All You Need to Know About John of God in Brazil

I first heard about John of God about 10 years ago while watching the Oprah Winfrey Show. Oprah magazine editor, Susan Casey had recently travelers to Brazil and found personal healing after the passing of her father. Oprah herself traveled to the tiny village of Abadiania to interview this Miracle Man who had cured over 8 million people of life threatening illnesses, birth defects, as well as emotional and spiritual blockages.

As a journalist and spiritual person, I was eager to find out more about what was happening at the Casa Dom Inacio De Loyola.

WHO IS JOHN OF GOD?

John of God or Medium John is an ordinary Brazilian man, now 78 years old. He grew up very poor in rural Brazil and found out at an early age, that powerful spirits could enter his body and use it as a medium to heal people. Initially, he performed healings while he was working in the army as a tailor. Later, he opened a center where people could come for free and receiving the blessings from several spirits and other mediums.

Medium John is a Christian. He believes in God, but doesn’t focus on religion. His work is based on Spiritism, where one can channel high energy beings and master spirits to guide humans and give healings through the metaphysical. Spiritism is very common belief in Brazil, as well as in India and among Native American cultures.

Though I have not had any personal experience with spirits per se, I do believe in guardian angels and the energy of the universe.

GETTING THERE

Less than two hours’ driver from Brazil’s capital, Brasilia, through rolling hills, cattle farms and country resorts, leads to Abadiania. There is a small rural town on one side of the highway where John of God resides, and a more touristy area on the other side. The “Casa area” as it’s nicknamed has one main street with a few pousadas (guesthouses), handful of restaurants, shops selling all kinds of crystals and white clothing, and a couple of massage parlors.

When I arrived in Abadiania, my guides Cecelia and Debbie were waiting for me outside Pousada Irmão Sol Irmã Lua. This was perhaps the largest and most posh pousada in town, with a garden, yoga room and lounging areas. The rooms were basic, with two small beds, a fan, and a bathroom that rarely had hot water. There was no television, air conditioner, or phone, only WiFi that functioned when it wasn’t overcast. As in the case of most businesses in Abadiania, the owners of Pousada Irmão Sol Irmã Lua had come to see John of God many decades ago, received personal healing and decided to stay and help continue his mission.

It is highly recommended that first timers and non-Portuguese speakers hire a local guide to visit the Casa, as there are rules that one must follow, and sometimes things happen too fast so important information can be missed. Also, it is very difficult to make hotel bookings on your own, as many of the pousad don’t have websites.

PREPARING FOR THE VISIT

Cecelia Zigher and Debbie Akamine had opposite personalities but worked as a team. Debbie had quit her job in top international tax firm in Sao Paulo and found love and harmony in Abadiania. She was animated, energetic and informative.

Cecelia, a native of Sweden, had traveled around the world searching for self-love and happiness, which she found when she met John of God. Cecelia was composed, thoughtful and open to sharing her own philosophies. The girls gave me a brief orientation for visiting the Casa, over a buffet dinner of Brazilian and western delicacies.

The instructions were:

  • Wear only white clothing (including underwear) so that the spirits can see your aura.
  • Write down 3 asks you want to present to John of God. These could be about your health, work, relationships, finances, or anything else that you need help with in your life.
  • Carry a small purse with some money and tissues (in case you cry). Don’t wear the purse cross body.
  • It is not allowed to take pictures of John of God.
  • Never cross your arms and legs when in the Casa grounds, as it blocks the energies from reaching you.
  • When meeting John of God, speak fast (if in Portuguese), make direct eye contact with him and hold his hand.
  • When sitting in the current room (meditation room), sit with eyes closed, arms and legs uncrossed and stay until they ask you to leave (it may be 2-3 hours).
  • Eat a big breakfast and meet at the Casa entrance at 7:30am.

Later I read Heather Cumming’s book John of God and highly recommend reading it prior to coming to the Casa. It gives you a much deeper understanding of what is exactly happening here, and how to prepare yourself to be receptive to the energies.

ARRIVING AT THE CASA

John of God sees visitors only on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday from 8am until every person is seen.

On Wednesday morning, I walked over to the Casa, only a 10-minute walk from my hotel. There were already hundreds of people arriving by the bus loads, being dropped off in taxis, and walking over to the entrance. Everyone was wearing white and appeared calm and hopeful. I later found out that approximately 2,000 people had come to the Casa that day.

