2017 Travels

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During our three-week journey through Morocco, we embraced a wide variety of landscapes, peoples and cultures.

Meet the Berbers…

80% of Moroccans are of Berber heritage. The Berbers developed a rich culture that thrives in the high mountains and desert. In the past, they lived side by side with a large Jewish population, and both cultures were influential to one another. The Berbers have a unique vocabulary and a wonderful, self-deprecating sense of humor:

A “Berber 4x4” is a mule that carries our luggage up a mountain to a Kasbah. This was a new mode of transport for our well-traveled bags.

Mules, which can climb stairs and hills are much more expensive than donkeys which only operate on level ground.

A “Berber gas mask” is a handful of crushed mint held up to the nose to combat the noxious odors in the tanneries where cow, sheep, goat, and camel hide are turned into leather goods using traditional methods and ingredients which include pigeon poop and organic dyes. These traditional tanneries operate as they have for hundreds of years large courtyards in urban medinas.

“Berber Pizza” is stuffed bread cooked in hot sand.

“Berber Whiskey” is mint tea poured from on high to aerate the flavors of the tea.

A “Berber salt mine” is a well operated by two guys with a rope and a basket. They scoop up the water in baskets and send the salty water to evaporation pools below.

Berber became an official Moroccan language only six years ago, and now it’s on many of the highway signs.

Many people speak Berber, Arabic and French, with a smattering of English in tourist-facing activities and commerce.

We spent a night in the desert, traveling on camels and sleeping in Berber tents.

We donned the traditional Berber headdress to protect our faces from sun and sand.

Berber people are friendly and hospitable; Omar, our guide, took us to his village and introduced us to his father.

He even tried our favorite pose!

Influence of Islam

Islam is the official state religion of Morocco. We learned that the “Minister of Islam” is a high government position, and the current Minister is a dear friend of the King. All communities have a mosque and the salaries for most Imams are paid by the government.

Most women wear modest dress with headscarves in public. Only men are seen in most cafés and if there is a woman in a café, people think, “she must be waiting for transport.” Beer and wine are only served in selected hotels (and some restaurants) that cater to tourists.

The call to prayer is heard five times a day. Jan previously thought that this was a pre-recorded tape, but she was corrected…. “No, the ‘muezzin’, a respected member of the mosque community,  chants the call to prayer in the minaret”. In cities, we could hear the call in “surround sound”, as multiple mosques were calling the faithful at the same time.

Jewish Heritage

Historically, Morocco had a large Jewish community that lived alongside and in peace with the Muslim community; as of 1980, most Jews had emigrated to Israel or elsewhere. Many Moroccan cities have a “Mellah” as the Jewish quarter is known. Mellah homes are different from traditional Moroccan riads. Unlike riads, which are focused on an inner courtyard or garden, homes in the Mellah have street-facing windows and balconies so Jewish residents could chat with neighbors without leaving their homes.

In Marrakech, we visited an active synagogue, which is a pilgrimage sites for many Israelis. We met a local man who had just returned from his mother’s funeral in Israel. She was 94 years old, and had left Marrakech in 1950.

And we learned that Chefchaouen, one of our favorite cities, was painted blue by original Jewish residents to differentiate it from green—the color of Islam!  This city offers picturesque vistas from every turn and is an absolute delight.

French City Planning

French is the second language of Morocco (after Arabic). Wide boulevards, reminiscent of the Champs Elysees radiate from the King’s palace in Fes. These were designed by a French architect. Even Essaouira, a sleepy beach town with incredible kite-surfing and windsurfing, somewhat incongruously practiced alongside camel rides along the beach, was laid out by a Frenchman who wanted the “Medina” (old city) to have an organized feel and not be a labyrinth.

Gnawa Music (from Sub Saharan Africa)

The only “profession” in the village of Khamlia is making music. Whenever a tourist shows up, this talented bunch of musicians brings their traditional drums, string instruments, and castanets to perform mesmerizing music, as well as their attractively packaged CD's for sale. This music originated with animism religions of West Africa and can often put the musicians in a trance.

Uniquely Moroccan

Riads are traditional Moroccan houses which focus inward, allowing family members to communicate easily across the inner courtyard. Traditional riads also have specialized doors with one knocker sound and smaller entry for family members and a different knocker sound and larger entry for visitors. If the family knocker sounds, the women inside know that they do not need to put on their robes and veils.

Not all doors have this feature.

