Monday, June 1, 2015

Sada's 86 Birthday

Monday, July 18, 2011

Amritapuri and bye bye Kerala!

Amritapuri, Kerala

So much for my nostalgic plan to arrive at Amritapuri gliding on the backwaters by boat. Services from Alleppy are not available during monsoon months, so I ended up taking the bus.

Even though Amma is on tour in the United States, life in the ashram is busy and I was not surprised to see a lot of changes and more constructions. The old cow shed is now a juice bar and two more apartment buildings are on the way. The university campus across from the backwaters also grow everyday, with more housing for students and extensions to the facilities.

Amma's charity work is a solid presence in India. The AIMS hospital in Cochin is the best in Kerala; two million people are fed everyday in the remote tribal areas; 100,000 widows received financial aid, vocational training and micro loans and the same number of children in agricultural communities were awarded scholarships. The victims of the 2004 Asian Tsunami received US$46 million in aid and the same amount of money has been given away in the form of free health care since 1998. Amma also participates in green initiatives – one million trees have been planted since 2001 under her direction. There is also a multitude of university and school campuses in India just to mention a few of Amma's projects. She even has a TV channel, Amrita, where she appears every day at 9pm.

I only spent the weekend at Amritapuri but it was a great way to end my trip. I have known Amma for 15 years now and have met a lot of people in the international community throughout the years. In a way it was like going back home. I have donated a flat to the ashram which also serves as my home base when I am visiting.

Tomorrow very early in the morning (4:40 am) I head back to Amman where I spend a couple of days and then fly to Seattle. I have been away in the Middle East and India for 10 months. Now I need to get life and some business in order in North America.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Connemara Tea Factory, Kumily - Kerala

Connemara Tea Factory, Kumily

The Connemara Tea Factory was closed on Sunday, so I explored the tea plantations- a beautiful area that reminded me so much of my native estate of Minas Gerais in Brazil!

The workers had the day off. I saw the men playing cricket on the field as they waived for me to join them, probably for a chat, but I kept walking. As I passed in front of the houses, where the families live, the children playing outside tried the few sentences they knew in English on me: “What is your name, where are you from, do you have a pen?”...It is common in India for the children to make the first contact with foreigners. An invitation to have tea with the family usually follows, when the adults get into the scene.

I happily accepted the offer this time. It was a small but comfortable house where Prema lives with her husband and two-year old son. While I sipped a very sweet black tea, very similar to the hundreds of cups I drank in the Middle East, we broke the ice with the usual questions: family, age, religion. Then we took pictures.

All the young adults work-the women pick tea leaves and the men work at the factory, taking care of the plantation and construction. Each person makes 130 rupees a day for seven hours work (about 3 dollars.) Each woman picks about 80-100 pounds of tea leaf a day (about 25 pounds of tea after processing.) They have free housing and subsidized health care. Their extensive cable TV cost them 100 rupees a month (it must be subsidized) and the TV itself cost 7000 rupees (about US150), probably their most expensive possession. That is a good price though – it is a really nice TV. I got a sense that they are very happy and don't seem to think they lack anything. On Tuesday I went back to visit the factory and bring the prints I had made for Prema's family.

During my tour of the factory, I learned that only the young tea leaves are used – from seven to fifteen days old. The processing consists of weatherizing (taking about 20% of the moisture out), then crushing, cleaning and finally oxidation, with is done with hot air and water mist blowing into the crushed leaves. After oxidation, the tea is separated into fine, extra fine and thicker. The majority of the tea consumed in India is black and made with milk, sugar and sometimes with spices (masala tea.) But black tea without sugar seems to be healthier, containing vitamins, low caffeine level which is good for blood circulation, even fluoride which is good for the teeth. At least that is what the guide told me.

After my tour of the factory I found Prema picking tea leaves with her colleagues. She was very happy to see the pictures I brought her and asked me to take more pictures of her, her friends and me. It was almost time for her lunch break so I followed her to her home for another cup of black tea while she had lunch with her husband and mother.

I am happy I was able to share a few moments with Prema and some of her friends. I will be sending them more photos by mail. These are probably the only pictures they will have of themselves on the tea plantation!

Kumily, Kerala

Kumily, Kerala

The way from Munnar to Kumily was a twisty curvy one lane, two-way road, with cars, buses and trucks using their honks as a substitute for right of way signs. Munnar is higher than Kumily, so we went down, most of the way, looking at tea and spice plantations. Needless to say, it was a beautiful trip, but pretty scarey at times.

