Honest Travel: Kotor, Montenegro

“Where the hell is Kotor?” I admit I had literally never heard of Kotor before looking up the itinerary of this Celebrity Cruise. The coastal town in Montenegro along the Adriatic Sea has become a popular cruise stop for good reason. You can see the city in a day, and it has maintained it’s charm despite being 100% dedicated to tourism (more on that later). I considered this own of the top pleasant surprises of our entire trip.

The walking tour

dsc00724Like the Croatians I met, the Montenegrins are blunt and open without being condescending or too off-putting.  Unlike our unintentionally funny Croatian guide, our walking tour guide was hilarious on purpose. His name was Vampas. He lived about two hours away and was an expert in all of Montenegro’s history and current stats. He blurred the lines between fact and personal opinion, which I thought gave a more accurate picture of the country than a guide book could. Just make sure to leave your own political leanings at home if you’re easily offended. All my information is from his tour:

Kotor gateA review of Kotor is a review of Montenegro. The very small country has only been independent from Serbia since 2006, and had been previously conquered by a dozen countries. From Illyrian to Byzantine to Independent Kingdom to Venetian to Napoleonic France to Yugoslavia to Serbia to Independence. He noted several times they managed to never be conquered by the Ottomans, seemingly a point of pride. It became quite clear by 10 minutes in that Vampas would have preferred if the region had remained as Yugoslavia. From the end of WW2 through Tito’s death in the early 1980’s, the united republics under communist rule were an industrial juggernaut. The shells of a five star hotel and a waterfront manufacturing plant back his claim.  When sanctions were enacted in the 90s, everything crumbled.  The unemployment rate which had been 0 soared, leading to a rise in crime and corruption. It wasn’t until 2006, when the country became independent and jumped on the tourism bandwagon that it began to recover. For the past 10 years, tourism has been the country’s only industry. While in other countries an emphasis on tourism feels cheap and exploitative, I would say Kotor escapes that negative feeling. They are appreciative for your presence without aggressively pushing for your business. Instead of fetishizing a “village” lifestyle, you are there to appreciate 2,500 years of history.  The Old Town of Kotor in genuine and intact with the exception of several portions which were rebuilt after the earthquake of 1667 and 1979. The residence of the Venetian Prince who once oversaw the city bleeds right into the theater that was built for Napolean. Orthodox churches represent the 80% of the population who are Orthodox Christians and a Catholic Cathedral serves the rest. And on a funny side note that my husband looked up on his own – Montenegro is one of the only two countries using the Euro illegally.  Not able or willing to make their own currency, they had been borrowing the German Mark.dsc00409 When it changed to Euro, they simply decided to start using it. The EU protested, pointing out that they weren’t a part of the EU.  But Montenegro pointed out that their entrance into the union was inevitable, so why go through the hassle to coming up with their own currency? Not knowing what to do with this pesky, little brother of a country, they decided to let it do.  So Kotor uses the Euro.

Within every medieval building was either a restaurant, a boutique hotel, a clothing boutique or a souvenir shop. The centuries-old town 100% caters to tourists. The shop employees seemed to be all stylish young women. They look bored, but are happy to help if asked, and won’t be pushy – which I much appreciated. A .50 Euro public bathroom is located on a side street and identified on tourist maps. If you’d like to take home some of the country’s signature red Vranac wine, your guide can point you to a small grocery tucked among the tourist spots and you can get a bottle for 7 Euros.


The City wall

img_3555Kotor’s tower city walls surround the town and climb up the mountain like a mini Great Wall of China. It is 3 Euros to walk up the walls, so have a few coins with you. The stairs are narrow, but are accompanied by a ramp of precarious rocks. The first stop, about 20 minutes up, is a very small church/chapel (and accompanying stand of cheesy souvenirs).  This is where most tourists (and I) stopped.  The views are stunning, seeing the small medieval down, the fjord-like mountains and the cruise ship in the bay. My husband spent another 20 minutes to get to the top fort, which gives you a view of the other side of the mountain. You do not NEED a tour guide for any of this, as cruise ships leave their passengers just outside the city walls.  But a walking tour may be informative and/or entertaining.

Last but not least, one of the most impactful parts of Kotor is the cruise in and out of the bay. Looking on a map, you’ll see Kotor is rather tucked away inland. Sailing in and out, especially from the top floor of a cruise ship gives you a panoramic view of the small villages dotted along the use of mountains that resemble fjords. This mountains are created through technonic shifts, but they give many people the feel of traveling through fjords, mountains carved from glacier erosion. Here’s some photos to give a clearer view:

Honest Travel: Dubrovnik, Croatia

Dubrovnik. To be honest, I couldn’t pronounce it, and I’d never heard of it when I first booked our cruise. Google images showed an unromantic but historic seaside, fortified town. (Game of Thrones fans may recognize it as King’s Landing.) My ignorance and low expectations set me up for the most pleasant surprise of the entire trip – Dubrovnik is delightful!