In Morocco, the North African culture lives side by side with Islam, even though many aspects of the culture are “forbidden” by Islam; for example, trance-inducing music, tattoos (often worn by countryside brides), and “liberated” women.

Couscous is the go-to Friday meal (because it takes four hours to cook!) We were lucky to visit a friend’s home on a Friday, where we enjoyed this home-cooked beauty.

Jan  went to cooking school, where she chopped and diced her way to create delicious Eggplant Zaalouk and Seafood Pastila. She even got to eat it for lunch-- and bring leftovers home to Ed.

The shopkeepers in Marrakech are friendly and the leather goods are lovely.

Weavers are everywhere, producing traditional woven goods from agave, wool, and cotton.

Blue Chefchaouen has become the new "Santorini" as a destination for Chinese brides and their photographers.

The Marrakech Medina is lively with girls in school uniforms. The future is bright, if these girls have anything to do with it!

Oil from the abundant olive trees is pressed and bottled using traditional methods.

Traditional fishing boats set sail every morning from Essouaira, on the coast.

The gigantic mosque of Casablanca -- the largest one outside of Saudi Arabia --  can hold 25,000 worshipers inside and 80,000 outside! During Ramadan, we learned that both locations are filled to capacity on a daily basis.

“Au revoir”, “Salam Alikome”, and “B slema" Morocco! It was amazing. We are fortunate and ever grateful for your hospitality.

As they say, “inshallah”  (if God willing), we hope to return.

A few years ago, Ed’s second cousin, Shep Forman, suggested, “Let’s go to Eastern Europe to try to find the Forman roots.”  We thought, “that sounds fun … let’s plan it!"  As a result, we spent ten days with Shep and Leona Forman exploring Latvia and Lithuania--searching for Forman roots. Shep is the cousin of Ed’s father, and is the youngest member of that generation.

Specifically, we were looking for the birthplaces of Simon Forman (Shep’s father) and Samuel Forman (Ed’s grandfather) and their parents -- Michael Forman and Maria Zimina. Shep’s father had told him that he was from Riga and records showed that Maria was from Kanaus, Lithuania. Shep’s father also said, “I’m Litvak”… which Shep assumed meant that he was from Latvia.

The Forman family emigrated to the US in the early 1900’s. Ed and Shep had researched their relatives on Ancestry.com before our trip, and they came equipped with some online records and documents. US Census data listed Simon and Sam as being born in “Russia”. (In the early 1900’s, Russia controlled all of Eastern Europe including the Baltic countries which are now Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia.)

Riga, Latvia

Ed and I met Shep and Leona in Riga, a very cosmopolitan city, with many green parks and open spaces. At the Jewish museum of Riga, we met with a historian, who referred us to an expert a the Latvian archives. We made an appointment with her to meet the next day. This historian also commented, “I’m 100% sure that Maria Zimina is a Russian Orthodox name. This means that she was not Jewish. Instead, she was probably Russian Orthodox.”  This news was disconcerting to both Shep and Ed, as they had never imagined that there were Christian roots in their backgrounds.

At the Latvian archives our historian Rita could find no record of the Formans in Latvia. But she said, “often, people said they were from Riga, if they left Eastern Europe from Riga … even when they didn’t live here.”  (It was a major seaport and a gateway to the west.)

We were a bit discouraged by this data, but we enjoyed our stay in Riga anyway. We loved touring the old town and sampled “Black Balsam” … the native liqueur of Latvia. (If you ever need a really effective cough syrup, try Black Balsam--highly recommended!)

We attended the World Premier of the opera, “Rose of Turaidas” performed by the Latvian State Opera. Since we bought tickets in advance (for the sold out performance), we’d learned that it was a black tie event and packed appropriate attire. Ed and I bought our jackets and my scarf at the "Gold Mine" thrift store in Ketchum, Idaho since we received the news about "black tie" after leaving SF for Ketchum. This was the first time Ed ever put on a size "44 long". But for $5, who can complain that the length goes below his second knuckle (!).

Little did we know that our seats for the opera would be five rows behind the President of Latvia and his wife. We learned this because the President’s beefy bodyguards (with earpieces) sat in our row! The lighting and staging of the opera was very innovative, and even though we couldn’t understand the nuances of what was going on in the opera, we enjoyed the performance.

