31 January 2008


What a delightful city. Tangore, aka Thanjavur, is small and easy to get to know. There's a laidback atmosphere here, yet I see many signs of a progressive city. First of all, very few men are in dhotis! The roads are wide and not choked like other cities. in fact most of the traffic seems to be two wheelers - bicycles and motor bikes. I walked around quite a bit and wasn't hassled even once! This city is full of dignified, respectful, warm people. I wonder if it's because of their stunning temple! The Brahadeeshwahar Temple is 1000 years old, built during the Chola Dynasty. The Cholas revered the arts and much bronze scultpture was created during their reign. The temple's facade is a beautiful light orange sandstone. Of course, there are carvings of the gods and goddesses and there is a huge Nandi (the bull) carved out of a single black rock. Inside the temple, in the sanctum is an enormous lingum that worshippers pay their respects to. The lingum is a phallic symbol celebrating human fertility. Given that this is exactly the cause of India's problems and indeed the world's problems, I don't get it! Exploring the temple which is set in beautiful landscaped grounds is peaceful because there aren't thousands of visitors. This isn't a pilgrimage center so there aren't the huge bus loads of devotees from all over India.
Tomorrow I'll be in Pondicherry, my penultimate stop. I wonder what awaits me there!

30 January 2008


Just a quick post. I spent a full day sightseeing and as I'm not fully recovered I feel quite exhausted. One thing I observed about both Madurai and Trichy is that they are cities that are both modern and old. Madurai used to be a walled city and a ring of roads still defines the wall perimeter. The 'old city' is withing the perimeter and in its center is the magnificent temple. Outside the old city limits is a very modern, prosperous 21st century city. Madurai also has a terrific train station which is extremely user friendly. Trichy is quite spread out and so are its three main temples. This turned out to be a good thing because it got me to see different parts of the city. The first temple I saw - the Rock Fort Temple - is up high on a hill, built into a rock. From up there you have great views of the city. The main temple - the Sri Ranganathaswamy Temple - is quite impressive. Similar in style to the Sri Meenakshi with the colorful carvings on the gopurams, it is older, bigger, and has a more interesting history. Going through these temple towns you become aware of the great Tamil Classical age which began about 200 B.C. and went on for a few hundred years. The Dravidians, the first people of this region, were part of the Indus civilization that migrated out south. The Dravidians revered the arts and there is a treasure of Tamil literature by the great poets like Theyagarja and Thiruvur. Anyway, I'm happy I made it to Trichy. Not quite sure what happens tomorrow - except that I will definitely be leaving Trichy!

28 January 2008

Tamil Nadu

The stress of traveling in India by myself caught up with me. I spent the last couple of days in bed in Madurai fighting a flu bug. I’m much better today – my temperature feels almost normal and my energy level vastly improved. Thank goodness! When I started getting feverish I was worried that I might have caught something far more exotic than the flu!

Anyway, it’s time to catch up with my blogging. I’ve been in Tamil Nadu for the past week. This is the state from where my forefathers came. Back in the late-ish 1800’s they accepted the offer to work as indentured laborers in Natal, South Africa to escape famine. When I see the squalor in which the poor live here in Tamil Nadu I think, that’s how my great-great grandparents lived. I bought a red banana from an old vendor woman who carried her basket on her head. It made me think about my paternal grandmother (who died before I was born). She too was a fruit vendor - in Ladysmith. It’s hard for me to believe that these folks I see are ‘my people’. Their lives, their culture, seem so alien to me. Everyone here is very religious. That, of course, immediately distances me from them. In the mornings you see white ash on their foreheads which indicates that they’d started their day with a puja.
One funny thing is that I can read Tamil! When I was a little girl I was sent to Tamil school when I got home from regular school. In Tamil school they taught us to read and write, but not to speak! How idiotic is that! So I became quite literate in the language, but had no clue what I was reading and writing. Anway, decades later, here I am in Tamil Nadu and find myself reading the signs on stores and roadsides and everywhere. Sometimes I’ll sound something out and it turns out to be an English word – electric, wine, store – very funny indeed. But this ability has been helpful, eg, in finding the right bus!

After a night in Kanyakumari I came to Madurai, home of the famous Sri Meenakshi Temple. Madurai is a big city, very built up, with high rise hotels. The temple is absolutely magnificent. It’s spread over six acres and consists of twelve intricately carved towers (gopurams). I have a view of the towers (50m high) from my hotel room. As I approached the temple from the west I was spellbound by the colorful carvings of the Indian gods and goddesses on the wall. Before entering the temple grounds there are vendors selling flower garlands, plates of coconut and fruits, and other offerings for worshippers. Then you enter the grounds and at once the chaos of India disappears. You look up at the towers which range in height and you wonder how you could take it all in. Each carving with its own story. This style of walls covered with colorful carvings of the gods and goddesses and other symbols from Hindu scriptures is typical of Dravidian architecture. The beauty of this temple really does take your breath away.
You walk through long corridors which are crammed with people and enter the inner sanctums where you see gold topped deities. So many people – ten thousand visitors a day! – and yet the atmosphere is serene. Hindus offer their respects to the deities, bowing and holding their hands together over their heads. There’s an enormous line for “free darshan” – where they get blessed by a swami.
A museum is attached to the temple. An interesting place – a hall with 1000 pillars! Here I saw some painted friezes and a good display of deities.

As I walked out toward the exit I saw an interesting sight. Sitting on a large rectangular lawn were lines of women (dressed in beautiful saris with strings of jasmin flowers pinned in their hair) decorating brass lamps. At one end was a stage where a group of people were singing, accompanied by an assortment of instruments. It was wonderful to watch this for a while.

