Imperfectly Perfect!

Jewelry designer Marlar Maw talks exclusively to Ashwrites about her incredible journey

The very first time I met Marlar Maw was at my daughter’s school. She was one amongst the many new mommies who anxiously waited by the main entrance, eager to know all about her child’s first day of school. Back then, I didn’t know much about Marlar, except that her son went to Year 1 and that she had a sophisticated yet edgy sense of fashion. Our interactions in the following years, though friendly, were often limited to a few courteous smiles and customary hellos.

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Jewelry Designer Marlar Maw wearing one of her designs

But there was always something special about Marlar. Not sure if it was the serene aura that surrounded her or just the sheer positivity and calm that she embodied. And once I saw pictures of some of the exquisite pieces of jewelry she had designed, I was certain that I wanted to know more about her story.

And there she was…after innumerable hellos and smiles across the school multipurpose room at class assemblies, she now sat in my living room enjoying a cup of Indian ginger tea recollecting the days she spent honeymooning with her husband in India, her life in Melbourne, China and  most importantly her home that is Myanmar.

“Yangon has always been my home. Except for the four short years I spent finishing up my University education in Bangkok due to my father’s posting, this is where I have spent all my growing up years.” But life in Burma for this entrepreneur was far from being a bed of roses. In the year 2004, Marlar’s father and her older brother were imprisoned. “The country was in a complete state of turmoil. We were not allowed to travel and it was a very difficult time for our entire family,” recalls Marlar

Marlar with her husband Nigel Blackwood
Marlar with her husband Nigel Blackwood

But things were only starting to get more complicated for this new designer. “A year later following my father’s arrest, I met my husband Nigel, who was a British Diplomat. We fell in love, got married and were really looking forward to starting our life together.” Nigel had finished his tenure in Yangon and was moving to Shanghai when things took an unfortunate turn for the Blackwood family.

“I still remember the time as if it was just yesterday. We had shipped off all our belongings to the new location and were at the airport looking forward to a fresh start when I was unexpectedly stopped by the immigration officer.” Marlar was told that she wasn’t allowed to leave and was forced to stay within the British embassy compound for fear of arrest. “For three whole months, I stayed in; my freedom completely taken away from me. I couldn’t work, travel or even step out of the embassy compound. It was one of the most difficult times of my life.”

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A 14K white gold ring with a pearl centre piece and multi-coloured sapphires from Marlar Maw Jewelry

The one big positive that did churn out from the unfortunate scenario was that Marlar finally discovered her one true passion which was jewelry designing. “I always had an interest for it and loved designing and adding a little twist to my own personal pieces. But for the very first time I had all the time to truly develop my creativity and imagination.”

Talking about her biggest support system Marlar says, “Nigel has always been the biggest positive force in my life. He kept encouraging me and believing in me even when I wasn’t sure about myself.” Today Nigel is as involved in Marlar Maw designs as she is…be it creating the logo to naming each of her exquisite pieces and designing some of them himself.

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Marlar Maw Designs include  contemporary and timeless pieces ranging from earrings, bracelets, rings and pendants

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Marlar Maw jewelry today is a premium luxury brand producing contemporary yet timeless pieces ranging from bracelets, necklaces, pendants, statement rings, ear-rings and cufflinks… all set in silver or gold and hand crafted using traditional techniques by local artisans. “I wanted to produce something that was unconventional yet extremely wearable using local resources,” says Marlar.

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Marlar’s designs use a wide variety of stones ranging from tourmaline, moonstone, garnet and colored sapphire
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Marlar loves using cabochon, uncut and sculpted stones in her designs

Another unique feature of her designs is the use  of different types of stones ranging from spinel, tourmaline, colored sapphire, garnet and moonstone just to name a few. The range includes cabochon, uncut, sculpted stones as well as pearls. “If you look at each of my pieces, you will see that they are all a little rugged, unusual and to an extent imperfect. I don’t do or like ‘perfect,’ she says.

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Marlar’s designs have been greatly inspired by Greek Mythology. This 14 Carat bold cuff embellished with a spinel centerpiece is called Enyo, named after the Ancient Goddess of War

Each of Marlar’s pieces is not only different but also tells a unique story. “My designs are greatly inspired by the greek mythology hence the names Astrea, Phyrgia, Calliope, Chloris…just to name a few.” And the reason behind this obsession with Greek Mythology? “Greek mythology tells stories of heroism, strength, beauty, love and passion along with tales of tragedy, jealousy, lust and revenge all set during a time of unrest and conflict. It somehow reminds me of the turbulent history of my own country.”

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All of her pieces are handcrafted using traditional techniques by local artisans

Elaborating about the design process, Marlar adds, “ I work very closely with my artisans, telling them exactly what I have in my mind. Each day is a different day and I might have a completely different design in my mind. On a particular day, it could be the texture on a leaf that has inspired me.” And challenges? “The biggest one is communicating what I have in my mind to the artisan. He might completely nail it or it could be a complete miss. In short I end up adding a ton of pieces to my own personal collection,” she laughs. “But when it’s a hit, we create something extremely beautiful and one of a kind.”