Kanaus, Lithuania

After four days in Riga, we drove our rental car to Kanaus, the town where we hoped to find records for Mary Zimina who at this point could be characterized as our Russian Orthodox great grandmother. As we entered the town, we were not impressed. We saw rows and rows of Soviet-style dreary apartments and confusing traffic patterns. We checked into our hotel and after a lovely dinner at the Dia Restaurant, attended Yom Kippur services at the Kanaus Choral Synagogue, the only surviving synagogue in the city. It was a traditional Orthodox service, with melodies unfamiliar to Ed and Shep.

The next day we drove to the Museum of the Ninth Fort, on the outskirts of town. We were sobered to learn that this location was a killing field for 3,000 Jewish people from Kanaus who were marched here and shot in 1941. This picture in the museum illustrated the horrors of the period.

This monument was placed in front of the mass grave to honor the legacy of those who perished.

Vilnius, Lithuania

We traveled to Vilnius, a bustling, charming city with a vibrant spirit and lively Old Town. On our second day, we met with Regina Jopilevich, a local expert on Jewish genealogy and Lithuanian history. We took her to the hotel's computer and she instantly started researching in online databases.

After about an hour of work, she had an ‘aha’ moment …. and found the birth records of both Sam and Simon Forman!

We learned that Sam, Simon, and their sisters were all born in Kanaus, Lithuania. And, Maria Zimina, was not really “Maria”, but Mariausha, daughter of Moshe …. These are all Jewish names, so the idea of some non-Jewish relatives was put to rest. Shep and Ed breathed a sigh of relief!  Jan just smiled with acceptance.

It was quite an exciting moment to see the records of all the Forman Family members. Regina was an expert at looking for different spellings of names (Fuhrman vs Forman, etc.). Also many of the children had Hebrew names, which were changed to American names when they moved to the US. The key to her genealogical research was finding the same names in previous generations, but because of the differences in the records between Hebrew, Russian and Lithuanian names, it truly took an expert to figure it out.

While researching, she found that Sam’s wife, Rose Fanger, was born in Moletai, a nearby village. (This town is also called  Malat and Malata... which adds to the confusion to the genealogy for the uninitiated.) So, we got in the car and drove to her village. We had a lovely lunch in a local cafe … complete with dumplings and herring.

After lunch, we met this 85 year old resident of the village who described her life in Moletai.

She invited us into her home (which had no running water). We imagined that Rose (Ed’s grandma) and her family could have lived in a similar home prior to emigrating to the US in the early 1900’s.

We met her husband, and were impressed with his US Air Force hat!

In this painting of Moletai's past, we imagined Ed's relatives strolling the streets.

In his role as "paparazzi", Ed took photos of other houses in the village.

In Moletai we also visited an old Jewish cemetery by entering  through a hole in the fence.

On the outskirts of Moletai, we visited a somber sight where 2,000 Jews perished in the Holocaust. Recently, over 2,000 people were present for a commemoration and a screening of a  documentary  for the 75th anniversary of this atrocity. The memorial was in a relatively small space and we are told it was incredibly impactful when 2000 people surrounded the memorial in 2016. To provide perspective, the Jewish population in the region of Vilnius was in the hundreds of thousand before WWII and is less than 2000 today.

On our second day of research in Vilnius, we visited the Lithuanian Archives, where we searched for records on microfilm and ordered paper copies of documents. Leona was impressed by the  original birth records for the Fanger family.

And Ed and Shep found records from the SS Emory, the ship that carried the Forman family to the US in 1905.

During this research, Ed discovered that the aunt he was named for, Aunt Henrietta, was born in Kedainiai in 1874. We were also able to flesh out more of the details of Ed’s family. This was the Block family -- Ed’s great grandma and great aunt on his mother’s side. So, we were off to Kedainiai where the Block family lived.

Kedainiai, Lithuania

We visited Kedainiai on our way back to Riga. This village can trace its heritage back to 1372. At one time in the past, Kedainiai hosted a large Scottish community. (Who knows, perhaps Jan’s ancestors crossed paths with Ed’s family in this village.) We saw many wooden homes. Maybe Henrietta lived in a house like one of these:

Our trip wrapped up back in Riga. Both Ed and Shep were very satisfied with our research results. It’s wonderful to know the connection with Lithuania. We celebrated our good fortune  during our farewell dinner. We were able to trace the Forman, Fanger and Block branches of Ed's family back many generations and to gain perspective on their lives in Europe. We felt very lucky that most members of our families were able to leave early in the 20th Century, well before the Holocaust.

So, here's a toast to Ed and Shep for a wonderful trip! All four of us hope to return to these beautiful countries in the near future.

