Fly to Africa in Comfort and Get Access to the Best Airport Lounge

Which airline would you pick for a long haul flight to Africa? Last month, I flew business class on Turkish Airlines (TA) from Atlanta to Tanzania and returned via Kenya (Thank you TA for the free upgrade!). This was my first time flying business on TA. Here’s what I experienced…

Seats

There are 28 seats in business arranged in 2-2-2 configuration. Each seat is quite spacious covering almost 3 windows to a person. There’s enough leg room to do yoga in your space! The seats recline 180 degrees to become a comfortable flatbed fitted with a thin mattress, pillow and comforter arranged by the flight attendant when ready to rest. There is also a chair massage setting, though you can barely feel it vibrate.

A bin in front of the seat made it convenient to store purse and shoes.

Amenities

From Atlanta – Istanbul, I was given a Bentley amenity kit with the basics (socks, eye mask, dental, lip balm, masculine scented lotion), from Istanbul – Dar, Cerruti toiletries, and during the return, a Furla kit. Pretty inconsistent with branding partners.

I did like how slippers were presented in a cloth bag (to store your shoes as well) and there was a note about how in Turkish hospitality you take off your shoes when you enter a home.

Food

One of the ways TA distinguishes itself from other airlines is by its cuisine. There was a chef on board who took orders and added finishing touches to the dishes.

The bar is in front of the seats in business class cabin, thought not always manned. Welcome drinks were non alcoholic (fresh lemonade and orange juices), while pre dinner drinks were offered a long time after takeoff. A variety of tea’s are also offered to help with jet lag, bloating and stress.

There were no Turkish food options available on Atlanta – Istanbul and Istanbul – Dar legs. Plenty of American and Italian choices, with the same 3 veggies popping up in every course. I had a healthy grilled shrimp and veggies salad and very dry and flavorless swordfish with Tuscan vegetables for dinner. The dessert tray was a huge contrast. There was chocolate mousse, lava cake, hazelnuts chocolate tart, cheese and fruit trays. I was tempted to taste them all, and they were delicious!

Food was generally well presented on a tray with white table cloth and a fake candle that looked like a Turkish lantern. It was nice touch to place the candles as nightlight when everyone had fallen asleep after dinner.

We gave our breakfast orders as soon as boarded and were served before landing in Istanbul. I had sliced fruit, room temperature coffee, tart mango juice, greasy croissants, and a rubbery feta cheese omelette. Yilmaz, the chef noticed that I did not care much for the food. He told me that they did not have a Turkish chef in Atlanta, which is why they weren’t able to offer any Turkish cuisine. (TA has not been able to find a good chef in the 18 months it has operated in ATL?)

The dining experience on the 7-hour Istanbul – Dar Es Salaam leg was no different. This time, there was a small Turkish salad with olives and cheese, grilled vegetable salad (tomatoes, eggplants, mozzarella), and entree of a tangy vegetable casserole (exact same veggies).

Snacks were generally a cheese sandwich (quality may vary) and sour cherry cake (TA does a good job with desserts).

On my return from Nairobi, the food and service were much better. Breakfast had fresh baked breads, olives and assorted cheeses. The sandwich had fresh slices of lettuce, green bell pepper and feta.

The Istanbul – Atlanta flight was perhaps the best one out of all four that I flew over a period of 3 weeks. An appetizer cart presented soup, salad, seafood and Turkish meze, along with warm simit bread. I enjoyed the lunch of eggplant, tabbouleh and beef wrap, and dinner of chicken brochette with spinach and rice with a glass of red wine. The seabass in parchment was well presented but the fish was thick and dry. I picked a slice of tiramisu for my dessert this time, which was amazing.

Entertainment

Business class seats are equipped with large screen TV’s and passengers are provided Denon noise cancelling headsets which are collected 30 minutes before landing. Movie and TV selection is decent, with Hollywood, Turkish and world movies. Having a remote with built in screen makes it much easier to browse than touching the screen (which is 2 feet away).

Turkish-American celebrity, Dr Mehmet Oz partnered with TA to talk about how to stay healthy on a flight. He says to “drink a lot of water and stay away from alcohol” in one of his videos. I found it rather difficult to get water on TA though. They ran out of water bottles on one of the flights (though business class was only half full) and I had to ask the flight attendant for a refill in my tiny glass every 30 minutes (on a 13 hour flight).

Free WiFi on board was a great feature, especially for the long haul flight. I was easily able to log in and had pretty good speed during my ATL-IST-ATL legs. There are USB chargers at each seat, though they don’t always work. I had to try 3 seats in business before I found a place to charge my phone.

Service

Service was rather mixed across board. The attendants at Atlanta airport were nonchalant, and the attendants on board addressed me as “lady.”I thought it was imperative to get to know the last names of passengers in business class, but that wasn’t the case 🙁 Only the Istanbul – Atlanta flight attendants (all women) regularly smiled and addressed me by name.

Wheelchair passengers may not find it convenient to fly TA as they have to get on and off the flight using outdoors staircases on the tarmac and get into a bus to reach the terminal in Istanbul. There is no separate entry/ early boarding for business class passengers and I did not see assistance for children, heavy bags or people who can’t climb a lot of steps.

Lounge

The highlight of traveling TA is their lounge at Istanbul airport (it deserves a separate post). This may be the best airport lounge I have seen! Two floors of comfortable seating, endless dining options, free flowing liquors, multiple coffee shops, a movie theater, library, kids play area, games and much more. I scanned my boarding pass to get in the lounge, stored my bag in the free locker, and took a hot shower in private bathrooms equipped with bathrobes, towels and soaps.

