement), used for plastering the back of the foundation, this last day I mixed six or seven piles of cement mix, now mostly for the foundation. As fast as I could mix the cement, now mostly with unsifted sand and the same one seventh cement, it was shovelled into metal pans and poured into the foundation. And as we finished past our scheduled end time, the first layer of the foundation was complete and the back of the school foundation was plastered.

It struck me how well the local resources had been used in this case. Basically, we had removed rocks and stones and dirt from the foundation area, organized them into piles (as all along we had set aside larger rocks as they were removed from the earth) and then replaced the rocks and then dirt and stones as cement mix masala. Rocks and earth out, then rocks and earth back in. The only difference in content was the addition of a small percentage of cement to a much better organized foundation.

Lunch felt well deserved. Every meals has been mostly Indian food with usually one Italian dish. Apparently the Chef’s specialty is European food, even though his Indian cooking seems excellent.

Without much time for rest, we headed over to Fort Kumbhalgarh for a tour. It was built by Maharana Kumbha in the 15th century with a six metre wide solid wall, unaffected by cannon balls! The fort also boasts the second longest continuous wall in the World: the circumference around the royal land of thirty-six kilometres is only bested in length by the Great Wall of China. The Cloud Palace is also named for its height on the hills. It contains a small village, with most of the people employed by the royal family. The village remains, inhabited by people like Salim, our guide for the afternoon. At one time there were fifteen thousand people within the walls. As well, there is a Jain and Krishna temple from before the 1st century within the walls. 

Kumbha was old when he made the fort. As the story goes, he built the fort and it kept collapsing the next day. He consulted a holy man, who told him that a voluntary human sacrifice had to be made in order for the fort to succeed. None but a hermit (Meher Baba), who was passing that way, offered himself for the sacrifice. He was ritually decapitated and his head rolled down the hill. After his beheading, his headless body walked up the hill and then fell. At one location is the head temple shrine and the other hosts the body temple shrine. They aren’t so close.

Later, his son got impatient for him to die so he killed him. This type of family politics seems typical for royal families at this time and seems more extreme than present day conflicts. The king’s younger son punished the older son and took over. 

One point of interest was the Queen’s courtyard and her meditation room, in which chanting “om” echoes and vibrates the entire room and through your body, apparently giving those present more energy.

We enjoyed the fort, including the enormity of the complex and the encompassed countryside. The fort itself was designated an UNESCO world heritage site in 2013. The government took over in 1951.

We returned to Araveli and began to dress for our evening goodbye banquet. The women attempted to dress each in her saree and the men each put on his kurta. The items had been selected and sized two days earlier and had just arrived. Two local women arrived to assist in the tying of the saree, which involves fanning, tucking and pinning a long length of fabric. They also instructed our women in donning the saree frontwards (instead of backwards). Everyone looked elegant in their formal wear.

Dressing up in traditional Indian clothes, including the men in turbans, brought to mind the recent Prime Minister Trudeau Indian clothes controversy. Was his choice of clothing cultural appropriation or appreciation? We did not ask to dress up; rather, our hosts offered us the gift of this formal wear to celebrate locally. Although not for our daily wear, we are set for an Indian wedding! 

We waiting for all to be ready and then entered along a torchlit pathway to meet the staff and a concert of traditional music by local villagers. One of the men demonstrated and then led us in dancing continuously for about thirty minutes during cocktails. This type of music and dance is part of a typical circle of village men meeting for prayer in the evenings. We were treated to some “Street food” in carts: sugar pretzels (jellabi), poppers, and really yummy crunchy rice piles. This already felt like dinner but was followed by an all-Indian buffet onto a large metal circular plate with side walls in traditional Rajasthani thali style.

After dinner, the kids were pulled from their ongoing spoons game for a song to celebrate and thank the staff, as coordinated by Koren and written with the help of a few others in our group. To the tune of “My Favourite Things,” the staff were all present for the presentation and were surprised (mostly surprised, as printing the song and making copies involved a fair bit of IT work in the tiny administrative office at Araveli) and moved by the words.

We said goodbye to the Talwar family, who get to sleep in tomorrow, and went to bed. Every night we hit the hay at a reasonable hour, but sleep in India is not yet as efficient as at home, and so the morning wake-up seems far too soon. Maybe Zev will forgive us for so many early mornings, if he gets to sleep in after we get home.

