Need a Unique Vacation? Train to Be a Yamabushi (Mountain Hermit) in Japan!

For CheapOAir Miles Away. September 2017. 

If you’ve been to Japan, you’ve probably been overwhelmed by enormous crowds walking through streets filled with skyscrapers and glistening neon lights, mechanical sounds of pachinko slots, and colorful plates of weird looking creatures passing around on conveyor sushi belts. Stepping out of Tokyo, you may have visited majestic Buddhist temples, Zen gardens, and the iconic Mount Fuji. But on your next visit to Japan, you can try a completely new experience that has only recently opened to foreign visitors.

You can sign up for a Yamabushi vacation.

What is a Yamabushi?

Yamabushi are Japanese mountain ascetic hermits who, according to traditional Japanese mysticism, are believed to be endowed with supernatural powers. They have also served as sendatsu, or spiritual mountain guides, since medieval times for pilgrims. Like Native Americans, they connect with nature by living in the forest and hiking for days. Their practice, known as Shugendō, evolved during the 7th century from an amalgamation of beliefs drawn from local folk-religious practices, embodied in Shinto, Taoism and esoteric Buddhism.

The Japanese people have been doing Yamabushi training for 1300 years. In fact, many Japanese take solitary retreats in the mountains to get away from the hustle and bustle of city life. While it was more popular among older Japanese men to embark on Yamabushi getaways, younger generations are realizing the importance of taking a break and connecting with nature. Many professionals go for Yamabushi to relieve themselves of stress and find better focus at work. It’s the Japanese alternative to a spiritual retreat!

Retreat participants train with a Yamabushi master and many find that, while they’re likely NOT to attain supernatural powers, they can resolve a lot of challenges, questions, or decisions in their life.

The Yamabushi retreat I attended, designed by the Japanese company Megurun and called Yamabushido, is the first of its kind to led by an English-speaking master, and included exposure to Japanese culture and cuisine, along with authentic Yamabushi instruction. Yamabushido’s 3 and 5-day programs run throughout the year and range from 150,000-300,000 Yen.

My retreat was run by a 13th-generation Yamabushi, Master Hoshino, and a business professional turned Yamabushi, Master Takeharu Kato, in the sacred mountains of Dewa Senzan in Yamagata prefecture, an hour flight north of Tokyo.

Discover the there’s more to Japan than Tokyo and read our post Small Towns & Cities of the Japanese Countryside You Need to Visit.

Prayers by Zen Buddhists. Photo by Sucheta Rawal

My Yamabushi training took place during an impending typhoon in the area. We spent a day at a Zen temple learning from a Buddhist monk how to maintain proper posture, meditate, and pray. Then we practiced applying focus and being in the moment through the art of calligraphy. During the next three days, we stayed at a pilgrimage lodge which provided very basic, shared facilities.

Dressed in all-white Yamabushi attire, we climbed the three sacred mountains of Deva in the pouring rain, each mountain symbolizing death or letting go, ascension into heaven, and rebirth or the future. We climbed what seemed like hundreds of steps, rocky boulders, and wooden paths across Mt. Haguro, Mt. Gassan, and Mt. Yudono, surrounded by towering beech and cedar trees.

During the hikes, we were encouraged to remain silent and feel our surroundings. We also stopped to pay tribute at the different shrines along the way and chanted the Heart Sutra at some of the pagodas and temples.

Hiking in Mt Haguro. Photo by Sucheta Rawal

Yamabushi training involves pushing one’s physical and emotional limits so that you can learn to put mind over matter. Waking up before sunrise, eating very little, hiking for hours, bathing in a freezing gushing waterfall, and meditating in a smoky room – are all part of the challenges one needs to overcome to graduate.

At the end of the training, we jumped over a small fire to represent rebirth into new life. Then we shared an elaborate lunch of over 15 dishes and sake with our masters while they commented on how they saw our progression during the program. Though our journey was mostly in silence, the masters could tell when we were struggling and what we needed to do to better in our lives.

Master Tak and Master Hoshino at graduation lunch. Photo by Sucheta Rawal

We finished the last day at a boutique ryokan in Tsuruoka, relaxing in the mineral-rich hot springs, and dining on beautifully crafted seafood dishes.

Don’t make a faux pas on your Japan! Read our post Watch Your Manners in the Japanese Countryside.

After the program, I felt stronger and accomplished. Others whom I spoke to told me they had renewed energy, a deeper appreciation and higher sensitivity to surroundings. Whether you are an avid hiker who enjoys nature or a city dweller looking to push your limits, Yamabushi training can be a wonderful experience, both spiritually and physically rewarding.

~ Written for CheapOAir Miles Away in September 2017. 

Why Georgia (the Country) is the World’s Best Kept Travel Secret

For CheapOAir Miles Away Blog. August 2017.

While most people know of Georgia, the peach state in the southern US, very few are aware of Georgia, the former Soviet republic that’s tucked between Europe and Asia. The country is one of the oldest in the world, and has a rich culture that has managed to survive foreign occupation by Persians, Ottomans, and Russians.

Nowadays, tourism is beginning to develop in Georgia, so things are relatively cheap and uncrowded. Here are a few very good reasons to go to Georgia NOW before the secret gets out!

Diverse Offerings

The best way to see Georgia is by driving through the country. You’ll pass by lush green valleys, a sprawling wine country, the snow-capped Caucasus Mountains, thick forests, and black sand beaches – all located within a few hours’ drive.

Image via Amanda-Villa Lobos/ goeatgive.com

Walk around the capital of Tbilisi through its winding, narrow cobblestone streets, charming bazaars and cafés offering local cuisine, drinks, and hookah. Spend a weekend at one of the lakeside resorts in the Kvareli region. Enjoy the romantic town of Sighnaghi, which offers picturesque views of the Alazani valley and even has a round-the-clock wedding chapel. Find a quiet spot along the beaches by the Black Sea, or gamble all night at a casino in Batumi.

Ancient Sites With Interesting Stories

Georgia adopted Christianity as a country in the 4th century and even today is predominantly Georgian Orthodox. It’s believed that Saint Nino carried a cross made of grape twigs from Cappadocia (in Turkey) to Georgia, converting many of the locals. The first Christian church in the country was built in Mtskheta, Georgia’s oldest continuously inhabited city. Due to its historical significance and numerous ancient monuments, the “Historical Monuments of Mtskheta” became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1994.

