Category Archives: Religion

The Goldie Hawn Tour of Varanasi

We’ve heard of walking tours in New York City based on celebrities or shows, such as the Sex and the City walking tour. But we didn’t expect an evening outing in the ancient city of Varanasi to turn into a Goldie Hawn tour. Varanasi is a holy Hindu city on the banks of the Ganges River. Our intention last night was to attend the sunset aarti, a daily outdoor offering performed on the ghats, or steps leading into the river.  We were warned the area is chaotic between the pilgrims, locals and tourists who all congregate within a few hundred meters of each other during sunset. Hence, we did what we rarely do. We asked the hotel to arrange for a guide.

Our guide, Pai, an enterprising business man, spoke perfect English. We later found out that he also taught himself French and Japanese (his abilities in both were better than my own, and I’ve lived in Belgium and Japan) because of the influx of tourists that speak these languages. One of the first questions he asked when he found out we were from America was “Do you know Goldie Hawn?” It seemed an out of context question.

For the rest of the evening, between explaining the goings on of the aarti and guiding us around streets that turned back on themselves, Pai went through Goldie’s entire life story, and her relationship with his family. Apparently, Goldie comes to Varanasi every couple of years for spiritual reasons. Pai mentioned several times that he is her guide of choice.

We stepped into the ghats and bought a flower offering. Pai explained that Goldie too buys offerings to give to the river. We were elaborately told how she and Kurt Russell have bought the offering together and the very same spot.

The aarti was far less serene than we expected it to be. Experiencing it from river certainly seemed the calmer alternative to standing along the banks, but the boats were packed so tightly we could barely hear Pai explain how much Goldie loved to take pictures of the aarti. He reminded us a few times that Goldie uses the same boat when she is in Varanasi.

After the aarti was over, Pai invited us over to his house, where we were shouldn’t have been all that surprised to find a silk shop waiting for us. We declined Pai’s offer of tea, which launched him into a discussion about how Goldie likes her chai. I would have thought the Goldie tales were fabricated, except that Pai pulled out a photo album of him and the star over the years. Goldie holding his baby son. Goldie talking with the same son some years later. I asked if I could take a picture of the album, and Pai said “Oh, if you want to take a picture, let me get the newer album.” And out he came with a leather-bound version.

I don’t know how much we learned about the sunset aarti. Our time was limited, and the aarti we attended at the main ghat, Dasaswamedh, was very much catered to tourists. But now we know how Goldie likes her tea and what color scarves she prefers to buy.

If we had more time here we would attend the aarti at one of the smaller ghats. I suspect these offer a more authentic experience. At least now I know to plead ignorance if someone asks whether I know Goldie Hawn.

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Filed under India, Religion

A New Year’s Baptism in Kerala

We decided to baptize Kayan in Kerala, where Christianity goes back to the earliest periods of its history. It is accepted fact here that St. Thomas, on of the twelve disciples, landed in Kerala in 52 A.D., much before Christianity had made its way to Europe. It seemed fitting to celebrate the occasion here, where Sandeep’s family is from and where his parents  have retired. Kayan, however, had other ideas for today, all of which involved tantrums of some fashion. At some point, I heard Sandeep muttering that he hoped the baptism water would cleanse Kayan of his temper, to which my father muttered that it was a baptism, not an exorcism.

After a forced nap and warm bath, neither of which did much to calm him, we managed to wrestle Kayan into the chosen baptism outfit. The only way I was able to avoid getting kicked while changing him was to point out that Ava, who is his idol, had a matching dress.

Once at the church, Kayan continued violently fighting back against his religious induction. On an occasion where parents are meant to step aside and godparents play center stage, Kayan refused to let me go. He returned the priest’s sign of the cross with a dirty look and smacked the bible out of his hands. When Kayan noticed that everyone had their hands clasped together in prayer, he loudly announced Ommmmmm. At least our New York City baby yoga classes registered somewhere.

Once in the pool of water, Kayan’s temper cooled enough to allow his godfather, Sandeep’s brother, to hold him. Maybe the water really did cleanse more than just his sins.

His pleasant mood continued when, after the baptism, we allowed the kids to dismantle a left over wedding bouquet.

At the after party, we also celebrated Sandeep’s dad’s 60th birthday, which is a big deal in Kerala. The cake ensured a happy temper until the end of the evening.