In Madurai the best places for dinner I found were the rooftop restaurants of the hotels. You get good views of the temple, but it gets dark by 6:45 so all you see are the lights. On my first evening in Madurai a group of English ‘bikers’ invited me join them for dinner. This group of around 15 people are exploring South India on bikes! They were a fun bunch, superfriendly, and kept me entertained with their stories.

The next morning I got an email from my Mysore travel buddies – Sandy and Anita – and found out that they were in Madurai at a hotel near mine! So we got together and did some catching up. They had been hoping to do volunteer work in Kanchipuram, but it hadn’t worked out. So they are hoping to find volunteer opportunities here. Anyway, it turned out that they were planning to go to Rameswaram the next day which coincidentally was what I was going to do. Rameswaram is a detour. It’s at the end of a narrow peninsula going east and it would mean returning to Madurai to resume my route toward Chennai from where I’ll fly out.

Thank heavens I had company to Rameswaram! First of all, why would one go to this town? We had two reasons. One was its famous temple, and two, its geographical location. The town is actually on an island. You go on this very narrow peninsula where you can see the sea on either side of the road, then cross the famous Indira Gandhi Bridge to get to the town. Sri Lanka is just across the water – 33km away. Well, when we got off the bus and headed for our hotel we were instantly disappointed. The town had not even a shred of charm. It was just a jumble of chaos. Even our hotel was a disappointment. But, there were no upscale hotels or upscale anything here for that matter. We found ourselves looking at our watches, wondering how to fill the time. It’s hard to believe that this town has such a rich history. Lord Rama left from here to go to Lanka to rescue Sita from Ravana. And after killing Ravana, when Rama returned to India he performed a puja at a temple a few kilometers from Rameswaram.

The Ramanathaswamy temple in Rameswaram – also an example of Dravidian architecture – is quite special. It has four corridors lined with pillars that have amazing carvings. The most interesting thing about this temple is that it has 22 theerthams (tanks) which devotees believe have special powers. In fact for Hindus who are Shaivites (worshippers of Shiva) and Vaishnavaites (worshippers of Vishnu) this temple is one of the most important pilgrimage centers. They come from all over India – rich and poor – and bathe in the theerthums, then go for ‘dharshan’.

After visiting the temple Sandy, Anita, and I went for a walk along the coast. We were surprised to find a ‘promenade’ which led to a jetty with lots of boats. Sandy had heard that these boats were part of the Tsunami donations and previously small, flat wooden boats used to be used by the fishermen. We returned to town, had an early dinner at the ‘classiest’ restaurant we could find, and returned to our hotel. We spent the evening sharing our photos of India.

The next day we were up early and made a beeline for the bus to Madurai. In Madurai I spent the afternoon figuring out my train and hotel for my next destination – Trichy. But by the evening I began to feel awful. I got to bed early but got the chills and couldn’t get warm. My body was hot and I was miserable. I spent all day yesterday in bed. I couldn’t do much of anything. It made me terribly homesick. I longed for my home. I longed for Daryl’s comfort and coffee and butternut squash soup – mild. I couldn’t tolerate anything spicy. In fact I had no appetite. I knew I had to eat so I forced myself out of bed and went out to get bananas and water. Out on the street everything about India grated on me. I was extra sensitive to the blaring horns and the odors of rotting trash and the gross personal habits of the locals. The effort of going outside exhausted me. I got back in bed and slept all day. I was worried that if I got worse I might need to see a doctor. But thank heavens I had a good sleep and this morning felt considerably better. I went outside this morning to see if I could find Anita and Sandy and I didn’t hate India like I did yesterday!

I have one more week in this country. I plan to go to Trichy tomorrow ( Wednesday), then to Pondicherry for two, maybe three days, then Tiruvanemallai, and then to Chennai (Madras).

24 January 2008

Reality is Harsh

Leaving Kerala, especially, Varkala, all my senses are assaulted by the harshness that is India. In Kanyakumari I feel like I'm seeing a microcosm of the subcontintent. This town is at the southernmost point of India where the Bay of Bengal and the Arabian Sea meet in the Indian Ocean. Hindus find this of special significance, especially as you can see the sun rise and set over the ocean. There's an important temple here (physically nondescript) dedicated to the Kanya (Virgin) Devi who is believed to have conquered demons and made the land safe again. So Hindus from everywhere, especially the Hindi speaking states come here on pilgrimages to pay homage to this goddess. Some of these devotees are wealthy, staying at top end hotels and others are dirt poor, staying at these godawful places that look utterly unlivable.
Walking through the bazaar area that leads to the temple you come face to face with human existence at its most challenging: beggars sitting cross legged with their palms open, lines of Hindi women (you can tell from the way their saris are draped over their heads) heading to the temple, cripples (probably poio victims) crawling, or dragging themselves on their bottoms, all manner of vendors ready to con you into buying maps and postcards many times the price at stores. Then there are the retailers urging you into the stores and the wealthier people talking on their mobiles or taking photos with their fancy cameras. But the haunting faces of the dirt poor, it's so damn heartrenching. I am so disturbed. I can't stop thinking about it even when I leave the area and have a pineapple juice at a quiet, clean hotel garden restaurant. No, I feel guilty. I can't face the reality of the harsh world and I use my wealth to escape from it.
What can I do? What can I do? I know this is going to change me forever. India isn't discreet. Oh no. It's there, all there.
I chose to go to Kanyakumari because if you look at its location on the map, right at the bottommost point of India, you are certain it's going to be a very scenic place. Wrong! Uncontrolled building makes it impossible to find a scenic walk. There is a beach area (small and crowded) and a viewpoint to see the sunset The place is so built up that in order to see the sunset everyone goes there! At sunrise everyone goes up to the rooftops of their hotels.
Swami Vivekananda, whose Guru was Sri Ramakrishna (both have huge followings among Indians in South Africa), spent his last days here. There's a temple in his honor on a tiny island just off the coast. There's also an enormous statue of a famous Tamil poet on the island.