The Svetitskhoveli Cathedral here is said to house Jesus’ robe that was recovered after his crucifixion. The cathedral has also played an important part as a site for the coronation and burial of the kings of Georgia.

Image via Amanda-Villa Lobos/ goeatgive.com

About 45 miles away is Ananuri castle complex, another notable historic site that’s beautifully perched amidst turquoise river water and towering mountains.

The 14th century Holy Trinity Church near Gergeti village, located on a steep mountain cliff, is an iconic symbol of Georgia. It’s noted that, in times of danger, precious relics were brought here for safe keeping.

Image via Amanda-Villa Lobos/ goeatgive.com

Vardzia, a spectacular cave monastery stretching along the slopes of the Erusheti Mountain and which once housed 2,000 monks, is another must-see.

You can witness Georgia’s rich history in many such monasteries, churches, and cathedrals that are spread throughout the country.

Tons of Fun for Outdoor Adventurers

Georgia is a great destination for those who are looking for active vacations on a budget. There are abundant opportunities for hiking, trekking, and skiing in the Caucasus. Drive through the Goderdzi Pass for high adrenaline off-roading, where you can also enjoy views of mountains covered with wildflowers, thick pine forests, and well preserved remote villages.

Image via Amanda-Villa Lobos/ goeatgive.com

In Gudauri, you can rent a room at a traditional B&B including meals for $30/night, while ski lift passes go for an average of $30/day.

Another beautiful and much easier drive is on Georgia Military road that runs between Tbilisi (Georgia) and Vladikavkaz (Russia). Passing alongside the Aragvi River, you can enjoy beautiful views of fertile green valleys, crystal clear rivers, and majestic snow passes.

Many travelers enjoy the comforts of an upscale mountain lodge, like at Rooms Hotel Stepantsminda ($100-150/night), before heading on to trek Mount Kazbek, the third-highest mountain in Georgia at 5,034 meters. Here, you can see snow-covered peaks year-round.

Kazbegi is also home to one of the world’s most spectacular marathon routes.

Unbelievable Food

Every meal in Georgia is a feast, called Supra. Fresh baked breads, assorted salads, and farmers’ cheese (called sulguni) are staples. Then comes badrijan nigzit, eggplant with walnut paste; khinkali, drum shaped dumplings with soupy minced meat, cumin and pepper; or shashlik, tender grilled pork.

Image via Amanda-Villa Lobos/ goeatgive.com

The Georgian national dish is khachapuri — bread stuffed with cheese. While it’s made differently across the country, the most popular one is adjarian khachapuri, baked boat-shaped bread filled with gooey, melted, tangy cheese, a whole egg yolk, and some slivers of butter.

Meals in Georgia last for several hours, with multiple shared plates and endless toasts. Dried and fresh fruits are always served for dessert. Of course, everything is fresh, locally grown, and oh so tasty!

A Very Old Wine Culture 

Georgians have been making wine for at least 8,000 years in traditional methods by storing grapes (including skin and seed) in large clay barrels (known as kvevris) underground.

As a result, the wine has a dense and robust flavor. This method has been listed in UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage list. There are hundreds of varieties of indigenous grapes that aren’t found anywhere else in the world.

Kakheti is the most fertile wine region in Georgia, known for Kindzmarauli wine, a semi-sweet red variety. There are several local wine makers in the area. Winery Khareba is one of the largest winemakers and offers factory tours where they take you through their cold underground granite cellars. Pheasant’s Tears is an award-winning winemaker, producing artisanal natural wines, owned by an American-Georgian couple.

One of the monasteries I visited, Saint George Monastery of Alaverdi, has been making wines since 1011 AD and the monks residing there still grow and sell their wine for $50/bottle.

While in Georgia, also try Cha-Cha, a local distilled alcohol made from wild grapes. Due to its high alcohol content (45-60%) it’s also called “Georgian vodka.”

Pure Water Everywhere

The first thing you’ll find out when you arrive in Georgia is that, not only is it okay to drink the tap water, it’s actually good for you! Mineral water is Georgia’s number one export and you can get all these rich minerals for free straight from any tap.

At Azarfesha restaurant in Tbilisi, expect to find a “water menu” as part of the wine and beverage list. Originating from Georgia’s different regions, the water selections are described as “soft and silky”, “saline notes,” and with “lactose like sweetness.”

The capital of Tbilisi (meaning ‘warm water’) was first built around hot Sulphur springs. Even today, you can find dome-covered public bath houses in the old city where you can enjoy a hot bath and a scrub.

Image via Amanda-Villa Lobos/ goeatgive.com

Borjomi is another popular spa resort town known for its hot springs and mineral waters. People from all over Eastern Europe flock here to fill their bottles with Borjomi water, which is believed to have medicinal properties.

Written for CheapOAir Miles Away Blog. August 2017.

 

More than Tokyo: Small Towns & Cities of the Japanese Countryside You Need to Visit

For CheapOAir Miles Away blog. July 2017. 

When you think of visiting Japan, the images that probably come to mind most are the leaning skyscrapers, glistening neon lights, and busy road crossings of Tokyo is like any other major city in the world. But head out of the county’s most famous city and you’ll find well-preserved monuments against a backdrop of picturesque scenery. In the countryside are temples, shrines, markets, and places to indulge in Japanese culture.

Spend a couple of days in Tokyo,  but if you want to see the real Japan head to these small towns.

Nikko

Nikko is a charming hill station, located only two hours to the north from Tokyo by train, with clean fresh mountain air. It has been a center of Shinto and Buddhist worship for many centuries, and is designated a World Heritage Area. There are oak and cedar forests nearby where you can walk, hike, or simply take a bus to the entrance of the temple complex. On the way, you may pass by hot springs and wild monkeys!

Nikko has important significance in Japanese culture. Here you can see one of the largest wooden tori gates in Japan and the most lavishly decorated shrine and the mausoleum of Tokugawa Ieyasu, the founder of the Tokugawa shogunate, Japanese military government from 1600-1868.

