Monthly Archives: August 2009

Kerala Part 3: the Houseboat Tour of the Backwaters

Leaving from Alleppy, we took this very relaxing cruise on a houseboat (with a captain, mate, and cook) through the backwaters of Kerala, a “must-do” when visiting. The food was excellent, as was sitting on this boat reading, relaxing, watching Kerala as we floated by.

Here was an odd aspect. I really wanted to do this tour, because the novel (The God of Small Things) is set in a village that is along the backwaters. I wanted to see the scenery. But, you are basically touring people’s neighborhoods. Granted, it was on water, but the American equivalent might be if foreign tourists rented RVs and toured around suburban streets. We actually “parked” in front of someone’s house for the night. I know the residents must be very used to all of the tourists, but it’s got to be very annoying. I cannot imagine waking up and seeing an RV parked in front of my house with gawking tourists. (And that is basically what we did.)

We saw rice fields growing famous Keralan rice, which is very different from basmati. There are a lot of photos from the houseboat tour, so I will simply let you look at them below. Click on individual photos to enlarge them.

A note about the photos: the long skinny boats full of men are snake boats. They are preparing for the famous snake boat races. The hammers and sickles are indicative of the strong presence that the communist party has in Kerala, which plays a large role in the novel The God of Small Things. The rest are photos of views we saw while on the boats — or pictures of my family.

After we got off the boat (into pouring rain), we got into a car for a twisty ride up to Thekkady and the Periyar Wildlife Preserve.

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Kerala Part 2: Marari Beach

We next went to Marari Beach which is near the town of Alleppy. We had only one night there, but it was lovely to be on an ocean beach.

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We spent one day swimming there and hanging out at the resort. Again, being monsoon season, we were one set of few guests, so we had the place to ourselves. We stayed at the Turtle Beach Resort, which was lovely, but this is where our reservation trouble began. I won’t bore you with the details, but if you plan to travel Kerala, I recommend the CGH Earth group of hotels over the ABAD group of hotels. The ABADs were very nice, but we just kept running into trouble with our reservations, and the CGH hotels are really nice (and eco-friendly!).

Thus began the rainy part of our trip (click on the photo to enlarge it, so you can better see the rain):

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Keep in mind, it was monsoon season. Frankly, it did not rain as much as we expected. As we moved into the interior of Kerala, it rained more and more, but for the most part, we had decent weather considering the season.

The night we stayed at the Turtle Beach Resort, we went to a lake resort for dinner (one that involved a very long drive during which we got lost), which was a very lovely place. We had a delicious dinner of fish and crab.

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Here is a cute family picture by a Krishna statue:

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The next morning, we headed to our houseboat for a backwaters tour.

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Traveling to Kerala, Part I: Fort Cochi

I so want to do this part of my trip justice, but I am running low on time.

Kerala was a wonderful place — so different from Delhi — quieter, cleaner, greener, cooler. Kerala was the reason I wanted to go to India in the first place. I loved Arundhati Roy‘s novel The God of Small Things, which is largely set in Kerala.

Fort Cochi is a port on the Arabian Sea/Indian Ocean. They have been dredging the bay so larger container ships can come into port, but the port has historically been a center for the fishing trade. Along the coast, one sees many fishing nets — Chinese fishing nets.

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There are also small fishing boats.

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Because there are many fishmongers there, unlikely customers (who may be unlikely to pay) show up as well.

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We even saw a customer looking over his purchases, one of whom was trying to make a break for it. A crab darted toward the sea, and frankly, it was sad to see that last desperate effort. The customer nabbed him before he made it.

As I have been mentioning, there are wild dogs all over the place. We saw this cute dog…

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…and then we saw her pups in the greenery behind her:

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It is said that the Syrian Orthodox Church was brought by St. Thomas the Apostle in 52 AD, so Christianity is very common in Kerala and throughout much of the south of India. The Portuguese later brought Roman Catholicism to Kerala in the early 1500’s. Churches there are highly decorated (inside), unlike the stark churches of New England. Here is the Santa Cruz Cathedral:

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We stayed in a lovely guest house, the Grande Residencia. Because we were there off season (monsoon season), we got great rates. Unfortunately, that also meant a number of restaurants were closed. We ate at one particularly bad “italian” restaurant. The restaurant, an outdoor number, next to our hotel was very good. Stick with seafood in Kerala. Oh — and order the Keralan paratha. Oh my god, is it good! It’s made with coconut milk. Yum!