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Marlar Maw with singer and songwriter Joss Stone, seen here wearing a custom made Lapis Lazuli necklace from Marlar’s METTA collection

From a sheer idea that developed in a tiny single room to the luxury brand it is today…Marlar Maw has indeed come a long way. In just a year she has  added over 100 customers that also include soul singer and grammy award winner Joss Stone, who wore a custom made Lapis Lazuli necklace and a hammered silver cuff with embedded blue sapphires from Marlar’s METTA collection during her performance in Yangon.

For more information on Marlar Maw Designs please log on to:

https://www.marlarmaw.com or like her page on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/marlarmawjewellery/

Restaurant Review: Babett Eatery & Bar

The suave ambience and affordability is a definite hit but the disconnected menu teamed up with inexperienced staff can leave you wondering if it’s worth a second visit

So this is how our ideal Sunday looks like: A movie (if there are any good releases), followed by lunch and the mandatory trip to City Mart to stock up on groceries. Though our little family of three are quite the foodie bunch and throughly enjoy eating out, very rarely do we get to try out some place new. Firstly by the time our movie finishes we are just way too hungry and end up grabbing a quick meal at the closest restaurant and secondly if it all we were to explore out, we often end up back at one of our favorite eateries aka our comfort zones. (Having braved an hour of traffic with growling tummies, experimenting a new place just feels like too much of a risk and the fact that we are quite fussy with our meats and flavors, doesn’t help with the situation either. )

Fortunately this Sunday was a tad-bit different. There were no new movie releases and City Mart had now officially started home deliveries. For a change we were completely free. It was then we heard about the latest addition to Yangon’s restaurant scene, Babett Eatery and Bar located at Hotel G in Downtown Yangon. The reviews looked good and despite the hour long drive from our place, we decided to give it a try.

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Babett Eatery & Bar, the latest addition to Yangon’s restaurant scene

Chic & cozy! These are probably the very first two words that pop up in your mind as soon as you set foot into its warm teak-wood floors. Hues of yellow, grey and white set the perfect color tone for this elegant and contemporary eatery that provides both indoor and outdoor seating.

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Chic & Cozy, Babett also offers a casual outdoor patio seating

From the open bar to the casual outdoor patio, Babett is one of those places that will have you all excited the minute you walk in. And I was too, though I couldn’t help but wish that the weather was a little more favorable to sit outside and the place offered a slightly better view than the haphazard public parking.

Though Babett offers an extensive drinks list, the same cannot be said for its food menu. The reviews had referred to Babett’s cuisine as Spanish/Mediterranean but we were  quite surprised to find that the lunch menu was rather limited offering the cliched pasta/pizza and grilled meats. Since we were not too big on meats, we decided to order the pennyworth salad for the starter followed by Grilled chicken in spicy pepper sauce with a side of truffle parmesan fries and the wood fired Diavola Pizza.

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The pennyworth salad and parmesan truffle fries gets a complete thumbs up

Now if the best dish you have ordered happens to be the side that came along with your mains, then there is a clear problem. Among all the dishes that we did order, the truffle parmesan fries came out the clear winner and completely outshone the pizza that felt a little soggy and the spicy chicken dish that came minus the black pepper sauce that we ordered (as the server had completely forgotten  about it), completely lacked the zing!

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The lackluster presentation was one of the biggest drawbacks of the restaurant

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Though there was nothing too disastrous with the food per se and the stylish ambience definitely added to the overall appeal of the place making us want to chill out a little longer, the lackluster presentation of the dishes combined with inexperienced though I must say courteous and pleasant staff, left us wondering if it was worth a revisit.

Probably yes if you live in downtown area and are looking for a place to relax with a glass of wine amidst the city buzz. But for someone like me, who live almost an hour away, a restaurant need to do a lot more than an urbane decor and friendly staff to bring me back.

Mystic lanes

My guide to exploring the bedazzling yet mind-boggling streets of Bogyoke market
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An artist works on his masterpiece at Bogyoke Aung San market

Almost like an enchantress, it may lure you to her mystic lanes every time you cross its path. But as irresistible as she maybe, conquering Bogyokes’ many shops and mastering her innumerable alleyways can sometimes be a tad-bit mind-boggling.

Three years and almost a hundred visits later, I can almost guarantee that I am yet to completely vanquish this labyrinth of a market. There have been times when I have wasted hours and hours exploring her bedecked streets, only to return with nothing more than a tiny embellished tray. (Not to mention the pricey 25,000 kyat cab ride I had taken just to go back and forth.) There have been other times I have ended up rushing to the ATM, merely an hour into her maze-like streets, having ran out of my shopping budget for the day, courtesy the diamond studded sapphire ring currently twinkling on my finger.

I still remember the time one of my girl friends had come on a holiday to Yangon. I had told her that no visit to this golden city was complete without a trip to the famous Bogyoke market. So off we went, our first stop being the Ta Win Art Gallery on the Main Street followed by a quick stop at one of my favorite jewelers. “Just two shops and I am already 3000$ less. I am not just done shopping for the day… I am done for the entire year,” she had lamented. And that was that! In less than half an hour, thanks to the famous Moe Myint Zaw painting  and a stunning pair of ruby dangly earrings, we were heading home. It  was such a tragedy to think that we had to brave almost two hours of Yangon’s infamous traffic just to reach her.

