Category Archives: Religion

Our Visit Around Athens

Even  though we never made it to the Parthenon, we did a lot during our few days in Athens. We missed our Vouliagmeni sunsets so headed up to the highest point in Athens, Lykavittos Hill, located a few blocks from our apartment in Kolonaki, and watched the Parthenon welcome the night from afar (again).

The hill has a tiny church, Agios George, that overlooks the city.

In general, we have been very surprised by the quiet air in Athens. The largest crowd we saw was during our bike ride. Despite walking all over the city, we have yet to see a single protest. What we have noticed is that many stores are shut down, barricaded or have For Rent signs plastered on them. We have also seen anarchy graffiti everywhere. This is no doubt due to the Greek crisis. Despite this, the one place a visitor can count on finding company is a coffee house. No matter the time of day, there are always people sipping espresso, drinking frappes and reading papers. Notice how everyone is sitting against the wall so that they can do their share of people watching.

The city’s museums are working on reduced schedules as they can no longer afford to keep their staff full time. One thing that continues is the hourly changing of the guards at the parliament building.

Church also goes on and we paid a visit to Agios Dionnysios, dedicated to the first bishop of Athens. Kayan took church music as his cue to sing Katy Perry’s California Girls at the top of his lungs. Just when he belted out, “Daisy Dukes, bikinis on top,” we cowered out.

Athens is going through a hard time. People told us to be careful where we walked, watch our stuff and not to stay out late in unknown areas. Crime has been an issue since the Olympics but, in the wake of the crisis, has escalated. Despite the caution and quiet atmosphere, we enjoyed Athens. We also feel oddly good that we did our part to stimulate the Greek economy.  Our average meal in Greece has been 30 Euros ($37), far higher than any other country we have visited on our trip, including our standard spots in New York City. The three Luke girls leave happy.

And the three Luke boys are ready to protect us in the wilds of Namibia.


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Highway Altars in Greece

We were warned about erratic Greek drivers even before we got to Greece. When we rented a car, our apartment owner’s last words were, “be careful on the roads.” After driving in India, Sandeep felt that he could tackle anything. We persevered and had a great time driving along the Attica coast, even if we were the slowest car on a highway of whizzing Smart Cars and Lamborghinis that all seemed to be in a dangerous race.

The windy highway is sandwiched between mountains on one side and turquoise waters on the other. A few minutes into our drive we started noticing little altars on the road side. They reminded us a lot of the spirit houses in Thailand. We knew that the deeply Christian country (Greece is one of the few European countries that has a state religion) probably didn’t believe in spirit houses.

At first we thought these were small alters where drivers could stop and offer a brief prayer for safe journeys.

However, they seemed randomly scattered along the coast and more prevalent along blind curves – not the ideal place to stop a car.

What we learnt is that these little alters are either memorials for traffic victims or altars of thanks from near victims. Most of these highway altars are understated. Many are small whitewashed stone structures perched on painted oil drums. They have various offerings in them – flowers, candles, even bottles of wine.

During the drive, we thought these alters were tranquil and beautiful, especially the ones set against the backdrop of sea. Perhaps that is because we learnt of their background after we returned the rental car. Next time we are behind the wheel we’ll likely see them as a sign of caution on a street that otherwise seems open and free.

Here is some driving advice from Matt Barrett, the man behind Athens Survival Guide. His website is our online guide for everything Athens. “Driving in mainland Greece and on the Greek islands is a pleasure for those who know how to drive and especially those who know how to drive defensively. Driving in Athens is different. The most important thing to know is that following the rules is seen as a weakness of character by many Greek men who drive with the patience and consideration of a 13 year old drug addict in need of a fix.”

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Mosques in Istanbul

When Kayan and Ava first heard the muslim call to prayer they were scared. “Too loud!” proclaimed Kayan. “Is that the police?” asked Ava. The first few nights in Turkey, they were shaken awake by the sunrise prayer call. They have since learned about the prayers and now slumber until late morning. I find the call to prayer soothing. It reminds me of my childhood in Egypt. The night call is like a childhood lullaby to me.