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Recently, we spent 72 hours enjoying the sights and scenes of St Petersburg, Russia. We didn’t really know what to expect. Images derived from the TV show, “The Americans”, of KGB-types following us around and large pictures of Putin everywhere came to mind … but neither proved true. Instead we found a cosmopolitan city, alive with charm and idiosyncrasies.

The city was a delight. And although 72 hours is quite rushed to absorb such a culture-rich environment, we tried our best. At its core, St. Petersburg is a very European city with rivers and canals, wide avenues lined with traditional six-story buildings and many churches, although these churches are topped with Russian Orthodox “onions” rather than steeples.

On the “beaten track”, we enjoyed the visual feast of the Hermitage, floor after floor, building after building. This museum had more riches and abundance of art than anyplace we have visited: twenty-six Rembrandts, two daVincis (out of the 20 still in existence), numerous works by Monet, Gauguin, Degas, and many other luminaries. The art ranged from Ancient Egypt to 1920’s Russia in hundreds of galleries in various buildings. The older art was in the Romanov palaces that line the Neva. The Impressionist and Post-Impressionist works were in the General Staff Building across Palace Square, which has been renovated brilliantly. (We saw much of this newer collection in Amsterdam in 2012 while the General Staff building was under renovation, but it is so special and unexpected at the Hermitage that it was worth seeing again.)

          

Everything about the Hermitage is enormous, including the plaza outside.

We snapped our obligatory picture at the Church on Spilled Blood.

We traveled within the city by subway, which was easy to navigate and very clean. Because bedrock is quite deep here, the escalators from the surface to the platforms were quite long, leaving ample time for passengers to send text messages, read their Kindles or turn around and have a conversation with their companions.

Giselle at the Mariinsky Ballet was terrific. The first act featured more pantomime than we are accustomed to at the SF Ballet; the second act had some brilliant technical dancing.

The ballet crowd was a mix of tourists and well-heeled locals. Some tourists donned sneakers and jeans, while most locals wore formal attire. We overheard one suit-and-tie attired cruise passenger proclaim: “They lied. They said jeans were not allowed!”

Only In St Petersburg

We wandered through the backstreets of Vasilyevsky Island and came across this surreal sight.

It seemed like a scene right out of Dali. But, later we saw that some entrepreneurs created a riding ring for children in an area that was once the courtyard of an elegant home.

One horse looked like she needed a bang trim.

In the enormous Palace Square, a mine troupe was joyously wrapping up their street performance.

And, instead of following us around, this red army soldier was carrying reams of paper back to the office!

This street musician was playing a saw, delighting his audience.

It’s a St Pete tradition for a bride and groom to pose at several locations around the city on their wedding day. We saw several couples. One bride was crying.

And one couple posed on a destroyer in front of a large gun.

St Pete is modern and lively. Instead of old rickety Soviet-style cars, we saw Mercedes, Land Rovers, BMWs, KIAs, and many other international brands. The young St Petersburg gals were dressed to the nines, and wore a lot of makeup. Lip plumper seemed especially popular. Locals even enjoyed sun bathing on the shores of the Neva river at the St Peter and Paul Fortress. (Not everyone thought it was chilly.)

The only images of Putin we saw were on matryoshka nesting dolls, in one set encasing the line of Soviet leaders and on the other, alongside Trump with a series of American leaders on the smaller dolls.

Logistics

We didn’t know anyone previous to this trip who had visited St Pete on their own without a visa; our trip went off without a hitch. The 72-hour no-visa rule is designed for cruise ship passengers, but it also applies to travelers on the ferry from Helsinki. We traveled on roundtrip tickets on the Anastasia (Moby St Petersburg line). It was a large, smooth boat with staterooms and cafes, and an all-night gaming lounge.

As we boarded the boat, we received a pile of bar-coded coupons, which acted as our boarding passes allowed entry our room and permitted us to dine.

We took a shuttle (run by the boat line) to our hotel on Vasilyevsky Island. Most of the other 100-or-so no-visa visitors were on tours, and were shepherded from location to location by flag-carrying guides

Our boutique hotel was delightful and provided very fast Internet. (Hopefully it was secure, as spent some time online commenting on Business Plans for our African Business School client. We made sure not to conduct any financial transactions while we were online.) The hotel even had a sense of humor, as illustrated by the door tags.