Our time in Fort Cochi was pretty relaxed. We strolled around the coast and did a little shopping. My niece and nephew had a great time in the pool.

The second night there, we went to see a Kathakali performance. I really wanted to see one, especially because it is referenced in The God of Small Things. I’ve got to be honest — it was not at all what I was expecting. It clearly takes years and years of training (they said six) to perform this art — a story dance filled with non-verbal gestures that tell the story. There is some singing, but the bulk of the story in conveyed in complex movements, including eye movements and stylized facial expressions. It is a painstakingly slow process to communicate the story, and in its traditional forms, kathakali performances begin at about 8pm and go on until sunrise. They are religious in nature, and traditionally, they are performed at temples. We saw a performance at the Keralan Kathakali Center, where they gave is a primer before the two hour performance.

Here the actors are applying makeup:

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This is just before the performance:

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A man made these prints using a chalk-like powder. The performance surprised us all. The demon made this screeching sound that truly sounded demonic. The nuances of all the movements were pretty amazing, but as a short attention spanned westerner, I think I’d have a hard time with the all night performance.

After Fort Kochi, we were off to Alleppy, Marari, and the houseboat on the Keralan backwaters.

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Getting through my Trip

I am not sure I am going to be able to write up the rest of my trip. I will do what I can, but school begins on Wednesday, and I have a lot of work to do. I’ll try to at least post a few pictures here and there. Besides, such a large part of blogging is very self-indulgent.

I had coffee with a former student today so we could share stories about our respective summer travels. I was telling her that I miss being in India. Granted, there is something to loving a place while one is on vacation. Living in a location is entirely different. I think part of it was that I really enjoy spending time with my sister and her family. Since my sister left for college, I have always lived far away from her (except the summer I lived with her in Philly). I think that when they return to the States, they should move to the luxurious and wonderful state of Connecticut.

The Village is a nonprofit organization that serves the Hartford area. I have worked with them when doing community service with my students. Corporate sponsorship is down this year, which is affecting their Backpack Program, which provides Hartford youth in need with backpacks for school, full of notebooks, pens, paper, etc. Please consider donating.

Backpack Program Flyer

Click the above link for a flyer with information.

City Palace

The last place I went in Jaipur, before the lassi stand, was City Palace. It his a complex that was used for many purposes. It was built initially by a maharajah, and then it was used by the government of Rajasthan, getting many additions in between. When I was there, part of it was closed to the public, because it still housed the ailing maharani, Gayatri Devi. She was well known for her beauty, even into her old age.

Gayatri Devi died while I was still in India. It was a great loss for India and Rajasthan in particular.

Here is the gate to part of the complex.

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This was a building used by the government for official meetings:

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A hall of public audience:

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A peacock gate, which I believe is called the Summer Gate:

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Then someone asked me to take a photo with this man in traditional rajasthani dress:

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I obliged, as people had been asking to take my photo all day. Then, of course, they asked me for money. I might have given them money on any other day, but after having been ripped off, I frustratedly said, you have to tell me this before.

Finally, here is a spittoon, though you commonly see red betelnut stains in corners.

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This is a common sight, as many people chew and spit betelnut. I mistakenly thought all paan was betelnut or some substance like chewing tobacco, so was a bit grossed out by paan. Then I found out my aunt takes paan, and I was shocked, as she is a rather refined woman. I was still “scared” of it. Finally, my last night in India, I tried paan, and it’s pretty good — just a mouth freshener, like mukwas.

After City Palace, we stopped so I could get the best lassi in the world, and it was amazing, served in a “disposable” clay cup. Yum! Then we were off for our adventurous drive home.

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Jantar Mantar

By the time I got to Jantar Mantar, I was burned out on tour guides, so I did not get one. It would have been nice to have one, because it is a series of astrological and astronomical instruments that I did not quite understand on my own.

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Nonetheless, it was a beautiful place. Basically, the structures are scientific equipment used to measure time, days, etc. Construction began in 1727 by a Mughal emperor. They are calendars and clocks (and so much more), but they are also beautiful as works of art. It was a photographer’s paradise.

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Note the coming rain storm — I was about to get wet!

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See Hawa Mahal in the background?

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Note the numbers and lines:

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Hawa Mahal

I think Hawa Mahal may have been my favorite part of Jaipur.