Then I scanned the 10 or so food stations to see what I was in mood for – Thai, pasta, meze, Turkish pizza, fresh fruits, pastries, Middle Eastern sweets? Too many choices and everything looked delicious!

A part of the lounge looked like a solarium with lots of greenery, sunlight pouring in and a piano. There was free wi-fi to catch up with emails, while sipping on made to order cappuccino.

TA lounge in Nairobi was pretty small and located at the end of the terminal that looked like a warehouse space. The interior was modern with wooden beams and old fashioned green couches. There was only one shower with no amenities, a prayer/ ablution room and a quiet room for people to sleep (in chairs). Attendants were not friendly at this lounge (perhaps they didn’t speak English) and the food was mostly American breakfast fare (pancakes, sausages, eggs, etc). American music played in the background and sports on TV. Barring the TA sign, nothing in the lounge indicated that there was any Turkish affiliation.

Have you flown on Turkish Airlines? What was your experience like? Share it with our readers in the comments section below…

Get Lucky! Have the Most Amazing Safari Experience

Are you addicted to those National Geographic documentaries on Wild Africa where they show lions hunting down a buffalo or thousands of wildebeests migrating across the Serengeti? I have probably exhausted the entire selection on big cats and wildlife shows found on Netflix. So, when I planned my trip to Masai Mara in Kenya with The Village Experience, I was very excited to get up close to the animals, this time in reality.

What I didn’t know was that I would be so, so close! And there would be animals everywhere! We (meaning my guide and I) really didn’t have to drive around looking for them. From the moment we were driving on the highway close to Lake Naivasha, I saw zebras running around. Over the next 24 hours, I saw 70 lions, 3 cheetahs, 1 leopard, and thousands of giraffes, zebras, elephants, wildebeests, impalas, gazelles, hippos, and buffalos!

Some people may think that this is an everyday sighting at a game drive in Kenya. But in fact, I was truly lucky. A few of my friends have been on safaris 4, 10, even dozens of times, and seen only a fraction of what I saw! Some of it may just be luck, choice of season, or my wonderful presence, but there are things you can do in advance to have an amazing African safari experience.

Stay close to the reserve

There are all kinds of tented camp accommodations around the animal reserves, some offer more luxury than others. My lodging at Sekenani Camp were comfortable and luxurious. I had hardwood floors, a deck overlooking a creek and a en suite bath tub with hot shower. I could hear hyenas, lions and birds from my bed all through the night! Don’t worry, there is always a security guard who accompanies you from your tent to the restaurant and around the property so you never walk alone at night.

Sekanani Camp was a 20 minutes drive from the Masai Mara park’s entrance. Being so close to wilderness meant, we really didn’t have to go very far to spot the animals. Zebras and giraffes were roaming right outside our camp.

Hire an experienced guide

I cannot emphasize enough how much a good driver and guide can make or break your safari experience. My guide, Danson Kahuria, was born and brought up near Masai Mara so he was quite familiar with the territory. He had also gone to college to learn about birds and animals, and conducts workshops of other guides.

Danson had a keen sense for knowing where the animals would be and how they typically behave. He could predict when a lion cub was about to yawn, which direction a leopard would walk towards, and which animal a cheetah was about to hunt down. As a result, I got to saw the big cats in action – eating, sleeping, mating, hunting – all in just a few hours!

A good guide will also maneuver the car (following park guidelines) in such a way that you can get the best photo opportunities! Since Danson knew which was the animals were going to turn, we were always ahead of their game.

Have some patience

If you have limited days, (I only had one) it is best to leave early morning for a game drive and plan to stay till sunset. Animals behave differently at different times of the day, so you want to be able to see their moods. My advise is to wear comfortable clothing, carry sunscreen, bug spray, a light jacket and lots of snacks and water for the day. I have heard stories of people going in a group and one of them was hungry so they left the park after a couple of hours. Remember you have to pay hefty entrance fees ($80-200/ person) so make the most out of it! Also, pack lots of extra batteries and memory cards. I took 500 photos and videos in less then a day!

Depending on your vehicle, you may have open roof or sides, to allow good viewing. But it also means more sun, heat and bugs, so be prepared.

Sunsets in the mara are spectacular. Don’t miss it.

Respect the animals

Remember, you are in the habitat of wild animals. Take every precaution to respect that by not getting out of your vehicle, feeding them or attracting their attention. Some people get excited and want to get closer, but park rangers are always secretly watching and will fine you if you get off the marked trails. Also, please do not litter the park.

An African safari is a bucket list for most people. If you get a chance to be one of the lucky ones to see wild animals in their natural habitat, do it right the first time!

Most Delicious Things to Eat in Ireland Right Now

Prior to visiting Ireland this summer, I had very little knowledge about Irish cuisine. The handful of Irish restaurants in Atlanta are known for their pub style atmosphere serving burgers, fried foods, potatoes and lots of beer. Though that is an integral part of the Irish culture, modern Irish cuisine has evolved quite a bit in the past couple of decades.

Over tea at the Burren Perfumerie, my new friends Birgitta Curtin (proprietor of Burrren Smokehouse, Roadside Tavern and speaker on Irish cuisine) and Sadie Chowen Doyle (perfume maker and owner at Burren Perfumerie) informed me that they have witnessed the evolution of Irish cuisine during their life in the Burren. “Just 10 years ago, the only cheese they could buy was imported from other parts of Europe. Now, there are so many cheese makers in Ireland and our cheese is so good!” says Doyle.

