Meeting the Paanwala and Friends in Pune and Mumbai

After a week of yoga and beach in Goa, we headed further north to meet up with some folks in Pune and Mumbai. We were looking forward to simply spending some time with friends, experiencing everyday living and continuing the wonderful food fest that India presents.

First stop was a visit with the Murtis (Gita and Raghu) of Pune.  Their son and daughter-in-law and granddaughters have been friends for 15+ years, and we have had the pleasure of meeting Gita and Raghu a number of times when they visited Seattle. We were looking forward to meeting them in their neighborhood.

Pune, “The Oxford of the East”, is a smaller town (~2M+) and an easy 3.5 hour train ride to or from Mumbai. Pune is filled with university students and IT workers from all around India. We were told by many younger guys during our travels that it is one of the hot spots for hipsters nowadays.  With its higher elevation and cool evenings, the climate is wonderful.

Gita and Raghu are special people and wonderful hosts. We very much enjoyed our morning walk through the agricultural college gardens, the Maharashtrian  thali lunch, meeting their friends, discussing the Donald, politics, books and the special order of red guava ice cream with paprika. My goodness, I have found myself daydreaming about this ice cream since we left.

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Early AM at the Agriculture College of Pune

Yogis from around the world flock to Pune for this Yoga Institute

Meeting the Murtis. Fantastic hosts!
After a reset in Pune, it was off on the Deccan Queen, an early morning train to Mumbai, for a quick day visit to wrap up our 29 days in India.

Train from Pune to Mumbai. Basic but clean and cool and not jammed like a lot of the trains in the morning.
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In Mumbai, we had a chance to catch up with some other friends, Snehal and Falguni Shah. They are old colleagues from back in our Singapore days- 20 years ago. We had a great tour around Mumbai with them, followed by lunch, a stroll on Juhu beach and dinner with Snehal’s folks.

The Taj

Another shot of the Taj. One of the sites of the 26/11 terrorist attack and hostage incident.

Gateway of India.Built for visiting British Royalty.

Cricket in South Mumbai.  Some of the most expensive real-estate in the world.

University of Mumbai

More building and growth in Mumbai (and everywhere in India).
We also did a quick drive past Mukesh Ambani’s multi-billion dollar home in South Mumbai. We did not get any photos, but here is one from the interweb.

Mukesh home

While in Pune and Mumbai, we were introduced to even more new and great dishes including kadhi, undhiyu, khandvi, and the chikoo fruit. A highlight of our culinary explorations  was our visit to the Mucchad Paanwala for some post lunch paan which is a fantastic mix of sweet spices wrapped up in a betel leaf. (Some put tobacco and other items in there for a different type of experience.)

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29 days in India are up.  A special thanks again to Gita, Raghu, Snehal and Falguni for their warmth and hospitality.  We will cherish the memories!

We saw only a slice of the country, but what a fascinating slice it was. Travelling in India presents some challenges and not recommended for all. There are a lot of people no matter where you go – even out in the countryside, a lot of noise ( a lot of horns and dogs barking constantly), and it is not always easy to get around.  With ~ 1.2 billion people in India, the infrastructure is challenged. Power outages are not uncommon (although most hotels and larger businesses have generators at this point).  And with all the industrialization and vehicles on the road, there is also a lot of pollution.  We only had one or two “blue sky days”. The haze was thick nearly everyday, and by the 2nd or 3rd week, one could definitely feel it.  A tiered system exists for travelers which demonstrated itself in a number of  ways- e.g. foreigners usually pay more for tourist attractions and museums- not always, but it is usually the case. An art museum in Bengalaru was charging 20x the local rate.  On the flip side, foreigners (unfortunately, mostly Caucasians) often get faster service or are encouraged to go to the head of the lines (something we were never comfortable with).  For women traveling in India, one needs to be prepared for gawking whether in the cities of Bengaluru or in smaller towns like Munnar.  The gawking was harmless and likely just because we looked different but something one needs to get used to when traveling in India.  Women can also be overlooked at the dinner table at restaurants. The waiters often served Chris the remainder of the dishes on the table, and then Chris shared.  India is a fascinating country, but it is not for the feint of heart.  We enjoyed our visit because we had a chance to catch up with friends as well as gain somevknowledge and a perspective on such an important and interesting part of the world.  We are not done here by any means. We will need to make another visit to focus on northern India -e.g. Delhi, Rajastan, The Taj, Kashimir, the Himalayas and the Ganges etc. etc.