A short ride by shuttle takes you to the medieval city enclosed in towering walls. Inside you’ll find museums, a monastery, shops, restaurants, a small port, a town square and at least one church. One ticket can get you into all the museums, as well as entrance onto the walk on top of the wall. Both the bustling main street and the steep, winding side streets give you a sense of what it may have been like to live during its heyday. We only had a few hours so we stopped by the monastery for a peaceful rest and some photo ops. The walk around the wall offered lots of photo opportunities, as well as a small bar along the way. This is a tourist spot, without question, but that doesn’t mean you don’t get a glimpse at the locals. You waiter is probably a local student. One of the bars later that night were taken over by a a ladies night. Some local musicians performed their interpretation of some American classics at cafe outside on the cobblestones. For me, the real adventures were the excursions that took us outside the average experience.

Food and Wine Tour

I only insisted on pre-booking one excursion, and it was this one – a drive along the Dalmation coast that stopped at an olive oil orchard (farm? mill?) and a vineyard. Best decision ever! First, you must let go of any negativity coming from the fact that you’re traveling in a tour bus with retirees and that you won’t be “dropping in on locals” as they go about their daily business. Hundreds have come before you and hundreds will come after, but that doesn’t sully their product or the process in which it’s made.

First still, olive oil! The owner produces the majority of his oil through modern means in hygienic facilities far from where he visited, but had kept his own old family press and donkey to demonstrate how oil had traditionally been pressed. He demonstrated how hand-picked olives are first crushed with stone wheels pulled by the donkey, then the pulp is put into woven baskets which are squeezed by the man-powered press. Check out a short video here. Afterwards we shared salad and bread with his olive oil. It all sounds simple, but it’s the breathtaking view that elevates the experience. And yes, I overpaid for a bottle of his olive oil, but “when in Croatia…”

Salt Flats

A bathroom stop in the village of Ston let us look at a salt “museum” from the outside, which was basically a low-yield salt flat. We bought a huge bag of salt flakes for about $3. Warning: the bus will leave without you… as they reminded my husband and I after we arrived 3 minutes late.


Eh. They found a seafood restaurant that would accommodate our large group with a pre-determined meal. It was some sort of seafood pasta with a small dessert. The highlight was table wine included with the meal. I forgive the lackluster lunch because I know the constraints of time, price and party size. But if you’re a foodie and don’t want to waste a single meal… you’ll have to avoid the group excursions. I compromised by ordering 3 raw oysters for a taste of local seafood and paid separately.

Vikas Vino Winery

The second major stop was a winery that also made fruit liquor. Pomegranate, orange, cherry… you want dessert liquor, you’ve got it. Also, after a short presentation in the wine cellar, we tasted the bold reds that the region is known for. Grown on rocky hillsides and battered by the sun, the thick-skinned grapes of Croatia lend themselves to stronger, bolder reds. There’s a snapshot included in this video.

Pirate Tour

Who could turn down a ride on a pirate ship?  This late night excursion on a full-fledged wood pirate ship picked up its passengers right outside the ship and took a 45 minute ride to Dubrovnik’s port. The ship is outfitted with a bar, indoor seating and picnic tables on the deck. I’ll be honest – it was cold, rainy and would have been miserable if not for my stubbornly positive attitude. Pirates experienced harsh weather, so why shouldn’t I? So my hubby and I enjoyed glasses of wine in the rain at the head of the ship as we looked out on the lights dotting the Croatian coast. I’m clearly too stubborn for my own good. Most stayed inside and left for the ship when they docked instead of spending an hour walking around the town and taking the ship back.  The stop allowed us to have some seafood pasta underneath a heat lamp at a side street restaurant and sip a drink at an outdoor cafe while listening to a jazz band.

As you’ll see from my post about the Amalfi Coast, I recommend you have low expectations – it leads to revelations and surprises, instead of disappointment and a reality check.  Don’t discount Croatia just because it hasn’t been painted as a romantic European destination. Nothing in America compares to a seaside medieval town. But for all my praise, I really don’t think you need more than a day or two.



How to Enjoy a Cruise

There are usually two camps when it comes to cruises: “I love cruises! I’ve already signed up for my next one,” and “I would never go on a cruise!” I used to be the latter. Spending every free vacation of my college years traveling to third world countries, I was a bit of a hippie travel snob. I avoided Europe and cushy vacations. But after a two week honeymoon driving through India in a van with 9 of my relatives… I was ready to sign up for a floating hotel. So here are tips on how to enjoy a cruise from a reformed elitist traveler.

