Sunday, October 28, 2007

Now featuring "Snaps"!

We have added some photos (or "snaps", as the Bhutanese call them) to our first blog post from Bhutan. We hope you enjoy them. We will add some photos to the other blog posts as well, when we have a chance. Still haven't even looked at all of our photos yet!

Friday, October 26, 2007

Home safe and sound! Notes on India and Bhutan.

Hi everyone,

We are back home safe and sound. We had a 15 hour flight from Delhi to Chicago. We missed our connection by a few minutes, but were immediately rebooked onto another flight. We were home within an hour and a half of our regularly scheduled arrival. Not bad at all!

India was wonderful. It was a total whirlwind. I last updated the blog from the posh Taj Mahal Hotel in Delhi. We both think that it rates as the fanciest hotel we have ever stayed in. It truly catered to our every need (way beyond what we are used to and what is necessary, but it was a nice unexpected indulgence).

Elephant on the street in Agra

We took the early morning train to Agra. It was a pleasant journey and we chatted with a nice Indian man who was on holiday with his family. We were picked up at the Agra station by local operator Peirce and Leslie, and transported us to the Oberoi Amarvilas hotel, only 600 yards from the Taj Mahal.

Flute player at Oberoi Amarvilas Hotel

Each room has a view of the Taj. At the time of day we arrived, everything was very hazy, and you could only get a hint of the Taj in the distance. It was like a tantalizing appetizer for what was to come.

Oberoi Amarvilas Hotel, Agra

At the hotel, we met our guide, Dr. Mukul Pandya. Mukul was at one time a university instructor. Now he works giving tours. He is an expert in history, art, language, flora, and fauna, as well as being an incredibly personable companion. His enthusiasm for his subject matter is quite contagious. We got along well from the start. (Have you ever seen Dr. Zahi Hawass on television programs about Egypt? He is the Director of Antiquities in Cairo, and we met him after a lecture at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. Mukul's depth of knowledge and passion and enthusiasm for the subject matter remind us very much of Dr. Hawass).

Itimad-ud-daulah ("Baby Taj")

Mukul first brought us to the Itimad-ud-daulah, the tomb of Mirza Giyas Beg. This site is colloquially known as the "Baby Taj", and sees few tourists. It is a mausoleum of marble with spectacularly preserved paintings. It is a small "jewel-box" of a building and is well worth the visit! It was just gorgeous.

Detail of Itimad-ud-daulah

Next we went to Agra Fort. As the smog was starting to burn off, we could see the Taj Mahal in the distance from the tower where Shah Jehan was eventually imprisoned by his son, Aurangzeb. The view of his wife's monument gave Shah Jehan solace until his death.

Agra Fort

Balcony at Agra Fort from which Shah Jehan gazed at the Taj while under house arrest

We headed back to the hotel to freshen up and have lunch, and then we reconvened with Mukul at 3:30 to go to the Taj Mahal itself. We took a short golf cart ride from the hotel to the entrance gate of the Taj. As we entered, the Taj became visible through the entrance archway. Mukul advised us to stand in the center of the entranceway. Walk a few paces forward and the Taj seems to retreat from you. Take several steps backwards and it appears to follow you. Because of certain illusions in its architecture, as well as the haziness of the Agra air, the Taj almost seems to be a mirage in front of you. We gazed at its reflection in the reflecting pool and Mukul got some great photos of us.

Taj Mahal at sunset

We sat on a park bench in the gardens facing the Taj and Mukul shared a lot of his knowledge of the Taj's history. The light was waning and Mukul wanted to make sure that we got into the mausoleum while it was still light enough to see. The size of the Taj is very imposing. People surrounding the structure looked as insignificant as ants. We put on a pair of cloth booties over our shoes and entered the mausoleum.

Enjoying the Taj with Mukul

Everything about the Taj is symmetrical (it has a functioning mosque that faces Mecca, and on the opposite side there is an identical structure, yet it can never be used as a mosque because it is not oriented toward Mecca. It is there for the symmetry of the building alone.) The only assymetrical feature of the entire monument is the tomb of Shah Jehan himself. He had not planned to be buried here, but after his death his daughter arranged for him to be entombed with his wife.

