Category Archives: India

5K Fun Run in Goa

Extended travel can lead one to extreme lethargy. Compound that with spending time in what is known as the most laid back place in India – Goa – and it’s a recipe for widening waist lines. In Goa, even the street dogs take it easy, refusing to move from their naps in the middle of the street. Siestas (thank you our Portuguese colonizers for this most wonderful contribution) are still practiced and no dinner is complete without soup, followed by a full meal and a selection of desserts. Staying fit in this environment has to be an active decision. Our early attempts at doing this were marginally successful.

We’ve been trying to replicate certain activities we do at home to help us assimilate into our various destinations. Organized runs, such as the Malakoff 12K that Sandeep ran in Kuala Lumpur are a good way to do what the locals do. In Goa, where we’re doing just fine assimilating to the slower pace of life, it took all our strength to sign up for a run. There was a 5K as well as a half marathon, but we opted for the 5K ‘fun run’. Actually, Sandeep originally signed up for the half marathon and then blamed a cold for scaling down at the last moment.

The run was at a local technology college and, even though the event was open to the public, most of the runners were students. In true Goan style this was the most laid back event either of us has experienced. First, the website said start time was 7 AM. At 6:55, this was the scene.

At 7:15, volunteers casually called people to a nearby speed bump, which we realized was supposed to be the starting line. This was a stark contrast to the Kuala Lumpur run, where people were stretching and intense for a solid hour pre-race. Sandeep and I were the only ones stretching. Everyone else was hanging out, chatting in large groups and taking pictures.  They showed no indication that they were about to run.

At 7:30, an organizer asked everyone and no one in particular if we were all ready and then told us to “go”. It was the first time that we started at the front line of a run, but within minutes swarms of eager people bounced ahead of us. Sandeep gave up staying at my slow pace and went ahead of me as well. People passed me in droves. Even a few walkers shimmied right by as I huffed along. Then suddenly around the third kilometer people stopped overtaking. The gap between me and the person in front seemed to get increasingly wider.

I had that sinking feeling that I was going to be the last person to finish. Only the cows were going slower.

At least I had a sympathetic ‘Keep it up!’ from the volunteers at our turnaround point.

And then slowly the distance closed and I started passing dozens of people walking, some limping, and a few sitting by the side of the road. I finished off somewhere in the middle of the pack, with the realization that slow and steady may not win the race but it likely won’t put anyone last.

I asked Sandeep “How does this run compare to the 12K in Kuala Lumpur?”

Sandeep: I felt like I was in a Nike commercial in Kuala Lumpur. In Goa I felt that people were there to have fun. Most everyone was running in groups, sprinting for a a minute and then laughing and catching up for another. The Kuala Lumpur run was more organized in the sense that it had a DJ, clear directions, and started on time. This would have been a great run to do with a bunch of friends though.

Diya: Funny. You had me to run with and took off anyway.

Sandeep: I just wanted to get to the finish line to get your picture.


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Ava the Artist and Kayan the Dancer

Most Indians (and I’ll venture to say most Asians) can relate to growing up with the expectation that they will be one of three things – a doctor, an engineer, or a lawyer. There is a high bar on professional expectations and apparently the more protracted the education, the better. It’s an exceptional Indian parent that will foster a child’s love for dance or art strongly enough to encourage a profession. The premise is understandable. We want our children to be happy, but we don’t want them to struggle. Historically, medicine, engineering and law provided stable and lucrative careers. More and more Indian parents in our generation are softening their stance. Perhaps they, like us, realize that being happy in a career is just as important a measure of success as stability or money.

On our travels we’ve met many people who we view as having ‘dream’ jobs. There’s Meaow, our Thai cycling guide. She loves the outdoors and is a natural at showing people around Chiang Mai. My high school friend, Christopher Saleem Agha Bee, owns a restaurant in Goa and hosts a cooking show. In addition to travel and food writing, what Chris does tops my list of dream jobs. Chris went to culinary school in New York and worked at a hotel for a while before striking out to start Sublime. It’s now featured on any list of top Goa restaurants. His cooking show gets up close and personal with local cuisine from all over Asia. He’s got the talent to create this fluffy chocolate stuffed philo bon bon, smeared with vanilla ice-cream goodness and sprinkled with juicy fruits. This kind of talent should be encouraged.