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India Adventure #7

Turbans, Camels and Bollywood dancing

Dec 26

This morning some of us started the day with yoga, some of us went on a nature hike, and some of us stayed in bed and slept. After another fantastic breakfast, we went to our first activity. We were told we would be walking to a temple so we should wear closed-toe shoes. We started walking through the village and after about five minutes, as we rounded a corner, we were faced with a row of camels awaiting our arrival.

We got onto the camels, two people per camel. I haven’t ridden a camel since probably 1993. Now I remember why. I was sharing a camel with Teva, which was frankly a bit terrifying. We were so high up, I was a bit worried that Teva might slide off so I was working hard to protect him from falling. This was a bit difficult when we were going uphill and when we were going downhill. Aubrey was shocked no one fell off, especially on down hills, where the lean was great and it was very difficult to hold on. One friend Leslie pointed out that the car rides were pretty terrifying, but she preferred the car to the camel ride. The kids of course all had a blast. After about thirty minutes walking through the village, we disembarked and changed back to the familiar cars for a short drive to the “Catfish Temple.” One of our guides, Ricky, was on a rogue camel and ended up having to walk the rest of the way. This is a Hindu temple on a lake with many catfish. People come from far and wide to feed the catfish as an offering to the gods. It is illegal to catch or eat any of the catfish in the lake as they are considered holy. Our group went through nine large bags of catfish food, which is expired Indian snacks. The temple itself was small, but housed three different shrines.

The rest of the morning was spent experiencing the local art scene. First we practiced tie-dye with Yunus Chacha, who has generations of tie-dying in his family. We learned about the natural dying process with beetroot powder, turmeric and indigo and natural fixatives. He showed us how he created a unique turban over three metres long. After the presentation, we made our own tie-dye kerchiefs.

Next, we made our own wood block printing creation, then lined up for optional henna designs on our bodies. Lastly, we were taught a Bollywood dance by a professional choreographer, Ashok, which was lots of fun, but none of us are giving up our day jobs anytime soon. We have video evidence of our mediocrity.

After a late lunch, we drove to a different village to visit their school and were invited for tea to spend time with some of the local women, where we could learn about the issues they face in the village. It was extremely interesting seeing the solar panels on the school to provide energy for the first computer lab in the region (albeit still missing a teacher). There are very strong women who are leaders in the community, and with recent programs, all of the boys and girls are now attending school at least through middle school, which is a huge accomplishment. For many women, they hope education will lead to better options for life outside of the village for their children. It seems quality of life is best improved here starting with formal education of the children and informing the adults of improvement made simply for agriculture and economic improvements.

We had a wonderful dinner and then had a singalong. I finally got to use my guitalele. (It is a ukelele in size, tuned differently, but with six strings like a guitar.) Some of the adults hung around singing and chatting with our facilitators before we had to go home and collapse. 

These are long posts as we had busy days. As usual, we had a big day coming up.

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India Adventure #6

Dec 25

We woke up and chose the seven am nature hike instead of yoga. It was a great opportunity for the kids to climb and get some of their energy out. We always enjoy a good nature hike, no matter where we are. We love learning about the local flora and fauna and how the indigenous people use the local plants. One of the most interesting things we learned was about the Neem tree. Local tribes would take twigs from the branches, chew the ends, and use them as toothbrushes. Ricky, our guide, told us some toothpaste companies are using extracts from the Neem tree as an ingredient in their toothpastes because of benefits for teeth and gums. The Neem tree differs from the Kenyan toothbrush trees in that it is not at all bitter. We also learned that the only two local animals that can eat acacia thorns are goats and camels. The acacia are not native to this area, but were brought over from Africa. They flourish quite well in Rajasthan, especially during the dry season, as Rajasthan is either mountainous or desert. 

The land next to the Araveli compound is government owned land, available for anyone to use for pasture (or hikes). The area closer to the village is owned by private families, passed down over generations. There were small low stone walls built to prevent soil erosion, but there were also larger mortarless stone walls built to mark the borders between properties. The sunrise was glorious, as the kids continued bouldering across the landscape.

After breakfast, a new family joined our group. Nick and Jennifer (name) and their three kids: Max, (13), Anika (11) and Ronin (4). They fit in right away, with group card games starting almost immediately.

Our first activity after breakfast was a presentation by the Project Manager for India, Mr.  Ambrish Nikhil Talwar. He showed us a slide show, outlining the WE 5 pillars of sustainable development (Water, Education, Health, Agriculture, and Opportunity) and how they are specifically being implemented in India. As expected, the implementation here is different than in the sites we have visited in Kenya and Ecuador. As an organization, WE adapts to the culture and situation in every site, and adjusts as needed, working with the local communities to find local solutions.

