Tai Chi Me for Condenast Traveler

Just out. Condenast Traveler (US edition). June issue. A piece I wrote about learning tai chi in Shanghai and Beijing. Haven’t seen the hard copy but they took great photos of a tai chi master in New York.

Here is the story in Condenast Traveler’s website
Also pasted below.

Tai Chi Me
by Shoba Narayan | Published June 2011 | See more Condé Nast Traveler articles ›

Tai chi’s graceful hand movements can change in an instant into powerful punches. Its name means “supreme ultimate fist.”
Shoba Narayan travels to Shanghai and Beijing in search of a tai chi master.

Casting aside the yoga of her youth, Shoba Narayan turns to China’s martial arts to tame her wild emotions—”I’m more Rahm Emanuel than Barack Obama”—and get six-pack abs in the bargain.

I have come to China from my home in Bangalore, India, to find a tai chi teacher.

I arrive in Shanghai at night, alone, and decide to go to the movies. Neon lights flash by the taxi’s windows as the driver listens to mournful Chinese music. We pass buses full of commuters on their way home. The theater is almost empty, but the movie—Michelle Yeoh’s latest martial arts adventure, Reign of Assassins—is breathtaking. Watching her dispense would-be killers with praying mantis strikes and wing chun kicks reminds me that Yeoh is heir to a long line of women in Chinese martial arts, something the feminist in me relishes. The earliest reference I’ve found comes from the Zhou period, around 700 b.c., when a young woman, Yuh Niuy, defeated three thousand men in a sword battle lasting seven days. Yuh’s sayings have been passed down the centuries. “When the way is battle,” she wrote, “be full-spirited within, but outwardly show calm and be relaxed. Appear to be as gentle as a fair lady, but react like a vicious tiger.” I sleep well in my hotel that night.

The next morning I jog to the Bund. At 6 a.m. it is quiet, a far cry from night, when throngs of people gather to gawk at the Oriental Pearl Tower and the lights of Pudong. Dawn brings runners like myself, plus dog walkers, photographers, kite-flying men. In the plaza across from The Peninsula hotel, several groups “play” tai chi, as the Chinese say, dressed in cream-colored satin uniforms, wielding swords and fans to strike poses such as “embrace the moon” and “cloud hands.” They are magnificent, crouching low to crawl like a snake and doing “golden cock stands on one leg.” A black-uniformed teacher breaks off occasionally to adjust a stance, demonstrate a parry, and correct a form.

During a water break, I sidle up to a young man whose explosive fa-jin punches—ones that begin fast, then stop abruptly—almost make me weep with envy. “Does your shifu [teacher] speak English?” I ask.

I don’t understand his words, but it’s clear that the answer is no.

My pursuit of tai chi has been punctuated by such cultural challenges. When I informed my conservative Indian family that I was interested in tai chi, they were appalled. Why was their Indian child, heir to an ancient and proud tradition—yoga—leaning toward an alien discipline? “I told you that sending her to America was a bad idea,” said my uncle, who made me do the downward dog every day as a child. He was right. It was as a young woman abroad in America that I’d found myself bumping up against China’s culture: a Chinese roommate, an apprenticeship with an acupuncturist while awaiting my green card, Bette Bao Lord’s novels. Yoga is like my mother; I take it for granted. It is so much a part of me that I am tired of it. I want some distance. Tai chi offers this distance while still being based on the Eastern principles familiar to me.

I am here, in tai chi’s birthplace, to try to take my practice to the next level. Like many modern practitioners of tai chi, I don’t have the free time to spend weeks at one of the intensive martial arts schools in the provinces of China because of work and family responsibilities. Instead, I have seven days. And so I’ve made appointments with tai chi teachers in Shanghai and Beijing. My tai chi teacher in India, who travels frequently to China, tried to manage my expectations. “My teachers cannot be yours,” he said. “Go forth and find your own.”

Having turned forty, I no longer aspire to become a crouching tiger or a hidden dragon. Yes, I want the core strength, flexibility, and balance that tai chi provides. But I also want serenity. Temperamentally I am more Rahm Emanuel than Barack Obama. I hear myself interacting with my family, issuing threats to my daughters that I have no hope of keeping (“Clean your room or no TV for a month”) and subjecting my even-keeled engineer husband to ultimatums (“This is not working—I am leaving”). With tai chi, I can channel my frustrations into black tiger kicks, dragon fists, and eagle claw holds.

Tai chi—which means “supreme ultimate fist”—is arguably the most popular of the three-hundred-odd Chinese martial arts, known collectively as wushu. Like yoga, tai chi begins with external flexibility and balance before moving inward. The idea is to do the pose repeatedly until it changes your posture, improves your belly breathing, makes your joints flexible, and centers your mind. Legs ground the body and provide balance. Energy originates in the feet before flowing upward to waist, chest, and arms, gaining momentum along the way until it explodes outward through punches or kicks. Tai chi practitioners try to remain relaxed while moving so that this energy can flow without obstruction. In the United States, about 2.3 million people practice tai chi, according to the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine. Studies show that regular practice can help reduce cholesterol, heart attacks, and high blood pressure as well as osteoarthritis, sleep disorders, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. One study reported a forty percent reduction in the number of falls in an elderly group practicing tai chi.

The Chinese government’s relationship with tai chi is conflicted; the authorities recognize its value as a tool for well-being in a nation enduring a health care crisis, but also fear its cult power. The practice of Falun Gong—which uses the principles of tai chi and qigong, or controlled breathing—was banned by President Jiang Zemin in 1999. The move stemmed from a peaceful protest by ten thousand followers outside the Zhongnanhai government compound against a government-ordered media campaign opposing Falun Gong. Many Falun Gong practitioners remain in prison today.

Shaolin, meaning “Young Forest,” is a monastery in the Song Shan Mountains of Henan Province. Legend has it that an Indian monk, Bodhidharma, traveled there in the sixth century, stared at a wall in silence for nine years, and taught the monks martial arts techniques, which they used to defend the emperor. Shaolin-style wushu, which emphasizes discipline, penance, and brutal practice as a way to achieve superhuman strength and skill, is a “hard external” wushu method that lends itself to combat, in contrast to softer “internal” wushu styles that focus on health and longevity.

For centuries, Shaolin was the only way. Neijia, or internal, styles originated with a Taoist monk, Zhang Sanfeng, in China’s Wudang Mountains in the twelfth century. Zhang observed a snake fighting a crane. Every time the crane struck, the snake would dart its head out of the way and hit the crane with its tail. Even though the crane was bigger and stronger, the snake eventually won. From such observations, Zhang came up with the basis of many of China’s non-Shaolin martial arts: to yield in the face of aggression, to turn your opponent’s strength against him. Tai chi comes under this category.

While I am not a Shaolin student, I want to take a traditional Shaolin class, so I visit Longwu Kungfu Center, an urban day school in Shanghai. Longwu is a large open space with mirrors for walls, like a gymnasium. On one side, a master is teaching Shaolin-style wushu to a group of Chinese and foreigners. Tall and swarthy, he yells his commands in English that sounds like Chinese: “Forwa, fiit togetha, kicku, handsup, whaaa. . . .” A dozen students lift their sticks and strike. “Whaa!”

I stand in the back and follow the class to the best of my ability. Many of the movements overlap with tai chi, but the use of the stick, and the sudden punches, are new to me. Across the hall another master, bare torsoed and balding, is giving a private boxing lesson to a helmeted man who seems unable to dodge his lightning punches.

I ask Longwu’s founder, a former national wushu champion named Alvin Guo, how he manages to attract such high-quality instructors. “An old Chinese saying goes, ‘Once a teacher, always a father,’” is his enigmatic reply.

I spend the next two days in Shanghai taking tai chi lessons at Longwu and two other places, the Jingwu sports training center and the Qingpu school. None of the three tai chi teachers I meet are for me. One is more interested in how much I can pay per hour than in advancing my practice. The other two are better but don’t speak even rudimentary English. (I had e-mailed them before my arrival and their responses were in English, apparently sent through senior students.) They nod approvingly when I show them my techniques, adjust my arms and body, but we don’t progress beyond that. There is no conversation.

Recognizing the right guru is the stuff of lore in Eastern thought. I too have some parameters. There has to be that intangible connection, of course. Beyond that, I seek generosity. In ancient India and China, when it came to spiritual disciplines, knowledge was a gift that gurus offered for free to worthy students. It was understood that the student would then make an offering, to solidify the connection. All of my teachers in India and the United States—the good ones, anyway—taught me for free. I am hoping that this pattern will continue in Beijing, where I fly to next.

Beihai Park is the loveliest in Beijing. Weeping willows border the lake, and with several tai chi groups practicing a variety of forms, you can cherry-pick one that is right for you. I join a gathering of women who move to the sound of tinny Chinese music from a small tape player. One of them, a radiant young mother, offers me her sword as she takes a break to comfort her baby in a nearby pram. I shake my head and try to explain that I am not at her level. She smiles, insisting. I am secretly thrilled. Sword tai chi is more nuanced and subtle because of the strength and speed of a sharp instrument. Movements such as “swallow skims the water” and “black dragon wags its tail” take on more gravitas as I execute them.

Later that day, looking up tai chi classes on the China Culture Center’s Web site, I am distracted by a lecture on “cricket fighting and chirping culture” and decide to attend. I make my way to the center, located in a large, squat building in a quiet neighborhood, where founder Feng Cheng lectures in English, speaking poignantly about how the Chinese love to catch and keep crickets. He tells of cabbies who drive the night shift with a cricket in a box inside their shirt so that they can listen to the comforting sound of their pet during the long, lonely night. Why, I ask Feng, are the Chinese more fond of crickets than of the dragonflies or butterflies I caught as a child in India?

“Because they fight,” he replies simply.

I come back the following evening for a 7:30 tai chi class. The teacher, thirty-eight-year-old Paul Wang, has the light, playful quality you see in Buddhist masters. With his bald head, ascetic appearance, and thin body, he looks like a monk, which he is not. “The baldness is just my hairstyle,” he says with a laugh.

I have high hopes. Perhaps he is the one. After class, we get to talking.

“Sometimes when we meet a difficulty, we have a lot of tension and hurry to fix the problem,” he says. “When you master the way of balance and gentle intention, everything you face will be different. There will be less hurry, your mind will be very clear. When someone is aggressive, you normally become tense. But that is the moment when you must practice your tai chi to release the stress. First, don’t have resistance to yourself; then you won’t have resistance to the other person. If he is aggressive, simply accept his moves and reflect the aggression back at him.”

Wang is a highly accomplished practitioner, but I cannot get past the smoothness that he has cultivated to deal with the expats and foreigners. I crave the artless roughness of the old masters.

I’m looking forward to taking a tai chi class at the Beijing Sport University when I learn that it’s canceled. At the Fairmont Beijing, where I am staying, the tai chi instructor, Link Li, offers to give me a free lesson. I am disdainful. Learning tai chi at a luxury hotel? How good can the instructor be?

But over the course of two lessons, Link improves my technique manifold. He tells me to take “soft heavy steps with flexible strength.” This means that while I must tread softly, I must be firm, be “heavy” with intent. At the same time, I must have flexible strength so that I can move quickly when attacked. I watch as Link does the slower, dancelike moves that most people associate with tai chi, and marvel as he speeds up the same moves to demonstrate how tai chi used to be done in its earlier, more militant incarnation. It’s a revelation to see poses known for their health benefits transformed instantly into weapons.

When he was just twenty-five, Link tells me, he was authorized by his teacher, a prominent master known as Gao Yong, to take on students. Who knew that this smiling thirty-year-old hotel employee was a bona fide shifu?

At the end of the session, I chat about tai chi with Link. Like Wang, he is highly skilled and eager to cater to my needs. And that’s what’s bothering me, I realize. I don’t want to be treated like a tourist on a tight schedule but rather like a student away from the constraints of time and family. I want a teacher who will be true to himself or herself, not fuss over me. I am looking for someone raw, someone who can bring the mountain air of Wudang into my consciousness.

It is my last day in Beijing, and I am desperate. Fool, I berate myself, questioning my hope of finding a teacher, people train in China for months—how could you expect to accomplish anything in a week? After my morning round of tai chi at Beihai Park, I return to the hotel to find an e-mail from one of my tour guides directing me to a female shifu, Mrs. Shi, who leads tai chi at 10 a.m. every day, rain or shine, by the old city wall on the south part of town.

The concierge gives me detailed directions. The subway ride takes an hour. I get out and promptly lose my way. I call Mrs. Shi on her mobile phone. She is friendly and giggles a lot but speaks mostly Chinese and is unable to guide me to her location. I find an English-speaking girl who shows me the way. I walk across a park cut through by a canal bordered by weeping willows. A manicured lawn on one side is full of seniors ballroom dancing, people playing badminton, mothers pushing babies in prams, young men jogging, and locals sitting on park benches and reading newspapers. Amid the ballroom dancers, I find Mrs. Shi’s tai chi class. Her straight hair pulled back in a ponytail, she has a face appropriate to her fifty-odd years but the body tone of a woman half her age. Her class is just ending. A middle-aged man gives her the fist-to-palm salute that we martial arts students offer our teachers. Mrs. Shi turns to me with a smile. I demonstrate my chen style (the oldest of five tai chi styles) so she can gauge my level. She watches me, and my hair starts to stand on end. It sounds crazy, but I feel a strange electricity—the kind of buzz you get when you are single and meet someone really attractive who could be the one.

I try to remove my jacket so that she can see the way my body moves more clearly. “I can see your form,” she says simply.

Then it is her turn. Her stomach coils (there is no other word for it), her knees turn, her back arches. She does things with her body that I have never seen before. When I marvel at her moves, she says, “Quantity equals quality,” and laughs in the fashion of Chinese people who are aware of, and embarrassed by, their poor English. “Tai chi is a life journey.”

I try to imitate her moves. I am awed by her energy. I am ready to prostrate myself and beg her to accept me as her student. But in order for me to know that she is the right shifu, there is one final test. I offer to pay for a private lesson.

“When do you want to start?” she asks. Now, I reply.

Her face clouds. Tai chi is very “comprehensive,” she says. “Hard to learn in one day, one lesson. I can teach you one form,” she says. “No charge.”

Temple bells ring and sparrows sing. I have found my teacher.

For the next hour, Mrs. Shi takes me through the same stomach-coiling move that will, I know, if done regularly, give me six-pack abs. Her instructions are simple and often repetitive.

“Keep the back relaxed and the front tight. Yang in the back is expansive; yin in front is closed.” She touches my back. “Lower back loose, upper back tight. Quantity equals quality.”

She can see errors in my posture even when I think I am obeying her instructions. She tells me all this with a shining light of compassion and understanding in her eyes. “You are too much in a hurry,” she says. She might be referring to my life. “Wisdom requires patience.”

An hour later, Mrs. Shi says, “Do this movement sixty times a day for sixty days, and then you will begin to feel something. Once you feel something, come back to me and I will teach you the next lesson.”

We chitchat. She has one daughter, she says, who is twenty-one and living in India. What does your daughter do? I ask.

She is a yoga teacher, Mrs. Shi says.

I laugh. I cannot help but appreciate the irony of coming all the way from India to learn tai chi from a Chinese woman whose daughter is in India studying yoga.

I bow to Mrs. Shi, give her the martial arts fist-to-palm salute, and once more offer to pay for the class. Again she refuses. As I walk through the ballroom dancers, I turn back and find her watching me, waving.

I have to offer my shifu something. I am not even sure if I will ever see her again, although of course that isn’t the point. I have encountered a master who has changed my practice and potentially my life. She will reside in my mind, and I will pay homage to her before I begin my daily practice. But what to give her as an offering?

The midday sun is high in the sky, the grass invitingly green. The ballroom dancers turn. Melodious Chinese music wafts from somewhere. On the spur of the moment, I stop. The grass is my yoga mat. I wave at my shifu, who is still watching me. My elbows support my head as I bend and execute a perfect headstand. Years of practice as a child still haven’t left me. I am doing the Sirsasana yoga pose in a Chinese park as an offering for my tai chi teacher. Someone claps. I get back up on my feet, wave at my shifu, turn, and head to the subway for the long ride home.

Singapore Fling: For Condenast Traveler

SINGAPORE FLING
So much to do, so little time—at least if you’re Shoba Narayan. Her manic mission: to wring the most out of this nonstop island-nation in just forty-eight hours. Let her loss (of sleep) be your gain—and guide

Published July 2005
Staid, chaste, strict, small—Singapore has heard it all. But this island-nation of 4.2 million people has one thing going for it (many things, actually, but we’ll get to that later): Singapore is a sure fling. Changi Airport’s superefficient staff get you out in thirty minutes or less. Half an hour later, you’re in the city center and the island is yours to savor. Singapore is clean, manageable, and safe; you can drink the water and get around easily; and people don’t pester you if you’re a woman traveling alone. Best of all, it is small enough (about the size of Chicago) to sample in a day or two.
Which is precisely my intent. Having lived in Singapore for two years, I have returned wanting to revel in it as a tourist—to see it all and do it all within forty-eight hours. But what might once have been a leisurely pursuit is shaping up to be a herculean undertaking.

8 A.M. I roll out of bed at the Fullerton (where a cab deposited me in the wee hours after an overnight flight from New York) and fantasize about ordering a Singapore Sling but order a coffee instead—the first of many cups. Singapore is blessed with a panoply of good hotels. I’ve chosen the Fullerton mostly for its location near the highways and the harbor (which will allow me to duck in and out during my harried, carefully calibrated itinerary) and the quiet formality of its staff. The Ritz-Carlton has more effusive service, the Oriental a fantastic spa, the Four Seasons greater intimacy, the Shangri-La a soothing setting, and Raffles all that history. But as a package, the Fullerton is my favorite.

8:30 A.M. Singapore isn’t perpetually jammed like Bangkok or Bombay, but rush hour is just that, so I reverse-commute to Jurong Bird Park for “Breakfast with the Birds,” a popular activity. The buffet isn’t anything to write home about, but the fowl are captivating: eagles, parrots, pink flamingos, and storks. I board a golf cart for an hour’s tour with a well-informed guide. Do this. And be sure to stop at the Lory Loft, a giant enclosure, with a treetop boardwalk, that is fashioned to look like the Australian Outback. Buy a bowl of nectar and watch the parrotlike lories alight on your arms. Truly a treat.

10 A.M. Since I am already in Jurong, I decide to run into the Singapore Science Centre, a great place for kids—and, I might add, adults. (At each stop, I give my driver strict instructions to wait out front. He’s a local but lacks a New York cabbie’s killer instincts.) The two IMAX films interest me. I buy tickets to Mysteries of the Nile and Mystic India before deciding, regrettably, that I must be going.

10:30 A.M. The ubiquitous hawker markets are the gustatory soul of Singapore. Pick any high-rise and you’re bound to find one at its feet offering a colorful glimpse of life at street level. Toothless Chinese men gossip, sari-clad Indian women bargain fervidly for fish and vegetables, hijab-wearing Malay matrons scurry through, children in tow. Singapore isn’t beset by racial tensions, even though three distinct groups—Chinese, Indians, and Malays—make their home here, mostly in separate ethnic enclaves. When I first moved to Singapore from New York, I was struck by how the passion and politics that surround race in America are virtually absent here. I think it’s because Singaporeans accept ethnic and religious differences with a live-and-let-live attitude that is more like Canada’s salad bowl than America’s melting pot. Nowhere is this more evident than in the hustle and bustle of the hawker stalls.

Maxwell and Tiong Bahru are considered the best, Newton Circus and Lau Pa Sat are for expats and tourists, and each Singaporean has his or her preferred vendor of chicken rice, chili crabs, curried fish cakes, egg tarts, prawn noodles, roti prata, and satay. My favorite is Alexandra Village Hawker Centre, nestled amid shops selling tires and automobile parts. The chilled avocado juice at Exotic Juice Cathay is the best I’ve ever tasted, and the durian, honeydew, kiwi, and soursop aren’t bad either. I am still hungry but not worried. In Singapore, food is everywhere.

