Wednesday, July 22, 2009


Off to Aleppey. Hoping to find our way on to a house boat.

Alisa: We heard about the glory of the houseboat adventure and figured that we should partake. As we sought out prices, however, we discovered that our budget might have to be compromised a bit. Eventually we were able to let that concern go...we were going to indulge ourselves.
Tessa: We had one of those boats to ourselves. Just us, the river, and a three man staff.

Alisa: And that we did. Before we boarded the boat, we decided we should stock up on drinks and a few snacks. Just so we could set the mood. This seemingly simple task turned into quite the memorable affair. We went to purchase the gin in a back alley. We were some of the only females making a purchase. We then decided to grab a bite to eat and entered a halal restaurant for a little breakfast. Someone (I won't say names) may have accidentally dropped the newly purchased bottle of gin. It exploded everywhere. I don't think I have ever seen Tessa more embarassed.
Tessa: First, it is important to know that Kerala is a conservative part of India and drinking is looked down upon. Especially drinking by women. Second, we were definitely the only women buying alcohol in the back alley through a caged window and all the men were stuffing their paper-bagged goods underneath their shirts. I put the gin in my purse. Keep in mind that this was the only time our whole trip we bought a bottle of alcohol like that and it was just to celebrate.
Then we go to breakfast at a little Halal restaurant. Halal=Muslim=Absolutely no alcohol. My purse is on my lap and then somehow tips forward and since the zipper is broken all the contents crash onto the floor. The bottle of gin shatters. The family with small children seated next to us screams and jumps back. Everyone glares. The staff moves all the surrounding table and chairs out of the room so the floor can be thoroughly mopped.
Oh, yeah. It was 9am Sunday morning.
Definitely our most embarrassing stupid tourist moment of the year.

Alisa: So we eventually bought another bottle. Thank goodness. That gin served us well.

Tessa: The Kerala backwaters really are serene.

Tessa: Water taxi!

Tessa: One of our crew members took us to visit his home which sat right on the water, and might have only been accessible by boat.

Tessa: This was the inside of the home. Notice the cabinetry - the son is in the "alumonium fabrication" business.

Tessa: Eyes!

Alisa: We had our own personal chef...

Alisa: and our own personal dance sessions.

Alisa: and our own personal sunset, which we used to contemplate the beauty of our joint adventure.

Tessa: Insert Monk theme song.


While in southern India, we decided to take a little vacation because, as we all know, traveling can be hard work. We set off to the state of Kerala, heralded by many as one of the most beautiful places in the world and referred to by locals (and the tourist industry) as God's Own Country.

And since neither of us can necessarily remember a lot, from now on we're just going to post individual captions of whatever we do remember.

Alisa: Our first night in the town of Varkala we were asked to help promote a dance club/restaurant. We jumped on the chance! (They offered us half priced drinks!) Within seconds we transformed our hair into cones and were actively trying to get others to join the club. Hours later however, not too many people had joined our crew. Nevertheless, we made it out to the dance floor and danced, danced, danced.
Tessa: I can't believe we failed to draw a crowd. At least the employees (pictured above) were perhaps a little less bored than they would've been otherwise. Although, by how seriously they danced, I think this was a typical night for them.

Alisa: "True Love is True Hearts."
Tessa: So . . . true.

Alisa: "A Positive attitudes create a chain reaction of positive thoughts." This is the philosophy we live by.
Tessa: Auto rickshaw decorations never fail to provide invaluable wisdom.

Alisa: I don't remember this but it reminds me of "The Lion King."
Tessa: It reminds me of dinosaurs.

Alisa: This reminds me of Kansas.
Tessa: Minus the mountains.

Alisa: Florence, Oregon.
Tessa: Especially the palm trees.


We're back! After months of saying we would catch up on the blog, we are finally getting caught up. We decided that if nothing else, it will nice for us to be able to look back on this blog and see a bit of representation from the whole journey. We have 17 posts almost ready to post and over the next few weeks, we will post a couple every few days. So, keep checking back in!

This first post, however, is dedicated to our friend, Tina. We met Tina in Laos last November and last weekend she came to visit us in Eugene, Oregon on her way back to London after a year of travel.

We decided immediately that we would have to spend all our time together in "fancy dress." Luckily we throw our fancy dress outfits together really fast.

Our first fancy dress was 80s . . . ish.