So how far will Sandeep and I go to encourage Ava and Kayan’s talents? Will we really support Ava if she wants to be an artist? It wouldn’t surprise us if she did – she loves to paint and draw and talent runs in the family. My grandmother is a fabulous artist herself and she and Ava have been spending hours drawing flowers together.

Will we support Kayan if he wants to be a dancer?

We’d like to think the answer is yes, but it’s easy to be idealists when our kids are far from actually needing to support themselves. An artist or a dancer probably works much harder than a lawyer, engineer or doctor to be successful. But if you’re doing what you love, is that so bad?


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Celebrating the Holi Festival of Colors in Goa

We always tell Ava and Kayan that paints and markers do not belong on their bodies. So how did we end up like this?

Having lived outside of India most of our lives, Sandeep and I have missed the extravaganza of Indian festivals. The two most exciting ones are Divali, the festival of lights, and Holi, the festival of colors. We timed our India trip so that we could celebrate Holi in Goa.

Holi is a Hindu celebration of spring and is observed according to the lunar calendar. The event falls during a full moon in February or March. People don’t celebrate Holi as much as play it. The night before Holi, people gather to sing and dance around large public bonfires. The fun really begins the following morning, when the streets of India turn into one giant colorful water fight. Tamer players smear powdered dye on each other, while the more adventurous ones mix it with water, fill up their squirt guns and indiscriminately spray anyone within reach.

Everyone is fair target.

Our island had holi band that made the rounds through the houses – singing, dancing and throwing color. Here they are in our courtyard.

We’re starting a new family tradition of celebrating Holi no matter where in the world we are. This is an open invitation to you for March 27, 2013. Just don’t put on your Sunday best.

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Celebrating Kayan’s Second Birthday in Goa

Our little baby just turned two, and we came back to India from Myanmar just in time to watch him try to his best to blow out his candles. Since Ava turned one, I’ve taken great pride in baking each one of the kids’ birthday cakes. Since we are on the road, I decided to outsource Kayan’s cake to the local baker in Goa. I asked Kayan what kind of birthday cake he wanted, to which Ava replied “soccer ball!” And Kayan echoed “soccer ball!” The soccer ball request brought a look of confusion to the Indian baker’s face until we remembered that, outside the U.S., it’s football. Unfortunately the gluten-free request didn’t go very far, but we ended up with a perfect wheat-filled football strawberry shortcake.

As the youngest members, Ava and Kayan are celebrities of sorts within our extended family. Two of my cousins even flew in for Kayan’s birthday extravaganza. Hopefully the star treatment doesn’t go to his head.

We’re back in Goa and what better way to celebrate a two year old’s birthday than on one of the area’s beaches.

The kids enjoyed the water while the adults basked in the sun and chowed seafood, including the biggest crab I have ever seen.

Some people have lamented that Ava and Kayan won’t remember much of this journey. However, most of our eventual personalities are formed by the time we are six years old. Kayan is a third of the way there. Even if Kayan doesn’t remember the places we’ve been, the people we’ve met or the things we’ve seen, I hope that this year plays a meaningful role in shaping who he and Ava become. I can’t say how this journey has impacted the kids, but I know that at two, Kayan is a confident, adaptable, and adventurous soul. We’d like to think a lot of that has been formed while on the road interacting with people from all over the world. Sometimes he drives us insane, but all in all I think he’s shaping up to be a nice young man.


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Kerala Stew Recipe

A Minor Diversion’s posting frequency will fall until February 23rd. We are in Myanmar, where internet access is not a guarantee. I’ve set up these posts to go live while we are away. Even though they are about our time in India, I didn’t want to miss sharing some final Kerala experiences with you. We’ll have stories from Myanmar once we are back.

The term spice usually conjures up thoughts of fiery tongues. In reality, spices are varied. No place in the world offers a bounty as rich as India. In addition to black peppercorns (which can cause one to run for water), spices include such sweet things as cinnamon, cloves, cardamom, anise seed and nutmeg. In terms of global spice production, India contributes over 80 percent.