Bay of Kotor Cruise

How to Enjoy a Cruise

  1. Buy the beverage packagecruise balcony
    • You’re on a boat in the middle of a salty ocean. So much water and not a drop to drink. Do you really want to debate a $3 water when you’re thirsty for two weeks straight? No. Bottled water, juice, beer, some wine, coffee-to-go, rail liquor (though they don’t call it that) is included in the drink package. Premium lets you order anything your little heart desires. You can pick up a drink almost any time from the endless bars around the ship, including at your seat in the theater or from waiters poolside. To not carry cash and order a glass of wine at your every whim gives you the free, pampered feeling these kind of vacations should be made of.
  2. Embrace the excursions
    • When the shore excursions were advertised at 20% off a few weeks before the cruise, I wanted to buy a few. They have two major benefits: they require no planning, and they guarantee you get back on the ship before it leaves. After a childhood of hearing about the time my 17-year-old father was left behind in Helsinki without his passport, this sounded fairly important. However, my husband  insisted that we would enjoy the flexibility of choosing the excursions on the ship, where we could better judge how we felt. We could decide if we want to book something that filled the whole day, half the day or go off on our own with better accuracy. I was afraid they’d sell out We compromised. I booked a food tour I was excited about (wine and olive oil tasting in Dubrovnik). We booked the full day in Rome, because dsc00524-1his previous experience told him that a tour that could cut lines would be the only way to do it all in a day. Most other days we booked while on board. And on two days we winged it.
    • NOTICE: Some ports are as far as an hour away from the city you want to visit, particularly Civitavecchia outside of Rome and Salerno off of the Amalfi Coast. Factor in the time and cost if you’re winging it. There will be taxis at the port to take you to the city, but it will cost you!
    • dsc00396Pros: the tour guides are well-tested and know their stuff. Our guides in Sicily, Rome and Kotor were capable and often hilarious simply for being characters. Also, the prices aren’t that inflated. When you add all the individual parts up, they’re basically the price the cruise gives.
    • Cons: the restaurants chosen for the included lunches are good, not great. Also, time-wise, they can play it a little too safe and arrive back at the boat a bit early. In some cases, like Salerno, you can go back out and enjoy the port city before getting back onboard.
  3. img_3663Make friends with the staff
    • Will you get extra perks? No – they’re trained exceptionally well and would rather not lose their jobs. But it’s a lot more fun when they greet you each day as an individual. They register what you like and try to do right by you. Ask them about their lives and their families. The international crew is a glimpse into cultures and societies around the world, not to mention the unique life below deck on a cruise ship. If you have a set dinner time, it’s the same waiters every day.
  4. Order breakfast in your roomcruise breakfast
    • Check if it’s free for you… if it is, DO IT! Room service is another piece in the luxury puzzle, helping remove you from the everyday life you’re trying to shut out for the week. Exactly what you ordered arrives on time, a huge plus when your excursion requires you meet at 7:15am. Sitting on a balcony in your white robe, you can sip coffee and peel hard-boiled eggs. Or you can drink your smoothie and eat your omelette while you get ready for your shore excursion early in the morning.
  5. Don’t be afraid to separate

    • img_3523Sure, we were on our honeymoon; but by the second week, seeing each other 24/7 wasn’t improving
      the romance. My husband and I had different ideas of the best way to spend a day at sea. He wanted to participate in every activity offered – poker, ping-pong, trivia, etc. I wanted to read a book on a lounge chair while holding a margarita. Separating during sea days and meeting up for the show gave us new things to talk about at dinner. I suggest buying walkie-talkies so that you can check in. CELL PHONES ARE A NO GO. Roaming kills you at sea. Watch out; you’d be surprised how reliant you are on them to coordinate with others.

img_0842I think a seasoned cruiser would say something about making sure you chose the right cruise line, the right ship, the right trip and the right time of year. They could probably compare the shows and the dining options. But I would say, just make sure the stops are where you want to go. And also be aware that particular cruises and times of year may determine the average age of the guest on the ship 😉  I’ll talk more about that in upcoming posts.

Last, but not least, I think next time I’ll go with a large group of family and/or friends. I can see how this would be a vacation that could include all ages and let people separate and convene with ease.

$$$ – I noticed that a few of my suggestions lean towards spending money. Only you know your budget and capabilities. But I do want to caution the people who go bare bones then piece-meal along the way… often buying things individually can add up before you realize it and then it has the added hassle of continually assessing your finances. I’d suggest making the most of the packages or excursions. I can’t tell you how many bottles of water my husband spirited away each day for our time on shore. And my MIL sent me along with tupperware 🙂

Indian Dance: Raas Revolution

‘Tis the Season of Garba/Raas.

If you’re Indian or have friends who are, you may be headed to a large Indian/Hindu community dance event called Garba. Instead of writing out an explanation, hop over to youtube to watch short documentary by clicking below.  Back in the day when I was an assistant to a film producer in Hollywood, I was getting a bit frustrated that I didn’t have a creative outlet, especially in the documentary field.  It had been a focus of mine in college, and now I felt like I was ignoring that side of myself.  So my best friend (Indian American with family from Gujarat), another friend willing to hold a camera, and I set off to make a $0 budget documentary with the UCLA competitive Garba/Raas team back in 2009 (?).  I met some incredible people and had a great time. Of course, I would change a million things now if I still had the raw footage.  The graphics make me cringe a bit, and I still beat myself up over the interview with Kaiwan – the footage from the A cam was corrupted somehow, so all we have is B cam footage with him completely off the mark. But I try to remind myself how young I was and that the fact that we completed it was a miracle in itself. So take a look if you’re interested 🙂


A short documentary following the Bataaka Nu Shak, the UCLA Garba/Raas team.

