Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Winds of Change

So not only is "Incredible India!" the official slogan for the Indian tourism campaign, it also expresses my deepest sentiments about an amazing year of sights, sounds and colors. India, truly, is incredible.

Now that I have arrived back in Minneapolis and I'm digging my feet back into the soil of Minnesota, I am moving my blog entries to my newest blog site: In The Zone (click and bookmark now). I will leave this site here (Michael's India) for the time being but use my new blog to document my insights, stories, photos, and observations as I keep traveling the world, meeting people and writing about it. Stay tuned for updates as always, and breaking news at once!

I have also started a new blog site for my current project and upcoming book series, The Balance Factor (click and bookmark now), so add that blog to your list for more of a philosophical look at our lives. I will choose focus topics to write about and would love to introduce you slowly to the content of my upcoming books.

Thank you for following my adventures. I look forward to connecting with more of you as I continue my journey. Be Well.


Friday, November 7, 2008

Out With A Bang!

My last weekend in Bangalore was the celebration of Diwali (pronounced “deevolly”), meaning the “festival of lights”—an annual holiday celebration throughout India. Much like Christmas, the tradition of Diwali is to give gifts, hang colorful lights, and light off fireworks and firecrackers… okay, so maybe it’s more like Christmas meets the 4th of July! Everyone in India knows that Diwali is a celebration of food, fun, and friendships, and my last Diwali weekend in India was no exception.

Between the two team dinner parties (one at Sonal’s and one at Aparna’s), dinner with the expats at GianCarlo’s, and my final “Indian Dinner” with Raghu and his possee, I had plenty of opportunities to join in the festivities of the season and celebrate my last week of living in Bangalore, India. And what a year it has been!!

At Sonal’s and Aparna’s I had the opportunity to connect with my team members from work for the last time; dinner with the expats was another to say goodbyes; and hanging with Raghu and the boys was a great way to bring my Indian experience full circle. We lit fireworks (known as “bursting crackers”) and ate at Ruchi, my favorite India restaurant. I ordered my usuals: Garlic Naan, butter masala, veg miriani, and, of course, jamoon with vanilla ice cream for dessert. MMMMMM!! Plus at the restaurant we had front row seats to the fireworks and firecrackers displays out of the streets. It was loud and crazy! Just the way I like it :o)

As I was fortunate enough to enter India last year during Diwali, I felt it appropriate that I also left the same way—truly going “out with a bang!”

More about my final departure next week.


Sunday, October 26, 2008

Pondicherry Peek

So just when I thought my last trip while living in India would be the big 9-day long whirlwind tour of Asia, Curly and Pamelita (Michael & Pam) asked me if I'd like a short hop over to Pondicherry (also known as Puducherry) --a cozy French-Indian city on the east coast of India. Of course I went! Another Target teammate, Gail--who was visiting from corporate HQ--joined us, and the four of us had a fantastic weekend in this quaint little Indian town.

We decided to endure the 6-hour road trip and had Pam's driver, Prakash, take us in the Innova. During the journey we watched movies on Curly's laptop, relaxed to songs on the iPod, talked, laughed, and (of course) napped :o) It felt good to take a short break from the buzz of Bangalore and hit the open road. Along the way through Tamil Nadu (the state we traveled into from Karnataka), we saw all sorts of typical sights--animals of every size and color, temples, mountains, amazing rock formations (Tamil Nadu is known for it's amazing rocks and hills), and several cities beginning to set-up for the upcoming Divali holiday--lots of colors, lights, and flowers everywhere.

In Pondicherry we had a wonderful time walking along the beach (I still have a huge heart for the ocean!), visiting the local markets, receiving blessings from elephants (!) and running to avoid the rain. We ended up staying in an amazing hotel, the Hotel Le Dupleix--appropriately named after the 18th century French Governor, Joseph Francois Dupleix. This colonial villa has now been converted into 14 suites complete with many pieces of the original woodwork and furniture. Beautiful, indeed. The hotel had an amazing restaurant and the food was delicious. The French left behind a great legacy, especially in the area of culinary delights :o)

Besides lots of walking and shopping Pondicherry, we headed up to Auroville--a spiritual city and meditation center located just about 20 minutes north of the town--stunning! We learned all about the projects undertaken in Auroville and learned more about this amazing vision that's been carried on for years. A visit to Auroville wouldn't be complete without seeing the Matrimandir--a brilliant spiritual meditation center consisting of a golden dome with a special interior... read the link to learn more. We walked around the city, had a fantastic lunch and shopped for homemade incense, candles, and oils at the many boutiques. A great afternoon!