Then at 12:30am we decided that our true selves were fairies and that it was really important for us to make wings. With a few pairs of nylon and a couple hangers, we were in business.

To reconnect with our fairy selves we spent some time communing with our natural environment.

After driving up the Oregon coast and meeting lots of wonderful locals like this family:

and this guy:

and these folks:

and this glass jeweler:

and this kid who gifted us with beautiful flowers:

Well, after that, we were in a rush to get to Portland so we pulled over in the Thriftway parking lot and gave our wings the final touch: glitter.


We found a bar with a really big bathroom so we could change into our outfits and attach our wings. We spent the rest of the night spreading fairy love and gifting lucky individuals with fairy power-infused seashells that if placed under one's pillow will grant you a wish.

The next day we snuck into the northwest reggae fest. However, we did not incur bad karma because we were dressed as rastafaeries, which officially deflects bad karma.

To bring it all full circle, we went out to dinner with both our parents - just as we did before we left in January 2008.

On our last morning we sported Alisa's special business suits and went on a walking tour of Eugene.

A special little place on earth.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

All Good Things Must End

Over the past two weeks we have had a seriously fantastic trip in The Philippines with Jenevieve Francisco and Paolo Posadas and though we can hardly believe it, today is our last day. Alisa will be back in Eugene on Tuesday and Tessa will be in Eugene on Friday (after a stop in Hawaii!).

Though our trip is ending, we still have a lot of photos, stories, and facts that we plan on posting. So, if you are interested, keep checking the blog because we will probably be posting a lot over the next two weeks or so. The blog lives on!

Though we are very sad about this year coming to an end, we are really excited to see friends and family. We hope that you are having a lovely holiday season thus far, and maybe we will be seeing some of you soon!

Monday, December 1, 2008

Calcutta and Pondicherry

Upon arrival in Calcutta, we decided to slow it down and relax a little. While the Western world often holds images of an extremely impoverished city, among Indians, Calcutta is also heralded as a center of arts and culture, thus we made sure to visit the downtown and explore the night life. We spent our days wandering amongst the downtown streets, through colonial tree-laden cemeteries, around the parks, and into a colonial art museum. We were also quite fortunate to have a connection with a man who worked for a micro-financing NGO. We spent a day with him, learning about the current issues facing Calcutta and the West Bengal province in general. We walked with him into a slum community where we were able to meet women who had received micro-finance loans and were able to start small ice-chopping, clothing, and food vending businesses. On our way home, we decided visited the Sisters of Charity, where we were able to walk through a little exhibit detailing the life and vision of Mother Theresa. In the adjoining room, the Sisters were singing their daily prayers, aware that Mother Theresa's flower-covered tomb was sitting right beside them.

We didn't take too many photos while in Calcutta, but we did manage to a get a few photos of our favorite restaurant and a little Sikh boy down the corner from us...

Cheap and best. This Indian slogan, which you hear on every street corner virtually everyday, adequately captures the essence of this restaurant. For under 75 cents, we could get 2 chai teas, 3 aloo parathas (an oily, flaky bread that is a close relative to naan), and a vegetable curry.

The man in the center was our waiter (one of our favorite waiters that we have had this whole year). He kind of reminds me of an elf.

Inside a tiny travel agency that you could barely stand up in, we asked this kid's cousin (a guy about our age) about flights to Thailand, and he answered us with all his opinions on the current state of India and the world. He told us that his young cousin was the embodiment of India's doomed future - all he does is play computer games, he doesn't care about school, and he already has a few girlfriends. Kids these days. He also joked that his computer-savvy little cousin is the world's future terrorist. We thought this joke was funny, mainly because it would be so unfunny to the majority of Americans who don't understand the wide variety of reasons for wearing the many styles of turbans and might take one look at this photo and actually think this little kid could be a terrorist.

Lamenting over the corruption in India, the travel agent told us that the only person people listen to in India is Mahatma Gandhi. Wow, we thought, this relentlessly cynical comedian has a heart. And then he held up a 10 rupee note with Gandhi's face on it. "Get it?" he asked.

In the little French colonial town of Pondicherry lies Sri Aurobindo's ashram. People from all around the world flock to this ashram so that they can learn more about the vision of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother, his French co-worker who has developed a serious following of her own. Sri Aurobindo's work is fairly complex and a few of the people we met at the ashram have decided to dedicate their lives to understanding his philosophies. The Mother is the creative inspiration and founder of Auroville, an experimental town that seeks to have people of all countries come together and live in progressive harmony while researching practical and innovative ways to spread peace. Auroville, at its essence, is a community of people seeking human unity.