11 A.M. The shops at Orchard Road are just opening. I hit them with the precision of a stealth bomber: Forum for kids’ clothes; Palais Renaissance for the Bollywood-inspired store Mumbai Sé; Tang for its famed housewares department selling bamboo baskets, clay pots, slow cookers, sushi sets, woks, and other Asian necessities; Takashimaya for its chinoiserie, discount handbags, feng shui fountains, and food hall. I pick up delicious green-tea muffins at the St. Leaven bakery and Thai mango salad at Thanying Express.

Shopping is a blood sport in Singapore, aptly described by the local Chinese word kiasu, which means “always wanting the best, no matter what.” In Singapore, everyone is kiasu. Morning store openings bring huge lines of jostling shoppers who want to be the first in the door. Fistfights between women vying for the same dress are par for the course during the June and July sales. People hide potential acquisitions in the wrong aisle so they can come back at a more convenient time to claim them. None of this intimidates me, of course, having cut my teeth at the semiannual sales at Barneys.

All of this shopping does, however, take its toll, and so I submit my aching head to an aromatic scalp massage at Takashimaya’s Clinique d’Esthetique before taking the underpass to the Paragon mall. Most people come here to stock up on big-name labels before lunching on scrumptious pork dumplings at Din Tai Fung. I just gawk.

1 p.m. When I tell my driver that I want to go to Geylang, he stares at me. Geylang is the Malay stronghold of Singapore. It is also the red-light district.

“You want to go to the fruit part or the bad part?” he asks.

“It is one o’clock in the afternoon,” I say. “Who’d go to a brothel now?”

“You’d be surprised,” he says.

We set out for the fruit bazaars along Sims Avenue, which sell luscious longans, lychees, mangosteens, rambutans, and the notorious durian (“smells like hell but tastes like heaven”). I had put off tasting a durian during my two years in Singapore but am now determined to try one. They stink, yes, but then so does fish. The payoff is in the flesh: impossibly light, like mousse or the fluffiest of cheesecakes. Not bad, I decide.

1:30 P.M. Getting to Sentosa requires crossing a bridge, always a pain, but it is home to some of my favorite attractions. As traffic piles up at the toll booth, I am already late for my appointment at Underwater World. I’ve never even dived before, but here I find I can swim with the sharks for sixty dollars. Swimming with me is a Bulgarian tourist who seems to have dived since birth. I am mildly freaked out, but the Chinese instructor is infinitely patient. We get into a 26,000-plus-gallon tank. I panic. We come out. The Bulgarian rolls his eyes. We go in again. This time I figure out how to breathe through the cork clamped in my mouth. There are fish all around, swimming in schools, coming up to me inquisitively. The instructor gives me a thumbs-up. I touch one shark and then another and another, usually when they are swimming away. Half the fun is having people gawk at you through the glass. I pose for photographs feeling like a minor celebrity.

2:30 P.M. I am tired when I emerge. Thankfully, I have an appointment at Spa Botanica, Singapore’s best spa, a mere five minutes away. I’ve signed up for the four-hands massage followed by an aromatherapy facial. Both are sublime.

3:30 P.M. My driver and I race from Sentosa, at one end of town, to Suntec City, at the other. I have a friend waiting there with tickets for a seventy-five-minute amphibious Duck Tour of Singapore. The tour guide turns out to be spectacularly bad—so bad that she is weirdly enjoyable. She treats us like a kindergarten class. “Can everyone say, ‘Quack-quack-quack’ as we set off?” By the time the bus splashes into the water, I am ready to jump in and take my chances.

5 P.M. The Singapore Art Museum is blessedly cool. Housed in a lovingly restored British colonial building, it contains the world’s largest public collection of twentieth-century Southeast Asian art. I really can’t spare the time for the nearby Philatelic Museum, but my kid collects stamps and the museum is tiny so I run in. To my delight, there is an exhibition of Hans Christian Andersen stamps from Denmark. The Asian Civilisations Museum, though, is my favorite. Most of my expat buddies are members of its hugely popular Friends of the Museum program, in exchange for which they receive docent training and attend lectures on interesting if obscure Asian topics such as Nawabi jewelry and Chinese funeral artifacts.

6 P.M. Thirsty, I emerge from the museum and make a beeline for Bar Opiume, known for its proseccos and popular with the museum crowd. Its decor is Chinese courtesan meets Czech count. After a quick drink, I walk along the waterfront, admiring the playful bronze sculptures, en route to dinner at the Fullerton. The hotel has two great restaurants: Jade, which specializes in modern Chinese—try the steamed crab claws stuffed with shark’s fin—and San Marco, serving elegant Italian atop the hotel in an erstwhile lighthouse. I do double duty by having appetizers at Jade and a main course at San Marco before running out. Nobody runs at the Fullerton, but I have a bungee to jump.

7 P.M. I have been longing to try G-Max Reverse Bungy, in Clarke Quay, a waterfront complex of restaurants and bars where yuppies converge after work. Imported from New Zealand, the three-seat contraption launches me sixty feet into the air, at two hundred miles an hour, before plunging me back to earth. It takes all of five minutes, and I scream my head off the whole time.

7:20 P.M.Cruising down the Singapore River in a traditional bumboat is an ideal way to enjoy the sunset. At the opening to the harbor, a merlion—Singapore’s mermaid-lion mascot—stands guard. Directly across the water is where the government plans to erect two massive megaresorts—complete with casinos—at a cost of several billion dollars, which has caused a furor among the citizens. A lot of Singaporeans are hobbled by gambling debt racked up abroad, and building a casino here, they fear, will only compound their problems. The government’s proposed solution is to charge stiff entry fees—a hundred dollars per person—but this might actually make things worse. As a Singaporean friend says, “Knowing Singapore’s kiasu mentality, charging a hundred-dollar entry fee will make us more determined to gamble. I mean, this is a culture where people stuff themselves at buffets to get their money’s worth.”

Lost in thought, I lose track of time. I have tickets to Madama Butterfly, which begins in ten minutes at the durian-shaped performing arts complex, the Esplanade. If I am late, I will have to wait until the doors reopen at intermission. I beg my boatman to drop me off at the Esplanade’s pier. He refuses. It’s illegal, he says. I take out a fifty-dollar bill. Miraculously, I am at the Esplanade a minute before the doors close.

9 P.M. I bail at halftime. I have tickets to a stand-up comedy show at 1 Nite Stand, where visiting Australian, British, and Canadian comics play to full houses. I take a boat back to Clarke Quay feeling a little like James Bond—or at least his stunt double—as the driver guns it under low bridges.

10 P.M. As I amble from one nightclub to another, I ask myself what is unique about Singapore’s bar scene. The downed drinks, jammed dance floors, loud music, and sweaty people could be in Berlin or Buenos Aires. And then it occurs to me: What’s unusual about this otherwise standard-issue club scene is that it is in Singapore at all; it’s been less than two years since the government legalized bar-top dancing. I spot a new Indian restaurant, Ras, and can’t resist going in. The decor is modern and minimalist, but the food is traditional and good.

Midnight I am drunk and exhausted but otherwise feel terrific. Good enough, in fact, to give the G-Max Reverse Bungy another go. Big mistake: Out comes dinner.

1 A.M. My driver and I keep moving. A young girl has passed out on a bench outside Phuture. Mid-lifers lounge around Velvet Underground. At Zouk, couples make out, break up, and storm out. Hookers strike poses outside Attica, the club of the moment. Also-rans include Este (Paris meets Shanghai), Gotham Penthouse (Las Vegas meets Bangkok), and Zenzie Bar (Spain meets Kyoto). The floor is packed at China Jump because the drinks are gratis. I ask the bartender for orange juice. “Six dollars,” he says. Water? Also six bucks. Whiskey? Free.

4 A.M.I proceed to the only reasonable alternative at this hour: Mustafa, Singapore’s 24/7 mall, where I stock up on Indian curry powders, Indonesian lulur scrubs, Lebanese dates, and Tiger Balm.

5 A.M. Back at the Fullerton, I request a wake-up call in two hours and fall into bed. At last.

7 A.M. I begin day two by going to the Botanic Gardens and joining groups of old Chinese people doing tai chi. There is a mystical quietude to the place, broken only by the odd dog walker, jogger, and shadowboxer.

8 A.M. The Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf at Paragon is hopping. People sit on couches barking instructions into their cell phone while sipping mochaccinos. I down a double espresso, then another and another. I walk out a new woman. A friend meets me at the American Club down the street. It used to be my oasis when Singapore’s “Singlish” got to me. I revel now in its American twang, poolside smoothies, and great quesadillas.

9 A.M. The Sri Veeramakaliamman Temple, in the heart of Little India, is one of the oldest and busiest in Singapore. Bells clang, devotees pray, and priests chant, yet all is serene. Outside, I devour a cheese masala dosa (a type of Indian crepe) at Dosa Corner before driving to the Buddhist temples on nearby Race Course Road. The Sakya Muni Buddha Gaya (a.k.a. the Temple of a Thousand Lights) has a fifty-foot Buddha that presides sternly over the communing masses. Opposite is the charmingly intimate Leong San See Temple, with an interior that resembles a Tang dynasty palace.

10 A.M. Arab Street. Mee goreng noodles, nasi padang, rojak salad: Malay cooking—or “Muslim Food” as it is called here—abounds. Outside the storefronts, bamboo baskets, hand-painted batiks, and silk sarongs sway in the breeze. The grand Sultan Mosque, with its gold dome, offers a cool, quiet respite from the heat.

11 A.M. Chinatown is just waking up. I go first to Telok Ayer Street, where Thian Hock Keng (the Temple of Heavenly Happiness) sits. Arguably the prettiest in Singapore, this exquisite carved-wood temple was assembled in 1821 without nails.

I love Chinatown. Temple Street sells Chinese herbs and inexpensive trinkets. Pagoda Street has stalls hawking everything from cheap souvenirs to spirulina powder (huge over here) alongside furniture stores peddling handsome Chinese antiques. Eu Yan Sang is highly regarded and stocks traditional Chinese medicines in modern packages. Along Trengganu Street is the real thing: piles of herbs that an in-house physician will weigh and mix before instructing you to ingest them in the form of a soup.

The basement of Chinatown Complex has a wet market selling eels, frogs, pig’s trotters, snakes, and turtles, all consumed with gusto by the Chinese. Three-story Yue Hwa is one-stop shopping for chinoiserie, right down to bespoke cheongsams. I get a reflexology massage at Kenko—a local chain—and am rejuvenated.

12:30 P.M. At the edge of Chinatown is the Sri Mariamman Temple, where busloads of tourists descend every morning. I drive up to Keong Saik Road—née Prostitute Road—which is now known for its art galleries and the Whatever yoga café. I browse through the café’s psychic offerings—angel healing, crystal channeling, tarot card readings—before settling on a pesto and onion jam sandwich that my daughter used to love.

1 P.M. I am nearly full, but that has never stopped me before. I lunch as reserved at Jaan, on the seventy-second floor of the Equinox Complex at the Swissôtel, where I endure mediocre food and slack service for the sake of spectacular views.

2 P.M. I can’t keep my eyes open. I go to The Oriental hotel, which boasts one of the best spas in the city. My husband and I once had a couple’s massage here that melted all our quarrels away. After sleeping through my massage, I speed to the Ritz-Carlton’s spa for an “express” manicure-pedicure-facial that takes an hour.

4 P.M. Time for tea. I go to the Cedele bakery, for its pesto breads, which come closest to the San Francisco sourdough I love, and the Canelé Pâtisserie, for its decadent chocolate cakes.

5 P.M. East Coast Park is Singapore’s Central Park equivalent. You can bike or in-line skate beside the water after or before eating messy but delicious chili and black pepper crabs. You can also kite-surf, sail, and windsurf.

7 P.M. The Line, at the Shangri-La Hotel, is the restaurant of the moment. Designed by Adam Tihany, the sprawling place has an all-white decor accented with bright orange panels that is indeed stunning. High-class hawker food is Singapore’s latest trend, and The Line’s several open kitchens prepare fresh juices, pastas, salads, soups, and sushi. The service is impeccable.

9 P.M. When in Singapore, you must not miss the Night Safari at the zoo. It’s a hyped-up tourist gimmick, but the zoo itself is world-class and the concept is unusual: Visitors board a golf cart with a guide who points a flashlight at nocturnal and sleeping animals in their habitat, after which there is an animal circus.

10 P.M. I go to Garibaldi, an old favorite, for Italian food that’s only decent but service that’s exemplary. Down the street, Killiney Kopitiam beckons. I’ve put off visiting a kopitiam, Singapore’s version of a coffee bar, for one reason: The popular accompaniment to coffee, or kopi, is toast slathered with a green jam made of coconut milk, eggs, and sugar. It looks as unappetizing as it sounds. The atmospheric Chijmes complex is a short walk away. Established as the Convent of the Holy Infant Jesus in 1854, today it contains not a nunnery but a wealth of watering holes. I hit Father Flanagan’s Irish pub, La Cave Wine Bar, Carnivore (the name says it all), and others. The night air is uncomfortably close, but I keep on walking.

12 A.M. I am dying for Indian-Chinese food and go to Ghaangothree, in Little India, for dishes such as Hakka noodles and Manchurian vegetables. The restaurant is closed, but the lights are on and I persuade the chef to part with some leftovers. Then it’s on to Club Street, where my gay friends like to go. I chill out at Aphrodisiac—blue lights, soft music, killer “lycheetinis”—and catch up with old friends. Maybe it’s the music, maybe I’ve had one lycheetini too many, or maybe, just maybe, I’ve reached my limit. Whatever the reason, I pass out.

3 A.M. My friends rouse me. They are off to another bar, but I still need to pack before heading to the airport. Although my flight leaves at dawn, there is no need to show up at Changi three hours early and endure abuse like I did at JFK. Having checked in forty-eight hours prior via the Internet, I arrive a scant hour before departure—ample time, as it turns out.

With forty minutes till boarding, my body is still in overdrive. Hmm, what shall I do now? I think to myself. My legs jig in unconscious imitation of my eight-year-old. I could take a dip in Terminal One’s rooftop swimming pool and go for a jog around the cactus and heliconia gardens, but I’m not sure that my wasted, middle-aged body can cope with the sudden burst of health. I could catch a game on one of the twenty-four flat-screen TVs at the Skyplex Entertainment Lounge. Or confess my sins in the multi-denominational Prayer Room. In the end, I do what comes most naturally: I enjoy a last drag in the smoking room and then shut myself in a pod at the Oxygen Bar for a ten-minute zap of pure O2. After a few minutes of deep breathing—huffing and puffing, really—I am on cloud nine.

An hour later, as the tiny island recedes from my window, I settle back into my seat and prepare to return to Mommy mode. The last forty-eight hours have been fun. Surreal, but fun. Like I said, this city has many things going for it.

My Life as a Geisha: Condenast Traveler October 2009

Condenast Traveler’s October Issue has two stories that I reported, one on Kyoto and one on Mumbai. The printed version is at the below link. I’ve uploaded the long version below.