After the presentation, we headed to the Antri village for my favourite part of every WE trip: the “Day in the Life” activity. We were invited into the home of a local village Mama. She outlined some of her daily tasks and answered any questions we had about daily life in the village. We also helped her with some of her chores. Daludi Bai, our hostess, made Naan, and we tried to help her. Our facilitator told us the women in the village are very particular about rolling perfectly round dough. Most of us failed on this count. I noticed her trying not to laugh as we handed her our efforts to be cooked in the pan over the fire. Clearly we have to practice a lot more. The stove she is using is an improved wood stove supplied by WE. It has two burners instead of one, and is ventilated to the outside. This has contributed to a large reduction in respiratory illnesses, especially amongst the women in these villages.

In our conversation, we learned she was gifted earrings, a necklace, a toe ring, and bracelets on her upper arms from her husband’s parents when they were married. The other bangles she wears on her forearms are her own choice. She explained that the bracelets on her upper arms are now tight because she was so young when she was married, an age around ten years old, and her arms have grown since then. She was not sure of her exact age. She will wear these gifts from her in-laws until the day her husband dies (they are all signs that she is a married woman), and if she becomes a widow, she will take all of them off, including cutting the arm bracelets off of her upper arms.

One of the most memorable moments from the encounter with Daludi Bai was her response to the question regarding the hardest part of her day: “Nothing is hard for me, it is just my life. And if it is hard, I just do it.”

Our next task was to head down to the well to bring water. The well was probably about four hundred metres from her house. The community has had to dig wells deeper than ever before to access the ground water due to recent reduced rainfall. There was an ingenious Indigenous system in place for the water: A large wooden bar is pushed by the villagers walking in a circle, which turns gears at ground level and then turns a metal “belt” with metal cups at every joint; the cups are lowered into the well water and brought up to ground level, in a continuous circuit; at ground level, the cups tip over and fill the clay or metal vessels; overflow splashes back into the well or mostly drops down into an irrigation channel which flows to irrigate the farmers’ fields around the village.

The local children all flocked down to see us, and helped push the wooden bar to fill the pots. We were given traditional clay pots to balance on our heads on a fabric wrapped circular aid. The “doughnut” is placed on your head and then you balance the pot in the circle. Nowadays, brides are gifted metal pots to carry the water. They can be steel or copper or brass. They are heavier for the women to carry, but they last a lot longer than the clay pots, as Noam found out when he tried to lift one of the pots out of the water trough and the neck broke off in his hands. We were horrified, but the facilitator assured us that this is normal and that these pots were for demonstration purposes only. Every pot gets weakened when oversaturated, and eventually they break, which is why they have switched to metal pots.

Next, we had some bonding time with the goats. We fed them, and the kids took turns holding and petting them. The larger goats were prone to eating constantly, nipping at fingers, and pulling their posts out of the ground to get more food. Our last task was to help patch up the gaps in the bricks of the newest part of her house, with a “plaster” mixture of composted cow dung and mud. They gave us latex gloves to work with, but for some helpers the plaster managed to seep though to the fingers. The plastering mix was cool and surprisingly odourless.

I don’t think any of us will ever forget that time we had in Daludi Bai’s home, which was typical of the Indigenous Villagers in this part of India. The main space, in which she cooks and the entire family sleeps, is less than ten square metres. The goats sleep in a separate smaller enclosure off to the side in the home, but the newest unfinished part of her home will be solely for the goats, so she can expand  the regular part of the home. We were so grateful that she took time out of her life to share her experiences with us.

We were supposed to do a cooking class before lunch, but we were running late, and we were all extremely hungry. So, after lunch Chef Ashante did three cooking demonstrations: Masala Chai (tea, but be sure to at least “double boil the milk to avoid a milky taste”), butter chicken, and veggie samosas. All of us have really enjoyed the food on this trip, and Chef Ashante was definitely a highlight.

After our cooking demonstration. we headed back to the work site in the village. As soon as we arrived, everyone immediately got right to work. We were much more productive today than we were yesterday. Many of us tried most of the jobs on the first day, and were now settling into jobs to which we were best suited. It was cooler in the late afternoon, which helped our productivity, but we were still desperate for showers when we returned to Araveli.

Our “Christmas Dinner” was fun and festive (although all but one of the families on our trip is Jewish). We had wonderful food, Christmas themed cocktails and mocktails, mulled wine, a visit from “Indian Santa” who brought us candy, and a gift for every one of us under a small Christmas tree: a personalized, handmade, leather-bound journal for each of us.

All in all, a pretty amazing day.

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