Today, as we celebrate the end of 2011 and the start of a new year, Kayan celebrated a new beginning that hopefully includes a cooler temper.

All our best for 2012. May your year include happy journeys with those you love.



Filed under India, Religion

We Found Our Christmas Spirit

What is the Christmas spirit? When we were in Thailand we thought we missed it because there wasn’t snow, carols or Christmas trees. In Malaysia, the consumerism over Christmas was almost off-putting.

Landing in tropical Goa hardly screamed Christmas.

But we are in the heart of Catholic India. Goa was a Portuguese colony for about 450 years until 1961, and it has a very strong Catholic influence.

For those that observe, each of us honors Christmas in our own ways. For some it’s observing traditions, for others it’s decorations, food, families and gifts. Christmas includes all of this for our family, but this year provided us with a ways to observe the holiday.

Tropical Christmas decorations are everywhere in Goa, and make up for lack of snow and mittens. Most houses are decked in holiday attire, with traditional Goan paper lanterns and stars.

Every village in Goa has it’s own church, some of which are several hundred years old. We attended Christmas mass in Konkani, the local language, at my ancestral church, built in 1590. My grandfather had the Portuguese last name Menezes, but changed my father’s name to Malarkar, meaning from the village of Malar. Here you can see the original church plaque for our village, Malar.

My religious observance was particularly moving as I reflected on the fact that several generations of my family had been born, married and laid to rest at this church.

For some, Christmas is centered around gifts.  The greatest gift we got was seeing Ava and Kayan with their great-grandmothers for the first time.

Christmas usually isn’t complete without food. For us, nothing is complete without food.

And in homage to our Portuguese heritage, Christmas this year was also about port.

Most of all, Christmas was about family – the generations that have passed and the ones that will carry on their own Christmas spirit for generations to come.

From beachy Goa, we wish you a Merry Christmas and hope that you found your own special mix of Christmas spirit.


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Filed under Food, India, Religion

Saving Tibetan Handicraft Market in Goa

Handicraft markets are familiar sights to travelers. Most tourists stroll through them out of curiosity. Those that do shop have very basic exchanges with the sellers, mainly focused on bargaining. Prior to today, handicraft markets have been somewhat of an annoyance to our traveling family. We aren’t purchasing anything during our trip, so they provide little practical value. We don’t enjoy browsing because they are usually so crowded we worry about losing a kid or them breaking something. Furthermore, after four weeks in Asia, we’ve found that the markets run into each other regardless of country. There are always the handbags, Buddha statues, jewelry, shawls…

So we were somewhat surprised to find ourselves trying to save a handicraft market today.

Our family supports the Free Tibet movement, and my mother has gotten to know some of Goa’s Tibetan community. We went with her to a fundraiser organized by the Tibetan Welfare Association. The fundraiser was for the 300 or so Tibetans that come to Goa during the winter high season to earn some money selling handicrafts. They spend the rest of the year in northern India, where they mostly work in some form of tourism.

In order to sell their wares, the Tibetans take out sizable loans to purchase goods and pay rent. This year has been a particularly hard year for tourism, so the community banded to raise money to support each other. Many of these sellers have left family behind in hopes of making a living. All of them are refugees.  Loans are hard to come by because of their refugee status, and the community is the only means of support.

The fundraiser included an art installation wishing wall by Subodh Kerkar.

Under Tibetan prayer flags, one could tie blessed cloth, make a wish and a donation to support the sellers.

The event was technically a food festival, and there were plenty of juicy Tibetan momos (dumplings) and noodles for sale.

We’ve always been supporters of the Free Tibet movement, and after spending the day tying wishes, purchasing food and chatting with some of the sellers, we felt invested in making sure the market continued. While we stuck to our trip mentality of not purchasing anything, we did make a donation to the wishing wall.

I’m not claiming that we are going to frequent handicraft markets going forward. However, we certainly have a better appreciation for what some of the sellers go through to make a living.

