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.

Namaste! Everything You Need Know to Find Your Inner Peace at a Yoga Festival

For CheapOAir Miles Away. April 2017. 

I have been doing yoga off and on for my entire life, but I still didn’t know what to expect when I first arrived at the Sedona Yoga Festival. It was early March and I was slated to attend all three days of the self-described “consciousness evolution conference,” where participants gather in the iconic red sandstone desert of central Arizona every year to partake and celebrate yoga, music, and spirituality.

It was my first time at anything like that before and I was plagued with questions. How many hours in a day can I survive doing yoga? What if I can’t balance on my head and bend myself into a twist? Is it OK to drink alcohol when you are on a yoga retreat?

Thankfully, the theme for this year’s festival was “Get Out There” meaning let go of old behaviors, wake up to your intuitive guidance, and step into the power of a collective community.

So if you’re thinking of going to a yoga festival, as well (of which there are MANY around the world), here are a few things I learned at Sedona and you need to consider before your ultimate yoga getaway…

Pick a Good Location

Part of the attraction for me to sign up for this kind of trip was the location itself. Nestled among red and orange colored sandstones, Sedona is a picturesque town in northern Arizona. It is also known for its regenerative powers demonstrated by vortexes, or high energy points. It is the only place on Earth that has four vortex locations concentrated in a small area. Other such sacred sites around the world are at Great Pyramid in Egypt, Machu Picchu in Peru, Bali, Stonehenge, Bermuda Triangle, Tibet, and Ayers Rock in Australia, and also make for good yoga destinations. It is believed that doing yoga, meditation or any kind of spiritual introspection at such places is different because the energy is more intense and has special healing qualities. Just seeing the majestic red rocks and flawless sunny days is relaxing. Why not try yoga there as well?

Image via Sucheta Rawal/ goeatgive.com

Image via Sucheta Rawal/ goeatgive.com

Find the Right Community

A yoga festival is different from a yoga retreat. There are a lot more people. Over 1400 people attended the Sedona Yoga Festival (SYF) with me, and we were not hanging out together all of the time. There were a lot of solo travelers, groups of friends, and yoga instructors. There were social activities, like “health happy hours” and music and dance sessions, where you could interact with a broader fun loving community. I felt it was a great place to meet like-minded people, as everyone there had holistic views on treating the mind and body. It was easy to strike up a conversation and there were several occasions where I hugged a total stranger. But then, I also had time to focus on myself and retreat to my room whenever I needed to.

Image via Sucheta Rawal/ goeatgive.com

Image via Sucheta Rawal/ goeatgive.com

Don’t Worry About Poses

I confess, though I “can” do yoga, I have not even come close to mastering the art of bending my body into impossible angles, doing headstands or aerial splits. Seeing men and women who are in great shape and extremely flexible can be intimidating at first, but I had to remind myself that yoga takes patience and experience. “Stop looking at other people’s poses, their cute yoga outfits, or the colorful designs of their mats!” I heard one instructor remind us.

Just the fact that I was trying meant I wanted to do something good for myself.

Be Ready to Try New Things

During the festival, I learned a lot of new things that I am going to incorporate into my practice, like: Eat a piece of dark chocolate before starting your session to heighten your senses. If meditation music doesn’t inspire you, try reggae. Wake up early morning to watch the with sunrise and do sun salutations. Combine hiking with yoga.

There are also different forms of yoga — Kundalini, Hatha, Bikram, etc. And while you may not always have the time or money to try all of the different classes at home, yoga festivals give you basic exposure to them, so you can decide which one you want to stick with.

I also sat in many of the 200+ classes and workshops offered during the festival that had nothing to do with yoga, but catered to overall wellness. Attending such events means you can hear from experts on a variety of topics, such as eating superfoods, Ayurveda, meditation, building relationships and much more.

Image via Sucheta Rawal/ goeatgive.com

Image via Sucheta Rawal/ goeatgive.com

Hit a Spa Afterwords

One of the perks of yoga festivals is that they encourage spa treatments as well. On the premise, there were free massages, relaxation chairs, sound and light treatments. Down the street were several smaller spas, holistic treatment centers, and energy readers. I finished my trip with a Full Circle massage at the 25,000 square-feet Eforea Spa at the Hilton Sedona Resort at Bell Rock, where the festival took place. There is nothing better after a weekend of yoga than to soak in a jacuzzi and take a steam shower.

