Robben Island Dispatch

Robben Island is located about seven km off the coast of Cape Town. It is flat and only a few metres above sea level. The island served as a leper colony in the 19th century and was later used as a maximum security prison for political prisoners and convicted criminals from 1961 until 1991. Nobel Laureate and former President of South Africa Nelson Mandela was imprisoned there for 18 of the 27 years he served behind bars. To date, three of the former inmates of Robben Island have gone on to become President of South Africa: Nelson Mandela, Kgalema Motlanthe and Jacob Zuma.

We’re now in Cape Town. We arrived two days ago after a 28-hour journey from Bombay. We’re in a two bedroom flat in the city centre, about two blocks away from Parliament. Our visit coincides with that of a friend, Anton Simanowitz, who’s here with his wife, kids, brother and parents. We spent a memorable day together yesterday and visited Robben Island. 


The view of Cape Town from the direction of the island is breathtaking.  


We took a bus from the ferry docks to the prison, stopping along the way to learn about the history of the island and its residents. 

This was on the side of our bus:

We were then given a tour of the maximum security wing where Mandela was imprisoned. Derek Basson (below), a former political prisoner in the 1980s, explained how the prison worked.



The courtyard outside Mandela’s cell:


Mandela’s cell:


It was a really powerful experience for all of us. The prison, the racist policies, the leper colony’s graveyard, the quarry where political prisoners laboured.

We caught the last return ferry to the city and on the way whales swam alongside our boat, as if escorting us part of the way back.

We’re starting to settle in here and are finding our way around. We’ll be in Cape Town for almost three weeks and look forward to learning more about the city and writing about our experiences.

Farewell India (and Moustache Report)

We’re about to leave India after staying here for two and a half months. We’ve visited the south and the north. We’ve caught up with old friends and made new ones. It’s been a terrific stay.

Here are some final shots from our time here. 


There’s something iconic about the Indian railway. Yesterday, we rode a train for thirteen hours from Goa to Bombay. The girls made it cozy in the upper berths with their books and tablets. Eventually they set up a circus routine, using the chains attached to the berths as ropes and the bedsheets as slings. Here’s a look at their setup.


Time flew by on the journey. The views of the Indian countryside were spectacular. The food was tasty. Upon arriving in Bombay it was a quick five minute taxi ride to our hotel.


In sheer numbers, India is the most cricket-obsessed country in the world. Here’s a match playing out on a pitch in the middle of town. The bowler has just released the ball.


A few blocks away, another cricket match playing out in the middle of traffic.


Batsman hits ball. Fielder handles the play across four lanes of traffic. Not out.


A few weeks ago when we left Jaipur, we stopped in Abhaneri to see the Chand Baori stepwell. Chand Baori was built between 800 and 900 AD and consists of 3,500 narrow steps over 13 stories. It extends approximately 30 m (100 ft); the air at the bottom is 5-6 degrees cooler than at the surface. The well was used as a gathering place for locals during periods of intense heat.


One side of the well has a pavilion and resting room for the royals.  

After Chand Baori we visited the Taj Mahal. Saga describes it as “the most romantic non-fiction love story in the world.” It was built by Shah Jahan as a tribute to his late wife, Mumtaz Mahal. It took 22 years for 20,000 workers and 1,000 elephants to build it. It’s astounding.


Less well known is the local playground with the best view in the world. 



Here are the results from the Moustache post.

Most popular moustaches are Moustache 1 (5 votes), Moustache 4 (4 votes) and Moustaches 5 and 10 with 2 votes each. The names included: Herr Professor, Smeat (small and neat), Indian Sam Elliot, Sniffer Swiffer… They’re all great. Thanks for voting! 


The Indian leg of this trip has been unbelievably good to us. We feel incredibly lucky for the people we’ve met and the opportunities we’ve had. Tonight we fly to Cape Town. We’ll spend three weeks in South Africa and three more in Botswana.

Saga’s Post: Highlights from our time in Goa

We’ve been in Goa for about 5 days and it’s been really fun. We have a really nice host and she used to be a famous Indian model (she’s also very pretty)! Yesterday at night we were having a fun time doing badminton and doing some hoollahooping (the hoolahoop was suuuper big)! As you see on the title this blog is about highlights in Goa. So let’s get started!