There are definitely trade-offs with this method of travel. A Russian visa costs at least $350 per person, and takes a while to obtain. But, with a visa, you can stay more time in St Pete and see more cities, including Moscow. With the visa-free visit on the ferry, you spend an additional four hours on the ship (after landing in St Pete and before departing the city), since you cannot spend a moment beyond 72 hours on the ground. In our case, the ship was quite sunny and hot, but we coped.

Even though our journey back from St Petersburg – Helsinki – Tallinn (and then on to a bus from Tallinn – Riga) took around 30 hours, it was worth it. The crew onboard told us that the satellite wifi was unreliable, so we enjoyed the chance to unplug, read, and binge on downloaded Netflix.

Spasibo, (thanks) St Pete! Do svidaniya (bye!) until next time.

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We have just embarked on a seven-week journey around Eastern Europe and North Africa; we feel privileged to have the opportunity to experience new cultures and cuisines.

We spent eight days in Poland, where we enjoyed visiting Krakow, Warsaw, and Gdansk. Our favorites were Krakow and Gdansk.  Instead of a popular view of Poland being a dour land of older ladies in head scarves sweeping their fireplaces, the Poland we visited was young, alive and vibrant. Along the way we tasted many new Polish delicacies.

First Course: Soup

Warm and hearty soup is central to the Polish cuisine. One day in Krakow, we visited a “Milk Bar” -- an inexpensive, no-frills cafeteria style restaurant that used to be subsidized by the government during the Communist era. Here we tried: Zurek--a white soup from a sourdough base that included a hard boiled egg and sausage and Barszcz, otherwise known as Borscht--a clear tangy, beet soup. Both were pretty good, but basic. Later in our trip, at the Gdansk Solidarity Museum, we elevated our soup game by trying Carrot and Orange Creme soup. This was definitely more gourmet than the first soups we tried!

Pierogi Paradise

Pierogi are ravioli-like dumplings that come in all shapes and sizes. We tried a combo platter in Warsaw, which included Potato, Duck, Cheese, and Spinach.

Our favorites are the Russian Pierogi--which are not Russian at all, but are filled with a mixture of boiled potatoes mixed with quark (a type of cheese) and seasoned with salt and pepper  They are served with fried onions (sometimes crispy … sometimes sauteed.) Yum!  Some of the pierogi we tried were light and delicate; others were more dense. The thickness of the dough was inversely correlated to the quality of the restaurant!

And, on the potato front… they are everywhere!  Boiled, baked, mashed, fried.  The magazine on the LOT Polish airline even included an article titled, “22 ways to eat potatoes”. Potato doughnuts, anyone?

Traditional Dishes

We also dined on several traditional entrees: Beef Cheeks with wine sauce  and Pig Knuckle. Both were delicious. Sometimes they were served with an extra flair, including a flower!

And, we tried a few more unusual dishes -- Bigos , a sauerkraut stew cooked with meat (surprisingly tasty) and Golabki, cabbage stuffed with meat and rice.

 

Dinner of the Knights

For Ed’s birthday, we celebrated at a Krakow restaurant in a medieval cellar. Here we dined in the style of the Knights of the middle ages. Wild boar.  Lamb chops. Goose carpaccio. Clear chicken soup that the bride and groom drink on their wedding night. And, Chilean wine that had a label printed in Polish. (Who knew that Chilean wineries can customize their wines this way?)

Lots of Other Cuisines

Lest you think that Poland only offers traditional dishes with lots of potatoes, we also enjoyed seeing the emerging “foodie culture”.  We were surprised to see the variety or restaurants, many with inventive names.

 

Since Gdansk is along the waterfront, the seafood was fresh and delightful (with potatoes, of course).

And, we enjoyed Beef Bourguignon at Correze, a local French restaurant named for a department in southwestern France we had not heard of previously.

To Top it Off:  Vodka!

We tried many types of artisanal vodka (wodka), which was often served as a “bonus drink” with the check. Here’s our (not-too-scientific) analysis:  Ginger -- very strong, tastes like a huge portion of candied ginger; Blackberry -- tastes like cough syrup; Pear -- not too “true” of a flavor; Mint -- nice and subtle; Hazelnut -- not too sweet and our favorite!

As they say in Poland, Na zdrowie! (Cheers!)

During the last week of March, my mother and I took our second trip to Cuba.  Previously, we followed Ernest Hemingway's footsteps.  This time, we followed another famous "Ernest": Ernesto “Che” Guevara.

Che is beloved by the Cuban people and his picture is everywhere!