The Casa grounds were modest white ranch style building with blue accents. There was a semi-open hall where people waited, announcements and prayers were recited, and John of God would first appear. Inside were a series of basic rooms for spiritual surgeries, meditation and an infirmary. There was a beautiful garden with lots of flowers, avocado trees and benches for meditating outdoor that overlooked a beautiful valley. Besides the garden were crystal baths – individual rooms booked for 20 minute sessions that involved crystal light healing. There was also a cafeteria selling fresh juices and homemade Brazilian snacks, a soup kitchen, and a pharmacy where one could buy blessed water and passion flower herbs (if prescribed).

John of God picked this location to be the center of his Spiritism practice because of its high energy. It is said that there are crystals underneath the land the valley sits on.

People often left prayer notes at the 3 triangles at the Casa that supposedly transmitted energy. These notes were collected at the end of the week and taken to John of God for further blessing.

It was 8am and time to meet John of God. “Are you nervous, like you are about to see Santa Claus?” Debbie exclaimed.

To be continued…

Ten Things I Learned at The Sedona Yoga Festival

Sedona is a magical place, and when I learned that there was going to be a yoga festival taking place in Sedona, I immediately signed up! This was actually the fifth annual Sedona Yoga Festival which generally takes place in February/ March time frame. The festival lasts for 4-days and includes over 200 workshops on a variety of topics, besides yoga, that included spiritism, meditation, communication, sound therapy, healing, nutrition and more.

I have read many books on spirituality, explored different practices, do yoga off and on, and am always open to trying new things. I was excited to be hearing from the 100+ speakers coming to the festival from all over the world and eager to learn more.

Here are my top takeaways from the sessions I attended. Note, a lot of it is my own interpretation of what the speakers might have said.

There’s nobody here or out there who can hurt you more than yourself.

Heather Shereé Titus, Director of the Sedona Yoga Festival advised at the opening ceremony to love yourself, and be the love you want to see in others. It is only your own practices, behaviors and reactions that can cause you the greatest pain. You yourself allow the negative or positive energies to flow into you.

Nourish yourself with asana, meditation and inquiry before helping others.

This applies more to people who teach, help or care for others. Gina Garcia,  500-hour certified Baptiste Power Vinyasa Yoga teacher and founder of Yoga Across America (YAA), a non-profit corporation that teaches yoga and wellness educational programs across the country, conducted this extensive workshop.

Avoid prescription medication and alcohol to protect yourself from fallen angels. 

I did not know much about unwanted spirits attaching themselves to human bodies in the time when we are most vulnerable. Professional Energy Cleanser Herman Petrick talked about keeping a clear and balanced energy field, and how it can help with depression, anxiety, sleeping disorders, re-occurring nightmares, chronic headaches, etc.

Sound is an important vibration that helps relax and quietens the mind.

“Like a dinner bell, the sound of bowls can alert you for meditation,” said Ashana in her hands-on workshop with quartz crystal singing bowls. Though I did not buy any bowls, I have started playing flute, tabla, gamelan, meditation and yoga music during meditation, before sleeping and while lounging, and it has had profound effects.

Make superfoods part of your daily diet.

Until now, I knew what superfoods generally are and tried to eat them now and then. But Jeff Breaker, who represents Purium Health Products, emphasized that eating real food can make you feel better, help recover faster and enhance the spirit. He recommended eating organic greens, whole grains, soaked nuts, and filtered water. Also, eat as much vegan as possible and add a superfood shake to your diet. I have started making my own granola with organic oats, chia, flax, almonds, dried blueberries, agave, honey and coconut.

Energy flows through the gaze of the eyes.

In the session on Drishti by Sara Elizabeth Ivanhoe (yoga spokesperson for Weight Watchers), I learned how to focus on a still image to improve my yoga postures with fluid transitions. The same can be applied to everyday life by working on the third eye to see beyond time and space.

When you want to connect with someone, look into their eyes.

Leah Misty and David Tietje of Thai Love Yoga did an interactive seminar on enhancing communication, which included Sacred Space Ritual, Soul Gazing, Thai Massage, Laughter Yoga, Connection Trio and Affirmation Circle. My husband and I gazed at each other’s eyes, gave each other gentle massages and exchanged words of gratefulness. I found this exercise very useful and repeat it every time I want to convey my message to another person in an assertive yet gentle manner.

Everyone is born with spiritual gifts. Learn to recognize and appreciate them.

I found Sunny Dawn Johnston’s workshop on intuition to be the most interesting as she talked about connecting with the spirit world. Every person has intuition, but sometimes cannot distinguish between mindless chatter and the angelic voice. To exercise receiving guidance we can raise our vibrations (through music, yoga, dance, nature), play intuitive games, and start trusting ourselves.

Chocolate is good for the soul.

