Interlude: Indian book club

(Forgive our extended absence, friends; we’re in rural India and Internet access is sporadic at best, and we need a really strong connection to upload photos. How about a suggested reading list to keep you busy until we return?)

Prior to a five-month trip, some people might well worry about how many pairs of shoes they can bring, or whether their hairdryer will fit in their backpack. Me? I stress about books.


I am aware, dear reader, that there apparently exist magical devices powered entirely by witchcraft that allow one to carry dozens – nay, thousands! – of books on a tiny little computer. I, however, am an avowed Luddite and therefore refuse to succumb to the temptation of this modern silliness. I like books. Actual books. I like paper and covers and words printed on a page and I find e-readers inordinately difficult to, well, read. And I love reading so much that I don’t want anything to detract from my enjoyment. Plus, traveling in underdeveloped countries means on-demand electricity isn’t always a given, so what am I supposed to read once my e-reader fails? At least I have a battery-powered flashlight with which to read my paper books. And a lighter after that, although it’s admittedly a bit risky.


So, I pack books. Lots of books…like ten, which takes up a seriously ridiculous amount of space in my backpack. And I pack with the expectation that those ten will maybe set me up for the first couple of months of travel but I’ll certainly be able to swap books out along the way…if in fact there is anyone else in the world who still reads books on paper. When we traveled New Zealand by campervan, I was thrilled to find that almost every campground we visited had a great book swap.


This photo was taken in a used book store in Phnom Penh and not in our house, although the quantity isn’t far off. Also I haven’t labeled the shelves…yet.

In preparation for the trip, I scoured the hundreds of books I have at home to find some that were in some way relevant to where we’d be traveling. I read mainly modern fiction, but am pretty open-minded in my literary tastes and will read just about anything that crosses my path. I grabbed a couple on Japan, couldn’t find anything set in New Zealand, struggled with southeast Asia, and hit the mother lode with India. India-themed fiction has become quite popular in the past twenty years or so, and I already owned a good sampling.


Without further ado and in no particular order, brief reviews of the selections chosen for my ongoing one-member Indian book club!

Shantaram, Gregory David Roberts

This book had been recommended to me repeatedly for years, and though it’s been on my bookshelf for some time I never got around to reading it. I grabbed it for this trip and am so glad I did. Shantaram is lengthy and twisty and convoluted and involves about ten thousand different characters, and yet the story grabs your heart and won’t let go. Bombay (now Mumbai) is its own vivid character in this book, and although Shantaram‘s claim as an accurate autobiography (is there such a thing?) has been repeatedly disputed, it absolutely holds up as a novel. I’m still thinking about this one months later, especially since we visited some of the book’s key locales while in Mumbai.

What Young India Wants, Chetan Bhagat

An unexpected find at a book exchange at our Mumbai hotel and by far the best book I read on India while in India. This book is intentionally simplistic: it’s a collection of very short non-fiction pieces by an Indian author who is essentially begging the youth of India to stand up and care about their country. India is without question the most complicated, difficult place I’ve ever traveled, and I’ll admit that I was often infuriated here. This book helped me to understand some of the country’s issues better, and I can only hope that young Indians are paying attention.

The Case of the Man Who Died Laughing, Tarquin Hall

Light, fluffy Indian detective fiction, in the vein of The Number One Ladies’ Detective Agency series. This is gentle social satire and although perhaps not particularly insightful, it gives a good feel for the scents, sights and – most importantly – the unrelenting heat of Delhi.

The God of Small Things, Arundhati Roy

There is nothing light and fluffy about this book. It is a stunning debut novel that took the author four years to finish, and it’s dense, layered, challenging and brutal. It won the Booker Prize…in my opinion, that committee loves books like this. Not an easy read; this one is firmly in the difficult-but-beautiful category.

The White Tiger, Aravind Adiga

Also a Booker Prize winner. I read this towards the end of our first week in India on a lengthy bus/train trip between Darjeeling and Varanasi, deep in the throes of severe culture shock. While the book’s first-person depiction of the sordid underbelly of India’s servant-to-master relationship intrigued me, I couldn’t get past the infuriating, hopeless, complicated frustrations of the country – mostly because we were experiencing them in real life one after another. And that was because I hadn’t yet learned how to see India for India, rather than what I expected India to be. I suspect if I read this book again, I’ll have a different opinion.

The Space Between Us, Thrity Umrigar

This is the story of two Indian women: a middle-class Parsi in an abusive marriage and her servant, who lives in a slum. At its heart, it’s a tale of class and status and the roles we’re born into, but it’s also about how women are treated as disposable property in much of the world (most definitely in India). I should have loved it, honestly, but it left me completely cold. I didn’t care about the characters and found the overwrought writing tedious. This book definitely didn’t represent the color and warmth of India for me.