Taj minaret at sunset

As the sun sank in the sky, we left the Taj for now and headed to the Marble Emporium. Here we watched master craftsmen and apprentices inlay 2 millimeter thick semi-precious stones into white Indian marble (the hardest marble in the world). We watched the artistans perform the same intricate handiwork that went into embellishing the Taj Mahal itself, and then looked in the showroom. We ended up buying a lamp of translucent white marble inlaid with semiprecious stones in a traditional Persian flower motif. The craftsmanship was beautiful!!

Demonstration of the various phases of marble inlay work

After that we headed back to the hotel. We had planned to eat at the hotel Indian specialty restaurant for their 9:30 dinner seating, which featured live sitar musicians. But we had a busy day of touring, an early morning, and we just didn't have the proper clothes to feel comfortable. So we opted once again for in-room dining, which was a nice relaxing choice.

Taj Mahal glistening at sunrise

The next morning we hit the Taj Mahal again for sunrise. It was beautiful, and you could see the gems inlaid in the marble glistening in the sunlight. Mukul pointed out a hornbill singing in a tree in the Taj gardens. We ate breakfast in the room at the hotel, said goodbye to our view of the Taj, and then headed to Kohinoor Jewelers in Agra.

Bejeweled three dimensional embroidery made by Padma Shri Shams for his wife's 40th birthday (on display at Kohinoor Jewelers)

Mukul had said that we would see some amazing embroidery and jewelry, but this was an understatement. There is no way to describe the splendors of what we saw here. The building was a multi-level temperature and humidity controlled vault. We were fortunate that Mr. Ghanshyam Mathur himself was present to meet us and give us a tour of his personal museum. He showed us the incredible three dimensional embroidery work of the late Padma Shri Shams. The detail was amazing. The embroidery is often 4 or 5 inches thick, but there is no cotton batting adding to the depth, It is ALL embroidery. The bottom threads are cotton and the top threads are split silk threads in very vibrant colors. Some of the threads are actually gold. We saw a gallery of Shams' works, one of which took Shams 6570 days to complete! Another work contained 30,000 carats (if I remember correctly) of precious and semi-precious stones, provided to Shams by Mr. Mathur's family in a partnership of art.

"The Good Shepherd" - 8'3" x 6'3" Three dimensional embroidery by Padma Shri Shams which took him 6570 days to complete

After this, we were brought to see some very rare and beautiful jewels. We saw a Moghul tumbled emerald necklace which had been pictured (as well as an interview with Mr. Mathur) in the April 1985 issue of National Geographic magazine. Mr. Mathur let me try on a priceless emerald and diamond brooch necklace, along with a matching ring and bracelet. I am not usually overwhelmed by gems, but I literally felt like a princess!

Mughal bling at Kohinoor Jewelers

From there we drove to Fatehpur Sikri, the one-time capital city of the Moghul Empire. Mukul gave us a great tour, imparting lots of knowledge even though our time there was limited. He is also a great storyteller and we learned so much from him. After the tour of the ancient city, we needed to say goodbye. Although we had only been with Mukul for two days, it had been a concentrated two days, and we really enjoyed his company. We wished we had more time together, but we spoke of possible future itineraries and hope to be able to travel across India together in the future, and that this trip was just an appetizer for what is still to come.

Fatehpur Sikri

Our wonderful driver Raj took us on a 5 hour drive back to Delhi. We were on the "4 lane highway", but it was nothing like a 4 lane highway at home. People could drive in either direction in any lane. The road was shared by large trucks, buses, passenger vehicles, horses, camels, water buffaloes, rickshaws, motorized rickshaws, bicycles, motorcycles, pedestrians, etc. There was never a dull moment, and the controlled anarchy of the road was certainly something to see!

Camels on the highway (from the rearview)

We witnessed a non-violent protest. Half of the highway was shut down for several kilometers because farmers were peacefully occupying the roadway in protest to some government policies. The protesters were happy, smiling, etc. They were eating together, bathing in water provided by tanker trucks, doing their laundry, using fluorescent lights powered by generators...we told Raj that if we had an extra night we might spend it camping with these happy folks on the highway!