Written for CheapOAir Miles Away. April 2017. 

Global Eats: Royal Myanmar Cuisine

For Creative Loafing Atlanta. March 2017. 

From the outside, Royal Myanmar Cuisine looks like nothing more than a drive-through converted into a hole-in-the-wall restaurant, standing by itself in a quiet commercial plaza with a strip club, a liquor store and a few questionable-looking eateries. The interior of the former Crazy Wings is also very plain, with tiled floors, red counters, several televisions and casual seating for 20. But the reason to come here is not the ambiance; it’s the food, and the people who make it.

Zo Mawi, who goes by “Aa,” is a soft-spoken and petite woman with dark hair and a shy smile. Born and raised in the Chin region of Myanmar (also known as Burma), Mawi is the youngest of eight children. Her father died when she was only three months old. As the country underwent decades of war and recession, most men, like Mawi’s brothers, ended up migrating to other countries in search of employment, generally hired into blue-collar, often undocumented laborer positions in Thailand and other parts of Southeast Asia. Left behind to take care of all her nieces and nephews, whose parents had either moved or passed away, Mawi managed to finish high school in the capital of Yangon before immigrating as a refugee to Guam, and then to the United States.

Upon arrival, Mawi made her way to Clarkston through a refugee resettlement program, took ESL classes, enrolled in Georgia Perimeter College (though she had to drop out due to family responsibilities) and worked with her brother at a sushi bar. She eventually worked her way up to managing a sushi franchise inside a Fresh Market store. Since 2001, Mawi has not only struggled to make her new home halfway across the world, but has done so while raising her late brother’s children. Now that they are off to college, she can finally do something she’s dreamt of since she was a young girl back in Myanmar: start her own business.

OODLES OF NOODLES: Myanmar noodle salad at Royal Myanmar.OODLES OF NOODLES: Myanmar noodle salad at Royal Myanmar.JOEFF DAVIS

Through mutual friends, Mawi was introduced to Nyan Aung, another Burmese refugee who came to Indianapolis in 2015 via Malaysia. Together, the two friends decided to open one of metro Atlanta’s only Burmese restaurants. Since most of Georgia’s Burmese community lives in Clarkston, the location made sense. Aung’s mother, who once had a restaurant in Yangon, trained the duo for a few months and provided her own recipes for their new venture.

Burmese cuisine carries influences from India, China and Thailand. “People are familiar with Asian noodles, but ours is very different and delicious!” says Mawi. “We are also the only ones that serve tea leaf salad.” She’s referring to a classic Burmese dish, known locally as lah pet thoke: a mixture of fermented green tea leaves, peanuts, fried garlic, dried shrimp and sesame seeds ($7.50 at Royal Myanmar). The result is a distinctive balance of four primary flavors — sour, salty, spicy and bitter — that forms the backbone of most traditional Burmese meals.

TRADITIONAL DISH: Myanmar pork soup at Royal MyanmarTRADITIONAL DISH: Myanmar pork soup at Royal MyanmarJOEFF DAVIS

There are 15 staples on the bilingual picture menus, most of which will be familiar to both Burmese people and those who have traveled to Myanmar. All are generously portioned and highly affordable. The Myanmar noodle salad ($7) made with wheat noodles, chicken and chickpea powder and served in a spicy broth, is what Mawi recommends to first timers. Burmese chicken coconut soup ($6.99) is another popular option: rich and creamy with wheat noodles, coconut milk, yellow dal and plenty of onion, garlic and spices for flavor. My personal favorite is palata ($6.50), a crispy, flaky, buttery puffed flatbread paired with a fragrant dipping sauce of yellow lentils and fried shallots. That dish alone makes the drive to Clarkston worth it.

Though Burmese food tends to be very spicy, Mawi will ask your preference before cooking. There is fish sauce and jars of chili flakes on the table in case you need an extra kick. She’s also quite generous in giving out samples.

ALL PUFFED UP: Royal Myanmar's palata, surrounded by tea leaf salad (left) and noodle saladALL PUFFED UP: Royal Myanmar’s palata, surrounded by tea leaf salad (left) and noodle saladJOEFF DAVIS

“It is very difficult for the Burmese people to open businesses,” Mawi confides. “We don’t speak English, know the licensing laws, or have money to invest.” Mawi and Aung borrowed cash from their families to open Royal Myanmar in October of last year. It’s only the two of them now, working six days a week — cooking, serving and managing all aspects of the business. But they’re pleased with the progress they’ve made, and the little piece of home they’ve brought to the neighborhood.