Ballycotton hake with mussels at Ballymaloe House

Back when resources were scant, hearty stews and meat pies went a long way to fill the family. But now, Ireland has progressed a lot as a nation. Tourism sector has expanded, trade is thriving and many Irish people earn a decent living.

Couple that with artisanal producers, innovative chefs, and world-class ingredients, you have the perfect recipe to create amazing food.

Fresh and Organic Ingredients

Practically every restaurant I went to in Ireland featured only fresh ingredients, many of them sourced from their own farms. Homemade Irish soda bread, Jersey cow butter, raspberry jam, honeycomb ice cream, dexter beef, curried parsnips, fresh beet salad…the list goes on!

Curtin smokes salmon from the northwest part of Ireland, which is organic and sustainable. Each fish is spaced out in clean waters and fed natural foods, so the salmon has three times more Omega 3 Fatty Acids than any other salmon. Her hot and cold smoked salmon can be found at many restaurants across the country and shipped all over the world. Of course, I tasted it throughout my trip!

Smoked salmon for breakfast at Park Hotel Kenmare

Other local seafood includes oysters, mussels, hand-dived scallops and hake. Most of the fish is caught that morning and served to the guests on the same day.

Local But International 

A common theme across my three dozen meals was internationally inspired recipes cooked with local Irish ingredients. French and Italian cooking techniques were used the most, offering homemade pasta, risotto, terrines, puff pastry and decadent cakes and tarts.

Barley and mushroom risotto at No 1 Perry Square
Banana, pecan and date pudding with fig ice cream at The Mews in Kenmare
Saffron and smoked knockanore herb cheese risotto at The Ice House

Michelin Star Dining

Ireland has over a dozen Michelin star restaurants. I ate at two former winners – Ballymaloe House in Shanagarry and Dromoland castle near Shannon. At both places, I met people who had come from all over Ireland just to eat at the restaurants. Set in idyllic atmosphere, offering personal service and mouth watering dishes, these were a rare treat!

Flourless chocolate cake at Earl of Thomond
Carrageen seaweed pudding at Ballymaloe House

Cooking Schools

The Ballymaloe Cookery School located on a 100 acre organic farm in County Cork is one of the most recognized cooking schools in Europe offering 3-month long residential programs. One can stay in the charming countryside and learn to cook Irish and international cuisines using farm ingredients. Students go beyond the kitchen to help milk cows, make yogurt, gather eggs, and tend to herb and vegetable gardens. The Belle Isle Cookery School  at Belle Isle Estate complete with 17th century castle on the shores of Lough Erne in County Fermanagh is another popular cooking school.

Greenhouse of Ballymaloe Cookery School

Fine Spirits Too

The Irish love their drinks. From triple distilled smooth whiskey to craft beers and homemade liquors, there was no shortage of spirits at every meal. As a good tourist, I took tours of the Guinness Storehouse and Jameson factory. I discovered that many French wines such as Château Lynch-Bages and Château Léoville-Barton are made by Irish descendants.

House brews at the Burren Storehouse

Good Food Everywhere

You don’t have to go to fancy restaurant in Ireland to taste good quality food, which can be quite expensive. Even roadside fish shacks, food courts and all-day cafes serve excellent dishes made fresh daily. The English Market Cafe in Cork City and O’Connors bar in the Ring of Beara were couple of my favorites.

Fish & chips at Skinny’s Diner

Have a favorite Irish dish or restaurant to recommend? Leave your comments below…

Show Up at a Destination Without Lost Luggage

Have you ever arrived at your destination and discovered that your luggage never made it? Travel can be stressful as it is, and if your belongings don’t show up with you, it adds to the stress. Though sometimes things may be beyond your control, you can take these precautions to avoid lost luggage on your next trip and know exactly what to do in case you do encounter such as situation.

Pack a Carry On

Though you may want to travel light, I firmly suggest a small backpack to hold valuables, such as passport, money, jewelry, camera, tickets, credit cards, copy of itineraries and important documents. Many hotels require you to show a passport to check in, so if you lose your bag you may not be able to get a room. I also keep a copy of the documents (passport, drivers license, itinerary, tickets, etc.) on my phone and laptop (backed by Evernote) in case I lose my backpack.

Additionally, keep a change of clothes and medications. One time I flew to Omaha for business and my luggage did not arrive till the next day. I had to sleep in the oversized Delta branded t-shirt and go in to work wearing jeans, t-shirt and sneakers. Looking back, it would have been nice to pack clean underwear, slacks and dress shirt in my day bag.

Track Your Bags

Left your purse in the bathroom or a laptop in the sleeve of your airplane seat? I am guilty of it. Many of new luggage brands have built in tracking devices. I attach a Homing Pin ($10) on to my laptop, backpack and check in suitcase. That way, I can track your lost bags even if they weren’t lost by an airline and have them delivered to me for a small fee.

Check In On Time

Also, make sure to check in at least 1 hour before departure to give the airline enough time to load your luggage on to the aircraft. Take a photo of the bag, note its weight and contents before handing it over to the airline agent. Save the luggage tag carefully as it is the only numbers you will be able to use to communicate with the airline about lost or delayed luggage. On one instance, my luggage did not arrive to India for 10 days and Air France could not track it. Apparently, it was lost at Sharles de Gaulle airport along with 80,000 bags during a snow storm. I had to give detailed descriptions of the contents in my check in for the airline to reimburse.