Midnight’s Children, Salman Rushdie

In the U.S., at least, Rushdie is most famous for his controversial 1988 book The Satanic Verses and for introducing Americans to the concept of fatwa, which in his case was a Khomeini-issued death sentence that earned him British police protection after numerous failed assassination attempts. Midnight’s Children was released in 1981 and won Best of the Booker twice, which is pretty remarkable. Like all Booker Prize winners I’ve read (see above – maybe the committee really likes books set in India?), this one is complex and messy and confusing – like India itself – and just a huge, broad tale of a man and his beloved country. Midnight’s Children is considered magical realism, and Rushdie’s writing style took a bit for me to get into – I had to work at this one more than I usually do when reading. (It would help greatly to have a working knowledge of Indian history since Partition to assist in reading this book; I didn’t and it was more difficult because of that.) Ultimately, a complicated love letter to a complicated country.

Atlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand

Not Indian-themed, obviously, but I’ve read it numerous times and have taken – and given away – copies on all of my big trips. If you’re reading this in an airport or other public venue, I can almost guarantee you’ll be approached by someone who wants to discuss it, which has happened to me on more than one occasion. Really, there isn’t anything else to say about this one that hasn’t already been said. It is a love-it-or-hate-it manifesto and it’s about a thousand pages. Please don’t cheat and watch the film.

On the to-read list for when we return: The Things They Carried and A Rumor of War. I’ve realized how little I know about the Vietnam War, and visiting Vietnam has made me exceptionally curious to learn more.

Have any book recommendations? I would love to hear them, so please share!

P.S. If you’re an avid reader (and live in the U.S. – sorry) and you’re not a member of this site? Get there now.

Tea party

After water, tea is the most-consumed beverage in the world. It is produced in forty different countries in Asia, Africa and South America; China is the world’s largest tea grower, followed by India.


The eastern Himalayan range as seen from Tiger Hill, Darjeeling.


Recognize that famous red circle and blue bar logo?

India is particularly famous for its Darjeeling and Assam teas, from the regions of the same names. We visited Darjeeling, which sits at close to 7,000 feet and was a famous “hill station” during the colonial era.


Tea plantation, Darjeeling.

In Darjeeling, tea is grown on steep slopes like these. Pickers – always women – harvest tea leaves into bamboo baskets they carry on their heads or backs. The pickers are paid about $2 a day for a minimum of ten hours of work. Leaves are harvested no matter the weather; the flush refers to the season when the tea was harvested. We visited during first flush, which is the first time the plant is harvested after its winter dormancy and produces the most flavorful and sought-after tea.


Camellia sinensis, or tea plant.

All true tea – white, green, oolong and black – comes from the leaves of the camellia sinensis plant, an evergreen shrub native to Asia. Herbal teas, like mint, chamomile or lemongrass, are technically tisanes and not teas since they contain no camellia sinensis. Once a tea bush is healthy and established, it can produce healthy leaves for about eighty years.


On the street, chai is sold everywhere in tiny terra cotta cups for 10 rupees (about 15 cents). After drinking, the cups are smashed on the ground.

India is famous for its chai tea, which is black tea blended with fragrant spices like cinnamon, cardamom and cloves, and served hot, milky and sweet. On the trains, chaiwallahs prowl the carriages selling drinks to passengers. Sometimes you even get little cookies, too!


As with any agricultural crop, monitoring temperature and rainfall is paramount.


After harvesting, the green tea leaves are “withered” to reduce moisture.

The difference in teas simply comes from how it’s processed. White tea is the most expensive and only comes from the very best tips of the plant. Green tea isn’t fermented, leaving it delicate and soft; both black and oolong teas are fermented, which gives them a stronger flavor. True tea will always contain at least a small amount of caffeine; the amount depends on how the tea was processed and fermented. Herbal “teas” will only contain caffeine if it’s been added in.


The tea leaves are exceedingly delicate before they’re dried and rolled.


Withered leaves are funneled into rolling machines.


The rolling machines crush the dried leaves to start the oxidation process.

The Darjeeling region is famous for delicate black teas that are traditionally served without milk or sugar. Because these teas aren’t as strong or tannic as Assam teas, they can be enjoyed straight. Darjeeling isn’t actually that big and produces a relatively small amount of tea; it’s common to find tea labeled as “100% Darjeeling” when it’s simply lower-grade tea from elsewhere in India. As with places like Champagne or Stilton that also produce unique foods or drinks, the name itself is a valuable brand and one that’s often misappropriated.


The tea is placed into drying machines to remove remaining moisture.


Moving the dried tea.




The dried tea is sifted and graded.

After the tea has been dried and sifted, it’s separated into grades of loose tea and “tea dust,” for bagged tea. Tea purists will always opt for loose tea; it is definitely of much higher quality than bagged tea. There is no arguing the convenience of tea bags, however.


