Under the Unawatuna Sky

A hand thrust candied ginger and soda pop in my face. I declined, the dried drool on my chin giving a different impression. I turned to the window and watched the ragged coast pass by, every now and then blinded by the reflection of the sun’s splendor glittering across the water. Had Sri Lanka’s mystery all been a dream? I reached for the feeble string given by the Buddhist monk clinging to my wrist. I looked to my lap and saw the confessions of the jungle’s secrets scrawled across my journal. I settled back into my sunny wooden seat, my memories wrapping me into another deep sleep.

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We were on the train from Colombo to Galle, headed to the sea, in search of a tropical paradise tucked along the southern tip of the country. Where golden sand sprawled between swaying palms and the crash of the turquoise waves, neon fish and whale sharks and coral lined the bays, and fireflies lit the night like swaying lanterns.

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The sudden brake on the track jolted me awake. We filed behind the remaining passengers and jumped off of the freight. Hundreds of chicklets clucked in boxes, unaware of their fate. We crammed our backpack laden selves into a tuk tuk with the landscape on our left, seascape on our right, driving through the overgrowth before careening down a single lane street. Lined with funky shops and art galleries and sidewalk treats, Welle Dewalaya Road epitomizes the vibe of a laidback artist community. Our guesthouse opened up to Unawatuna Beach, where Buddha and pagoda loomed atop a cliff overlooking the crescent reef.

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When our days didn’t consist of cards, swim and tan, we took the opportunity to explore the rest of the realm. Mirissa, known for its surfing and jungle lined shores, was every one of those dreamt up images of paradise. With crystal clear water and a spotless coast, it was easy to submerge ourselves into the magic of this secluded beach haven.

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On our way back from Mirissa we stopped at the Sea Turtle Farm and Hatchery, whose mission is to save these creatures from extinction. They do so by caring for injured adults and once they’ve recovered their health, setting them free. Also by incubating and hatching their own babies, releasing them into the wild when the time is ready. This non-profit organization has saved hundreds of thousands of this marine species, and provides a great opportunity to see the animals up close while helping the environment!

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My husband is one for the reptiles, so I surprised him with a little detour outside of town. Where the road turns to rubble and the cattle runs through, there’s a man amongst the paddy fields that has a snake or two. A charmer, a researcher, a physician, all of the above, he lives in harmony with his collection of serpents and offers guests an experience to look, even touch. Prepared with every anti-venom and counter-venom treatment, he handles each specimen individually and with full knowledge of their behaviors. Now, I don’t have a problem with snakes, but standing next to a viper made me a bit queasy.

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We dedicated one of our days to Galle, a UNESCO certified city, that was founded by the Portuguese in the 16th century. Fortified by the Dutch in 1663, they enclosed the cobblestone streets and colonial style buildings with a stone wall running the ocean bearing sides. Crumbling bastions and ramparts sit strategic in the north, and at one point had an extra layer of security with a working drawbridge and moat.

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The walled city is to be taken at a leisurely pace, no bookmarking the bookstore or cafe or exotic trading company. You’ll stumble upon them, along with museums and history you’d never know to find. That’s what makes it special, around every corner’s a surprise.

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As we reflected on our trip under the Unawatuna sky, the Eastern stars aligned in constellations we’d never seen. We knew a piece of our heart would always stay behind and we vowed to come back, in some far off life.

Sweet like Kandy

Smack dab in the center of Sri Lanka lies a city so sweet you’d think it were carved out of candy. Hidden within the ever swirling mist of the mountains, it’s peppered with the architecture of Colonial past, splashed with the vibrant murals of the city’s residents, flavored with the pungency of spices and baked to the consistent drum beat of Dawula’s on the wind…

One of Kandy’s most iconic confections is the Temple of the Tooth, home to Buddha’s upper left canine. My husband and I went on a fairly ominous day of scattered showers and omnipresent clouds, but that only heightened Sri Dalada Maligawa’s beauty. As if it were purposely set into a backdrop of gray, the yellow burn of the coconut oil lanterns emitting a glow that warped the filigree walls like a mirage.

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As we entered the gates alongside the hundreds of other wanderers, travelers and believers, there was this unspoken sense of connection in the air. We had all come from such different walks of life yet we had all made the same pilgrimage, one to bear witness to the sacred site of Buddha’s relic, preserved within a gemstone embedded casket beneath a golden shrine.