We are heading out of Asia and moving on the South America. Stay tuned.

Under the Goan Sun

With 15 days of cycling the tea plantations and rice paddies of Southern India, we headed north to the former Portuguese beach colony of Goa where we immediately noticed a completely different vibe. There is less traffic and not as much honking. People move a bit slower and there are a lot more visitors and European snowbirds living in the area.  Goa has been attracting backpackers and “hippies” for decades since the state gained independence from Portugal in 1961. Today it is a very popular spot for both locals and foreigners looking for a few days of beach or a few days of festivities.  There are two common ways to visit Goa – head south for some beautiful beaches and a slower pace or head up north for the night life and the strips of beach bars and restaurants.


We opted for the former and settled down at a yoga retreat in Varca for a week. The beach in Varca is 26km long and one of the cleanest spots that we have seen in India so far.


The twice-daily yoga sessions (one at the pool and one at the beach) was just the thing to work out the knots and aches from the days of cycling. Unfortunately, the rest of the experience was a bit bizarre and not exactly what we were expecting. The retreat ended up being more of a “home-stay”\hostel that we shared with a nice young British woman, 6 India guys from all over India who were working at the abode, and a crazy, anti-social dog that constantly growled at everyone and attacked chairs and table legs at every meal.  It was not a great experience but travel doesn’t always go as planned. It cannot always be rosy and magical like the articles of the in-flight magazines (where many of our blog posts could live nicely;>). But we have been pretty lucky so far with hiccup free travel and great stays for 4.5 months.  Actually, it has been less luck and more the incredible, detailed planning and scrutiny of Susan. Her tireless travels through the inter-webs and up-and-down TripAdvisor reviews is  a big reason for our smooth travels so far.


The guys making dinner.

At the end of the day, it wasn’t so bad  –  we managed to practice  a lot of yoga over the week, learned to cook a few new Indian dishes, and met some good people.  When the power went out, or we lost the water in the middle of a shower,  or got too creeped out at the local massage parlor, we simply chanted our newly learned mantra “Breath in with the smile, breath out with the happy” and all was good.  At the end of the day, these were mostly “1st world problems” and not worth getting too worked up about…although that dog was really crazy.

While in the south , we had the chance to visit  Cabo de Rama where we explored some castle ruins that pre-dates the Portuguese and spent some time on a gorgeous and deserted beach.


After yoga, we headed north to the larger city of Panjim and used up some of our hotel miles to book into a spot on the Mandovi river for some dog-free, hot showers and a little room for ourselves.


Laid back Goa with relatively little traffic
The Other G&T

At the end of the day, we enjoyed Goa and it’s laid back pace and beautiful weather. It was a nice place to take a break and spend some time in one spot after the busy travel schedule of the last few weeks. We are closing in on 30 days in India and have a few days left to spend in Pune and Mumbai before we move on to other parts of the world.




The Anxiety of Periyar National Park, Kerala

Imagine the scene if you will. It is 7:30 am in the Periyar National Park. The temperature is cool and the hot Indian sun has not yet had a chance to fully warm the air. A light mist rises above the Periyar river as Kingfishers dart about looking for their first meal of the day. Black monkeys hoot above in Banyan trees alerting the troop of your presence. A pack of otters play at the river’s edge, long-tailed squirrels jump from tree to tree as toucans sing out and woodpeckers do what they do.  The landscape is surreal.




As you venture further into the wilderness, the anticipation of larger animal sightings increase. With the first encounter of fresh sloth bear dung, no more than minutes old, you notice your guide becomes a bit more vigilant and less supportive of the frequent photo stops. You begin to wonder what is out there and close.


Long-tailed squirrel
Giant Fruit Bats (3foot wingspan) waiting for the eeeveninggg

Gradually more and more animal tracks begin to show themselves. Fresh elephant tracks, days old tiger tracks, wild buffalo tracks lead to the river that you are following and that happens to be the only source of water in the area.

Elephant track
Tiger track. Rather large.

And then the trail heads out to a small plain. It is a kilometer wide and you are completely  in the open. You continue to wonder what is watching you and why you aren’t in a jeep. You are fully committed, out in the middle of the field when an animated, but quiet, guide hops out of the bush hundreds of meters away and frantically sends a barrage of hand signals to your guide. Now your guide appears to be a little less confident and gives you some curt directions to get off the trail and move very quickly for cover.  Gulp.