Nonviolent protest

We ate dinner at the Oberoi Hotel in Delhi and then drove to the airport for our 12:15 am flight. While in the airport, we saw a news spot that all of the US Embassadors to India had stayed up all night watching TV coverage of the Red Sox in the World Series. Until this point we had no idea that the Red Sox had even been in the pennant race. It had been a lengthy trip. We knew there would be some mighty happy people at home. And on the flight back we heard that the New England Patriots record is now 7-0. Definitely a good season for Boston sports!

Rajander driving us to the airport

So that was India in a nutshell. What a whirlwind! Now we'll go back and give some more details about the end of the Bhutan trip.

Punakha Dzong

We travelled east across Bhutan. After our blog post from Trongsa, we drove to the Bumthang Valley. This is usually described by the Bhutanese as one of the most beautiful spots in the country. Although true, the landscape seemed very familiar to us, much like the White Mountains area of New Hampshire. There were boulders and rivers and waterfalls. This was a natural environment similar to what we have experienced in the USA.
the landscape was dotted with dzongs and temples, and we visited "Burning Lake" (which is actually a river), the site where Guru Rinpoche's treasures were discovered.


Kuzoo FM is the more young and hip radio station in Bhutan. DJ's select their own music, there are interesting little reports on various subjects from English grammar to the history of kites to Shakespeare, and perhaps the most popular shows are the dedication shows. Listeners call and request songs and dedicate them with sweet messages to family and friends. Dorji wanted to call and dedicate a song to a young lady named Choden whom he had met at the festival in Shelmakha. After dinner on the 17th, Dorji, driver Jigme, Craig, and myself headed out into the parking lot and sat in the van listening to the radio (it seemed like junior high school all over again!) Dorji kept trying to call the station on his cell phone to no avail. After Craig tried as well, with 20 minutes left in the program, Dorji was about to give up. We convinced him to try my luck, and we got through on my second try. Dorji dedicated Enrique Iglesias' track "Somebody's Me" to Choden. He also mentioned us to the DJ, and gave the phone to me. I ended up chatting with the DJ for about 5 minutes on the air about our experiences in Bhutan. Craig recorded the audio of the whole thing, so stay tuned for a link to the mp3 on our web site in the future! We all felt like kids again and celebrated for a while before going to bed.

We went to some fabulous temples and dzongs in Central and Eastern Bhutan, seeing many of the sites where Guru Rinpoche meditated, studied, and subdued demons. On the road to Mongar, we were passed by a Royal motorcade which was transporting one of the 4 queens.

Four friends in Mongar

Mongar sees a lot fewer tourists than Western Bhutan, and the children there were a bit more hesitant to befriend us. It took just a little more effort on our parts, but we ended up being quite a hit. We started to show our photos from home to three young girls, and soon we were surrounded by a sum total of around 45 excited children. It was totally exhausting but so much fun! Several of them hoped to email us.

We attracted quite a crowd in Mongar...

Dorji and Kunga at Sherubtse College

The next day we drove to Trashigang. Nearby in Langkung is the only college in the country, Sherubtse College. Dorji's friend Kunga Wangmo is a geography major here, and she generously offered to give us a tour of the gorgeous campus. I went to her dorm and met her friends and they dressed me up in a traditional women's outfit known as a kira. It was funny to watch them try to find one to fit me! They then took us up to a gorgeous mountaintop lake which is their favorite picnic spot. On our drive back to the hotel, Dorji secretly called Kuzoo FM and dedicated a Don Williams song to us, telling us publicly how much he would miss us. He also dedicated the song to Kunga. When we finally realized what was going on, Craig recorded this as well, so you'll be able to hear this MP3 eventually too.

The picnic spot in the mountains above Sherubtse College

Trashigang Dzong

The next day we went to Trashi Yangtse to see their gorgeous dzong and stupa. The drive was stupendous and we really enjoyed the view. On the way back we stopped at Gom Kora temple, where Guru Rinpoche spent a lot of time. This is a very important site for Bhutanese Buddhists, and it was quite a spiritual visit.

Children in Khaling

The following morning there was a very long drive to the town of Samdrup Jongkhar, on the Indian border. We arrived there in the late afternoon. We took a short walk around the block where our hotel was, and met some more very nice people. This would be our last night in Bhutan. We enjoyed our farewell dinner with Dorji and driver Jigme, but we knew we would miss them terribly.