Nikko National Park is a good place to visit any time of the year, but it is especially magical when the leaves turn colors in autumn.

Image via Sucheta Rawal/ goeatgive.com

Kamakura

Kamakura is a seaside town an hour and half south of Tokyo with resorts and apartments overlooking sandy beaches. Japanese and foreign tourists come here during the summer to swim, sail, and surf.

Kamakura is also home to the second largest bronze Buddha statue in Japan at Kotoku-in Temple. The statue was cast in 1252 and originally located inside a large temple hall, destroyed and later rebuilt in open air. You can even go inside the statue for a small fee.

No visit to Japan is complete without a stroll through a bamboo forest. At Hokoku-ji Temple, a resting place for the samurai, you can soak in the beauty of the groves and have a cup of tea overlooking the forest at the café located inside.

Image via Sucheta Rawal/ goeatgive.com

Hakone

Hakone is a popular weekend getaway on the Sagami Bay (southwest of Tokyo). The area attracts golfers and those looking to relax at one of the natural hot springs. It’s also a great place to get a good view of Mount Fuji, the sacred volcanic mountain of Japan.

Be sure to book a stay at a ryokan, a traditional Japanese inn where you sleep on tatami floors and bathe in an onsen, communal hot spring water. The food is exceptional at the ryokans and assortment of fresh sushi, salad, rice, and soup is artfully served in dozens of intricate bowls.

Hakone is home to Lake Ashinoko, which offers some of the best vistas of Mount Fuji; and Owakudani Boiling Valley, with active sulfuric vents and hot springs caused by volcanic activity. Take the Hakone Ropway to catch aerial pictures of mud pools and smoke.

Takayama

Over 300 kilometers to the west of the Tokyo, Takayama is home to the oldest sake breweries in Japan. So it’s a must-stop for sake lovers. Head over to Sanmachi Street, lined with old merchants’ houses from the Edo period, where you can witness old wooden houses and busy tourist markets.

Image via Sucheta Rawal/ goeatgive.com

Here you can find several breweries offering all-day sake tastings. A clear fermented rice wine with about 15% alcohol, sake (like wine) can range in flavor from dry and fruity, to smooth and vinegary. Some places give couple of free samples, others charge $2 for up to 12 tastings.

For dinner, head to one of the local restaurants serving Hoba miso, a specialty of this region. Hida beef or chicken is mixed with miso paste, placed over dried a magnolia leaf and cooked over charcoal. It pairs well with a glass of sake.

Shirakawago

This Gassho-style village close to Japan’s west coast (Tokyo’s on the eastern shores) is a scene filled with thatched roofs, belled cows, rice paddies and surrounding snowcapped mountains. It looks like a Japanese version of Swiss countryside. The village has about 350 unique triangular shaped homes to allow snow to shed during winter, and has been named an UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Image via Sucheta Rawal/ goeatgive.com

Start your visit at Shiroyama Observatory to get the best panoramas of the village and then walk your way down. There are few historic homes open to the public, as well as few restaurants and souvenir shops.

Kanazawa

This historic city right on the northwest coast is home to the Kenrokuen castle garden, which is perhaps one of the most beautiful Japanese gardens from Edo period and one of the three most famous gardens in Japan. Here you can see over 183 species of plants, a teahouse, stone lanterns, pagoda, and the oldest water fountain in Japan, which still operates today.

Image via Sucheta Rawal/ goeatgive.com

Stroll through Nagamachi, a beautifully preserved historic Samurai district to see where the aristocracy once lived. Still you can find wealthy homes with expensive cars maneuvering narrow cobblestone streets and canals. You can visit some of the former Samurai residences and private gardens.

Spend the evening at one of Kanazawa’s three chaya districts. A chaya (teahouse) is an exclusive type of restaurant where guests are entertained by Japanese Geisha (better known as Geiko) who perform song and dance. Most of the original structures are still intact, and many are converted into cafes and shops. You are likely to spot a Geisha while walking through one of these districts, but you can also purchase tickets to attend a Geisha evening at one of the public teahouses.

~ Written for CheapOAir Miles Away blog. July 2017. 

First Look: CO

For Creative Loafing Atlanta. July 2017.

Floor-to-ceiling glass windows wrap around a sleek interior of red and black. Waves of natural wood cover the entire ceiling. A lone painting of Atlanta’s skyline adorns one of the walls. Designed under the Japanese minimalist principal of Ma, the space is uncluttered, the lines clean. This is CO, meaning “feast” in Vietnamese, the latest modern pan-Asian restaurant to arrive in Atlanta.

Located on the ground level of the new Poncey-Highland mixed-use apartment complex near the corner of Highland and Ponce, CO mirrors many of its new neighbors (like Rize Artisan Pizza + Salad, which opened late last year) in that it’s designed to multiply. The owner, Gregory Bauer, is a German-born U.S. Marine Corps veteran. While stationed in Southeast Asia on and off for three years, he says, he fell in love with the local flavors. After returning to the states, he got his MBA, then took a few months off to snowboard and do yoga, contemplating his next career move.

In the end, Bauer decided what he most wanted to do was share the flavors and cultures he encountered during his travels. He opened the first CO restaurant in Charleston, South Carolina in 2012 and has organically grown the business ever since, tapping into the same discipline and dedication that got him through his military service.

WAVY WOODS: CO's ceiling is pretty groovy.WAVY WOODS: CO’s ceiling is pretty groovy.JOEFF DAVIS

The plan has worked. Atlanta is Bauer’s fifth CO location and two more are scheduled to open this year. “I was ready to take my concept to the big city,” he says about launching the newest restaurant in Virginia-Highland, where he appreciates the fact that people can walk up for a casual meal.

Like Bauer’s travels, the menu spans the Asian continent. Original recipes were developed with the help of Vietnamese caterers in South Carolina. Later, Masatoshi Tsujimura, a Japanese sushi chef and restaurant owner in Raleigh, came onboard as executive chef. Today, “Chef Masa”, as he is known, oversees all CO restaurants.