NASHVILLE: The Bachelorette Capitol

img_2659When my friend warned me about the number of bachelorettes in Nashville, I thought he was exaggerating. But when Saturday night came around, the streets were swarming with roving bands of identically dressed women. Gaggles of ladies in black or pinch tank tops with witty marriage-related sayings followed behind their queen bees, brides-to-be dressed in revealing white outfits, more often than not, with cowboy boots and a hat. They marched/stumbled through the streets like they owned the city. Inside, I had to elbow my way to the bar and my rather tall male friends were groped as they tried to wrap their heads around what was happening. It was all a tad surreal.

Nashville MuralOf course, outside the wild nights of downtown, Nashville is a beautiful city with abundant public art, a wide variety of restaurants and a strong culture.  I think the murals left the strongest impression, representing a commitment to artistic expression in both music and art. Below barely scratches the surface of Nashville’s many offerings, as I was in the city for a mere 46 hours. Truthfully, the best part of the weekend was sitting on the porch and chatting with my longtime friends, but since that’s of no help to you, here are a few reviews that might guide you to good times:

BAR: Craft Brewed Beer

2502 Franklin Pike, Nashville, TN 37204

After we dropped off our bags on the first night, we headed out for some libation to accompany our catching up. This self-titled “Bottle Shop and Tasting Room” features  shelves of alcohol, a stand-up bar and a wall of beers to choose from. My beer-loving friends had no complaints as they picked from the wide variety. A non-beer lover myself, I was content with the cider in tap, though I warn you there is no wine. I hadn’t had dinner and for some reason the only place open nearby was a Little Ceasar’s.  All seemed lost until I saw a golden savior in the corner – a dispenser full of goldfish!  Self-serve and paid with a donation,  goldfish in a cup was the perfect snack. We sat on the outside deck until it closed at 1am.

img_2638Vanderbilt Campus

My friend, a Ph.D. student at Vanderbilt, showed me around his campus and lab. Shaded by thick, vibrant green trees, it felt like a campus from the movies. His roommate calls it “dark”, but I’d just say there’s ample shade. Modern art statues pop up here and there. The lab… was a lab (as it should be). But we got to walk through a very cheery, decorated children’s hospital to get there.

Downtown Franklin

If you’re into quaint downtowns and gift shops, head to nearby Franklin, TN for a few hours.  Check out more here:  (http://downtownfranklintn.com/)  We spent a few hours here at my friend’s recommendation after driving through (over? beside?) Natchez Trail. If you’re more hike-minded, wikipedia says this area encompasses a section of a 440 mi trail.


the row nashville110 Lyle Ave, Nashville, TN 37203

We skipped the more crowded #1 Hot Chicken restaurant across the street for a 0 min wait time at The Row.  My two friends were positive they wouldn’t have been able to tell the difference between the two hot chickens, though they don’t claim to be experts.  The restaurant is split into two: the bar with live music and the separate restaurant with more tables and booths. We didn’t stay at the loud bar so that we could talk and catch-up, but I did like how high the ceiling was and the amount of windows. Basically, it was live music and a country bar, without a dark, claustrophobic feel.

the row nashvilleThe main dining room is decorated with wall paper highlighting the musicians and songwriters who were discovered there over the years. My friends had hot chicken, but I took a light route with a delicious pecan salad and a pickled deviled eggs taster appetizer. Warning: the jalapeño margarita is TOO hot.

Broadway: Drinks and Dancingnashville baby

Most major cities have a main drag… a street lined with restaurants, bars and clubs that serves as a hub for debauchery into the late hours.  Broadway is that street for Nashville.  The fun local twist is the abundance of live music, and if you get there in time, a good number of leather boot stores. And no need to fear, the souvenir shops stay open late. We bounced around the street getting the general feel before settling on The Stage.

img_2653BAR: The Stage

The live music pours out onto the street, so you’ll know what you’re getting before you walk in. The dance floor is large, and there’s second floor balcony in case you want to chill and watch the dancers below. The long bar, and additional small bar across the room, help the crowd get their drinks fairly quickly. It has a strong southern flavor, with a few couples dancing in the center, but mostly caters to a young, party crowd. We had a good time besides the predatory bachelorette party girls.


333 Union St, Nashville, TN 37201

BRUNCH!!!! Clean, bright, and popular at around 11:30am on Sunday.  All the other places we called had a 30 minute wait, but I don’t think we could have asked for more.  A diverse menu of interesting options at reasonable prices kept me happy.  I had a Florentine Eggs Benedict… nothing unique… but the Grits of the Day was chorizo and green pepper – mind-melting good!