Farewell dinner with Dorji and Jigme

Dorji told us today (because he was "recognized" at the border) that he had recently starred in a film called Chunyen ("Childhood Engagement") and that he will be starring in an upcoming movie about a blind man in love with a blind woman. This project has no working title as yet. What a multi-talented guy!!

Women shucking betelnut in Samdrup Jongkhar

Dorji hired an Indian driver to get us across the border and to the airport in Guwahati. I really think we should create a video game based on driving in India. It's insane! We said a sad farewell to Dorji at the airport, but it was not goodbye. It was "until we meet again".

We have started to go trough our 4 gigs worth of photos, and later today I will post a few here. It will take us a long time to get the website updated with all details and photos, but we'll keep the blog updated each time we are able to post a page.

Thanks so much to all of you who have emailed us; we'll get back to you personally as soon as we can!

Thanks again to our US travel agent Myths and Mountains, who put this custom itinerary together for us, and to the local agents Etho Metho and Peirce and Leslie for taking such good care of us. Everything was outstanding! Love to all whom we met along the way - Dorji, Tshering, Dasho Karma Dorjee, all of the kids, Karma and his family in Shelmakha, Yeshey, Gem Tshering and family, Phuntsho Choden of the BBS, Kunga and her friends Namgay and Kinley at Sherubtse College, Jigme, Tony, Mukul Pandya, Rajander, Mr. Mathur, and everyone else we had the pleasure of meeting...we had the time of our lives!

Steph & Craig

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Checking in from Delhi

Hi all,

Very quick note as we need to catch our train to Agra and the Taj Mahal. We finished up in Bhutan yesterday. Very sad to say goodbye to Dorji. We miss him terribly already but spoke to him on the phone last night, which was quite nice. Since I last posted we traveled through central and eastern Bhutan. We made our debut on national radio (Kuzoo FM 105), found out that Dorji is in actuality a film star, visited a lot of beautiful dzongs and temples, and generally had a wonderful time.

Entering India

Yesterday was a mad dash across the border to Guwahati, India (driving here is truly like a video game), where we then caught a flight to Delhi. We are in an insanely nice hotel. We felt we didn't have fancy enough clothes for the restaurant, and opted for room service instead. What we got was a 2 hour dining experience complete with mobile dining table and candlelight dinner, and white-gloved servers. We followed this up with a hot bath.

Elegant in-room dining at the Taj Mahal Hotel, New Delhi

It's now 5:20 and we are headed to the train station in a minute. We will be meeting up with Tony, a British traveler we have befriended (if we didn't know better we'd swear he was Michael Palin!) Visiting the Taj Mahal today and hopefully a (near) full-moon viewing tonight. Back to Delhi tomorrow and then home on Friday the 26th.

The 6:15 to Agra

Love to all,
Steph & Craig

PS Always do your thing on Kuzoo FM.
PPS Love you Dorji!!

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Blogging from Bhutan

Paro Dzong

Hi! We are currently in Trongsa, Bhutan, and this is the first internet access we've had since our trip began. Everything is wonderful. We have a great guide named Dorji and we are really bonding with him.

Our dear friend Dorji

We started out in Paro and went to a dzong (monastery) and an incredible medieval fortress-turned-museum. Then it was off to the capital city of Thimpu where we visited another even more spectacular dzong (they have so many adornments - almost every square inch is elaborately painted, there are awe-inspiring brightly colored wood carvings, butter sculptures, musical instruments, gorgeous silk textiles, a 30 foot golden Buddha could spend hours and hours in every dzong, and there is one in every district of the country).

Dzong in Thimpu

We went to an artisan school where high school students were learning traditional arts (painting, weaving, sculpting, carving, sewing, etc). We went to the "zoo", which is really just a fenced-in area for the endangered national animal, the takin. There is a legend that the second Buddha (Guru Rinpoche) created it with the head of a goat and body of a cow. Even taxonomists have given up trying to classify it and have put it in a category all its own.