The CO team hopes to provide an easy entry point to Asian flavors, one that won’t overwhelm the typical American palate (or your picky kids). You won’t find bean curd puffs or tripe here; instead, strong flavors and unfamiliar textures are replaced by approachable ingredients like chicken and tofu.

LUNCH WITH A VIEW: Two customers enjoy a meal in CO’s airy dining room. Photo by JOEFF DAVIS

Appetizers include edamame gyoza ($5) — a vegan-friendly blend of crunchy mashed edamame stuffed into fluffy steamed and pan-fried dumplings, and served with sweet ginger soy sauce for dipping. The salmon carpaccio ($13) is sliced a bit thick, but the fish is fresh, dressed in lemongrass zest and micro greens for a lovely summer flavor. Tuna tacos ($8) offer two soft flour tacos packed with diced tuna and avocado. Garlic, jalapeños and cilantro add balanced kick to the dish. There’s also bahn mi! Try the marinated and grilled lemongrass tofu ($8) served on a crisp rice flour baguette.

Wok dishes offer Chinese, Thai, Korean and Japanese-inspired combinations. Thai green curry ($14) resembles what you’ll find at most Atlanta Thai restaurants, but here there’s white wine in the sauce, making it thinner than most coconut-based curries. Those who appreciate a bit of heat should opt for spicy udon ($14), a colorful medley of veggies stir-fried with thick Japanese wheat noodles, spicy black pepper sauce and the protein of your choice. Or, to kick up any dish, add some of the restaurant’s signature hot sauce, made in-house by deep frying red peppers and grinding them with onions, garlic, shallots and lime juice.

Curry laksa ($15), a coconut-based soup, is inspired by Bauer’s frequent visits to Malaysia while he lived in Singapore. “When I first served it in Charleston, no one knew what it was,” he says, “but now it is one of our popular dishes.”

While stationed in Okinawa, Japan, Bauer developed a fondness for oshizushi (pressed sushi), and CO is one of the few places in Atlanta that makes it. Sliced salmon ($13) is pressed onto rice in a wooden box, resulting in rectangular cuts of sushi, then topped with ripe avocado and a creamy lemon aioli. Each piece is enormous, so go ahead, forgo the chopsticks and use your fingers to pick it up — nobody’s at CO to judge. The spring geisha roll with seared salmon ($14.5) and kobe jalapeño ($15) are other fun, fusion-y creations for those who prefer their proteins cooked.

PRESS PLAY: Salmon and avocado pressed sushi. Photo by JOEFF DAVIS

At the newly opened bar, you’ll find a traditional sake selection as well as fruit and herb infusions made in-house. There’s also an array of signature cocktails (blackberry bourbon fizz, anyone?) and a whole menu section for boba tea, with toppings that range from lychee jelly to bursting passion fruit pearls.

While CO may not impress die-hard foodies (as in, those who will gladly trek to Buford Highway in search of the best pho or dumplings), it’s a pleasant and accessible spot to take the whole family and expose picky eaters to new flavors. Add in the convenient location, sleek ambiance and well-stocked bar, and you just might have your favorite new neighborhood noodle and sushi joint.

CO, 675 North Highland Ave., 404-474-0262, www.eatatco.com.

For Creative Loafing Atlanta. July 2017.

 

Add This to Your Summer Travel Bucket List – Glamping in a Treehouse in Georgia

For CheapOAir Miles Away blog. June 2017. 

There’s something childishly fulfilling about staying up in a treehouse. This summer, if you want to feel a bit nostalgic and re-ignite some of those emotions (but you just can’t part with a few luxuries), you’ll be happy to know there are decadent modern treehouses just for you.

But is it worth all the hype?

We’ve heard of the famous TreeHouse Point in Washington state and even the exclusive Treehouse Cottages in Arkansas, which are just some of the most incredible treehouses in the US,  so we decided to travel to Georgia to scope out another luxurious property for ourselves.

Located in Flintstone, Georgia at the base of Lookout Mountain near downtown Chattanooga, Tennessee, Treetop Hideaways came about as an idea to allow childhood memories to flourish and for families to experience sustainable living close to the city. There are two houses on the property, each equipped with their personal bedrooms, living area, kitchenettes, full baths, decks, and outdoor fireplaces.

You won’t need to trek through a forest to get to this treehouse. There’s a short paved trail from the parking lot to the cabins and a short staircase that brings you inside.

Image via Sucheta Rawal/ goeatgive.com

The original treehouse has a two-story loft with a bedroom upstairs offering spectacular views of the canopy from its large windows. There’s also a small bathroom where a whiskey barrel is placed for a shower tub and copper coins donated by people across the country make up the unique flooring.

Image via Sucheta Rawal/ goeatgive.com

The second one named “Dove Men+Care Elements Treehouse” has a bathroom that makes you really feel like you’re at a private spa in the middle of the forest. Very few treehouses can claim to have heated flooring, temperature controlled 5-head shower with a digital keypad, and a glass enclosed tree in the bathroom with skylight and see-through flooring.

Not too familiar with the concept of glamping? Read our glamping 101 guide and join the party!

Image via Sucheta Rawal/ goeatgive.com

Neighborhood restaurants offer delivery of pizza and ice cream right to your treehouse door. You can also grill hamburgers and roast s’mores over the outdoor grill and enjoy a quiet evening by the fire pit under the stars.

The unique tree hotel is popular with couples and families looking to get away from the hustle and bustle of the city, without having to compromise on luxury. Most people spend 2-4 nights at the treehouse, so they can enjoy outdoor adventures, sightseeing, entertainment and dining in the surrounding area.

After our experience, we’ve got to say that glamping up in a treehouse is just something that can take your bucket list to new heights, so go ahead and branch out!

Written for CheapOAir Miles Away blog. June 2017. 

My Andaman-Myanmar Sea Expedition

For Khabar Magazine print edition. June 2017. 

Kaala Pani is such a storied place in the narrative of India’s independence struggle. Visiting that infamous jail was a humbling experience. The iconic pagodas of Myanmar, on the other hand, inspired awe.

Growing up in northern India, I did not have much of a chance to explore the south. So, when the chance of going on an 11-day sea expedition cruise to the Andaman Islands came to my attention, I jumped on it!