Be Smart About Booking Tickets

As a rule, if I have more than 1 flight changes or less than 1 hour between flights, I do not check in any bags. The chances of losing a bag goes up significantly if there are multiple carriers involved or if they don’t have enough time to move them between connections. You really can’t blame the airline for this. Often times, busy airports require loading up to 200 bags per aircraft in just a few minutes.

Have you gotten a good deal from another city and then bought a connecting flight on another ticket? Even though both the airlines may share systems (Skyteam, One World, etc.) they don’t necessarily talk to each other. On a recent trip to Japan, I traveled on Delta from ATL-LAX, got out to get my luggage and rechecked it at China Souther for LAX-TOK. Though it is inconvenient, it ensured that I got a luggage tag from the last carrier and if anything were to happen, I will not be shuffled back and forth between Delta and China Souther to find out who made the goof up. With connections, try to book all legs on one ticket.

Report Immediately 

In case of lost or damaged bags, report immediately to the Baggage Claim Customer Service of the airline you flew and don’t leave the airport without addressing the matter. After a one hour flight from EDI-SHN on Aer Lingus, I found the handle of my checked in bag was completely broken. It was clear that it had been mishandled. I went to the customer service counter of Aer Lingus in the baggage claim area and reported it. At first, they told me that “wheels and handles are not covered” but I stood my ground and refused to leave unless a solution was found. I was heading off on a 12-day trip around Ireland with a broken bag. The agent went to the back room and gave me a brand new American Tourister of about the same size for no charge.

Get Insured

If you paid a baggage fee (for checked bags) the airline is required to issue you a refund when your bag does not arrive with you. Your luggage is considered lost only after 21 days. The airline may reimburse you for the contents and the expenses occurred during the delays, but don’t expect too much (average comp $100/ day). It is better to have a back up travel insurance such as Allianz Global Assistance. An Annual Deluxe Plan costs $350 and reimburses up to $1000 for Baggage Loss/Damage and $200 for Baggage Delays. 

This is the suitcase I carry when I travel. It is easy to identify at the luggage carousel, hotels and especially when traveling with groups. Get your own personalized luggage on UGO Bags. Use discount code “sucheta20” to receive 20% off until November 15, 2017.

The Most Adventurous Things to Do in Iceland

Is watching the northern lights on your bucket list? The dazzling aurora borealis can been seen over Iceland practically every night from October to March. With cheap flights on Iceland Air and Wow Air, now is the time to start planning aurora hunting tours to Iceland.

Most airlines offer free stopovers in Iceland’s capital, Reykjavik, which gives enough time to enjoy the lights. If you want to see a good bit of the island, I recommend spending 1-2 weeks exploring the different regions. I rented a car and drove around the western and southern parts of the island for about 10 days. Driving is easy as the roads are well kept and not very crowded. It also allows you to pace your journey and make frequent photo stops. Guide to Iceland offers a list of self-drive and bus tours that include hotels, car rental and destination guides.

Discovering the diverse scenery that changes from icebergs and black beaches to mossy fields and snow covered lava were some of my highlights of my trip.

Here are ten of my best adventures in Iceland:

Photo by Iceland Tourism

Aurora Hunting

The capital and largest city in Iceland is a fun place, especially during the night. Explore the museums, cobblestone streets, art galleries and cafes. Have a romantic dinner at Fiskfelagid, a cave style upscale restaurant that serves a globally inspired menu, and watch the magnificent star studded sky with dancing green and orange northern lights right in the city!

Reykjavik has great nightlife, but plan to arrive at the club after midnight as locals generally party into the wee hours of the morning.

Floating in the Blue Lagoon

Put on a silica mud mask and soak in the healing warm waters of the Blue Lagoon. The geothermal spa is located very close to the international airport and is a good place to stop as soon as your arrive and just before you leave Iceland. Make sure to book your tickets beforehand and plan to spend a couple of hours here.

Not Jumping on Moss

From Reykjavik, I took a small plane to Höfn on the southern coast and started my road trip. The Golden Circle route is perhaps the most visited part of Iceland. If you have a limited time in the country, there are three spots you must see. These includes Þingvellir National Park, the geothermal valley of spouting geysers at Haukadalur, and the magnificent Gullfoss Waterfall.

Þingvellir National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage site, is a good place to dive into the geologic history of this volcanic island. Get out of the car and see the moss-covered fields, but please don’t jump on it like Justin Bieber did!

Horseback (Pony) Riding in the Countryside

Take a scenic horseback ride on pony-sized Icelandic horses. Two designated horse trails run through the national park. These pretty horses are the only horse that can tölt, while other horses walk, trot, canter and gallop. Tölt is a four-beat gait where at least one foot is on the ground at any time, so there is no period of suspension. (I had to look that up).

Standing in Between Continents

Walk between continents at Leif the Lucky bridge, which crosses one of the rifts created by the mid-Atlantic ridge. It is noted that the mid-Atlantic ridge is pulling apart North America and Europe by 2.5 centimeters each year. Black lava surrounds the 50-foot bridge and you can stand at the so-called midpoint for a photo op.

Boating Along Glaciers

Take a boat trip on the Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon. At first, the majestic icebergs floating gently appear eerily still. When I parked my car, there was not a person in sight, just me and the glaciers, in total silence. The Zodiac tours offer an opportunity to get close to the blue ice. You may even get lucky and spot some seals.

