Announcing – My First Book on Kids Travel

BIG NEWS!!! My first children’s book, Beato Goes To Greenland will be available in bookstores and online next week! Pre order your copy through Mascot Books by clicking here.

Beato Goes to Greenland cover

It has been a long process. I have started to write books, finished the chapter outlines, pitched to editors, and ditches the whole idea – about a half dozen times. I always knew I wanted to write a book, or two, and several of my well wishers (including readers, editors & publishers) have encouraged me to do so. However, I never quite believed in myself. Who would want to read this and why?

And I never found enough time to write, or perhaps made it a priority.

I have sort of dedicated my life to food, travel and community service, since I left corporate America to pursue my passion. I founded Go Eat Give in 2010 as a blog, and later into a nonprofit organization, with a mission to raise awareness of the diverse and beautiful world we live in. Finally, I discovered an audience, that is perhaps the most impressionable. Beato Goes To is a series of children’s illustrative books that takes young readers on a thrilling adventure across different countries. They learn about nature, culture, food, costume and much more.

I have no prior experience writing children’s books, but felt compelled enough to take this project on. After months of browsing through the little sections of Barnes and Nobles, and reading all the stories about bunnies, princesses, bees, elves, and what not, I realized that there were hardly any books that taught kids about travel or culture.

The main character of the book is my larger than life cat/ baby, Beato. He has been a great inspiration to me, while he lounges on my feet, at my desk, in the couch, and watches me write day after day, occasionally rising from his naps to give me a head nudge. Anyone who has met Beato can’t stop admiring his large size (he is a 20 pounder), handsome looks (yes he has his own Pinterest page), and friendly personality (aka life of the party). It just made sense that Beato took on my persona and started traveling the world!

Beato the cat

What I hope to accomplish from the series is not only to provide entertaining and educational material to kids, but inspire them to learn about each other and discover the world. We live in a interconnected community, where we have no other option but to expand our horizons. To do this at a young age will only give someone a head start.

So if you are reading this and know of any parent with young kids, send them a link to www.BeatoGoesTo.com. Perhaps you can recommend my book to your teacher friend or neighborhood preschool. Beato Goes To also makes a great gift for any young reader in your friends and family circle. Pre order your copy today!

 

Temple Culture of Bali

Bali: exploring Hinduism outside India while also enjoying pristine beaches, dive sites, all-inclusive resorts, and year-round temperate weather.

bali for Khabar 2014

As seen in Khabar Magazine January 2014 print issue. Words & photography by Sucheta Rawal. 

I arrived on the island of Bali, Indonesia, during an auspicious time. Palm trees adorned homes and businesses, colorful offerings for deities sat on doorsteps, and locals, dressed in traditional white garb, carried baskets laden with fruits and flowers. Children played the gamelan, a traditional musical ensemble, and processions taking Barongs (mystical beasts) paraded the streets. Every home and business had its penjor (palm tree) decorated with fruits, coconut leaves and flowers. It looked like a tropical Christmas.

It was the week of Galungan, the most important festival for Balinese Hindus. It marks an occasion to honor the creator of the universe and the spirits of ancestors. The festival symbolizes the victory of good (dharma) over evil (adharma), and encourages the Balinese to show their gratitude to the creator and the saints from their ancestry. During this holy period, people cook special cakes (known as jaja) in pots of clay, visit family members, and pray at multiple temples.

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It is easy to get lost in the architectural beauty of over fifty thousand temples in a mere 2,232 square miles. I questioned my host, Sri Ekayanti Ni Wayan (who goes by Eka), why Balinese people felt a need for so many temples. “It is mandatory to have a temple at one’s home, a family temple and a village temple. Every village also has three temples, each dedicated to the Gods Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva. Therefore, a Balinese person prays at least three temples daily,” she informed me. They would also visit some of the larger temples during festivals or special occasions.

Eka invited me to her family temple, in the village of Sukawati. The family members, consisting of about 100 people, gathered in the evening to celebrate the temple’s anniversary, which is held every six months. Women are required to cover their legs before entering the tem¬ple; therefore sarongs (similar to the Indian lungi) are available at most public temples. There is a technique for properly tying a sarong with a sash, which Eka had to demonstrate for me, even though I have draped myself in a sari many times before. I was taken through the common grounds of the temple into an inside chamber, where we sat on the floor. Some of the women blessed me with flowers and incense, sprinkled holy water and dotted my forehead with uncooked rice. It was not clear which God we were praying to, as the Balinese Hindus do not practice idol worship. (Different colors identify each God: red for Brahma, black for Vishnu and white for Shiva.) Then we gathered to watch children from the community perform traditional music and dance.

A procession of temple offerings during Galungan

The Balinese temples (called pura) are different from an Indian Hindu temple. An outdoor complex of small buildings leads into a series of gates to reach the interiors of the temples. The Balinese people are associated to a particular temple by virtue of descent, residence, or some mystical revelation of affiliation. Some temples are associated with the family house compound (also called banjar in Bali), others are associated with rice fields, and still others with key geographic sites.