View of capital city Thimpu

We were supposed to hike over a very high (14,400 foot) mountain pass to get to the village of Shelmakha for their yearly festival, but the altitude was really getting to Craig. When he felt disoriented and dizzy, needing to lay down before lunch on the first day, we decided a change in plans was in order. Sometimes things happen for a reason. We ended up camping right next to the hostel for a local boarding school. The students immediately befriended us and won our hearts. they took us up to show us their rooms and how they live. We carry a little album of photos from home and they wanted to keep pictures of us. They were really sweet and we were so glad to have met them. They brought down their photo albums for us and presented us with a photo to keep.

Our friends from Genekha Lower Secondary School - Passang Dem (Class 7) and Phub Dem (Class 8 school captain)

We decided we were still determined to get to Shelmakha on foot, so we "hiked" and camped along the mostly dirt roads. When we finally reached Shelmakha, it was goreous. We arrived a day early and got to see festival preparations.

Dasho Karma Dorjee and one of the festival dancers in Shelmakha

Here we met (Dasho) Karma Dorjee, the Bhutanese Secretary of Industry and Tourism. He is a very important man who was raised in Shelmakha and returned for the festival. It was raining lightly the day prior to the festival and he was carrying a Today Show umbrella that he got from Matt Lauer's crew when the NBC show was here earlier this year. He took us under his wing for the next two days and explained everything to us and treated us like dignitaries.

"The Peekaboo Crew" - who kept us entertained while watching the festival

The weather cleared up for the festival for the first time in 3 years. We met a lot of wonderful people including children who were so generous and were always presenting us with gifts of food. The dancing and singing at the festival were amazing.

"Angel Dance" at Shelmakha Festival

At night they had a campfire and taught us some dances (and yes, Craig even danced! When the Secretary asked, he jumped right in. You don't say no to Dasho!) They insisted that we teach them "one of our cultural dances". Ummm...we were put on the spot and all the kids kept encouraging us. They wanted to learn a dance from the USA. What were we to do? The Electric Slide to the rescue (I never thought I would ever use those words together!) The kids LOVED it.

Our friend Phub Lham (affectionately known as "Apple") and her friend in Shelmakha, who shared various foods with us

We camped for 3 nights in Shelmakha and then stayed in a farmhouse for two nights with a local family. We attened a community HIV-awareness comedy/musical show (2 hours and 45 minutes of live entertainment for $1.50 - you can't beat that) and everyone seemed totally happy that we stayed in town for a couple of days.

HIV Awareness show at the school auditorium

On our free day in Shelmakha we brought a Frisbee and played with the kids for hours. It was a big success. We presented the Frisbee to the family we stayed with and the young boy held it to his heart and gave it a kiss. We were then invited into someone's home for tea and a movie ("Enter the Dragon" with Bruce Lee). It was sad to leave the village, but we had to move on.

Out host family in their altar room

Next we went to Punakha, our guide Dorji's hometown. We met his twin brother and his little 12 year old brother. We went to his mother's house and she prepared an authentic Bhutanese meal for us. The chilies and cheese are so delicious but talk about hot! Almost as hot as the weather!

Dorji Pelzang, his mother Tashi Choden, younger brother Pema Rabgay, and twin brother Dawa Dorji

We went to Punakha dzong and the temple of the Divine Madman (who is famous for having subdued a demon with his phallus). We hiked up to a gorgeous Buddhist stupa (aka chorten) which is a momument containing holy statues and texts. We climbed to the top and had a gorgeous view of the valley and river below. Today we drove through WhangduePhodrang and visited their dzong, and then continued on our 5 hour car journey to Trongsa.

View from the top of the Khamsum Yuly Namgyal Chorten

Painting Detail in Punakha Dzong Courtyard

Now, here we are, in a really beautiful hotel. Our room overlooks Trongsa Dzong and the valley below. We even saw golden langur monkeys on the side of the road. We have dinner in about an hour and a half (it's 5:30 PM here now) and then a nice long sleep. We'll be up early tomorrow to head to the National Library, Trongsa Dzong, and then on to Bumthang Valley.

View of Tronsga Dzong from our hotel room

We have already taken over 2100 photos. Luckily we still have lots of memory cards left. We have about 6 more days in Bhutan and then we are off to the Taj Mahal. Home on the 26th.

I don't know if we'll have another chance to write (I kind of doubt it) but please know that we are safe and having the time of our lives!