My Life as a Geisha

I have come to Japan to learn about allure. I’ve been married 17 years and while my marriage isn’t falling apart, it is fraying at the edges: a victim of minutiae like leaky taps, airline tickets and PTA meetings. Nowadays when I ask my husband a fairly innocuous question like, “Does this green dress suit me?” he gets this deer-caught-in-the-headlights blink. I want Ram to look at me with freedom, if possible, adoration. So I have come to Japan to learn about feminine allure from its acknowledged masters: the geisha.
Suzuno-san thinks I shouldn’t even be asking questions. Suzuno-san is a Tokyo geisha. Like most Japanese, she is slim but also beautiful with high cheekbones, Dior-red lips and a chignon at the nape, which the Japanese consider the sexiest part of a woman. This is why geisha and maiko (apprentice geisha) wear their kimono low on the back with their nape revealed.
Suzuno-san is in her forties, maybe fifties. I cannot ask. Geisha don’t reveal their age anyway. She teaches etiquette to young Japanese and bemoans the rising informality of her culture. “These manners are part of who we are,” she says. “It is what define us as Japanese.”
We meet at Fucha-ryori Bon, a lovely restaurant with tatami-lined cubicles inside which patrons can have lunch in rice-paper screened privacy. A waitress sets down our bento box and my tutorial begins. Over the next hour, I learn how to pick up a soup bowl (one hand on the side and one underneath), how to slurp udon noodles, quietly sip green tea, place chopsticks horizontally when I am done eating, and also how to treat a man.
Suzuno-san says that peppering a man with questions is a big no-no, something she tells all her apprentice maiko. Questions put a man on the defensive and their role as geisha is to smoothen things out. “I may know a lot about politics but I won’t reveal it,” she says. “Instead I will draw him out.”
This whole notion of playing dumb bothers me and I tell her so. Hasn’t she heard of feminism? Her version is different. She plays dumb not because she is a woman and he is a man. She does it because she is a professional and he is her client. It has more to do with hierarchy than gender. Japanese men play dumb with their clients too.
It is a smart answer but it doesn’t help me with my marriage. I can’t stop asking my husband questions even though I know that it puts him in the defensive. I could however imbibe what Suzuno-san calls ‘respect,’ both for humans and objects. Respect the tatami by leaving your shoes outside. When you cross a room, don’t just blunder across. Go behind people so that their conversations aren’t disturbed. Cover your mouth when you giggle. It looks better than revealing the innards of your gums. Sit up straight and don’t jut your elbows out as if they were sharp swords. Keep them close to your body. When you enter a tatami room, don’t just walk in. Sit on your haunches and slide across the threshold. Then you bow deeply to your host while still kneeling.
Suzuno-san sits on her haunches in the “sezai” position and demonstrates the three different kinds of bows: low, lower and lowest with your face almost touching the floor. I sit before her in my low-waisted jeans and T-shirt worried on many counts. I doubt that I can bow as slowly or elegantly as her. My knees are killing me. Mostly, I am worried that my butt will show when I bend low, or that I will do something embarrassing.
Thankfully nothing happens. The lesson continues. We finish lunch. My interpreter and I drop Suzuno-san at her street corner before speeding on. I turn around and watch her slide across the broad avenue. In her floral pink kimono and erect carriage, she looks regal. Alluring.
The dictionary defines allure as “the power to entice or attract through personal charm,” and this has more to do with gait and bearing than beauty. Geishas are masters of allure. They have the power to “stop a man in his tracks with a single look,” as the book, “Memoirs of a Geisha,” eloquently illustrates. This, I believe is why modern people are fascinated with geisha. It isn’t that they are beautiful although many of them are. Beauty is a wildcard anyway; beyond our control. Sexy after a certain age veers on tawdry. Mystique in the Garboesque sense is too much work. But allure is achievable. Allure, as the geisha so magnificently prove, can be taught and learned. Just like etiquette.
The Japanese call this ‘iki,’ an aesthetic ideal that implies subdued elegance. Iki developed in the 18th century as a kind of reverse snobbery that the working classes developed towards the bourgeouisie opulence of their rulers. Iki pits subtlety against gaudiness; edginess against beauty; relaxed simplicity against gorgeous formality. Loosely translated, iki means being chic or cool, but its nuances are particular to Japan— curves for instance are not iki but straightness is. Not sure why. A kimono falls straight down with no curves— iki, I suppose. An iki geisha might wear flamboyant kimonos but would remain modest. Iki combines sassiness with innocence, sexiness with restraint. Geisha with their giggly coquettishness are emblematic of iki; or aspire to be.
Kyoto represents the apogee of the iki aesthetic and that is where my journey begins. From the air, it looks like any other modern city with the vast Imperial Palace compound surrounded by a grid of neighborhoods that were originally inspired by the Tang Dynasty’s capital city Chang’an (now Xian). Bordered by mountains on three sides, this neat, green, low-rising city of 1.46 million people is almost at the geographical center of Honshu, Japan’s largest island. The big skies and constant mountains bring to mind the American West without any of its rugged swagger. Kyoto is anything but macho. With graceful Zen pagodas, shinto shrines, moss covered gardens, and the ‘Path of Philosophy,’ by the Kamo river, it is Japan’s spiritual and cultural heart. Kyoto is “where the Japanese go to learn what it means to be Japanese,” as the guidebooks say.
The city’s fate was sealed in 794 when the dour Emperor Kammu, freaked out by a series of accidents and natural disasters moved the imperial capital from Nara to Kyoto. He named his new capital, somewhat grandly, as Heian-kyo, which meant place of peace and tranquility. That it was and there it remained till 1868. For a thousand years of relative solitude from neighboring China and Korea, Kyoto was able to develop the hiragana script, pottery, ikebana and pretty much every art that is practised in the country today. Courtiers composed poetry, painted charcoal landscapes, drank sake and held moon-viewing parties in autumn. The elegant Lady Murasaki wrote ‘The Tale of Genji,’ widely considered the world’s first novel, and whose inflence still permeates Japan.
Since its heyday, Kyoto was taken over by successive feuding clans, shogunates and armed samurai for whom losing face meant ritual disembowelment or harakiri. The city’s fortunes wavered according to the whims of warring rulers. The capital moved to Tokyo during the Edo period and then returned to Kyoto. This chequered history has contributed mightily to Kyoto’s layered character. Within Japan, Kyoto is viewed with a combination of envy and disdain. Ask a Tokyo teenager what he thinks of Kyoto-ans and he will use words like snobbish and conservative. Kyoto people never talk straight, he will say. They won’t reveal their feelings and consider you a native only if you have lived there for generations. It is Japanese reserve multiplied by ten.
The city belies such extreme characterization. Sure, parts of Kyoto—near the station, for instance– are like any modern metropolis with snarling cables, suspended cranes, and slipshod neighborhoods that race towards an unplanned future, paying scant heed to preserving their past. But for those who know where to look, Kyoto can be breathtakingly beautiful. It is quintessential Japan in which every icon that we associate with the country blooms into perfection. Zen temples like Kinkaku-ji stand suspended above lakes, drawing the surrounding mountains into their landscape design. Shinto shrines with their tinkling bells, fluttering flags and sacred springs attract the faithful who clap three times to draw the God’s attention to their problems. Monks meditate by mossy rock gardens or the meandering Kamo river. Crooked cobblestone streets curve and wind: roads where you cannot see the end are luckier and prettier acording to the Japanese. Grids are the visual unifier, compared to, say, Arabia’s curves and India’s colors.
At twilight, Kyoto comes alive. Sashimi restaurants stand beside pizza parlors. Even though Nintendo is headquartered here, pachinko parlors are not ubiquitous. Instead, swarms of jean-clad office-goers make way for kimono-clad mamasans (matrons) on their way to buy pickles and eel at the bustling Nishiki market. Every now and then, a geisha appears, standing incongruously under a neon sign advertising lingerie.
For a modern feminist woman like me, it is difficult not to view the geisha culture as archaic and sexist; and perhaps it is. But having grown up in the East, I know that perception doesn’t equal reality. Contradictions exist within cultures, particularly in Japan where myth and mystique are like a silken skein that shows but doesn’t reveal. Yes, geisha were created to pamper Japanese men; but they were also the freest women in old Japan. “Successful geisha were strong-willed businesswomen,” says Japan expert Alex Kerr. “Unlike the typical sheltered Japanese wife, they’d been out in the world.”
A blonde man who speaks fluent Japanese, Kerr, 56, is an acclaimed author, calligrapher, and art collector. He reveres traditional Japanese art forms and is able to translate them into a western idiom. One of his pet projects is preserving and renovating traditional Kyoto shophouses (called machiya). Eager to embrace modernity, most homeowners were tearing down the machiya and putting up characterless but modern buildings in their place. Kerr acknowledges that machiya are dark and dank but they also reflect a lifestyle that is worth preserving. His Iori Trust retrofits traditional machiya with modern plumbing and electricity and rents them out to tourists at five-star prices.
I meet Kerr at an Origin Arts workshop he conducts in Kyoto. Superbly designed and executed, these experiential workshops offer interested participants an insight into the traditional Japanese arts—tea ceremony, calligraphy, flower arrangement, music, dance and drama. I am there because I want to get an overview of some of the arts that the geisha have to master. Gei-sha after all means arts person and mai-ko means dancing girl. I want to simulate, if only for two days, the training that the geisha undergo for years.
Kerr is an excellent teacher. He simplifies Japanese aesthetic concepts and places them in context. He says that Japan is a great storehouse for the Asian art forms because it was the “end of the line” that stretched from China. “Japan had 2000 years to refine and polish these arts. And nothing got lost,” he says.
Geisha played a key role in preserving the arts. In the early days, this was how they differentiated themselves from the courtesans of the Pontocho pleasure quarters– by studying the arts with a discipline that would give a Russian ballet dancer a complex. In winter, they would dip their hands into ice and then sit outside in the freezing cold with their frozen hands and play the shamisen strings till their fingers bled. Or so the tale goes.
I remember this during my next lesson, which involves turning myself into a geisha, quite literally. Kyoto these days has several shops that offer to turn you into a Geisha or, for men, a samurai. My guide, Koko Ijuin, tells me that they are very popular with visiting Koreans and Chinese. She says it disdainfully and wonders what the real geisha think about the fake geisha who don’t know how to walk properly.
Ijuin or Koko-san as I call her is a dainty woman who spent part of her childhood in America. Trained in the classical Japanese arts, she tells me that there is a proper way to do everything including opening a sliding door, the fusuma. It goes like this: kneel directly in front of door; place fingertips in handle; slide open 5 cm; place same hand on frame about 24 cm above the floor; push it open halfway; change your hand and push fusuma open the rest of the way. Stand up and back away. I am speechless at the level of precision. This, I think, is the secret of Japan: to see greatness in small things and smallness in great things.
Yume Miru Yume, where Koko-san takes me is a tiny make-up studio near the Yasaka shrine of Kyoto. The narrow cobblestone street is typical of Kyoto. Calligraphed signs on translucent rice paper, red lanterns, bamboo walls, people wheeling bicycles, retired men sitting on benches reading the newspaper. It could be a village in inner France were it not so Japanese in character—the faces, the alphabet and yes, the sloping-roofed shrine at the top of the hill.
Three women descend on me like fluttering sparrows and whisk me up a flight of stairs to the kimono-room. The Japanese love of seasons is reflected in their kimonos too. There are chrysanthemums, azaleas, weeping willows and sakuras (cherry blossoms). Since one size fits all, I can choose any of the two dozen garments hung by the wall. I pick a royal blue kimono with red and green flowers climbing up the sides. My obi, the wide brocade belt tied around the kimono is black and gold. It is 8 meters long.
Two attendants dress me in several layers of undergarments. We adjourn to the make-up studio below where the kao-shi or ‘face master’ smears white paint all over my face and neck. She murmurs appreciation of my eyes as she lines them with black liner, mascara, and then inexplicably, red liner around the edges to make them ‘sexier.’ My lips are drawn thinner than they are and painted bright red, like a rosebud. The hairstylist applies wax to the front of my hair so that not a strand is out of place. Then comes a wig with an elaborate hairstyle—not the famous split-peach one suggestive of the vagina but another updo. The hairstylist adorns my wig with lacquer combs, tortoise-shell bow-clips and hanging silk flowers.
The otoko-shi (dress-master) wraps the kimono and obi around me, an exercise somewhat akin to Scarlett and her Mamie. I suck it in as the surprisingly strong Japanese waif tightens the obi around my waist. The kimono looks best on women with no curves, they tell me approvingly. Small waists are in fact supplemented with towels so that the kimono can hang perfectly straight. I don’t need any towels. I conform to the iki standard of beauty if not the western one.
Finally, I am permitted to look in the mirror. An exotic stranger stares back— white face, red lips. I look Japanese. “Kawaii,” exclaim the girls. “Cute.”
Kawaii is a word used to describe maiko and it embodies their girlish giggles and presumed innocence. An American woman I meet later tells me that she detests the word. Kathy has lived in Kyoto for 25 years and that single word— kawaii– seems to wipe out a century of feminism; at least in her mind. Japanese men love this non-threatening cuteness, I am told. Young maiko are in fact told not to look men in the eye because it is disrespectful. Instead, their eyes ‘skitter,’ says Koko-san.
I angle my head slightly just like they tell me to and try to make my eyes skitter. My reflection looks deranged. It is show-time. I slip my feet into the high-heeled geta-clogs and step out into the sunshine. People start taking photographs— me holding a fan, an umbrella, me simpering and skittering. In that moment, I achieve my fantasy if not my goal. I am a Kyoto geisha but it is only as deep as my painted white skin; I have not yet been able to get under their skin and learn their secrets.
I hobble up the cobblestone street to the Yasaka shrine. “Softly,” says Koko-san. “Don’t stride. Make a figure 8 with your feet.” Koko calls the elegant shuffle of the Japanese ladies ‘shinayakasa.’ It suggests softness and ripples– like the waves, with one movement blending into the other. Young Japanese girls who have never worn a kimono “do not experience such movement,” says Koko. “This makes them look very ugly when they put on the kimono for the first time.”
It occurs to me that a western model’s strut on the catwalk is the exact opposite of the Japanese shuffle, suggesting once again that notions of beauty are not universal but relative and cultural. Angelina Jolie’s lips for instance would probably pose a nightmare for a geisha make-up artist because they don’t conform to the small beestung look that geisha sport.
Walking on a cobblestone in clogs is a nightmare for me so I quickly turn back. An assistant shampoos the wax out of my hair. Then we go shopping. Shoji street is atmospheric with paper lanterns, pickle shops and incongruously, a big Starbucks. As we walk along, we see a few maiko and geisha walking down the road. In their kimonoed finery, they look like peacocks. Is it okay to stare, I whisper. I think they expect it, Koko replies.
We enter shop after shop specializing in geisha accessories. A handbag costs $400, a lacquer hairclip, $483. A pair of zori sandals that look like fancy thongs is selling for $530. No wonder hiring a geisha for an evening can cost $1500. Good kimonos, I am told, can sell for $25,000, although second-hand ones are a mere $100.
Later, at a kimono workshop, I observe how individual kimono are designed, dyed, painted upon and then stitched together. It is in the picturesque Arashiyama district with its famed bamboo grove: a cool green path shrouded by bamboo on both sides. At dawn, it is sublime, my guide whispers, but when we arrive mid-afternoon, it is swarming with tourists. The main street has stalls selling sesame cakes, green tea icecream, radish and ginger pickles and fish sticks. We cut through meandering lanes, past Tenryuji, a UNESCO-designated Zen temple that was burnt down and rebuilt several times. Soon, we reach the Kurisho kimono workshop. Withered Japanese men in blue samurai robes sit before a loom-like apparatus, breaking off every now and then for a cigarette, and paint Japanese icons on to a kimono: weeping willows, waves, cherry blossoms, and Japanese cranes, symbolizing ‘luck, longevity and fidelity.’ Relative to its other arts, textiles aren’t a Japanese strength, at least in my mind. I’ve seen better weaves in Bali, Cambodia, Thailand and India. The reason why kimono cost so much is probably because labor is expensive in Japan, I conclude.
Old Japan was designed for kimonos— the squatting toilets, temple steps, and homes were all conducive to women wearing kimonos. Okiya teahouses measured their wealth by the number of kimono they owned. Now, they are all but invisible on the streets. WAK Japan, a company based in Kyoto, conducts kimono-wearing, and other classes for visiting tourists.
One morning I get picked up by a kimono-clad WAK representative for a dance class. Dancing is integral to being a maiko (the word means ‘dancing girl’) and I have decided to learn some basics. My teacher, an ever-smiling woman named Yayoi teaches me sliding walk which starts out slow and then goes faster. ‘Shin-gyo-so,’ she says, like a beat when I slide. She teaches me to ‘point at the chrysanthemum on the right’ and then at the left. Pretty soon, I am wielding a fan; twirling an umbrella, and cocking my head slightly like a Japanese crane.
Two hours later, Yayoi plays a Japanese song and to my surprise, I am able to put together all the steps into a semi-coherant dance. I won’t say that it looked beautiful— my teacher’s certainly did— but mine looked Japanese at least.
That evening, I don a kimono and walk through the five geisha districts of Kyoto. The hanamachi or ‘flower towns’ are welcoming yet secretive. Light spills through the lattice screens and dapples the puddles on the road. Red paper lanterns carry the rounded image of the ‘dango’ lollipops that children eat. Beautiful geisha and maiko hurry between teahouses, going from one appointment to another. Tourist cameras click. The scene is both thoroughly modern and timeless.
The ‘flower and willow world’ or karyukai is both exacting and secret, one that prizes discretion (geisha never marry and never reveal the father if they have children), yet is open to misinterpretation. When the American GIs occupied Japan, they stood in the Ginza and chanted for ‘geesha girls,’ or prostitutes. Today’s geisha go to great lengths to explain that they are sophisticated entertainers, not prostitutes. They may hint at their sexuality using double entrendre and sexual jokes delivered with the most innocent of faces; they may draw out a man’s sorrows by listening to him sympathetically and pouring more sake; but they certainly do not sleep around like the ‘onsen (hot springs) geisha.’ Rather, they are refined artists who occupy a rarified realm in which women are both divas and directors. “In a system that was repressive to women, there were these airpockets in which women could be dominant,” says Kerr. “Geisha in that sense were the superwomen of Japan.”
The earliest geisha were in fact, men who played the role of court jesters to the feudal lords of the 13th century. When women were banned from performing the kabuki, they were forced to take their talents to the teahouses where the first female geisha made her appearance in 1751.
During the Edo period, the capital moved from Kyoto to Tokyo. Merchants, shoguns (army commanders), samurais and feudal lords travelled between the two cities and spent months in Kyoto finishing deals or monitoring projects. Kyoto teahouses were built to entertain these travellers. Many of the early geisha were daughters of these teahouses, a tradition that continues to this day with geisha being ‘adopted’ by the okiya (teahouse) mother, called okasan.
Naosome, the geisha I spend an afternoon with has been adopted by the Nakazato teahouse. She is all of 19. Our meeting is almost a roundtable conference: me, Koko, the fixer who got us this interview—a beautiful lady who we call Hamasaki-san, Naosome, the teahouse-mother (okasan) and her assistant who brings in cups of green tea.
Naosome is of erect bearing, exquisitely polite, charming, and for a geisha, candid. Actually, she is not yet a geisha but will be in a few weeks. To become a geisha at 19 shows how good she is at what she does, Koko says later. This means that she has found a danna (patron), who will fund her studies and perhaps have a relationship with her.
In her orange kimono with her scrubbed face and frequent giggles, Naosome looks far too young to have a danna, let alone be a geisha. When I mention how young she looks, she laughs. Compared to her friends back home in her village, she is very mature, she says. She has been to fancy restaurants and parties; met and interacted with important businessmen and dignitaries. “I can call them ona-san (big brother), laugh and joke with them,” she says. “Plus I get to wear a kimono, practise my dance and live in this world of beauty.”
By now, I am starstruck by her poise. What, I ask, does she do to maintain her beauty? Yoga, a special diet? She giggles again. “I only avoid things that will affect my work,” she pauses for a beat, “such as garlic,” she ends with great comic timing.
The room erupts in laughter. Naosome and her okasan tease each other gently about the number of kimono the okiya owns. Not nearly enough, says the okasan disparagingly. You own enough to surprise me, Naosome replies. This exchange is a contrast to the formal hierarchical relationship between the geisha and okasan that books describe. I ask the okasan how she picks the girls that she moulds into geisha.
She pauses for a moment and lets out a heavy sigh. They have to be beautiful of course, she replies; and disciplined because they work long hours with few holidays. They have to be smart and learn quickly how to play instruments, dance, do tea ceremony. After all, it takes three years to just get the basic stuff right: posture, hand gestures, and what she calls ‘piling up experiences.’ But in the end, it is a gut feeling she gets, says the okasan. “A geisha is like the sun. When she walks into a room, it becomes brighter.”
I sigh— at the poetry of the words, at the audacity of my attempt to emulate geisha. I can try to sit up ramrod straight all I want. I can even learn how to put on makeup. But flirting with decorum requires skill; innuendo while maintaining propriety requires talent. When I try this on my husband at home— serving him tea while batting my eyelashes ‘innocently’– he stares quizzically and asks if I have PMS. The reason geisha are more successful than I at this is because they have an exquisite calibration for appropriateness. They know when to flirt, and how do the right thing at the opportune moment— like Brooke Astor and Nan Kempner, who perhaps would have made great geisha. Like the great western hostesses, geisha have an uncanny ability to light up a party and switch on the atmosphere. They know exactly what to say to the shy wallflowers to draw them out without making them feel self conscious. The Japanese call this kikubari—paying careful attention to others and understanding their desires before they vocalize them. The art of conversation—wit and repartee—is a prized skill among geisha, as I see during my interview with Naozome.
Over the next few days, I bump into Naosome many times— at the Kaburenjo theater where she rehearses for a performance the following week, during a street parade in honor of the Kitano Tenmangu shrine when she and other geisha stand in front of their teahouses as the faces of Kamischiken geisha district, smiling at passersby and having their photos taken by hordes of Japanese tourists. Naosome chats with a gray-haired man who never leaves her side. Is he her danna, I wonder. He looks old enough to be her grandfather and perhaps he is.
One evening, Naosome entertains us at her teahouse. I have brought my daughters along. They are 6 and 11, dressed in recently purchased kimonos and looking slightly bemused at the unfamiliar jelly-like Japanese food placed in front of them. How will Naosome handle us, I wonder. I am worried that my kids will be their usual forthright selves. Right off the bat, my six-year-old announces that the food tastes ‘wierd.’ The waitress giggles politely. Naosome speaks only Japanese and we don’t speak the language. The evening is going to be a washout, I decide.
What Naosome does— after treating us to a traditional fan dance– is play games. She teaches my girls a song called ‘kompeena hune hune,’ that provides the background beat to several games like ‘rock paper scissors.’ Within minutes, my kids are entranced— by Naosome’s grace, her giggles, the softness of her touch as she hugs them when they win, and the game itself. The evening passes in a whirl of perfume, giggles, unobtrusive service and for a finicky kid’s palate, mediocre food.
“Most foreigners think geisha only play games,” laughs Sayuki, an Australian anthropologist with an MBA from Oxford when I recount the evening. We are sitting at a café in Tokyo. I have just taken the shinkansen or bullet train in from Kyoto.
Sayuki is a geisha, albeit a non-Japanese one. She wears a kimono, speaks fluent Japanese and entertains clients at teahouses. Trained in western classical flute, Sayuki graduated from Keio University in Tokyo. It was through Keio’s alumni network that she accessed the geisha world, she says. Some of her college classmates had relatives who owned teahouses.
Spurred by the dream of actually living in what social anthropologists call the ‘target society,’ Sayuki (she won’t reveal her real name or age) decided to become a geisha. She took lessons in the shakuhachi or Japanese bamboo flute and made her debut a year later, an event that attracted a lot of press attention. She says that she wants to use her marketing savvy to take young geisha abroad.
Sayuki is controversial amongst geisha mostly because they prize discretion above all and she is nothing if not media-savvy. She agrees to see me only if I will mention her website in my article. I agree because I would have done it anyway. Such straightforward negotiation seems normal in modern business but comes across as coarse in a world where a geisha’s time is measured by the number of incense sticks used while she entertains in a teahouse. A couple of the Tokyo geisha tell me that they don’t know what to do with this gaijin (foreigner) who appears on TV, talks about the geisha life and plans to document it in a book and a documentary. On the other hand, Sayuki is able to offer a fresh perspective on this veiled world. It was she who first introduced me to the notion that geisha were not the doormats that they were thought to be. “Geisha can offer the kind of intellectual evening that you might enjoy in Oxford– which can be hard to find in Japan,” she says. “They have a very sophisticated wit.”
For a foreigner, Japan can seem impenetrable. Part of it is the language; part of it is the intrinsic reserve of the Japanese, their incredible self-discipline. Nobody ever jaywalks on Tokyo streets, nor do they jump the queue while waiting for the shinkansen (bullet trains). But it is more than that. It is an attention to detail, an appreciation for order. At the restaurant where I meet Suzuno-san— my etiquette teacher, I take off my shoes before entering the tatami room. Right behind me comes the waitress. Without so much as a hello or a bow, she bends and re-arranges my off-center shoes so that are perfectly in line with the other geta-clogs. Plus, she turns them around so that I can slip right in when I come out. I don’t think she did this because it is her job; I think the off-kilter shoes just offended her sensibilities.
Being from India and having been subject to questions like, “Do all Indians ride on elephants?” cultural stereotypes make my hackles rise so I shouldn’t be saying this but it is true: Japan has an aesthetic that is both refined and contrarian. Consider: most ancient civilizations base their notions of beauty on symmetry. Think of the Taj Mahal, the pyramids, the Parthenon. Japan does the opposite. It worships asymmetry. Most Japanese rock gardens are off-center; Japanese raku pottery has an undulating unevenness to it. Asymmetry and ‘astringency’ or “reduction of a thing to its essence through space and time,” are part of Japan’s aesthetic norms. Unusual, isn’t it? Most of us haven’t even heard of astringency, let alone develop an aesthetic sensibility around it.
Aesthetics are cultural. The Chinese like round faces while the Scandivanians, high cheekbones. What’s unusual about Japan is that its aesthetics are highly evolved, almost modern, given its vintage as a civilization. Fragmentation, for instance, is a modern photographic idea but the Japanese had figured it out eons ago. Japanese paintings depicts a branch instead of a tree. A fragmented moon hidden by clouds is considered more beautiful than a full in-your-face moon. They call this mono no aware, which implies an acute sensitivity to the beauty of objects, the “ahhness of things,” as the Japanese would have it. Mono no aware attunes people to the fragile and the transient. It values the soft patina of age more than the sparkle of newness. Mono no aware or empathy towards objects, arguably is the root from which stem Manga comic books, anime, Pokemon, Nintendo, Toyota cars and yes, Hello Kitty dolls.
The third concept in Japanese aesthetics is wabi-sabi which again is contrarian. The Japanese are a perfectionist race yet wabi-sabi honors the old and the vulnerable; the imperfect, the unfinished and the ephemeral. While other ancient cultures emphasized permanence and endurance— in their buildings and works of art (Indian stone sculptures were built to last forever as was the Sphinx and the Sistine Chapel), Japan celebrated transience and impermanence. The tea ceremony which is often considered the acme of Japanese arts, leaves nothing behind except a memory. Japanese pottery, going all the way to the Jomons, has a rustic simplicity to it. Wabi-sabi connotes ‘spiritual longing’ and ‘serene melancholy,’ which sound pretentious but make perfect sense when you visit rural Japan. The cherry blossoms are ephemeral and therefore wabi-sabi; the tea ceremony connotes loneliness and longing for a higher spiritual plane, hence it is wabi-sabi. The old cracked teapot, the withered fabric, the lonely weeping willow are all wabi-sabi. The geisha are anything but. “Just as the tea ceremony represents the wabi-sabi aspect of Japanese culture, geisha represent the opposite— the effervescence of the culture,” says Toru Ota, a scholar and confectioner who teaches at Kyoto Women’s University and owns Oimatsu, one of Kyoto’s best confectionaries. I meet Ota-san above his shop where bejewelled pastries in candy pink, baby blue and melting orange are displayed like works of art. A slim man who vaguely resembles Jackie Chan, Ota-san looks ascetic but he is in fact an aesthete, pursuing a life revolving around beauty. He is a painter, tea master, confectioner and a patron of the arts. A Japanese Renaissance man who has demonstrated the tea ceremony at the Japan Society in New York. He invites me to witness a tea ceremony at his rural retreat in Ohara. It is right next to a town called Obama, he says with a laugh, which has now become popular all over Japan for its American connection.
An hour outside Kyoto by taxi or bus, Ohara is famous for two things within Japan: the Sanzenin temple and its autumn colors. Like most Zen temples, Sanzenin has a complicated history with multiple rebuildings and changing of site. More interesting than the beatific Buddha inside are the mossy grounds, smiling stone statues amidst trees, and carp filled ponds. In the autumn, Ohara becomes Japan’s Vermont with lines of orderly tourists enjoying the blaze of maple trees.
Ota-san’s home is surrounded by rolling hills. It is dusk when we arrive at the bungalow with its slanting roof, pebbled driveway and shoji-screened doors. My guide and I stand uncertainly in the gathering darkness and then, suddenly, we see him in the far end of the garden, wearing a simple blue robe and raking the leaves that have fallen from an ancient gnarled tree. A solitary Japanese scholar, silhouetted against an indigo sky. That’s wabi-sabi, I tell myself. Serene melancholy.
The tea ceremony is exquisite. For someone who is used to the casualness creeping into the modern world— even Japan with its spiky-haired teenagers populating Tokyo’s Roppongi Hills isn’t immune from this— the tea ceremony can seem longwinded and needlessly formal. There are at least 16 steps including cleaning of the utensils, admiring the teapot, exchanging greetings, eating the tea sweets and then drinking the matcha (strong) and sencha (light) tea. In ancient Japan, chado or the Way of Tea was considered the essence of civilization. In order to enjoy chado, you have to get into a state of mind that we call Zen.
In a dark tatami room lit by candles, Ota-san boils water for our tea. He mixes powdery matcha tea and offers it to us in a bowl. Just as I am about to keep it to my lips, he casually lets it drop that the bowl I am drinking from is worth $1 million. I stop sipping and carefully place it down. We all laugh. The next round of tea which is more dilute is offered in a bowl that he picked up in Brazil, he says. It is almost worthless, he says and laughs.
I gaze at the bowl from Brazil. The two countries could not be more different. Brazil with its colorful straightforward exuberance is extrovert and open. Japan with its penchant for gray, its reserve and formality is as yin as Latin America is yang. I try to picture Ota-san in Copacabana beach. It is impossible.
Which is the best tea ceremony you’ve ever done, I ask? I expect him to mention one that he did for knowledgeable Japanese scholars who knew the various steps of the tea ceremony. By now, I am able to intuit that a tea ceremony can be like a symphony—if all the players know what to do, the experience can be sublime. Ota-san has done the tea ceremony for famous personalities including architect Tadao Ando and fashion designer Issey Miyake, both of who were guests at the very tatami room I am kneeling at. So which is your favorite tea ceremony, I press. “This one,” replies Ota-san.
His answer reminds me of a Zen koan (riddle). Ota-san tells me that he gears each tea ceremony to its guests. The scroll, the flowers, even the choice of tea utensils is based on what he thinks they will like. But how do you know what they will like, I ask. I look at their shoes, he replies. A riddle-like answer.
After tea, we have a hot pot dinner prepared by the same Hamasaki-san who fixed our interview with Naosome. Turns out that she has a Ph.D. in incense. What’s that, I blurt out? She describes it as somewhat akin to being a ‘nose’ in a French perfumery only with a much older provenance. Hamasaki-san and Ota-san are partners in an enterprise called Ren that aims to promote traditional Japanese culture. I wonder if they are a couple. It’s hard to tell—she is beautiful; he is obviously successful but much older than her. He doesn’t mention a wife or family, but that, my guide tells me is not unusual in Japan. Most Japanese men wouldn’t talk about their wives in public, he says.
Later, much later, Ota-san drives us all back into Kyoto in his Mercedes. It is pitch dark. The road winds. A stream gurgles nearby. We are happy. We chat about Barack Obama, Nepali restaurants and Kyoto’s beauty. “Enjoy the light spilling through the lattice work,” says Ota-san as he drops us at a street corner. “That’s the beauty of Kyoto.”
Sayuki, the Australian geisha I met in Tokyo says it differently. “Cultures die if they don’t evolve; they get diluted if they change too much,” she told me. “The Geisha culture of Japan is evolving. The fact that I, a foreigner can become a geisha is proof of it. I am the revolution.”
Postscript: Travel broadens your horizons, the cliché goes. It changes you. Well, it has been two months since I got home and the geisha of Japan still influence my thinking. I pay attention to how I walk, to my movements, whether they are compact and graceful. These are small things, you might say. But to the Japanese, the small is big; the simple is profound. I am still feminist but Japan seems to have rubbed off the edges. I tolerate stuff from my husband that I previously wouldn’t have. Again, it is small things.
Yesterday, for instance, my husband went on a rant about our newly acquired puppy. She is peeing all over our flat and driving us all nuts. Over dinner, my husband went on and on about how I ought to housebreak her, and how I ought to fix the problem. In my previous avatar, I would have jumped right back. Why is the puppy my headache, I would have asked and gone on a tirade about shared chores and equal marriage, and how he had it easy, given his travel schedule. We would have exchanged words. The whole thing would have spiralled downward and out of control.
Post-Japan, I just listened to him vent. The man is distressed, I thought. What would a geisha do, I wondered. And I took it. I shut up and let him get it all out.
I went to Japan to learn about allure. I went to Japan to improve my marriage. I can’t say that I’ve become more alluring but I’ve certainly become more patient. I try to appreciate the present and watch the moon—wabi sabi, you know. Allure can be a sideways glance, a hand gesture, or just keeping quiet and listening to a man vent. Allure can be the simple realization that I am not letting down a whole generation of feminists by being more attentive to my husband. For that, I have the geisha to thank.
END MAIN STORY