While visitors cannot enter most family temples, there are some well-known temples in Bali that are also major tourist attractions. During my stay in Ubud, the central region of Bali that is nestled among rice paddies and volcanic hills, I visited Pura Tirta Empul. Dating back to 926 AD, the temple has a pool known to have healing powers. Locals take a dip in the sacred waters hoping to purify themselves.

Taman Ayun (“beautiful garden”) is a family temple belonging to the Raja of Mengwi and built in 1634 AD. This is one of the most beautiful temples in Bali, characterized by towering Balinese pagodas (known as Meru) made of odd-numbered black thatched roofs. The temple complex is surrounded by gardens that are packed with locals picnicking with families over the weekends.

My favorite of all was Tanah Lot, rightfully named one of the most photographed temples in Bali. It is lo¬cated on a cliff jutting out into the sea, surrounded by black sand and surfing waves, and makes for a picturesque view especially during sunset. During high tides, the rock looks like a large boat at sea.

The profusion of temples in Bali is not surprising considering almost 85 percent of Bali’s population fol¬lows Hinduism, which is said to have come to Indonesia from India in the fifth century. By the eleventh century, Java and Sumatra were seeing an increase in the popularity of Buddhism, which was eventually replaced by Islam. However, due to geographical barriers, the island of Bali was the only part of Indonesia that remained Hindu, while the rest of the country experienced Muslim conversions.

There are similarities between Balinese Hinduism and that found in India. It follows the belief of rebirth, karma and nirvana, divides the cosmos into three layers (heaven, human and hell), and is deeply embodied in rituals celebrating birth, marriage, death, and everything in between. Balinese Hinduism is deeply interwo¬ven with art and ritual, which is reflected in the various festivals celebrated throughout the year.

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Hindu mythological characters and scriptures also inspire Balinese music and dance. Traditional dances depict episodes from the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, and are taught to children early on. At the Sukawati temple celebrations, Eka’s nine-year old daughter and her classmates performed temple dances dressed in one-shoulder gold wrap and peacock-shaped headwear, gesturing with captivating eye and facial expressions. A dance-drama played out the battle between the mythical characters Rangda (a witch representing adharma) and Barong, the protective predator (representing dharma), in which performers fell into a trance and attempt¬ed to stab themselves with sharp knives.

Dance schools around the island run by genera¬tions of artistes hold classes for adults and children who want to practice traditional Balinese dances. For spectators, many local restaurants, temples, and cul¬tural centers offer Balinese folklore performances for a cover charge of about $8-10.

In recent years, Bali has become a major attraction for travelers seeking spirituality through yoga, meditation, healing, and vegetarianism. Many yoga schools, retreat centers, and spas offer a chance to develop spiritual and physical being. Styles of yoga and movement taught in Bali include Hatha, Vinyasa Flow, Yin, Laughter, Power, Anusara, Ashtanga, Silat, Capoeira, Poi, Qi Gong, and Juggling. The annual Bali Spirit Festival gathers world-renowned musicians, yogis, and dancers to illustrate the Balinese Hindu concept of Tri Hita Karana: living in harmony with our spiritual, social, and natural environments. Yoga teacher training, cleansing detox, and meditation retreats are offered to international visitors before and after the festival. Balinese Hindus, unlike a large percentage of other Hindus, are not vegetarian. They eat chicken, fish, and pork. However, there are many juice bars, vegan restaurants, and vegetarian restaurants serving international cuisine in Bali. It is common to overhear tourists from different parts of the world discussing afterlife and spirituality over a lunch of tempeh curry and herbal tea at a café in Ubud.

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Coming back to the festival of Galungan, I am lost in the sights and sounds that make up the spectacle of the Dance of the Barong, performed through the streets of Bali during this time. Like in a dragon dance, two people wear a costume as they lead a crowd of followers through the village with much clanging to announce their approach. The Barong, even though frightening to look at because of its fiery eyes and animalistic hair, is meant to restore the balance of good and evil at a Balinese home.

The tenth day, Kuningan, marks the end of Galungan, and is believed to be the day when the spirits ascend back to heaven. On this day, Balinese families get together, make offerings, and pray. Then they have a feast where traditional Balinese dishes such as lawar (a spicy pork and coconut sauce dish) and satay (chicken tenders grilled on bamboo sticks) are served.

While most Western tourists visit Bali for its pristine beaches, dive sites, all-inclusive resorts, and year-round temperate weather, the more unforgettable attractions remain the region’s colorful art, vivid dances, rich culture, and Hindu festivals. Hindu customs in Bali have been preserved over thousands of years and form an integral part of everyday life.

Most popular temples in Bali Pura Besakih – Also known as Mother Temple or the Temple of Spiritual Happiness, this is the most import¬ant temple for Balinese ceremonies.Pura Tanah Lot – The most photographed temple in Bali sits atop a high rock with a backdrop of foamy white waves and black sand.

Pura Luhur Uluwatu – Perched on cliffs against a surf break against the sea, it is spectacular to visit during sunset.

Pura Tirta Empul – Fitted with two holy springs, it is a popular place for the Balinese to bathe for spiritual cleansing.

Pura Ulun Danu Bratan – Situated in beautiful surround¬ings, the temple juts out onto a lake.