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At my favorite Lacquerware shop in Bogyoke

Another time she completely baffled me was when my friend from India had paid us a visit. I had, as usual bragged about Bogyokes’ charm and the treasures that she laid out in full display. I had taken my friend to each and every little jewelry store, to every possible lacquerware shop and walked possibly every little street. I had pointed out to the brightly colored Pathein umbrellas, the beautifully embroidered silk longyis and the several artifacts carved in teak, rosewood and even bull-horn. But the market had so completely overwhelmed my friend that she was done with just a little fridge magnet and a packet of cashew brittle. “I don’t know what I need,” she had whined…only to beg me, just a day later to take her back once again!

That’s Bogyoke for you…charming yet confusing; captivating yet thoroughly complex. Three years and almost a hundred visits later, I may still not have mastered her completely but what I did learn was a quick, easy and efficient way to maneuver her multiple alleyways to get what I needed without breaking the bank.

Here’s my three step rule to shop like a pro at the famous Bogyoke Market:

Let’s classify

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From mother of pearl and Lacquerware to Myanmar slippers and Pathein Umbrellas, decide what you want to buy before heading to the market

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Yes it looks complicated and the sheer number of shops in the market itself is enough to give anyone a headache. But the truth is, despite its monstrosity, the number of things available and that you would actually like to buy can be classified into a way smaller and a rather manageable list: Jewelry, Lacquerware, Rattan, Wooden and Mother of pearl home accessories & decor, Fabric & Slippers and Art.

After a couple of my initial faux pas, I realized that the things that kept drawing me  back to Bogyoke were actually the same old things; the innumerable necklaces in varied colored stones that lay neatly organized in my top dresser and the various rattan table mats, baskets and other home accessories that adorned the  many parts of my house lay proof of it. So instead of wasting time lounging around, I decide what I really need, prior to my visit itself. Am I going back to get my 20-something necklace? Or am I going back for yet another rattan basket or was it going to be a lacquerware serving tray this time? Once I knew the answer to that question, tackling this temptress was a piece of cake.

Let’s talk Budget

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To buy or not to buy, that’s the question!

Now once you have a clear idea of what the market has to offer, the next step is to decide on the amount you are willing to spend.

It is for a reason I had referred to her as a temptress in the first place. Because if you are not careful and stick stubbornly to your budget, it would only take her a few minutes to void you of all your cash. Now it is no mystery that along with some cheap buys, Bogyoke also houses treasures worth 1000’s of dollars. So before you step in, it is important to decide whether you are walking its streets to buy a necklace worth 10$,100$ or 1000$.

Most of the times, I have visited Bogyoke has been with my girl pals and it didn’t take me long to realize that when you have no real shopping agenda and have partners in crime to share the joy with, it wouldn’t take you long before you  completely empty out that wallet. So my little shopping secret is to leave those precious debit/credit cards back home and keep only a certain amount of bills that I was willing to part with for the day.

Take a pick!

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This cute little rattan store is one of the many reasons I love to frequent Bogyoke

 

One of the most efficient ways to shop like a pro in this glittery web is to identify your go-to shops.

What is your favorite Lacquerware shop? Do you have a preferred Jeweler? Or is there a particular art store you like to frequent? This way you can be certain to build a stronger customer-client relationship, save up on a lot of time and be assured to get a great bargain.

Talking about my favorite picks. Here’s my top most frequented stores at Bogyoke:
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pearlstoreJEWELRY:(Leaving out the diamonds and rubies here): Hnin Pearl
Rattan: Glorious family LtdFullSizeRender 3
FullSizeRenderLacquerware: La pyaet Wun

A taste of home away from home

Onam, the word brings back wonderful memories in every Malayali’s heart. As if transported straight out of some coffee table book or a picture postcard, this ten-day festival is that one time when you can see Kerala, aptly named God’s own country, at its very best.

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The traditional sadya

Onam…a time when every Malayali woman eagerly bid adieu to her otherwise preferred western wear to embrace the traditional mundu-neryathu. A time when even the most stubborn of kids willingly give up on their gadgets to have a turn at the wooden swing specially put up for the occasion, help layout the most elaborate Pookalam (an intricate and colorful arrangement of a variety of flowers) and cheerfully run around in the mangroves clad in their fancy traditional wear. A time when even the quintessential malayali men who would rather die of thirst than enter his own kitchen to get a glass of water, develops this special interest in helping out their women prepare the feast in all its grandeur- the Onam sadya.

Growing up, I never understood what the hype was all about. If we really did want to deck ourselves in silk saris and adorn our heads with garlands of flowers, couldn’t we have done it any day? And as far as the feasting was concerned, wasn’t sambar, parippu, thoran, avial and kichdi, anway an integral part of our daily Malayali diet?

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Our little family of 3, all dolled up in traditional wear

For me, Onam was always about seeing my usually health conscious dad, having to eat sadya twice, first at his maternal house and then with us to avoid upsetting either of the two most important women in his life. It was always about seeing my mother and my grandma, slogging for hours and hours in the kitchen to prepare a meal comprising over twenty different types of dishes only to have it all disappear in just a matter of minutes. Or seeing my couch-potato brother suddenly take up this role of the ‘karyasthan’ (household-chief), making sure that the sadya was served at the right time and in the right manner. In short a completely overrated festival, I thought!