Goa Grows Up: Condenast Travel October 2008 issue

The October 2008 issue of Condenast Traveler has a cover story I wrote about Goa. It is available at

http://www.concierge.com/cntraveler/articles/13145

or
below

There are some great pictures to accompany the story but I don’t think I am allowed to post them here so here is a shot that I took myself.

GOA GROWS UP
Once a hippie haven where even India’s tightly chaperoned teens could turn on, tune in, and drop out, Goa has lately gone upscale. Shoba Narayan returns to a scene from her youth and finds that Goa (like the author herself) has only gotten better with age

It is Christmas in Goa. The sun-dappled veranda of Alban and Maria Couto’s sprawling ancestral hacienda is as good a place as any to discuss the future of India’s smallest state. Old family friends, they are in their sixties, maybe seventies—I dare not ask. Even though I’ve met them only twice, I call them Auntie and Uncle, Indian style. Alban, dapper in suspenders and tie, served in the Indian Civil Service with my in-laws; Maria, regally composed, is an acclaimed author. I have brought along her book Goa: A Daughter’s Story, for an autograph.

After hellos and small talk about Aldona, the tiny enclave in which they live, we settle down. What, they ask, will I have to drink?

“Orange juice?” I reply doubtfully. (It is before noon.) Alban looks at me with pity. We will have feni, he announces. I should have known. Goans drink feni (thirty-five percent alcohol) at weddings and wakes, baptisms and birthdays, after butchering a pig and before lunch. A Goan home, the saying goes, will lack anything but liquor. Maria opts for white wine. Their man Friday brings me a shot glass and some salted cashews.

The feni is velvety smooth and fiery. I shake my head at its potency. Seeing what he takes to be my appreciation, Alban summons his Jeeves again. “Take an empty Sprite bottle and fill it with feni for madam,” he says, chuckling at the duplicity of the act. My head buzzes.

“Goa has changed, hasn’t it?” I begin, with a wide, somewhat silly smile. A who’s who seems to be moving in: Bombay socialites, photographer Dayanita Singh; why, I heard that author Amitav Ghosh has bought here, too. Turns out that Ghosh is their neighbor. Later, during a tour of the house, I spot his books in Alban’s library, each lovingly inscribed.

The Coutos are both descended from Brahmin families who were converted to Christianity by the Portuguese in the sixteenth century, something that Maria recounts in her book. Worldly and well traveled, with a son in the United States and a British daughter-in-law, they could live anywhere, yet they chose Goa.

“It is a place where you can shed your inhibitions,” says Alban. “Revel in simple pleasures. Goa is about . . . the good life.” A life they fear is fast disappearing. “Goa has a wistful, elegiac quality to it,” says Maria, sounding wistful herself. “And this quality is contained in Goan music: both joyful and sad.”

They tell me about their neighbor, a poor farmer who came to them with a sob story about needing money. Generations of his people had toiled on their land and he was heavily in debt, so the Coutos transferred title of a plot to the man—only to discover that he turned around and sold it for a small fortune. “What he doesn’t realize, the poor fool, is that he now has no place in Goa to live,” says Maria. “All these outsiders come in and tempt the locals with wads of cash.”

At the Coutoses’ recommendation, I call political cartoonist Mario Miranda, a living legend in Goa. I introduce myself as a journalist, and apologize for intruding on his Christmas holiday.

“Hate Christmas,” Miranda cuts me off. “Hate being forced to be happy.”

When I ask to see him, he demurs. Five minutes, I beg. I am a friend of the Coutoses.

Later that afternoon, Mario Joao Carlos do Rosario de Britto Miranda—gray-haired and with keen eyes—receives me in his study. “Call me Mario,” he says. The high ceilings, orange walls, black-and-white drawings, ancient typewriter, and gramophone all make it feel like a European salon or a well-preserved Park Avenue penthouse. I am tongue-tied. I congratulate him on his numerous awards, on the lifetime-achievement honor he received from Louis Vuitton a couple of years ago. I was at the post-award party, but Miranda never showed. “Hate parties,” he says, waving off my praise. He asks about my life in Bangalore and, before that, New York, where his elder son is a coiffeur. I ask about Goa’s future.

“Goa is finished, as far as I am concerned,” he replies. He tells me about his neighbors, a Brit and a Kiwi. Lovely people, he says, leading the good life with Vespas and an in-ground swimming pool. However, Goans are now a minority in Goa, he claims.

Like the Coutoses, Miranda honors his Hindu roots. His ancestors promised to deliver a sack of rice and a hundred coconuts to the local temple of the goddess Durga at the start of each harvest, he tells me—a commitment they’ve kept to this day, even though their lands have been disposed of and “Portuguese is my mother tongue.”

This layering—of a Hindu past with a Mediterranean soul, of Latin beats with sitar strings, of Indian spices with European stews—is part of what makes Goa so irresistible.

That evening, I stroll down Arossim Beach from my hotel in South Goa to a makeshift shack and order a beer. All around me are singles and couples—a rainbow of colors and predilections—reading books, nibbling on shrimp, listening to local musician Remo Fernandes’s hit “Muchacha Latina” on boom boxes. Anywhere else in India, I—an unaccompanied woman—would be the object of curiosity and questions. Here, nobody looks at me twice. Solitude, a multi-hued sunset, a salty breeze loosening tendrils of my upswept hair, all topped with a brawny beer—to be sure, this is the good life. No wonder the foreigners came.

The Portuguese were the first to occupy India and the last to leave, arriving with Vasco da Gama in 1498 and departing a mere forty-five years ago at the behest of the Indian army. Since its “liberation,” Goa has accumulated many plaudits. India’s smallest state is also its richest, with a high rate of literacy and few beggars. Barely industrialized, it is less a cohesive entity than it is a collection of villages, or communidads, with musical names like Calangute and Candolim, Mapusa and Morjim, all delivered in lilting Konkani.

I decide to start in South Goa and work my way up the coast. Goa has resorts and homestays to suit every budget, but most are booked a year in advance. The more popular ones sometimes require a minimum stay of a week during high season, which begins in October and ends in March. In my view, the best time to visit is late December and early January. Just as Kerala is decked out for the Onam festival in September and Delhi is best seen during Diwali (India’s biggest Hindu holiday) in October, Goa is at its most magical during Christmas and New Year. Christians comprise only thirty percent of the population, but they are an expressive and highly influential presence.

On Christmas night, I accompany Andrew Pegado to a village dance. Pegado is a photographer who covers parties for the local papers. Tonight he is off duty, but he nevertheless carries his camera because, he says, you never know when a celebrity will show up.

Silver Bells, the outdoor dance hall in Sangolda, is prettily lit. Pegado greets friends—a kiss on each cheek for the women, a handshake or hug for the men, depending on the level of friendship. He hands me a gin and tonic from the cash bar and goes to mingle. The hall is full of couples and families. The women are decked out in long dresses, and the men in either suits or black tie. A band named Alcatraz comes onstage and begins to play—the fox-trot, the rumba, the samba, the swing. To my surprise, the floor fills up with couples, the men as graceful as the women. One twosome cradle a baby as they waltz. Little girls in flouncy dresses and boys in jackets and trousers freestyle in between the adults. It is like being at a family camp in the Poconos—cheesy but oddly charming.

I observe an Indian couple dancing cheek to cheek. They are plump and not particularly attractive but move with impeccable rhythm and grace. This is new to me—Indian men are not known for their dancing. I make bold: I tap the lady on the shoulder and steal off with her partner. Turns out he is a real-estate agent and knows of a beachfront property. It’s technically too close to the water to build on, he says, which is why it’s so cheap. But he assures me that a big hotel chain (he won’t say which) is building even closer to the shoreline and so I should be fine. Louis Armstrong’s timbral voice wafts in from somewhere: “What a wonderful world,” he croons. I take it as a sign.

South Goa may be quiet—and justly renowned for its beaches—but North Goa is where the action is. The seashore at Baga, Calangute, and Candolim is full of sunbathing bodies, sometimes nude. Masseurs and reflexologists ply the sand. And as the sun sets, nightclubs like Britto’s and Tito’s pump out music.

As I sunbathe on Baga Beach, getting a back massage with clove oil, my real-estate agent/dance partner calls back with figures. All they want is $1 million, he says. I jump up, scalded not by the sun but by the soaring prices. It feels like New York all over again. I decide I’m not that fond of beaches after all.

Leaving Baga, I encounter rice paddies and palm groves. White egrets take flight from lotus ponds. Crocodiles swim among the mangroves. Europeans on scooters speed down the narrow rural roads, dodging chickens, cows, dogs, and pigs. I chase them on my rented Vespa, determined to find their secret hideouts. Which is how I end up at the end of a long dirt road, saying hello to Yahel Chirinian and Doris Zacheres.

Foreigners feel at home here. They come on holiday and end up staying for years. Chirinian and Zacheres, for instance, met in Paris and moved to Goa eight years ago. Together, they own Monsoon Heritage, designing and building startlingly whimsical sculptural pieces for collectors here and abroad. They love India, Chirinian says, because the “weather is brutal, the snakes poisonous, and the friendships profound.”

erman Claudia Derain and her Indian husband, Hari Ajwani, are another such couple, having opened the magical Nilaya Hermitage, an eleven-room hotel with a cult following, fourteen years ago. Englishman James Foster, another expat, manages Casa Boutique Hotels, a chain whose accommodations have the feel of bungalows. In fact, the only foreigners who don’t seem plentiful these days are the Portuguese.

“Goa has a special vibration, a Latin feel,” says fashion designer Wendell Rodricks, one of the few openly gay Indians. Rodricks lives with his French partner, Jerome Marrel, in a beautifully restored Portuguese mansion in Colvale.

I visit Rodricks on the eve of his spring fashion show. It is midmorning. He sits outside under a banyan tree, sketching and describing the model lineup to an assistant. A manservant brings breakfast: fresh fruit juice, green tea, and oatmeal on a stylish wooden tray. Five dogs lounge around Rodricks’s feet, occasionally nuzzling his Prada sandals; Marrel sits on a balcony above us, reading. It is a cozy domestic scene, and I want it all—the restored Portuguese mansion, the manservant, the dogs, and, if possible, the Prada sandals.