In Santa Clara, we paid our respects at Che’s mausoleum – a reverent spot hosting an eternal flame. The nearby museum displays his white medical coat, baby pictures, his report card from elementary school in Argentina, and his many weapons. All the photos on the wall showed him as a handsome and charismatic leader. And his statue towers over the city.

Also, this train museum marks the spot where Che and his troops derailed a train used by Batista’s soldiers. This battle marked the beginning of Che’s revolutionary victories.

And, a monument on top of a hilltop celebrates the Battle of Santa Clara and the July 26 Revolutionary movement, led by Che and Castro.

On our last trip, we visited Cueva de las Portales, the cave where Che led his band of revolutionaries during the 1966 Cuban Missile Crisis. We hiked in this cave, with the expert supervision of a local guide. We saw the creaky bed where Che slept and the phone that Che used to direct his troops.

Reflections on My Cuban Travels

As a fortunate three-time traveler to Cuba in less than 16 months, I've noticed some changes and similarities.

What Costs Less?

Airfare from the US is now much cheaper. Previously, we paid approximately $400 per person to take a 1 hour charter round trip from Miami to Havana. This trip, our direct flight on JetBlue from Ft Lauderdale to Camaguey was $89 per person. Nice.

What Costs More?

With the explosion of AirBnB across the island, you can now book Casa Particulares in every community in advance. What used to cost $20 - $30 per night, now runs $30 - $45 night plus a $9 AirBnB service charge.  In the past, to book a casa in advance, I’ve sent money to bank accounts in Italy and the Netherlands through many different cash transfer services. This time, I booked with VISA on my AirBnB account. Since my picture is on my AirBnB account, everyone said, “Hola Jan” when I knocked on the door. The service was very personal, and the prices are still reasonable.

What’s the Same?

Restaurant entrees still ranged between $4 (shrimp at a local café in Santa Clara that was recommended by a local) and $18 (4-course meal at a restaurant that is frequented by tour groups overlooking the water at the tip of Cienfuegos.) Prices may be higher in Havana, but we didn't go there this trip.

Car rental is still expensive. This time I booked with Rex, the premium agency, and our car was fine (except that sometimes it would stall when I was going slow in an intersection.) At least the trunk and doors all locked (which was different from the car we had from a cheaper agency last time.)

The people are still gracious and friendly. We had some delightful “people to people” encounters – including this mother/son duo who invited us into their tiny two room apartment for coffee.

And these gals who leaned over our car to give directions. (They even gave us a gift!)

In Trinidad, when this man at a neighboring table heard that mama is 94 years old, he bought us a second round of mojitos and joined us for the photo.

Although the majority of the tourists sill come in groups, we did meet several American couples and families who were traveling on their own. They had checked the “people to people” or “humanitarian” boxes on the Cuban visa form.

Cuba is still welcoming, wonderful, and a bit wild. The '57 Chevys bring back memories; the rum flows freely; the traffic is sparse; and most of all the people greeted us with open arms and gracious hospitality.

It was another fabulous trip.  I feel extremely fortunate to have been able to share this time with my mom and the many Cubans we met along the way. Viva Cuba!

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Sri Lanka embraces its long history as the “pearl of the Indian Ocean”. It has had its share of rulers (Dutch, Portuguese, British), but now celebrated its 69th year of independence on February 4, 2017 (while we were there). Tradition and history lurk around every corner, and since the end of the civil war in 2009, modernization has been on the rise.

Tea Time!

During our recent visit we stayed in two tea plantations and hiked among the tea plants. In Dikiya we stayed in a Governor’s Mansion that was visited by Queen Elizabeth in the 50's.

At this beautiful tea plantation, local women pick the fresh tea leaves in a methodical and organized fashion. We learned that each plant can be ready for picking every six days. The ladies work in groups – each picks her own row, selecting the freshest and newest leaves. They pick the bright green leaves on the top of the plant, leaving a spot for new growth to come.

 

The picking process has been the same for over 100 years. The ladies pick approximately 7 kilos per shift, and carry the bags of leaves on the back of their heads. It is a social endeavor – the ladies talk and laugh together while picking, and they receive frequent breaks for tea-time.

But now there is a modern twist. At the weighing station, the foreman uses a smart phone to scan the picker’s ID Card and register her in his database. Then he weighs her load and enters it on the phone. We don’t know if it’s beamed to the cloud immediately, but somewhere the “payroll department” receives it. The ladies earn $7 – 10 per day, depending on their productivity in picking.