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The inner and outer workings of the temple grounds seem to merge so you are continuously stumbling upon something grand, each pathway’s outlet into another pathway’s chamber of lotus blossoms, frangipani, and aurelian hues. Residing in the former Kingdom of Kandy’s palace complex, the surrounding Victorian era buildings offer a glimpse into the royal life of the King and Queen of 1815.

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As we ran our fingers across the monument walls, we repeatedly found ourselves tracing the outline of the elephant motif. Carved out of gold, bone and stone, this mighty animal has been a symbol of culture and religion throughout Sri Lanka’s history. Its depiction seen across the palisades, we ventured ~20 miles outside the sacred city of Kandy to meet the creature in its true form. To Pinnewala Elephant Orphanage, a haven for the abandoned and abused.

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Set on 25 acres of forest, Pinnewala houses the largest herd of captive elephants in the world. It also serves as a nursery and active breeding ground. We arrived at feeding time, which meant the herd was awake and alert and ready for breakfast. First up, the babies. Small but mighty, these “little” guys were not shy about asking for food, their trunks sniffing out bottles in buckets and pockets and more intrusive spaces…

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When the milk ran dry we stepped up to a wooden platform where a plethora of exotic fruit lay ready for consumption. The adults were a little more groomed to the feeding experience, and instead of swarming us with their noses, they patiently waited for the jungle’s delicacies to drop onto their rosy pink tongues.

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We left the bustling heart of the city for the land of tea and endless green. Although not in Kandy proper Nuwara Eliya hovered in the mountains nearby, up a twisting road through the jungle, set on the highest plain. Our day trip to “Little England” consisted of lounging on the banks of Lake Gregory, studying the colonial buildings, tea hopping across the numerous plantations, and wandering through the gardens of fruit and vegetables and wildflowers. With the clouds moving across the sun and the grass swaying in the breeze, the quiet reflection of the hills dimpled across the water was like a scene out of a Monet.

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We chased waterfalls through the rolling valleys, their plummets as prevalent as the parakeets in the trees. Cascading the highlands, the sound of their flow like an undercurrent on the breeze.

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As if Kandy didn’t offer enough adventure, my husband had one last request before we left for the coast. This was off-itinerary, he was going rouge. Channeling Indiana Jones, he happened to find the most rickety bridge and invited one of the local’s to an official jump-off into the Mahaweli Ganga. Up for the challenge, the Sri Lankan man accepted, and the next thing I know they’re bumping fists, getting down to their skivvies, and I’m yelling “Three… Two… One!”

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These are the ingredients that make Kandy so sweet.

Monkeys, Cave Temples and a Fortress in the Sky

This first leg of our Sri Lankan adventure had my husband and I venturing into the center of the country. The roads winded like blood vessels, carrying us closer to the beating life force of Sri Lanka’s ancient history. To Dambulla, where monkey’s danced within arms reach, caves were carved into temples, and rock fortresses dominated the sky. To Dambulla, a place that contained the magic, heart and mystery of Sri Lanka itself.

We whizzed along rice paddies and foxtail palms on flat roads, drifted into the jungle’s mist and unruly overgrowth on hilltops, and passed cragged red rock and indigenous communities on our descent. The scenery blended into an infinite panorama of life, our destination a single star in a constellation of biodiversity.

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A drizzle crept overhead as we inched along the outskirts of Kandalama Reservoir. It felt like the car was tiptoeing, so as not to disturb the adjacent wildlife. We slowed to catch a glimpse of the illusive black water monitor, who would have blended in with the pavement were it not for the incessant flicker of her rosy pink tongue.

A rustle in the brush motioned us from ahead. Curiosity even found its way to our driver, and as we drove towards the commotion’s source, none of us could hide the smile on our faces. A small group of scavenging monkeys had found a stash of ripe fruit within the shrubbery, and at this point they looked more like chipmunks than primates.

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The Toque Macaque is endemic to Sri Lanka, and these little buggers happened to frequent our hotel as often as the tourists do. With a monkey see no evil, monkey hear no evil, monkey do no evil lineup on our balcony every single morning. Being only a stone’s throw to the watering hole meant the surrounding area bursted with life. We darted through bats in the hallways, stopped for crossing frogs in the common areas, and listened to the birds rise and fall with the sun.