But then…I bid adieu to my homeland and moved to Nairobi. I still remember that very first Onam away from home. I had my own family now. My daughter roamed around in her pajamas as usual and my husband sat glued to the tv, lazily skipping through the endless channels. No new clothes were laid out and there was no sound of my mom, telling us that we were running late for the morning prayers at our family temple. There was no smell of fried poppadams, ghee and curry leaves coming from my kitchen and even with the loud noise of the tv and my toddler’s pitter-patter everywhere, my house felt awfully quiet. I stood in my empty kitchen in my PJ’s, eating cold cereal at my kitchen counter top, going through the end number of Facebook pictures my friends had uploaded on Onam day. It showed them all clad in their traditional wear, posing for the camera as they licked the payasam off their hands or crunching on the crispy banana chips, served on the side. It was only then I understood what it was that I was truly missing. And all of a sudden, everything seemed to make sense. 

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All set for the feast

Onam was special to me, like it was to every single Malayali. It brought back fond memories and a strange nostalgia that I rarely felt in my otherwise busy life. After all, it was that one day my otherwise health conscious dad eagerly agreed to eat two sadyas. It was that one day my mom and grandma  didn’t mind working for hours and hours to put together a sadya, like no other, just to see the happiness on our faces as we devoured each and every morsel till nothing was left. It was that one day when their was no sound of television in my house, but the sound of my amma telling us to get ready to go to the temple as she laid out our brand new Onam kodis (new clothes specially bought for the occasion), my grandma calling out to the crows (she believed to be our ancestors) to come have the first bite of the elaborate feast and my brother trying to teach me how exactly to lay out a sadya, educating me about its particular placement on the plantain leaf and its significance.

I was miles and miles away from Kerala but it was Onam and I still had my home right here in front of me…One sat watching some Bruce WIllis movie for the umpteenth time and the other one was walking around with my scarf pinned to her curls, pretending to be Rapunzel.

‘Veda,’ I said. ‘Today is Onam dear and we have to get ready and while you are at it, I am going to tell you a story of a great king called Mahabali*.’ And Vikram...,’I turned to my husband, ‘I think your movie will have to wait. We have some serious veggie and flower shopping to do.’

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Our little Onam celebration in Yangon
It has been 9 long years since that day, our very first Onam away from India. But no matter where we are, our little festivities have followed us: to Nairobi, DC and now all the way to Yangon. This year too was no different, as we celebrated this special day with a few of our friends, with my version of a mini-sadya…our little way of bringing a taste of home, away from home to our current home …that is Yangon.
Happy Onam everyone.
*(Please read story of Mahabali: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mahabali)

Into the wild

By Aswathy Kumar

Kenya may have become quite notorious for petty crimes, innumerable car-jacking incidents, burglaries and what not. But when you think about this fascinating country, it is almost impossible to not think of the scenic savannah, the big five (lion, leopard, African elephant, African buffalo, and black rhinoceros) and the ultimate wildlife extravaganza. Probably in everyone’s bucket list of things to do, a holiday to this wild country is sure not to disappoint.

12 hours or less

For many who visit Kenya, the city of Nairobi is nothing but a stopover before heading out to catch the big five in the grasslands of Masai Mara or the picturesque plains of Amboseli. Many of you, who stop by, simply do so because you don’t have a choice…after all it’s the city that has the international airport. But what does one do when you have an entire day to wile away. Do you simply idle away in the hotel room surfing through all the television channels or gear up to delve into the mysteries of this strange city lying in front of you?

The streets of Nairobi may obviously not compare to spending a day with the Mara lions or watching a herd of elephants grazing in the backdrop of the Kilimanjaro. But for all those who are curious to know what the capital city is all about, head out into its curious streets, as it has plenty to offer.

Now when I say head out…I definitely don’t mean grabbing your backpack and getting all adventurous. After all safety is an issue here. There are two things to keep in mind while out and about. Firstly take a cab, Nairobi is not a place to see on foot. Not only will you feel like the center of attention but the streets definitely are not pedestrian friendly with almost zero pavements. And secondly leave those credit cards back at the hotel and carry enough cash…because the city is definitely not cheap and cases of petty thefts is not unknown here.

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Nairobi is indeed a dream destination if you are an animal lover. And one of the must-visit places here is undoubtedly The Elephant Orphanage. Run by the David Sheldrick Wildlife trust, the center is home to over 80 elephant calves orphaned due to drought, poaching or medical ailments. Here, it is truly heart-warming to see the little ones being bottle-fed and taken care of by the qualified elephant keepers and witness the bond between the care-givers and the infants while they indulge in a friendly ball game. The elephants at the orphanage belong to different parts of Kenya and to keep their identities and origin intact, are given an ethnic tribal name like Tusuya, Dupotto, Roi, Alamaya, Rapa amongst many others. Once the elephants become healthy, they are transferred to other centers in the region before they finally become eligible to be let out in the wild.

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The best part about this orphanage that also takes care and provide shelter to the endangered rhino is that here one can sponsor an elephant or a baby rhino. Once you have officially adopted the animal, you are eligible to receive constant updates on the elephant’s well-being, growth and will also get a special alone time to spend with your fostered animal.