Finished tea in linen bags.

True tea aficionados will swear that you must use exact measurements when brewing tea, such as two grams of tea for eight ounces of water. Like cooking, however, I believe that what matters most is your own palate. Start with the professional guidelines and adjust from there to find out what you like best – I prefer my tea much stronger than most “experts” recommend, so that’s how I drink it. Ultimately, it’s your tea and you should drink it the way you like it.


Loose tea ready for transport.



Tea tasting.

Tea is without question one of the world’s healthiest beverages (when it’s not loaded with sugar, obviously!) and Americans are slowly starting to explore the range of delicious teas available. Interested in learning more about teas and how to taste properly? Try here, here or here!






Kolkata flower market

Early on the morning of our first full day in India, we took a tuk-tuk to Kolkata’s wholesale flower market, near the city’s famed Howrah Bridge. What a bold introduction to the country! Flowers arrive around sunrise each day and are sold by the kilo to retailers who then resell the blossoms for weddings, temple visits and puja ceremonies.


Kolkata’s flower market as seen from Howrah Bridge.


Making a delivery.


Many of the market’s vendors also live in their stands. 


A rare female vendor selling fresh greens for cooking.

The market is almost exclusively male; we saw very few women. As in most parts of India we’ve traveled – except in the larger cities – women remain largely behind the scenes, caring for the home and the children.


Let the haggling begin.

Marigolds are the primary flower sold at the market. The Portuguese introduced marigolds to India in the 1600s, and they’re now ubiquitous at all sort of ceremonies. Their rich shades of saffron and gold dominate the scene.



Stringing a marigold garland.

Marigolds now bear enormous cultural significance here; the blossoms are threaded onto string and used as temple adornments and offerings. They’re also made into necklaces and given as gifts to welcome honored visitors, similar to Hawaiian lei tradition.


The white garlands are made of jasmine flowers, and they smell absolutely amazing.


Immense quantities of flowers are sold every single day; the market operates around the clock.


Women negotiating prices with the seller.


Loose blossoms are sold by the kilo.





Unsurprisingly, a market like this generates a lot of waste.


Marigold blossoms are used in offerings like these aartis, which are set alight and floated on the Ganges.


The streets of India are filled with small altars; shops selling flower offerings are always nearby.

Like everything else in India, the market was loud, hot, chaotic and messy…but completely worth a visit!



Welcome to India

A friend mentioned recently that she describes India with “the three C’s”: color, chaos and contradiction. We couldn’t have said it better. There is literally nothing in the world that can prepare you for this country – not the noise, the heat, the traffic, the pollution, the incomprehensible number of people, nor the breathtaking beauty. India is almost too much – too much to absorb, to photograph, to process – but we’re doing our best. This is not easy travel, that’s for damn sure, but it is amazing and completely unlike any place we’ve ever been.


The iconic sacred cows are found just about everywhere, most often in the middle of the street.


Chickens on their way to market.


Victoria Memorial, Kolkata.


The hill station of Gangtok, plus efficient solar drying of laundry.


Milk delivery.

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Mandala prayer wheels at a Buddhist monastery.


Outside of New Market, Kolkata.


Car and motorbike parts for sale.

We have been absolutely amazed – both in India and in southeast Asia – at the sheer number of tiny storefronts and street stands selling all manner of goods, from food to housewares to fabric. The typical American “big box” store definitely isn’t part of the lifestyle here.


It’s election season in India and there are lots of flags, posters and rallies.


Tractor repair shop.


A ferry on the Ganges.


See those apples? They’re from Washington! The U.S. is not the only country importing produce from thousands of miles away.


Street scene, Kolkata.


India’s classic Ambassador taxicab.


Spices and aromatics for sale at a basement shop.


No room to build? Just put it on top of something else.


A monk at Rumtek Monastery in Gangtok.


Much like geisha culture in Japan, families often rent traditional costumes for photo shoots, like this group at a temple near Darjeeling.


Prayer flags at a Tibetan Buddhist temple in Darjeeling.

Scenes from the Banana Pancake Trail

We’ve never claimed to be the world’s most adventurous travelers, and our travel in southeast Asia definitely adhered to the classic Banana Pancake Trail. Nevertheless, we had a phenomenal time here and loved seeing countries that were new to both of us. We visited Cambodia, Vietnam and Thailand in just under a month; below, some of our favorite images from this portion of the trip. We’re off to India!


Illuminated lanterns in Hoi An’s Old Quarter.

Hoi An, near Da Nang on Vietnam’s central coast, was most certainly our favorite place in the country. We loved its antiquated feel and the charming Old Quarter, which is decorated with tens of thousands of brightly colored lanterns hung all over the shops and streets. Strolling here after sunset was such a pleasure.