The guesthouse we stayed at belonged to the ashram and so photos and sayings of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother were everywhere: in the bathrooms, the cafeteria, throughout the garden, on the walls of each individual room, directly above every single bed . . . We were lucky enough to have this photo staring down at us all night.

The Matrimandir. This is Auroville's pride and joy and is considered to be a symbol of the Divine. The Matrimandir itself is situated within 12 lotus shaped gardens, an ampitheatre, and an awe-inspiring banyan tree. Inside the Matrimandir lies a 70 cm crystal ball (apparently one of the largest in the world) with a single ray of sunshine concentrating at its center. This crystal ball, according to the Mother, is supposed to be a perfect symbol of human realization. We, unfortunately, were not able to go inside.

On our ride back from Auroville, we were invited to visit our rickshaw driver's home. The house was an impossibly tiny single room for a family of four to eat, sleep, and live in. The driver ran out to buy milk and then made us creamy, sweet tea on the small kerosene stove that sat on the floor in the corner of the room that functioned as a kitchen. The driver's wife, who works from her home creating flower garlands, gifted us with her personal creations.

Sarnath and Bodh Gaya

This is the Jains, the amazing Servas family that we stayed with in Sarnath, India. They run an impressive educational project for the rural children in the villages surrounding their town. Gini, the lady standing in the middle, is from France and was helping with the project while we were there.

Sarnath is the place where the Buddha spun the Wheel of Dhamma by giving his first sermon, and therefore why there is a Vipassana center just outside the town. This is the beautiful countryside that surrounded the center where we did our Vipassana meditation retreat.

We, of course, never saw the countryside because we were not allowed to leave the compound. In our retreat there were us four women and maybe ten or so men. The men and women slept in separate buildings and even had separate paths for walking from the meditation hall to the dining hall (where the men and women ate in separate rooms). There truly was no talking. This picture is from the last day when we talked to the other girls for the first time.

The two of us had really different experiences in the retreat, but it was incredibly intense for both of us and we would both say it was the most physically painful experience of our lives. Being silent and avoiding eye contact was actually quite nice and relaxing. The actual meditation -- sitting cross-legged and trying to maintain continuous concentration for 10 days straight -- is what was really difficult. It was a weird experience, as well, in that you had no idea how what you were feeling compared to what others were feeling. You could tell that other people were in pain though because everyone would stretch like they were about to run a marathon before sitting down. I think we all still thought that no one else could possibly be feeling as much pain as we were.

The object of Vipassana is not to calm the mind, but to concentrate the mind. At the beginning of every session we would listen to a recording from a cassette tape to learn how we ought to do this. In the beginning, it was really funny (read: really hard and confusing) because the quality of the tape was so poor that we couldn't actually understand any of the directions. Luckily the quality improved a little during Day 2 and so we were able to gather that we were supposed to be focusing on our breath (for the first day Alisa thought we were supposed to be focusing on "bread"). More specifically, we were supposed to focus all of our attention on the triangular area between the upper lip and the tip of the nose and try to notice all of the sensations in that area. Of course, the overwhelming sensation in that area was sweat because it was incredibly hot and the electricity kept going out.

As the days went by, we began spreading our area of concentration to the rest of the body, trying to notice as many obvious and subtle sensations as possible. The object is to observe these sensations and have neither a positive nor a negative reaction to them. One is making progress when one is so focused and attentive that the obvious and painful sensations transform into subtle sensations.

This probably sounds confusing, and we're not even sure we understand it ourselves, but we'd love to talk with you about it if we see you in person. There's lots of Vipassana centers all over the world, so if you're interested in trying it out for yourself, there's probably a center nearby your home.

When Day 10 came and we knew that we would be able to talk to each other in a few hours, we both began falling apart. As soon as we we're allowed to speak, we immediately began laughing and crying at the same time. Neither of us have eve experienced such a feeling a pure relief and release.

After the retreat, we discussed our experience with an Israeli-Australian monk who had also been on the retreat. He took us to the Tibetan monastery to meet these wonderful Tibetan novices who are receiving their monastic schooling in Sarnath.