We’ve spent a lot of time in religious houses during our trip. There were the Taoist temples in Penang, the Buddhist monasteries in Thailand and pagodas in Myanmar, and the synagogue, churches and Hindu temples in India. We had not yet paid homage to Islam until reaching Turkey.

Our first stop was Aya Sophia, which was built in 360 A.D. as a basilica, converted to a mosque in 1453 and then a museum in 1935. The massive Byzantine structure is said to have changed the face of architecture and remained the world’s largest cathedral for a thousand years. Today, motifs of Christ and Mary stand alongside Muslim scripture.

We tried to visit the famous Blue Mosque, but our arrival coincided with a call to prayer.  We spent time in the inner court yard where this scene of chatting women huddled against the ancient doors.

The crowds when we went back at the Blue Mosque were overwhelming, so we opted for the smaller and less tour visited Rustam Pasa, a 450+ year old mosque that has the country’s best preserved display of  Iznik tile work. While we were there, a Muslim woman started playing with Ava and Kayan, even taking them around the mosque for a walk while we sat in peace.

Just down the road from our apartment is the Kilic Ali Pasa. We pass it almost every day and a welcoming guard always smiles at us. Today we stepped inside to see its beautiful interiors. A man who just finished his prayers asked where we were from and welcomed us to explore the mosque.

We knew that Istanbul’s mosques are drenched in history and architectural greatness. However, we were at first reticent about visiting mosques that were not visibly open to tourists. Here is some etiquette that may help make a mosque visit feel more natural.

– Like most houses of worship, anyone is welcome into a mosque. Entrance is usually free but a donation for the mosque upkeep is a nice gesture.

– Even though most mosques are continuously open, it’s best not to visit during prayer times or on Friday mornings, which is when sermons are held. I remember having tourists taking pictures during our wedding in Cochin. It was highly annoying.

– Attire etiquette is similar to Buddhist houses of worship. Everyone should remove their shoes and wear clothing that goes below knees and elbows. Women should also cover their heads (as in their hair, not their entire faces).

– Just as in church, speak softly. Or sing softly if you are a toddler.

– Photography is acceptable but it’s probably better to ask for permission before taking pictures of people.

The bottom line is that mosques, at least those we visited in Istanbul, are open houses of worship. Everywhere we went, people welcomed us, happy that we came to respectfully appreciate their heritage.


Filed under Religion, Turkey

Living in Caves in Cappadocia

We spent three nights in a cave. We’ve had some unique accommodation during our trip, but sleeping in the caves of Cappadocia certainly tops the list so far. The area around Cappadocia is full of cave like sleeping options, be them underground, in mountainsides or in one of the thousands of ‘fairy chimneys’ that bubble up from the earth. These conical structures are what characterizes the topography of Cappadocia and make it one of the most sought after tourist destinations in Turkey. They were created over millions of years when consolidated volcanic ash was exposed due to continuous erosion.

The area has been inhabited for over four thousand years and reinvented by its many settlers. Between the ancient Hittite, Persian, Arab, Byzantine, Ottoman and Christian history, Cappadocia seems to be a place lost in time. Its landscape also gives it the illusion of being lost in space. We have not been on the moon (yet), but we’d imagine that it looks something like Cappadocia.

Over the past twenty years, Cappadocia’s most recent reinvention has been around the tourism industry. The fairy chimneys serve as homes as well as hotels, restaurants, hammans (bath houses), and stores. Towns, such as our temporary home of Goreme, have been built around the structures, to the point where it’s hard to tell where one chimney ends and a man made structure begins.

In addition to the bizarre landscape, the sense of spirituality left an impression on us. Up until a few hundred years ago, this area served to shelter Christians hiding from religious persecution. It was also in this region that Rumi and his resulting whirling dervishes spread their philosophy. Today, one can hear the frequent Muslim calls to prayer while visiting one of the many centuries old underground churches or monasteries. It all reminds us how far we have come – in many parts of the world at least – on religious tolerance. Most of us have the luxury of choosing what faith, if any, to follow. And with that, living in a cave can be a choice too.