Goa Lawah Temple – The 1,000-year-old-cave temple swarms with bats and is one of the most unique temples in the world.

Taman Ayun Temple in Mengwi – Surrounded by beautiful gardens, it is a good place to see the famous Balinese pagodas.

Pura Goa Giri Putri – Nestled inside a mountain cave, the dwelling place of God symbolizes the power of a woman.

How to Pray for a Husband in India

Traveling, for me, is not only beautiful and enriching because of the deep histories, architecture, gastronomical culture, languages, and myriad of landscapes and climates; it is beautiful as you are exposed to so many people in the country, while you are journeying to the destination.  Through the people is how we are able to break down barriers, share stories and ideas, identify commonalities and transcendence, and find a sense of openness, excitement and inspiration yet accompanied with a sweet humility and peace. The people are where the real “heartbeat” of travel, and for me, where the real enchantment lies.

My journey and encounter with India was no different. The moment when I stepped on my connecting flight from Qatar to India, the aroma of curry and spice, the long grey beards, the traditional Indian dress, bindis, and more importantly the abundance of turbans, made it crystal clear that I was on my way to India. I was traveling solo and on my way to meet Sucheta and Dipak who were coming from USA. I was one of very few non-Indians on the Qatar Airways flight and curiosity quickly overcame me. At the time, I had been living in Spain, and certainly was no novice to travel, yet, for me India brought such an array of thoughts and feelings, as it was my first voyage into the eastern world, one perceived to be exotic, mystical, and very complex. I felt like little Ms. America in the midst of the unknown.

gina shopping for sari

On my flight, I came across a jolly old Indian man with bright pearly whites, a turban and a beard who just kept smiling at me.  I felt welcome as he started to communicate with me in Hindi (he quickly realized I was clueless) and even more grateful as he began attempting to teach me some of the local language.  He did it with such enthusiasm and such support as I stumbled across the words and the pronunciation so much so that three rows of seats in the airplane were laughing.  The passengers would all nod with encouragement as they saw me desperately trying to connect with them.  We shared snacks and smiles and it was then that my angst turned to comfort.

Arriving in New Delhi was fascinating and overly stimulating especially at 3:00 am in the morning.  My senses were on overload because of the entire aroma, the taxi company ripped me off, and I felt like an actress walking on the red carpet as I exited the airport.  My hair was blonde at the time and well the Indian’s didn’t see people like me very often so they looked at me in complete fascination and wonder.

Gina & Sucheta at a wedding in New Delhi

Upon awakening on the first morning, I was greeted by a serene and kind Indian grandmother who had prepared an authentic meal and later she and her friend took me to purchase my first Salwar Kameez and for my first ricksaw adventure.  We followed the afternoon sharing our ideas of love and they shared with me their love stories and the Indian culture and arranged marriage over chai.  Seriously, I thought, someone please pinch me.  I am halfway across the world speaking to two lovely older women about love and life.

And the Indian hospitality continued to unfold throughout my stay.  The people that I encountered along the way not only opened their homes, they opened their hearts.

The majority of the rest of my stay was with Sucheta’s grandmother, an absolute beauty, in Chandigarh.  She shared authentic meals, chai and conversations, and more importantly she integrated me into her morning routine where we feed the roses and the birds.  She persistently encouraged me to pray to god for a husband and assured me that god would listen.   Not sure where they came from, but I wasn’t going to argue, I rolled with it.

Gina with Sucheta's grandmother

My experience also included being invited to an authentic Indian wedding and to prepare, I received the full induction of the sari and accessory shopping experience.  The vibrant colors and array of textiles, patterns, beautiful bling, and intricate details to the parties and the weddings, the Hindu ceremony and the feeding of the fire, the food, the family, and the friends were certainly all elements to make ones spirit soar.   The Bollywood dancing and actually wearing a sari, a sleeve of bling bangles, was purely icing on the cake.

The stories are endless, the prayers of the tour guides, the countless picture taking with the locals, family meals, shopping and learning about the countries trends and natural resources and most importantly what makes India go round.

gina with mehndi

It was indeed a vivid country, with a plethora of religious and economic contrast, world-renowned tourist destinations, rich traditions, customs, and history. My writing could certainly go on for days about my humorous and embarrassing culture shock moments, the perplexity of seeing the stark and heartbreaking divide between the rich and the poor, to describing the elaborate details of the Golden Temple, going solo to the Taj Mahal and getting prayed over, (again for a husband), to a “How to dance Bollywood guide” as all of those created an amazing experience for me, yet, I do believe what is everlasting, was the hospitality and care of my local friends, and whom I would refer to as teachers.  I am eternally grateful for having gone to the land of enchantment with a native, as the insights and authenticity were invaluable. We shared perceptions. I was able to challenge ideas and opinions with those with deep cultural awareness and insights, which proved to be very thought provoking and at times, quite enlightening.

For the intellectually curious and spiritual seekers looking to experience India, I would recommend really integrating yourself into the culture via a local as the experience will be richer and more rewarding than you can imagine.

 ~ By guest blogger, Gina Cooper. Gina traveled with Go Eat Give to India in November 2012.