I found a really nice home-stay near the bus station. The family live downstairs and rent four really beautiful rooms upstairs. From the roof, I have a view of their beautiful garden filled with cardamon trees, vanilla beans, pepper, jack fruit, passion fruit, clover, mangoes, papaya, etc. It is such a lush bountiful place! The cardamon, vanilla bean milk tea they welcomed me with was delicious!

Kumily town is not as quaint as Munnar, and the shops are less sophisticated, but the weather is better this time of year, as it is about 3,000 feet lower. It was a bit too cold for me in Munnar and I am happy to enjoy some days of sunshine on the roof here.

The area is pretty much like Munnar at a lower altitude. Spice and tea farms all over the place, in at least a 20 miles radius. I had a tour at the Connemara Tea Factory and although I could not take pictures inside, the guide spoke English very well and the visit was very informative. I learned that there is only one organic tea farm in Northern Kerala. My knowledge of tea plantations and processing also improved a little (see separate post on Connmara Tea Factory visit.)

Kumily is also a good base to explore the famous Periyar Wild Tiger Reserve, which is only 2.5 miles from here, in Thekkady. I went on a two-hour boat tour on the 20 miles long man-made lake, and was able to see some wild animals grazing on shore- a family of elephants and lots of bison. The tigers were busy doing something else inland. The reserve is over 200 miles with several hikes and nature walks.

Tomorrow I head out to Alleppy where I will take a boat on Kerala's backwater to Amritapuri, Amma's ashram. I did this trip for the first time in 1990, before I met Amma and I am excited to do it again, 21 years later. Kerala's backwaters are twisty and curvy, but this time I will be gliding down water instead of asphalt. If I remember the trip well, I will be mesmerized watching locals going about their daily lives along the river. The lush greenery along the way is jaw dropping.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Munnar, Kerala

Munnar, Kerala

What a contrast it was to leave the hot dry desserts of Syria and Jordan and arrive at the green lush monsoon laden Kerala. This is my sixth time in India, but first time during monsoon.

After a 33-day panchakarma therapy in Ernaculam, I came to Munnar, an established tea plantation 100 miles from Kochi. The green mountains, waterfalls, banana trees and diverse variety of birds reminds me of certain parts of Brazil, like the mountains near Rio and the South part of Minas Gerais. The maximum elevation is about 9,000 feet (3,000 meters) offering a good respite from the heat at sea level in Kerala.

Besides tea, a wide variety of herbs also grow here: cardamon, vanilla beans, coffee, cocoa, turmeric, curry, sandalwood, just to mention a few. It is also a good place for jungle honey bee nests.

There are lots of hiking trails and Wildlife Sanctuaries (Chinnar) , waterfalls, spice farms, tea factories, sandalwood forest, elephants, and a tea museum to visit, everything within a 30 miles radius.

The city of Munnar has a vibrant fruit and vegetable market, and the streets are filled with stores selling tea, natural oils, creams, spices and home made chocolate, not to mention the restaurants serving delicious South Indian food. This is definitely a good place to rest.

Tea plants were brought to India from China by the British who started the plantations here in Munnar. When they left, Tata Motors, the Indian car company took over. They have a 99-year lease in the area surrounding Munnar. The hills are designed with tea plants for miles and miles. It looks like a huge green carpet covering the mountains. Unfortunately, most of the tea is not grown organically.

I went on a tour at the Biovalley Herbal Garden, an organic spice farm. 10 miles from town. I was so happy to see my favorite spices growing on trees: vanilla beans, cardamon, turmeric... I was very inspired to be in a 40-acres farm housing thousands of plants grown organically.

The rain some days is relentless; a good time to read, catch up with films on HBO and reminisce on the rainless Sahara desert I visited not long ago. I cannot help but smile in awe at the beauty of our planet!

Monday, May 23, 2011

Back to Jordan and Onward to India

As I traveled from Damascus to Amman this morning, the landscape didn't change much. The desert from Southern Syria continued into Jordan. The only obvious change was the ubiquitous face of Syria's president al-Assad all over the country being substituted by King Abdullah II. Their pictures are very similar in style. The leaders of these two countries are usually shown wearing a suit, or military clothes in different poses and periods of their long regime. Sometimes their fathers are included in the picture. King Abdullah II's son is already making an appearance with his father, sending a message throughout Jordan that monarchy is well, alive and long lasting.