After a few tense (or tenser moments), you learn that you are likely not on the menu today. It is “only” a female elephant and its baby.No problem, you think. We’ll just turn around and head the other way. That’s when you guide moves in the opposite direction of everyone else and starts stalking the elephant while giving you directions to fall in line, stay close, and stay quiet. Gulp, pucker, gulp.  Meanwhile, your wife is informing the guide, Devi ( a lovely and knowledgeable guy if a bit new to the job) that there really is no need to see a wild elephant.

20 minutes later, there are no sightings. You call “uncle” and suggest that we go find some more Kingfishers and Hornbills. There is always the National Geographic channel back at the hotel.






Kicking off our Cycling from Bangalore to Cochin

“Alright, alright, alright.”  Apart from a few days of cycling in late December, we haven’t been on bikes since November so we were both excited to start our two week cycle from Bangalore to Cochin with plenty of stops in National Parks and Reserves on the way.

India Route

We headed out with Emil and Majesh from Xara Active Vacations (Thomas, the owner, was fantastic with pre-trip planning and working with us to customize the trip. If you are considering cycling India or Sri Lanka, be sure to reach out to these guys). They were equipped with Scott hybrid bikes which worked well on both the road and dirt surfaces.  We were both pleasantly surprised at the great conditions of most of the roads we traveled – there was a lot of new tarmac and plenty of room most of the time.  Of course, they were also well traveled by buses, trucks, cars and scooters. But while we found the drivers very aggressive and fast (To get anywhere in India, one needs to be aggressive and driving is taken to a whole new level here.), for the most part, drivers give cyclists plenty of space. There is a lot of honking but once you understand the right-of-way rules and how passing works in the country, you can cycle comfortably within the traffic patterns.  You need to stay focused and be vigilant of the buses that are everywhere and are often traveling the fastest.

The team also had a brand new Toyota Innova which was a great support vehicle and very comfortable for the transfers around the congested areas and through some of the non-cycling tiger reserves. Equipped with a roof rack with four cycles, it was quite the exotic item which continuously turned heads and generated smiles and laughter throughout both the cities and the country regions. (It can also draw attention at police checkpoints where some strategically placed rupees are the best way to get on your way quickly).


It just took a few hours to shed the Bangalore traffic and get out in the country side.  The guys were kind enough to make a quick stop to do some custom fitting of Susan’s bike to accommodate her shorter legs.





Along the way, we cycled through some silk worm farms and had a chance to stop and check out the production.


Our initial destination was Mysore and the famous Mysore Palace (second only to the Taj in terms of tourist visits).


Along the way, we also climbed up to the Chamundi temple where we were fortunate enough to arrive during a festive time with plenty of crowds and festive cows.





We also cycled through our first tiger reserves (Bandipur and Mudumalai Nataional Parks), which we found a little bit unnerving. Although tigers are rarely seen and the elephants usually do not come out until the evenings or early mornings, we ran into a couple wild ones close to a check point .  The same check point where the local police informed us that cycling through the reserve has been recently banned for safety reasons.


We really enjoyed the first couple of days in the India countryside and all its beauty. Cycling provides such a unique way to see a country.  Next up is a big climb from Masinagudi to Ooty.  While Emil and Majesh informed us of ” the big climb that keeps climbing”, we did not expect the severity of the grade that we would experience for many hairpin turns.  Stay tuned for more details on the climb and beautiful, colorful Ooty!

Barmy Bangalore

We are a bit behind on our posts after touching down in India 17 days ago.  We were quickly swallowed up with the chaos of the cities, the beauty of the country and limited by the spotty and constrained Wi-Fi networks here in India.

Our entry point was Bangalore where we scheduled a few days to adjust to the new time zone, deal with jet lag and regroup for a bike ride from Bangalore to Cochin. We were flying from Cape Town which is only a 4 hour time difference but flew Emirates (nice airline) through Dubai on a red-eye.


We quickly learned that there is very little relaxing in India’s large cities. Bangalore is India’s 3rd largest city and continues to grow rapidly fueled by its IT hub and international customers.  There is a beautiful new airport, road construction everywhere, residential and commercial construction projects and traffic that rivals the traffic jams of Manila, Bangkok, and Jakarta decades ago. The honking and road noise is constant and makes Manhattan seem quiet and tame.  The horn is as important as the gas and break pedals for Indian drivers. It takes some getting used to, but after a couple weeks, you can become somewhat comfortable with it.