Opryland Resort

2800 Opryland Dr, Nashville, TN 37214

Oh boy. To those outside the country music universe, you may not fully understand what this is… The Grand Ole Opry started as a radio show in 1925 and has grown into country’s most famous stage, featuring classic artists and today’s hottest chart toppers.  The Gaylord Opryland Resort is a massive, nearby hotel/botanical garden/amusement park/convention center hybrid. Essentially, it is a hotel with its inner walls connected, and the massive courtyards they create are covered like a greenhouse. The courtyards include “outdoor” restaurants, tropical plants, winding pathways, a mini-town center, and even a short waterway with a boat ride. It feels a bit like you’re walking through a Southern-themed Disney World. However, with the only ride – the slow-moving boat – being priced between $7-12, don’t think that there is much to do besides observe your surroundings and maybe grab a drink. Not too far from the airport, this may be a fun place to kill sometime on your way home.

**Pro-tip – skip the $23 parking by using the mall parking lot next door. There is a gap in the wall between the mall and the hotel.

Overall, Nashville is a nice stop, but would probably be even more satisfying with someone who lives there or has an inside scoop on what to do when.

On the Road in South India


Some may point to the food or the clothing as the most obvious signs of difference between the North and the South, but for me it was encapsulated in the sights along our drives from destination to destination. While the north can be brown and dry, the south is green and lush.  While the north lets color pop in their saris, turbans and trucks, the south lets the color spill onto their homes and businesses. From the road you can see the region’s lifeline – its agriculture – paddies of rice, feilds of sugarcane, and forests of coffee and tea. Here’s just a glimpse at the sight from our short trip in the south. As you can see, there’s one thing that does stay consistent between north and south… Indians try to fit ALOT on their bikes.


Walking through coffee bushes in Karnataka

Everyone loves that sweet smell of coffee! Well honestly, I didn’t… until I started working 9am to 7pm in Hollywood, then I needed that caffeine to get me over the 3pm slump. Like many, I started with coffee strangled by too much sugar and milk. I’ve weaned myself off and have started to appreciate the flavor itself (though some say it’s just caffeine addiction helping me swallow a bitter taste).  But no matter your personal feelings, you have to admit that coffee and tea crosses all cultures and societies. It brings people together. And much of the fun of loving something, especially food or drink, is knowing where it came from and how it got to you. If you’re looking to find the origin of coffee and tea from India, Chikmagalur in Karnataka is the perfect place to start!


Here are some tidbits on coffee production in India, to help put this all in context:

Coffee production in India is dominated in the hill tracts of South Indian states, with the state of Karnataka accounting 71% followed by Kerala 21% and Tamil Nadu 5% of production of 8,200 tonnes. Indian coffee is said to be the finest coffee grown in the shade rather than direct sunlight anywhere in the world. There are approximately 250,000 coffee growers in India; 98% of them are small growers.

Before we get to the plantations, let’s take a look at where you can stay…

The Serai Resort

 Mugthihalli Post, K M Road, Chickmagaluru, Karnataka 577133, India

Inspired by coffee, owned by Coffee Day and designed to be a complete resort, this hotel has all the amenities you could want. Some room have private pools, though a large pool sits at the center of the resort. There is a game room, spa and restaurant. I enjoyed a 30 minute massage for a very responsible $20. We played ping pong in the game room and sipped a cup of coffee while enjoying the view. However, I warn you against the restaurant for meals. Ours took close to an hour to get and the appetizer arrived with the meal. And though they are striving to provide international dishes, they won’t be worth the wait or price by a long shot. Just stick with the Indian dishes – perhaps they’d arrive faster? Otherwise, we wished we could have spent more time in the magazine-worthy rooms and resort.


Badra Estates Coffee Plantation

Through some family connections, we were lucky to have a behind-the-scenes tour at Badra Estates & Industries Ltd. A quick review of the process – When the red coffee cherries are ripe, they are hand-picked. They do through a “wet process” where they are de-pulped.  Laid out, the beans then dry with workers turn them to prevent spoiling. Afterwards, the beans go through a hulling process that makes sure to remove the outer parchment before they are weighed, measured and graded.  Then comes the best part – the taste test.  Here are a few steps in the process:

coffee bush

coffee berries

de-puling coffee berriescoffee beans


coffee plantation13319970_10103954343370990_6211609253107709812_n



A pleasant surprise was a short tour of the housing and schools for the workers and their families.  Japanese investors insisted that 10% of their investment be spent on charitable causes for the workers.IMG_0143






The executives and workers were kind, welcoming and accomodating. Checking out a tea plantation was also an option, but keep in mind that the distance between destinations can often take 2-3 hour. After an hour or two, we had to head back to Bangalore (if I remember correctly, it was a 5-6 hour drive). I would say that these visits are worth it for the curious coffee drinker. However, they’re not a simply day trip from Bangalore, so make sure it’s an interest for everyone in your party before planning a detour.