  1.  Parasailing: Parasailing was very very very fun (I would recomend doing it in India because it’s soooo cheap!)! There are 2 ways of doing (I think, or maybe it depends on the beach your on), first is you just stay up in the air and the second way is you can dip your feet in the water and then rise again and then it continues.
  2. The German bakery: We’ve probably been there 3 times in 4 days! Why? Because they have the best almonds cookies (my favourite!) and the best apple crumble (even I like it! I don’t usually like apple crumble.) We’re likely to visit it again today. That’s because we have a long train ride ahead of us. We leave tomorrow at 8 am and stay on the same train for 12 hours!
  3. Our host: Our host’s name is Shonali (she’s the one who used to be the model). She’s very sporty and loves cooking (perfect for us!)! Yesterday when she was cooking savery muffins I got to be the D.J and introduced some of my favourite music! My favourite band these days is First Aid Kit. The band is made up of two sisters from Sweden but you wooden guess becaus they speak perfect  English!
  4. Monopoly: You adults out there most likely know monopoly and maybe some of you kids. My mom (or was it my dad?) told me that they are changing the monopoly game so that in India for instance the money’s in rupees and the streets are Indian! Well, they have already changed the money (the bord that we play with has British streets but the money is in rupees! Cool, right?). It’s soooo fun!

Holy Cows, Holy Men, Horoscopes


Considered sacred by Hindus, she is everywhere in India, ambling through snarling traffic, oblivious to the vehicles rushing by and at the same time tolerated by all drivers. The western state of Rajasthan has a cow minister (not a cow that’s a minister but a person that’s a minister of cows. You know what I mean). There are campaigns demanding that the cow replace the tiger as the national animal.

She can live up to 25 years and she can be aged by the number of rings on her horns (if she has horns). She has four stomachs. All seeing, she has almost 360 degree panoramic vision. All smelling, her keen nose can detect odors up to 5 miles away.

She is beautiful. The historian Mukul Kesavan writes of the cow:”Its large eyes, its calm, its matte skin tinted in a muted palette that runs from off-white to grey through beige and brown, its painterly silhouette with its signature hump, make it the most evolved of animals.”


For Hindus (and many others) the planetary positions in the zodiac at the time of birth are believed to have a strong influence on a person’s life. The Hindu horoscope is called the Janampatri and is created using complex mathematical calculations derived from the exact date, time and place of an individual’s birth. A Hindu priest, or pandit, typically develops and interprets a janampatri.

Some lovely friends of ours (a mother-daughter team) have recently had a number of health setbacks. The mother consulted her pandit. He studied both of their janampatris to find an explanation for their health issues and propose a way to resolve them. According to the pandit, the health issues are related to multiple causes including the orientation of the bed in a bedroom; the location of the stove in the kitchen; and something to do with serpents. To resolve the issue(s), our friends were encouraged to donate roughly 40kg of grain to a temple. The stove and bed are re-oriented. The daughter is required to offer food, every day over the course of several months, to a cow.

One evening we joined the feeding mission. Equipped with chapatis and grains, we went to find a local bovine in a lot near our place. Here she is.


A few days later, we went to see the pandit to have Ida and Saga’s horoscopes made. We provided the girls’ names, dates and times of birth, and birth location. The next day we returned to have the horoscopes read.

The pandit:


His colleagues:

 The girls were born four minutes apart. There is a shift in the planetary positions in the zodiac every five minutes. We learned that because the girls’ births fell within this period of planetary stasis, their horoscopes do not differ significantly. 

The Janampatri is a 20-page document, in English, with planetary details and birth charts. Divisional charts tell us about strength, spiritual growth, wealth, destiny, spouse, knowledge and more. Several pages are devoted to Vimshottari and are followed by useful information- lucky colour, lucky number, inauspicious month and dates. 

As the pandit interpreted the documents, he read that Ida and Saga will lead good lives with professional, personal and inter-personal success. There could be minor health issues (e.g. weak left eye requiring spectacles). Marriage could happen in their mid-twenties. He also said he saw a future for them that involves travel. In the very near term, that’s bang on! As for the rest of the predictions, only time will tell.

Ida’s Post: Parasailing and Running

Today is my dad’s birthday. We woke up and had croissants for breakfast and oatmeal with cardamom and golden raisins. At 9 o’clock we went to the beach to go parasailing. When we arrived, we had to wait half an hour for the big boat to arrive. We got into a little boat that took us out to the big boat. The waves were huge and we crashed through them. It was crazy!

When we got out to the big boat we got on it and me and my dad went first. We climbed the stairs onto what looked like a helicopter landing pad. We were strapped into harnesses and clipped onto the parachutes’ lines. And then we took off. Taking off was the funnest part. It was like a plane – we started kind of slow and then we just shot up. We circled a couple of times and then were pulled down. In total it was probably about ten minutes. And then it was Mor and Saga’s turn.

We didn’t bring a camera because we were in water. So we don’t have any pictures.

[This is not my dad’s picture, but you get the idea]

Last week in Jaipur there was a six km race that Mor ran. It was associated with the half marathon. While  Mor ran we handed out water. Lots of people wanted to take our picture. We were in the local newspaper. I have no idea what it means, but here is our picture.