A fruit vendor in Hoi An.


Early morning gardening in Vietnam.

In Hoi An, we participated in a sunrise bicycle tour that took us to the daily market, an organic farm and out to the rice paddies. Truthfully, most small village farms in developing countries are organic because labor there is cheap and chemicals are expensive. In the U.S., unfortunately, the opposite is true.


The stunning interior of a village temple outside of Siem Reap.

This gorgeous temple was on a dusty road leading out of Siem Reap; from the outside, you’d never know that the interior was this incredible. Each fresco had a number painted in the corner; this indicated the amount of money raised by the village to pay for that particular painting.


Vietnam’s favorite son is absolutely revered in this country.

Vietnam’s national hero, Ho Chi Minh, is celebrated all over the country but nowhere more so than in his namesake museum in Hanoi. The museum is one of the strangest and darkest – both in terms of actual light and the overall mood – places we’ve ever visited. It’s an unsettling combination of blatant propaganda and modern art installation, and worth seeing just for the weirdness.


See how dark this museum is?

The placard on this exhibit in the Ho Chi Minh Museum read, in part, “The models in this hall give visitors information about how scientific and technical achievements have been made use of for peaceful and beneficial purposes. The models at the same time condemn those who have utilized these achievements for aggressive and destructive purposes.” What?


A ferocious temple guardian in Chiang Mai.


Look closely: the labeling on these boats in Hoi An lets everyone know you’re a tourist.


Trainspotting might be a bit risky in Vietnam.


Adding decoration to our handmade paper.

In Thailand, we took a papermaking class and created gorgeous papers with leaves and blossoms. It’s simple and rewarding and beautiful; we’re hoping to make our own to wrap our handmade cheeses in at Quiet Farm.


Fishing boats on the river in Nha Trang.


One of Chiang Mai’s many elaborately decorated temples.


Da Nang’s famous (and very expensive) Dragon Bridge changes colors – and on weekend nights, it also sprays water and breathes fire!


We found this lion dancer at an international food festival in Vietnam.


The building boom in Nha Trang, a beach resort popular with Russian tourists.

Vietnam is in a mad rush to modernize, so hotels are constructed at a breakneck pace. This means that not only are there hammers and saws competing with motorbike horns at all hours, but that a lot of construction is left partially finished when workers move on to the next project.


A “skinny house” in Hanoi.

Even more common than all the new construction is making do with what’s already there. The skinny house above has been tucked in; notice that the bamboo poles are actually structural and are keeping the two buildings from leaning in. Presumably something will be quickly built in that empty space. But there’s a fancy coffee shop! With gelato!


The exterior of the traditional lanna house we stayed at outside Chiang Mai.


A monk studying at a temple in Phnom Penh.

Monks in orange robes with shaved heads are a common sight throughout southeast Asia; it’s amusing to see them with earbuds and mobile phones, too. Even monks have to modernize.


Is this for here or to go?

And we leave you with this photo, and dare you not to smile. While dogs are still eaten in southeast Asia, as the region grows in economic prosperity, its people want what they perceive as middle-class luxuries – and that includes house pets. So now it’s more common here to see dogs on a leash rather than on a grill.

Street food

After the markets, street food vendors are one of the most colorful sights in southeast Asia. From fresh fruits and vegetables to juices, meat and snacks, just about anything you fancy is available from a street stall. Although you might not know exactly what you’re eating, it’s worth watching just for the show.


A lobster stall in Nha Trang setting up for business.


Crocodile farming – for both meat and leather – is big business in central Vietnam; the industry is definitely not PETA-approved. This enticement is outside a restaurant in Nha Trang.


These delicious little packets contain sticky rice stuffed with bananas, eaten as a snack or dessert.


These lovely women are running a rotee stand. Rotees in Thailand fall somewhere between a crêpe and a pancake and are filled with sweet or savory ingredients.


Carts are set up along just about every street.


This woman is making Vietnam’s world-famous banh mi sandwich, sold for about 75 cents.


These tiny bananas (about the length of a finger) are so much more flavorful than the standard Cavendish variety we get at home.


Fancy some whiskey or red wine with your street food meal? You can have it.


Perhaps you’d like a meatball skewer?


Salted whole fish, ready to eat.


Fried sweet potato, banana and other tasty treats.


The “special meat” restaurant outside of Siem Reap. Sit, stay…good dog.


Little sweet cakes, served hot.


Skewers and more, ready for the grill.


Baling sugarcane on the streets of Phnom Penh.


The sugarcane is crushed through a press to produce delicious juice, which is flavored with fresh lime and sold in little baggies as a refreshing drink.


Chefs demonstrate their stir-fry skills at Siem Reap’s night market.


Honestly, I don’t know. But what colors!