Steph & Craig

PS Sorry for any typos!

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Off to Bhutan and India

Tomorrow we head off on our longest trip yet (and our first foray into Asia): Bhutan and India. Myths and Mountains has set up a great custom itinerary for us. Bhutan is a Buddhist kingdom in the Himalayas which measures its wealth in Gross National Happiness. We will be touring Bhutan from west to east, including a multi-day hike to a remote village named Shelmakha which has only had around 20 Western visitors ever. We will be staying with a family in the village (in their farmhouse) for 3 nights, and while we are there, they will be celebrating an annual festival. We will be at some high elevations (one night we will be camping at 14,000+ feet). Bhutan is very isolated, and has the only capital city in the world which doesn’t have a single traffic light.

We fly in and out of New Delhi, India, on our trip. On the way back we will be staying in India for several days, going to Agra to see the Taj Mahal. We are treating ourselves on our last night to a stay at the Oberoi Amarvilas, a hotel in which all rooms have views of the Taj. It will be near the full moon while we are there, which should afford some great night views.

Not this Taj Mahal...

We are not sure how much access to internet we may have. Bhutan only got connected to internet and TV in 1999, so we’re not sure how many opportunities we may have to update the blog or send e-mail. But we will do our best!

We return home on the 26th. We'll be in touch!


Steph & Craig

Playing Catch-Up

I’ve been remiss in updating the blog, so here’s a quick rundown of what we’ve been up to in the past year or so.

We got the remainder of our Africa trip posted on the web site:

We stayed at the beautiful Kambi ya Tembo tented camp near Sinya in Tanzania. From there, we went on wildlife drives and a bush walk. The highlight was visiting two authentic Maasai villages and being a part of their ceremonial celebrations.

This was the real deal. Craig drank some of their home-brew and we ate freshly slaughtered beef. I danced with the women. We also visited a Maasai market. We learned so much through the experience.

In Rwanda, we did some trekking to see mountain gorillas in their natural habitat. We visited Group 13 (which at the time had the youngest baby gorilla in Virungas National Park, at just 2 weeks old)

and the Sabyinyo Group, which had the largest silverback male, at 220 kg (around 450 pounds).

We got very close to the gorillas and they were amazing. A juvenile even touched me as he ran past! It was a very humbling experience.

We also visited the Kigali Memorial Centre. Through its exhibits and frank discussions with our guide Johnson, we learned a lot about the Rwandan genocide of 1994, in terms of political events and anecdotal accounts of the tragedy suffered by residents. The emotions it elicited were in stark contrast to the gorilla experience, but it was very interesting and educational. We felt that we could not in good conscience visit this country without paying respect to its recent tragic past.

At Thanksgiving, we visited our pal Marty in St Thomas for the 7th year in a row. We all enjoyed a Thanksgiving dinner made by Carly, Sean, and Ann.

We enjoyed the traditional Cap’n Marty’s Island Hop, which we hadn’t been able to do the previous year due to uncooperative weather. And Marty introduced us to the fabulous Schnitzel Haus. Mmmmm…veal!

In December of 2006, we visited St Lucia for the wedding of our dear friends Tom and Karen. The ceremony was beautiful, and we were so happy to be able to be there for their special day.

We stayed in Rodney Bay Village, and befriended some local Rastas. One of them (Ania) went on a day trip with us, showing us around the island. We really enjoyed the local flavor. Our nightly hangout was a Chinese restaurant called Double Happiness, and we capped off the trip with a scuba dive.

Over 4th of July, 2007, we visited our friend Humberto in Panajachel, Guatemala. We stayed with him and his lovely family – his wife Paulina and their 5 daughters between the ages of 2 and 12.

Humberto took us on some tours of the villages surrounding Lake Atitlan (tours which are available to the public through his family business, Lago Aventura Tours), and we got to spend a lot of quality time with the family. They gave us the honor of asking us to be godparents to 2 year old Aracely, so we are quite happy to be going back to visit in November for her baptism.

Then, over Labor Day, we visited Tom and Karen in Fort Myers. We had a great time hanging out and visiting Sanibel Island. We haven’t had a chance to get this trip onto the site yet, but we will soon!

As always, see our main site
for full details of these trips!