Kerala land is so fertile, that spices grow everywhere, and pepper vines seem to crawl up every available tree. Most houses here harvest some spices on their own property. This drying pepper was just outside a small village house by Allepuzha.

In addition to the unavoidable black pepper and green chilies, spices find their way into almost every Kerala dish. My ultimate favorite is stew, which showcases several spices in a light coconut gravy. This is the dish Amma prepared the first time I met Sandeep’s parents. After falling in love with him, this dish had me falling for Amma too.

Stew is easy on the tongue since the black peppers and green chilies remain relatively intact, adding just enough warning so you know they exist. Stew can be made with vegetables, mutton or fish. Here is a step by step guide taken as I follow Amma along.

The spices are set aside in two equal batches. One will be boiled with the mutton, another will be roasted to the make the gravy. The spices include about a tablespoon each of whole black pepper, whole cardamom, and whole cloves, along with several broken sticks of cinnamon.

2 pounds of cubed mutton, with bones, are cooked with half the spices, a teaspoon of salt and a tablespoon of vinegar (or lemon juice) until the meat is tender.

The remaining spices are roasted in a heavy pan. A mix of 2 large sliced onions, 2 inches of chopped ginger, 4 large crushed garlic pods, two sprigs of curry leaves and four sliced green chilies (or less if four sounds scary) are then added and sautéed until the onions are soft. A couple of carrots and potatoes can be added in at this point if you want vegetables.

The sautéed mixture is added to the meat and cooked until the potatoes are done. Lastly, two cups of coconut milk are added, with two quartered tomatoes. The stew simmers for another few minutes (but is never allowed to boil) and the dish is ready. My experience is that letting the stew rest for a while results in a stronger infusion of the spices into the coconut milk

Stew is traditionally served with appam, a rice pancake cooked in a small wok (likely a handover from Chinese influence in the area). Appam can be made from scratch, but in this case Amma uses a packet. One ladle of mixture is spooned into the middle of the wok, and then with an elegant twist of her wrists, Amma swirls the batter.  The result is a lacy frill and pillowy center, perfect for soaking the stew.

The stew brims with the flavors of the spices. I learned that it is perfectly acceptable to push aside the spices and just enjoy the gravy, vegetables and meat. A mouthful of cloves and cardamom is overwhelming, even to a Malayalee. I’ve had stew all over Kerala, but Amma still gets the best results out of her spices. Here is Kayan, blissfully passed out on her lap after filling his belly with a stew meal.

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Scenes from a Kerala Temple

A Minor Diversion’s posting frequency will fall until February 23rd. We are in Myanmar, where internet access is not a guarantee. I’ve set up these posts to go live while we are away. Even though they are about our time in India, I didn’t want to miss sharing some final Kerala experiences with you. We’ll have stories from Myanmar once we are back.

Just before we left Kerala, we made a visit to a the 500 year old Thirunakkara Shiva Temple, dedicated to Lord Shiva. Hindus bathe before their morning offerings, and we were up early to do the same. In fact, the results of a morning temple visit make it easier to recognize a Hindu. Women usually have wet open hair. Men drape cloth around their shoulders since they are expected to be bare chested at the temple. Both men and women also have ashes on their foreheads, received from the priest inside the temple once their offerings have been made.

Pictures are only permitted around the temple compound, not in the main temple. A temple compound usually has a few small structures that house deities around the main temple. Every Hindu temple in India has several diyas (yes, that’s where my name comes from). A diya is an oil lamp, used in temples, for festivities and general decoration. This one hangs in front of the original stone temple structure and wooden door.

In one corner of the temple were several hundred year old snake status bathed in salt and turmeric. The mixture is an offering to cool the snakes in hopes of preventing future attacks (actual and metaphorical). In Kerala, where snakes are prevalent, these statues were very heavily coated.

Around the temple grounds were priests and yogis in meditation. I didn’t want to impose with the camera, but was lucky to get this shot on our way out.