“I am happy when I see new customers enjoying my food,” Mawi says with a smile. Then she returns to the kitchen, ready to prepare the next order.

Royal Myanmar Cuisine, 1353 Brockett Road, Clarkston. 470-359-7157. facebook.com/royalmyanmarga.

~ Written for Creative Loafing Atlanta. March 2017. 

Re-energize Your Mind, Body and Spirit in Arizona

For Cuisine Noir magazine. March 2017. 

Arizona is known to be one of the best spa destinations in the world. There’s no doubt that its native plants and herbs discovered by Native American healers have many spiritual and physical medicinal properties. Arizona’s dry climate, ample sunshine and warm temperatures make it a good place to visit any time of the year and get a boost in vitamin D. From Phoenix’s upscale spas to Sedona’s concentrated vortexes (or high energy points), Arizona has serene landscapes, natural resources, historic traditions and a variety of techniques that makes it popular as a place for wellbeing. The state also attracts alternative healing practitioners so you know the therapists are not only well trained, but passionate about what they do.

Sheraton Grand At Wild Horse Pass, Phoenix

The Sheraton Grand at Wild Horse Pass (www.wildhorsepassresort.com) is one of the few resorts in the area that is operated entirely in partnership with the Native-American community. Located on the Gila River Indian Community, the décor of the property, guestrooms, cuisine and surroundings reflect the traditions of the Pima and Maricopa people.

Take a stroll through the contemplative trail that runs past a river, golf course and dirt path where you can hear birds sing and read about the local flora. Check in to Aji, Arizona’s only Native American-owned spa for Thoachta traditional healing offered by native Belen Stoneman. She uses techniques that she learned from her ancestors at the reservation which include tapping into the energy of the spirits while she massages, and communicating those messages through a brief consultation. It is a unique experience that makes one feel grounded, relaxed, and ready to live one’s potential.

The spa also offers nourishing white clay body masks, healing agave wraps, and a relaxing watsu pool in a serene setting of desert architecture, gardens and trails.

Boulders Resort & Spa, Carefree 

Pool_at_Boulders.jpg

Boulders Resort & Spa (www.theboulders.com) is named for the 12-million-year-old granite boulders that dot the landscape. The resort’s 33,000 square foot facility incorporates the elements of feng shui through natural rocks, water features, sand gardens, flower beds, a labyrinth, and a Tipi built by the local Native American community for guided meditation. There is also an organic garden which supplies to the Spa Café and hosts cooking classes.

Get a well-deserved deep tissue massage using a potent sage and arnica infused oil that helps reduce discomfort and inflammation, and speeds recovery. Then, sit at the open-air patio, sip a strawberry-mint smoothie, snack on a hummus plate, and watch the Black Mountain in the distance. The resort also has private casitas and villas that are surrounded by nature and good place to get away from it all.

 

Sedona Yoga Festival

Yoga_in_Sedona.jpg

Drive an hour and a half north to the magical city of Sedona for the Sedona Yoga Festival (SYF) that takes place in early spring each year. The four-day consciousness evolution conference attracts over 1400 attendees who come to work on their physical, emotional and spiritual growth. The workshops, guided meditations, yoga classes and hikes led by over 100 instructors are meant to inspire, heal and renew in a sacred environment.

The festival days involve early morning yoga to the tunes of reggae on the deck while watching a beautiful sunrise, a stroll through the marketplace where you can buy trendy clothing, jewelry made of alleviating gemstones, and healthy snacks including vegan chocolates, followed by choices of numerous workshops. Learn to tap into your intuition, communicate with loved ones, eat superfoods and find alternative medicinal treatments like Ayurveda and light therapy. Session on music and dance stress how vibrations of gong, chimes, Tibetan bowls and other relaxing instruments open the flow of energy and create body-mind state changes for healing. 

Each night, there are satsangs (communal gathering), healthy happy hours and dance parties. And if you need a break, go down the street for psychic readers, crystal shops, art galleries and a variety of fine dining restaurants.

Hilton Sedona Resort at Bell Rock, Sedona

Nestled along the Red Rock Scenic Byway, Hilton Sedona Resort at Bell Rock (www.hiltonsedonaresort.com) is the only resort in Sedona that offers a full-service spa along with a golf course, with spectacular views of the red rocks.