Although his flowing monochromatic designs have long been scooped up by India’s most stylish women, Rodricks feels that he “bloomed” as a designer only after moving to Goa in 1993. Today, he lives an idyllic life: walking the village and sketching in the morning, spending the bulk of his day at his shop in Panjim, going out on his boat at sunset, and attending a different soirée almost every night. “I was at a party last night where I was the only Goan,” he says. “Lots of international citizens live here, a life that is part lotus-eater, part evolved globe-trotter.”

Living in a trading port for the Greeks, Romans, Arabs, and Europeans meant that Goans were forced to interact with the outside world far earlier than the average Indian. This has made them friendly but not overly curious about foreigners. Unlike in the rest of India, white people don’t get stared at here, even in the most rural settings. Trance music and tranquil beaches nudge type A personalities into subdued sublimity. The heat and, yes, the hashish encourage a languid pace of life and a state of mind that Goans call sussegado, political cartoonist Miranda told me. “It means a life of leisure—and it is vanishing.”

A couple of years ago, a group of concerned citizens began a Save Goa campaign to prevent the government from converting off-limits agricultural land into Special Economic Zones (SEZs) subject to development. Everyone I meet is up in arms—against the “Russian mafia,” who are buying large tracts near Morjim Beach, where the olive ridley sea turtles come to nest, and against nouveau riche North Indians who are buying up Goa without respecting its values.

Upendra Gaunekars and his wife, Sangeeta—an old, aristocratic Hindu family in hilly Ponda—say the solution lies in green businesses that suit Goa’s psyche. They talk with pride of the “Nylon 66″ agitation that forced the DuPont chemical company to withdraw from Goa. It reminds me of a Southern gentleman I once met in Memphis who told me that the difference between a Yankee and a damn Yankee is that Yankees go back home.

Goans don’t want development. We want our heritage to continue,” says Sadiq Sheikh, a fourth-generation Goan. Sheikh lives high on a hill in tony Dona Paula, with stunning, sweeping views of the Mandovi River. “I own everything you see,” he says matter-of-factly. Behind us is a development of bland two-bedroom apartments, built by a businessman to whom Sheikh sold the land. If I didn’t know better, I’d think I was in New Jersey.

Sheikh rues the pace of construction but is not sure how to stop it. “We don’t want spoiled brats from other states to come in and polarize Goa,” he says. “But how can I censor whom I sell my land to? How can I control what they do with it once they buy it?”

The Save Goa folks would argue that Sheikh shouldn’t sell his land at all. Armando Gonsalves is a jazz musician and real-estate agent who owns several waterfront acres right beside Sheikh’s. Gonsalves has dreams of converting it into an eco-village or a jazz community—he’s not sure which. He knows it doesn’t make business sense, but he believes that green development is the only thing that will preserve his Goa. “For me, Goa is life itself,” he says without a trace of theatrical exaggeration.

Gonsalves runs a nonprofit called Heritage Jazz that holds concerts in historic buildings, including his own home, which occupies an entire city block in Central Panjim. Walking into the Gonsalves mansion is like visiting Portugal circa 1940: a faintly sepulchral silence pervades the cool, dimly lit rooms furnished with ornately carved antiques.

We sip tea from delicate pink china and nibble on bibinca, a coconut layer cake that is a Goan specialty. Gonsalves introduces me to Reboni Saha, an attractive architect who is also a Save Goa activist. Saha, whose mother is German, bounced around Europe for years before settling in Goa. “In Goa, there is no prejudice,” she says. “As a single woman, I felt safe. I wasn’t pigeonholed. Maybe it’s because of the hippies.”

Of course, it was the hippies from America and England who helped put Goa on the map in the 1960s, drawn by the pristine beaches and laid-back lifestyle. A decade later, Goa was still the only place in India where otherwise carefully chaperoned Indian kids like me could escape for a weekend of sex, drugs, and rock and roll. Accessible from any major metropolis by bus, train, or air, it was party central. Beach shacks could be rented for a hundred rupees (about three dollars) a night for days or months at a time.

Like the rest of us, Goa has grown up in the intervening years. Some of the best things remain: Women can still sunbathe topless on Candolim Beach (or watch others do it). The beach shacks still serve up some of the country’s freshest seafood (and coldest beer). And the Goanese spirit—equal parts Portuguese joie de vivre and cloistered Catholicism—has given rise to some of the most interesting artists and designers in India.

“Portugal did Goa a great favor,” says architect Gerard da Cunha. “We were cut off from the shackles of Indian tradition. We were forced to look outside.” Da Cunha is my last stop. He tells me about Goan music and the state’s distinctive mix of spices, and he takes me on a tour of Calizz, the museum he has fashioned from seven traditional Goan homes, which juxtapose Indian-style courtyards and verandas with the Portuguese penchant for high-ceilinged rooms and terra-cotta roofs. “Architecturally, it may be one of the richest hybrids there is,” he says.

Naturally, what follows is a lament over how quickly it is all changing. “There is a temper to this place that is getting eroded; it upsets me greatly.”

Nostalgia aside, what now for Goa? Personally, I don’t see much to worry about. The day before I leave, newspapers carry a warning from the Save Goa activists demanding that tourists leave Goa. It is no longer safe, scream the headlines.

We have to say these things, counter the agitators with a nudge and a wink—only then will the government take us seriously; after all, tourism is Goa’s lifeblood. Sure enough, the government bows to public pressure: The next day it announces an end to all SEZ development. Such is the power of Goa’s red earth. It reminds me of something Wendell Rodricks told me. “The way I love Goa,” he said, “if someone told me to eat the soil, I would.”

As for my own urge to buy in, I decide to do Goa a favor: I walk away. My motives aren’t entirely altruistic, though. They spring from something architect Gerard da Cunha said. “You know, it is always the marginals who discover paradise,” he told me when we bid good-bye. “Guess where the hippies are these days? In Gokarna.”

So I rent a car and drive 150 miles south to the tiny village of Gokarna. Sure enough, I find my hippies. And, who knows, maybe even my own piece of paradise—for a quarter of the cost.

END MAIN STORY

Goa: Places+Prices

Going from North Goa to South Goa takes nearly two hours, so shuttling between the two is not as easy as one might think for such a relatively tiny state. Stay in North Goa if you like buzz and beaches, South Goa if you prefer peace and quiet.

In North Goa, Calizz is a collection of restored Portuguese homes that offers a wonderful tour of Goa through the ages (832-325-0000). Visit the Salim Ali Bird Sanctuary by boat with guide Uday Mandrekar to spot Goa’s many winged visitors (982-258-3127). A number of the luxury hotels have casinos, but for a completely different experience, visit the one aboard the MV Caravela, off Panjim Harbor (832-669-5000). Sample the music scene at Butter, a newish nightclub in the heart of Candolim (Candolim-Sinquerim Rd., near Acron Arcade)—or Sweet Chilli, where local bands play live music most nights (near Fort Aguada). Nine Bar has funky DJs and is an ideal place to watch the sun set (off Vagator Beach).

The country code for India is 91. Rates quoted are for October 2008.

Lodging

In North Goa, the 140-room Taj Holiday Village, which draws Bollywood film stars and Bombay socialites, provides easy access to popular beaches and nightclubs (832-664-5858; doubles, $175–$600). The 180-year-old, family-owned, 24-room Panjim Inn’s greatest asset is its location: bang in the heart of the Latin district, Fontainhas. All around are purple-colored homes, boys playing cricket, and fruit vendors selling plump “loose-jacket” oranges (832-222-6523; doubles, $40–$85). Perched atop a hill, the Nilaya Hermitage has 11 stylish rooms overlooking the treetops and the twinkling sea. The all-inclusive rate is high but doesn’t deter the many repeat guests (832-227-6793; doubles, $525). In a lovingly restored 300-year-old Portuguese mansion, the seven-room Siolim House has its own eight-cabin sailboat, Jabuticaba (832-227-2138; doubles, $85–$105). Fashion photographer Denzil Sequeira is the fourth-generation owner of the secluded ten-room Elsewhere, where Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt are said to have stayed during a recent holiday (932-602-0701; doubles, $1,970 per week, with a seven-night minimum in high season). Perched high in the Western Ghats, a couple of hours inland, Wildernest Goa’s 16 eco-cottages are a haven for birdwatchers and nature lovers (988-140-2665; doubles, $150–$250).

In South Goa, the 250-room Park Hyatt—with hacienda-style villas, five restaurants, an award-winning spa, and a huge free-form pool—is hard to beat (832-272-1234; doubles, $175–$245). The 75-acre Leela sits along one of Goa’s prettiest beaches. The 185 minimalist rooms were recently refurbished, but the service was spotty during my visit (832-287-1234; doubles, $135–$705). The charming Vivenda dos Palhaços, in the middle of a Goan village, gives a glimpse of rural life—complete with crowing cocks, grunting pigs, and church song. The hosts are friendly, and the seven rooms, while modest, are furnished with flair (832-322-1119; doubles, $110–$200).

Dining

In North Goa, Fiesta serves Continental food on bustling Baga Beach (7/35 Sauntavado; 832-227-9894; entrées, $11–$20). Souza Lobo has been offering decent Goan food for some 70 years from a prime spot on Calangute Beach (832-228-1234; entrées, $7–$12). Plaintain Leaf (Calangute Beach Rd.; 832-227-6861; entrées, $7–$10) and Little Italy (136/1 Gauravaddo, Calangute; 932-601-3324; entrées, $8–$15) are nirvana for vegetarians, serving tasty Indian and Italian, respectively. Lila Café is known for its all-day breakfast, outdoor seating, and friendly if unhurried service (Arpora-Baga; 832-227-9843; entrées, $5–$12). For seafood, hit beach shacks like Bobby’s, near the taxi stand on Candolim Beach (no phone; entrées, $1–$3), and Curlies on Little Anjuna Beach (no phone; entrées, $1–$3), which serve fish-and-chips along with the catch of the day. Most of the luxury hotels have noteworthy restaurants. Particularly good are the Thai-themed Banyan Tree at Taj Holiday Village (entrées, $8–$15), Goan fare at the Park Hyatt’s Casa Sarita (entrées, $10–$18), and the Leela’s Jamavar, for its opulent Indian (entrées, $12–$18).

While South Goa has a lot of homey eateries, it lacks the buzzy restaurants of North Goa. One exception is the family-run Martins Corner, renowned for its fish and pork dishes (Binwaddo, Betalbatim, Salcette; 832-288-0413; entrées, $4–$10).

Reading

Candolim’s Oxford Bookstore has a wide variety of books on Goa (Acron Arcade, Fort Aguada Rd.; 832-287-1391)—including Maria Couto’s Goa: A Daughter’s Story, a well-researched memoir soaked in the state’s turbulent past (Penguin, $17). Dominic’s Goa, by Dominic Fernandes, is a collection of essays that touches upon pretty much every aspect of daily life (Abbe Faria Productions, $8). How to Be an Instant Goan, by Valentino Fernandes, is easy reading and occasionally hilarious (Diamond Publications, $4). Houses of Goa, a richly photographed coffee table book by Annabel Mascarenhas and Heta Pandit, offers an inside view of Goan life (M&M Publications, $45).
–Shoba Narayan

My Blue Heaven: Condenast Traveler July 2008

My Blue Heaven
by Shoba Narayan | Published July 2008 |
http://www.concierge.com/cntraveler/articles/12522?pageNumber=1

I don’t want to write about this place. Few people know of it; fewer still visit. Perhaps that’s the way it should be. In this rapidly shrinking world, there ought to be somewhere that remains remote, even obscure; set apart in space and time; offering the promise of mystery, the romance of discovery. Lakshadweep—the name comes out in a sigh. In Sanskrit, it means One Hundred Thousand Islands, although in fact there are just twenty-seven, ten of which are inhabited. Speckled across the Arabian Sea off the Malabar Coast of India, this archipelago of atolls, coral reefs, and islands was—before El Niño—the largest living ecosystem on the planet. Many maps, even Indian ones, don’t note it. Yet for a dedicated group of travelers who seek the world’s most far-flung spots, this is as close as it gets to paradise

Paradise is an overused word in conjunction with islands. The mere thought of some remote islet causes us harried city-dwellers to relax and exhale. The mind conjures images from travel ads—clear skies, swaying hammocks, turquoise seas, soft white sand, and slim cocktails—all of which are for the most part true. Time ebbs and flows with the tide.

Island lore is all about self-sufficiency, living off the land and the water, which is an alluringly simple proposition given the complicated circuitry that connects our everyday lives. Cell phones, e-mail, fax machines—none of these matter or even work in Lakshadweep. Hell, even getting to the place is a pain.

First, you take a intercontinental flight that most likely lands late at night in one of India’s crowded, chaotic metropolises. The next morning, you fly into Kochi (née Cochin), in the state of Kerala. Finally, you hop on a commuter flight to the islands.

By the time I arrive, I am jet-lagged, nauseous, and dehydrated. No place, I think, is worth a journey like this.

Like most visitors, I have come to Lakshadweep for a beach vacation. Unlike most visitors, I am also here to put my demons to rest. According to the Ayurveda, the five-thousand-year-old Indian system of medicine, everything in the universe—including the human body—is made up of five elements: earth, fire, water, wind, and ether (space). Pancha-bhootas, they are called—literally “five demons.” Each of us is influenced by these five demons to a greater or lesser degree. Some people are fiery, others are “earth mothers” or “water babies,” still others are “spaced out.”

These five elements are also the source of our fears, which is where I come in. I am mildly hydrophobic. I can rappel into a crevasse, bungee-jump off a cliff, walk through fire, and catch the wind with a parachute, but ask me to get into the water and something overcomes me. I start blinking rapidly, swallowing nervously, and feeling short of breath. It’s not that I can’t get in; it’s just that I don’t enjoy it. I’m hoping Lakshadweep will change all that—so long as its reputation for some of the gentlest diving (and dive instructors) in the world holds true.

From the air, Agatti is a sliver of an island, long and thin, like a knife cutting through the sea. The Agatti Island Resort, a short walk from the airport, is its only accommodation: twenty utilitarian bungalows with comfortable beds and clean bathrooms, some with air-conditioning. By the time I drop my bags and have a shower, my appetite—dormant for the last twenty-four hours—has returned.

One of the pleasures of traveling to remote places is the oddball people you meet there. In the resort’s airy dining room, over a lunch of seafood, Indian curries, and fresh pineapple juice, I chat desultorily with the other guests. There are a few honeymooning Indian couples—young techies who switch between native Hindi and fluent American English honed in their call-center workplaces. “I am Sam,” says one with a laugh, clearly relishing the Hollywood movie reference. His real name is Sahasranamam, and he is a Tamil Brahmin working in Bombay. There is a retired American couple who have been to places I’ve never heard of: Biskra, Samarinda. The man is funneling all his dollars into Australia. When I ask why, he says, “Trust me,” and winks. I am convinced that he is CIA. A few Europeans—English, Italian, Swiss—walk around in a heat-induced stupor, chortling at the idea of spending Christmas in the tropics. After lunch, bees buzz, trees sway, waves lap. The entire island naps.

In the evening, I rent a motorbike and take a tour of the island. The sea winks at me from beyond the coconut palms. I haven’t ridden a motorbike since college and don’t have a license. But the island’s roads are devoid of traffic. What could possibly happen? I think, as I wobble on.

Bright-eyed children run out of a high school hailing me in En-glish: “Hello! What is your name?!” I stare straight ahead, concentrating on my driving. They yell what seems like a profanity: “Chaknjillwenduptheill!” It takes me a moment to figure out that it’s the rapid-fire recitation of an English nursery rhyme. Lakshadweep has the third-highest literacy rate in all of India, after Kerala and Mizoram.

There are as many pigtailed schoolgirls as there are boys. Thanks to the vestiges of Kerala’s matriarchal society, women enjoy a lofty status on these islands. Property is passed from mother to daughter; men can only be karanavans, or caretakers. Husbands are supposed to pay an annual stipend to their wives; failing to do so means the woman can ask for a divorce—and they do. They remarry, have babies, manage small businesses, and run for office. On Minicoy, many of the top administrative jobs have been held by women for centuries, and husbands take the wife’s name when they marry; Marco Polo called it the “island of females.”

I chat with a woman who works at Agatti’s coir factory. Processing coir (the husk of a coconut) is, along with fishing and canning tuna, a principal industry. Women twist the husk into rough twine and export it to the mainland, where it is turned into carpets, doormats, and mattresses. Each woman earns about twenty dollars a month, plus a share of the profits—enough, it seems, to cause them to smile proudly as they confide the numbers.

Certainly it was enough to lure the Portuguese, who arrived in the sixteenth century to plunder and loot the finely spun coconut coir, which was perfect for shipbuilding. Fed up, the islanders poisoned the Portuguese invaders. Subsequently, Lakshadweep was governed by both Muslim and Hindu kings, until the British acquired the islands and renamed them the Laccadives. Only in 1956 did Lakshadweep revert to India and reclaim its original name.

Agatti islanders are striking, with limpid black eyes and clear, latte-colored skin. The women wear blouses and sarongs, or long, loose caftans and Islamic head scarves called makanna. Older women sport elaborate tribal earrings that almost entirely obscure their ears. Island youths zip by on motorbikes, flashing curious looks at me as I plod on self-consciously.

Just as I am congratulating myself on having gotten the hang of it, I round a bend and ram into a coconut tree, causing a surprised toddy tapper to fall right on top of me. Toddy tappers collect palm sap, which is fermented to produce a potent liqueur, and the man is clearly drunk (in defiance of Islamic law). A crowd gathers, but they are not as worried about the man, the motorbike, or me as they are about the tree.

Coconut trees are the island’s lifeblood. Every one belongs to someone—a fact that island administrators rue. When they want to cut down trees to develop land—build a solar-power plant, for instance—they have to buy each one separately from sometimes warring families. Negotiations often stall, given the number of people involved, and while the trees thrive, progress does not.

The tree is damaged, says the toddy tapper worriedly. I say I am sorry about two thousand times, and we reach a settlement. I am to pay him about forty-five dollars. I hand him the cash, and he hands me a plastic bag filled with raw toddy as a goodwill gesture. That night, I fall asleep listening to fat waves crash against the shore. I dream of gliding fish—thousands of them, all around me, closing in—and wake up with a start.

The next morning, I take the hour-long boat ride to Bangaram Island. The water is clear, and I spot at least fifty giant turtles swimming lazily away from us.

WELCOME BACK! screams the billboard held on either end by grinning locals. The French couple on the boat smile in recognition. It is their third trip to Bangaram Island Resort. Men with soothing voices converge on us. They whisk away our bags, hand us the ubiquitous coconut-water welcome drink, and lead us to the bar hut in the middle of the beach. A tall, slim man with a teasing expression explains the island. There are no TVs, no phones, no newspapers, no business center, and no air-conditioning. The only electricity is solar, the only water is from the ground, and detergents are discouraged. I gaze around sourly. But for the free-flowing drinks—Bangaram is exempt from the Islamic prohibition against alcohol that’s in effect on Lakshadweep’s other islands—this could be boot camp.

I walk to my room with a Hollywood film producer and an English stage actress—both single women who are here on the recommendation of colleagues. The thatched rooms are tidy and clean but bare-bones. A poster of a fish on the wall is about as decorative as it gets. But the sheets are crisp, the toiletries fragrant, and the fan efficient.

Over lunch, I meet the rest of the resort community—and a community it is. Most guests are repeat visitors and stay here for weeks, even months. Dr. Sylvia Grillanda has been coming to Bangaram from Venice for twelve years. Last year she stayed three months; this year it’s only two, she says with regret, adding, “In Italy, I work. But here I come to live.”

That evening, I stand at the water’s edge. The Arabian Sea stretches to the horizon and, beyond, branches into the Persian Gulf and the Red Sea. Behind me, an American family (Mom, Dad, and four blond teenage boys from Wilton, Connecticut) walk back to their hut. A stork flies into the sunset. Coconut palms lean into the breeze. The white sand beneath my feet is clean and gritty, like a pricey exfoliant. And the water is a mesmerizing blue. Or is it?