It was a culture and adventure oriented cruise line rather than a floating amusement park. The Silversea Andaman Sea Expedition offered basic luxuries as expected on cruises aboard this yacht-style Italian ship. But it was different, considering there were on-board expedition leaders, who were experts in history, botany, birds, sea life, and more. Each day, there were several guest lectures on the ship to prepare travelers for what they were about to experience. There were also recap discussions about the key learnings from our visits.

06_17_Travel_JailRoof.jpg

The infamous Kaala Pani (“black waters”): the Cellular Jail in Port Blair, on South Andaman Island.

Port Blair – Kaala Pani, The Infamous Jail
Our first stop is Port Blair, the capital of Andaman and Nicobar Islands in India. The group of 36 islands has been inhabited for the past 60,000 years, yet little is known about the tribes that live here. Only the infamous Cellular Jail has made headlines. This is where the British East India Company Army held Indian political prisoners in solitary confinement. It was believed that no one who crossed the Andaman Sea over to Port Blair ever made it back alive, hence gaining the nickname Kaala Pani or black waters.

Walking along the lonely hallways, I could only imagine what our ancestors went through bearing inhumane tortures, all for the sake of our freedom. Names of freedom fighters from all over India were listed by the states they hailed from on the pillars of the jail. Those who survived the British Raj remained in the penal colony and started a new life here.

In most respects, Port Blair feels like any other city in coastal India. Coconut trees on wild beaches, women dressed in colorful saris, sounds of honking cars, delicious aroma of dosa (savory pancakes) and curry, all seemed much too familiar. In recent years, adventurous Indian tourists have gained more interest in the marine activities offered around the islands. From Port Blair, jetty boats shuttle to neighboring Havelock and North Bay islands where vacationers snorkel, kayak, dive, jet ski, or simply lie on the beach.

Ross Island – From Paris to Forsaken
Another popular attraction nearby is Ross Island. Once known as the Paris of the East, Ross Island was the administrative headquarters of the British while they kept a watchful eye on Cellular Jail. Now, there are only remains of its opulence – a church with stained glass windows, a bakery serving French croissants, a clubhouse where the general public gathered to drink and play, a self-sustaining water purifier, etc. along with wild deer, peacocks, and rabbits. Every evening there is a sound and light show that brings the island back to life with vivid colors and Bollywood style narratives.

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Prayer procession at Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon, Myanmar.

Myanmar – Open for Business
Our journey takes us further north to the country of Myanmar (formerly Burma). The first thing that comes to mind is a song from a 1949 film, Patanga, where the male lead goes to Rangoon (now Yangon) to serve during World War II, while his beloved misses him, singing “Mere piya gaye Rangoon…

Things haven’t changed a whole lot in this country since the 1940s. Myanmar recently lifted its embargo on foreign tourists and opened up its borders. The largest city, Yangon looks like what New Delhi would have 70 years ago. There are a few buildings and hotels, clean roads, gardens, teashops, and no international brand names. What you do see is very friendly men and women dressed in traditional longyis (similar to Eastern Indian lungis) with thanaka(multani mitti or Fuller’s earth) rubbed on their faces as makeup/ sunscreen. Here, the nomadic fishermen still live on traditional boats, while the working class commute to the slum-like dwellings in the township of Dala across the river.

Yangon – Land of Golden Buddha
Most sightseeing in Yangon is centered around Buddhist pagodas and temples. At a length of 217 feet, Chaukhtatgyi Buddha Temple houses one of the most revered reclining Buddha statues in the country. It is a colossal gold colored statue with a diamond and precious stones encrusted crown that attracts visitors from all over the world.

Myanmar is a Buddhist country, with Muslims and Hindus forming the rest of the minority population. Most Burmese people are Theravada Buddhists, and many also follow practices that originated in Hindu astrology. The Burmese worship animals that represent the day of the week when they were born: garuda (bird) for Sunday, tiger for Monday, lion for Tuesday, tusked elephant for Wednesday morning, tuskless elephant for Wednesday afternoon, mouse for Thursday, guinea pig for Friday and nãga (snake) for Saturday.

Only at Shwedagon Pagoda do I realize the importance of gold in Mon architecture that was prevalent between the 6th and 10th centuries CE. Stick-on gold leaves that remind me of those atop shiny barfis (Indian fudge) are sold outside most religious monuments and are glued onto the statues as offerings. It is believed that by building or donating to the pagoda, you will receive blessings, and take a further step towards salvation. On a weekend, there are families organizing prayers for their loved ones, taking a child in a procession for his monkhood inauguration, and couples offering waterlilies to the shrines. Shwedagon Pagoda is the most sacred Buddhist pagoda in Myanmar, as it is believed to contain relics of the four previous Buddhas of the present kalpa (aeon).

Culture – Blends of the East
We dine at the Karaweik Palace, a majestic building by the lake in the shape of a royal barge. Every evening, there is a cultural program organized for visitors, which includes traditional crafts, international buffet, and live dance performances. Many of the Burmese dances have Indian influences, as cultures intermingled for centuries. The bilu dance (of demons or ogres) is said to have originated from Desagiri, a demon in the Ramayana, while the kinnara and kinnari dances are based on mythical birds with human head and torso referenced in Sanskrit literature.

Burmese food offers familiar flavors to those who are well versed in Bangla cuisine. With influences of India, China, and Thailand, local dishes must have a balance of four primary flavors: sour, salty, spicy, and bitter. Spicy lentils, curried fish, thick noodle soups, rice, and leafy green vegetables are staples at a family-style Burmese dinner table. I personally couldn’t get enough of the Shan noodles, a stir-fry of wide rice noodles with chicken, tomatoes, and spices; river fish seasoned with shallots, ginger, garlic, and turmeric, then fried whole with more spices; and a unique Pickled Tea Leaf Salad with tomatoes, roasted peanuts, fried ginger, chickpeas, sesame seeds, and of course, pickled green tea leaves. Most midrange restaurants are known as teahouses and serve traditional Indian dishes, as well as Indo-Burmese fusion.