Some of you may be delighted to hear that (good quality dark) chocolate heightens your sensations. In Yoga of Chocolate session, instructor Jyl Marie combined yoga poses with 100% organic Chocolate Tree chocolate tastings. Her aim was to use chocolate as a way of encouraging people to slow down and really taste, savor, and enjoy their present moment experiences, whatever they may be.

Hopefully, you have enjoyed reading this post and will come back for more!

10 Things You Must Do in Rio De Janeiro

Rio De Janeiro is one of the most beautiful cities in the world. Beaches, forest and mountains give the city a picturesque backdrop that can be enjoyed from practically anywhere in the city. If you are headed to Rio for the first time for vacation, here are the top 10 places you must cross off your checklist…

1. Christ The Redeemer

The 30 metres (98 ft) tall status of Jesus Christ, stretch 28 metres (92 ft) wide overlooks the city of Rio from Corcovado mountain. Built in 1931, it has become the single most famous icon of Rio and named one of the New Seven Wonders of the World.

A 30-minute helicopter sightseeing tour over Rio offers some of the most spectacular views of the cities scenery and landmarks.

Photo by Amanda Villa-Lobos

2. Sugar Loaf Mountain

Located at the mouth of Guanabara Bay on a peninsula that juts out into the Atlantic Ocean, this 396 m (1,299 ft) tall peak resembles the conical shape of a loaf of sugar. The reference originated during the 16th century sugar boom in Brazil. Take a cable car to the top to see panoramic views of the city.

Photo by Amanda Villa-Lobos

3. Niteroi

Drive over the 13 kilometers long bridge across Guanabara Bay that connects Rio to Niteroi. There are two reasons to go here – one is for the best views of Rio skyline and second is to see the architecture of famous Brazilian architect, Oscar Niemeyer. You can go inside the Contemporary Art Museum and take photos from the hang gliding takeoff spot at the Niteroi Municipal City Park. Also, get a good look at the range of mountain made of granite and quart that surround Rio.

Photo by Amanda Villa-Lobos

Luis Darin, is an English speaking Brazil tour guide who offers private and group cultural and sightseeing tours in Rio. Luis took me to Niteroi, Tijuca Forest, Barra and a farmers market during our day long tour. Luis customized our tour and conversations to center on my interest and had a lot to share about his hometown. 

4. Tijuca Forest

Tijuca is the world’s largest urban rainforest, and easily accessible from residential and commercial areas in Rio. Many locals go to the park for a daily jog, bike, or to picnic and swim in the waterfall on the weekends. Inside the park, there is  Christ the Redeemer atop Corcovado mountain, the Cascatinha Waterfall, the Mayrink Chapel, a pagoda-style gazebo at Vista Chinesa outlook, and the giant granite picnic table called the Mesa do Imperador.

Photo by Amanda Villa-Lobos

5. Beaches

Most people who come to Rio, enjoy the sun and sand at Copacabana and Ipanema. While these two areas have some of the best known beaches, they are also quite crowded and touristy. There are more pristine and secluded beaches within an hour drive from Rio, where the locals prefer to hang out. Perigoso, Meio, Funda and Inferno beaches are reachable only by boat. Piranha Beach, located inside an environmentally protected area is great for surfing.

6. Hang Gliding

Extreme sporting opportunities are available in many beautiful locations these days. But hang gliding is extremely popular in the Barra side of Rio. There are certified instructors, an official ticket site, and designated jumping area. Flying over Rio offers aerial views of the beaches, mountains, rainforests and favela – stark contrasts that makes this city unique!

After a flight, gliders and guides are often found at the beach, sipping on fresh  coconut water and downloading photos and videos taken during the flight.

Photo by Beto Rotor

I went tandem hang gliding with Beto Rotor from Hang Gliding Brazil, a friendly and excited instructor with over 30 years of experience. We rode in his open air jeep up the mountain, where the glider was already laid out for us. After some instructions and security harnesses, we are up in the air in no time! We took a lot of cool shots with the 3 Go Pro cameras he attached to our glider.

7. Farmers Markets

There are about 50 farmers markets held around the city every morning. The open air markets are good places to see daily life of Cariocas as they are shopping for groceries, sample tropical fruits and vegetables and also try local street foods, such as  fried empanadas, tapioca pancakes, and sugarcane juice. Download an app that allows you to locate farmer’s markets in your area in Rio.

Photo by Amanda Villa-Lobos

8. Northeast Traditions Center

If you don’t have a chance to visit the north of Brazil, you can still experience its food, culture and crafts at the Luiz Gonzaga Northeast Traditions Centre, the location for São Cristovão Fair. There are 700 permanent vendors offering food from Bahia, ice creams made with local fruits, crafts of wood, linen and more, as well as exhibitions of folk singers and dancers. You can easily spend an entire day here.