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Filed under India, Religion

Christmas and a Muslim Sermon in Kuala Lumpur

Whatever Christmas extravaganza we missed in Chiang Mai has been more than made up for in 24 hours in Kuala Lumpur. We were advised that life in Kuala Lumpur centers around the city’s many malls. These megaplexes, designed to provide shelter from the unrelenting heat and humidity, offer stacked floors of stores, eating establishments and entertainment spots. They’ve clearly jumped on the holiday consumer bandwagon, with mall each competing for customers through holiday decorations and sales.

The holiday spirit engulfed us as we entered KLCC Suria Mall, at the feet of the famous Petronas Towers. Carols were blaring throughout, christmas decorations filled each window and the air conditioning was turned to a temperature akin to New York City in December.

The mall was stuffed with shoppers. Fendi, Jimmy Choo and Tiffany purchases paraded themselves through the packed walkways. If the world economy is hurting, there’s a fat segment of Malaysia that’s doing just fine.

After roaming the mall, the kids were itching for a playground and my friend Jess of with2kidsintow suggested we visit the one behind KLCC. Jess, her husband and their two pre-school kids are also traveling around the world, but are way more adventurous than us. They just finished three months backpacking in India – even we don’t have the courage to do that. Her directions were to walk behing KLCC to the left of the water body, but stay off the grass unless we want to get in trouble with the whistle police. We followed instructions and came to a large wading pool and playground multiple times bigger than any park in New York City.

While Christmas was in full swing within the mall, outside we found ourselves in the middle of another religious experience. The muslim call to prayer was finishing as the kids started playing in the park with the Towers as their backdrop.

After the call to prayer, the preacher began delivering the Friday sermon. Anyone who has visited an Islamic nation knows that a mosque’s loudspeaker works. So we had no choice but to tune in.

“You are encouraged to come to the mosque early before Friday prayers. Take a front seat and read the Koran or meditate.”

“Indeed the attitude of paying attention when the preacher is giving a sermon is very bad. Grab the opportunity for Friday prayer by being silent. It is very rude when the people eat, drink and consume in shopping malls around the mosque while the sermon is given.”

At this point I was getting nervous. Should I take the kids off the swing? Lay low till the preacher finishes? I looked around and realized I had no reason to worry. The playground was full of kids, who belonged to Muslim headscarf-donning mothers that were chatting to each other.

“The Friday prayer is a weekly reminder that needs to be paid attention to. It is very rude to be in a hurry to leave after the sermon.”

Despite the preacher’s heartfelt efforts and very efficient loudspeaker, it seemed as though most of Kuala Lumpur was still at KLCC mall going about their eating, drinking and shopping consumption. A few minutes after his concluding remarks about making sure to come back next Friday, what appeared to be the remainder of the city pour out of the mosque halls into the pathway out of the park. At least someone was paying attention.


Filed under Malaysia, Religion

Lessons From Penang

At the start of this trip our goals were to appreciate each other, our world and ourselves. Penang has provided a laboratory for appreciating our world from a cultural point of view. Our family was formed in New York, considered by many to be the most cosmopolitan city in the world. We were raising the kids in New York City to expose them to this kaleidoscope.

After one week in Penang we have realized how truly interwoven a multi-cultural city can be. I’m not claiming that Penang can boast the diversity statistics of New York City, but in terms of cultural integration, my reaction is that Penang has New York City beat.

Today, Malays and Chinese make up about 40 percent each of Penang’s population. Indians comprise another 10, expatriates about 5, and other races the remainder. Not surprisingly – this is Penang, after all – how this came to be has something to do with food. Portuguese spice traders used the island as a stop over between Goa, India and the far east. The British set up the island as a free port to lure trade away from the Dutch. For a while after, Penang served as the meeting point of opium trade between India and China. Exciting things have been happening between diverse groups of people on this island for centuries, and these interactions (not the opium trading – you get hanged for that now) carry on today.

Ava and Kayan may be too young to appreciate the cultural milieu of Penang. But as they grow up, we want them to embody some of what we’ve seen on this striking island.

First, we want the kids to have an open mind and ear to the different ways people communicate. We’d love them to know at least one foreign language and wish they were able to see see and hear all the different ways that Penangites say the same thing. Between the English, Malay, Mandarin, Penang Hokkien, and Tamil, there is also Manglish (Malaysian colloquial English). Most Penangites know several words in each others’ languages. We’ve overheard several conversations where one party speaks in English while the other answers in a different language. Here are a few street signs written in a spectrum of languages spoken on the island.