Deepika Padukone serenaded us as we drove into Hassan, the upbeat songs of Bollywood hit movie Chennai Express playing on the DVD player in our van. Though a fan of Bollywood, I find this blockbuster hit to be grating (see my review here), but I have to admit it was getting a glimpse of a film-version of the south as we were driving through the reality.  Also, I’ve loved Deepika since Om Shanti Om, a much more enjoyable Shahrukh Khan film. I suggest checking either film out if you ever have over 3 hours to spare.


Karnataka drive mapFrom Mysore to Hassan to Halebidu to Belur to Chikmaglur, it was a long day peppered with stops along the way. Please trust your driver’s sense of drive times instead of google’s! In India, not all roads are created equal for all kinds of vehicles and drivers. From Mysore, it was a morning’s drive to…

Lunch – Jewel Rock Hotel (in HAssan)


This unassuming budget hotel was trusted by our driver as a good quick stop for lunch. They proved him right with an incredibly cheap, but delicious meal. We each had a Thaali – a large silver dish with many small bowls of food that make up a complete meal.  It’s like a buffet on a plate.  As usual, you choose between the veg and non-veg. I believe I had the non-veg and enjoyed; but as usual, I suggest you make an educated decision about choosing the meat option based on where you are located.  The waiters and a few other patrons hovered and starred, but for 35 Rs a thaali (as in 60 cents!!!) how could you possibly go wrong?

Then it was another chance of driving to reach…

hoysaleshwara temple

Halebidu, Hassan District, Karnataka

IMG_6694This temple built around 1120 CE is carved from a dark grey soapstone.  Stepping inside where it’s dark and cool, you feel its age.  For me, it was one of the moments when I was emotionally impacted by the amount of work and artistry that went into every inch of it, and the thought of generations of visitors who had been there before me.  The outside is just as impressive, with entire battles being described in carvings around the temple.  One tier even has a line of carved elephants being ridden by soldiers.  Another by soldiers on fearsome rhino-like creature. But don’t touch!  The soapstone is extremely soft – don’t be the jerk who leaves a mark.

These types of temples are emblematic of the Hoysala Empire, which ruled the area between the 10th and 14th centuries and contributed significantly to the area’s arts and architecture. The name Hoysala has more of an origin legend, than an origin story.  ‘Hoy’, which means ‘strike’, may come from the story of a young man-turned warrior who saved his guru (or teacher) by striking a lion dead outside a temple. Historians don’t think it’s a coincidence that this story closely matches the empire’s emblem of the warrior Sala striking a tiger, the symbolic animal of the Cholas, an army defeated by King Vishnuvardhana. Also of note are the Jain influences on Hoysala society, another fascinating South Asian religion, which deserves its own post.

Then it’s 30-45 min ride to…

Chennakesava temple

Belur, Hassan District, Karnataka

I won’t lie… I was pretty temple’d out.  So was my husband. So the rest of the party went inside, while we wandered the perimeter of the wall, taking a few pictures and eating chips. We ran into some school kids, who I chatted with for a bit. They were a bit surprised when I told them my walking companion was my husband (see picture below). Inside is a complex of soapstone rooms, temples, shrines, etc. Definitely check it out if you haven’t been visiting temples for 1 1/2 weeks already. Here’s a few facts from Wikipedia to make up for my lack of knowledge:

  • Chennakesava (lit, “handsome Kesava”) is a form of the Hindu god Vishnu

    From the internet
    From the internet
  • Some scholars believe King Vishnuvardhana VIII commissioned the temple to surpass his overlord, King Vikramaditya VI of the Western Chalukya Empire (who ruled from Basavakalyan), after his initial military victories against the Chalukyas According to another theory, Vishnuvardhana was celebrating his famous victory against the Chola dynasty of Tamil country in the battle of Talakad (1116 AD).
  • Within the complex, the Chennakesava temple is at the centre, facing east, and is flanked by the Kappe Channigraya temple on its right, and a small Sowmyanayaki (form of the goddess Lakshmi) temple set slightly back. On its left, also set slightly back is the Ranganayaki temple.

By the water

Our guides took us a ghat (a series of steps that lead to a river, often a holy river) to show us a different side of the region.  Approaching the river were some unattended stalls with snacks and toys. Few people were visiting, as you can see below. At first, I thought this would be a good education on the range of Indian landscape, but had a different lesson for us. As we walked up to the waters edge, I had a bit of a shock and pulled my family back in warning. Floating in the water, perhaps for days, was a dead man. Someone had covered his face with a newspaper. Our guides asked around and heard that the authorities had already been called. To our shock, no-one around us seemed disturbed. To our right, a family was performing a ceremony in which a son or brother releases their father/brother’s ashes into the river. Apparently, the dead body was too unremarkable or common to greatly affect anyone. They continued about their business, except to stay on the opposite side of the ghat. In addition to a comment about their familiarity with he circle of life and death, I wondered if it spoke to their sense of health concerns. Why was no-one too bothered about the health implications of bathing in a river with a dead body?