9. Barra da Tijuca

Built only 30 years ago, this new urban suburb of Rio has become one of the most developed places in Brazil. People from Rio head to Barra to enjoy its white sandy beaches, backwater restaurants located around its many lakes and rivers, quiet gardens and large shopping malls selling international brands. Barra da Tijuca neighborhood is known for having homes of celebrities and soccer stars. It is also where the summer 2016 Olympics took place.

Photo by Amanda Villa-Lobos

10. Favela

As a contrast to Barra, Rio also has the most number of favelas (shanty towns) in South America and many tourists show interest in visiting them. I personally went with a friend to Santa Marta favela, who works there to gain an insider perspective of how people live and what facilities they lack. It is definitely interesting to experience this real side of the city that makes Rio what it is. Read about my trip to the favela in Rio…

Do you have a favorite spot in Rio? Do share in the comments section below…

The Biggest Party in The World – Photos From Rio Carnival 2017

The Carnival in Rio De Janeiro is bigger than all of the carnivals around the world put together! I couldn’t fathom the scale of this statement until I experienced it for myself this February. While Carnival parties take place for 3 weeks across neighborhoods in Brazil, the grandest event is held at Rio Sambadrome on Carnival Sunday and Monday.

Never Ending Parade

The stadium is bustling with 75,000 spectators spread out over a little less than half-a mile. The parade begins at 10pm and ends at 6am. 6 samba-schools parade each night with a total of about twenty-four thousand participants. Each samba school has 45 minutes to make it across the stadium with their floats and dancers. Each samba school has to parade with a minimum of 2,000 members and a maximum of 4,500 merry makers.

Elaborate Floats

Every samba school has at least 10 floats that tell a story and are elaborately decorated with lights, motion and dancers. Some of them are as high as 3 stories! The floats I saw had ice cream, super heroes, toys, farmer, turtle, and music themes.

Outrageous Costumes

The Brazilian women who dance samba in front of the floats are some of the most talented dancers in the country. Their scantily designed costumes are embodies with lots of feathers, as they shake their bodies to the rhythm across the stadium in high heels. Samba girls have to be in excellent shape. They diet, exercise and practice for at least two months leading up to the event.

Tickets and Logistics

There are five types of tickets available for the Samba Parade in Rio: Boxes, Dress Circle, Grandstands Seats, Back Stall Seats, and Specially Handicapped. Children under 5 do not require tickets. Tickets can be purchased in Sectors 1-11, sector 5 and 9 being the most central ones.

Sambodromo Grandstand ticket prices start are $115-400 USD. This area has uncovered stadium style seating, but offers panoramic views of the entire parade. Sambadrome Special Boxes carnival tickets costs at an average range of $600 – 2,200 which includes food, drinks and company of celebrity guests. Carnival tickets go on sale in December and the earlier you buy, the cheaper they will be.

I went to see the Access Group performance on Friday night which consisted of 7 of the best samba schools as part of the Rio de Janeiro Carnival Gold Group. The performances are pretty close to those in the Special Group that perform in the Grand Parade on Monday, and the winners are chosen to participate in next year’s Special Group. Tickets for the Access events are much cheaper. I bought my ticket in Section 5 Grandstand for $20 online. Note: tickets at travel agencies are generally much more expensive.

It is advisable to take a nap on the day of the event so you can stay up all night. The facility sells snack foods and beer, but I saw many people bring coolers full of snacks and to-go cocktail jars. It is ok to take photos and videos. Unlike other crowded places in Rio, it is actually quite safe at the Sambadrome so you can bring your expensive camera. Carry some cash for snacks and taxi back. Many roads are blocked during carnival so transportation can take longer and be a bit more expensive.

~ Photos by Amanda Villa-Lobos, a native of Rio de Janeiro and official Go Eat Give photographer.

Highlights From The New York Times Travel Show 2017

We are back from The New York Times Travel Show where I spoke, signed copies of my books, and networked with dozens of travel companies from around the world. This year, it was a record breaking show with 30,099 participants and 560 companies representing over 170 countries!

On Saturday, I spoke on a panel called Global Travel Tips for Women moderated by April Merenda, owner of Gutsy Women Travel, along with Cheryl Benton of The Three Tomatoes, and Lea Lane, author of “Travel Tales I Couldn’t Put in the Guidebooks. We discussed best-practices for women traveling solo, including popular destinations (Cuba, Morocco, Bali), safety and money saving tips.

Later that afternoon, I spoke to over 50 people interested in volunteer traveling at Meet The Experts area. It was amazing to see so many people were interested in more meaningful travel rather than pure vacations. I hope they will turn up at one of our Go Eat Give trips soon!