Book yourself a Signature Full Circle Message, a 90-minute service inspired by the metaphysical properties of Sedona. The experience includes aromatherapy, meditation to discover intuition, massage, energy balancing and visualization, and is delivered by one of the spa’s therapists that are certified to practice “energy medicine.” After some pampering, relax in one of the spa’s pools, Jacuzzi, sauna or steam. Allow yourself to renew with the energy of Sedona’s vortexes.

Photo credit: Sucheta Rawal

~ Written for Cuisine Noir magazine. March 2017. 

Why Did I Go See John of God?

For The Huffington Post. March 2017. 

I don’t have any life-threatening illnesses, depression or anything that is holding me from living my best life. Still, I felt drawn to go see John of God, a spiritual medium in a small town in Brazil, who has said to have cured millions of people.

I first heard about John of God almost a decade ago, when I dutifully watched The Oprah Winfrey Show every weekday. Oprah stood next to John of God, while he skillfully made a cut under the breast of a woman, without any anesthesia. The woman did not even flutter, with barely a trickle of blood staining her shirt. I did not know what to make out of it. Was this a magic trick or a miracle? I had to go find out for myself.

The minute I decided to go to Brazil, everything planned perfectly with very little effort from my side. Scheduled meetings got cancelled leaving my calendar open; a friend gave me a Buddy Pass and I flew from Atlanta to Rio de Janeiro in first class during peak season (it was Carnival time). I stayed at my friend’s newly renovated apartment at no cost, and learned about tour guides, Cecilia and Debbie, who offered to arrange for my visit at less than a week notice.

PHOTO BY AMANDA-VILLA LOBOS
Casa guides Cecilia Zigher and Debbie Akamine

The days leading up to my visit, I started having very vivid dreams. They mainly involved a close friend, who was accompanying me to meet John of God. In my dreams, I was showing her beautiful places, giving her advice on her work and making her laugh. I also felt there was a presence in my room. This did not make me scared, rather peaceful, yet confused.

I had read a few blogs about how to prepare for a visit to the Casa Dom Inacio De Loyola and watched online videos posted by other journalists, but the pieces were still not adding up in my head. So, I tried to keep an open mind about everything and ready to receive whatever comes. My guides, Cecilia and Debbie advised me to do the same. They said to write down my wishes so I can present them to the entity (spirit) that John of God channels when we meet him.

On Wednesday morning, I arrived at the Casa dressed in all white and with some nervousness. What will I feel? What if he says I need a surgery? What if he asks me to stay at the Casa? The questions came up as I stood in the audience and John of God scanned the room looking for volunteers for physical surgery. I felt like that kid in the classroom who hasn’t done her homework and was secretly praying, “Don’t pick me!”

Surprisingly, I didn’t feel anything watching the surgeries being performed in person. While other spectators were stunned, marveled, perhaps even freaking out, to me it felt very normal to see John of God shoving a scissor up someone’s nose and twisting it with great force, scraping eye balls with a kitchen knife, or cutting open skin without surgical tools, while the fellas felt nothing.

PHOTO BY AMANDA-VILLA LOBOS
Over 2,000 people gathered at the Casa to see John of God

I joined hundreds of people from all over the world in the line of ‘first timers’ to go meet John of God in entity that morning. I had already spoken to his personal translator Heather Cumming about my wishes, that she would present to him on my behalf. As Heather spoke to Medium John (as he prefers to be called) in Portuguese, I held his hand and stared into his eyes. Undoubtedly, there was a strong presence. Heather told me “He says he will take care of you. Go sit in his current.” An usher led me to a seat on the bench which was already packed with people, some in trans-like meditative state. I wondered how long was I supposed to sit here?

I sat with my eyes closed, listening to melodious hymns playing in the background, praying for my family, friends and my life. I felt a rush of love, gratitude and happiness overcome my emotions. I couldn’t control how joyful I was feeling. I just wanted to get up and go hug everyone! I sat in the current room for 2 hours, falling in and out of concentration, and sometimes fell asleep. It was as if I was on an airplane, buckled into my seat for takeoff. Even though I wanted to get up and go, there was no way I could.

In the afternoon, Medium John sent me to the current room again, and I sat for another 2 hours. This time, it was more difficult to focus, but the collective energy of the people and the spirits in the room offered a peaceful space where it was easier to stay than to leave.