The interaction of languages was the most apparent when were looking at an English menu in an Indian restaurant yet we had no idea what was on offer. Apart from a few words such as briyani and tomato, we were lost.

Second, we want the kids to realize that regardless of who people pray to, we’re all likely praying for the same things. Temples, mosques, and churches stand alongside each other throughout Penang, but no where more obviously than on the 1 km stretch of ‘harmony street‘ in George Town. Malaysia is an Islamic country, but here houses of worship representing Islam, Hinduism, Christianity, Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism have stood side by side for over 200 years. We’ve been visiting many places of worship on our trip, and now Kayan instinctively takes off his shoes when he enters a temple. Ava, who used to blow out candle offerings, now asks to place one instead. Hopefully these are the beginnings of two people who will grow up respecting all religions, regardless of what they themselves practice.

Even though Ava and Kayan won’t remember much of Penang when they grow up, as parents we are grateful to have had this island as our muse.


Filed under Malaysia, Religion, Travel With Kids

Reinventing Christmas

I can’t believe it’s December. Exactly one month since we started our journey, and time for the holidays. This post is part of a writing project for the Families on the Move Group. You can read the links below about what other traveling families are planning this holiday season.

We spoke to a friend in New York this week and she says the city feels like the holidays. It’s cold, holiday music draws shoppers into every store, and christmas trees are lined up for sale on street corners. I love New York City in the holidays. It’s the only time I don’t mind the tourist attractions because that’s where I can find roasted chestnuts. The holiday lights are enough to take the darkness out of 5 PM sunsets.

It doesn’t feel like Christmas in Chiang Mai. We’ve seen just two Christmas trees, one at a tourist-frequented night bazaar and the other by the airport. The only holiday song we’ve heard is jingle bells. From Ava. Ava sings jingle bells all year long.

The area’s celebrations such as Loi Krathong have been so festive that we’re not yet missing the holiday spirit. We’ve been able to spend time together, share stories and eat good food every day. At the heart of it, that’s what holidays are about anyway.

In a few weeks we’ll be celebrating Christmas with my parents in Goa, India. We won’t be bringing any boxed gifts. Two bags, four people and a year’s worth of items doesn’t leave room for purchases along the way. Also, if our short month on the road has taught us anything, its that experiences are much richer and more lasting than material goods that wear, get outdated, or lost.

We will be giving gifts, just not the material kind. Our gifts this year include the upkeep and medication for an orphaned elephant in the name of  the recipient. Chiang Mai is home to many elephant orphanages that seek to provide safe environments for neglected, abused or overworked elephants. While we can’t replicate the same expriences we have had for our friends and family, we hope they agree these gifts are more meaningful, lasting and impactful than any handicraft we could have bought along the way.

We can’t speak for what we’ll receive this year. The kids have been happy with minimal toys and wev’e been fine recycling our week’s worth of clothes. Our bags are stuffed and our hearts are full. We’re looking forward to more time with loved ones around the tree and less time looking at what’s under.

What are other traveling families saying about Christmas?

A King’s Life: Forget the Gifts, Give an Experience this Christmas

Pearce On Earth: A Different Kind of Christmas

Family Trek: What’s For Christmas? Dear Santa, do we really need more stuff?

The Nomadic Family: Poverty for Christmas

New Life on the Road: Dear Mr Santa Claus Whats For Christmas

With 2 Kids In Tow, It’s Backpacking We Go:  Dear Santa, For This Christmas We Wish…

Living Outside of the Box –  The Best Christmas Presents

Discover Share Inspire: Christmas is Coming – What Do We Give on the Road?

Bohemian Travelers: Gift giving while living a simpler life

Little Aussie Travellers: Presence vs Presents Christmas Time for Travelling Families

Family Travel Bucket List – Feliz Navidad Without All the Stuff

Life and Views: Christmas Travelling

Adventurous Childhood: Christmas

Carried on the Wind: Christmas Giving

Edventure Project: On Christmas a Reflection on the Real Gifts


Filed under Religion, Thailand, Traveling Family Writing Projects

12,600 Monks in Chiang Mai

We ventured out at the crack of dawn to give alms to 12,600 monks. I am still unsure as to the reason for the event. Various explanations I got were.

“It happens twice a year.”