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Arranging Kerala Marriages

A Minor Diversion’s posting frequency will fall until February 23rd. We are in Myanmar, where internet access is not a guarantee. I’ve set up these posts to go live while we are away. Even though they are about our time in India, I didn’t want to miss sharing some final Kerala experiences with you. We’ll have stories from Myanmar once we are back.

The phone has been ringing in Sandeep’s parents’ house with offers of marriage. Sanoop, his brother, just turned 30 and it seems as though a sizable portion of Kerala is eager to snatch up a handsome bachelor who lives in Hong Kong.

I overhear my father-in-law saying “Kids these days make their own decisions” and “Let them contact each other directly and see if they are interested.” Luckily, Sandeep’s dad is pretty progressive and is not about to force the issue with Sanoop. He’s seen enough (Sandeep and I are a case in point) to know that kids do make their own decisions and will figure out their own interests.  A generation ago, arranged marriages involved parents making the decision for their children, and children eager to oblige. Couples, such as my in-laws didn’t meet until just before the marriage (and sometimes at the marriage). Marriages in Kerala are still arranged in many ways, but the process has adjusted to accommodate more involvement from the couple. To understand this better, I interviewed a woman who works in my father-in-law’s office.

Diya: Congratulations on your upcoming wedding. For how long have you wanted to get married?

Arya: I have been on Kerala Matrimony for a year, but only really looking for a few months.

Diya: How old are you?

Arya: 26

Diya: Why did you choose Kerala Matrimony over all the other marriage sites available? (There are aver two dozen sites focused on Kerala singles)

Arya: They have a large database. They let you browse matches for free so you can decide if you like something before you register. But you have to register to get the contact information. I looked for some time, but I wanted someone who lived abroad, so I wasn’t finding the right boy.

Diya: What country were you interested in?

Arya: It didn’t matter, I just knew I wanted to go abroad.

Diya: Can you walk me through the site?

Arya: There are some basic questions to be answered. (Arya clicks through what seem to be objective criteria for a mate: Gender, Age, Height, Marital Status, Religion, Caste, Country, Education and Horoscope.) Once you fill out the information you get your matches. If you like someone and you are not registered then you can pay some money and get more information. If you are still interested, the agency will see if your horoscopes match.  If the horoscopes match, then the families meet. (This is in accordance to Hindu horoscope, which factors in date, exact time and place of birth. It is a primary factor when Hindus determine compatibility.)

Diya: Were you in touch with him before your families met?

Arya: (Looking slightly taken aback) No! The families have to meet first and agree that this is a match for the families. My father, mother and brother went to his house and spoke to his parents. They learned about his family background. I was not there.

Diya: Did your parents question the website’s choice, the horoscope, or your decision that this was some one you were interested in marrying?

Arya: No, this is the culture here. Many people use Kerala Matrimony and they have a lot of success.

Diya: What is your to-be husband’s name and have you met yet?

Arya: Vijay. No, we have not met. Only once our parents were in agreement did we start corresponding. We email, Skype, are Facebook friends and talk on the phone. When he told me he was interested, we decided to get married. Our engagement is next month.

Diya: Congratulations! What are the engagement plans?

Arya: We are expecting about 100 people, only close family, from both sides. My father will give his father a marriage letter stating our names and addresses and intention to marry on April 14th.

Diya: So is that when you will meet Vijay in person?

Arya: No, Vijay will be in Dubai, so we will have the engagement without him. But I will see him before the wedding. He will be coming here on April 3rd.

Diya: Can I see his picture?

Arya: (Giggling and blushing like a schoolgirl) Sure!

Arya reacts just as any blushing bride would. Her face lights up when she mentions Vijay and she seems so excited to be married. She is one of the newer generation of Malayalees that screens her match before the parents are introduced to each other. Once her parents gave their support, her decision was final. She hasn’t really been romanced in the sense that many of us expect. Instead, her confidence in her decision is based on the qualities that she, and most Kerala women, value above all else – stability and families that get along.  Vijay has a good education, steady employment, and a compatible family. He lives abroad in Dubai so met that checklist as well.