By the end of the day, I was exhausted and hungry. I had terrible headaches. “This is normal,” Debbie consoled me. “It means the spirits are working on you.” My friend was experiencing the same fatigue. She had never meditated in her life before today and sat in the current room for 6 hours. She felt a flow of emotions that she didn’t know she had, pour out in tears, and was feeling much lighter, she told me over dinner.

PHOTO BY AMANDA-VILLA LOBOS
Me with Medium John at his office in Abadiânia

The next day, Medium John agreed to give me a one-on-one interview (watch the video). We sat in his office at the Casa where he held my hand and gestured me to ask anything. I have done dozens of TV shows, impromptu speeches, and spoken in front of thousands of strangers, but speaking to Medium John made me very nervous. He had such a strong presence around him. I could tell he was no ordinary being. I had my questions written down beforehand, but couldn’t remember them. He answered them rapidly, as if he already knew what I was going to ask. I wish I had prepared more things to say, I thought to myself, as the interview went by so quickly (or so it felt).

Perhaps my purpose of going there was to help my friend, or to share this message with the world, I don’t exactly know. But after 3 days, when I left Abadiânia, I felt more balanced then when I had first arrived. I was feeling positive, grounded, giving, loving and in control of my emotions. Though I had some wishes for my personal and profession life, I now had strong belief in a higher being orchestrating the right path for me.

While it has been challenging to hold that same level of calmness in day-to-day life, I still feel connected to the energy of the Casa and know that my own spiritual angels are taking care of me.

PHOTO BY AMANDA-VILLA LOBOS
Heather Cumming, author of ‘John of God – The Brazilian Healer who’s touched the lives of millions

Read more about my visit to John of God on my blog, Go Eat Give.

Best Travel Technology of 2017 (Part 2)

For The Huffington Post. March 2017. 

Looking for the latest laptops, cameras, or gadgets that will make travel easier and more exciting? Here are some of the best technical innovations of the year….

CANON POWERSHOT

This hi-tech 20.1 Megapixel CMOS sensor, 3x Optical Zoom, DIGIC 7 image processor, and built-in Bluetooth camera comes in an ultra-slim design that fits in a pocket. Take superior-quality photos even in low light, capture sharp details, and minimize blurs with one touch.

AXON 7 MINI

Frequent travelers will love the elegant design of the AXON smartphone that is equipped with dual SIM cards, 16 MP rear/ 8MP front camera, and 4K video recording capabilities, on an Android OS. The quick charge battery lasts all day, so you can enjoy an entire day of talking, listening to music, and capturing your vacation experiences.

MICRO DRONE 3.0

Micro Drone 3.0 is the first small scale drone that is easy to fly, costs less and doesn’t sacrifice on functionality. It uses intelligent motion sensors which allow it to hover and fly in perfectly straight lines, without deviating from its fixed axis. It’s small, smart and streams Live HD footage to iOS or Android smartphones.

EARIN

Ditch the wires and enormous headphones. Earin is as light as 2 earbuds and produces amazing quality sound that last for up to 3 hours on one charge. The fashionable Scandinavian designed earbuds are perfect for a morning run or a noisy bus ride.

SPROCKET

HP’s portable printer fits in the palm of the hand and connects via Bluetooth to print 2×3 inch images using no ink. It is super quiet, fast and can be used in remote areas where you may not have access to much. Try it on a volunteer vacation and hand out selfies to your new friends!

LENOVO LAPTOP

The Yoga 900 13.3” touch screen laptop comes with 8GB memory, 356GB solid state drive and Inter Core i7 processor. The computer functions as a tablet, laptop or viewing screen and delivers up to 10 hours of battery life. Weighing only 2.84 lbs. and measuring 0.6” thin, the laptop is perfect to read, watch movies and draft emails during long flights.

HOMING PIN

Never lose a bag, phone, laptop or wallet with Homing Pin’s loops and stickers that have a unique number on them. The company can track all reported devices and recover them for you through the airlines. For a small charge, they will even deliver it to you anywhere in the world.

DART-C

DART-C is The World’s Smallest Laptop Charger® that is up to four times smaller and lighter than chargers found on the market today. DART-C supports the newest USB Type-C laptops including Apple MacBook and MacBook Pro, Lenovo ThinkPad 13, ASUS ZenBook 3 and Dell XPS 13.