Navigating the city was a little tricky during our initial forays.  We got stuck in mad traffic from the airport.  The hotel recommended, auto-rickshaw driver for our first outing to an art museum tried to take us to three other locations and could not find our destination. We missed out on a booked tabla performance because it took us an hour to find a taxi willing to take us the 9 kms to the performance  – which ended up taking us another 90 minutes to drive to the location of the performance. Although, in the course of the taxi hunt, we met a lovely and feisty, elderly Afghani woman, Mrs. Khan, who reprimanded the young taxi drivers for 20 minutes for refusing to help us. (In hindsight, we cannot blame the taxi drivers given the traffic that night).



So after spending 4+ hours in taxis and a few more in auto rickshaws in the first couple of days, we decided it would be best to stay local and walk for the remainder of our visit. We were staying only a few blocks from the MG Road area where there are plenty of good options for restaurants that are kind on visitors’ stomachs and a plethora of microbreweries – a relatively new addition over the last few years that has been driven by local entrepreneurs and the local government.  We were impressed and enjoyed visits to Arbor Brewing Company, The Biere ClubBrewsky and Toit. We also had an excellent meal at Karavalli – pricey by local standards but well worth it.

Walking is better than sitting in the traffic of Bangalore, but it is not without its challenges.  Walking is slow going- dodging the people, the cars, the scooters, the bikes, the cows and hundreds of other obstacles. Streets and sidewalks are often pockmarked with holes.  Stairs and steps do not always comply to standard sizes making them awkward.  Garbage is piled up on sidewalks, and often it is burning.  It is a bit chaotic and sounds a bit crazy but this is part of the charm of India; it is a full assault on all five of your senses!



The biggest downside to walking is all the ogling. Given our limited wardrobe, Susan mostly has sport skirts and skirts are not very common here. A Westerner in a skirt is very uncommon and apparently quite the site.  The staring is constant, aggressive, and from males of all ages. (It has continued in the countrysides where a cycling western female in a skirt is extremely exotic but more on that later).

We have enjoyed the food a lot and are eating Indian 3 meals a day. There are Western options – the burger and pasta is often there – but the Southern India dishes are too good. We are mostly sticking with veg options so there is a lot of dahl, aloo gobi, paneer dishes of all types.  Dosas and idlis with sambar as well as tomato and coconut chutneys are our preferred breakfast. Bread options are fantastic with far more options than the standard naan in the States- e.g. parathas, parottas, chapaties, rotis, and more.  The range of pickles are amazing as well and tasty- mangos, limes, lemons, dates, papaya, garlic, bamboo!

Our visit to Bangalore was more about prepping for our cycling rather than sightseeing, but we did a little and visited the Modern Art Museum (where we were followed by security guards in every one of the 20+ rooms – I think it was Susan’s shifty looks), the Parliament building (beautiful),  and the oasis of calm that is Cubbon Park.



During our last couple days and night, we found the neighborhood of Indiranagar that was a bit easier to tour on foot and filled with a bunch of interesting restaurants and shops.  We would definitely recommend this spot if you find yourself visiting this city.

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Bangalore was the perfect entry point. There was a bit of an adjustment period, but it has been fun jumping into the chaos, taking in some of the sights and enjoying the local dishes. Stay tuned for details on our cycle trip to Cochin.

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The Glass Palace

A friend recommended The Glass Palace when we were out to dinner this past glass palacesummer, and we were talking about what books should be on the reading list for our travels.  And when I put out the plea for book recommendations, she reminded me of this book, and I am glad she did.  It is a great read.

The historical fiction novel covers a large geography including Thailand, Burma, India, Malaysia and Singapore. The novel weaves in some interesting historical pieces of information:

  1. Burma’s royal family and how they were exiled to India by the British
  2. The impact British rule had on Burma versus India
  3. How WW II shifted power in Asia and the fall of the British Empire

What I enjoyed more about the book were the characters and relationships that developed and evolved, at times in depressing and surprising ways.  Yet, despite hardships and different priorities, some friendships lasted a lifetime.

The one downside is that the novel tries to cover so much ground- about 150 years worth of history starting around 1885-and it felt like some subplots were skimmed over.  Nonetheless, a great read for those interested in historical fiction about these countries or just a great story about a individuals and their families struggling to live and survive at a difficult time in history, especially for Burma and India.