So I saunter out to a restaurant recommended by the Lonely Planet and have a masala dosa. A German couple joins me at my table. They are bubbly and get me out of my depressed state.

22 January 2008

Beach Therapy

It's hot and humid. Heck, this is the tropics. I'm just 7 degrees north if the equator. Actually all of Kerala lies between the equator and the Tropic of Cancer so the landscape all over the state is lush with expanses of palm groves and banana plantations and other trees and shrubs. Sweat pours down my body and it's impossible to do much of anything during the day. Well, a massage with Ayurvedic oils can cool you down! btw it's because of the tropical climate that Ayurvedic plants grow abundantly here and this is why you can't walk for more than tow minutes without passing an Ayurvedic massage place.

Well, I’m beginning to feel guilty about my indulgent days in Varkala. It’s been so peaceful. You can take things at a leisurely pace, read the paper, saunter along the beach, sip exquisite masala tea, eat excellent food.

Some highlights of my days here:
• Meeting interesting travelers, mostly from various parts of Europe. Often at a café or restaurant when people see me alone, they’ll strike up a conversation with me. I’ve met people who have come to India to genuinely learn about the country. Others come here for spiritual meaning. I’ve enjoyed interacting with these folks who have a deep respect for what India and Indians offer. Then there are those who are in Varkala for the resort experience. These people pretend to be in “India”, fool themselves into thinking they are experiencing Indian culture, but demand western conveniences. I find this group quite repugnant. They refuse to respect the local culture, wear skimpy beach clothes and hang out at bars, are loud, downing beer after beer, and expect to be able to watch the ball games. I think, wtf are doing here? Go to bloody Majorca!
• Wading in the sea when the sun is low in the sky and about to set. Such a peaceful time, the water so warm and the sky just gorgeous. What a delight to sit on the sand and let the water wash over you as you watch the sun sink into the horizon.
• Getting a facial at a shack on the beach, a ceiling fan keeping me cool as a woman expertly rubs various creams into my face. It’s all very quiet except for the sound of the surf.
• Dining under the stars and among the palm trees. In Varkala all restaurants serve their food outdoors – obviously – the evenings are so balmy and the sea is just below the cliff. Unlike in the west at popular resort places where you expect food of mediocre quality, here in Varkala high standards are maintained. Every meal is lovingly prepared by an experienced chef. Everything is made to order and this means you usually have to wait close to an hour for your meal. The pace here is so laidback and when customers get impatient the waiters give them funny looks as if to say, “What’s the hurry?” So, needless to say, apart from an atrocious croissant, I have had excellent meals. Seafood is big here. Fisherman bring back their catch and the restaurants display the fish on refrigerated tables at the entrance. People point to the fish they want and this is usually then cooked in a Tandoori oven. You can see these ovens in their outdoor kitchens. It’s great to watch how they skewer whatever they’re cooking, coating the stuff in spices and then sticking the skewer into the oven. I had tandoori veggies one evening and a naan. Wow! Delicious, and definitely the best naan bread I’ve ever had. I have enjoyed the biryanis in Kerala. These are served with a top and bottom layer of aromatic rice with roasted cashews and raisins, and between the rice layers are vegetables cooked in a coconut based flavorful, red sauce. Really a special meal.
• Live Indian music. In the evenings, after dinner, I stroll out to this café that has classical music in the evenings. I sip papaya juice and enjoy the music – stars above me, the waves of the Indian ocean lapping onto the shore behind me. Splendid.

In my daily interactions with the locals I find I’m constantly struck by their gentleness and warmth. I’m reminded of the term Ubuntu used in South Africa to describe the innate loving, giving nature of the Africans of Southern Africa. I feel that same Ubuntu spirit around me in Kerala – from the waiters at restaurants, to the autorick drivers, to the guy that brings me my bucket of hot water in the evenings to the office staff at my resort. Being Indian and foreign puts me in a unique position as a traveler in India. The locals are often curious and warm toward me. I’m rarely alone in India. I’m either dining or traveling with other tourists or with some young Indian lady – usually college educated – who wants to know about western life. So, most of the time I’m okay.

However, I have had my fair share of ANNOYING INDIAN MEN! Maybe one in ten fall into this category, but this means that everyday I encounter one or two men who have unfortunately colored my overall experience. Sometimes I find the men quite loathsome. I’m not alone in this opinion. I read the papers here fairly frequently and just about in every paper the editorial pages carry angry articles about Indian men bothering women – both local women and tourists. In my first days, if someone yelled out a greeting when I passed them, I’d greet them back. But I quickly learned that this is an invitation for trouble. As soon as they see you are alone, they attach themselves to you and ask you nosy questions. It’s shocking that they think they have the right to just invade your privacy because you were too polite to ignore their greeting. Even when I become curt they persist. In order to get rid of them I I’d have to escape into a shop and linger for a while, pretending I want to make a purchase.
Indian women are never in public places by themselves. This may be because they feel vulnerable in this society. So when I saunter around I get noticed. I’m an Indian woman solo, and in nontraditional clothes. Easy prey. Now when I get greeted I scowl and turn away. There were a few times in Cochin when I misjudged, and this has made me even harder. A well dressed young man with fluent English, saw me hesitate as I tried to cross a street and immediately knew I was a foreigner. He guided me across and then started a conversation. I politely responded. Not even five minutes later he tells me there’s a wonderful rooftop restaurant in the city and would I like to have dinner with him. Jesus! I said no thanks, and he respected that and walked away. I felt a little guilty, thinking maybe he was just honestly interested in talking to an Indian woman raised in the west and after all, what could he do to me in a public setting. But, I know that I’ll always say no in these situations. I’m not willing to take chances given the stories I hear.