Black Beaching

A small fishing village, Vík í Mýrdal (aka Vik), is home to the black beach Reynisfjara along windy Atlantic coastlines. This is no tropical sun tanning beach. Watch for basalt columns jetting out of the oceans, nesting sea gulls, puffins, fulmars, guillemots, and of course, dangerous waves.

Hiking a Glacier

For some real adrenaline, hike, walk, climb or snow mobile on one of the volcanic glaciers around Iceland. This is where you can see the real “Fire and Ice” magic playing out. I took a relatively easy walk at Skaftafell Glacier, though still had to watch out for hundreds of feet deep crevasses!

Climbing Waterfalls

Iceland is a country of waterfalls and I visited many of them. Plan your trip to include as many as you can see. Though some of them may be caked in ice during winter, each of the waterfalls has a different backdrop, height, flow and color. The most popular one is Gullfoss also known as ‘The Golden Waterfall’ as it has a majestic 32 meter drop into Hvíta glacier river.

Smelling Sulphur

Watch colorful mud pools, crater lakes and Sulphur deposits at Krysuvik-seltun hot springs, formed by volcanic eruptions. There are marked walking routes, though you may not be able to stand the strong smell for very long.

Do you have a favorite place in Iceland? Please share with our readers in the comments section below…

My Mountain Hermit Training in Japan

Read part 1 On My Way For Yamabushi Training

I survived! I am officially one of the first few non Japanese speakers in the world to have received Yamabushi mountain hermit training. It was a wonderful experience and I feel stronger, accomplished and that I have spiritually grown to another level.

The 5-day program designed by Megurun Inc. is the first of its kind. Yamabushi training has been offered to the Japanese people for hundreds of years. In fact, many people take solitary retreats in the mountains and its popular among older Japanese men to embark on Yamabushi getaways every now and then. But these are generally 3-day programs where large groups of people undergo the training with minimal interaction with the master. They are expected to ‘just experience’ as they push their physical and emotional boundaries.

In my case, there were only 2 people in the program, which was led by Master Tak who is fluent in English and Japanese. He described the process in great detail and guided us through the journey. Tak-San was a business professional who moved to the area to seek solace. After years of practice, he is now a Master Yamabushi and trains others.

On the first day, we stayed at a modest hotel in the city of Shonai, which was crowded with local tourists who had come to worship at the three sacred mountains of Deva. Located in the Yamagata prefecture of northern Japan, the area is known as “hidden Japan” as it is relatively cut off from other cities and not many foreign visitors go there.

This day was intended to disconnect from daily life, prepare for shugo (the training) and embrace Japanese culture.

We spent most of the day at a Zen temple with a Buddhist monk. He showed us their way of life, which included proper posture for sitting on the floor in lotus position, focusing one’s attention to meditate, and sharing their humble lunch. We got to see where the resident monks eat, pray and sleep on tatami mats. We also witnessed a prayer ceremony where the monks played drums, chanted the sutras and blessed us for our journey.

Then we had a calligraphy master, Mayumi Honma, teach us how to write ‘Uketamō’ in Japanese. This phrase is very important as it is the only word we are allowed to speak during Yamabushidō. It means, “I humbly accept with an open heart” and is a readily used response to everything the master instructs us to do (as we would say OK in English).

Calligraphy is an ancient Japanese art of writing, but it is much more than that in the spiritual sense. To do it well, you have to have a lot of focus and a steady hand. You have to be silent and be in the moment. Using a brush and ink, there is no way to go back and erase mistakes. You have to start all over.

For dinner, we went to a farm-to-table family-run restaurant where we tasted local specialities, including dadachamame (indigenous edamame) grown only in this area.

The next morning we transferred our bags to Daishobo, a pilgrimage lodge at the base of Mount Gassan. At one time, there were almost 300 pilgrimage lodges in the area, but now the number is reduce to less than 30. The lodges were family-run not-for-profit businesses, but the new generations don’t want the upkeep.

Daishobo is also home to Master Hashino, a 13th generation Yamabushi, who designed my program. He is in his 70’s now and worked in civil services professionally, and has been a Yamabushi for over 40 years. He still climbs mountains on a regular basis!

The lodge was basic – 2 floors with open rooms that can accommodate up to 35 people. The women stayed upstairs and the men downstairs. Meals, chanting, meditation and orientation were also held downstairs. Basically, not much privacy which is how Japanese people traditionally travel. You just find a spot on the floor to put your bedding down and sleep there.

There were male and female toilets outside the main house. We weren’t allowed to take showers during the program.

During this time, we had an impeding typhoon headed towards Shonai. Typhoons can bring a lot of rain and strong winds (similar to tornadoes). Being an unseasoned hiker, I was already nervous about the steep hikes we were going to do and started feeling more anxious. Tak-San remained calm and said he was closely monitoring the weather. We would still hike in the rain, but will change our route if we were in the eye of the typhoon. At that time, I reconsidered what I had signed up for.

Click here to read what happened next…

Review of Air Canada

Recently, I got a chance to fly on Air Canada, one of the largest airlines in North America. I took two flights making my way from Atlanta – Toronto – Tokyo and back. Fortunately, I was upgraded to business class (thanks to Air Canada’s PR!) which made the 24-hour long journey relatively easier to get through. Here is my unbiased review.

Planes

The E175 plane between ATL-YYK was very old, with 1-2 configuration, small seats even in business class, and outdated TV screen (ones where you see a mouse pointer and a rotating wheel each time you select a tab).