As I planned my complicated itinerary to Lakshadweep, I became engrossed by one question: Are large bodies of water similarly blue and beautiful? My reasoning was simple: If all seas look the same, why would an American family bother visiting the distant Arabian Sea when the Gulf of Mexico would do just as nicely?

As it turns out, not all waters are created equal. The Red Sea is red because of an algae called Trichodesmium erythraeum. The waters of the Great Barrier Reef appear green because of the abundance of plant life beneath the surface. Oregon’s Crater Lake is a vivid turquoise because of the pulverized rock called glacial flour. The South China Sea appears gray because frequent storms stir up sediment. As for the Arabian Sea, well, it’s a startlingly different ecosystem. Hemmed in by land on three sides and struck by frequent monsoons, the Arabian Sea has a scrim of clouds that help diffuse the sunlight, contributing to elevated levels of phytoplankton and nutrient-rich bacteria. NASA images reveal an exquisitely marbled surface with distinct patches of blue, green, and red. In other words, the Arabian Sea is not just another expanse of blue. It is a complicated creature worthy of a transatlantic flight—even from Wilton, Connecticut.

T he dive hut at Bangaram Island Resort is a compact, innocuous place—with dozens of wet suits, flippers, masks, tanks, and other paraphernalia—and the instructors who man it are as varied as the surrounding sea. Sumer, the lithe young man from Bombay who runs the show, has faraway eyes and the devil-may-care attitude of a superlative athlete. (He has never certified a diver who wasn’t up to snuff, he tells me, and isn’t about to start now.) His assistant, Subin, a Christian from Kerala, is hugely popular with children because of his ready laugh and patient manner. Mohammed, short and tanned, is an islander who has inspired awe and affection among legions of beginners like me (gauging from their gushing remarks in the resort’s guest book).

Mohammed walks me through the equipment. His English isn’t perfect, but he gets the message across. “If you feel discomfortable at any time, just shake your hands like this and I will bring you out,” he says. I prattle on about how I am nervous, having never dived before and being predisposed to claustrophobia and a fear of the water. Mohammed looks perplexed as he takes in my distress. Clearly, he doesn’t understand a word I’m saying. “Don’t worry,” he says finally. “Take it easy.”

With that all-encompassing reassurance, we wade in. I grip Mohammed’s hand and breathe hard—so hard that a tank that should last forty minutes lasts ten. As we return to the hut, Mohammed watches me, understanding through my actions what my words had been trying to convey.

“Don’t worry,” he says again. “Tomorrow better diving.”

It isn’t. And neither is the following day.

World mythologies are full of sea creatures. The Greeks had Poseidon, and the Sirens who lured sailors to their deaths. The Japanese have Owatatsumi and his messenger, the sea monster Wani. And the Indians have the Ketea Indikoi, creatures with the foreparts of lions and rams and wolves and the tails of fish. The trick when you dive is to forget about these myths—and above all to avoid the movie Jaws.

There is no time for movies at Bangaram. Come sunset, most everyone makes his way to the beach bar. Shirtless teenage boys play volleyball, and younger kids sit around drinking fresh lime soda and playing Jenga with the bartender, who wins their enduring affection by letting them mix their own “mocktails.” Most of the die-hard divers sip beer and compare stories of the fish, manta rays, sharks, and turtles they saw that day.

Dinner is a sumptuous affair. Tables are set up on the beach, the grill is fired up, and the buffet is laid out. The menu depends on what the ships bring in. The chef says that he’s benefitted from the repeat visitors who come into the kitchen to teach him: clam chowder from the honeymooning Bostonians, herbed chicken from the French schoolteacher, roasts from the gay German couple, pasta from the Italian family, and, yes, freedom fries on demand.

A couple of days later, the resort manager takes me aside. About half the guests never dive, he says. Sylvia Grillanda, for instance, only swims; the French couple snorkel; the American family fish. There are glass-bottom boat rides, sunset cruises, island expeditions, day-trips to the nearby uninhabited islands of Parali and Tinakara, bird-watching at the lake in Bangaram’s interior. Many women choose to spend their time in the Ayurvedic center. In other words, there are many other activities besides diving. He looks at me meaningfully.

Rather than dissuading me, his words have the opposite effect. The next morning, I am up at dawn. I march to the dive hut and announce, “I am going for my certification.” There is complete silence, then a doubtful clearing of throats. The three instructors look at one another with a “Now what?” expression on their faces.

I won’t bore you with the details, but suffice it to say that Subin hypnotizes me with his green eyes; every time I panic he grabs hold of my arm, stares into my eyes, and gestures for me to breathe normally. I do fine until he asks me to remove my mask and then put it back on (practice, he says, in case my mask slips on its own). I panic and begin swimming toward the surface with complete disregard for the need to ascend slowly. Were it not for Subin forcefully yanking me back down, I probably would have gotten the bends.

Most people endure agony in hopes of a payoff. Mine comes during my first open-water dive, when I see a group of spotted eagle rays flying gracefully through the water. It is breathtaking—actually, the opposite. For once, I forget to hold my breath and begin breathing normally. I forget where I am; I forget myself. After so many missteps, false alarms, and panic attacks, I force myself to stop fighting the water and instead become one with it. I won’t go so far as to say that I learn to enjoy myself, but there comes a moment when I am exploring a dive site called Little Canyon when I am perfectly still, neither ascending nor descending but simply being. In that moment, I achieve diver nirvana: neutral buoyancy.

As any diver will tell you, life underwater unfolds in slow motion and kaleidoscopic color. The coral reefs near Bangaram are a miraculous sight, particularly when you consider that they are regenerating after El Niño left them for dead. The range of underwater life they have spawned is astonishing: every type of fish in Finding Nemo, and then some.

On my last night at the resort, I head for the bar to revel in my newly acquired certification and to trade dive stories. In England, there is a Friends of Bangaram Club, one of whose members is writing a book on the birds of the island. All the club members return to Bangaram, just like the birds, says one of the divers. I will too, she predicts.

It is late when I walk back. The stars emblazon the sky like stationary fireflies. The waves break the silence. Someone laughs in the distance. A just-arrived Canadian couple walk back to their hut. Again I ask, Why come so far for a beach vacation? Is Lakshadweep worth the trip? After all, the Caribbean is much closer and has plenty of resorts where the communal feel of Bangaram can be attained (albeit at a much steeper price). Nicer dive destinations can be had in Mexico. If it is exoticism you seek, you’d do better in Central America. Why, then, come to Lakshadweep?

Islands have personalities. Some are bustling and friendly like Crete, others are glamorous like St. Barts. Lakshadweep is none of these things. Rather, it is like a song that sticks in your head. For reasons you can’t quite fathom, it inspires devotion. It keeps people coming back, time and time again.

END MAIN STORY

By limiting the number of visitors to just under 4,000 annually, the Indian government is able to deliver on its goal of environmental conservation in Lakshadweep. Unless you’ve booked a year in advance, don’t even consider visiting over Christmas and New Year’s. (Other good times to visit are February through May, and September through November.) For more information, log on to lakshadweeptourism.nic.in.
The country code for India is 91. Prices quoted are for July 2008.

Lodging

There are two resorts in Lakshadweep, both all-inclusive and both good. The Agatti Island Resort has comfortable if utilitarian cottages on the beach, some with AC and TV, as well as water sports like diving, kayaking, sailing, snorkeling, and waterskiing (484-2362232; agattislandresorts.com; doubles, $85–$140). With its great service and picturesque environs, the Bangaram Island Resort has many repeat guests, although it is pricey: $350 a night for a standard room in high season and $580 for a cottage. Diving instruction costs $400 for the five-day certification course (484-2668221; cghearth.com/bangaram_island; doubles, $210).

Activities

There are Ayurvedic treatments and yoga lessons, but beyond that you have to engage with the sea. Lakshadweep has some of the world’s best (and cheapest) dive instruction. Lacadives, an outfit based in Mumbai, operates schools on both Bangaram and Kadmat islands (22-6662738; lacadives.com; four-day courses from $450). I didn’t visit Kadmat but was told that it has one of the most beautiful lagoons in all of Lakshadweep.

Reading

Pick up the comprehensive Outlook Traveller Getaways: Kerala with Lakshadweep at the airport ($5). Maps of the archipelago are available at airport shops within India.

Mommie Dearest

FROM CONDENAST TRAVELER NOVEMBER 2004 ISSUE

http://www.concierge.com/cntraveler/articles/5936

Once mortified by her mother’s haggling, Shoba Narayan finds that driving a hard bargain is as de rigueur in New York as in New Delhi

The thought occurred as I eyed a stunning Persian carpet in a downtown Manhattan shop. The Mogul-inspired piece looked terrific but cost thousands more than I was prepared to pay. The slight smile on the manager’s mustachioed face suggested that he was willing to bargain. But where and how to begin?
Middle age brings with it many challenges: a home, the pleasure and pain of furnishing one, and the sobering realization that you can actually learn something from your mother. For me, middle age was mostly about sticker shock—at the cost of the curtains, sofas, fabrics, and bric-a-brac that it takes to convert a classic six into a cozy home. When a year passed without my buying a single item of furniture, I called my mother in desperation.

“Mom,” I said. “Teach me how to bargain.”

“My baby,” she cooed. “Welcome to the fold.”

I have always been an awk.ward negotiator, even though I grew up in India among women who viewed the phrase fixed price with a flexibility that drove shopkeepers to tears. In spite of, or perhaps because of, watching them haggle down the price of everything from a Russian samovar to a Japanese teapot, I have been hard-pressed and altogether too proud (according to my mother) to do it myself.

Now, of course, there is little shame attached to bargaining. EBay and its innumerable sister sites have turned the Internet into a giant souk where gold Krugerrands, Iraqi bank notes

with Saddam Hussein’s likeness, split-level homes, secondhand clothes, frequent-flier miles, beta-blockers, diet pills, used furniture, and useless collectibles are bartered, traded, and auctioned to the highest—or lowest—bidder. The so-called borderless economy in which a Danish collector can name his price for a dirndl skirt sold by a Tasmanian farmer has allowed Eastern practices such as haggling to seep into the Western psyche—so much so that the American Management Association now offers a seminar for purchasing managers on “bargaining tactics.” It is only one short step to the day when Fortune 500 companies send their buyers to Egyptian bazaars to master the appropriate stance and body language.

Bargaining isn’t hard to learn but comes easier to some than to others. Like flirtation, it is more attitude than technique, more style than skill. It requires aplomb, a certain je ne sais quoi that conceals how desperately you covet an object. Unlike negotiation, which is straightforward, dickering is roundabout, full of dips and detours—like calligraphy is to writing. You have to flatter and charm, tease and cajole. You have to talk in circles, skirt the issue of price, and not take yourself so seriously—all the qualities that had been drummed out of me by two decades of price-abiding life in the United States.

Americans are famously bad bargainers compared with, say, southern Europeans or Asians. They don’t have the sense of entitlement of an Italian or the swagger of a Spaniard, both of whom can—without wincing—ask for something at a price that will put the merchant out of business. The Italians call bargaining mercanteggiare, which to me sounds like “egging the merchant to old age.”

The French are no laggards either. As my Provençal friend says with perverse but compelling logic, just because a shopkeeper thinks a Tiffany lamp is worth $1,000 doesn’t make it so. “To you, ze lamp may be worth ten dollars. To you, a buttered croissant may be worth more than his lamp.” In other words, it is all a question of perceived value.

Bargaining comes naturally to the Portuguese, the Israelis, the Moroccans, the Turks, and other Mediterranean peoples. They have a flair for insults and can fake ferocity as needed. Asians flatter the salesman into lowering his price, while Latinos flirt their way to a good deal. We Americans, on the other hand, gloat when we get a car salesman to knock $100 off the $34,999 sticker price—instead of offering $100 for the car, as any self-respecting Greek would.

Not that Americans are entirely without bargaining skills. Real estate transactions usually involve some back-and-forth, as do estimates for construction jobs. But for the majority of Americans, buying and selling occurs minus haggling. You go to the grocery store, the clerk rings it up, and you pay. You go to the mall, zip through several stores, and pay what they ask. It’s fast, it’s efficient, and it works. So why waste time negotiating?

This particular argument holds no merit for compulsive bargainers like my mother. To my mother, it is not the means to an end, the route to a good buy. It is a way of life, a means of adding spice and fun to what is essentially a chore. The actual money involved is almost beside the point. Mom will bargain with equal passion over a $5 cab fare and a $15,000 antique.

As a child, I found accompanying my mother to the local bazaar to be an excruciating experience. Mom would spend hours haggling pennies off the price of potatoes and carrots, until it got dark and we were forced to take a taxi or an auto-rickshaw home. It was no use pointing out to her that we were spending three times as much on cab fare as we were saving on vegetables. For Mom, it was the principle of the thing.

My mother assumes that .salespeople, regardless of whether they are in the Ukraine or in Utah, exist for one reason: to rip her off. And she tries her best to return the favor. In many cases, she doesn’t speak the language or understand costs and craftsmanship. Still, she has no problem offering a sum so far beneath the asking price that most vendors only shake their heads and laugh. Once she has entertained them, she gets them to entertain her offer.

There was the time in Jakarta when she and a furniture maker engaged in an eye-lock. She couldn’t speak the Indonesian language, and he couldn’t speak Tamil or English, the only two languages my mother knows. So she tried to outstare him into a lower price. He wouldn’t budge. There they stood for what seemed like hours, gesticulating fiercely over a hand-carved rosewood chair. My mother got the chair in the end. She always does. The Indonesian merchant’s wife went into labor in the middle of the transaction, and Mom conned the man into thinking that she had brought him good luck. She put her arms together in the universal baby-rocking gesture and said, “You will have a bonny baby boy.” She gave him a thumbs-up. The merchant was all smiles. Not only did the man give her the chair for a song, he threw in a matching ottoman for free.

In the gold souks of Beirut, Mom was alternately querulous and cajoling as she shopped for a gem-studded dagger. Bargaining with an Arab is harder than pushing your event with a New York City editor. Arab jewelers are so world-weary, so oversubscribed, and so filthy rich that they routinely and brusquely brush off customers. They’ve seen it all, heard it all. Hell, they invented bargaining—or so they think. For once, Mom couldn’t indulge in her favorite tactic of threatening to walk out unless they lowered the price. The bearded sheiks would not just have held open the door, they would have booted her out. That’s the thing with bargaining. Besides knowing when to call somebody’s bluff, you have to remember that he or she can call yours at any time. Just like in poker.

With Asians, Mom flatters. She banters with the shopkeeper, compliments his shop, his artistic eye, his taste, even his mother. “Your mother must have washed her womb with antiseptic to give birth to an honest, upright boy like you,” she will say. Asian men (and Russian men, too, for that matter) are suckers for compliments about their mothers. They venerate elders, a fact that Mom shamelessly capitalizes on.

Before she goes shopping in Shanghai or Hong Kong, her beauty routine includes dyeing her hair—gray, not black. “The more white hairs I have, the more money I will save,” she says. At the bazaar, she moans and groans, feigns arthritis, and blinks myopically. “Come now, you aren’t going to begrudge an old grandmother like me a few pennies, are you?” she chides. If all else fails, Mom plays her trump card—she invokes ancestors. “My grandfather will turn in his grave if I pay that much, and yours will curse you for cheating an old woman,” she will say. Ancestral curses are serious business in the Far East. Naturally, my mother gets the object of her desire.

India is a challenge for Mom mostly because of the competition. There are thousands of hard-nosed negotiators just like her—some of them even better. In India, she uses many of the techniques that have been written about ad nauseam in guidebooks: “Aim to pay about half what the shopkeeper is asking. Always ask for extras—free packing and shipping, or a free gift thrown in with your purchase.” If all else fails, she flirts with the poor sap until he is hypnotized like a snake under a spell.

As for me, I seem to have shed my skin. Although I look Indian and am from India, I find myself instantly pegged as a firangi, a foreigner. My stance is defensive. I protect my space, rather than aggressively hogging it like my compatriots. My tone is polite and matter-of-fact rather than outraged. My attitude indicates my willingness to compromise. In other words, I am reasonable.

Reason has no place in Indian bazaars. People don’t say what they mean, and nothing is what it seems. The gem-studded necklace displayed in the air-conditioned jewelry shop in Jaipur may be an inferior rough-hewn sample. The real stuff is in the back or upstairs and will only be brought out after a couple of rounds of soda, when the jeweler has decided that you are a bona fide customer worth his while. Or you can skip the pleasantries and do what my mother does—run an eye over the sparkling offer- ings behind the glass counter, pronounce them to be “rubbish,” and demand to be taken upstairs.

In the end, it is not any one thing that she does. It is who she is. When my mother enters a shop, her goal isn’t to walk out with something; rather, it is to spend a pleasant hour taking stock, talking shop, “gup-shupping,” as she calls it. If she walks out with a purchase, it is merely a fringe benefit of what was essentially a good time. The reason she is so good at bargaining, I realized, is because she has so much fun doing it.

So I ate crow. I told my mother that after years of scornfully dismissing her tactics as a mere waste of time, I needed her help with furnishing my apartment. I wanted her to fly to New York and suss out some deals. To my alarm, she readily accepted.

We all say and do things that we later—or in my case, instantly—regret. For me, shopping with my mother fell in that category. I had done it hundreds of times all over the globe and hated it each time. It typically takes about four hours longer than I anticipated and usually ends with our being unceremoniously evicted from the premises and told never to return. Besides, New York was virgin territory for Mom but is my adopted hometown. I didn’t want her to embarrass me or, worse, get me blacklisted at all the high-end boutiques I admire.

So I imposed a set of rules. Mom couldn’t claim to be related to the mayor or Michael Jackson, as she frequently and indiscriminately does. This is America, not Japan, I told her: Being related to Michael Jackson could land her in jail. Second, she had to open negotiations at 50 percent of the asking price, not 5 percent, as is her wont. Third, she had to stop cursing in Tamil. Offended shopkeepers would not curse her back, as she was used to; they would sue her for slander. After all, I said again, this is America.

Our first stop was a carpet shop on Park Avenue South. As soon as Mom saw the shopkeeper, she concluded that he was a Pakistani from Peshawar and that I could and should bargain.

Egged on by Mom, I took a deep breath and simulated the light-headed feeling that steals over me after a couple of vodka martinis.

“So,” I drawled, flicking a dismissive finger at the carpet I coveted. “How much is this thing worth?”

“Ten thousand dollars,” he said without blinking.

I laughed derisively. It was forced and came out more like a cough, but at least I tried.

“You are joking with me, my friend,” I said, assuming a familiarity where none existed.

“Would I lie to you, sister?” The man took it a step farther. “This is a family heirloom. I would happily give it to you for free, but my mother will kill me if I part with it for anything less than ninety-five hundred dollars.”

The dance had begun. He had lowered the price. But he had also brought in his mother. I had no choice but to bring in mine. Next stop—ancestors.

“And my mother will kill me if I buy it for anything more than forty-five hundred dollars,” I said.

I ended up paying $7,000 for the room-sized carpet. Mom insisted that I had overpaid by about $5,000, but I was jubilant. In my mind, I had found a bargain.

To celebrate, Mom and I went to the 26th Street flea market. We quoted Pushkin and bought a small walnut side table from a soulful Russian for $40—a quarter of his asking price. Mom amused a Dominican vendor with her outrageous renditions of Spanish love songs; he sold us a pair of mahogany nightstands for a mere $200. Following her cue, I effusively complimented some Senegalese drummers and picked up a number of African masks for next to nothing. We claimed kinship with the Tibetans (“You hate the Chinese. We hate them too”) and bought a red Tibetan chest for $400. At the St. George’s furniture thrift shop, near Gramercy Park, I haggled half-heartedly with the shopkeeper before buying a large china cabinet—at the asking price, but with free delivery thrown in. Uptown, at the Spence-Chapin thrift shop, Mom harassed the coiffed woman behind the counter to the point where she thrust a brand-new bookcase at us for $20, provided we would “just leave.”