It’s been too long since I was in the dating scene, so I am not going to make any judgement on Arya’s approach. It is certainly different in some ways than what I have been exposed to, but in many ways it’s the same. People all over the world are looking for their mates online. We all screen potential partners based on certain criteria. Most of us care what our parents think. What I like about Arya’s approach is that she is going into her marriage with fewer expectations that many people I know and she is ready to accept her spouse for who he is.

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Mastering Malayalam Names

A Minor Diversion’s posting frequency will fall until February 23rd. We are in Myanmar, where internet access is not a guarantee. I’ve set up these posts to go live while we are away. Even though they are about our time in India, I didn’t want to miss sharing some final Kerala experiences with you. We’ll have stories from Myanmar once we are back.

I am usually quick with languages. Though English is the only language in which I can claim currently proficiency, at some point in my life I have been fluent in French, Arabic, Japanese and (almost) Hindi. When we’ve traveled to Spanish, Portuguese and even Thai locations, I manage to pick up basic phrases to get by. I have never met a language as elusive as Malayalam. I can’t understand how Sandeep, who can’t even count to 10 in French (a language he studied for two years), can ramble on in Malayalam.

To me, Malayalam sounds like a long string of gargling. There doesn’t seem to be much room for punctuation. Just rambling on and on in rounded vowels peppered with the occasional gluttoral consonant. The fact that Malayalam is the longest palindrome should provide some warning in itself. Not to mention that the writing looks just as the spoken word sounds.

I’ve given up on the language. My tongue just refuses to twist like that and I don’t have enough lung capacity to hold my end of a conversation. Instead I am focusing my efforts on mastering names. This in itself requires time and dedication. So far, here are some of my learnings.

Everyone Has a Place

Kerala culture is still traditional and hierarchical. Unless someone is your equal in age and esteem, then they are referred to with some standing. For example, a wife will never refer to her husband by first name only, but add the suffix “cha” or “chayan” meaning elder brother. Amma calls Sandeep’s dad “Sunny Chayan”. I have never, in the 9 years I have known her heard her say “Sunny” even when referring to him in conversation. He, by contrast calls her “Eddy”, which literally translates into “she.” It’s not rude, it’s just the way a husband refers to his wife. Amma calls me “Diyakutty” and Sandeep Monei” which translates to “Diya little girl” and “little boy”.

Most People Have Nicknames

I don’t know much about the Kerala Hindu and Muslim practices, but in Christian households, almost everyone has a formal name such as “Thomas” “Joseph” or “Maria” but is also given a pet name such as “Jibu” “Tintu” or “Minu”. It is also highly fashionable to rhyme the nicknames within the family. Sandeep and his brother Sanoop are an example. Even more obvious is one branch of the family tree with four sisters named “Merin” “Sherin” “Terin” and “Jerin”.

Nicknames Stick

Many of these nicknames are given according to age and relative standing within the family. Some common ones are “Baby”, “Kochamol” meaning small girl or “Kunimon” meaning small boy. The family and entire village calls the person by their nickname, so as time passes, the formal name siezes to matter. This is how a 40 year old man ends up with the name “Kunimonchayan” which means small boy elder brother or a 90 year old woman with “Babykochamma” which means baby small mother.

Family Names are Usually Tongue Twisters

Traditionally, last names are the names of the family house. Padinjarekalathil and Kulathuvayalil are examples. These translate into “west property” and “pong paddy fields”, respectively. Today, most people adopt their nicknames as first names and formal names as last names. The family name, or house name, is used to explain where one is from and to which family tree he belongs. That’s how Sandeep’s father became Sunny Luke. If we’re being true to tradition, then Sandeep’s family name is Mattathilparambil. Somehow I don’t think I would have let go of my maiden name for Diya Mattathilparambil.

Cultural immersion usually requires language mastery. Unfortunately, for me, Malayalam has come with its challenges. In this case, if I manage to follow the names, I’ll consider myself somewhat immersed.