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The Hittites Surprise Us in Mazi

In these days of guide books, travel websites, blogs and opinions galore, there are few travel experiences that catch us completely off guard. Once in a while there is an exception, such as our recent experience underneath the town of Mazi in Cappadocia.

As early as 1800 B.C., the Hittites built an elaborate system of underground caves and tunnels around Cappadocia. These cities were subsequently settled and expanded by Persians and Romans. Most recently they served as refuges for Christians, who were able to continue their faith in underground hiding from Persian and Arab rule.

We were warned that the tour crowds can make the known underground cities claustrophobic. Not wanting to give up on the experience, we asked our hotel owner whether we could see a less visited location. He suggested trying the newly excavated underground cities beneath the town of Mazi.

We almost missed Mazi, a town of just about 1,000. As we slowed the car, men leaving the town mosque after the mid day prayer gathered around to study us. We must have looked thoroughly confused because a burly man came up and introduced himself as the excavator, Issa.

Issa was extremely friendly, as most Turkish have been, particularly after noticing we have two kids in tow. He invited us for Turkish coffee inside what looked like a boarded up construction area. It all seemed rather suspicious, but the town was so unassuming that we figured we’d just go with the flow and see where things took us.

Issa and his crew have only excavated a small portion of Mazi and there is a lot that they still do not know about its inhabitants. What we do know is that thousands of years ago, these people had an advanced system of communicating, managing livestock and even mulling wine.  They had clay ovens that cooked their food and heated their homes, as well as and separate areas for sleeping, bathing and cooking. They managed to build cities that stretched five stories underground and two above, the ancient versions of our skyscrapers. Their architecture was complete with air vents, escape routes, and guillotines for the unwelcome and unexpected intruder.

We learnt that the Hittites had an elaborate hierarchical system and, it this conference room, the king entered through the big doorway, while his court bowed down to make it through the shorter entry.

The scale and sophistication of these cities given their age is unlike anything that we have ever experienced. Our appreciation was all the greater because we were treated to an intimate preview of the area, which few other tourists have seen. Next year, Mazi will formally open up to tourists. The dirt lot where Issa hosted us over coffee will be a ticket area. Visitors will get to see the underground cities beneath Mazi, but they won’t be treated to Issa’s hospitality and infinite patience. For now, Issa wants to share what he has already found with others and asked for our help to make a welcome sign.

We were Issa’s only visitors for that day. While we most definitely had an experience off the tourist route, it seemed somewhat ironic that by making the sign for Issa we played a role in putting Mazi on the tourist circuit for the rest of 2012.

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Layers of Temples In Bagan Myanmar

For the 230 years leading to 1287, Burmese kings commissioned over 4,000 Buddhist temples in the plains of Bagan. The building fest was triggered by the region’s shift from Hinduism and Mahayana Buddhism to Theravada Buddhism. At its height, Bagan was a vibrant religious and cultural center. The exact cause of Bagan’s decline is contested, but a combination of invasions and natural disasters (most recently a 6.5 Richter scale earthquake in 1975) compromised original structures and drastically reduced the population. Many of the temples have now been reconstructed, although historians claim with minimal respect for authenticity. The government relocated all remaining inhabitants of Old Bagan in 1990. Despite these controversies, Bagan remains what Marco Polo described as “one of the finest sights in the world.”

What makes Bagan so breathtaking is that thousands of temples lie in an area of just a couple of square kilometers. While each individual temple is less grand than the striking white and gold pagodas seen elsewhere in Myanmar, taken together the old brick structures for me rivaled sites such as the pyramids of Giza or Angkor Wat. Moreover, since Myanmar is still relatively new to mass tourism, it’s easy to explore the temples at a slow and leisurely pace, generally without the interruption of other tourists.