And here is Mor at the finish line.

And here are some more shots that my dad took.

Me and my sister handing out water.

The race was really well put together. There was a ton of entertainment including a marching band.

And moustaches.

The Lows

Getting off a train in Delhi’s Nizamuddin rail station is like stepping into a pressure cooker. The crush of passengers leaving the station. Beggars asking for alms. Hawkers clamouring for attention. Taxi drivers and touts, thousands of them, intent on taking travellers to their destinations. And it’s hot.

We have sunny and optimistic dispositions. There’s a lot of room on a trip like ours for something to go wrong and we have a tendency not to dwell on the low points for too long. But that doesn’t mean our journey hasn’t had its challenges.

This morning at breakfast we talked about the most difficult moments of our trip. It’s good to discuss these things. We learn from them. We also learn a lot about each other. The challenges make the good aspects of our trip seem even more positive.


I called a friend yesterday and one of the first things he asked was: “have you had any health issues on your trip?” This is often one of the first things people think about.

Our medical dispatch documents Saga’s case of Shigella (diarrhoea with blood and mucous), acute dehydration and time in the local hospital. While sick she was tethered to the toilet; she literally didn’t leave it for more than five minutes at a time over a 48-hour period. And Louise and I were mostly tethered to her, keeping her company.

The combination of sleeplessness and anxiety is likely the reason why I came down with shingles a week later. Here is shingles: pain across the left side of my face along my facial nerve. The nerve would fire and throb into my neck. My face swelled up and my head felt like it was in a vice. Open sores broke out on my face, ear and forehead. The acute phase of this lasted a week. It was incredibly intense.

We’ve also had the more regular travelers’ illnesses. A weird itchy arm rash sent us to the pharmacy to get antihistamines. Variants of Delhi Belhi have struck from time to time.

When sick, once we’ve figured out what’s wrong, we come up with plans a, b and c to recover. If a plan isn’t working, we escalate to the next. Uncertainty amplifies the distress but we’ve had the great good fortune to have medical consultations with our favourite pediatrician (my father). He diagnosed Shigella and Shingles from 12 time zones away and has guided our treatments. After that, it’s mostly a waiting game.


The girls thought it was scary when the Kampot River jumped its banks. The water levels were higher than the girls are tall. They were worried about the animals. They didn’t know if the flood would last forever.


This trip is largely about time. In Toronto, once work, school, extra-curricular activities, chores, and everything else were accounted for, we were time poor. We didn’t spend enough of it together. We reclaimed our time when we bought a one-way ticket to Cambodia and set out on this adventure.

But once we were time rich, we needed to figure out what to do with it all. It was shocking, in a way, to wake up and realize that we had no office to go to, no school to attend, no play dates. The whole day stretched before us like a blank slate, waiting for us to fill it in new and different and exciting ways. Our daily routine eventually settled into doing three things: we read/learn, we play and we explore (in addition to taking care of the admin of life). Before we got into that routine, however, boredom would sometimes set in. We made it clear that each of us is responsible for our own contentedness. We’re truly happy when we are engrossed in an activity; a book, a game, a sport. Each of us needs to find something that engrosses us. Confronting and embracing boredom in this way has been an important learning experience for us.


We miss aspects of living in Toronto. Our family. Friends and neighbours. Sigurd, our dog. Holidays like Halloween, Valentine’s Day. Playing the piano and violin. Baking. Running. Sidewalks.


Back at home, we’re careful about a lot of safety issues. Take driving; we buy cars based on safety records, wear our seatbelts, change our tires with the seasons. Here, we mostly ride in rickshaws. Often there are no seatbelts in cars. So far we’ve been fine, although we are aware that, an accident here would impose challenges of a higher order than in Toronto, all things being equal. We try not to think about it too much.

When we stepped into the pressure cooker of Delhi’s rail station two days ago, we had come from Agra and had a flight to catch to Goa. Our train was late and we needed a taxi to take us to the airport. I asked an official where the pre-paid taxi stand is and he made a vague, unhelpful gesture to his right. A swarm of taxi drivers insisted the prepaid desk was closed. We didn’t believe them but couldn’t find the prepaid desk. Exasperated, we agreed on a price with a taxi driver, got into the cab and set out for the airport.

We careened out of the airport, speeding, barely missing pedestrians and other cars. The driver began speaking incoherently. The driving was erratic. More close calls with pedestrians. Faster driving. The driver started taking his eyes off the road to talk to us. The girls cowered in the backseat, terrified. Our driver was drunk.