Right beside the Elephant Orphanage is the Nairobi National Park, one of the few places one can spot the endangered black rhino. But if you have little time and plentiful of safari adventures lined up in the next couple of days, it’s best to give this one a miss. Instead opt for the scenic Safari Walk within its premises. Similar to a zoo, the Safari Walk is home to a number of animals like the white rhino, crocodiles, zebras, ostriches, cheetah, lions and also houses a rehabilitation center for the injured wild animals. The best part of this brilliantly landscaped spot is the hour long walk over the magnificently laid wooden bridge that provides a breathtaking view of the entire National Park and the wildlife below.

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Once you are done with the safari walk and done grabbing a quick bite at a nearby cafe where you can enjoy a burger while watching the gazelles grazing right outside (as the restaurant overlooks the Nairobi National Park), you can head out to one of the most widely visited places in Nairobi, the Giraffe Centre. What started as a rehabilitation center for the Rothschild Giraffe is now home to over 100 Giraffes and a few warthogs that roam around freely here. Here you can get up, close and personal with the wild giraffes, feed them and even take a selfie with one if you are lucky. One advice though, they can be quite sloppy.

For all the shopaholics, the numerous Masai markets are a great option to pick up some exquisite African artifacts hand-made by the Masai tribe. From African masks, paintings, hand-woven clothing to drums to beaded and ceramic jewelry and numerous handicrafts in wood, the markets are set up in a different location depending on which day of the week it is. Only tip: Bring on your bargaining skills.

The Tuskers of Amboseli

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Though Nairobi is indeed a charming city, full of character, to get a true taste of Africa one needs to really get out of the madness of the city life and explore what lies beyond the tall buildings, traffic jams and all the chaos. Fuel up and drive just a mere 100 kilometers to either direction of the city of Nairobi to see nature at its true best.

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If you decide to drive south, at about 140 kilometers from the capital city of Nairobi lies the magnificent Amboseli National Park, renowned for the famous African elephants. Amboseli is one of the most picturesque parks in the entire Savannah despite the lack of trees that makes animal spotting rather easy. Here you can see elephants in groups of ten to even thirty, from scary tuskers to adorable newborns that are indeed a vision to behold, grazing in the grasslands with the magnificent Kilimanjaro in the background.

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Amboseli is usually dry and dusty. But go during the monsoon seasons of April/May to catch the breathtaking view of Lake Amboseli (a temporary lake that appears only during the monsoons). During the rainy season this lake is home to over four hundred species of birds. Along with a massive number of flamingos, here you can also see the Crowned Crane, the Black Heron, Pelican, Little Bee Eater and the Red-Billed Crane.

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If you are staying in one of the luxury tents or camps situated near a water hole and not protected by any boundary wall, you are sure to see a herd of tuskers grazing or a family of baboons stopping by to drink water just by simply standing outside your balcony. Apart from the elephants that Amboseli is so famous for, it is also home to a number of other animals like gazelles, topi, eland, giraffes and lions.

Holiday on a budget

Now there is no denying that your dream Safari holiday is definitely going to cost you. Ranging from anywhere between $4000 to $15,000, a trip to Kenya can be get quite stressful on your pocket. And probably that’s the reason many stick to just a single safari destination like the Masai Mara, Amboseli, Tsavo or Samburu rather than doing it all. But if the trip to Masai Mara or any of the other national parks has simply left you with no budget but yet a stinging desire to explore more of what this wild country has to offer, then the pristine Naivasha is your best bet. Perfect for those looking for a little more within a budget, Naivasha can indeed prove to be a dream destination.

The drive to Naivasha is an experience in itself. Coniferous trees aligning both sides of the road and the large number of cows and sheep grazing on the plush green grasslands provide for a spectacular view. On your way to Naivasha, the Great Rift Valley is a must-stop.  If you are lucky and there isn’t much fog covering the view, this spot can prove to be an excellent place to get a few memorable shots.

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Once you cross the famous crater at Hells Gate National Park and catch a glimpse of the splendid lake Naivasha, you can be sure that you are close to your holiday spot. As soon as you enter Naivasha you can see a number of resorts and even privately owned farms that are usually open to the public. The best part of most of these resorts is that you don’t have to rent a room or stay the night to avail the number of facilities they have to offer.

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The Hippo Safari provided by most of these resorts is a must-try while visiting Naivasha. In just US$ 30 your entire family can hire a boat for one whole hour and a guide who will take you around the Lake where you can see large groups of Hippopotamus soaking themselves in the cool blue waters. Though Hippos are extremely territorial and aggressive, these boat rides are very safe as the guides know to keep their safe distance.

Lake Naivasha is also home to over three hundred different species of birds like the Great White Pelican, Black Herons, Pied Kingfisher, Great Cormorant and a variety of Ducks, Geese and Eagles. In fact there are plenty of spots where you can buy fish that you may use to feed the Fish Eagles that are in plenty here.  You can also use the boat and get yourself dropped off at the Crescent Island, a privately owned game sanctuary where you can walk around and see a number of animals like zebras, giraffe, water bucks and gazelles at a very close range. (But remember, you have to pay for the park fees separately.)

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Once you are finished with the boat ride and are back at the resort, you can simply pull out your rug, enjoy a picnic lunch and relax while your kids can have a blast at the children’s park provided by most of the resorts for no additional cost. In short a perfect getaway for the whole family for less than 100 bucks…Priceless!