So, what is it about Indian men? I’ve traveled a bit without Daryl to many places around the world and I’ve never felt harassed as I do here in India. It’s got to have something to do with how conservative this society is. I could be wrong here, but from conversations I’ve had with locals, it is rare for young Indian men and women to go out on dates. My impression is that many people are virgins until they get married. So, is it sexual repression? Or is it the fact that Indian society is so different that the men just have no clue about etiquette. And again , before you think it’s me seeing it from a western perspective, the behavior of men in Indian society is a topical issue. I read about a couple of young women committing suicide because of the shame they felt from male harassment. So, it’s definitely a real probem.

What to make of Indian society? As I travel from city to city, each with its own charm and issues, there are certain phenomena I find common to all the places I see. It’s amazing that even though I know many people who’d been to India and related their experiences to me, there are things I wasn’t expecting. For example, the way women dress. In Bangalore women were quite varied in how they dressed. Some were in traditional Indian clothes and others were in various western styles – from simple jeans and tops to more trendy designer clothes to the more sort of experimental, almost hippie type stuff. I didn’t bat an eye at the way women were dressed in Bangalore, and assumed it would be the same everywhere in India. But when I left the city and got to Mysore I was immediately struck by the fact that all the women were either in saris or those long cotton or silk dresses with matching pants and scarves. I thought well, maybe Mysore is just one of those conservative cities. I was wrong. In every city I’ve been since leaving Bangalore women were dressed traditionally. This was slightly less so in Cochin. I had imagined India to be a country that was rapidly modernizing and that implied people – a certain percentage, surely - would break from tradition. I mean, everywhere else in the world, including China and Malaysia, the way people dress is essentially not much different to what we see in the west. And let’s not forget, I know many Indians around the world – in South Africa, in England, and in the US, and nobody dresses traditionally – not even the older generations! So, yes, it definitely came as a surprise to me to find women of all ages in conservative Indian clothes. The women always look elegant, adorned with jewelry, and wear their long hair in neat hairstyles. They look quite exotic. It is wonderful to visit a country and find uniqueness. Who wants the whole world to be dressed the same way?
But Indian women are not outgoing and independent. In fact professional women who have to leave their parent's home for work live in government establishments called "Working women's Hostels." These exist in all major cities I've been in. Young, working single people do not live on their own.

In South India, a significant percentage of men wear dhotis. In Cochin most of the men were in western clothes, but as soon as you get out of the city and into the smaller towns and villages, men are in dhotis.

Here, in Varkala, I walked out on the beach away from the resort section and found a beach crowded with locals (it was Sunday late afternoon). Believe it or not, the women were all in their regular clothes! Some were in the water with their saris or pants rolled up! I couldn’t believe it. Actually, here’s something strange. Along the cliff promenade where all the shops are, you would expect to find stores with stuff beachgoers would need, like swim suits and sarongs. Now I’m in need of a new swimsuit and I haven’t been able to find any store in Varkala that sells swimsuits!

Well, I now have two more weeks in India. I'm almost at the bottom of India and tomorrow I'll leave Kerala and head to India's land's end - Kanyakumari. There I will begin my tour of the temples of Tamil Nadu.

20 January 2008


I just looked at my previous post and blushed at my many typos. I blog from cafes - connection often slow - and all in a hurry ...o time to proofread.
I'm in a resort village called Varkala along the Malabar Coast in South Kerala. It's quite a stunning place with steep cliffs from where you look down at the water. This place is set up for western tourists (the place is swarming with them) so I feel like I have temporarily left India. I'm staying in a Keralan style hut with a thatch roof made from palm fronds. It's very cute and comfortable. I highly recommend a stop in Varkala, especially midway through travels in India, which I am. After two weeks of frenetic India it's tempting to think of home, but you can't just go back because you know there's still a lot more to see and you really came here to see that stuff. Then you get to Varkala. Ahhh! A strip of hotels, Ayurvedic resorts (I'm staying in one), restaurants, and shops along a cliff which reminds me a little of Cinque Terre in Italy. To get to the beautiful beach below you go down a steep staircase. Varkala is the kind of place I imagine many Californians will love. Everywhere, you see signs up for Ayurvedic massages, yoga sessions and classes, body treatments, Keralan cooking classes, etc. So, as you can see there are a lot of things to keep a person happy. In the evenings strolling the cliff promenade is fun. You can see beautiful sunsets. Many restaurants have live Indian music - mainly classical - in the evenings. As resorts go, Varkala has got to be way superior to places like Hawaii. I'm indulging myself - spending 4 nights here. I feel guilty about it - but, it's so wonderful here. Today I had my first Ayurvedic massage. Such treatments aren't done in the kind of la-di-da places we have in California. Oh no. You are in some simple building. A woman takes you into a small room whcih has a massage table that has been around as long as I have. You take off all your clothes and no robe or towel is wrapped around you. The woman lathers on Ayurvedic oils which smell like spicy flowers and massages you firmly, slapping, pounding, and rubbing. Boy, she was so bloody firm even when I was on my back, completely oblivious to the fact that my breasts might be a tad more tender than the rest of me! Every part of you is oiled and massaged from head to toe. And it's all very straightforward. No soothing music and candles and stuff. But, oh boy, it was good. Then a shower to wash off those oils whcih felt like an inch thick layer around me.