Between YYK-HND, the Boeing 777-300ER plane was newer and more spacious, with a total of 40 seats, spread across two cabins.

International Business Class cabins had a 1-2-1 configuration, each of the Executive Pod seats equipped with 18″ touch flat screen TV’s and flat beds. The firmness of the mattress on the chair could be adjusted using a touch screen comfort system, though I could not feel the difference. There was also a chair massage but I could barely feel it vibrating. The pillow and comforter were quite comfortable for a good night’s rest. There was also an adjustable armrest and a foldable tray table.

Air Canada provided a Canadian-brand Escents Aromatherapy amenities kit for business class passengers with just the basics – socks, toothbrush, ear plugs, lip balm.

The business class cabin had a total of three restrooms, including two between business class cabins, and one at the very front. The restrooms were standard size, and didn’t have especially nice finishes or amenities.

Timeliness

3 out of my 4 flights were delayed by at least half hour. One of the flights was related to a typhoon in Japan, others did not have an explanation.

Entertainment

Noise cancelling headphones were given to the passengers in business class cabin. The selection of movies and TV shows included French, English, Japanese and Hindi, though not as many as I have seen in some of the other airlines. I had seen most of the new releases two months ago on Delta. Also, the ‘search by category’ was rather funky, resulting in English movies when I selected Hindi language.

A selection of premium newspapers, including route-specific titles were offered before takeoff.

Each seat had a personal power supply and USB port for charging electronic devices. It’s always great to arrive at your destination with your cell phone fully charged. There was no Wi-Fi on any of the planes.

Duty-free selections could be accessed from the screen monitors as well as the inflight magazine. Most products were standard, with nothing new or exciting.

Food

The food on board was quite good on Air Canada. Drinks and salted nuts were offered soon after takeoff, though a generous pour of champagne was served in a regular glass.

Meals were served 60-90 minutes after takeoff. For lunch, I had a fresh mixed greens salad, poached tiger prawns with marinated artichokes, grilled eggplant and zucchini lasagna, cheese tray and a decadent dark chocolate fondant with hazelnut praline and cherry compote. This was the best dessert I have eaten in air!

Plentiful snacks were stocked in the galley for between meals, and water bottles were passed out at regular intervals. Since I was flying between Canada and Japan, there were Japanese menu options also including dim sum, noodle soups, congee, chicken teriyaki wrap and yakitori chicken.

The menus on Air Canada are created by celebrated Canadian Chef David Hawksworth.

Service

I have mixed feelings about the service provided by Air Canada. Only on one of the flights, the cabin attendant introduce himself before takeoff and asked for my order. At other times, nobody bothered to even bring a welcome drink before takeoff. Service during the flight was courteous and to the point. I didn’t feel like anyone went out of their way to make me feel special.

The on-ground staff was a bit more courteous and smiling.

Prior to landing, the flight attendant passed out enveloped asking for donations of left over currency for the The Air Canada Foundation, a registered charity focused on the health and well-being of children and youth. I thought this was a great idea since I hate bringing back foreign currency coins, which I eventually lose or never use again.

Lounge

I visited Air Canada’s Maple Leaf Lounge in Toronto on a Friday evening. Though parts of the airport are quite modern, the lounge looked outdated with uncomfortable brown and blue leather chairs and dirty tables. Limited food and drinks were offered to guests. At dinner time, there was only mac n cheese, nachos and salads. They did have kids play room, a loud entertainment room, and a business area. I was also able to use complimentary shower facilities where they provided a towel, but no toiletries. Also, there is no place to hang your clothes in the shower rooms so leave your jackets outside.

Air Canada is Canada’s largest airline and the largest provider of scheduled passenger services in the Canadian market, the Canada-U.S. trans-border market and in the international market to and from Canada. Air Canada is among the 20 largest airlines in the world and employs 30,000 people. Its corporate headquarters are in Montreal, and four major hubs are Toronto (YYZ), Montreal (YUL), Vancouver (YVR) and Calgary (YYC).

In my opinion, Air Canada can be best described as ‘safe, reliable and no frills’ airline that prioritizes serving the people, environment and community.

On My Way For Yamabushi Training

Here I am, headed to Japan for a 5-day Yamabushi Training program! Until a few weeks ago, I did not even know what Yamabushi was about. But an email that landed in my inbox convinced me to go check it out.

Yamabushi are Japanese mountain ascetic hermits who, according to a traditional Japanese mysticism, are believed to be endowed with supernatural powers. They have also served as sendatsu, or spiritual mountain guides, since medieval times for pilgrims. In other words, they are like Native Americans. They often live in the forest, hike for days, eat what they can find, all to connect with nature. Their practice, known as Shugendō, evolved during the 7th century from an amalgamation of beliefs, philosophies, doctrines and ritual systems drawn from local folk-religious practices, pre-Buddhist mountain worship, Shinto, Taoism and esoteric Buddhism.

The practice is no longer limited to hermits. Many Japanese people are taking a break from their busy city lives to go to the countryside and connect with nature. Therefore, Yamabushi training programs for Japanese people has become quite popular. But very few, if any, training programs are offered to non-Japanese visitors. I will be one of the first foreign visitors to experience a 5-day program under the guidance of a 13th generation Yamabushi master. Yamabushido is based in the sacred mountains of Dewa Senzan in Yamagata prefecture, an hour flight north of Tokyo.