Bagan isn’t that far from Mandalay, but rather than fly the distance we opted to take the boat down stream on the Irrawaddy. There are local boats and tourists boats that make the journey. Usually we opt for local service, but in this case it meant adding another six hours to the ten hour journey so we went the tourist route. The trip was so comfortable that Sandeep set up is own home office, complete with coffee service, while I oscillated between a lounge chair on the open deck and stuffing myself with fish curry in the dining hall.

The trip down this portion of the Irrawaddy may lead one to believe that there are no people in Myanmar. Once out of the Mandalay area, the riverbank is isolated save for a few shacks and the occasional pagoda. Life on the river itself is pretty quiet, and we passed another boat every 10 minutes or so. Most of them were small row boats, each carrying one or two fishermen.

We approached Bagan at 6 PM, just in time to catch the sun setting over the temple town.

We only had one day in Bagan so got up early (as in 4:30 AM) to catch the sunrise. Cycling is the best way to explore the ruins but cycling in pitch dark back roads was a little more adventure than we planned. Many of Bagan’s quieter temples are either closed or have compromised structures, so it can be a challenge to find one to climb and watch the sun appear. Fortunately, we had a guide who knew of just the right temple, unmentioned in our guidebook, and led the way as we followed in the early morning darkness. The temple was deserted and steep stone internal stairs echoed ominously and smelled of bat droppings. But the view from the top was entirely worth it. As the sun stretched higher into the sky it revealed layers and layers of temples.

We decided to make the most of the early morning cool and cycle to some other temples. Luckily, at our first stop I befriended the ‘watch woman’ who had a daughter Kayan’s age. She also happened to hold keys to the gate of the internal staircase. For 1000 kyats (about $1) she was happy to unlock it. We had the temple to ourselves for an hour and made the most of its various vantage points. This particular temple was completely built from red brick, with the exception of the golden umbrella on its stupa.


Most of Bagan’s temples are quiet ruins. The few that are active temples hold fascinating relics such as dozens of miniature Buddha statues at Ananda temple. Every temple is an exploration sight, particularly for those who can brave the narrow and dark staircases and alleyways.

We continued our journey through side roads, catching glimpses of local life, such as this goat herder.

After cycling around some more the sun set in and we turned back to our hotel, where I treated my legs to a one hour massage for 4000 kyats ($5). Rejuvenated, we hopped on the bikes again to catch the sunset. We had cycled to the turnoff of a pagoda that Sandeep’s brother had recommended. When we got there, we realized the back road was too sandy for our bikes. With the sun threatening to set at any moment, we dropped the bikes and started running to our destination, yelling something about how this felt like a scene from Amazing Race. In the end we had to settle for watching sunset from a field. Not our plan, but breathtaking none the less.

Slightly defeated, we started our slow peddle back home. It quickly became faster as it got darker and we realized this time, without our guide, we didn’t have a flashlight to lead us back. We spent a total of six hours cycling around Bagan in one day. The bike rental from the hotel cost 3000 kyats ($4). Even though our bodies (well, maybe just mine – Sandeep seemed ready to cycling through the night) were signaling shut down, we still think that cycling is the best way to explore the lesser visited pagodas of Bagan. Our flight out of Bagan was at 7:50 the next morning, so we were able to catch one more sunrise before departure.


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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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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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Back to Our Wedding in Fort Cochin, Kerala

Our wedding in Kerala was small by Indian standards. There were only 700 guests. We chose to have our wedding in Kerala because Sandeep’s family is from here and the region has gorgeous topography. It seemed to be a great location for a destination wedding. The destination (and hopefully draw of the Malarkar Luke family!) brought together people from Australia, New Zealand, The Americas, Europe, Africa and all over Asia. We were so wrapped up in planning and the wedding that Sandeep and I didn’t quite appreciate that our location of choice, Fort Cochin, had been drawing visitors from around the world for centuries.