In the end, I processed the moment as a chance for my family to see the wide range of India – its highs and lows. It may have contributed to their comments at the end of the trip that India contains the whole experience of human existence. Everything is shown at its fullest and purest – life, death, joy, sorrow, wealth, poverty, progress, history, beauty and ugliness.


Hassan does not land on most foreign traveler’s itineraries. The temples aren’t the oldest or biggest. But if you’re looking to do more than scratch the surface of the South and you have the time, stop by and see a different side of the country… beside it’s on the way to the coffee plantations!!!


Welcome to the tropical Kingdom of Mysore.  Lush and green, you start to wonder if you’re in paradise.  And when you drive up to the Winter Palace to stay the night, you may actually be convinced you’re a guest of the King.  Though not necessarily on a lot of first-timer’s to do list, don’t count this city out.

Mysore Palace

The Hotel – Lalitha Mahal Palace Hotel

No need to pinch yourself.  You’re not dreaming.  You’re about to stay in a palace.  Don’t misunderstand – this is still India.  Preservation efforts don’t seem to have the same funding as they do in Europe, so this palace-turned-hotel shows its age with cracked paint and a faint musty smell.  But when you walk down the corridors, most open to the air for relief from the heat, you can’t help but feel transported to a different time.  A hybrid of English architecture and regional tweaks, the palace was built in 1931 for the Maharajah’s guests (though it feels like it could have been built a few decades earlier.)  Atop a hill, it provides an impressive view.  Breakfast is in a blue two-story ballroom.  And it wasn’t even our most expensive night on the trip!  One memorable moment was stopping by the empty bar for a shared Kingfisher (beer).  The bartender has been working there for decades and is putting his son through engineering school in Germany.  He said the palace was really hopping on weekends when people came out from the city.  He also chatted about the unbelievable cost of having a daughter and throwing her wedding.  All around, an impactful experience.

Mysore City Palace

An expansive palace-turned-museum, Mysore City Palace is the second most visited tourist attraction in India with 6 million visitors annually!  Tickets for foreigners are about $3.50 each.  No photography is allowed inside.  And watch out for tours of “secret” rooms… there have been reports of bribes.  Oh – you also have to take your shoes off!  Anything in the name of preservation!  It truly is beautiful.  The floor to ceiling peacock room was a highlight for me.

chamundeshwari temple

Something you’d notice without the help of a blog is a prominent architectural difference between Hindu temples in the north and south.  In the south, the temples feature an ornate monumental tower with many tiers decorated with images/statues, called a gopuram.  This temple was our first chance to visit the southern architecture up-close and personal.  As always, you leave your shoes behind to go into the temple.  After you offer your fruit and flowers to be blessed, you are supposed to dispose of them with respect – put the flowers in your hair and eat or share your fruit.  This is a working temple with very few tourists, but many locals and pilgrims.

This temple sits on top of the Chamundi Hills.  Half way down, stop by the Sri Nandi Temple – a 5 meter tall statue of a bull, the mount of Lord Shiva.

Sri Nandi TEmple – Bull statue

Decorated in yellow and orange carnations, the statue is quite the sight. Carved from a single block of stone in 1858, it’s one of the largest Nandi statues in India and sits at the foot of the long set of stairs the leads to the main temple up the hill.  At its feet was a young man carving stone figurines from a chunk of rock, right before our eyes.

St. Philomena’s cathedral

Looking for some culture clashes?  Check out the neo-gothic Catholic cathedral built in 1936 to resemble the Cologne Cathedral in Germany.  I have lots of thoughts on the overlap of Hinduism and Catholicism, but one that is very clear is the decoration and veneration of statues; in this case statues of saints.  Saint statues are adorned in garlands of fake neon flowers and bright Christmas lights.  My absolute favorite was a completely made-up scene as a black felt painting depicting Mary bringing Jesus to America on either the Nina, Pinta or Santa Maria.  As this is a working church, the crowd and street can be a bit overwhelming.  The beggars were also unrelenting, so have your driver stay nearby and ready.

There was another temple that we opted out of once we arrived.  The ground was muddy and mixed with trash.  The locals and the pilgrims were a bit more unruly.  As shocking as it sounds, you can burn out from temples, forts and palaces, so we passed on this one without feeling too guilty.

Brindavan Gardens

Guided by some city officials, we visited these terraced gardens adjacent to the Krishnarajasagara Dam.  Large steps climb up a hill and a fountain flows downward creating what must be an epic site in the daytime.  A very public place for the locals to hang out, there were families relaxing and gaggles of teenagers wandering, joking and flirting with each other.  Vendors with snacks and light up toys at the front gate make it feel like a low key amusement park – like the Tivoli Gardens in Copenhagen. I know these pictures are terrible, but we only arrived after dark and apparently that means I lose all sense of good framing.

Outside the city

Google Tipu Sultan to brush up on this well loved leader who died defending his kingdom from the British.  He is central to two tourist attractions outside of Mysore.