I also signed copies of Beato Goes To Greenland and Beato Goes To Indonesia at the New York Times Bookstore. It was a humbling experience sitting next to travel legends Arthur and Pauline Frommer with my own books.

Some of our travel partners you may already know of were also there at the show. In 2016, Amanda and I traveled to Chile with family-run Vermont based company Yampu Tours and Philippines Tourism.

In the Travel for the Mind, Body and Soul section, we ran into our friends at the Art of Living Center in Boone, NC where we organized a yoga retreat last spring for Go Eat Give.  

Indian Tourism got the award for the most creative booth. They were giving out free samosas and mehndi (henna tattoo). What’s not to love?

Travel to India with Go Eat Give in 2017

This year, we are looking to partner with more tourism departments and tour operators and have plans to bring you stories from South Africa, Botswana, Uganda, Georgia, Croatia, New Zealand, Russia, Uzbekistan Puerto Rico, St Lucia, British Virgin Islands, Arizona and more. Stay tuned by subscribing to the blog.

Beach, Buddha and Pagoda – How To Spend 5 Days in Myanmar

Myanmar (aka Burma) has only recently opened to tourism after lifting an embargo on foreign visitors. Tucked away in the South Asian peninsula, the country is unknown to most western tourists, except for it’s communist politics followed by a fight for democracy led by female activist Aung San Suu Kyi. A deeper dive into Myanmar’s history opens up a rich pandora of culture, religion and architecture spanning thousands of years. The country is biodiverse with beaches, mountains, lakes, rivers and forests. While it is difficult to see Myanmar in just a few days, I managed to capture a few highlights through my lens.

Yangon, the capital, is where I spent most of my time as our ship was docked there was three days. Sailing into the Irrawaddy River Delta gave way to views of muddy brown waters with nomadic fisherman on traditional boats, followed by golden domes popping out from bare villages. The city, itself is pretty small, with business buildings, hotels, tea shops, gardens and lots of pagodas. Having been cut off from the rest of the world, you won’t find any name brands or chain restaurants here. People still dress traditionally in sarongs (called longyi) and put bright creamy paste (thanaka) on their faces, while crouching on low stools on the street side cafes eating fish curry and steamed rice. It is easy to walk around, taxis are cheap, though traffic can be bad at times.

Chaukhtatgyi Buddha Temple houses one of the most revered reclining Buddha statues in the country. Though the original statue was built in 1899, it has been modified and reconstructed few times until the 1970s.

Dominating the Yangon skyline, Shwedagon Pagoda is spectacular by day and night. Shwedagon Pagoda is the most sacred Buddhist pagoda in Myanmar, and perhaps the oldest Buddha stupa in the world, built between 6-10 centuries CE. Allow yourself at least a couple of hours to wander around the complex of temples to absorb their splendid beauty, and maybe you would feel like spending a few minutes in silence or meditation.

In the evening, head over for dinner to Karaweik Royal Barge. Karaweik Palace was constructed in the shape of a barge as a symbol of Burmese culture and arts. It serves international buffet with cultural performances. Other restaurants I tried were Yangon Tea House, a casual and hip Burmese/ Indian restaurant, and Feel Myanmar, a traditional place where you can pick and choose your food and quantity. This is a great venue to safely try a lot of Burmese dishes that you may have seen on the streets as well.

On the other side of Yangon’s cosmopolitan city, is the township of Dala. This is the place to go if you want to see daily life of the locals – where they live, shop, study and pray. Most people cross the river on ferry boat to work in the city. Walk through the wet markets, visit a monastery, stop by an orphanage, and ride on a trishaw.


From Yangon, take a short flight to the city of Bagan, in the eastern province. It is said there were over 10,000 religious structures built in Bagan between 9-13 centuries, though only 2,000 of them still remain today. Shwesardaw offers a great lookout to many of these temples spread across the archeological area.

Though there are dozens of other temples in the area worth visiting if you have the time, Shwezigon Pagoda built by the Mon Dynasty, is covered with more than 30,000 copper plates (originally gold). The pagoda houses four huge bronze statues of Buddha, and contain his original footprints.

Lampi Island is the only marine national park in Myanmar, home to over 1000 species of animals, plants and marine life, as well as occasional sea gypsies. Here you can take a private zodiac cruise to visit the mangroves.

Further south is Shark Island, a secluded natural island perfect for snorkeling, swimming, and relaxing on the white sandy beach. There are a number of beaches and exclusive beach resorts in Myanmar, that offer opportunities to see the rich coral formations and marine life.