Another of our plantation accommodations was on a hilltop, nestled among 125-year-old tea plants. The road to get there was so old and rutted that it could not accommodate a regular tourist van. Instead, we were shuttled up the 3 km mountain road in a trusty Land Rover. Most locals walked up and down the hill, but those who could afford it used the dependable tuk tuk.

The ladies used the same picking and tea-carrying methodology.

And, this plantation’s modern twist was… an infinity pool!

Colombo – Old and New

The Dutch Hospital in Colombo is considered to be one of the oldest buildings in Colombo. Recorded as early as 1681, it has housed a hospital and a police station. It’s a beautiful building with Dutch-style architecture, and is steeped in history. The 50-cm thick walls keep out the heat and humidity. Old illustrations show patients on mats and mattresses. (It’s doubtful that the food was very good back then …)

Now … it’s been restored and hosts several gourmet restaurants. One of them, The Ministry of Crab, is rated one of the top 50 restaurants in Asia. We enjoyed dinner with our traveling companions, even though the restaurant charges New York prices! Keep Calm and Crab On!

At Colombo’s Independence Day Parade (held on Feb 2, 3, and 4), the traditional falcon-handlers were showing off their prowess in front of the Galle Face Hotel.

Traditional bands and drum cores marched through the streets with a huge show of military pride.

And, with a nod to the modern, the parade also included PT-boats, missiles and drones!

The Galle Face Hotel is the grand-dame of Asian hotels. Built in 1854, it has hosted celebrities from Arthur Conan Doyle to Scarlet Johansson. Now it’s a gracious, elegant respite with lovely restaurants and vistas. A marching brigade plays bagpipes at sundown and marches to lower the Sri Lankan flag. The pool is delightful and the Gin & Tonics are plentiful.

However, we saw that they were dredging the area to the right of the hotel (on the Galle Face Green). A Chinese company is developing an entire marina, complete with Hotel and Casino. Yikes! This is not the type of modernization that we would favor. Hopefully it won’t wreck the peace and tranquility of the lovely hotel.

Ancient Cities

Due to UNESCO World Heritage status, the ancient 5th Century AD palace of Sigiriya has been maintained by archeologists. Nestled atop a steep rock, there are the foundations of palaces, throne rooms, gardens and swimming pools.

While climbing down the rock, we watched a cobra snake charmer do his “magic”! Nothing modern here.

The ancient city of Polonnaruwa, from 13th Century, once hosted 20,000 residents but has been abandoned for 900 years. Beautiful ruins and statues still grace the area.

Yet, even near this ancient area, we stayed at a modernist, exciting hotel designed by Sri Lankan architect, Geoffrey Bawa. It has only 141 rooms but boasts one of the longest hotel corridors in the world. We almost reached our 10,000 steps on our Fitbits by walking to and from breakfast!

Riding the Rails

One area that has not been modernized is Sri Lanka’s train system. It is still reliable, heavily used, and a bit slow. The passing lanes are still monitored manually by a conductor.

And each station is a period-piece.

But the ride through the tea fields was beautiful and we arrived safely to our destination.  Luckily we didn't need the "travelling repair van".

Another Old and New City

On our trip back to the US, we stopped for a 36-hour layover in Singapore. This city-state exemplifies the exquisite combination of old and new. The Raffles Hotel is still a gracious queen of civility nestled among high rises.

And the Singapore Sling, a traditional delicious concoction that originated at this hotel, is served with grace … but once again, at New York prices.

The "Slings" allowed us to conclude our trip with a (albeit pricey) toast to this wonderful adventure!

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In late January, Ed and I spent twelve days exploring Tamil Nadu, India's southern-most state covering 800 miles of coastline along the Bay of Bengal. It hosts 77 million people and many temples from the 6th to the 9th Century. We enjoyed the massive temple complexes with brightly colored Gopurams (gates).

Our favorite was Brihadiswara, which reminded us of Angkor Wat. Not even a day of rain could dampen the spirits of our traveling group that includes ourselves and two other couples: Barbara Sharp & Todd Sack, and Inge & Scott Baker.  (Note that temple visiting is a barefoot endeavor!)

Also, several non-temple experiences stood out.

One Million Protesters

On our first day in Chennai, the capital of Tamil Nadu formerly known as Madras, we noticed that there was tons of traffic—stopped in gridlock. Our guide explained that over one million people had been protesting along the beachfront because the Indian government had banned a beloved Tamil traditional celebration—the Jallikattu. This traditional celebration involves running after bulls and trying to grab them. PETA and other western organizations had lobbied the Indian government to cancel this because it was harmful to the bulls. And, the Supreme Court had banned it for the last three years. However, this month, in a show of national pride, and a desire for the community to control its destiny, the protesters shouted “No! It’s our tradition and we don’t need Westerners telling us what to do!”