OF PRIZED POSSESSIONS & TIMELESS TREASURES

From losing her prized possessions to creating timeless treasures, it has indeed been an incredible journey for this passionate jewelry designer. Ashwrites in conversation with Natalie Elverd, owner Elverd designs, a unique, vibrant and timeless collection of rings, pendants and ear-rings set in hand-selected gemstones

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Elverd Designs comprise a unique collection of jewelry, set in hand-selected, hand-cut gemstones

Where opulence meets elegance, where boldness meets simplicity and conventional intermingles with contemporary…Probably the best way to describe jewelry designer Natalie Elverd, her vibrant personality clearly visible in each of the exquisite designs that she creates. Owner of Elverd designs, Natalie has been on a mission, creating timeless pieces of jewelry ranging from rings, ear-rings and pendants in hand-cut, hand-selected gemstones.

Looking at the exquisite pieces of jewelry set in blue topaz, amethyst, smoky quarts, onyx, tourmaline, agate amongst many others, it is almost impossible to believe that jewelry designing was something that happened by chance for this designer and that too not very long ago.

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“It all began, 9 years ago when we were in Cambodia and a few of my precious pieces of personal jewelry were stolen. I was heartbroken. Not because they were expensive but they were all pieces that held special meaning and also a special place in my heart.”

Natalie knew they had to be replaced and took up on the task of designing the new pieces herself and also finding the right stones to compliment her designs. “What unveiled before me was something I never imagined. I was amazed by what the local markets had in store for me; whether it was the sheer number of stones, the colors or the variety that lay before me.”

Following the overwhelming feedback from her friends for her personal designs and constant encouragement from her husband Brad, Natalie finally decided to take it up as a full-time profession and launched her own designer label, once she moved to Singapore. “One of my friends had asked me to get whatever little pieces I had designed to a local boutique bazaar. I sold out instantly and was completely taken aback by the kind of response I received. It’s at that moment when I experienced the kind of trust and confidence, people had in me and my designs that I knew this was something I had to do.”

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Natalie displaying her designs at one of the boutique bazaars

And since then there has been no looking back for the Australian-born designer currently based in Yangon, who has been focused on providing affordable yet high-fashion and high-quality gemstone jewelry to her loyal clientele spread across the globe from Australia, Cambodia, Thailand, Singapore and now even in Myanmar. Talking about her designs, Natalie says that ‘trend’ is something that she never follows when creating her masterpieces. “I simply don’t like the term, ‘trend’ as it’s just too short-term. I want my pieces to be elegant and timeless that will never really go out of style.”

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Lapis and gold ring from her latest TBar Collection

Talking about her biggest inspiration, Natalie says that she doesn’t need to look far or hard to be inspired. “How can one live in South East Asia and not be inspired, she says.” “Be it it’s beautiful colors, the energy of its cities, the warmth of it’s people or it’s rich vibrant culture. It makes me happy and then I am inspired. “

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Despite coming with new designs to add to her collection and constantly evolving her brand, Natalie is also a mom to two beautiful daughters Paige and Chloe. Has playing these two different roles been challenging? “Not really,” she says. “Fortunately for me, my daughters are older now and my working hours, flexible. One daughter will finish high school this year and my youngest one is preparing for a move back to school in Melbourne. My timing has been quite perfect.”

Each daughter has a special collection named after them, that which Natalie considers one of her most prized pieces amongst her entire collection. The Chloe ring is a more classic cut, simple and elegant design whereas the Paige collection available in  green amethyst and blue topaz is a checkerboard cut statement piece, quite bold and contemporary.

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The bold statement ring in green amethyst from the Paige Collection, named after Natalie’s oldest daughter

 

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The classic and elegant Chloe ring in blue topaz

So what’s next for this passionate designer. “Oh there is so much to look forward to,” Natalie says. “I am already working on a few custom-made engagement rings and have also started working on a Freedom range that will be available later this year. I also plan to add more pieces like stackable rings and even some bracelets.”

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A sneak-peek into Natalie’s upcoming Freedom Range

Natalie currently lives with her husband, Brad and daughter Chloe in Yangon. For more information on her collection and to pre-order from the Freedom Range collection, please log onto her website  http://www.elverddesigns.com  or like her Facebook page- https://www.facebook.com/ElverdDesigns/ or follow on instagram  https://www.instagram.com/elverddesigns/

Getting Quirkyi with Indu Sathyendran

Ashwrites in conversation with the creative genius behind Quirkyi; a bright, colorful and cheerful collection of home decor goods ranging from trays, coasters & jewelry boxes, all inspired by the artist’s love for art, travel, photography and most importantly her love for her hometown, Kerala

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Indu with her favorite Aana collection inspired by her pet elephant Vaijaynti

A sneak-peek into Indu’s Facebook page and you are sure to be greeted by a serious explosion of vivid colors. Vibrant hues of greens, yellows and reds stare right back at you, reeling you into a state of visual wonder. Being a malayali myself, I tend to be trapped in a strange kind of nostalgia every time I see Indu’s Instagram page or see a latest FB post. Be it the familiar sight of a mustachioed mundu-clad malayali lazing outside the road-side tea-stall, the hullabaloo from a nearby temple procession making its way through the verdant green-fields, the concoction of colors from the hanging garlands at a flower market and local pullikali performers with their faces painted in bright strokes of yellow and black to imitate that of a tiger or leopard, have all found their way into several of Indu’s designs.