Located at the Myanmar-Thailand border, is the charming town of Kawthoung. With strong Indian and Muslim influences, it is a town on a hill where you can walk around and explore within a day. Kawthaung is also the starting point for Myanmar-based cruises to the vast Myeik Archipelago.

My trip to Myanmar was possible through Silverseas Discoverer Andaman Sea Expedition cruise. I was on their inaugural sailing to Myanmar, a country that should be added to your travel bucket list!

There is a Haunted Island in India

As the sun was setting over the Andaman Sea, an old ferry packed with people made the ten minute journey across from Port Blair to Ross Island. Given that no one lived on Ross Island, I was confused why so many people were going there, that too as it was getting dark.
As I approached Ross Island, I saw the Indian tricolor flag waiving through a thick canopy of tall coconut trees. My guide told me about the Japanese bunker off the dock. The island was occupied by the Japanese during World War 2, as they fought against the British.
Soon enough, we were surrounded by wild animals – deer, rabbits, and peacocks, who are the only residents on the island. A lady wearing white salwar kameez (Indian attire) with a bright orange scarf started feeding the deers, addressing them as “Baba Baba…” The deers came running to her as if they heard a familiar voice, and ate sliced bread right from her hands. My guide informed me that this lady goes to Ross Island everyday only to feed the deers, so they are familiar with her. She hands me a piece of bread and asks me to feed the deer. I do as instructed. The deer’s wet lips touch my fingers and soon a group of them surround me.
There is nothing but ruins on Ross Island now, but up until India received it’s independent, it was the Administrative Headquarters of the British East India Company, and a good spot to keep a watchful eye on the Central Jail in Port Blair. Remains of a church, bakery, clubhouse, printing press, water reservoir, etc. can still be seen on the island, mostly covered by overgrown tropical plants and algae. At it’s peak, the British general enjoyed the opulence and pristine environment offered by the island and called it “The Paris of the East.” Now, it looks like a scene from a scary movie.
The island has seen its share of bad fortune as well. In the 1700’s the settlement was nearly wiped out due to high mortality rate, then turned into a hospital, a sanatorium and a penal settlements. And a terrible earthquake shattered all structures in 1941. There was a deadly fire at some point too.
So why were all those people on the ferry going to Ross Island? Though there is not much to see (unless you like a stroll through scary ruins), there is a nicely done sound and light show in the evening that shows the history of the island. Just make sure to bring a flashlight, plenty of mosquito spray, and enjoy the show!
What is scariest place you have ever been to? 

A Fresh Look at The Alcatraz of India

Growing up in northern India, I had some familiarity with Andaman and Nicobar Islands only through my history and geography books. These group of islands are a part of India and located 1200 kilometers south east of the country, almost halfway between Indian and Thailand. Actually, the only other thing we were taught in school about the islands was that it was also called Kaala Pani (meaning black water) or the point of no return. More on that later.
Point is, no one I knew went to the islands. I had never met anyone from there and though I was Indian, I couldn’t have told you 5 facts about the Andaman and Nicobar Islands until recently.
In November 2016, I went on a 11-day “Andaman Sea Expedition” aboard Silver Discoverer, an adventure cruise ship. Departing from Phuket, Thailand, our first port of call was Port Blair, India.
The 36 group of islands have been inhabited by Africans, Asians, Danish, Austrians and the British for the past 60,000 years. They have a population of 450,000, most of whom are Indian descendants of the political prisoners, and refugees from Bangladesh. A few dozen native tribes also remain, and are heavily protected by the Indian government to ensure their survival.
When I arrived in Port Blair, it appeared like any other small city in India. There were crowded streets with people and animals manipulating traffic around bikes, rickshaws, and street hawkers. Shops at Aberdeen Market sold everything from colorful India saris, pearls and gold jewelry, to batteries and cheap tupperware. There was a church, mosque, Hindu and Sikh temples, all within a few blocks from each other. The aroma of Indian spices frying in hot ghee (the process is called tadka), milky spiced chai served in small glasses, made to order dosas (lentil and rice crepes) for $1, and mithai (sweets) shops selling colorful squares and balls made with milk powder, brown sugar and dried fruits…all were too familiar to me.

70 Indian Rupees = 1 USD 
Only if you paid attention to the scenery driving along the Sea Shore Road, you would know that you are on an island surrounded by the Andaman Sea. A canopy of coconut and palm trees marked the coastline against the blue waters. At the Water Sports Complex, there was a small children’s park, swimming pool, water sports center and not much of a beach, though ferries took passengers to other islands which were more apt for leisurely beaching and sunbathing.
The unique thing about Silverseas cruise line is that they offer in-depth itineraries that include culture, history, sightseeing and leisure activities built into the tour costs. There were only 75 passengers on my ship and we were bused off to see the local sights.
 