The protests were loud, and the TV news showed they were a bit violent.

Our experience was traffic gridlock–and police presence everywhere.

After six days of protests, the government backed down, decided to allow the Jallikattu, and dropped all charges against the protestors. After the days of gridlock, traffic flowed smoothly as we left the city.

In the Midst of the Jallikattu

As we were driving to Madurai—home of a huge temple complex—we were surrounded by throngs of motorcycles, each with three men aboard. Most were young; all were helmet-less.

Our driver explained that they were headed to … the Jallikattu! Every so often, we encountered a bull, either in a truck bed, on a cart, pulling a cart, or walking along the road with his master.

When we arrived near some open fields, we observed thousands of men (and very few women) who were ready for the bull running. In the other direction, a slew of local government officials sped by in their motorcade to open the festivities. We were able to stop and get close to a bull. Each village brought their own bull for the festivities. Everyone was in good spirits and ready for action.

We later learned that 37 people were injured during the Jallikattu in Madurai. No word about any animals being injured.

Our First Hindu Wedding

In the midst of a Hindu temple, we stumbled upon a beautiful wedding ceremony. This couple, who was meeting for the second time, was married by a Hindu priest. After the ceremony, the groom placed a ring on the bride’s toe – indicating that she was now a married woman.

After the ceremony, Scott and a Japanese tourist joined in the wedding party photos. Talk about a nice groomsman in a hat!

Meditating near the “MatriMandir”

One of the stranger places we visited was Auroville—a community of 550 residents based on the principles of yoga, philosophy, and spirituality. Founded in the late 60’s, Auroville was envisioned as a “futuristic international city, where people of goodwill would live together in peace.” It attracts residents who are in “search of enlightenment without the trappings of traditional religion.”

The town claims it’s not a “tourist destination”, but instead a “spiritual location”. Every day, they invite 150 guests to meditate with them for 45 minutes of silence. Unfortunately, we were too late to register for the meditation, but we were able to view a film of the meditation “globe” and later we walked to the vista point overlooking the MatriMander.

This globe reminded us of the spaceship in the recent movie, Arrival. Others thought it looked like a golden golf ball.

We were able to see a model of what the globe looks like on the inside.  The hole in the top projects sunlight into the white-carpeted space.

Since we couldn’t join the group meditation, we had to settle for our own private meditation… in the van!  (It didn't last 45 minutes...)

Rejuvenating Ayuervedic Massage

Another first was the Ayuervedic foot massage at a spa near the beach. Ed had a male masseuse.  Mine was female. The masseuse gave us a 1” strip of cloth on a string around our waist to cover our “privates” and then set a towel down on a gym mat. We laid down on this towel, and the masseuse held on to a string suspended above us and proceeded to massage every nook and cranny of our body using one of his or her feet.  She balanced on the other foot and held on to the string. First face up. Then, face down. Every so often, she dribbled oil on us and continued her relentless pursuit to cover every inch! This massage also included more oil dribbled on our heads and some more traditional massage on a massage table where the masseuse used her hands. At the end of the 90 minutes, we were very relaxed and rejuvenated!  Photo disclaimer:  Nice butt, but this is not Ed ... it's an online pic!  No cameras were allowed in our rooms.

Yoga on the Terrace

Experiencing the 7:00 AM yoga class with the Naral, the Indian yogi, was a treat. He led a group of about ten guests (including Inge and me) through many of the traditional poses and breathing exercises. (His voice and accent sounded just like Depak Chopra on the Oprah/Depak meditation tapes.) The meditation was punctuated by the morning “caw-caw” of local birds and the faint hint of the waves crashing on the beach.

Other Colorful Characters

With the variety of cultures and religions present in Tamil Nadu, colorful characters were everywhere.  Including, a man in orange and a police captain in Pondicherry,

and a cute girl at Mamallaparum.

When we saw this ancient elephant at Mamallaparum,  we decided to "assume our favorite position".

A First for Us!

Ed and I have to admit that we hadn’t heard of Tamil Nadu until our friend Todd suggested that we come here prior to our journey to SriLanka. It is not usually a tourist’s first introduction to India, but it was for us! And what a wonderful introduction…