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“It all began with my two major loves: my love for photography and everything Kerala. Quirkyi is not just a home-decor product for me. It is a reflection of my love for art, architecture, photography, elephants and more than anything, a way to project the colorful splendor that’s my homeland. It is what I call, a celebration of the true spirit of Kerala.”

Talking about her work, Indu says that she didn’t have to look long for an inspiration. “It was right there in front of me, all around me. Be it the flowers in my home-garden or the vibrant designs on my mother’s sari. Even Shibu, my painter served as my inspiration and became a key factor in my designs behind the Theyyam collection.

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The artist and her inspiration

And is there any collection, she holds close to he heart? “Of course, she says. My personal favorite is the Aana series inspired by my dear pet elephant Vaijayanti.” Though she lost her last year, Indu intends to keep her true spirit alive through her collections and designs inspired by her favorite pet.

And why Quirkyi? “I had always loved to travel and have a passion for photography. Seeing my pictures, a friend once told me that I had a Quirky eye. And that name just stuck. I first started my blog titled myquirkyeye, then my instagram account, quirkyeye, so when it came to choosing a name for my products, there was no better. Just that I had to quirky it up a bit by messing with the spelling.”

Within a short time post launch, Quirkyi has already travelled far, finding a place in the homes of Malayali’s settled in Dubai, London, Toronto to name just a few. “Quirkyi is my little way of giving every Malayali a little piece of Kerala to take back with them.” Though currently Quirkyi only ships within India, Indu says plans are already underway to further expand her business. “We are already working on a new website and also plan to add some more products like cushions and a few decoupage products, that I am really excited about. And as far as the Quirky me is concerned, I continue my quest to find new inspiration and ideas for Quirkyi.”

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For more information on Quirkyi, please like them on https://www.facebook.com/quirkyi/

 

INCREDIBLE INLE

Ever wondered how it would be to live the simple life? If yes, then pack up and head out to the pristine and picturesque Inle Lake, a fresh water lake located in the Nyaung Shwe township of Shan State, Myanmar. Here you can experience rural life at its very best and enjoy a kind of peace and calm, probably never experienced before.

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Despite being one of the top tourist destinations in Myanmar and attracting over hundred thousand tourists every year, Inle continues to remain raw, exotic and untouched. DSC_0438_Fotor

The locals, called Inthas who live in the neighboring villages and also in stilted-houses built right on the lake, seem to remain almost oblivious to the world beyond it, depending primarily on farming or fishing as the main source of livelihood.

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One of the most fantastic sights on Inle is seeing the local fisherman, practicing a completely unique style of rowing that involves them standing on one foot at the edge of the boat and rowing with the other, firmly wrapped around the paddle. Other produce like fruits and veggies are grown in plenty on the large floating gardens. Apparently the high nutrient-level in the water makes it possible to grow almost anything on the lake. Other source of income come from the sale of hand-made goods made in the several small-scale cottage industries also set along the lake.
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One particular product that is completely unique to Inle and found in no other part of the world is the Lotus Silk. During the monsoons, lotus stems are cut and twisted to reveal a thin fiber. Thousands of this fiber are then spun together and handwoven to make this luxurious fabric. DSC_0511

The fact that the locals are devout Buddhists are obvious from the vision of the numerous pagodas and Buddhist temples cropping up on various parts of the lake, some new and some like the Shwe Indein Pagoda located on the Indein Village, dating all the way back to the 17th century. A trip to the village, located on the western banks of the lake is an absolute-must to see the ancient ruins of over 100 stupas and also catch a panoramic view of the village atop the hill that houses the pagodas.
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Another major temple that is a must-stop at Inle is the Phaung Daw Oo Pagoda. No visit to the lake is considered complete or auspicious` without paying your respects here. The pagoda houses 5 Buddha stupas, completely covered in gold to the extend that it is impossible to recognize its original form. Only men are allowed to place the gold leaf on the shrine that is believed to have magical powers. In the 1960’s during the festival procession, the royal barge carrying the stupas had capsized. The search party were only able to retrieve four of the five idols. But when they returned, they were simply amazed to find the fifth statue back in its place.
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Simple is beautiful and Inle stand proof of it. So come and fall in love to what can only be described best as the perfect synthesis of beauty, peace, divinity and harmony. A place like no other.

OFF THE BEATEN TRACK-Part 4: Under the sea fun at Port Douglas

After departing Daintree we made our way through Mossman, the gateway to the famous Mossman Gorge. On reaching the main Mossman Gorge Center, we had to take a ticket to get on board a shuttle that took us to the various hiking trails that led to walking platforms and scenic viewpoints, all surrounded by lush green tropical rainforests and over looking the Mossman River.