Abdullah II and al-Assad's power structure appear similar, at least since Syria's 1963 coup. Although the king recently appeased the masses in his country with promised reforms, the dictatorship he runs is similar to al-Assad's. The parliament is controlled by him and the majority of large local businesses are owned by his extended family and close supporters. Although there were elections in Syria, no candidates were on the ballot. The only choice was the Assad family, so it is the same as monarchy, passing the power down from father to son.

In response to the recent protests in Jordan, King Abdullah II blamed the economical situation on the prime minister who was replaced, as well as on his cabinet of ministers, also recently replaced. This is a common practice used by both leaders, to blame the problems of their country on someone els. But unlike al-Assad, King Abdullah II was quick in taking action. His new prime minister, Maarouf Al Bakhit,is a career military man with a reputation for maintaining order and stability. He was asked to lead the reforms, but given his background, it appears that the King is not really interested in real reforms, and is more worried about stability in his country.

People seem either appeased or too afraid to continue demonstrations for the moment, and the main power structure stays the same, although reforms have been promised. Syria's leader al-Assad would be better off if he followed King Abdullah II's example, but he seems unable to take action. Instead, he allows his brother, Maher al-Assad, Chief of the Republican Guard, to crackdown on protesters.

As I end my travels in Jordan, the country where I started eight months ago, I feel I have just finished a masters' degree in Middle East Studies. But at the same time, it feels that I have not even scratched the surface understanding this complex part of the world.

I have learned a lot about hospitality with the Arabs, and as Peter calls, “sliding scale” way of doing business. The prices are always negotiable, and the starting point is where the vendor things the buyer can afford or his assessment on how bad his product is wanted. It is a tricky game that I am starting to master.

I got first hand experience on issues around Palestine and Israel as I stayed in the area for two months, lived with local Palestinians, visited refugee camps, hung out with NGO volunteers, spent a couple of weeks at a permaculture project, and attended weekly seminar/films organized by a local NGO.

Being in Egypt during the revolution was also an experience I will never forget.

The next stop is India. I can't see another pyramid, temple, museum, or anything else for that matter. I am completely full of history, sites and experiences. I am so grateful that I had the chance to meet so many wonderful people which was more important to me than seeing any fantastic pyramid. From strangers on the street that added a little color to my day to people that lit a light on my soul and helped me see things in different ways or laid out mystical explanations in ways I have not been able to do myself.

I am also grateful to two women who shared their daily lives with me and showed me their world : Fayroz in Jordan and Majeda in Palestine. They welcomed me into their homes and introduced me to their friends and family who accepted me as as sister.

Specially in Palestine, we cooked together, ate ice cream, prepared heaps of Arabic coffee and tea, and sat for endless hours at relatives and friends' houses. I was also invited to engagements, weddings, religious parties, lunches and bread making parties. Let me not forget dancing together at the sound of some good Arabic tunes. Girls only of course! They taught me belly dancing and I taught them yoga. I hope Majeda's nieces are carrying on with their practices.

I come to the conclusion that traveling is about the people only. The sites are just wall paper in the background, but the soul is on the human interactions.

In India I will just get a lot of massages, rest and ponder on my latest experiences.

Middle East food is delicious, but my mouth is already watering at the thought of having Indian food.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Damascus Special Report continued - Men in the Middle East

Aside from the protests brewing all over Syria, I got some insight on the personal relationships of a young Damascene while visiting Damascus. I hung out with Mohamad, a man in his 20's, the son of a store owner where I bought some garments. He accompanied me to my hotel where I left my money to pay for my purchase, and for the next couple of days he showed me around mosques, coffee shops and souqs. He was interested in company and in practicing his English and I was interested in hearing about life for a young man like him in Syria.

Raised in a middle class family, his father owns two upscale stores in Damascus, one in Saudi Arabia, and one in Dubai where he usually lives and manages the store. He told me that his family does not support his own choice of future wife. If he wants to get the family approval and support, he needs to accept his mother's choice. She would present him with a few eligible brides to choose from. Therefore, ultimately, it is the matriarch who dictates who marries her son. This young man happens to love someone he knows, but the family does not approve of it on the basis that if the woman met him without first being picked by the mother, she is automatically excluded as a candidate. I am sure relationships and marriage arrangement in Syria may differ from Mohamad's family, but his story gave a little insight on how a conservative middle class family operates.