“It is to commemorate the 2,600 anniversary of Buddha’s enlightenment.”

“It happens once every six years.”

“I don’t know why it happens, but everyone should go and make merit.”

Once I get to what seems like a plausible answer, I’ll let you know. Or if you have one, please let me know!

We arrived to what I estimated to be about 10,000 people waiting patiently as guards lined the area where the monks would proceed. People were extremely orderly and engaged in prayer.

We made a donation to the money tree. The alms given to the monks gets distributed to temples and aids areas affected by flooding.

12,600 monks, I was assured this was the number, filed in and proceeded around in two long columns receiving alms. The sea of saffron had a lulling effect and each monk had a placid look on his face.  Despite the hoards of people, the event was very calming.

We offered rice and dried foods. The crowd’s most popular offering by far was noodle packets.

Each monk received the alms in their urn and handed it over to a volunteer to bag for distribution to temples.

The monks dispersed to area temples and those that traveled for the event boarded buses home.

Participating in this has been yet another amazing memory from our trip. I wish I could tell you when the next monk gathering would happen so you can plan to be here, but I still have to figure that one out.


Filed under Religion, Thailand

Chiang Mai Spirit Houses

One of the first things I noticed on our drive from Chiang Mai airport was that nearly every store, home and institution has at least one miniature house in its garden or entry.

These spirit houses are a representation of the Thai people’s belief in animism, or spirit worship, which is generally practiced in tandem with Thai Buddhism. Thai people believe that, by offering a home, humans show respect to the various spirits that surround us.

It has been uplifting to leave a society that is generally turning away from religion and spiritual connections and immerse the family in a culture that is still strongly tied to the belief that humans are only one part of a larger spiritual universe.

Just as there are all types of houses for all types of people, different spirits also have different spirit houses. The two main types of spirit houses are those for the guardian of the land and those for the guardian of the home.

The guardian of the land includes separate spirits for gardens, and spirit protectors for rice fields, stairwells, animals, barns, forests, mountains, temples, waters and defense.

The guardian of the house protects the home. I have been told that this spirit house is also for the ancestral spirits that belonged to the house or lived on the land. Many Thai people provide a daily offering of incense, food, or orange Fanta (supposedly spirits in Chiang Mai love orange Fanta). The guardian of the house also helps in business matters, and most businesses, including our apartment complex, have a spirit house for the these spirits.

We have seen all sizes and types of spirit houses, from simple wooden structures to ornate mini-mansions. They are almost universally well tended to and stocked with flowers, incense and treats.

I would love to bring a spirit house for the guardian of our home back to New York City, but even the smallest one will take up half our foyer. I wonder what Thai people in New York City apartments do…


Filed under Religion, Thailand

Choosing to do Something Without the Kids

Tomorrow will be the first cultural experience when we’ll leave the kids at home, with Pu.

At dawn, 12,600 monks from neighboring provinces will congregate in Chiang Mai to receive offerings of food. A regular part of Thai life includes offering alms to monks in the early morning. The residents of Chiang Mai also have a biannual opportunity to offer alms en mass to thousands of monks. This time, in addition to sustaining the temples, the food will be shared with communities affected by the Thai flooding. We are lucky to have the opportunity to be part of this tomorrow.

Why are we leaving the kids behind?  The 6 AM wake up will put them in terrible moods and Kayan has been a real handful lately. Maybe we jinxed ourselves by bringing him to Thailand, where “Kayan” translates to “active”. Upon touchdown at Chiang Mai Airport, our son turned from a laid back boy to a rambunctious wild animal. He bites his sister. He throws stones at his mother. He kicks his father. As long as he is in this crazed state, we have decided that it’s better to leave him and Ava (who are now inseparable) out of things that are intended to be experienced in a somber state.

Speaking of somber states, we visited Wat Doi Suthep today, Chiang Mai’s most revered temple. It’s golden structures shine over Chiang Mai at 1,676 meters above the city.

Kayan ran around, tormented a Thai baby, and refused to put his shoes back on to leave. Luckily, the temple was swarming with visitors, so most of this went unnoticed.

Tomorrow, while the kids are warmly tucked away in bed, we’re looking forward to peacefully experiencing our alms giving to the monks.


Filed under Religion, Thailand, Travel With Kids