While I'm here I'll also take yoga classes, and whatever else is on offer. And yes, I'll do another one or two more Ayurvedic massages. I'm no idiot.
Now, can you imagine a better way to while away your time at a beach resort? Oh yes, the ocean water is warm and great for swimming or rather splashing about. There is a strong current - so it's hard to actually swim.
This morning over breakfast I observed about 5 or 6 dolphins playing about in the water. An Italian tourist I spoke to told me that when he was swimming he noticed a large shape and was alarmed - he thought it was a shark. Then a dolphin jumped and he realized he was swimming among the dophins. Cool, huh?

In Kerala there is 100% literacy. Everyone can speak some English - the levels vary. The locals have a lot of pride in their language and culture. People are friendly and I've had lots of conversations with the locals. I like them a lot. I could live in Kerala!

18 January 2008

Allepey - The Backwaters

I can tell that I'm no longer in culture shock. During my first few days I was bombarded by so much that was knew to me - men holding hands, tiny, dark shops, aunties in saris sweeping areas with short, grass brooms, men pulling carts with goods they were selling, shabby buildings, crazy roads, etc., etc. Now, I don't even notice those things. I'm actually able to look beyond that and find the uniqueness of each new place I see. I'm in Allepey, supposedly a village, but the huge traffic and crowds make me doubtful of this lable. Anyway, teh big attraction to Allepey is that it is the gateway to the backwaters. This part of Kerala consists of a large network of canals - 900km. A bit like Venice but on a much larger scale. Torists come out here and higher houseboats called Ketuvalems because they are designed to look like old rice barges. These boats are like floating hotels and come with a cook and a driver. So people stay on these for days as they are taken along canals, passing villages and rice paddies. There are other ways to experience the backwaters too. I went on a four hour ride in small canoe. A retired Australian couple and their grandson were the other passengers. It was a fabulous, peaceful journey along palm fringed canals. I got to see little villages along the canals. People were washing clothes or taking baths or washing pots or even fishing in the waters. As we got further away we were in a whole other universe - away from traffic and noise. So green, peaceful, lush. The little houses of the villagers are close to the water and behind the villages you can see wide expanses of rice paddies. We stopped at a village for a refreshing coconut drink. They use a machete like knife to slice off the top and you get a straw to drink up the juice. We continued on and then stopped at another village for tea and vadas - the flat, crispy type as opposed to another type of vada common here which looks like a dowughnut and is doughy. We saw water snakes, colorful birds, liket he kingfisher, and even a fish or two. A great experience.

After returning to Allepey I thought why not take a local ferry and get a different experience of the backwaters? So I went off to the jetty and stepped into a ferry about to depart. When the conductor asked where to I shrugged and said to the end and then back to Allepey. He smiled and was quite nice about this. Being among locals in a bigger boat gave me a different perspective. It took stopped at villages for passengers to alight and embark and then after an hour and a half the conductor suggested I get off and see the village and the ferry will be back in half an hour. Great idea except the vilage was a big one with traffic and shops. I would have preferred something small. Anyway I walked away from the shops and came to a neighborhood where the road was a narrow unpaved path and saw the simple homes of the locals. Then I got back on the ferry and returned to Allepy.

16 January 2008

A Dose of South Indian Culture

Cochin seems like a city that takes culture seriously. You see a number of fine arts galleries, dance schools, and every evening you can find classical music, Kathakali, or some other cultural event. Kathakali, a Keralan art form, is a dance dramatising a play or story from the Indian scriptures like the Ramayana. So yesterday I got a ticket and attended a performance. I was surprised when I entered the humble theatre to find tha the audience consisted solely of tourists. Oh well! Before the performance the audience gets to witness the performer putting on his make-up. The artist's painted face, crazy costumes, and elaborate headresses is a major part of the act. I found the dance itself a bit uninspiring. Eye and facial movements seem important to the expressing of the story. When it was over, as I walked away, I thought, hmmm interesting, but not anything to write home about. It was still early evening - 8:00 - si walked over to the temple near my hotel where a major festival ios going on. There's a big park area in front of the hotel which is festively decorated with lights. A stage is set up for nightly performances. Well, last night I got there in the middle of a Bharata Natyam performance. Boy, did I luck out! Bharata Natyam is a South Indian classical dance form - equivalent to ballet in many respects - where dancers dress in gorgeous costumes and play out a story from Hindu scriptures using intricate hand, neck, head, and leg movements.
I sat on the grass among the locals - the night was balmy - and let the talented dancers and wonderful classical Indian music transport me to heaven. I was completely spellbound. What graceful movements, and becauce I have a smattering knowledge of Indian mythology I even understood some of the dances. One was the courtship of Lord Krishna and Radha, his consort. I could have watched this all night.
I'll leave Cochin with many pleasant memories. Today I leave for Allepey, the headquarters of the backwater experience!

15 January 2008

Kerala - is this India?

If I were forced to live in India I would not be unhappy in Cochi. I find it very easy to walk around and explore. The roads are in fair condition and named so finding my bearings has not been a problem. This city has many parks, community halls, great restaurants that are clean and shiny, intersting shops. Yesterday I took the ferry to Fort Cochin, one of the islands that make up the city. Well, I was shocked when I got off the ferry. It was like entering another country. Fort Cochin drips with history going back to the East India spice trade. There are many colonial buildings built by the Portuguese, Dutch, and English, and these buildings are well maintained. Around the island are churches and a synogogue in a Jewish Quarter. Along Bazaar Road are merchants selling - you guessed it - spices! You could be back in the 16th century. But the 21st century is everywhere on this island: a spotless 24 hour Internet cafe, cafes selling espresso drinks, gourmet restaurants, Ayurvedic massage places, and lots of fine hotels. It looks a bit like a European resort wtih many, many western travelers all over the island. Along the water there are fishing boats and fisherman selling their catch.
You should only see Fort Cochin after you've seen a fair bit of India. Then it comes as a surprise. Personally I prefer the mainland. This is where the real folks live and work and it's far more interesting. You can enjoy India without the hassles of loud traffic, pollution, mounds of trash, etc. I haven't seen a single cow in Cochin!