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Though swimming was not recommended in the river due to the rocky granite boulders that are in plenty, we were told it was okay to soak our feet in its cool waters. My personal favorite and I bet my dare-devil daughter’s as well was walking over the suspension bridge over the river. It was a lot of fun and a bit scary trying to balance ourselves on the dangling bridge and pretending as though we had magically found our way into some Indiana Jones movie. DSC_0683

It was almost noon by the time we reached our last and most highly anticipated destinations, Port Douglas. I will be honest and admit that this was the part of the trip I was the most nervous about. Don’t get me wrong, there was nothing scary about this cute little town with its boutique style shops, pristine beaches, breathtakingly beautiful coastline and sea-side cafes. Here I had even gotten the part I had been so eagerly waiting for, the romance element of our entire trip. But even while walking hand in hand with my husband, enjoying the beauty of the pacific ocean, I couldn’t help but the think of the big adventure that we were about to embark on the very next morning, an adventure that drove almost all adrenaline junkies to this part of the world. An adventure called The Great Barrier Reef.
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I could almost hear the sound of my heart beat amidst the splashing of rough waves as I boarded the monstrous catamaran that was going to take us to the Agincourt Reef, a ribbon-like reef located on the edge of what is best referred to as the ultimate underwater playground. Pronounced a world heritage site, The Great Barrier Reef is considered to host the largest coral reef systems in the world. On board we were given a number of safety instructions to a few easy ones like don’t throw food in the water or stand on the coral to more eerie ones that drove my anxiety to a whole new level like to not touch any marine animals as many have the ability to sting or disable a person to learning hand signals viz. we see a shark.

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Each one of us was given a lycra suit and also given a number of optional tours that we could sign up while we were there. For the non-swimmers and the less adventurous there was the underwater observatory, a mini submarine drive and a helmet dive to explore all the reef had to offer. For the extravagant and those wanting to enjoy the beauty from a distance there was the scenic helicopter drive and for the rest there was diving, snorkeling and guided marine biologist tours to get up close and personal to pretty coral gardens and exotic marine life ranging from sting rays, clown fish, parrot fish turtles and for the few lucky ones you may even spot a Minke whale.

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It was a full day tour and I must admit, snorkeling in the middle of the deep blue sea and amidst choppy waters was definitely a lot harder than I taught. There were moments I ran out of breath and moments I felt my arms could no longer move, moments I wished I was back in the comfort of my hotel. The chilled salads and cold cuts served on board did nothing to my Indian palette but I was here, right in the midst of the largest and the most spectacular reef systems in the world. I had embraced, survived and conquered this majestic reef in my own little way and that was a feeling I would never forget…
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OFF THE BEATEN TRACK-Part 3: Nature at its best at Daintree Rainforest

To reach our next destination in Daintree, located in the north east coast of Queensland, a destination that could only be best termed as a tropical paradise, we had to fly into Cairns and drive an hour and a half through the picturesque coastline of Port Douglas. It was slowly starting to get dark and we couldn’t see much but hear we did, in plenty, making it certain that we had finally arrived in what was the world’s oldest surviving rainforest. Be it eerie screeches of the spotted catbird, fluttering noises of the Victoria’s rifle bird, a species only found here to the croaking of the white lipped tree frogs and the gurgling sounds of the Daintree River close by, I could tell that this forest had only started to come alive in the darkness of the night.

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One of the major highlights of our trip was the place we had chosen to spent the next two nights. A quaint yet luxurious eco lodge; each of its rooms strategically positioned on top of stilts to capture the beauty of the dense canopy surrounding us. Imagine witnessing the sight of over hundred butterflies flittering to life in the early hours of the morning (almost 2/3rds of Australia’s butterfly species are found here) or simply marveling at the awe-inspiring King Fern, Australia’s largest fern with fronds extending up to 5m long, all while sipping a hot cappuccino in the comfort of your tree-top verandah?

Following our customized made-to-order breakfast, it was time to explore what more this nature paradise had to offer. And if we had assumed that we had seen and absorbed the beauty of Daintree all by sitting in our aerial accommodation, we were instantly proven wrong as we stepped out of the lodge and made way to start our morning cruise across the Daintree River.
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Now what can I say about the beauty that had started to unfold in front of us. Except the cliched yet honest line, ‘If there was a heaven then this must be it! And that this was probably the way God intended Earth to be. Crystal waters so clear that if you took clicked an image, you would probably not be able to tell if it was the blue skies you were looking at or simply its reflection in the cool waters. Lush rainforest and mangroves surrounded the Daintree River, which is one of the longest rivers on the Australian East Coast (extending upto 140 kms). Here you can see pre-historic crocodiles, view innumerable species of birds like the Macleay”s honeyeater, comb-crested Jacana and the Forest Kingfisher amongst many others or simply imbibe the true beauty of this wet tropics. If you are feeling even more adventurous, you can also join one of the fishing boats and try you luck at catching the famous Baramundi, Australia is so famous for.
Having no such desires yet unsatiated with what this magnificent forest had to offer, we chose to head out to the next highly recommended attractions in Daintree, the Cassowary Falls. Located in a private farmland, you need to rent a 4 wheel drive and pay a fee at a local convenience store to reach this scenic location and the drive itself through the bumpy rugged mushy pathway is enough to excite the adrenaline junkie in you, not to forget the grand finale, which is the view of the magnificent waterfall. Here it’s one of the few spots in Daintree where it’s safe to jump in though watch out for the humongous fish, eels and turtles that might want to get a little more cosy than desired.