My apartment was beginning to fill up. New York, it seemed, had more bargains than I’d thought. But the true test of Mom’s métier had to be my favorite SoHo boutique—let’s call it Foss. Nobody haggles at Foss; they whisper.

Statuesque salespeople in black Armani-esque clothes raised their eyebrows as my sari-clad mother and I walked through the sprawling minimalist space. I wanted everything—black bowls, clever china, silver and pewter accessories, purple suede sofas, chairs shaped like letters of the alphabet, and sumptuous throws. I wanted to move in.

“May I help you?” asked the slim, blond, disapproving saleswoman.

Where I saw sarcasm, Mom saw solicitousness. She sailed in, took the saleswoman’s arm, and asked for advice on sofas. She listened carefully, nodded and smiled, and tested various models by sitting down and bouncing. She confided her fears. “My daughter, poor thing, is trying to get pregnant. So we need a sofa that is baby-proof, you see, just in case the stork delivers something next month.”

Mom giggled; the saleswoman giggled. I hung back, feeling awkward as always.

That’s the thing with bargaining. It is ultimately a people sport. Personable individuals such as my mother have a better shot at it. Even in places like Foss.

Mom picked out a sturdy purple sofa, which they both decided would hide spit-up stains and baby poo. The saleswoman gave her a 20 percent discount without our even having to ask. Seeing my mother’s crestfallen face, she immediately raised it to 30. “I can only give you thirty percent,” she said. “Even we employees are only allowed forty percent.”

She shouldn’t have said that. Mom pounced on it. Pretty soon, the saleswoman was calling her boss to ask if she could buy a sofa on behalf of “a lovely old lady from India” so that they could offer her 40 percent off. Mom spoke with the boss on the phone. She got 40 percent off—with Scotchgard, delivery, and an extra year’s guarantee thrown in for free.

***********End

Go to http://www.concierge.com/cntraveler/articles/5936 to read the story.

Singapore Fling

FROM CONDENAST TRAVELER JULY 2005 ISSUE

http://www.concierge.com/cntraveler/articles/6102

So much to do, so little time—at least if you’re Shoba Narayan. Her manic mission: to wring the most out of this nonstop island-nation in just forty-eight hours. Let her loss (of sleep) be your gain—and guide

Staid, chaste, strict, small—Singapore has heard it all. But this island-nation of 4.2 million people has one thing going for it (many things, actually, but we’ll get to that later): Singapore is a sure fling. Changi Airport’s superefficient staff get you out in thirty minutes or less. Half an hour later, you’re in the city center and the island is yours to savor. Singapore is clean, manageable, and safe; you can drink the water and get around easily; and people don’t pester you if you’re a woman traveling alone. Best of all, it is small enough (about the size of Chicago) to sample in a day or two.

Which is precisely my intent. Having lived in Singapore for two years, I have returned wanting to revel in it as a tourist—to see it all and do it all within forty-eight hours. But what might once have been a leisurely pursuit is shaping up to be a herculean undertaking.

8 A.M. I roll out of bed at the Fullerton (where a cab deposited me in the wee hours after an overnight flight from New York) and fantasize about ordering a Singapore Sling but order a coffee instead—the first of many cups. Singapore is blessed with a panoply of good hotels. I’ve chosen the Fullerton mostly for its location near the highways and the harbor (which will allow me to duck in and out during my harried, carefully calibrated itinerary) and the quiet formality of its staff. The Ritz-Carlton has more effusive service, the Oriental a fantastic spa, the Four Seasons greater intimacy, the Shangri-La a soothing setting, and Raffles all that history. But as a package, the Fullerton is my favorite.

8:30 A.M. Singapore isn’t perpetually jammed like Bangkok or Bombay, but rush hour is just that, so I reverse-commute to Jurong Bird Park for “Breakfast with the Birds,” a popular activity. The buffet isn’t anything to write home about, but the fowl are captivating: eagles, parrots, pink flamingos, and storks. I board a golf cart for an hour’s tour with a well-informed guide. Do this. And be sure to stop at the Lory Loft, a giant enclosure, with a treetop boardwalk, that is fashioned to look like the Australian Outback. Buy a bowl of nectar and watch the parrotlike lories alight on your arms. Truly a treat.

10 A.M. Since I am already in Jurong, I decide to run into the Singapore Science Centre, a great place for kids—and, I might add, adults. (At each stop, I give my driver strict instructions to wait out front. He’s a local but lacks a New York cabbie’s killer instincts.) The two IMAX films interest me. I buy tickets to Mysteries of the Nile and Mystic India before deciding, regrettably, that I must be going.

10:30 A.M. The ubiquitous hawker markets are the gustatory soul of Singapore. Pick any high-rise and you’re bound to find one at its feet offering a colorful glimpse of life at street level. Toothless Chinese men gossip, sari-clad Indian women bargain fervidly for fish and vegetables, hijab-wearing Malay matrons scurry through, children in tow. Singapore isn’t beset by racial tensions, even though three distinct groups—Chinese, Indians, and Malays—make their home here, mostly in separate ethnic enclaves. When I first moved to Singapore from New York, I was struck by how the passion and politics that surround race in America are virtually absent here. I think it’s because Singaporeans accept ethnic and religious differences with a live-and-let-live attitude that is more like Canada’s salad bowl than America’s melting pot. Nowhere is this more evident than in the hustle and bustle of the hawker stalls.

Maxwell and Tiong Bahru are considered the best, Newton Circus and Lau Pa Sat are for expats and tourists, and each Singaporean has his or her preferred vendor of chicken rice, chili crabs, curried fish cakes, egg tarts, prawn noodles, roti prata, and satay. My favorite is Alexandra Village Hawker Centre, nestled amid shops selling tires and automobile parts. The chilled avocado juice at Exotic Juice Cathay is the best I’ve ever tasted, and the durian, honeydew, kiwi, and soursop aren’t bad either. I am still hungry but not worried. In Singapore, food is everywhere.

11 A.M. The shops at Orchard Road are just opening. I hit them with the precision of a stealth bomber: Forum for kids’ clothes; Palais Renaissance for the Bollywood-inspired store Mumbai Sé; Tang for its famed housewares department selling bamboo baskets, clay pots, slow cookers, sushi sets, woks, and other Asian necessities; Takashimaya for its chinoiserie, discount handbags, feng shui fountains, and food hall. I pick up delicious green-tea muffins at the St. Leaven bakery and Thai mango salad at Thanying Express.

Shopping is a blood sport in Singapore, aptly described by the local Chinese word kiasu, which means “always wanting the best, no matter what.” In Singapore, everyone is kiasu. Morning store openings bring huge lines of jostling shoppers who want to be the first in the door. Fistfights between women vying for the same dress are par for the course during the June and July sales. People hide potential acquisitions in the wrong aisle so they can come back at a more convenient time to claim them. None of this intimidates me, of course, having cut my teeth at the semiannual sales at Barneys.

All of this shopping does, however, take its toll, and so I submit my aching head to an aromatic scalp massage at Takashimaya’s Clinique d’Esthetique before taking the underpass to the Paragon mall. Most people come here to stock up on big-name labels before lunching on scrumptious pork dumplings at Din Tai Fung. I just gawk.

1 p.m. When I tell my driver that I want to go to Geylang, he stares at me. Geylang is the Malay stronghold of Singapore. It is also the red-light district.

“You want to go to the fruit part or the bad part?” he asks.

“It is one o’clock in the afternoon,” I say. “Who’d go to a brothel now?”

“You’d be surprised,” he says.

We set out for the fruit bazaars along Sims Avenue, which sell luscious longans, lychees, mangosteens, rambutans, and the notorious durian (“smells like hell but tastes like heaven”). I had put off tasting a durian during my two years in Singapore but am now determined to try one. They stink, yes, but then so does fish. The payoff is in the flesh: impossibly light, like mousse or the fluffiest of cheesecakes. Not bad, I decide.

1:30 P.M. Getting to Sentosa requires crossing a bridge, always a pain, but it is home to some of my favorite attractions. As traffic piles up at the toll booth, I am already late for my appointment at Underwater World. I’ve never even dived before, but here I find I can swim with the sharks for sixty dollars. Swimming with me is a Bulgarian tourist who seems to have dived since birth. I am mildly freaked out, but the Chinese instructor is infinitely patient. We get into a 26,000-plus-gallon tank. I panic. We come out. The Bulgarian rolls his eyes. We go in again. This time I figure out how to breathe through the cork clamped in my mouth. There are fish all around, swimming in schools, coming up to me inquisitively. The instructor gives me a thumbs-up. I touch one shark and then another and another, usually when they are swimming away. Half the fun is having people gawk at you through the glass. I pose for photographs feeling like a minor celebrity.

2:30 P.M. I am tired when I emerge. Thankfully, I have an appointment at Spa Botanica, Singapore’s best spa, a mere five minutes away. I’ve signed up for the four-hands massage followed by an aromatherapy facial. Both are sublime.

3:30 P.M. My driver and I race from Sentosa, at one end of town, to Suntec City, at the other. I have a friend waiting there with tickets for a seventy-five-minute amphibious Duck Tour of Singapore. The tour guide turns out to be spectacularly bad—so bad that she is weirdly enjoyable. She treats us like a kindergarten class. “Can everyone say, ‘Quack-quack-quack’ as we set off?” By the time the bus splashes into the water, I am ready to jump in and take my chances.

5 P.M. The Singapore Art Museum is blessedly cool. Housed in a lovingly restored British colonial building, it contains the world’s largest public collection of twentieth-century Southeast Asian art. I really can’t spare the time for the nearby Philatelic Museum, but my kid collects stamps and the museum is tiny so I run in. To my delight, there is an exhibition of Hans Christian Andersen stamps from Denmark. The Asian Civilisations Museum, though, is my favorite. Most of my expat buddies are members of its hugely popular Friends of the Museum program, in exchange for which they receive docent training and attend lectures on interesting if obscure Asian topics such as Nawabi jewelry and Chinese funeral artifacts.

6 P.M. Thirsty, I emerge from the museum and make a beeline for Bar Opiume, known for its proseccos and popular with the museum crowd. Its decor is Chinese courtesan meets Czech count. After a quick drink, I walk along the waterfront, admiring the playful bronze sculptures, en route to dinner at the Fullerton. The hotel has two great restaurants: Jade, which specializes in modern Chinese—try the steamed crab claws stuffed with shark’s fin—and San Marco, serving elegant Italian atop the hotel in an erstwhile lighthouse. I do double duty by having appetizers at Jade and a main course at San Marco before running out. Nobody runs at the Fullerton, but I have a bungee to jump.

7 P.M. I have been longing to try G-Max Reverse Bungy, in Clarke Quay, a waterfront complex of restaurants and bars where yuppies converge after work. Imported from New Zealand, the three-seat contraption launches me sixty feet into the air, at two hundred miles an hour, before plunging me back to earth. It takes all of five minutes, and I scream my head off the whole time.

7:20 P.M.Cruising down the Singapore River in a traditional bumboat is an ideal way to enjoy the sunset. At the opening to the harbor, a merlion—Singapore’s mermaid-lion mascot—stands guard. Directly across the water is where the government plans to erect two massive megaresorts—complete with casinos—at a cost of several billion dollars, which has caused a furor among the citizens. A lot of Singaporeans are hobbled by gambling debt racked up abroad, and building a casino here, they fear, will only compound their problems. The government’s proposed solution is to charge stiff entry fees—a hundred dollars per person—but this might actually make things worse. As a Singaporean friend says, “Knowing Singapore’s kiasu mentality, charging a hundred-dollar entry fee will make us more determined to gamble. I mean, this is a culture where people stuff themselves at buffets to get their money’s worth.”

Lost in thought, I lose track of time. I have tickets to Madama Butterfly, which begins in ten minutes at the durian-shaped performing arts complex, the Esplanade. If I am late, I will have to wait until the doors reopen at intermission. I beg my boatman to drop me off at the Esplanade’s pier. He refuses. It’s illegal, he says. I take out a fifty-dollar bill. Miraculously, I am at the Esplanade a minute before the doors close.

9 P.M. I bail at halftime. I have tickets to a stand-up comedy show at 1 Nite Stand, where visiting Australian, British, and Canadian comics play to full houses. I take a boat back to Clarke Quay feeling a little like James Bond—or at least his stunt double—as the driver guns it under low bridges.

10 P.M. As I amble from one nightclub to another, I ask myself what is unique about Singapore’s bar scene. The downed drinks, jammed dance floors, loud music, and sweaty people could be in Berlin or Buenos Aires. And then it occurs to me: What’s unusual about this otherwise standard-issue club scene is that it is in Singapore at all; it’s been less than two years since the government legalized bar-top dancing. I spot a new Indian restaurant, Ras, and can’t resist going in. The decor is modern and minimalist, but the food is traditional and good.

Midnight I am drunk and exhausted but otherwise feel terrific. Good enough, in fact, to give the G-Max Reverse Bungy another go. Big mistake: Out comes dinner.

1 A.M. My driver and I keep moving. A young girl has passed out on a bench outside Phuture. Mid-lifers lounge around Velvet Underground. At Zouk, couples make out, break up, and storm out. Hookers strike poses outside Attica, the club of the moment. Also-rans include Este (Paris meets Shanghai), Gotham Penthouse (Las Vegas meets Bangkok), and Zenzie Bar (Spain meets Kyoto). The floor is packed at China Jump because the drinks are gratis. I ask the bartender for orange juice. “Six dollars,” he says. Water? Also six bucks. Whiskey? Free.

4 A.M.I proceed to the only reasonable alternative at this hour: Mustafa, Singapore’s 24/7 mall, where I stock up on Indian curry powders, Indonesian lulur scrubs, Lebanese dates, and Tiger Balm.

5 A.M. Back at the Fullerton, I request a wake-up call in two hours and fall into bed. At last.

7 A.M. I begin day two by going to the Botanic Gardens and joining groups of old Chinese people doing tai chi. There is a mystical quietude to the place, broken only by the odd dog walker, jogger, and shadowboxer.

8 A.M. The Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf at Paragon is hopping. People sit on couches barking instructions into their cell phone while sipping mochaccinos. I down a double espresso, then another and another. I walk out a new woman. A friend meets me at the American Club down the street. It used to be my oasis when Singapore’s “Singlish” got to me. I revel now in its American twang, poolside smoothies, and great quesadillas.

9 A.M. The Sri Veeramakaliamman Temple, in the heart of Little India, is one of the oldest and busiest in Singapore. Bells clang, devotees pray, and priests chant, yet all is serene. Outside, I devour a cheese masala dosa (a type of Indian crepe) at Dosa Corner before driving to the Buddhist temples on nearby Race Course Road. The Sakya Muni Buddha Gaya (a.k.a. the Temple of a Thousand Lights) has a fifty-foot Buddha that presides sternly over the communing masses. Opposite is the charmingly intimate Leong San See Temple, with an interior that resembles a Tang dynasty palace.

10 A.M. Arab Street. Mee goreng noodles, nasi padang, rojak salad: Malay cooking—or “Muslim Food” as it is called here—abounds. Outside the storefronts, bamboo baskets, hand-painted batiks, and silk sarongs sway in the breeze. The grand Sultan Mosque, with its gold dome, offers a cool, quiet respite from the heat.

11 A.M. Chinatown is just waking up. I go first to Telok Ayer Street, where Thian Hock Keng (the Temple of Heavenly Happiness) sits. Arguably the prettiest in Singapore, this exquisite carved-wood temple was assembled in 1821 without nails.

I love Chinatown. Temple Street sells Chinese herbs and inexpensive trinkets. Pagoda Street has stalls hawking everything from cheap souvenirs to spirulina powder (huge over here) alongside furniture stores peddling handsome Chinese antiques. Eu Yan Sang is highly regarded and stocks traditional Chinese medicines in modern packages. Along Trengganu Street is the real thing: piles of herbs that an in-house physician will weigh and mix before instructing you to ingest them in the form of a soup.

The basement of Chinatown Complex has a wet market selling eels, frogs, pig’s trotters, snakes, and turtles, all consumed with gusto by the Chinese. Three-story Yue Hwa is one-stop shopping for chinoiserie, right down to bespoke cheongsams. I get a reflexology massage at Kenko—a local chain—and am rejuvenated.

12:30 P.M. At the edge of Chinatown is the Sri Mariamman Temple, where busloads of tourists descend every morning. I drive up to Keong Saik Road—née Prostitute Road—which is now known for its art galleries and the Whatever yoga café. I browse through the café’s psychic offerings—angel healing, crystal channeling, tarot card readings—before settling on a pesto and onion jam sandwich that my daughter used to love.

1 P.M. I am nearly full, but that has never stopped me before. I lunch as reserved at Jaan, on the seventy-second floor of the Equinox Complex at the Swissôtel, where I endure mediocre food and slack service for the sake of spectacular views.

2 P.M. I can’t keep my eyes open. I go to The Oriental hotel, which boasts one of the best spas in the city. My husband and I once had a couple’s massage here that melted all our quarrels away. After sleeping through my massage, I speed to the Ritz-Carlton’s spa for an “express” manicure-pedicure-facial that takes an hour.

4 P.M. Time for tea. I go to the Cedele bakery, for its pesto breads, which come closest to the San Francisco sourdough I love, and the Canelé Pâtisserie, for its decadent chocolate cakes.

5 P.M. East Coast Park is Singapore’s Central Park equivalent. You can bike or in-line skate beside the water after or before eating messy but delicious chili and black pepper crabs. You can also kite-surf, sail, and windsurf.

7 P.M. The Line, at the Shangri-La Hotel, is the restaurant of the moment. Designed by Adam Tihany, the sprawling place has an all-white decor accented with bright orange panels that is indeed stunning. High-class hawker food is Singapore’s latest trend, and The Line’s several open kitchens prepare fresh juices, pastas, salads, soups, and sushi. The service is impeccable.

9 P.M. When in Singapore, you must not miss the Night Safari at the zoo. It’s a hyped-up tourist gimmick, but the zoo itself is world-class and the concept is unusual: Visitors board a golf cart with a guide who points a flashlight at nocturnal and sleeping animals in their habitat, after which there is an animal circus.

10 P.M. I go to Garibaldi, an old favorite, for Italian food that’s only decent but service that’s exemplary. Down the street, Killiney Kopitiam beckons. I’ve put off visiting a kopitiam, Singapore’s version of a coffee bar, for one reason: The popular accompaniment to coffee, or kopi, is toast slathered with a green jam made of coconut milk, eggs, and sugar. It looks as unappetizing as it sounds. The atmospheric Chijmes complex is a short walk away. Established as the Convent of the Holy Infant Jesus in 1854, today it contains not a nunnery but a wealth of watering holes. I hit Father Flanagan’s Irish pub, La Cave Wine Bar, Carnivore (the name says it all), and others. The night air is uncomfortably close, but I keep on walking.

12 A.M. I am dying for Indian-Chinese food and go to Ghaangothree, in Little India, for dishes such as Hakka noodles and Manchurian vegetables. The restaurant is closed, but the lights are on and I persuade the chef to part with some leftovers. Then it’s on to Club Street, where my gay friends like to go. I chill out at Aphrodisiac—blue lights, soft music, killer “lycheetinis”—and catch up with old friends. Maybe it’s the music, maybe I’ve had one lycheetini too many, or maybe, just maybe, I’ve reached my limit. Whatever the reason, I pass out.

3 A.M. My friends rouse me. They are off to another bar, but I still need to pack before heading to the airport. Although my flight leaves at dawn, there is no need to show up at Changi three hours early and endure abuse like I did at JFK. Having checked in forty-eight hours prior via the Internet, I arrive a scant hour before departure—ample time, as it turns out.