G-RO

This smart carry on works as your virtual office, with portable power chargers, and a hard-shell laptop pocket. Though small enough to go under the seat of an airplane, it has enough room to store clothes, electronics, water bottle and essentials for a weekend. The all-terrain wheels also make the bag easier to balance over any kind of terrain.

AIR SCALE

This compact scale can weigh your bags, as well as serve as a battery bank. Its dual functionality makes it ideal for frequent travelers and eliminates the need to carry two gadgets.

SOUND GRENADE

This 1-oz ultra-compact siren may save your life while traveling. It emits a 120-decibel alarm that can be heard up to 300 feet away. The crime and animal repellent signal will sound for 30 minutes unless the pin is returned to the device. It is TSA friendly and safer than carrying sprays.

 

 

Best Travel Products of 2017 (Part 1)

For The Huffington Post. March 2017. 

Are you a frequent traveler, travel blogger or enjoy having the latest gadgets in travel? Then you need to take a look at this list and check out some of the most innovative products of the year.

SAMSONITE STRYDE

Shaped like a square, Stryde offers multiple pockets for organization and a longer handle allowing better maneuverability. It is easy to spot on the conveyer and comes in 3 sizes.

BEST TRAVEL JEANS IN THE WORLD

As the name suggests, this pair of jeans is designed for travel. It is made of stretchable and breathable cotton, has hidden pockets to hide change, and loops for headphones. Comes in 4 colors and available for him and her.

TECHAWAY ROLL

Organize charging cords with this lightweight and durable tri-fold bag. The zipped compartments and mesh windows makes chargers easy to reach when on the go.

MY AIR MASK

Carry a personal air mask that maintains humidity in the respiratory system and reduces exposure to airborne illnesses. The colorful patterns avoid making you look like a hospital patient and help with jet lag. Each pack includes 3 replaceable filters and a zip lock case.

ROTHY’S

The 3-D knitted super-cute shoes are made from 100% recycled plastic water bottles and come in a variety of designs. They are lightweight, seamless, comfortable and match with everything. Rothy’s are also completely machine washable.

JEMMA BAG

Crafted from light and durable materials, this stylish soft Italian nylon tote features a ventilated compartment for stowing shoes, and interior pockets for daily essentials including a laptop and water bottle. It also comes with an additional cosmetic case and laundry bag.

ABLY

With Ably’s odor-proof, stain-proof and environmentally friendly garments, you can wear the same shirt for 2 weeks and not know it. Pack less, feel fresh and look good!

AROMAFLAGE

Aromaflage is probably the only product that repels mosquitoes that cause Zika, Dengue, Chikungunya and Yellow Fever, and smells good too! Notes of silken vanilla, warm cedar wood, and exotic orange fragrant each bottle keeping you safe and fresh.

PERSONAL TRAVEL HUMIDIFIER

Frequent travelers can breathe easier and get a good night’s sleep by using this ultra-portable humidifier. It only uses a glass of water and power supply, and runs for 10 hours at a time. Breath better at the hotel, office, or use it on the go.

UN-SNEAKER

Bruce Katz, the original co-founder of Rockport shoes has created a pair that is nice enough to wear to a business meeting, to dinner at a fashionable restaurant. They are the most comfortable pair of shoes you will ever own.

MIA MELON JACKET

This trendy jacket is weatherproof, windproof and so lightweight, it takes up no room in a carry-on. With a sleek design, Everglades jacket goes from morning to night, and is ideal for traveling.

LINT FLIP

Smaller than the size of a smart phone, this compact lint roller fits into a purse and is perfect for on the go. It is as effective as a regular lint roller, with a bonus of a cover that keeps sticky sheets intact and separate.

KNOMO

With built in RFID blocking technology, this luxurious hand bag keeps your phone, credit cards and passport safe during travel. It can also fit a 14-inch laptop and be used as a cross body bag. What’s more the bag can be traced using the KNOMO ID portal.

ZIPTUCK™

Made of reusable FDA-Grade EVA material, air tight and dishwasher safe, these are the best storage bags available in the market. They are safe for packing snacks, medicine, cosmetics or anything else you need to stow during travel or at home, and great, sustainable alternative to a snap lock bag.

JOEY JACKET

The kangaroo themed jacket is an alternate to carrying a “man purse” because you can fit everything you need in different conceptualized compartments. The jacket is smart, yet functional, and you will never forget your keys again.

COLE HAAN

These innovative and stylish sunglasses are must have for travel. They are made with premium lightweight and flex-like materials with cushioned temple tips. A grooved design on the temple mimics the sole design of StudiØGrand footwear. UV protected and available in smoke and beige colors.