On the roadtrip back to Bangalore we stopped at Tiruvannamalai, the largest temple complex in India reflecting the glory of late Dravidian Style of the Pandya period. The temple city was full of people praying, children singing, and a host of mischievous monkeys (see the gallery). We got a full tour of a few temples, received our blessings from the priests (with a tikka, or spot of ash and red turmeric powder, on the forehead), and had a chance to explore the rich history of Hindu philosophy. This was another site not to miss! Needless to say we were all bushed after another 6-hour road trip, but the weekend was so well worth it--plus I got to take another 200+ snaps.

So now here comes the time to "wind down"... as I write this note I only have 4 days left in India (*sigh*) and what an amazing adventure it has been. I will continue to blog as I travel around the world so stay tuned. Also, I will try to post another blog note before I leave on Thursday, but it looks like the chapter in my India book is coming to a close. Wow. I can't believe that 12 months have passed so quickly! It's true what they say, "Time flies when you're having fun." I've been having the time of my life--and it's been worth every day and every moment.


Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Holiday in Cambodia

After exploring the excitement of Bangkok and experiencing the beauty of Vietnam, it was time for the third and final country on our whirlwind tour--Cambodia. Our main objective was to visit the city of Siem Reap--the home of an amazing archeological discovery, Angkor Wat. We flew from Danang, Vietnam, to Siem Reap, got through customs and passport control (don't worry, Pam--they'll let you in! :o), and met our driver. We ended up with a rockin hotel, the Angkor Terrace, a bungalow-styled tropical oasis (which reminded me of Hawaii), got ourselves settled, and decided to make an afternoon of it.

Now one of our group, Will, lived with expat parents in Singapore growing up so we had the inside scoop on what to do, where to go, and who to take us--our trusted guide, SolSok Som (Som, for short)--the same guide who had taken Will's parents through Angkor Wat years ago. In fact, Som was one of the very first tour guides for Angkor city and now only leads tours for VIPs (including President Clinton!), so we were in for the VIP treatment. Cool :o)

I can best describe Cambodia in one word: HOT (or to my expat travel buds, 3 words: H.A.B.) I can only compare the weather to being in New Orleans in August... you sweat constantly; your clothes are always wet; you take as many showers as you can and change into dry clothes only to soak them; and you need to stay out of the sun as much as possible. Can you see how wet we all were in the snaps? Oi. A walking spa. However, despite the sweltering heat, a visit to Cambodia is well worth the trip.

Our first afternoon we were greeted by torrential rains which you would think clear some of the humidity, but not so. That didn't deter us from seeing the main temple in Angkor--Angkor Wat--one of the most well-preserved discoveries of the 20th century. Som knew exactly where to take us, where to get the right snaps, and how to avoid the thousands of other tourists. It's great having a guide with the inside scoop! We spent the afternoon and evening at Angkor Wat and explored a few more of the 52 temples (one temple was built by each of the 52 kings that reigned beginning in the 12th century). By the time we got back to the hotel we were ready to jump in the pool and stay!

The next day we arose at 4:30am to journey back to Angkor and see the sunrise over Angkor Thom. The reason Som took us there instead of Angkor Wat is because there were no tourists at that temple so early in the morning--in fact, we were the only ones for two hours! We got to explore the temple as the sun rose, revealing the many faces carved into the stones--each facing North, South, East, and West. Som told us the history of the temple and its significance as kings converted from Buddhism to Hinduism and back... interesting! We also visited several other Wots (temples)--Wot's that you say? (that joke got old veeeeerrry quickly), several shopping sites and villages, a floating village that moves with the waters of the season, and had the opportunity to enjoy several fantastic meals at our hotel/bungalow. In fact, Angkor Terrace just won the award for "best chicken curry ever" in my book, just nudging past the current champion, MeKong of Honolulu. Congratulations! Never a bad meal in Cambodia :o)

Well, check out the snaps in all of the galleries (the slide shows are only samples, btw) and let me know what you think. It was an amazing trip--it's been an amazing year... and now it's all coming to a close; well, at least this chapter of it. I will blog about my last trip, Pondicherry, this weekend. Until then, check out my galleries and keep thinking about your next trip somewhere!