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The next morning we met the Golden statue who greeted us with inquisitive eyes. Gatekeeper of the mysterious cave temples, the enormous Buddha had a stare that never left your side. We paid homage to its brilliance and began our ascent, darting between feral cats and spunky macaques up what felt like the world’s longest staircase. The brimming hedges masked the secret heritage carved within the rocks, until the pathway deposited us into a galley-style courtyard that revealed a sanctuary built within the mountainside.

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Our bare toes crossed the threshold, brushing against the very same steps the solitary Buddhist monks used during pre-Christian times. Although the actual number of caves reaches close to eighty, five of them are open to the public. A contrast of complex white against natural stone. We ventured into the damp portals, the interiors shrouded with over 150 Buddha sculptures and paintings, blues and reds so vibrant it was like the walls opened to the heavens.

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Sigirya loomed in the distance, a masterpiece of an ancient bloodline that truly ruled from the clouds. Tempted to spend our day wandering the caves like a monastic recluse, we almost watched its glory from a distance, but this towering piece of history was just too fascinating to pass up. We jumped in a cab, the only hint of urbanization we’d felt in hours, and 30 minutes later arrived to a page straight out of the Jungle Book. Monkeys chased each other to our left, deciduous forest swayed to our right, and a prehistoric citadel lay ahead.

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Something magical happens when you lock eyes with Sigirya. Weaving closer through its vast network of gardens, lily ponds and pebbled pathways, the undercurrent of possibility dances with the pollen in the air. It’s like a volt of electricity strikes your veins, and no matter that she’s 660 feet tall and 1,200 steps high, Sigirya grants you the power to conquer. As if her beckoning runs wild with the wind, she coaxes you closer:

The Lion’s Gate is the entrance which you seek. It is there that leads you to the palace ruins along the highest plateau.

Beyond the Lion’s Gate, now crumbled to nothing but two enormous lion’s paws, lies the entrance to King Kashyapa’s world. A once flourishing monarch that reigned from the highest tier, this vantage point provided 360 views of the surrounding territory, a true advantage for any undesirable ruler.

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Like all great pieces of art, the beauty lies within the details. The climb up Sigirya is littered with defining moments, ones that you cannot witness unless you explore every curve. A Mirror Wall that in the old days was polished so thoroughly the king could see his reflection in it. A gallery of frescoes with over 500 depictions of women, their presence as mysterious as the artists themselves. A fully functioning hydraulic system that feeds from a man-made reservoir atop Sigirya’s summit.

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Dambulla blends the gift of raw nature with man’s gift of urban planning, creating a world both striking and terrene. As we descended in the footsteps of the ancients, the watermarks splayed against a hot November sky, our pulse joined the capillaries that beat into the heart of this ancient metropolis.

The Spirit of Sri Lanka

I never could have guessed what would take hold of me as I descended upon the mysterious land of Sri Lanka, dark birds fluttering against the prowess of the jets and into the rippled summer sky. My pulse raced with the quiver of their wings, my heart beat along the roar of the engine, and my hands sweat against the surge of the adrenaline. As soon as I stepped off that jetway and the humidity cradled me like an organic blanket, I knew I had been wrapped in the warmth of Sri Lanka’s magic.

A jewel within the Indian Ocean, this island country has it all. Vast rainforests, sprawling mountains, ancient ruins, white sand beaches and a booming Metropolis. With a striking resemblance to the Garden of Eden, there’s this unspoken sense of adventure that pulses in the air. You see it as you corkscrew down the broken roads beneath the jungle’s dark canopy, past mountaintop temples and Buddhist caves, swerving to miss the prehistoric water monitor…  This is a country built upon divinity and mystery and life’s sheer beauty. Home to some of the world’s most ancient cities, you feel as though you’re tracing the steps of the kings who lived during their mightiest reign. I know it’s not fair to play favoritism but with Sri Lanka there’s this feeling, like a lightning bolt of energy that charges your soul, and makes you want to stop, listen, and revel in its magic.

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My husband and I spent our two week journey in the central and southern provinces, shaping our itinerary around the plains, the highlands and the sea. With culture as diverse as its regions, each location offers its own unique experience from landscape to lifestyle to cuisine, representing a collective unit that hums with the vibrancy of life.