This morning I had breakfast at a place called India Coffee House. This is a chain of cafes spread around Kerala and it's a worker's co-operative outfit. What I loved was that it was full of locals - well dressed, probably on their way to their office jobs - and it good, strong coffee. I looked around to see what the locals ate for breakfast. Here in Kerala it seems like people eat some type of bread/starch product (porota, puri, putu, or apam) with a subjee or curry. I had an omelette and toast. Great way to start the day!

Another cool thing about this city is that I've been able to talk to locals on an
equal footing. I don't stand out and people only realize I'm foreign when they talk to me in Malayalam and I give them a confused look. Then when I say something they
know I'm from a foreign country, and this then leads to conversation. It's great.

Well, ciao for now!

14 January 2008


I had quite an eventful day yesterday as I made my way to Cochin. I felt a bit stressed about taking a train by myself, but it all worked in a pretty uncomplicated manner, except for the fact that the train was close to an hour late. A young woman from Coimbatore (Raji) - a software engineer working in Cochin sat next to me on the train. She was very friendly and chatty - quite curious about life in the west and the differences I had seen. She insisted that I share her breakfast with her - some delcious savory semolina thing her mom had made. Yum! After five hours on the train as we approached Cochin Ranji spoke to someone and found out that the train was going to stop first at a smaller station north of the city. She said she needed to get off but I had to get off at the next station. Well, the train sped up and stopped 15 minutes later. Alarm bells went off in my head but I got off and found I was in the middle of nowhere. Someone from the train looked at me and I said, "South station?" He said no we had already left Cochin! The train started to move - I couldn't get back on. I looked around and saw nothing - just grass and trees - then on the other side of the tracks two hundred meters further on I saw a station. I had to figure out how to go down a four foot high wall, cross two tracks with my luggage and then get up the wall on the other side. I saw a 'ramp' - two shaky planks and realized it was my only choice. An old man was also negotiating the same problem - I copied him, hauling my luggage up on the platform, then getting on all fours to get up the 'ramp'. At this point I was really stressed. I hadn't used a bathroom since 7:00 in the morning and it was now 3:00. Once in the sation I felt a little better because there were people around and nice cars parked at the front. An autorick appeared and I asked if he could take me to my hotel in Cochin. I would have paid w whatever amount he asked for!!! If only he knew! The old man hovered around and also needed to get somewhere in Cochin so I was definitely not going to get ripped off. So off we went with the promise of being dropped off right at the door of my hotel! Phew!

Once at the hotel I showered and walked around. I found Cochin to be a most enjoyable city. It looks relatively prosperous with nice buildings and reasonable roads. No beggars or people lying on the streets. People don't bother you. Everyone is polite and friendly.

I wandered around in search of a good restaurant because I really wanted thought I deserved a good meal. Near my hotel is a swanky five star hotel with an awesome restaurant. And I knew I'd found what I was looking for. For dinner they had an enormous spread of various curries - many local specialties, different rices dishes, salads, etc. and then they bring to your table freshly made apam (a crepe like bread). What a feast. Then the dessert options - about ten different delicious things - mango mousse, chocolate cake, payasam, fruit salad, Indian sweets, etc.
I was in heaven. The place catered to rich travelers from abroad so it was definitely not authentic India. But, my goodness, I'm sure it's the best Indian food I've ever eaten anywhere in the world.

After dinner a group of us from our hotel went to a nearby temple to see a celebration. It was a Shiva temple and it was the oldest temple in Cochin. At the temple the main attraction was three elephants that were decorated and people were riding on them as they paraded around the temple followed by people singing devotional songs and playing music on flutes and drums. It was all very colorfula nd interesting. I did feel sorry for the elephants though, but I won't elaborate!!

Today I'm going to explore the historical quarters of this city - Fort Cochin and Matancherry.

13 January 2008

Down the Mountains!

Wow! What a bus ride. I asked for a ticket on a luxury bus but it wasn't leaving until late so I had to take the next best thing. Packed, clunky, but way better than the wrecks most of hte locals take. The drive out of Ooty is like going down one of those rollercoasters. Down, down, sharp haripin bends, steep slopes, deep valleys, oh so beautiful, and the driver was really careful. Nothing like what I experienced in Greece. I was relaxed pretty much the whole journey.
Last night in Ooty we had a homemade meal prepared by the cook 'auntie' - warm, soft chapatis and a cauliflower curry. As good as my mother makes it! Then after dinner the guy running the place made a campfire and we sat around it. Graham told us all about his very exciting day. You see Graham spent the first 11 years of his life in India (his parents are South Indian) and he went to a private English boarding school near Ooty in the Nilgiri Mountains. After his family emigrated to Australia he never came back to India. And now he's doing it with his partner Suzannah. So he wanted to go back to his school that he absolutely loved as a kid. Well, when he returned from the visit he couldn't stop talking about what he saw and showed us the many, many pics he took. The school is still running and is bigger, but he remembered a lot and he seemed very emotional about the visit. So under the Indian sky where the stars were numerous and the fire crackling and keeping us warm, we heard all about it.