Sunday, October 12, 2008

Good Morning, Vietnam

After Bangkok, Pam and I hopped on a quick 2 hour flight to Danang, Vietnam--a city located in the center portion of Vietnam. Will had been up in Hanoi and Paul down in Ho Chi Min City (Saigon) while we were in Thailand, so it was time to rendezvous in the middle. Luckily, Pam and I were prepared to enter Vietnam--in fact, we had to apply for visas weeks in advance, pay for them online, have the visas emailed to us, print and sign them, and then bring the approved documents giving us permission to enter the country on that specific day, passport photos, and our second part of payment in USD, the only currency they would accept for the application. Even though the Socialist Republic of Vietnam may be quite strict about who enters their country, once you're through the gate it's a beautiful and peaceful place.

We got through the entry process, got a car, and headed up to the city of Hue (pronouned "Hway") where we were to meet up with Paul & Will. I couldn't help but notice all of the bikes, motorcycles and scooters everywhere--hardly any cars! And so many people wore face masks for the pollution, but I gotta tell ya--they don't know what real pollution is like compared to some of the other places I've visited this year... I thought the air smelled clean! Plus, the landscape up the coast looks just like Hawaii--green and lush. Vietnam is absolutely beautiful.

Hue has a lot of history from the Vietnam war, especially an hour or so north in the demilitarized zone (DMZ) where former North and South Vietnam were separated. During our two days we visited the area including the Khe Sanh Combat Base, historic landmarks, and the famous tunnels at Vinh Moc where an entire village hid beneath the ground during the war. Very powerful and moving for all of us (and hot in the tunnels!)

After Hue we headed back down to Danang for a couple of days, one of which was spend in Hoi An--an amazing city known for its markets and renowned tailors... and let me tell you about how we didn't let that pass us by! Within 15 minutes of being in the city center and heart of the shopping district all four of us were in one of the many tailor shops selecting suit styles, picking out materials, and ordering clothes. We each had suits and shirts custom made--Pam even had skirts, blouses, and a dress custom made--and all the clothes were delivered to our hotel the next morning!! And talk about price? Custom made clothing for about 1/4 the price that we would pay in the U.S.--we all went to town (I had a blue nero suit with a fantastic orange asian silk print lining made for $70!)

After staying in Danang that night, we all packed up and made way to the airport to embark on chapter three of the East Asian journey--Cambodia. More about that later this week, so stay tuned...

(Countdown: 18 days to departure)


Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Bangkok Rocks!

Last week I had the opportunity to travel on an amazing journey through three countries that have been on my "list" for years--Thailand, Vietnam, and Cambodia. In short, Thailand for the temples and food (mmmm...); Vietnam for the history; and Cambodia for the legendary Angkor Wat. As opposed to my usual "weekend trips", this time I took 3 days in each country and made a whole week of it. I will highlight each country with its own blog and photo gallery over the next couple of weeks so I can give each location its due diligence. But I can already tell you (in summary), that these places are AMAZING!

First, let me start with Bangkok, Thailand. I think that many of my initial impressions of what Bangkok would be like were skewed by rumors, stories, and old movies--I expected it to be dirty, seedy, rundown, and very "raw"... but what I found was a fantastic city that has instantly catapulted into my Top 5 Favorite Cities of all time!! Yes, Bangkok rocks. (BTW: my top five cities are currently London, New York, Zermatt, Barcelona, and now Bangkok :o)

Since this trip was about meeting up with fellow Target expats throughout the various countries, I spent this first weekend in Bangkok with Pam and Jess. Will started the journey with us and after a short red eye flight from Bangalore (only 3 hours--short hop), he went on to Vietnam to meet a friend in Hanoi. Pam, Jess and I jumped in a cab and it didn't take us long to spring onto the Bangkok scene. Before you could say "check in the hotel" we were at the local Starbucks having breakfast and spending day and night of shopping, eating, dancing, site seeing, and soaking up the city. Bangkok has a wonderful array of tourist areas, shopping malls, restaurants, and things to see and do. It was quite a bit more international than I had expected, and most of the areas were very clean, organized, and efficient--which was also not what I had expected. I loved the vibe--Bangkok was a comfortable city.