The main site in Port Blair is Cellular Jail, a solitary confinement prison that was built by and for Indian political prisoners under the rule of British East India Army. The generals decided that this is as far and remote they could send away any individuals threatening to raise their voice for independence from the British and freedom for India. Due to its location and inhospitable environment, it was believed that no prisoner sent to Cellular Jail would ever return alive. This was the Alcatraz of India.
Visiting the jail’s campus felt morbid and emotional. There were names of my forefathers and people from all over India who had sacrificed their lives to make India the largest free democratic country in the world. There were tiny cells with nothing but   bare walls. In the center of the garden was a podium where the prisoners received their punishments, and eventually were hanged. Needless to say, food, healthcare and hygiene were luxuries they were awarded at rare occasions.
It was later discovered that there were two brothers at the jail during the same time, but never saw each other.
The Zonal Anthropological Museum had a good collection of photos of tribal people, depicting their culture, dwelling, clothing, and festivals. The four main tribes in the area had no contact with the outside world (even humans from mainland India) until the 1960s. Even now, visitors to the islands are not allowed to go to the reservations.
After almost 70 years of freedom, Port Blair remains an island populated by forced immigrants and refugees. They look, talk, dress and act like any other mainland Indians, yet many of them carry a sad past in their recently family history, with a reminder in their backyards. For me, Port Blair was not just another port of call, it was an educational journey into my own country’s past, one that’s memory is fading away over the years.
Have you returned to your homeland to discover a part of history that you did not know about? Share your story below in the comments section and inspire our readers….

Go Eat Give Artisan Box – Gifts That Give Back

For the first time, we are offering a curated artisan gift box for this holiday season! Go Eat Give has partnered with GlobeIn, an online marketplace that offers handcrafted products sourced from direct relationships with artisans as well as vetted partner organizations. By buying on GlobeIn, you are supporting artisans from around the world and in developing countries where, after agriculture, artisan goods are the second largest source of employment.

globeinHere is what I have handpicked for the Go Eat Give box…

DIRECT TRADE COFFEE FROM NICARAGUA

A socially responsible dark roast that’s as unique as it is complex. This Direct Trade blend of Nicaragua’s finest estate varietals offers an experience like no other.

Boca Java sources their Nicaraguan single origins coffees via Direct Trade relationship with a family-owned, environmentally-friendly coffee farm that was established in the late 1850’s.

PURE GROUND VANILLA FROM MADAGASCAR

Lafaza’s Pure Ground Vanilla contains only hand-selected Madagascar Bourbon vanilla beans that have been sun-cured and dried to remove nearly all of the moisture in the pod. The beans are then ground to a fine powder and sealed for freshness. Its superior quality and unique flavor makes a convenient and delicious addition to baked goods, spice rubs, coffee, tea, specialty drinks, smoothies, dry mixes and can be used in many recipes as a substitute for vanilla beans or vanilla extract. With no preservatives or additives, this is an all-natural, organic and gluten-free product.

SPOON REST FROM PALESTINE

Add a splash of Middle Eastern flair to your countertop with this hand painted spoon rest from the Palestinian Territories. The ornate floral design is an aesthetic staple of Palestinian heritage.

Hebron is one of the oldest inhabited cities in the world, with archeological finds dating back some 5,000 years. Shards of ancient pottery may even bear floral patterns similar to the classic Palestinian design curling delicately across your new spoon rest. Nour Diba, whose skillful painter’s hand deftly tends to the design’s fine eddies and curves, is an employee of Hebron Glass, a family company of glass and ceramic handicraft employing 60 artisans.

ORGANIC LEMONGRASS LIP BALM FROM ZAMBIA

Ingredients: organic beeswax, organic coconut oil, organic sunflower oil, organic jojoba oil, lanolin, organic lemongrass oil, organic peppermint oil, organic rosemary oil, vitamin E.

As a company, Zambeezi is committed to providing the people of Africa’s pristine subtropical forests sources of income other than timber and strip mining, sources more sustainable for people and land alike.

KITCHEN TOWEL FROM TURKEY

This 100% cotton towel absorbs water faster than a regular towel, dries quickly, and folds up small–perfect for drying dishes in your kitchen. Plus, it has tassels!

Hatch, a rare female who has mastered the craft of weaving (traditionally done by men) is a member of Atlas, a growing organization of weaving families in Buldan. Membership with Atlas enables weavers to earn a living while keeping a deep cultural tradition alive and sharing it with the world—and with your kitchen!