And now I'm in Coimbatore for the sole purpose of catching a train to Cochin in Kerala. But I have to overnight here. That's okay because I do like what I've seen of this city. I'm in a new, clean, modern hotel which is smack dab in the middle of all the nice eating places and shops.

Am I enjoying myself? That dowsn't seem an appropriate question in this country. It's so hard to see people in such poverty. People talk about being scammed or ripped off by autorick drivers. But I just see how hardit must be for them to make a living. Who cares if you are ripped off by a dollar or two. It means nothing to us yet can make a difference to them. My heart goes out to all the folks trying so hard to make a living by doing the most meaningless of things. It makes me so damn guilty about my life. How is it that I can be so lucky and choose how to live my life and be comfortable?

Om Shati!

12 January 2008


I'm in a hill station called Ooty in the state of Tamil Nadu. Hill Stations were created during British rule as an escape from the oppressive summers. So Ooty started out as a resort town up on in a mountain in the Nilgiris. The area is famous for tea and spice plantations. The scenery around Ooty is spectacular. The ride up (by minibus) took us through winding, steep slopes with numerous hairpin bends and we could see the amazing peaks of the Nilgiris. The route went through Mudumulai National Park, a wildlife santuary so we saw some animals. I saw a herd of elephants, lots of beautiful spotted deer, peacocks, and pretty birds. The person sitting beside me on the bus was a computer software engineer and he told me a lot about the area. He also arranged accommodation for myself and two travel buddies I hooked up with - Graham and Suzanna (Aussie couple). The guy was wonderful. He called up someone he knew who let out holiday houses and arranged for us to stay at one of these places. And I love the place. It's better than anything I would have found on my own. It is spotless, spacious, and right beside a lake in a pine forest. But it is actually close to town - a half hour walk - interesting walk - past a deer park, pretty public gardens, villagers doing their everyday life, and then you're in town. At this holiday house an 'auntie' comes in to make brakfast and dinner. This morning she made idlis served with masal chai. They were amazing - steaming, soft - and the coconut sauce and lentil sauce that went with the idlis were full of flavor and delicious. It was quite an experience having this cook make this breakfast just for the three of us.

Ooty is much cooler than Bangalore and Mysore. In fact, I'm in winter clothes. It's great to stroll through this village. It's cleaner and easy to navigate the streets. Winter woollies and coats are on sale everywhere. This place is also famous for homemade chocolate which I've sampled and it was wonderful. There are a lot of modern homes built on the mountain slopes and there are quite a range of shops. There is a colorful bazaar selling clothes and produce and a string of jewelry stores. The main attraction to Ooty is that you can escape into the wilderness. trekking into the mountain is popular, but the trails aren't clearly defined so a guid is necessary.

I leave this place tomorrow for Coimbatore where I'll make my way to Cochin.

10 January 2008


How to capture India? I walk the streets (Mysore is great for this) and I see/hear/smell familiarity. Even though I've been in this country less than a week, it is so much a part of my soul. All my life I'd heard stories and read books and saw movies and documentaries about this country - my motherland. It doesn't surprise me to see cows along the roads in the city center and to see people eating dosas that they bought from the roadside vendors and typists typing out letters from old fashioned typewriters and the rickshaws squeezing between smoky old buses. Crowds, noise, heat (yes, heat and it's midwinter!), odors, chaos, chaos. Yet, so much to enjoy. Today we went to Mysore's enormous produce market. What a feast for the senses. Colors, fragrances, fresh fruit, many, many kinds of vegetables, flowers, mounds of spices, bunches upon bunches upon bunches of bananas. Wow! Then outside the market is a bazaar selling silks - saris, mostly - and sandalwood carvings. Around the city there are a lot of grand buildings. The Maharaja's Palace is the most famous, but there are numerous Victorian style buildings and towers around.

At night the city takes on a renewed energy. With the air cooler people come out and street vendors churn out South Indian food served on banana leaves. The market is open until 10:00 P.M. With the darkness concealing the piles of trash and the dirty walls of buildings it all looks quite charming.

Tomorrow I head out into the mountains to a hill station called Ooty!

09 January 2008


One thing you quickly learn in India is that nothing is easy. Well, maybe in a few weeks I'll have a different opinion. I've got travel buddies (Anita, Sandy, and Hannah) for a few days and that makes things very easy. They've been in India for two months now and have quite an amazing understanding of the country. What I like about being with them is that they are so into the culture and have a lot of enthusiasm. So, it's rubbed off onto me and I'm having a fantastic time. It's quite a feeling to know that each day is going ot bring brand new experiences. We took the train to Mysore from Bangalore and my goodness, what an experience! I loved it. Absolutely loved it. As soon as we got seated a man came around taking lunch orders. We had packed picnic stuff so we declined. But I was told train meals are fab. so next journey I'll be prepared. As the train started moving guys kept walking up and down selling coffee and tea. Then halfway along, the train made a stop and a snack vendor came on selling vadas (flat, crispy opnion pakora like things). They were warm and delicious.
Would you believe there are eight different classes of train compartments? Foreigners seem to be given a choice of comfortable or extrememly comfortable!

In Mysore we took an autorickshaw to the hotel area, found comfortable digs, then went out for a meal. I immediately noticed a big difference between here and Bangalore. The people are smaller, dressed in colorful saris, and seem more provincial. Also, it's quieter without the jarring traffic noises. For dinner we had North Indian cuisine which was exquisite.

We went up to Chamundi Hill to see a famous temple, then walked down many steps to the bottom of the hill from where we took a bus back to the hotel. We had a sensational lunch at an Andhra restaurant. The meals were served on banana leaves. Waiters come around serving rice and different curries and you could eat as much as you liked. It was kind of like a home meal. Yummy!