Tipu sultan Museum at srirangapatna

I’m having a hard time confirming exactly what the historic building that now holds the museum used to be.  Hand painted with murals depicting Tipu Sultan’s battles, the building itself is a work of art.  Due to the fragile medium of the art, the entire building is shaded from the sun and photography is not allowed (though I took two non-flash photos).  Inside are the ruler’s clothing, weapons and sketches of both his battles and his seven sons.

The Gumbaz

The Gumbaz at Seringapatam is a Muslim mausoleum at the center of a landscaped garden, holding the graves of Tippu Sultan, his father Hyder Ali and his mother Fakr-Un-Nisa. It was originally built by Tippu Sultan to house the graves of his parents. Tippu was himself allowed to be buried here by the British, after his death in the Siege of Seringapatam in 1799.  The visit was short and peaceful, except for the stomach issues which had me focusing on other things…  Just a note: They don’t have European toilets and you have to pay a few rupees for entrance to the bathroom.

This was just the beginning of my eye-opening introduction to the South!


Lights. Camera. Action.  This vibrant metropolis is the home of Bollywood, but it would be a mistake to assume that it is its only attraction.  I lived here for 6 weeks in 2007.  The length of time and the freedom I had to wander meant I came across a number of unforgettable places and experiences that didn’t show up in the tour guide.  There was the Jewish Synagogue taken care of by a barefooted Rabbi, the Anand Chaturdashi festival (in which Hindus flock to the beach to submerge Ganesh statues in the ocean) and the Dahi Handi festival (in which Hindus create a massive human pyramid to break a hanging clay pot).  These incredible experiences  highlighted the character, diversity and spiritual commitment of the city’s inhabitants.

Pro Tip: September is a good time to visit – it is post-monsoon and you can try to catch the very visual and inclusive Anand Chaturdashi and Dahi Handi festivals.

Unfortunately, I can not give as thorough a review of this city re: this trip as I have the others.  We were in Mumbai for one purpose only – a wedding reception for my In-Law’s closest friends and family. We landed in the afternoon, had the reception that night and left for Bangalore in the morning.  However, the story is worth telling as a glimpse into a few cultural differences.  So here goes.

Mumbai airportFirst of all, the Mumbai International Airport is gorgeous.  The terminal we landed in was an airport/art museum hybrid with much care, attention and space given to design elements.  An hour long ride away from the heart of the city brought us to Thane, a city considered part of the Mumbai Metropolitan Region.  Immediately, you can tell the difference from the North.  It is lush, green and waterlogged with dark stains indicating the flow of water on the city’s forest of high rise apartments.

Hotel – Satkay residency

DSCN1341We chose this luxury hotel so we could hold a larger event, as well as be close to family.  This hotel is not in the heart of the city, so make sure to Google!  The rooms were large and clean.  The hotel has an impressive feel, but Trip Advisor reviews complain about service.  From the 20 minutes it took for us to get some tea when we arrived, I’ll believe them.

The indian wedding reception

Weddings and family are extremely important in Indian culture, therefore a reception for the family that wasn’t able to make it to America for the wedding is a requirement (a very fun requirement).

India ShoppingWhen I arrived, we discovered that the gold jewelry had not made its way from New Delhi to Mumbai.  I was very go-with-the-flow, but for my MIL this was a 5 alarm fire.  My mom, MIL and one very early guest grabbed our driver and were dropped of at the local mall.  I could have spent days in the mall with a mixture of Indian and European stores; but we had a mission – necklace, bangles and clip earrings, the latter being the ultimate challenge.  Rushing, running, buying and we were back out front… with no driver in sight.  Time was ticking, and I had 30 minutes to get ready.  We ditched the driver who wasn’t answering his phone and the 4 of us adult women squeezed into a rickshaw.  Sitting on her lap, I made friends very quickly with our guest.  Back at the hotel, I changed into my lengha with impressive speed (if I may say so myself).

Sri and I entered the banquet hall to the cheers of 130 of my In-Laws friends, family and colleagues.  After numerous intros, we were seated on a couch at the front of the room and the pictures began!  The group photos only lasted about an hour and half, much shorter than I’ve heard about other receptions where the couple can be taking pictures for 3-4 hours.  The vegetarian buffet was delicious, and my father and FIL made quick speeches.  What Indian party is complete without some dancing?  We decided to play the wedding video of the Indian dance, but it would not satisfy the enthusiastic masses.  So, we decided to dance our American Wedding dance to Thinking Out Loud, which we had practiced until muscle memory had set in.  The dance included a lift, a dip,… you name it. Not good enough.  It was Bollywood dance or bust!  So we made an announcement lowering expectations, and went for it.  It fell apart at the end, but I think we passed the test since the dance floor open and everyone boogied down.  Somewhere there is incriminating video of this; but for now, you’ll just have to live with this:


The next morning we were up and out… on our way to Bangalore!