TOAD&CO

These lightweight and durable pull-on pants are not just great for hiking, they combine Insect Shield Technology and drawcord hems to keep bugs off you. There is also a built-in zipper pocket for storing essentials like money and phone. Perfect for a jungle safari and camping trips.

Looking for a Hollywood-Like Adventure? Take a Trip to South Jordan!

For CheapOAir Miles Away blog. March 2017. 

What do the movies The Martian, The Last Days on Mars, Prometheus, and Red Planet all have in common? They’re all science fiction movies set on other planets and they were all filmed in southern Jordan. In fact, from Lawrence of Arabia to The Hurt Locker, international filmmakers have been coming to the “lower half” of this Arab country for decades — drawn by its unique settings, tax incentives, and liberal mindset. But even if you’re not making a major Hollywood film, it’s a still a destination you should add to your bucket list.

ALL of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, which a little bit smaller in square millage than the state of Maine, offers diverse landscapes and ancient cultural sites. From castles of Azraq and Amra in the East, Lake Tiberias and the Golan Heights in the North, Mount Nebo, Holy Land and the Dead Sea in the West, there is a lot of history and nature in Jordan.

But if you’re looking for adventure, breathtaking landscapes, and awe-inspiring history, then you need to head south.

Image via Sucheta Rawal/ goeatgive.com

Image via Sucheta Rawal/ goeatgive.com

The Surreal Landscapes of Wadi Rum

A little under an hour’s drive from the southern governate city of Aqaba (and only about 3 and half hours by car from Jordan’s capital city Amman), lies the sand dunes and colored cliffs of the Wadi Rum protected area. A Unesco World Heritage Site, Wadi Rum’s nickname is the “Valley of the Moon,” because it will make you feel like you’ve stepped on another planet, which is probably why it’s where movies set on Mars are often filmed. There are miles and miles of granite rocks and sandstone, with no other life in sight. Yet, if you look closely you might find thousand-year-old inscriptions carved into the rocks. If you time your visit during off-peak hours, you may also find yourself to be the only person out there, along with your Bedouin jeep driver of course.

Image via Sucheta Rawal/ goeatgive.com

Image via Sucheta Rawal/ goeatgive.com

The Ancient Architecture of Petra

The Lost City of Petra was carved out of towering rose-colored rocks around 312 BC by the Nabataeans, an industrious Arab tribe. The city was abandoned after a series earthquakes in the 1st century and wasn’t discovered by the wider world until 1812. It’s among the “New 7 Wonders of the World” and, like Wadi Rum, is also designated UNESCO World Heritage Site. Movie fans will likely recognize it as the temple that held the Holy Grail in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade and it’s one of Jordan’s most popular tourist attractions. Petra is a little over 100 kilometers north of Wadi Rum and you should plan on spending an entire day there to watch the rocks vary their shades from brown to pink and capture some wonderful photographic opportunities.

Image via Sucheta Rawal/ goeatgive.com

Image via Sucheta Rawal/ goeatgive.com

The Thrilling Adventures of the Desert

Walking around and taking in the awe-inspiring scenery isn’t the only thing to do in Southern Jordan. One of the best ways to see Wadi Rum and Petra is by air and tourists can ride in their choice of  a helicopter, hot air balloon, or glider over the canyons and valleys.

For adventures on the ground, you should connect with the Zalabia Bedouin. They’re a local tribe that lives in Jordan’s desert areas and mainly work in tourism, leading trekkers, rock climbers, and camel and horseback safaris through the area with overnight camping under the star-studded Arabian sky.

Tourists can also rent ATV’s and 4-wheel vehicles for day trips racing through the sand dunes. Just be prepared to come across a Bedouin camp in the middle of nowhere, where you’re more than likely to be offered hot tea and handmade souvenirs.

If you prefer a package experience, Desert Paramours is a Jordanian family-run tour company that offers caravan style group trips. Their tours allow you trace the footsteps of great explorers, by riding camels or donkeys and staying with nomads in tents.

~ Written for CheapOAir Miles Away blog. March 2017. 

Day Pass: Dominican Republic

For Creative Loafing Atlanta. March 2017. 