Decked in exotic flora and unusual fauna, Sri Lanka hasn’t always been the beauty in green. For a while it was bathed in red, as civil warfare and political unrest besieged the country. Despite 25 years of conflict, the Sri Lankan people are some of the friendliest you will meet. With outstretched hands and dimpled smiles, their demeanor is as beautiful as the landscape. Open and excited to share stories about their heritage, they are are happy to show you a window into their lives, just be respectful of the past that is still healing and avoid the delicacy of politics.

In my next blog post follow me to the heart of Sri Lanka’s history, where you’ll be captivated by the sacred grounds of Dambulla, soar the highest heights at Sigirya and dance with the monkeys at Kandalama.

 

A Day in Fort Kochi

When you have 24 hours in one city, it’s early rising. But that’s okay because in India, it’s easy to say goodbye to those extra 2-3 hours you’d normally spend snoozin’. Sunrise is one of the most magical times of the day. Stirring to the rhythmic song of morning prayers, stretching your arms amidst the vibrant call of the roosters, opening your eyes to the stilted rays of the tangerine sun… There’s nothing quite like it.

Fort Kochi is a fishing village that lies at the Northern tip of Kochi proper in the state of Kerala, India. It was gifted to the Portuguese by the Kingdom’s Rajah in 1503 for their support in battle against the Kozhikode forces. Within this designated area, the Portuguese were allowed to build their settlement and put up a proper fort to protect it. It remained this way for 160 years, until the Dutch came and spoiled that stint. Although the Portuguese never got Fort Kochi back in their possession, karma worked in their favor and the British came and stole it from the Dutch’s hands in 1795.

Today Fort Kochi belongs to its home country, India. Walk down its crumbling cobblestone streets though, and you can still see its European influences in the steepled Catholic churches and scattered colonial architecture today.

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My husband and I arrived to Fort Kochi just after our lackadaisical trip down the Alappuzha backwaters. Those moments of serenity on the water translated to moments of restlessness on land, so we were ready to explore. Like sloth bears attracted to honey, the ocean’s tidal forces pulled us towards the water, and we started our day with a morning walk on Mahatma Gandhi beach.

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Darting between tide pools and trash, the beach held a peculiar sort of beauty. Half sand and half weeds, we balanced over fallen logs like tightropes and chased feral goats like wild geese. Distracted by our imaginary playground, we didn’t notice the weathered fishing boat until its crew’s excited cries superseded our own. As if caught by an invisible fishing line, they reeled us in with a bait of curiosity and before we knew it, we were grabbing their outstretched hands and hopping on board.

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We exchanged smiles and quickly learned this wasn’t a boat at all, but a rickety wooden platform suspended above the shallows that hosted a semi-mechanical roping device called a Chinese Fishing Net. Introduced to Kerala’s shore around the 1400’s, the whole process was designed around a cantilever system, with heavy rocks used as counterweights on one end and hammock sized pieces of net to catch fish on the other. For such a simple task it seemed a pretty big operation, and took four people to operate one net!

Stepping in for one of the fisherman, I joined the others in raising the rope to reveal our fresh catch of the day. Together we heaved, ho’d and at the end of a few minutes hard work came face-to-face with our fishy friends. While only a few of us spoke English, we all spoke the universal language of laughter and gave it another go, delicately dropping the net into the water and raising it once more to reveal our saltwater captors.

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After our plight with the fisherman we headed inland to the colorful umbrellas along the shore. These were the marks of the Kamalakadavu Fish Market, where the same anglers lugged their fresh catch to sell to perusing tourists and hungry locals. Mixed between the stalls of giant prawns and bright red tuna were brightly colored linens sold as beach blankets, day dresses and purses.

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After a hearty sidewalk lunch of big eyed shrimp and fish curry, we strolled back into the Fort towards our next (official) stop, the Indo-Portuguese museum. Our journey took us through teal alleyways and past stalls of chestnut spotted cattle – I admit, we may have purposefully darted through the unmarked streets just to get some extra sightseeing in. There’s so much beauty in this city though, it’s hard to stick to the course.

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The Santa Cruz Basilica met us halfway with its looming double spires and ornate golden craftsmanship. Built by the Portuguese during their moment of reign, it’s one of eight Basilica’s in Kerala. Its ironwood doors are still open as a place for devotion and gothic inspiration today.