On our last day in Sarnath, we went with Dr. Jain to visit his education projects. This is one of many preschools Dr. Jain has started to prepare children under 5 years old for school. He hires local woman to teach in the preschools. The women only need a 5th grade education to teach and so it is also a great way to give opportunities to women who might not have many otherwise.

Some of the children from the preschools get to attend a primary school that Dr. Jain and his oganization have just built themselves. The primary school uses an alternative education model. Children in the surrounding villages who are not able to attend the alternative school, or who are too old, can be sponsored through the organization to attend private schools in the area. It pretty much goes without saying that the children's other option of going to a government school is not a very good one. Dr. Jain said that some parents feel that a government school education is so worthless that they choose to keep their child at home rather than send them.

This child is hard at work in his preschool class.

Preschool's over for the day! The kids do lots of singing in their classes and so Alisa and I had to teach them our standby: the chicken dance.

Also, if anyone is interested in sponsoring a child for a year of private school education, or simply interested in donating to the organization, let us know. We have more information about the organization and more information about how to donate.

After Sarnath, we took the train to Bodh Gaya where we stayed in a Burmese monastery with Julie Arcaro. Julie had just arrived with a study abroad program to learn about and practice Buddhist meditation. Alisa and I were graciously invited to participate in a number of the program's activities. We sat in on meditation, philosophy, and yoga classes and we ate meals with the group. It seems our camera was out of batteries or something at the time because we have hardly any photos to capture what a great stay we had. This is a photo of us with Julie outside the Mahabodhi Temple where it is believed that the Buddha sat under a Bodhi tree and attained enlightenment over 2500 years ago. The temple was beautiful and it was really nice to see the large groups of pilgrims that come from all over the world to pay their respects to The Enlightened One.

Back to India

We spent a total of 2 1/2 months in India and posted very little while we were there. Part of the reason is that in the weeks prior to India we had been moving very fast, always thinking about our next move. When we got to India, we tried to let the time open up a little. We didn't want to be planning too far ahead or feel beholden to deadlines. Hence, a lack of blogging. Of course, keeping up the blog is a chore that sucks up time and money wherever we are (we still love doing it, though!), and right now (as in 1:02 am our time) we finally happen to have a few hours to do some India photos before our eyes start blurring from staring at the screen for too long.

I'm sure most of you haven't really had a clue as to where we are from day to day over these last 10 1/2 months, so posting about India makes as much since as anything else, even though we left there on October 11th and have since touched foot in Sri Lanka, Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia. But for those of you who like a little certainty, we are currently in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. While in Laos, we realized (with the help of our new travel consultant, Ellis Ballard) that the cheapest way to get from Cambodia to The Philippines would be to fly through Kuala Lumpur. According to Ellis, KL is the new BKK when it comes to cheap flights. We decided we might as well see the city so we are staying three nights with Polly, a Servas host, and then one night in the airport before flying to The Philippines on Thursday. Polly has graciously shared with us her spare bed and her wonderfully speedy mac.

So far, Kuala Lumpur is absolutely unlike anywhere else we have been in Asia. It is almost aggressively modern, the streets are clean with wide sidewalks and street signs, the population is diverse ethnically and religiously, and there is a rich variety of delicious foods ("they call Malaysia 'The Palace of Foods,'" said our ridiculously positive taxi driver). Frankly, the city reminds me more of San Francisco and Silicon Valley than it does of other Asian cities we've seen. Plus it sits amidst lovely green hills.

Before I go further, I'll just say that the posts from now on have little to do with linear time. The photos you are about to see were taken sometime between today and August 28th.

Back to India. Another reason why it has been difficult to blog about India is that it is simply a very intense country. We contend that every day in India you will see something that you not only have never seen before, but could not even have imagined possible. It is one of those countries in which you really have to go there to get what we mean. The barrage of sights, smells, and sounds can be super invigorating and also really overwhelming. The landscape changes dramatically from state to state, as does the clothing, the religion, and the language. Sometimes it feels like wonderful surprises await you at every turn, like a stream of yellow-clad Hindu devotees stopping traffic as they carry sacred Ganges river water to their homes, or the Dalai Lama waving at you from the passing car. Yet other times the things you've never seen before are also the things you prayed you would never see, like a family of six sleeping on the meridian of the highway . . . in between countless other families of two to ten. 