If he wants to marry the woman of his choice, he has to wait to save enough of his own money. This could take him a minimum of two years as he needs to buy the bride's jewelry, pay for the wedding, secure housing and have means to support her. He seemed to be unhappy and alone with the Syrian ways in this respect, but firm in his decision to go forward with his own choice of future wife. He is not allowed to even hold hands or touch this woman in any manner before marriage because this could put her reputation in jeopardy.

I have a feeling that the youth in Syria is not only unhappy about their lack of choice in the political realm, but also in their personal relationships. This young man looked conflicted about his situation. Matters are even worse for women who usually depend entirely on her family and her husband for any big decision in her life.

For Bedouins, it is a bit different as marriage often happens to be with family members, usually a cousin, sometimes creating different challenges like children being born death, with speech or other health problems from excessive inbreeding. Less affluent families also tend to marry within the family, possibly to keep the family business and wealth from diluting.

The separation of the sexes in most of the Middle East give men in general only one option of socialization with women outside family members – foreigners! This situation make many men almost too na├»ve, often with the wrong ideas towards foreign women, with the worst pick up line I have ever heard. Many of them see too many porn movies or any foreign movie for that matter, and try to mimic actions and lines from something they have heard but use them out of context. For example, a perfect stranger in Egypt told me “You break my heart” after I asked him for directions to my hotel and a newspaper seller wanted to marry me as he gave me my change. A man in Aleppo came up with: “I cannot resist temptation” after a 20-minute walk around the souq. These are just few of the countless weird, but often innocent exclamations of “love at first sight.”

The only exception to this naivety, is probably the Bedouin guys, suntanned, ebony shiny black hair on pony tail and pearl white teeth on top of a camel or Arabian horse in Petra. These guys are usually very good looking and seemed very seasoned in the art of luring foreign women into their caves in the outskirts of Petra on the excuse of Bedouin hospitality, music, tea, or dinner. Tamara and I were approached by several of them who immediately disappeared when Hunter, Tamara's husband joined us.

In my personal experience as a traveler, although the men in Syria are not as forward as in Egypt or the Bedouin guys in Petra towards foreigners, and most of them genuinely want to help a traveler in any way they can, I had a couple of weird encounters with men who at first said they wanted to help but were obviously after something else. These encounters were very different from other places I have traveled in the Middle East. The first was a young handsome store owner in his 20's who invited me for tea and kept telling me how good he was at doing massage after I inquired about local hammams. He insisted in giving me a sample massage on my back and neck with the store door closed, which got me running out of there very fast after only one sip of tea.

The second weird encounter was on Damascus streets near Souq al-Hamidiyya. A civil servant in his 60's, wearing a suit and probably going home after work (it was around 3pm, and they end the day at 2pm) offered to show me something interesting in the souq. After I told him I was heading to the mobile phone store away from the souq to fix my SIM card that stopped working, he accompanied me on the excuse that he could translate for me. We had a long wait at the store and I told him to go home since I had other places to go afterward. He said “no problem” he would wait. After that he wanted me to go the Souq again and I told him I was heading to the train station and then I was going to visit some mosques on the opposite side. He again took upon himself to follow me. He works for the Agriculture Ministry and on the way I asked him some questions about food production in Syria. He answered, but was obviously not too interested in a lengthy serious discussion about food security or politics.

After visiting the train station, I noticed that he was not going towards the mosque. After I asked him about it, he said he wanted to take me out for a cup of coffee before going to mosque. I thought that was fine until I got to the place he wanted to go. A coffee shop inside closed doors and down a basement that looked very dark to me from the top of the stairs. I told him I was not going there and he seemed upset about that saying that was a good place with lots of young people. After I said no to coffee and if he liked the place so much he could go there alone, we said good bye and went into different directions. I am not sure what would have happened I had gone with him to that basement, but my guess is that it was not going to be a very relaxing, pleasant time.

But in general, everyone seem genuinely interested in helping and are usually very generous. I met people who accompanied me to my destination several times and even paid for a bus fare, coffee and lunch expecting nothing in return.

Damascus seems to have been revitalized within the last ten years, with bustling souqs, boutiques, coffee shops and new hotels being built and others restored. The recent newcomer Four Season is an imposing site in the middle of downtown. Not that the Four Seasons Hotel fits my budget, but thankfully there are plenty of budget choices and house rentals is also a possibility for longer stays. This is good news for me. Although my weirdest encounters with Middle Eastern men happened in Syria, this is a country I would like to visit again.