Between the three of us we were able to visit temples and monuments, take in the exciting nightlife, and have dinner at the top of the State Tower 65th floor. Our highlight that night was visiting the world famous Sirocco sky bar and Breeze restaurants at the Dome Bangkok (see the photo gallery). The whole rooftop is a work of art with sculpture and lights--truly classy and slick. I loved it--we felt like we were on top of the world!

On Monday, Jess headed back to Bangalore and Pam and I stayed until Tuesday morning before leaving for Vietnam to meet up with Paul and Will (two more Target expats). I really thought that Bangkok would have been great to visit for a few more days, so it now goes back on my list of places to revisit. Bangkok, I will return!

I will blog about Vietnam in my next entry so stay tuned :o)


Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Kathmandu It

Last weekend I took a trip up north to explore Nepal, and most specifically, the infamous capitol city of Kathmandu. What do you say about a destination that has been touted as a "hippy hangout" since the 1960's where many came in search of tranquility and nirvana? Or a central hub for trekkers and backpackers as they seek to set down their footprints on Mount Everest? One word: interesting.

I thought that India (specifically Bangalore) contains an abundance of dichotomies: old and new; immaculate and filthy; colorful and gray; ancient and modern--but Kathmandu was all of that and more. Don't get me wrong, I had a wonderful time, but Kathmandu felt more crowded than Bangalore and there was more pollution, more traffic, more condensed tourists areas, and more chaotic energies all around. It felt "primitive" to me and I could constantly feel energies of the past still lingering... like they were still holding onto something unrequited. I'm not sure how to describe it, but the energy just felt "darker". I'm convinced it was the city and its memories. Funny how I felt that way while if you head a few hours up the Himalayan mountains the realities of the modern world melt away as you breathe in the clean mountain air and escape the chaos. Therein lies another of the many dichotomies. Interesting.

I had a chance to travel around the city (not on foot this time, however... had to rent a car
for the day--this is not a walking city, per se) and visited several of the famous Buddhist and Hindu temples. Of note, Swayambhunath Stupa (also known as the monkey temple, and you will realize that from my photo gallery), Boudhanath (which is home to one of the largest "Stupas"--the dome-- in the world), and Pashupati Temple (an ancient Hindu temple). I was able to walk around those areas and snap photos to my heart's content, so that was very nice. I also took a short trip down to the city of Patan, another home to ancient temples in the Lalitpur district. On the way back to my hotel in central Kathmandu, I took some time to visit the busy shopping district of Thamel where I picked up all sorts of souvenirs from Nepal and Tibet. Another extremely busy area, Thamel, like the whole city, is a cacophony of sounds, sights, and smells. Interesting.

Probably my favorite part of the trip was my hotel, the Kantipur Templehouse. The building was a stunning display of Nepalise and Asian architecture, the grounds were immaculately groomed and full of flowers, and the service was excellent the entire time. I took the opportunity each night to eat freshly-prepared foods in the hotel restaurant choosing from Nepalise, Chinese, and Thai cuisine--all delicious! My room was comfortable and spacious, though it took me a couple of days to understand why there would be power outages for hours at a time (we have many outages in India, but generator back-ups so the downtime is minimal), until I was told that the government deliberately cuts power for blocks of time every day to save energy. I eventually adjusted to it and actually enjoyed living my candlelight in the evenings. Interesting.

The weather was not very cooperative for taking a mountain flight up to see Everest and the upper Himalayas (it's off-season), but I got an eyeful of the snow-capped mountains on the flight out, so when you've seen mountains, you've pretty much seen mountains. They were as stunning and beautiful as ever. And I will, to this day, swear I saw what appeared to be Mount Everest (please don't take this dream away from me! :o) It was a wonderful sight to see. Wonderful, and interesting.

So overall, I had an "interesting" weekend! There were many things about Nepal that I loved; and many things that I found fascinating. I do know one thing, however--if I return there again I am bringing three things: a buddy, a backpack, and trekking gear. Everest Base Camp One is only a 12-day round trip journey and my instincts just say one thing about that: "bring it on!"

Now off on my last "big" trip next weekend--Thailand, Vietnam, and Cambodia--the homestretch of an amazing year. Stay tuned for stories and snaps!


Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Mr. Tood Departs

This past weekend our family of expatriates threw a few parties, had a few dinners, said our goodbyes, and put Todd on the plane back to Minnesota--his contract was completed and was time to return home. What's harder to believe than the fact that Todd has already completed his 12-month assignment for Target India is that I am only six weeks behind him! Yes, I will complete my assignment and head back to Minnesota at the end of October. Funny how time flies...

The events of the weekend included a going away party with a "Minnesota State Fair" theme (everything on a stick!) Tracy and Tom organized this fantastic party with so many of Target India's best team members turning out to wish Todd a fond farewell. There was corn-on-the-cob, homemade corn dogs (yum!), cotton candy, popcorn, cookies, french fries... the list goes on and on. The kids loved the balloons and party favors, and everyone had a chance to get their faces and arms painted (I still have glitter on my hands :o) I felt like I was back on the St. Paul fairgrounds! Sunday brought brunch at Zen, the Asian restaurant at the Leela Palace Hotel--a nice and relaxing time before heading to the airport.

What an amazing year it has been and what an amazing group of expats I've had the privilege to live, work, and play with! Living in our apartment building, Zen Gardens (or affectionately known as the EPC--Expat Central), has been like a college dorm & the Real World meet Indian Melrose Place (I know, that's quite the visual but it's actually quite accurate...) We've all had the unique opportunity to live and work in a foreign country; learn more about the people, culture, and customs that are uniquely Indian; and also take time to travel together, eat together, watch movies, attend concerts, shop, play games, and best of all, laugh together--and SO much laughter!! There's never been a dull moment this entire year.

And so, Mr. Tood (affectionately misspelled by the girl at the food court Domino's Pizza), we will miss your laughter, your smiles, and we will certainly miss watching you do your funky little dance or seeing you twisting your hair... Congratulations on your successful year in India and only the best to you in your new position back at Target Minneapolis. You will be missed.

Now our current expat posse will slowly begin to disband over the next few months... Todd, then me, then Curly (the "other" Michael)... but new recruits are already coming in to replace many of us "old timers" and pick up where we left off. It still seems like just last week when I was getting settled in my apartment, adjusting to Indian food, and looking at my year ahead. This is why it is so important to be present and savor the moments you have.

Life is today--life is now. Live it, Love it, Enjoy it, and Celebrate it! And most importantly, celebrate the people in your life--give thanks often and be grateful. Take the opportunities to appreciate others, for only through your relationships with others do you truly live!


Sunday, September 7, 2008

It's The People

Today I decided to take another one of "muse walks" and just see what's going on in my neighborhood. I grabbed my camera and decided to walk the "100 foot, CMH loop"--a favorite walking path of the expat walkers (thank you, Todd) which takes you on a nice one-hour walk--approximately 3 miles--around some of the neighborhoods in central Banglore--Indira Nagar, Cambridge Layout, and Ulsoor. On the route you will see everything from cows to coconuts; smell everything from freshly steamed sweet corn to auto rickshaw exhaust; hear everything from fluted Indian music to noisy car horns; an assault on the senses but an amazing experience nonetheless.

After living in India now for over 10 months I must say that my favorite part of this experience has got to be the Indian people. Being a blonde caucasian I stand out easily which still seems to fascinate people--it's like they're not sure who or what I am. They often stare, which at first bothered me. I thought they must think I am a threat to them or that I was trouble, but then I figured out what to do--I smile. When they see me smile I see their faces soften, their eyes glimmer, and their brilliant white teeth peek out of their mouths as a gentle smile comes to their face. It's wonderful!

Everywhere I go I continue to meet amazing people--warm, sincere, polite, and oh so friendly--and when they see my camera they know that I am just as interested in them as they are in me. Kids will come running to me yelling "Hi!" and "Me! Me!", waiting for me to take their picture as they stand and pose, showing me their best angle. Most of the time I don't need to say much... in fact, today I didn't speak a word to any of the people in my pictures--I didn't need to... just that simple smile, hand wave, or a quick salam (done by touching your forehead and bringing your hand down) is all that's needed to communicate in a universal language.

I have only 53 days left in India--and what an adventure it has been. I've still got a couple of trips left--one to Nepal & Katmandu in two weeks (some fresh air in the Himalayas!), as well as a week-long trip to Thailand, Vietnam and Cambodia with some of the expats--but then I pack up for home at the end of October. So I will continue to soak-in the experiences during my last two months... each experience, each person, each memory another page in my book as my world gets bigger and bigger.

I am so grateful for this experience.