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The Indo-Portuguese museum was constructed by Dr. Joseph Kureethra, the late Bishop of Kochi. It’s a fairly modest structure, with crumbled stone columns and weathered yellow paint that make it look more like a royal palace than a preservation of history. That was because this was actually part of the Bishop’s house, we learned, and he turned it into a museum in efforts to preserve the heritage of the local traditions and Portuguese culture that influences it.

Inside you can go from art to sculpture to ancient relics within the museum’s five sections: Altar, Treasure, Procession, Civil Life and Cathedral. To us, the building itself and the compound it rests on were just as interesting as its innards. My husband and I found ourselves slowly drifting down its spiral stone staircases and lounging on the grassy knoll far long after the standard tour.

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From there we flagged a tuk-tuk and headed the opposite side of the Fort, to a little slice of spice heaven within the heart of Jew Town. Before you even walk through the doors of Cochin Spice Market you experience the rich variety of colors, fragrances and flavors… The incense wafting throughout the street, an aromatic cloud hovering over the rooftops. This, this was the spice haven that Christopher Columbus had hoped to discover.

It was a day for ginger, thousands of pieces laid out to dry in the South Asian sun. While the spices satiated my nose the tribal colors satiated my eyes. Ginger, clove, turmeric. Red, yellow, blue. An intense ecosystem of senses, the feeling was almost supernatural.

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The evening concluded with the same varietal of hymns it began with. This time carried out for a watching audience instead of unsuspecting passerby’s who happened to catch its drifting melodies in the wind. A guttural sing-song of voices, this classic form of Indian performance relayed one of the major Hindu legends through dance, music and sign, its essence captured under the roof of the Kerala Kathakali Center.

Kathakali uses a combination of acting, costume and musical patterns to tell stories about Hindu mythology and spirituality. The most distinctive feature of this cultural art form are the elaborate ensembles the actors wear, from their make-up made out of local ingredients like rice flour and soot, to their parasoled dresses that take up half of the stage when standing. This art form is unique in that the cast is typically all male too, even for characters that would be considered female.

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Walking home amongst the fireflies that evening, the sun may have set but the vibrancy of the city did not. Our path lit not be street lamps but abundant piles of smoldering trash, the smoke whisked towards the open night and cascaded across the pot marked street. Wading through the haze, the phantoms of the past mixed with the illusion of today, a blend of heritage and progression. And even though it felt like magic, it had every aspect of something real.

I See a Black Moon Rising, and it’s Calling Out My Name

“I see a black moon rising, and it causes so much pain.” ~ Black Sabbath

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Black Moon, photo credit: NASA Goddard Flight Center

Our annual lunar cycle almost perfectly lines up with Earth’s calendar year, so we can expect the same show: One new moon to start the new lunar cycle, one full moon to conclude the current lunar cycle. With the exception of nights like tonight, where we’ll be blessed with the presence of something different. A black moon.

Typically new and full moons don’t occur twice in a single month, so when they do, they get special attention. And even nicknames! Full = Blue, New = Black.

Like a black sheep, the black moon is extra shy, and is a very rare sight to (not) see. A new moon occurs when its Earth-facing side is in full shadow, so unfortunately for moon gazers, this means the black moon will be invisible tonight.

But just because you can’t see the black moon doesn’t mean you can’t feel it.

Unlike the blue moon, who’s indigo hue has captivated people for centuries, the black moon remains dark, hidden and mysterious. It intensifies the curiosities in the deeper parts of our mind, drawing on our intuitive, less explored qualities that want to be known but have yet to be unlocked to their fullest potential. The black moon is associated with the Goddess Lilith, who’s known to flirt with these inner desires.

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The Goddess Lilith, photo credit: Wikipedia.com

Lilith was first depicted 5,000 years ago in Sumerian mythology as a handmaiden to the Goddess Inanna, the Queen of Heaven, and it was her duty to gather men from the fields to perform the sacred rites. In another, perhaps more well-known Hebrew story, Lilith appeared in the Garden of Eden as the first wife of Adam. And let’s just say, they had a difference of opinion on how a housewife should behave. Refusing to be tamed, Lilith replaced marriage with independence and ventured out on her own. Her rebellion cast her her fortune and she was forever stigmatized as a dark power who gave birth to demons and stole babies from their beds.