HANDWOVEN BASKET FROM MEXICO

These decorative and whimsical baskets make beautiful home storage options, lending a pop of color and handcrafted warmth to children’s bedrooms, bathroom storage, kitchen countertops or as gift packaging for loved ones. Baskets measure 6″ diameter x 5″ tall.

For the people of the Mixteca region of Mexico, basket-weaving is a way of life that also sustains life. On the outskirts of Oaxaca City, Doña Martina Garcia and her group of eight artisan basket weavers produce roughly 700 baskets per month. For each artisan involved, basket-weaving means a stable monthly income used for building a house, starting a small business, or purchasing food and medicine.

Get the Go Eat Give curated artisan box for only $50 inclusive of shipping within U.S. through GlobeIn. It makes for a great hostess gift, a special treat for someone who likes to cook or travel, and the best part is, you will be supporting 6 families around the world by purchasing this box.

You can also gift someone a monthly subscription to GlobeIn, through which they will receive a new theme box each month! Subscriptions cost $35-40/ month.

Santa, Sleighs and Igloos in Finland

Do you believe in Santa Claus? What if I told you that the letters you address to “The North Pole” actually make it to a small town in Finland, where Santa and his helpers sit at their desks and read each and every letter? You probably won’t believe me, thinking it was a made up kids story. But really, it is actually true and I have seen it with my very own eyes!

I flew to a city called Ivalo, in northern Finland, located inside the Arctic Circle. Even in April, there was snow as far as my eyes could see. Reindeers appeared wandering around the alpine forests, as I took a 30-minute shuttle ride to Kakslauttanen Arctic Resort in Lapland.

Most people say they have never heard of Lapland, until I mention the “igloo hotel.” The iconic photo of a village dotted with glass igloos glowing against the twilight sky in wintery wonderland, has appeared across many social media posts. I had only dreamt of going there myself someday, and here I was.

igloo resort finlandThe shuttle dropped off the passengers at a log cabin used as the reception area. We fetched our keys and were told to use the sleighs kept outside to carry our luggage to our respective cabin rooms or igloos.

While it was snowing heavily outside and temperatures dipped under 30F (“unusually warm for this time of the year” they informed me), I dragged my wooden sleigh to my cabin.

laplandThere are three kinds of rooms at the resort. The first and most popular are the glass igloos, available in two sizes – sleeps 2 (with toilet, no shower) or 4 people (with shower and toilet). The igloos have limited space to store luggage and almost no privacy, since they are made entirely of glass. Though you have to walk through the snowy cold weather to get to the igloo, once inside, it is nice and toasty.

The second option is to get a log cabin. Here, you can get a very comfortable king size bed, kitchenette, breakfast area, as well as a personal sauna. Now, that’s luxury! For those who cannot decide between the igloo or the cabin, there is the Kelo Glass Igloo, which combines a cabin with an igloo, so you get the best of both worlds. Store your luggage in the cabin, enjoy a nice hot sauna, and sleep in the igloo at night.

kakslauttanen_kelo-glass_igloo_rgbPicture yourself lying in bed, looking at the sky, while the Aurora Lights dance around in their green, orange and red hues. That is the main reason to come here. In Lapland, you can see northern lights almost every night from August-April, in their full splendor. The resort also offers activities “Aurora Hunting” on snow mobiles or reindeer sleighs.

During the day, guests can enjoy winter sports such as cross country skiing, dog sledding, hiking, riding snow mobiles, and more.

dsc06915For lunch, there is always all-you-can-eat soup (two choices) and homemade breads. Dinner at the restaurant is also quite good. The menu features local ingredients and Lappish dishes, such as reindeer stew, Alaskan crab, grilled salmon, and stewed cloudberries.

reindeer & salmon

The resort is actually quite large and worth exploring for a few hours. First, you want to visit Santa’s house. Here, resident Mr and Mrs Claus live, meet guests and participate in activities through the season. The Celebration House is where Santa throws elaborate parties. It is also used for weddings and events. There are other small workshops, an ice chapel, and of course, the local wildlife. Couple of dozen reindeers live on the property.

Kakslauttanen Arctic Resort is one of it’s kind. It was started by a visionary, Jussi Eiramo. While on vacation, he discovered this patch of beautiful area where he could camp and see the Northern Lights almost every night of the year. So, he opened a souvenir shop about 40 years ago, then made ice igloos for people to stay at, and later designed the first glass igloos using unique Finnish technology.

Today, Kakslauttanen Arctic Resort is a bucket list destination for those who seek adventure, romance and off the beaten path travel. It is a place where families flock to in the winter to celebrate the holiday season, party with Santa, and enjoy the essence of the North Pole.