At a red light in the middle of Delhi’s streets, I took the key out of the ignition. Louise and I got the girls onto the sidewalk, unloaded the car. Incredibly, Delhi traffic waited patiently and respectfully while this unfolded. A woman in the back of a Toyota graciously asked if she could take us somewhere. Into her car we piled, grateful. None of us has ever been so relieved to arrive at an airport.

We arrived on time in Goa and are staying near the beach in the north. Gorgeous Goa is the right place to decompress from our Agra trip and this is where we wrap up the India leg of our journey. On Sunday we fly from Mumbai to Cape Town to continue our adventure in South Africa and Botswana.


We’re coffee drinkers and imagine that most of you are too. Our predisposition to coffee has made us more attuned to the milk market, as the only thing better than a coffee is a coffee served with milk.


Upon arriving in India, one is struck by the omnipresence of milk stands. Close to our place in Delhi were booths with the moniker Delhi Milk Scheme. In Jaipur, stands like the one below abound. This one reads, approximately, Jaipur Dairy stall 179. Ghee, milk, curd, lassi. We visit one of these stands every day (located 20 paces from our flat) to buy 1/2 litre bags of delicious 6% fat milk.


In Hindi, “milk” is “doodh”; “worker” is “walla”. The doodh walla is the person who delivers milk, door to door, every morning and afternoon. He travels by bike, motorbike and rickshaw.



The sheer amount of milk and its extensive distribution network came about thanks to the doodh walla,  Dr. Verghese Kurien. Kurien is known as the father of the Indian White Revolution or the architect of Operation Flood.

The White Revolution was a massive agricultural development program that began in the 1950s and transformed India from a milk deficient nation to the world’s largest milk producer, with about 17% of global output in 2010-2011. Over the course of 30 years, the White Revolution doubled the amount of milk available to every Indian. In so doing, it created an important secondary income source for 70 million rural households engaged in dairying. Today, about 80% of milk produced in India is handled in the unorganized sector. There are 133,000 village level dairy co-ops that collect 25 million litres of milk per day.  Even the micro finance people were in on it; a common loan product at Grameen Bank and many of its replicators across South Asia was a “milking cow (or buffalo) loan”. The loan, about USD 200, enables a micro finance borrower to buy a bovine, milk it, then repay the loan with the proceeds of the milk.


And all this talk of milk coincides with Ida’s teeth. She lost one of them this week. Here she is:


Department of Handicrafts

Who’s heard of paper made from cotton and silk? We hadn’t, but a friend mentioned that there are factories in a nearby town called Sanganer that are famous for handmade paper, block printing and ceramics. During our travels, we’ve really enjoyed our visits to factories (e.g., silk and tea factories). Sanganer is located 16 km south of Jaipur. We paid it a visit this week.


The handmade paper factory that we visited buys leftover fabric from a South Indian vest factory and sells mostly to the North American market. It  produces cards, gift wrap, small bags, holiday stars and other decorations. The factory employs 300 to 400 men and women who earn a daily salary of 300 Rupees (approximately CAD 6.00) for an eight-hour shift. People seemed genuinely happy to work there. Factory workers led us through the paper making-process.

Throw the cotton into a slurry and chop into pulp…


Add vegetable-based dyes…


Spread the pulp in sheets. Stack…


Squeeze water out of the paper…


Press once dry

And the final product is ready. 


The paper is beautiful. Colourful, sometimes with bits of flower.


We often receive these bags at stores in North America; few of us probably realize that someone has folded and assembled the bags by hand.



In Sanganer, the technique for block printing textiles with delicate patterns and vibrant colours developed in the 16th or 17th century. The printing blocks are hand cut and can be extremely elaborate (photo below is not mine).


There are currently more than 300 micro, small and medium sized printing enterprises in Sanganer, employing approximately 3,000 artisans. The town received a Protected Geographical Indication in 2010 to preserve the reputation and quality of its block printing work.

Ida and Saga tried their hands with the blocks.  


Meanwhile, one of the artisans completed a table cloth print (see below). Often the blocks are integrated: the first block has the floral design in light purple, almost a pink; the next block adds gold to the interior of the flowers; the final block adds a deeper purple to the flowers. It’s remarkable. Many of the block print artisans have been working for more than 30 years; they are able to place the blocks so accurately that the viewer feels like the beautiful images are the result of a single, multi-coloured massive block that fits the entire textile. 


The block printing site also creates ceramics. Here we got a sense of how some of the designs on the our mugs and vases are hand-painted. Similar to the block print artisans, the ceramics artists have been working their trade for decades. They can confidently sketch intricate patterns freehand. 

Our friend Sania, who joined us on the visit, put it well when she said “hats off to all such artists who give their lives to anonymous creativity”.