Bagan – The Ancient Capital
Early one morning, I take a flight from Yangon to Bagan (formerly Pagan), also known as the city of temples. Soon, I am surrounded by over 2,000 ancient structures built between the 9th and 13th centuries. Here I can see the evolution of Burmese temple architecture from Andhra style hollow cylindrical temples with bejeweled umbrellas, to solid dome shaped stupas. Bagan was the capital of the Pagan Empire about a thousand years ago, and only a fraction of the 10,000 Buddhist temples and 3,000 monasteries they built still stand today, mostly destroyed by periodic earthquakes.

I climb a series of five steep steps to the top of Shwesandaw Pagoda for a panoramic view of the surrounding temples spread across the plains of Bagan with the Irrawaddy River in the background. I spend the rest of the day admiring the intricate carvings, painted murals, and inscriptions inside some of these temples.

The Coast – Sunsets and Beaches
After a deep dive into history and religion, the ship steers toward the coastal areas. Myanmar has 1,200 miles of coastline and an expansive coral reef in Mergui Archipelago. Beach resorts in Myanmar have become immensely popular with Asian and Western visitors as they are often unspoiled, offering seclusion, crystal clear waters, picture perfect sunsets, and a range of accommodations from beach huts to luxury resorts at relatively affordable prices.

Lampi Island is the only marine national park in Myanmar, and is home to over 1,000 species of animals, plants, and marine life, as well as occasional sea gypsies. We leave our ship and take a Zodiac cruise through the mangroves, listening to the singsong of Andaman birds residing in 200-year-old trees. The staff on the ship also organizes a lunch at the beach on Shark Island, another uninhabited island in the southern coast of Myanmar. With no one else in sight, we enjoy the secluded white sand beaches and turquoise blue waters against the backdrop of a thick forest, while sipping on cocktails and nibbling at the grill.

06_17_Travel_Street.jpg

The town and streets of Kawthaung.

We finally approach our last destination as the ship docks at the southernmost point in Myanmar, at the border of Thailand. Kawthaung looks akin to an Italian seaside resort, with small houses nestled along a slope and golden domes instead of church clock towers. It has more Muslim influences than the rest of Myanmar, which can be seen at halal restaurants and shops selling scarves and jewelry.

As I look through hundreds of pictures I have taken, I feel lucky to have visited these areas before they become overpopulated with tourists.

~ Written for Khabar Magazine print edition. June 2017. 

Curiosity to Cure: Atlanta Traveler Explores Why the World Flocks to Brazilian Healer ‘John of God’

For Global Atlanta. May 2017. 

Why are millions of people from all over the world — including some from Atlanta — traveling to a small town near the capital of Brazil in search of personal and physical healing?

To find out, I flew to Brasilia, having extended my stay in the country after a week of revelry at the famous carnival in Rio de Janeiro, one of the largest outdoor parties in the world. 

Another two-hour drive from the capital landed me in a small rural town called Abadiânia in the municipality of Goiás. This is where a famous spiritual healer named John of God, or João de Deus, lives and runs a spiritual healing center, the Casa de Dom Ignacio.

I had learned about this supposed miracle worker after watching coverage on The Oprah Winfrey Show about a decade ago. John of God claims to have cured over 8 million people of life-threatening illnesses such as cancer and brain tumors, birth defects and handicaps, as well as spiritual and emotional problems. 

Sometimes he performs physical surgeries without any surgical equipment or medication, but mostly he invites you to sit in a meditation room and receive healing via spiritual forces and mystical energy. (The location of the center is said to be of high energy due to the concentration of natural crystals in the valley.)

Medium John, as he’s also known, is not a doctor, but says he merely mediates the spirits of powerful saints and doctors who have passed on.

“I have not healed anyone. What heals is the faith, equilibrium and the love. Who heals is God,” he tells me in a rare one-on-one interview.

Meeting John was surreal. I had to seek permission for an interview while he was “incorporating” spirits and receiving 2,000 people a day. He had a strong presence and his facial expressions and demeanor changed as 30 spirits were said to have entered his body at different points in time. Medium John is in a dreamlike state during this process. While incorporated in spirit, he performs surgeries, despite the fact that he faints at the sight of blood under normal circumstances. He has even performed surgery on himself. He doesn’t speak English, so we communicated via a translator. I had never been so nervous in my life!

I spoke to several other people in Abadiânia who had come to Medium John when all doctors had given up hope. Each had experienced what they described as nothing short of a miracle. Still, Medium John says, “People are receiving energy when they are here but must continue to go to their doctors.”

Medium John’s work can be explained through a popular theory in Brazil called Spiritism, where one can channel high-energy beings and master spirits to guide humans and give healing through metaphysical interaction. Spiritism is a common belief in Brazil, as well as in India and among Native American cultures.

Medium John doesn’t charge anything, and local bed and breakfasts are available at modest prices ($30/night including three meals daily).Visitors can purchase blessed water and prescribed passion flower pills, or reserve time at the crystal beds for a fee. Some argue that Medium John maintains his large family, mine, farms and other investments by his popularity. But Medium John doesn’t charge anything for the visits and he rarely accepts donations. He also makes accommodations for those who can’t pay for blessed water or spiritual prescriptions. 

I discovered that some of my friends in Atlanta had also gone to see John of God in recent years. Mara Anthony, a flight attendant at Delta Air Lines, has visited John of God eight times in the last five years. She also found out about him after watching Oprah and Dr. Wayne Dyer’s testimonials. She was mostly curious as she had studied alternate medicines and was suffering from constant fatigue. 

“I had a profound experience on my first visit,” Ms. Anthony claims. “Not only did I feel more energy and love, I got help with my relationships and clarifications on many aspects of my life.” 

Ms. Anthony has accompanied her parents to Brazil, and her father saw considerable improvements in his PTSD. Though she grew up as a Christian in the South, she doesn’t feel Spiritism interferes with religion. 

“In fact, it has strengthened my Catholic faith and I practice my traditions more regularly by saying the rosary every day,” she said. She claims it helps her tap into unconditional divine love. 

Being fluent in Portuguese and familiar with spiritual tourism, Ms. Anthony now plans to guide groups of travelers who are interested in seeing John of God. 

Susan Kostyrka Gonzalez, a cancer survivor/coach, nutritionist and co-author of “100 Perks of Having Cancer plus 100 Health Tips For Surviving It!” also traveled to Abadania in 2014. She points only to curiosity as the reason behind the visit, but she also had a transformative experience. 