There is so much more to say, but I have to meet up with my new friends.


07 January 2008


Day 2 in India. Well, it's quite a culture shock. So much to take in. Bangalore has everything you would find in the west in terms of shops and services, yet it looks so utterly shabby. The air is heavily polluted, there's so much noise, the streets are dusty, litter everywhere, the buildings completely neglected. Yet there is an energy. Walking around is a lot of fun. I met up with three women - an Australian, a Canadian, and an English woman - and they invited me to go to the movies with them. We saw "Aum shanti Aum" which even though it was in Hindi with no englsih subtitles was quite enjoyable. I had my first autorickshaw ride today. Wow! I'm amazed I'm not munched. Tomorrow I leave Bangalore by train and will head out to Mysore.

06 January 2008


January 6, 2008 9:00 A.M.

Namaskar! Vanakum! Greetings! The beginning of Day 1 in India. I'll be in Bangalore for two days, then I'll head south. Nothing much to report as the day is just beginning. Entering Bangalore’s humble airport from Singapore’s ultramodern one was quite a jolt. Most airports around the world these days seem pretty generic, and you have to search for signs of the country you’ve just entered. Not so in Bangalore. You know you’ve entered India as soon as you get into the building. Dull lighting, linoleum floors, stained walls, and a carousel that can barely move. When I exited the airport building I was immediately greeted by India’s chaotic frenzy – a large crowd awaiting arrivals, cars honking horns, taxi drivers offering rides, etc. I’d arranged with my hotel to send me a taxi. It was 10:30 at night and I wanted to make life easy for myself. The ride to my hotel felt surreal – like I was in a movie. I’d read and heard so much about Indian roads that I was fully prepared for the heavy traffic weaving through ill defined lanes and constantly blasting their horns. My hotel, the Ballal Residency, is pretty central and very comfortable. It actually feels more luxurious than I’m used to. So, my first night was great. I had a restful sleep. But by 6:00 the jarring noises of the city made it hard to linger in bed. I had my first Indian breakfast this morning. The hotel provides a decent buffet spread consisting of cereals, toast, and fruit. Then there are the South Indian items – idli, vadas, puri potatoes, and a delicious sweet porridge like thing. I decided to be adventurous and have the idli. I thought, heck, my ancestors probably had this for breakfast so why not give it a shot! See, idli is a steamed bread made with rice flour so as breakfast food it’s great. But the sambar – savory and soupy – which goes with it makes it rather too exotic for early in the day! I enjoyed it though, thinking it would be dinner time back in Santa Barbara anyway.

I’m told the shops on the main road – the MG Road – open at 10:00. So, I’ll head out there and begin my exploration of this country.

6:00 P.M.

My hotel couldn’t be better located – within walking distance to the MG (Mahatma Gandhi) Street shopping and dining area, but a little away from the main streets so a great place to return to for peace and quiet. As I walked along Brigade and MG Streets I was so amazed by everything I didn’t even bother taken photos. There is no way photos would capture the many, many things that go on. First there is the traffic – cars, autorickshaws, motorbikes, buses – all spewing out choking smoke. Then there are the people - crowds upon crowds - and all the interesting shops. Such a strange mix of buildings. Some look so shabby, while others are clean and modern. You can tell Bangalore is techie city. Lots of computer and electronics stores everywhere. There's also lots of good food - an absolute heaven for vegetarians. I had lunch at a place called Emgees Veggies. Flocks of well dressed Indian families came in for their Sunday lunch. Waiters in black suits took orders. I had a masala dosa and a falooda. A falooda is a creamy drink flavored with rose water and seved with a dollop of kulfi coated with poppy seeds. It was delicious. I'm being careful with my health. Malaria pills, eating at good, clean, higher end places, and drinking only bottled water.

People here, in the area called Karnataka, have been wonderful. Everyone is so polite and they all address me as "madam". For some reason people know I'm foreign. I don't get why. In this city women dress in much more modern clothes. I want to blend and I've got to work on that a bit.
I noticed European travelers have been wearing Indian clothes. The women have scarves over their shoulders.
I'm loving being among people who look like me. For me, this is incredibly unusual. Today I had my hair cut and colored (the last time I did my hair was in June in Santa Barbara) and it was so strange to have an Indian woman who understood Indian hair handling my hair!
I can tell that Bangalore is too vast a city to get to know. I don't really want to linger here. It's a great place to begin, to take care of logistics, then move on. I'll spend tomorrow hunting down a travel/tour agent and get onward train tickets and hotels sorted out.

Do send comments and keep in touch.

04 January 2008


Hello Everyone,

Singapore is Asia-lite, a guide book says. Ultra lite if you ask me! You have to go into Chinatown or Little India to find some authentic Asia ffs! My impressions: overly built up, shopping centers galore, glitzy skyscrapers, hot and humid, friendly locals, great food. Definitely a city worth seeing enroute to somewhere. And despite the laws I saw two people spitting in two days - more than I've seen int he previous 6 months! and trash is very visible along the roads. I say, bring on the strict fines! I'm bracing myself now for India, land of my ancestors!

01 January 2008

New Year Greetings!

Hey Guys,

We're done with South Africa. Had a fantastic drive from west coast to east coast. Went on game drives, explored coastal resorts, did the beaches, reunited with family, ate lots of great food, and generally had a heck of a great time. This country does not disappoint! And now I leave for India. I'll spend two nights in Singapore before flying out to Bangalore where I begin a South India coast route, ending in Madras. Stay tuned for all the exciting details.

Happy New Year everyone!