Lilith’s connection with the black moon is their intense nature to live outside the norm, accepting themselves for what they are. Opening up an unexplored side of ones self, letting go without retaliation. Not conforming to cookie-cutter standards, but embracing one’s quirks with grace and confidence.

Taking the road less traveled, people will misunderstand you, and judge you, and compare you. The black moon shows that it’s okay to carve your own way, as long as you do it with dignity, do it with purpose, and do it to better yourself.

September is already the start of something new. A new school year, a new season, a new shift in priorities. The black moon reinforces that this is the time to take charge of your desires, embrace your life’s passions, sever ties with negative influences, and be yourself to the fullest extent.

Have you started to feel the black moon’s calling?

“I see a black moon rising, and it’s calling out my name; I see a black moon rising , and it causes so much pain.” ~ Black Sabbath

Legend of the Hidden Temple

Going to an Indian temple festival has always been a dream of mine. To witness the ancient culture, reborn through the ornate ensembles of the gold plated elephants, carried through the rhythmic sounds of the beating nagada, hiding within the cracks of the crumbled temple walls… Who says time travel doesn’t exist?

Immersing myself in decades old tradition is where I find the source of the magic that persists.

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Call it fortuitous that my husband and I arrived to Fort Kochi during the height of Kerala’s festival season. We learned the closest one was about an hour ride outside the city, in the old kingdom of Tripunithura. There lay Sree Poornathrayesa, the epicenter for elaborate celebrations. This temple is one of the greatest in Kerala, so naturally it hosts one of the biggest festivals, Vrishchikoltsawam. This eight day, 24 hour extravaganza kicks off the festival season and draws people from all over the region to participate. Including us.

A temple festival isn’t something you buy a ticket off Eventbrite for. It’s not something you find at the foot of your hotel door. It’s a sacred, antiquated space that lies beyond the outermost reaches of the walled city, and took quite a bit of conversation with the locals and some negotiation on a tuk-tuk.

There’s something equally inspiring about the journey getting there. Cutting through tilted alleyways, speeding over brown mouthed rivers, unsettling the dust of time-warped communities. While my adrenaline sped up it felt like the rest of the world sped down. I heard the trumpets first, followed by the unified sound of elephant trunks. My head was on a swivel, taking in all it could as I bounced over the uneasy gravel, my hair sticking to my lip gloss in the windowless back seat of our tuk tuk.

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As our driver stealthily maneuvered into what San Francisco would deem an authorized tow-away zone, I could feel the burning sense of fulfillment at arms reach. And in my nose, thanks to the heaping pile of elephant dung we parked next to. Swatting through the gnats and crowds of people, we made our way to the mouth of the temple under the spell of captivation.

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Entering the heart of Sree Poornathrayesa, in our direct line of sight was a row of about 20 tusked elephants, adorned with jewels and gold trunks. They carried the temple’s deity, Lord Vishnu, who blesses childless couples that pray in his presence.

I didn’t pray that day.

They also carried a group of young men, clad in white cotton robes, who swayed tinseled silk parasols, white tufts and fans made out of peacock feathers to the tempos of the unified trumpets, high above the crowd.

I watched the customs of our great ancestors come to life in the shadow of the hidden temple, a witness to the magic reborn. I felt it buried in the hot Indian sand, I heard it blend with the highs and lows of the orchestra, I saw it gleaming in the reflection of the elephant’s ruby caparisons. I opened my soul to the experience, enraptured by the wonder and the manifestation of the dream I’d always had.

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That Universe…

That Universe is at it again.

Just when I’m feeling down on my luck, it’s there to pick me back up. Just when I feel like giving up, it’s there to remind me there are things worth fighting for. Just when I feel like I’m stuck in a rut, it’s there to encourage me to follow my dreams.

This time, it whispered:

“It won’t matter that 10,000 doors might be slammed in your face, Victoria, because when door number 10,001 flies open, revealing pathways of jade and gardens of love, with flowers dancing, fountains sparkling, friends blushing, moonbeams glowing, and abundance abounding, you’ll completely forget about all the other doors.”

Thank you, Universe.

(and the wizards behind my daily dose of inspiration from tut.com)

Adventure by Backwater: 5 Tips on How to Book Your Kerala Houseboat

There’s a reason the houseboats of Kerala are so attractive to tourists – it’s one of the most beautiful, serene trips you will ever take in your life. However I’ll admit, when initially researching this trip getting there seemed impossible. Let’s not have you in the same boat! Here are 5 tips to help you set sail through the magical backwaters of Alleppey.