“I felt my fears and worries lift off me and I can say that several things are now working for me that weren’t before. I don’t know if it was the trip, or just my focus on how amazing life is, but one thing is for sure, this experience has left its mark forever,” she noted after returning from her visit. Ms. Gonzalez documents her travels on her blog, The Savvy Sister.

I interviewed more than a dozen people, including one translator, Heather Cumming, who has been working with Medium John for 18 years and has yet to see a person come to the Casa and leave unchanged.

As for me, I also went out of curiosity and found a deeper understanding of the spiritual realm. During my visit to the Casa, I felt love, gratefulness and happiness for everything in my life. When I returned home, my friends and family remarked that I seem different. I was more positive, calm and had more focus in my work. 

I do believe it is important to keep up with your own practices, be it prayers or meditation, to stay connected with your consciousness, and most importantly, keep an open mind.    

John of God rarely travels, but he came to Atlanta in Spring 2006. He will be at the Omega Institute in New York this October. 

Read more about my visit to the center in this Go Eat Give blog post. 

~ Written for Global Atlanta. May 2017. 

6 Charming Small Towns of Croatia You Need to See Right Now

For CheapOAir Miles Away blog. May 2017.

This Eastern European country has been popular among tourists because of its magnificent national parks, long coastline along the Adriatic Sea, and enchanting islands frequented by sailboats and yachts. But Croatia also has many small towns that offer natural beauty, authentic culture and local cuisine. Here are some places you need to check out.

Image via Sucheta Rawal/ goeatgive.com

1. SAMOBOR

Located less than an hour drive from the country’s capital Zagreb, Samobor is a weekend getaway that mainly attracts hikers. Start your day fueling up on Kremšnite, the famous local fare — a flaky pastry filled sweet cream custard. Hike through the small town that is nicknamed the “Venice of Croatia” due to its colorful houses along the canal, while passing by the 15th century church of Saint Anastasia and quiet cottages with manicured gardens.

At the main square, visit Silvia Krajacic, at her souvenir shop Srčeko. She is among one of the 20 families in Croatia that still practice Licitar, the traditional art of making ornamental cookies in heart shapes. It is noted that in the 16th century, giving licitar was more romantic than giving roses! Down the street, Brigiti Mihina at Arko also carries on this tradition, which is listed in the Intangible Cultural Heritage for Croatian culture.

Snack on the local delicacy, Greblica, that looks like a flatbread stuffed with Swiss chard, walnuts and cheese, and wash it down with a glass of Bermet, aromatic red wine.

Image via Sucheta Rawal/ goeatgive.com

2. VARAŽDIN

The former capital of Croatia may appear to be just a business town at first, but the old town with its castle, cobblestone streets and 13th to 18th century buildings has a unique European charm about it. Varaždin is known as “The City of Festivals” as there is at least one festival every month. There are Baroque nights through the summer where people dress up in historic costumes, parade and perform around the squares. You can’t miss the angelic installations adorning many of the buildings, created by a local artist, giving it another name of “The City Where Angels Sleep.” Visit the angel museum, Anđelinjaka, which houses donated angels from all over the world.

Ride a bike through the vineyards outside the city, stay at a family farm guest house, and soak in one of the many hot springs in the area. Stop by the craft square to pick up locally made honey brandy (rakia), handmade hats and souvenirs.

Image via Sucheta Rawal/ goeatgive.com

3. ZAGREB

Though Zagreb is the largest city in Croatia, it still feels like a small town. The city is organized in a U-shaped network of parks, allowing for plenty of green spaces trimmed with flowers. It is easy to walk around town in a day and visit the squares, opera house, parliament, museums, churches, and take a few coffee breaks in between. Croatians love to take coffee breaks!

The Museum of Broken Relationships is one of the most unique museums in the world, displaying memorabilia of ordinary people whose relationships did not result in happy endings.

Zagreb also has a great nightlife scene with lots of restaurants, bars, and live music venues. Visit the Dolac Market in the morning for cheap local fruits and grab lunch of fresh fuji pasta with Istrian truffles in at Vinodol restaurant.  Nature lovers can spend a day at Maksimir Park walking around the meadows, creeks, and five lakes that make up the oldest public park in the city.

Image via Sucheta Rawal/ goeatgive.com

4. SPLIT

The city center of Split is marked by Diocletian’s Palace, which was built by Romans in the 4th century and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Now, the labyrinth of streets inside the palace takes you through residential apartments, boutique stores, charming restaurants and heritage hotels. One can easily spend an entire afternoon wandering through the palace and stop for a coffee at one of the plazas overlooking the Roman ruins for people watching.

Another fun thing to do is hike or bike to the peak of Marjan where you can enjoy panoramic view of Split, the sea and surrounding hills.

Split is located on the Dalmatian coast of Croatia and has ferries running to many of the Adriatic Islands. Get on a party sail boat during summer and chill out with a beer or two.

Image via Sucheta Rawal/ goeatgive.com

5. HVAR

The island of Hvar is only an hour-long ferry ride from Split. It has been an important tourist destination in Croatia since 1868, boasting beautiful turquoise waters, rocky beaches, and hills full of wild lavender and vineyards. Hvar City, located right at the port also has an active nightlife in the summer months, transforming this Venetian naval base into a modern party city.

During the day, discover the island by visiting old abandoned villages on a bike tour with local tour company, And Adventure and catch some spectacular views on the way. Break for lunch at a family run establishment in the countryside and continue to visit some of the wineries in the area. Swimming and sea kayaking in the Adriatic is also fun as the water is crystal clear in this area.

Image via Sucheta Rawal/ goeatgive.com

6. DUBROVNIK

This is perhaps the most well-known town in Croatia due to its visibility on the TV series, Game of Thrones. The walled city is listed as UNESCO World Heritage Site and is nicknamed “Pearl of the Adriatic.” The best way to explore the Old Town is by walking on the city walls. It gives a good perspective of how the 40,000 or so people reside in the historic town as well as offers spectacular views. Don’t miss the Dubrovnik Summer Festival, with its outdoor theaters, classical music concerts and dance performances that transforms the city into a baroque town.