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Back to the Roots in Kerala

Sandeep fondly recalls tales of his youth in a Kerala village, Neercadu. He spent six years here as a kid, “playing with sticks, chasing chickens and riding bikes.” I had this bucolic notion of their family house and the reality did not disappoint. Neercadu is a small village, about two hours from Cochin. Everyone knows everyone. In fact, when I first visited eight years ago, the sight of a ‘foreigner’ was so foreign that several neighbors found excuses to stop by and find out what was going on.

As an outsider, what I love about Neercadu is that it still so traditional. The family house is one of the more modern ones in the area, but it still works in ways that are lost to most of us. Many things remain unchanged since Sandeep lived here over 20 years ago. The kitchen still uses a wood burning stove.

The well supplies all drinking and cooking water.

And food is still made the traditional way, without mixes and packets. This is the housekeeper grinding coconut and chilies into a chutney. The ingredients come from the garden.

The garden has almost everything needed to sustain – coffee, pepper, garlic and ginger. Papaya, mango, tapioca, plenty of bananas, coconuts and jackfruit.

Some things have changed in 20 years. The back plot is a paddy field that supplies rice, but it was recently sold when its upkeep proved too difficult for Amachee (Sandeep’s grandmother). The family used to also keep chickens and a cow, but now the shed is a garage. There was an outhouse, but now there are multiple bathrooms. And instead of doing the cooking, Amachee now has someone to cook for her.

As if answering a nostalgic call, Ava and Kayan instinctively picked up sticks from a tapioca tree and made a game of moving around stones, picking at the dirt and exploring the perimeters of the house. None of Sandeep’s family seemed perturbed by this. But I was worried about red ants, snakes, sharp objects… I suppose that’s what happens when a city girl goes to the village.

Sandeep beat a raw mango off a tree and we cut it up into tiny pieces to have with salt and red chili powder. It was tender, sweet, salty and sour. Amachee, who birthed five children on this land, said the dish is a favorite of pregnant women. Lucky us non-preggers can enjoy it too!



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Attending a Kerala Church Festival

If wanderlust is hereditary, then Sandeep definitely got his from Amma (his mom). She’s always up for any experience. She’s an wonderful travel companion and we invited her to spend time with us in Chiang Mai, Penang and Kuala Lumpur. In each place, she appreciate the local festivals but always added, “You should come see our church festivals in Kerala. They are soooo amazing.” Given her enthusiasm, we stayed in Kottayam long enough to participate in the largest local church festival, the Lourdes Church Perunal.

December to March is a festive season in Kerala. It’s the harvest season and the weather is at its best. Moods are up and festivities abound. Many churches in Kerala host perunal around this time to celebrate their faith.

Similar celebrations are held at Hindu temples and mosques. The roots of the perunal likely come from Hinduism, where it was tradition to host temple festivals and parade the temple idols to the river for a ritual bathing. Idols were protected with umbrellas, to symbolically mark their importance and protect them from the elements. Christians adopted the custom with their own figures.

Today, church perunals involve the parish marching from the church to the “mini church” and back, holding umbrellas over their heads, carrying statues, harboring candles and playing music. Every church, temple and mosque in Kerala has an outpost (I refer to it as the mini church), usually on the roadside. It offers an accessible and quick way for followers to pray and give offerings. For the Lourdes Church Perunal the round trip takes about two hours. When the procession returns to the church it is greeted with a fireworks display. The Lourdes procession is one of the largest in Kerala, and I estimated there were at least a thousand participants.  Everyone, young and old, filed in two neat rows, steadily supporting their umbrellas or holding their candles. Every few minutes, a drumming troop or statue would be sandwiched in between the rows. It’s the first time I have seen so many Indians behave in such an orderly manner.

The kids aren’t particularly fond of fireworks. “Too loud!” says Ava. “No like thunderstones,” protests Kayan. So we opted to just attend the processional. Parishenors of all ages participated, along with nuns and priests. Even non Christians who believe in the particular power of the church, in this case the miracle of Our Lady of Lourdes.


After two hours of drumming and festive color, the umbrellas were neatly folded and stacked at the church, patiently awaiting next year’s festivities.

We left before the fireworks, but the display was quite large and we caught a few bursts over the coconut trees on our way home. Amma was right, it was soooo amazing.


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