I Skyped with Tak (Takeharu Kato) and Kanae Soma (owner of Megurun Inc.) in Japan, to better understand what I was signing up for. “We realized that many people have tried meditation and other mindfulness practices in their lives, but also realized that Yamabushi practices offer something different, something more powerful, and something which – although it has been practiced for 1,300 years has never been more relevant. Yamabushi training is the simple philosophy of placing yourself in nature and feeling, not thinking, to rejuvenate back to your true self. Yamabushi training is quick, practical, and effective, and provides a powerful context in which to resolve any challenges, questions, or decisions that need to be made. It has been used for centuries to provide space for consideration of the challenges of the modern-day person, an important role in the current age where people are becoming busier and busier and are looking for the chance to revitalize.”

Sounds great doesn’t it? I am totally in for a spiritual retreat that involves connecting with my true self, but wait, there’s more…

Soon after, I received a list of guidelines and checklist to prepare for arrival. In it was a fair warning. “Yamabushi undertake training in harsh alpine conditions including hiking through bush, over streams and waterfalls, up rocks, ladders and stone steps, which can include walking more than 10km for the basic course, or 15km for the extended course per day. In addition, your Yamabushidō experience will likely include hiking during the nighttime, meditating under ice cold waterfalls, jumping over fire, and being enclosed in a smoky room.”

Ok now I am not so sure!  I am fine with meditation, but am I ready to hike all day and night, and jump into an icy waterfall? Well, physically I am not so sure if my body that hasn’t stepped into a gym in years, could possibly handle it.

Other guidelines include not washing your face, brushing your teeth, or shaving, not drinking excessive amounts of alcohol, and making sure to get as much sleep as possible before arriving. The last one may be tough as I make my 24-hour journey from Atlanta to Tsuruoka, and catch up with the 13 hour time difference.

The release form also came with bunch of warnings, most sentences ending in the word “death.” Yikes!

Well, I am on my way, packed with a suitcase full of white clothes (required), hiking boots and my backpack. It will be interesting to see how my mind and body are able to handle the demands of the program and what wisdom I gain from it.

For the next few days, I will be following the three basic rules of Yamabushidō:

Number one: no talking.

Number two: no questions.

Number three: uketamō! Meaning ‘I humbly accept with an open heart.’

On that note, I am keeping an open mind about what’s to come. To be continued…

An Evening With a Maiko

If you have walked around the streets in Japan, you may have spotted a beautiful lady dressed in a kimono with white painted face and her hair pinned up in a bun. Perhaps she was a Maiko or a Geisha, an integral part of Japanese culture and society. In the western world, perception of these women has been misconstrued.

According to Aileen Adalidgeisha (aka geiko or geigi) which translates to English as “performing artist” or “artisan”, is a high-class professional and traditional female entertainer in Japan trained in various forms of art. Meanwhile, a maikowhich translates to English as “dancing child”, is an apprentice geisha. A geisha is usually hired to attend to guests (traditionally male) during banquets, meals, parties, and other occasions as she demonstrates her skills through various ways such as dancing to a tune played with the shamisen (a stringed instrument), initiating games, doing the art of conversation, and more. There are fewer than 2000 Geishas in Japan today. They were over 80,000 in the 1920s.

According to Japanese culture, any random person cannot visit a ochaya (tea house) unless they have been formally introduced through a third party and invited. There is no money exchanged in the beginning, so this ensures guarantee payment at the end of the year. However, these days private parties and tourists can arrange meeting with a geisha at a ryōtei (traditional Japanese restaurant).

I met Maiko-san at a restaurant in Kyoto. We had a private room inside the restaurant, minimally decorated with tatami floors, and a low table with a window overlooking a small zen garden. After the waitress came to take the drink order and poured me a glass of plum wine, a beautiful young woman dressed in an exquisite red and white kimono walked in. Her makeup made her look like a doll with a static expression. Her hair was neatly piled up on her head. She greeted us (me and my guide) softly in Japanese. A man who entered the room with her played music on a boombox and she started dancing in slow rhythmic motions. It was mesmerizing!

Then she sat down at the head of the table. One of the duties of a maiko is to have conversations with the guests and entertain them. We were told we can ask her anything. She did not speak English, but understood practically everything I asked. Nevertheless, Nobu-san, my translator facilitated the conversation.

Maiko-San told me that she was 17 years old. She came from a small town in northwest Japan which was hit by tsunami. She chose this line of profession at 15 because she had a strong interest in Japanese culture and wanted to follow the career path of a geisha. In Kyoto, she enrolled in a teahouse where she still undergoes a vigorous program of learning music, dance, origami, personal care and more. It is intense with long hours and little time to be a teenager. She cannot go out much (especially when she is in her garb) and gets to visit her family once a year. Her master/ big sister is 80 years old and she will need to repay her through her earnings.

Training to be a geisha can be quite expensive. The master at a tea house will invest in the lodging, meals, classes, dresses and pocket money of the young girl until she graduates.

Only a fraction of girls who come to the program with her will graduate.

Then she showed us how to do origami and gifted little swans made of paper napkins.

Maiko-San told me on her days off she likes to go to Starbucks and try out their seasonal drinks. Japan is very innovative for that! When I was there this summer, they had introduced a “chocolate cake frappuccino.” We talked about all the places I visited in Japan and the foods I had tried. As we got our meal (she does not eat with guests), I would ask her to describe to me what I was eating. Though she is not allowed to own a phone, she felt quite comfortable using my iPhone to looks up Japanese foods I was unfamiliar with. I felt I was chatting with any other Japanese girl, a bit shy but curious, and matured for her age.