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This is the front from the street:

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Basically, I spent a lot of time here wandering the halls. Each storey is connected by a series of ramps. It was built for a harem so they could view the happenings of the town without being seen. The facade of this palace has many small windows through which the women could watch what was going on below. I really enjoyed sitting and watching for awhile, myself. My love affair with windows deepened at Hawa Mahal.

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The street below was very busy, as you can see from my photos. I was also asked by several people to be in photos, including one photo of a young man shaking my hand.

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Note the wide load on the bicycle rickshaw:

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A chaat wallah (street food vendor):

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I also dug this cow, a common site in Indian cities:

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My Crazy Trip to Jaipur

It was mid-week, and we were going to Kerala on Saturday morning. I wanted to go to Jaipur, but it wasn’t looking possible. Lesa and Jon arranged for auto rickshaws and other rides for Lesa to get to work and for the kids to get to and frm school so that Chauhan could drive me to Jaipur.

Several people have warned me of the dangers of hiring an unknown driver, so this seemed like the best option. Most of the warnings were about taking a tai from Delhi to Noida at night, because parts of Noida are desolate, and there have been a number of crimes. Yipes!

I got my iPod ready with a mixture of American and Indian music, and Chauhan and I were off to Jaipur on July 22. Immediately, I was so excited to be outside of a city. I loved the rolling hills off in the distance as we entered Rajasthan.

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We also saw lots of animals along the road, including elephants and camels. The elephants where brought here to do work, as they would not normally live in such an arid climate (as I read in the Lonely Planet).

On that first day, we went to the Amber Fort. As we drove up to the Amber Fort, I loved the view of this temple:

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The Amber Fort is surrounded by a great wall, a smaller version of The Great Wall of China, as they tout.

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As we were nearing the fort, a man approached Chauhan and they commenced speaking in another language. Then Chauhan told me he was an official guide and that he would charge me Rs 150. My sister recommended getting an official guide. Chauhan knew I wanted a guide, because someone offered at the parking gate, and I expressed interest, but that guy was clearly not an official guide. This guide showed me some little book that looked a little like a passport and had his photo, but it was in Hindi (I think). I had no idea if this guy was for real, but being a foreigner and not necessarily knowing what is the real deal or not, I went with it. Chauhan would likely not know the real deal either, as he is from out of town and not usually a traveler. The tour this guide gave me was informative and matched what Lonely Planet had to say, so he was not giving me misinformation. So the tour itself was fine.

This is the main gate.

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The fort was beautiful, and I become increasingly enamoured of the detailed windows.

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This fort is well known for its Hall of Mirrors.

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In Rajasthan, there are the requisite snake charmers at all of the tourist hotspots. I watched these guys for awhile. I wanted to give them some money, but I was too afraid to get close to the snakes. Chauhan did it for me, and even he stood back a good distance and tossed the money. I imagine the cobras have had their venom removed, but just in case… We actually saw a cobra one day. While Jon and I were in a temple, Chauhan saw a cobra in a parking lot. He made sure we saw it. It is particularly auspicious to see a cobra in the moth of July, as cobras represent Shiva, and July is Shiva’s month.

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After the tour, the guide wanted to take me to a factory where they make handicrafts. Of course I should have known better, but I was alone, confuse, hot… So I went with this guide. There, they showed me how carpets are made, block printing is done, and gem stones are finished. Then they brought me inside to try to sell me carpets. Clearly, I was not going to buy a carpet. They told me ad nauseam how this was a fixed price government emporium, cheaper than you would get elsewhere, etc.

Well…I did want a table cloth and perhaps a wall hanging. Stupidly, I let them sell me overpriced wall hangings and table cloths. I suppose this has to happen in order for one to really learn, but it sucked. I knew it was happening, too. Ugh! To top it off, I paid the guide Rs 200, because I thought that was the price. Chauhan later pointed out I tipped him very well.

Then Chauhan wanted to stop to show me this lake palace. (Chauhan had driven Lesa’s family on a ten day trip to Rajasthan in March.)

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Finally, we made it inside the walled pink city of Jaipur.