Just a few miles outside Dubrovnik are small villages worth visiting. Konavle offers agro-tourism destinations that have been run by families for hundreds of years, complete with lodging and dining, while the Pelješac peninsula is good for coastal drives and oyster and mussel farming. The medieval town of Ston with its longest city walls in Europe is a good place to stop for local seafood.

~ Written for CheapOAir Miles Away blog. May 2017.

First Look: Jai Ho

For Creative Loafing Atlanta. April 2017.

Into Atlanta’s ever-widening ring of regional and modern Indian restaurants steps Jai Ho Indian Kitchen and Bar. Located in the former Madre + Mason spot in Morningside, the restaurant’s name means “let there be victory” in Hindi, perhaps in hopes that it will fare better than its locational predecessors.

Jai Ho sits alongside Piedmont Park, near the dog run and not far from the Beltline. The outdoor patio offers a welcome bit of nature in the middle of the city. Inside is spacious, with seating for 100. Grab a stool at the huge modern bar or at a table beside the large glass windows. Plush red drapes are drawn to let in lots of natural light and views of the park. Moorish chandeliers against pale yellow walls give the interior a warm, casual feel. With a backdrop of American pop music and Fox News on overhead television screens, it hardly feels like a typical Indian restaurant.

“We are an Indian-focused restaurant with French cooking techniques,” says Jai Ho’s co-owner Paul Nair, a native of Mumbai and owner of the local upscale market chain Savi Provisions, which has four locations dotted around Atlanta. Paul refers to the cuisine of Pondicherry, a chic seaside province in southern India that became a French East India Company trading post in the 17th century and remained so for many years. The city passed frequently between a number of European colonial powers, but the French left behind the most distinct aspects of their culture, from the architecture to the cuisine — incorporating French methods with Indian ingredients.

Paul, along with former Hilton Head-based chef Anish Nair and chef Vijeesh Parayil, who has cooked at restaurants in India, New York and Ohio, is trying to introduce this Indo-French cuisine to Atlanta’s dining scene. “We wanted to expand our current offerings in a more sit-down format,” says Paul of the team’s decision to expand beyond Savi. “At Jai Ho, you can hang out with friends after work, sip on draft beers and munch on small plates.”

SUNNY SEATS: Jai Ho's interior looks out onto Piedmont Park.SUNNY SEATS: Jai Ho’s interior looks out onto Piedmont Park.JOEFF DAVIS

The two-page menu covers a lot of ground, from soups and salads to “street eats” to familiar Indian comfort foods and regional specialties. Calamari Cochin ($10) plays homage to chef Parayil’s home state of Kerala (Cochin, also known as Kochi, is a major port city in the state), where spicy coastal cuisine is the norm. Bite-size pieces of squid are battered with chickpea flour and coconut milk, flash fried to tenderness and topped with tempered nutty mustard seeds, sweet tomato puree, bell peppers and a squeeze of lemon juice. The spinach chaat ($8) is more of a crisp spinach leaf pakora or fritter, drizzled with a homemade blend of ground garam masala. How each leaf stays so perfectly flat is a mystery to me.

The mussels pepper fry ($11) is perhaps one of the most interesting dishes in town and an ideal marriage of French and Indian flavors. Meat is shelled and stir-fried with ginger, curry leaves, crushed peppers and coconut flakes and served on a bed of boiled yucca, offering a sweet and spicy tango on the taste buds.

In Pondicherry, curries are traded out for herb-rich sauces made with traditionally French ingredients such as wine and cream. Vindaloo ($15-17), originally a Portuguese creation derived from a pork and red wine stew called carne de vinha d’alhos, maintains some of its integrity at Jai Ho. The meat (choose from chicken, lamb, shrimp and goat) is simmered overnight with red wine and lots of tomatoes, creating a tangy, acidic flavor with a kick of fiery chili at the end. Chef’s specials come with garlic naan, biryani spiced rice and a garnish of grilled carrots and asparagus.

COLORFUL PLATE: Tilapia wrapped in banana leaves at Jai HoCOLORFUL PLATE: Tilapia wrapped in banana leaves at Jai HoJOEFF DAVIS

The Cochin snapper ($24) finds a rich creamy shrimp sauce with lots of onions and turmeric crowned atop a whole spice-rubbed red snapper cooked in a tandoor clay oven. The fish and shrimp have two distinct flavors, but somehow it works. Mughal lamb shank ($22) is marinated with fresh mint, cilantro, rosemary and green chilies, then cooked sous-vide, a popular French method where the meat is vacuum-sealed and placed in a hot water bath. As a result, the meat is tender and the juices remain intact.

Healthy items are plenty, and well spelled out — there’s an entire section of the menu devoted to vegans. Paneer rollari ($19) is one of the chef’s own creations, consisting of cooked spinach leaves with grated cottage cheese melted in, served on a bed of masala mashed potatoes. While vegetarian and gluten-free, the dish disappoints in the visual and flavor departments.

SWEET SIPS: Taj Explosion cocktailSWEET SIPS: Taj Explosion cocktailJOEFF DAVIS

The Nairs take pride in their beverage selection, sourcing many items directly through Savi Provisions. Choose from a variety of craft beers, wines, spirits, cocktails and non-alcoholic options like lassis, chai and madras coffee ($3). The Bombay Cooler cocktail tastes like iced mint chutney in a glass, and the tamarind margarita is sweet and tangy.

Desserts are made in-house with innovative blends of Indian and western styles. The gulab jamun pie ($7) is a traditional plain homemade pie crust with whole gulab jamuns (fried doughnut balls — a popular Indian dessert) in the filling. Pistachio kulfi ($7) is Indian-style ice cream served with spiced pound cake.

Jai Ho is currently open for dinner but will soon be serving lighter fare for lunch, as well as drink-paired dinners and weekend brunches. Atlanta’s dining scene has lately welcomed such regionally-focused concepts with modern presentations, and one hopes Jai Ho will live up to its name and find a place among them.

560 Dutch Valley Road N.E. 404-458-6888. www.jaihoatlanta.com

Written for Creative Loafing Atlanta. April 2017.