The experience costs $500 for 2-hours plus cost of food and drinks at the restaurant and can be booked through a travel agent.

Given the chance, would you sign up for an experience to be entertained by a maiko or geisha? Leave your comments below…

Must Have Bajan Experiences in Barbados

The term Bajan or Barbadian is referred to the people of the Caribbean island of Barbados. Bajan is also an English based creole language that is spoken on the island. It can be quite confusing to a native English speaker, as the locals have a very fast slang way of running the words together.

During my recent visit to Barbados, I discovered that one can discover the authentic cuisine and culture at all-inclusive resorts as well. Elegant Hotels is a Bajan company that employs a majority local staff, from the chefs, waiters and beach ambassadors, to the management. They pride themselves in creating experiences that expose guests to the Barbados style of living – be it engaging in a game of road tennis, tasting rum while “liming”, or taking lessons in steel pan drumming. Here are a few Bajan experiences offered by two of the resorts that are in the western and southern parts of the island.

Crystal Cove is on the platinum west coast of Barbados where the gentle waves lap at the stunning shoreline with the resort on an elevated position offering fantastic views out to sea. The all-inclusive four-star property is in a charming traditional Bajan style and has an elegantly intimate feel that makes it popular with families and parties. Crystal Cove features three freshwater lagoon swimming pools, a swim-up bar, two restaurants, complimentary watersports for all guests, two tennis courts and a free water taxi to other Elegant Hotels Group properties on the west coast.

New Elegantly Bajan initiatives at Crystal Cove include:

Oistins Night – A weekly culinary sensation, Oistins Fish Fry on a Friday night is where locals and tourists alike head to the south coast to savor some rustic dining on local seafood and enjoy the buzzing atmosphere. Crystal Cove recreates the vibes of Oistins with a range of local authentic dishes at Drifters Restaurant for some beachside dining. Dine on a feast of local fish marinated and cooked live on George’s BBQ grill. Delicacies include granny’s fish cakes with Mount Gay Rum cocktail sauce, fried flying fish with Bajan pepper sauce, grilled sweet potato, fried plantain, calypso rice and pumpkin & ginger soup. Musical entertainment is in the form of a local popular DJ mixing sounds of Oistins with everything from calypso to reggae, as local artisans at the resort display local crafts and souvenirs.

Bridgetown Heritage Tour – Barbados’ capital is often overlooked by guests and offers a genuinely fascinating array of attractions for visitors to the island. Exclusively for Crystal Cove guests, this day long tour will soak up the most beautiful architecture and historic buildings in the capital as well include visits to the Mount Gay Visitor Centre, Kensington Oval, St. Mary’s Church, Parliament Buildings, Garrison Savannah and the Prime Minister’s Office. There will even be time in the itinerary for some duty-free shopping in Bridgetown followed by lunch and a trip to one of Barbados’ most beautiful beaches, Brown’s Beach, for a spot of snorkeling and relaxation.

Heritage Night – For an evening like no other, Crystal Cove puts on a Caribbean cabaret floor show with dancers wearing carnival costumes and performing a range of dances and feats including fire eating and limbo dancing. This is accompanied by the Tuk Band and the famous Calypso King; authentic dishes from around the Caribbean and The Chattel House Bar which serve a variety of coconut cocktails.

Steel Pan Classes – One of the quintessential sounds of Barbados, this is a chance for travelers to get to grips with the steel pans and have a go at producing well known songs as well as calypso classics with some of the best professionals on the island.

Road Tennis Classes – Road tennis is the little known national sport of Barbados – unique and exclusive to the island, road tennis involves a ‘skinned’ tennis ball, a stretch of road for a court and wooden paddles to bat the ball between two players. Easy to learn and fun to play, Crystal Cove staff show guests how to master this local sport as well as set up some tournaments for a vigorous work out.

Rum Shop initiation – It is said there is a rum shop on every corner of Barbados and that liming (Bajan slang for relaxing) at a local village rum shop is an essential part of the Bajan experience. To test this theory, Crystal Cove staff coach guests on how to ‘lime’ and really learn to relax, chill and clear their minds of any stress, by teaching them rum shop games. Dominos is a national obsession in Barbados and Crystal Cove staff teaches guests how to play slam dominos like a real Bajan as well as drink some rum based forfeits. Guests can also sample local rum shop snacks including corn beef and biscuits as well as cheese cutters made with local salt bread.

Turtle Beach, on the south coast offer a host of Elegantly Bajan experiences for families, couples and parties alike. A premium all-inclusive property in the lively St Lawrence parish of Barbados, Turtle Beach is popular with families and couples who love the relaxed atmosphere, 1,500ft beach and general feeling of space and tranquility the resort offers. With two swimming pools, three restaurants and bars, two tennis courts and the infamous Captain Sam’s watersports center with free water-sports including dinghy sailing and surfing.

Bajan initiatives at Turtle Beach include:

Turtle Pioneers – Get the inside scoop from locals. Turtle Pioneers – Hermanius, Maradonna, Nigel and Captain Sam are an elite team of Barbados experts and are a powerhouse of knowledge about what to do, where to go and when to do it in Barbados.

Pastry School – Guests at Turtle Beach can take part in a weekly pastry class with award winning dessert chef Ezra Beckles. Known for his sinfully tasty treats, Ezra uses unusual ingredients including noni flour and cactus as well as traditional ingredients from Barbados including local tamarind, cherries and coconut. He takes guests through how to create local delicacies and most importantly, how to enjoy them!