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1. Know what you’re looking for in a houseboat. 

A quick “Kerala houseboat” Google search will bring up a plethora of sites where you can review all different types of boats. When browsing, make note of what you like and don’t like. Tie it back to what you would look for in a hotel room. Some questions you might want to ask yourself:

  • Do you need A/C or will a ceiling fan do the trick?
  • Do you want a second level viewing area or will one level work?
  • Does the entire boat need to be enclosed, i.e. glass panels or mosquito nets, or is it necessary for only certain areas like the bedroom and kitchen?
  • Is an open living area with a variety of seating options more your style or are you happy with a table and a couple of plush chairs?
  • Are you comfortable sharing the houseboat with others, or are you looking for something private?
  • Can you go completely off the grid or do you need electrical outlets, TV and/or radio to keep you company?
  • How many meals do you want per day? Is the basic three okay, or do you like to snack?

You might not know exactly what you want until you get to Kerala (shoot, we didn’t) and that’s okay. But it’s important to at least think about it beforehand, so when you hop on that first boat to take a look around, you’ll already have a starting point.

2. Don’t book in advance.

Being Miss Planner, for me this was the hardest rule to follow, because it breaks all my conventions. Unless you’re thinking about sailing over a major holiday like New Years or Christmas, there’s no reason to book a houseboat ahead of time. A couple of reasons:

  • It’s more expensive, since you have to pay agency fees on top of the price of the trip.
  • Things can look very, very different online. A “quaint two-bedroom” with a “natural breeze” can sound charming, but really mean small as hell with no fans or A/C.

The best thing to do is get to Alleppey Boathouse early in the morning (~8-8:30am), walk the dock, choose your top picks and go from there. If you’re feeling extra cautious, head down the day before you plan to sail and reserve something then.

3. Channel your inner Inspector Gadget.

Don’t reserve anything until you’ve walked the houseboat and are completely satisfied with what you’ve seen. Keep that initial list in mind and mentally check the boxes while you’re touring the space. When you find something you love, don’t forget to barter your little heart out!

4. Don’t look for the bare necessities, bring them!

Once that anchor is pulled up and you’ve drifted away from the dock, the opportunities to stop at a convenience store are slim to none. Some items to keep you happy:

  • Bug spray – Seriously, don’t mess with this one
  • Cash for tips – ~Rs.750  per day for three staff members
  • Books – Did someone say young adult fantasy?
  • Playing cards – You can’t go wrong with Gin Rummy!
  • Snacks – Having some extra junk food on hand never hurt anyone
  • Beer and soft drinks – It will be hard (and expensive) to find this after you embark
  • Camera – Capture the beauty at every moment you can

5. Prepare to have the most relaxing day(s) of your life. 

While you’re on the boat, there’s no wifi. There’s nothing but the endless stretch of canals in front of you and the infinite rows of rice fields beside you. Floating down the backwaters, you really get a glimpse into what life is like in Southern India. It’s bathing in the fresh water river, the women washing clothes alongside the angler’s casting their fishnets. It’s aquatic birds singing, dropping in and out of the mirror-like water. It’s the locals projecting chants of worship throughout their collective villages, echoing off the surface of the backwaters and drifting into your ears. It’s the sun rising over the numerous palm trees that line the waterways, early morning rays illuminating last night’s fishermen kayaking back to their houses.

It’s an experience you’ll never forget. I can’t tell you how much money to spend or how many nights to stay, what kind of houseboat to get or how many meals per day. What I will tell you is that you’ll unplug, reflect and truly remember what’s important in life.

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Gone Honeymoonin’!

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I hate to disrupt my South Asian adventure series (not that I’ve been great about consistent posts lately anyways, hehe) but I have a valid excuse! Over the past couple of months my main focus has been my wedding, and I am happy to say I am now officially a Mrs!

Hot off the heels of our ceremony, my now husband (!) and I are taking a Latin American honeymoon so naturally, I will be out of pocket for the next few weeks.

When I get back, expect to pick up right where we left off, and I’ll be providing my top 5 tips for selecting a houseboat for your Kerala backwaters journey!

Cheers,

The new Mrs. Carnathan