On our way back from Kodaikanal, and seven years into our marriage, we returned to Fort Cochin to revisit some of our wedding sites. The trip gave us our first real orientation to the rich history of the area.

The original plan was to get married in intimate Church of St. Francis, likely the first church built by Europeans in India. Vasco da Gama was buried here in 1524, but the Portuguese reclaimed his body back to Lisbon later. The church still operates large man powered cloth fans suspended above the pews, a leftover luxury of the British.

However, once the confirmed guest list crossed a hundred, we opted for the Santa Cruz Basilica, whose history dates back to the 1500s. The original Portuguese church was destroyed by the British and then rebuilt. The Basilica is now a tourist site, so in addition to our guests bulging at the walls, we had a healthy group of uninvited visitors taking pictures of the occasion. Ava doesn’t seem to comprehend a world that existed before she did, and she only half grasped the concept of us getting married at all.

The backdrop to these churches are the swooping Chinese fishing nets lining the northern shore of Fort Cochin. The nets were introduced to the region by traders from the court of Kublai Khan.  They still work on a manual system of stone weights that require multiple men to maneuver.

Evidence of Cochin’s trade with the Chinese can also be seen in the blue and white Canton tiles inside the Paradesi (White Jew) Synagogue. It was founded in 1568 and served the area’s once thriving Jewish community. There is evidence that a group of Judean traders settled in Cochin in 562 BC. In the sixteenth century, Sephardic Jews (known later in the area as Paradesi Jews) fled the Inquisition and added to the Jewish diversity of Cochin. Only a handful of Jews remain in Cochin today, although there are an estimated 8,000 Cochin Jews living in Israel.

A random stroll through Fort Cochin leads through alleyways of Dutch, Portuguese, Arab, Indian and British architecture. The buildings are now home stays, cafes, and a mix of tourist stores and outfitters. Despite their new functions, many still retain their original facade and charm.

We were able to appreciate the historical diversity of Cochin by returning as tourists. In celebration of our wedding, we had a fresh seafood dinner (we hoped caught by the fishing nets) at Brunton Boatyard and watched the ferry boats busying themselves on the harbor.

We were honored to have a global representation at our wedding. Now we understand that our host location has seen its own abundance of global guests for centuries.


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Witnessing the World’s Largest Annual Pilgrimage

Since we arrived in South India we’ve seen hoards of barefoot men clothed in black mundus. Most carry bundles on their heads and all walk with purpose.

These are worshipers of Ayappa, a Hindu deity and child of lord Shiva and lord Vishnu’s female avatar Mohini. They are participating in an annual pilgrimage to their main shrine in Sabarimala, believed to be the place where Ayappa meditated after killing the demon Mahishi.

Pilgrims are meant to be celibate, vegetarian, and intoxicant-free for 41 days before setting out on a 61 kilometer walk along a forest route to Sabarimala. The journey takes four days and the pilgrims carry nothing but offerings on their heads and a rucksack with personal items. (And we thought we traveled light.) One may be so devoted as to forego shoes and worldly comforts for days, but this particular devotee felt his cellphone a necessity.

Pilgrims that don’t make the walk crowd trains and buses, perhaps believing that their devotion gives them protection against high voltage and moving locomotives.

Whatever mode of transportation is used, the pilgrims travel in packs, with an assigned leader. Women of childbearing age are not allowed at Sabarimala. This is in respect for (and concern over?) Ayappa’s celibacy. The result is packs of men bursting into chanting, singing, and general merriment.

While the pilgrimage looks like a time of bonding and jubilation, it has not been without its consequences. 106 people were trampled to death during last year’s pilgrimage. This year, 34 heart related deaths have been reported.

It is estimated that 4 to 5 million people attend the annual pilgrimage to Sabarimala. If this is correct, the event rivals attendance at the Muslim Haj to Mecca. The only other pilgrimage that can claim higher attendance is Kumbh Mela, also in India. Large gatherings come easily to a country of over 1 billion people.


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