For this last reason, India was also our most difficult country for us emotionally. There were always endless things to write down and frustratingly inadequate time and words and emotional stamina to actually write. Perhaps this is another reason why we actually took relatively few photos and posted little. So although we won't delve much here into the complexity of our experience, the next few posts will hopefully give you a sense of some of the incredible that makes India the Incredible India that it is ("Incredible India" is India's big tourism campaign slogan, of which locals often, and endearingly, like to remind you).  Also, we would seriously recommend you read A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry.  We both read it while in India, admittedly compounding the intensity of our time there, and we are still trying to process the truth to which it bears witness.  

Our favorite hole-in-wall breakfast place in the old city of Varanasi.  Lacking just the right standards of cleanliness it takes to make food taste really good.  The old city of Varanasi is an incredible maze of tiny alleyways in which you never know what you will encounter around the next bend.  Will it be a gigantic bull with colored horns, a hoard of children selling bindis, an orange-robed sadu doing puja at his tiny shrine, or simply a wall?  This chef's kitchen is actually in the alleyway, leaving the 6 ft by 6 ft room of a counter and stools to be crowded by his customers.

We met this boy on our first day who I (Tessa) actually remember meeting three years ago when I was last in the city.  Three years ago he was selling postcards.  Now he is a "tour guide."  His first question was "Do you know Goldie Hawn?" and at the time we didn't know that this was code for "I won't give up until I earn commission for the scarves you don't even know you will most certainly buy."  By some miraculous event that Goldie may or may not know she participated in, every single child wandering the streets of the old Varanasi has an "uncle" who is Goldie Hawn's best friend.  Apparently she did buy some scarves here, because this kid did take us to a man named Pappu who had photos of Ms. Hawn in his shop buying scarves as well as a typed (but signed) letter from her expressing her undying commitment to their friendship.

Since Alisa and I can't seem to resist trying on scarves, even ones involved in a scam, and even though we try not to support child workers, we ended up buying a couple.  Honestly, once you've been cornered into the back room of a shop, the effort it takes to make it out of there alive without buying something sometimes does not even feel worth the energy.

The boat crew that took us on a Ganges River cruise.  The boy on the left is also a "tour guide," and he recruited us for the ride.  The thread he wears across his chest denotes that he is a Brahmin, a member of Hinduism's priestly caste group.  Brahmins, who are traditionally entrusted with the duty of knowing and preserving all the sacred rites and rituals, are supposed to wear this thread at all times, changing it in a special ceremony annually.

For Hindus, the Ganges is incredibly sacred.  Hindus believe in samsara, or the cycle of birth and death.  Dying in Varanasi is one way in which Hindus can finally break free of this cycle and achieve moksha, or liberation.  Hence, Indians come from all over the country to die here and have there bodies ritually burned on the banks.  Some people, however, cannot be burned and their bodies are simply wrapped and placed into the river.  These people include children under age 5 and those with leprosy.  A dead body floats in the foreground and a boat presumably carrying some of the thousands of daily pilgrims is in the background.

Into this river, people give their deceased relatives, but in it they also bathe, do their laundry, drink out of thirst, and empty their household trash.  Life goes on, from every angle, all at once.

The Ganges.

One morning we sat watching people perform their morning rituals in the river and we befriended these girls.  They also all have uncles who know Goldie Hawn.  They sell bindies and every day seems to be a school holiday.  We decided to bring them along to breakfast with us because they were fun company.  We had just started eating in the upstairs section of the restaurant when one of the girls accidentally jerked her elbow knocking a glass of water of the table.  We were essentially sitting on a deck, so rather than hitting the floor, the water fell directly onto the head of the lady sitting below us.  Let's just say she was less than thrilled.  Oops :)

This man is hand-painting one of the million hand-painted signs that cover the alley walls.

Unfortunately he's already made a spelling error.  We see the hand-written piece of paper that the man is working off of, and we realize why almost every sign has errors.  How many of you could accurately paint a Hindi sign onto a wall?

We went to a puja at a goddess Durga temple that had live classical music playing all night.  We sat on the roof and watched the throngs of people slowly make their way around the temple and eventually into the holiest of holies just to glimpse an image of the divine and receive a blessing from the priest.  We waited our turn as well, and we can assure you that the stone goddess' glittery purple robes were so stunning that even RuPaul would have been envious.