With forty minutes till boarding, my body is still in overdrive. Hmm, what shall I do now? I think to myself. My legs jig in unconscious imitation of my eight-year-old. I could take a dip in Terminal One’s rooftop swimming pool and go for a jog around the cactus and heliconia gardens, but I’m not sure that my wasted, middle-aged body can cope with the sudden burst of health. I could catch a game on one of the twenty-four flat-screen TVs at the Skyplex Entertainment Lounge. Or confess my sins in the multi-denominational Prayer Room. In the end, I do what comes most naturally: I enjoy a last drag in the smoking room and then shut myself in a pod at the Oxygen Bar for a ten-minute zap of pure O2. After a few minutes of deep breathing—huffing and puffing, really—I am on cloud nine.

An hour later, as the tiny island recedes from my window, I settle back into my seat and prepare to return to Mommy mode. The last forty-eight hours have been fun. Surreal, but fun. Like I said, this city has many things going for it.

THE END

Go to http://www.concierge.com/cntraveler/articles/6102 to read the story.

Mekong Bound: a river runs through it

FROM CONDENAST TRAVELER OCTOBER 2005 ISSUE

http://www.concierge.com/cntraveler/articles/10010

A river runs through them, yes, but that’s not all that connects the former French colonies of Cambodia and Laos. Shoba Narayan plies Southeast Asia’s new tourist axis

Cambodia is like a lotus bud concealing an onion—serene on the surface but eliciting tears as you peel back the layers. The awesome scale and spectacle of the Angkor temples contrast sharply with the ghostly photos and skulls of civilians murdered by the Khmer Rouge in the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. The endless peace of a Buddhist monastery gives way to the raucous din of cyclos and tuk–tuks. The magnificent sunsets over the Mekong do nothing to diminish the ugly pallor of poverty. It is a young country but an old civilization that reached its zenith in the twelfth century, when the Hindu god–kings (devarajas) built massive stone temples while embracing Buddhism, now the predominant religion.

I am in Cambodia to meet a monk and to travel the Mekong. Being Hindu, I believe in the power of a monk’s blessing, and Cambodian monks are way up there in the spiritual hierarchy. So I, like the betrayed people of this ravaged land, line up to get blessed before setting out on my quest.

The Mekong is an obsession of mine. Other people track football scores. I track rivers. Rivers epitomize cultures; think of the Nile and Egypt, the Amazon and South America, the Ganges and India. Rivers are, to borrow a phrase, the cradles of civilization, carrying a country from its past into its future. In Asia, rivers are more than bodies of water. They are sources of celebration and symbols of fertility and prosperity. They are life itself.

The Mekong is particularly interesting because it is intricately linked to the soul and psyche of six Asian countries (seven, if you consider Tibet to be independent but occupied). From its headwaters on China’s Guosongmucha Mountain, the Mekong descends sixteen thousand vertical feet through Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam before discharging into the South China Sea, some three thousand miles away.

I intend to follow the Mekong through the two countries that my time–constrained itinerary will allow. I rule out Thailand and Vietnam as too large, Myanmar and China’s Yunnan Province as too remote. That leaves Cambodia and Laos—two countries that naturally combine into one worthwhile trip.

My journey begins at dawn at Wat Saravantejo, in Phnom Penh. A monk is giving audience to a line of locals carrying babies, cell phones, and wads of Cambodian riels. The monk lights incense, sprinkles holy water on the babies, and blesses brand–new cell phones by chanting sonorous sutras. I wonder if he is being recorded, like a ring tone, but somehow doubt it. The monk’s blessing is to protect the phones, which are expensive and as important to Cambodians as BlackBerrys are to the perpetually plugged–in. He inscribes my U.S. dollar bill with Pali script, covering George Washington’s face in the process. Throw this money into the Mekong, he says through my translator, and it will come downriver to you multiplied tenfold. I tuck the bill carefully into my purse. Other monks may offer a passage to nirvana, but this one has given me a lottery ticket.

Outside, the morning sun casts a golden hue on the stirring city. As Asian capitals go, Phnom Penh, located at the confluence of the Bassac, Mekong, and Tonle Sap rivers, is one of the prettiest. Broad tree–lined boulevards bear a profusion of flowers—frangipani, gardenia, jasmine. The architecture is mostly French colonial interspersed with domed Buddhist stupas. A smattering of buildings by noted Khmer architect Van Molyvann reflect his geometric style. Molyvann designed the city’s Independence Monument to celebrate Cambodia’s freedom from French rule in 1953. France’s influence is still visible in Phnom Penh. Many locals speak French, and the city is full of cafés serving excellent baguettes, croissants, and coffee. It’s funny: Former British colonies boast good railways and bureaucracies, while the French ones have great bread and coffee. Personally, I prefer the latter, and famously so did Norodom Sihanouk, the “old king” of Cambodia. Photographs of the politically wily and popular king, who abdicated in 2004 in favor of his son, adorn most buildings, alongside those of the newly crowned King Sihamoni, a ballet dancer trained in Paris.

The National Museum is my first stop, and in retrospect a highlight. Most tourists hit Siem Reap and bypass Phnom Penh, which is a shame. While the temples of Angkor are Cambodia’s main draw—and justifiably so—they are mostly devoid of statues; all the good stuff has been looted. To see Khmer art, you have to visit the National Museum. Wandering its halls is an education in the Khmer aesthetic. Giant eighth–century statues of Hindu gods—Brahma, Garuda, Shiva, and Vishnu—give way to the seated Buddhas of the fourteenth century, when Buddhism percolated through the region. Hinduism and Buddhism mingle freely in Cambodia, and indeed in Laos and Thailand as well. When one Cambodian says, “We are Buddhist but have a Hindu soul,” it shocks me because Hinduism and Buddhism share a historical relationship that is analogous to Judaism and Christianity. It was a renegade Hindu prince, Siddhartha Gautama, who gave up Hinduism and established Buddhism. A Buddhist admitting that he has a Hindu soul is, in my mind, akin to a Christian claiming he has a Jewish heart.

Almost every tourist goes to the Foreign Correspondents Club at least once, and that is where I go for lunch. There is something oddly reassuring about staring at the Mekong while munching french fries. Cambodian food has its delicacies, but after the cultural overload of the museum, I feel like retreating into mind–numbing junk food. The FCC enjoys a great riverfront location, and its yellow walls display interesting posters and tidbits about the war correspondents who covered Cambodia. The second–floor restaurant has a pool table, a television, and great drinks but mediocre food.

The midday heat drives me back to my hotel. Le Royal is humming. The pool area is full of tourists—napping, reading, sunbathing. The spa is booked solid. My driver recommends a massage at Seeing Hands, which is operated by blind people, but even that is full. The only choice left is a siesta.

There are many ways to experience Asia. A popular one is to check into one of the uncommonly good hotels and pretty much stay there. The continent’s five–star hotels offer good service, great value, and respite from the heat and dust. But for those who are willing to brave the chaos in order to access the culture and history, Asia offers the opportunity for a mind–bending vacation.

One of Phnom Penh’s perilous pleasures is its markets. Sure, you’re accosted by beggars, but once you get past them you glimpse a world that is a cross between Aladdin’s cave and Alice’s rabbit hole. Anything can happen here, and usually does. What happens to me in the cool cavernous interior of the Central Market is that I lose my blessed dollar. I go in one afternoon and buy silk handbags, ruby bracelets, sunglasses, and fried spiders, which the locals munch like beer nuts. Most of the stalls quote prices in dollars and take U.S. currency.

That evening, over a fine French meal at Elsewhere, I examine my wallet and find the monk–inscribed dollar missing. I am crushed. I feel like I have lost my chance at wealth, that the universe is giving me a message—a bad one.

The next morning, I go back to the Central Market, and this time I do the accosting. I ask the boy who sold me several jasmine garlands if I can see the dollar bills I gave him. I don’t want my money back, I say, I just want my blessed dollar. The child offers me more garlands. When I shake my head, he takes me to his boss—a woman who runs one of the ruby stalls. She shoos me away. “No exchange,” she says. I again launch into my earnest explanation. The ladies from the neighboring stalls converge and confer. Finally they understand. The boy leads me through a warren of stalls to the back of the market, where a woman sits selling noodle soup. I shake my head in frustration. I don’t want soup; I want money. The boy whispers to the woman, who pulls out a wad of dollar bills. She rifles through them and pulls out my dollar. The boy grins. With surprising dignity for one so young, he regally hands the bill to me. I bow as I accept it, acknowledging the irony of the situation: I am receiving alms from the poor.

For those who have seen Bangkok’s Royal Palace and Emerald Buddha, Phnom Penh’s version of them will seem familiar. Curving naga heads rise gracefully from the red–tiled roof. Murals depicting the ubiquitous Ramayana—or the Reamker, as it is called in Khmer—enliven the throne room’s ceiling. The best part is the royal costume room, where for a small tip a woman will tie a jewel–toned silk sarong around your hips. When I visit, a group of German tourists are standing in line to be saronged and photographed.

In the neighboring Silver Pagoda, hundreds of Buddhas exhibiting a variety of mudras (hand gestures) are crammed into the dim room. The two–hundred–pound solid–gold Buddha and the “emerald” Buddha (made of green Baccarat crystal) are the highlights. The floor is sterling silver. As in all Buddhist temples, visitors are expected to cover their shoulders and legs.

Phnom Penh is full of beautiful wats, or temples. The oldest, Wat Phnom, was built in 1372 to house four Buddha statues deposited here by the Mekong. Legend has it that a widow named Penh discovered them and that together, Wat Phnom and Widow Penh gave their names to the city. Wat Ounalom, one of the prettiest, faces the river. I visit it after a sunset walk along the riverfront, which is bustling with families, fortune–tellers, monks talking on cell phones, teenagers courting on mopeds, fruit vendors offering cut mangoes, flower sellers with baskets of lotus buds, and the ubiquitous cyclos. Phnom Penh has a thriving nightlife, especially on the riverfront. I hit Ginger Monkey, Martini Pub, and the Salt Lounge—a gay bar with funky music—before sleep drives me home.

I save the worst for last. Like Auschwitz, the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum and the Killing Fields are chilling. The museum is housed in a school that was turned into a concentration camp between 1975 and 1978, when the Khmer Rouge murdered more than one million Cambodians. Now, each classroom has a metal bed, torture instruments, blood–splattered ceilings, and a giant gory photograph of a bloody victim post torture. Three rooms are lined with thousands of photographs of wide–eyed innocents, whose skulls are enshrined in a nearby glass cupboard. One of the meanings of the Khmer phrase tuol sleng is “supplying guilt,” and that is what this museum does. (The Killing Fields, an hour outside the city and worth visiting on the way to or from the airport, do not affect me as much as the museum. The time–pressed can skip them altogether.)

Many good books have been written about Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge. Once you visit Cambodia, you’ll want to read them all—mostly to figure out how such a gentle people could turn into murderous savages, killing their own for a cause they didn’t even understand. For me, the biggest takeaway is the realization that this insane purge is not something I can dismiss as a fascist horror of my parents’ era. The Khmer Rouge was a nightmare of our time; it happened when I was a teenager.

Cambodians are still consumed by the tragedy. Ask anyone you see in Phnom Penh—cabdriver, monk, tour guide, waiter—about the Khmer Rouge and you will get a shockingly graphic account of mothers watching their children starve and die, of families going insane with grief as one member after another was murdered, all told in flat tones that discourage pity.

When I visit the Royal University of Fine Arts, a dispiriting campus that belies its name, I ask Preung Chhieng, the dean of choreographic arts, about the challenge of reviving traditional Apsara dance given that only thirty of Cambodia’s three hundred dancers survived the Khmer Rouge. Chhieng, a graceful man with high cheekbones and fine features, enjoyed the patronage of the royal family and was with them in Beijing during Pol Pot’s reign. After returning to Phnom Penh in 1978, he traveled through the provinces trying to round up all the remaining dancers. Together, they began a twenty–year effort to rejuvenate Khmer art forms. “The mission of preservation is ongoing,” Chhieng says, “but the arts are finally not endangered.”

Chhieng’s student Sophiline Cheam Shapiro, a dancer whose story was part of the anthology Children of Cambodia’s Killing Fields, is keeping the faith in her own way. She and her American husband founded the Khmer Arts Academy, in Long Beach, California, and she is on campus during my visit to train Khmer dancers for an upcoming American tour, taking the art forms of her old country to her new one.

I too am following a trail from an old country to a less old one: the path of the golden Phra Bang Buddha. The statue was a present from the Cambodian king Jayavarman on the occasion of his daughter’s marriage to King Fa Ngum, who in 1353 founded the neighboring kingdom of Lan Xang—or Laos, as it is now called. Fa Ngum took the Phra Bang Buddha north to spread the Theravada branch of Buddhism in his country, and it was this Buddha that gave his royal capital its name: Luang Prabang.

Most people don’t even know where Laos is. Yet this landlocked country less than half the size of France looms large among Americans for one reason: Between 1962 and 1973, the CIA rained more than three million tons of bombs on Laos to stop the Vietnamese and Pathet Lao troops from bringing arms up the Ho Chi Minh Trail. The CIA successfully hid this war from the American people but failed miserably in its mission. Vietnamese troops kept marching on, and unexploded bombs remain to this day, maiming and killing a few Lao each year.

Laos has hardly known a moment of peace. It has been successively invaded by the Burmese, the Thais, the Vietnamese, the French, and finally the Americans. It was only in 1975 that the Lao People’s Democratic Republic was formed under French–educated Prince Souphanouvong. In 1994, the Australians built the Friendship Bridge between warring Thailand and Laos, and an uneasy peace prevails between the two neighbors. The routing of traffic over the bridge is itself emblematic of Thai–Lao relations: Thailand follows British road rules, while Laos sticks to the French system. As a result, there’s an awkward intersection in the center of the bridge where traffic on the right gets routed to the left, and vice versa. I avoid the confusion by flying into Vientiane from Phnom Penh on Lao Airlines.

Originally called Viangchan, or Sandalwood City, Vientiane could be mistaken for a village rather than a nation’s capital. The center of activity, at least for tourists, is Nam Phou Fountain, which is surrounded by restaurants and several Internet cafés. King Setthathirath moved his royal capital from Luang Prabang to Vientiane in 1560 and erected the revered That Luang Stupa, a phallic eyesore with way too much gold paint. King Setthathirath also built the more sedate Wat Ho Phakeo, which housed the famous emerald Buddha until the Thais looted the temple and installed the statue on the grounds of Bangkok’s Grand Palace. Most exquisite of all is Wat Sisaket, containing 6,840 Buddha images. It is prized because it survived the Thai rampage of Vientiane in 1828.

Rampage and restoration is a consistent theme in Vientiane. Lao silk, for instance, has long been celebrated for the quality of its weave, and now educated Lao and foreigners are working hard to reclaim that neglected heritage. Carol Cassidy, an engaging American who has spent much of her adult life in Laos, trains locals to weave Lao silk to world standards. At her workshop sit forty shy Lao women, clicking away on custom–designed looms to produce cushions, draperies, shawls, and wall hangings destined for America.

While enjoying a sunset drink at one of the makeshift restaurants lining the Mekong, I run into the South African couple who stood behind me in the airport visa line. Because Laos is a small country and most tourists follow the same itinerary, such coincidences are not uncommon. It is oddly companionable to see the same strangers again and again. So I gather tips from the Long Island woman who has “done” Asia many times over, avoid the English drunks who show up at every restaurant I visit, and share the flight to Luang Prabang with the German tour group I met on the way in.

Luang Prabang deserves its reputation as the jewel of Southeast Asia and a jet–set stop du jour. Even Henri Mouhot, the patronizing Frenchman who is often credited with “discovering” Angkor Wat, said that Luang Prabang reminded him of the beautiful lakes of Como and Geneva. “Were it not for the constant blaze of a tropical sun… the place would be a little paradise,” he wrote.

Bordered by the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers, Luang Prabang has Manhattan’s riverine geography but none of its frenzy. The town literally has three streets: one by the Mekong and another by the Nam Khan, with Royal Sakkarine Road in the center. There are no beggars and no traffic jams, in fact none of the maladies that plague most Asian cities. Rather, Luang Prabang is clean—and safe. When I ask for a lock to go with my rented bike, I am told that locks aren’t necessary because there are no thieves.

I am wandering through the golden stupas and gardens within the beautiful Wat Xieng Thong when an eighteen–year–old monk named Somphong appears, points at the dot on my forehead, and asks if I am Hindu. I nod. Suddenly excited, he leads me to the back and points at carved wooden panels depicting, yes, the Ramayana. The setting sun casts a dazzling glow on the gold leaf. Somphong grins triumphantly, and I try to feign surprise. “Wow,” I say, “the Ramayana.” Again.

As we walk outside, he tells me his story. He is from a mountainous province up north and joined the monastery to get an education. He plans to go to college and study astronomy, he says.

“Astronomy,” I repeat, as if it were perfectly normal for a saffron–swathed monk to aspire to NASA. “Any particular reason?”

“Come to the National Museum tomorrow and I will tell you,” he says cryptically.

Dawn brings one of the town’s most extraordinary sights. As the mist swirls, townspeople and tourists gather to give alms to a procession of five hundred monks, who pad barefoot through the silent streets in a blur of orange, saffron, and vermilion robes that conceal lacquer begging bowls. Devout Buddhists kneel and offer rice balls, spiced fish wrapped in banana leaves, fruit, cans of tuna, instant noodles, and even candy bars, which make the young novices break out in smiles. As the sun comes up, the monks disappear like ghosts into the monasteries to pray and study before eating their last meal of the day by noon.

Somphong meets me outside the National Museum at 2 p.m. He takes me to the room in front, which contains gifts from various governments to the Lao. There are Buddha figures and friendship flags, silver crucibles from the Thais, a pearl–inlaid rifle from the Soviets, and finally a moon rock given by President Nixon. Somphong points at the awkwardly shaped rock, no bigger than a fist.

“Next time, a Laotian will go on the moon and get that rock,” he murmurs. “Not receive it as a gift from the Americans.”

In Luang Prabang, the Mekong is never far, either physically or psychologically. Early one morning, I take a boat trip to the Pak Ou Caves, where successive Lao kings brought Buddhas to be consecrated. The musty caves are now lined with thousands of Buddhas, smiling beatifically at the huffing and puffing tourists. On the way back, I stop at Ban Xang Hai, or Jar–Maker Village, to sample the potent rice liquor known as lao–lao, stirred up by diminutive women who could outdrink an Irishman. I buy a few colorful Lao silk scarves, drawn as much by the round–eyed Lao children as by the ten–dollar price tag, before catching the longtail boat home.

In Laos, the Mekong becomes slow moving and languorous, spreading itself over banks planted with peanuts and cucumber. As the boatman poles us along, naked children dive into the coffee–colored waters, using car tires and rubber tubes as makeshift rafts. Women pan for gold, and men, standing knee–deep in the river, scrub water buffaloes.

I furtively drop my monk–inscribed dollar into the Mekong. The boatman yells and fishes it out. The monk who is bumming a ride home with me smiles mysteriously. I tell him about the Cambodian monk’s blessing. I have to drop the money in the Mekong, I explain, so that it will come back to me multiplied tenfold. The monk gazes at the bill, then turns it over and examines the writing closely. He says something in rapid, urgent tones. When I frown in confusion, he breaks into halting English. “This means ‘unfulfilled desire,’ not ‘money in Mekong,’” he says. “You must come back to fulfill your desire.”

I am unable to accept what I am hearing. Was the Cambodian monk playing a trick on me? Or has the meaning been lost in translation? I am not sure.

I carry the Pali–scripted dollar bill in my pocket to this day. It reminds me of the monk’s blessing and of the Mekong. Someday, I tell myself, I will go back and drop the bill into the river. And then I’ll be rich. The voice of the New Yorker inside me says, “Yeah, right. In your next life.”

END

Go to: http://www.concierge.com/cntraveler/articles/10010 to read the rest of the story