Sadia Sosa Walker moved to Atlanta from Santiago, the second largest city in the Dominican Republic, in the year 2000. It was her first time in the United States and she felt instantly nostalgic for the aroma of slow roasting pork, the chit-chat of aunts and uncles gathered for Sunday meals, the lush green valleys and the tropical Caribbean breezes.

In February, the month of traditional Carnival celebrations, that feeling of nostalgia grows even stronger for Caribbean immigrants like Walker. It is the season for colorful costumes, vibrant parades, bands playing fast paced soca music and dancing all night long. Luckily, there are several places around the city where that Dominican spirit remains strong, and last month Walker agreed to show me around to a few of her favorites.

We meet for lunch with Walker’s sister, Ade, at Sabor Dominicano (4186 Buford Highway N.E., 404-963-1799), a small restaurant with orange walls and inexpensive Dominican eats. Bachata music plays in the background while three television sets in one room show different Latin channels. A Spanish-speaking server brings us plates of quipes (deep fried bulgur rolls), maduros (sweet fried plantains) and mofongo (fried and mashed green plantains with chicken broth soup). Walker is excited to see tostones longaniza — pork sausage with fried green plantain chips — on the menu. “I haven’t had it in a long time,” she tells the server with a smile. “Bring me that too!” There are only a couple of authentic Dominican restaurants in metro Atlanta, so when Walker goes out to eat, she must order all her favorites. The three of us are having a feast.

“The first thing I did when I moved to Atlanta was look for Dominican ingredients,” Walker tells me, recalling her search for yucca, cassava and plantains. She soon found Buford Highway Farmer’s Market (5600 Buford Highway N.E., 770-455-0770, www.aofwc.com), which has extensive Caribbean offerings, and the simply named Dominican Grocery Store (950 Indian Trail Lilburn Road N.W., Lilburn, 770-279-7755) which carries an array of imported staples. Once you are used to the flavor of Presidente beer, Dominican coffee, whole Dominican oregano and Induveca brand salami from home, says Walker, you can’t substitute for anything else. “Even the avocados here are watery and flavorless,” her sister chimes in.

Food is one of the primary ways Walker maintains ties to her native culture. She cooks for her family every day and tells her four elementary school-aged daughters about her childhood in the Dominican Republic. Growing up, she worked at her grandparents’ cafeteria-style restaurant, where she helped slaughter pigs, season the meat and complete other kitchen tasks with her grandmother before running off to school smelling of garlic and oregano. She says it feels like a full circle when her kids come home from school and ask for a snack of salami and tostones.

After cooking, the second most important thing in a Dominican woman’s life is her hair, says Walker. Back in Santiago, she and her friends would visit a local lady’s living room turned into a salon for day-long hair services including cutting, drying, straightening and braiding. Since Walker doesn’t know of any home salons here, she has found a hairdresser — Elsy’s Dominican Hair Salon (726 Windy Hill Road S.E., Smyrna, 770-875-3983) — who doesn’t use grease and knows how to tame Afro-Caribbean hair. All the women in the Walker household make a trip to the salon every month and for special occasions.

Atlanta’s Dominican community is small and, according to Walker, not very well organized. “There used to be an association — they even put up events for the Carnival — but it dissipated due to lack of leadership,” she tells me. Now, most Dominicans get together informally at each other’s homes to drink beer, cook together and play dominoes. Of course, there is always music and dancing; all age groups can be found expertly moving their bodies to blaring salsa and Reggaeton. At one of Walker’s birthday parties, I couldn’t keep up with a 90-year-old grandma who held down the floor all night.

On special occasions, Walker and her family go to Mamajuana Restaurant and Lounge (950 Indian Trail Lilburn Road N.W., Suite 2A, Lilburn, 678-924-9369). When darkness falls, the casual dining room, with its tinted windows and white tablecloth settings, transforms into a nightclub with a DJ station and dangling disco ball. Many Latin and Caribbean families have dinner and stay for live music and dancing. Sometimes, the restaurant invites celebrity performers and hosts concerts.

Walker takes her kids home to the Dominican Republic every summer so they can visit relatives and stay connected to their heritage. In the meantime, they’ll be reflecting on the past month’s carnival celebrations and preparing for Easter, known to Dominicans as Semana Santa, by making moro de guandules (rice with Moorish pigeon beans) and habichuelas con dulce (sweet cream of beans). “It would be great to have more opportunities to educate my kids about our culture,” says Walker, “but in the meantime, I am doing the best I can.”

~ Written for Creative Loafing Atlanta. March 2017.