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.

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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.

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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.

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.