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When I went to my homestay that night, Madhuban, we were initially planning on going to see a movie. We would each have dinner, and then Chauhan would pick me up and we would go. Alas, the movie times did not work out, so I spent the night in my room, stewing on being ripped off. It sucked. It was not so much about the money, but about someone intentionally duping me. It felt malicious. If the money were actually going to the makers of the crafts, then okay. But the money, instead, was going to some dishonest salesman. I was feeling so foreign and alone. I had no internet access, so I could not call Sujal. If Sujal had been with me and we got ripped off together, then at least we would have been together. But now I felt so alone. SO alone and SO foreign. I felt like I could trust no one. I began to wonder if Chauhan took a cut in this deal. The temptation is great for drivers to bring tourists to shops for a commission. Chauhan had always struck me as straightforward and honest, and now I questioned this.

I think he most likely was not “in on” anything; rather, he was not familiar with hiring a guide. But that night was a long night with little sleep involved. When I woke in the morning, I was tired and tearful.

When Chauhan picked me up, I had pulled myself together to face the day with a positive attitude. I was going to see the City Palace and Hawa Mahal. I was going to have a lassi at the best lassi stand in the world. Then I went out to the car. Chauhan introduced me to his “brother.” (Brother could be any relation — cousin, friend, etc — as it implies as close relationship, not just a birth-related brother.) He had spent the night at his “brother’s” house, and did I mind if he rode in the car with us?

Suddenly, the distrust all came back with an overwhelming punch. Who was this guy? Was I about to be hosed again? I didn’t know what to say, other than that it was fine. Of course there are many other obvious responses, but one often finds oneself in uncomfortable situations in India. Sometimes it is a language barrier, sometimes cultural barriers, etc. I didn’t want to be rude or unreasonable. So we began driving, and the feelings of foreignness and distrust descended upon me, as did the tears down my face. Chauhan had been telling me about the “brother” when he looked back and saw that I was quietly crying.

Immediately he asked what had happened. I responded with, “Nothing.” And he pressed saying that something bad had happened. I just said that I was upset that I had been ripped off the day before and that I was feeling very foreign and alone. Again, I pulled myself together as we drove the Hawa Mahal.

While I was at Hawa Mahal, exploring the inside by myself, Chauhan called Lesa. Lesa then called me. Then Lesa called Jon, and Jon called Chauhan. Then the “brother” left. Jon basically told Chauhan that it would be hard for me to trust a strange person in the car with us, especially when I was traveling alone. Chauhan then apologized to me so many times. Ultimately all was fine, but it all out a blight on the Jaipur trip.

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Traffic and Trucks and Things you See Along the Road

Something that impressed me was the art on the trucks. This is all over India, though the level of detail can vary from place to place. I got a few photos when I was in Rajasthan.

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Note how the back of the trucks say “Horn Please” or “Blow Horn.” Traffic works rather differently than it does in the States. There is constant horn blowing, though it is not angry or malicious; rather it is a form of communication between drivers. Sujal says most asian countries do not queue, and this would explain what Indians tend not to stay in their lanes when driving. Lesa describes it (as it was described to her), and India flows like a river (traffic, people, etc) — if something stops or gets stuck, the flow just goes around it. That is definitely the case in traffic. There are cars, trucks, bicyclists, autorickshaws, bicycle rickshaws, moped and motorbikes, and pedestrians, all trying to move along. Clearly, they move at different speeds. They all compete for places on the road, and so the horn becomes necessary to say, “I am coming up behind you on the left.” In general, I think Indian drivers are much more aware of what is happening on the road than American drivers. Since Indian drivers swerve and weave more than Americans, they need to know where other vehicles are and where open spaces are. They need to have a sense of how fast the other vehicles in traffic re traveling. Though many foreigners view this as “crazy driving,” it makes sense to me.

I also like the building as billboard approach. No space is wasted for advertising. This was also very true in Kerala.

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Finally, so many times I saw overstuffed vehicles — a moped with a family of five, autorickshaws spilling over with passengers, and then there was this example, not uncommon to see on the roads:

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When I went to Jaipur, my sister was nervous about Chauhan and me driving on the highway, because she said the trucks are very dangerous, that they often have inexperienced drivers. She said the highway in Haryana is particularly bad. Chauhan and I did see the aftermath of a bad accident on the Noida highway. Often I saw overturned trucks and smashed cars, but this one time, we saw a body being carried off. Chauhan said the man was dead.

Let me reassure you that Chauhan is a very skilled driver, probably the best driver I have ever encountered. But still, he can only control his own vehicle, so when a bus swerved in front of us at the last moment, our accident was inevitable. Luckily, we were moving at a low speed. When we hit the bus, we ricocheted off of it and then hit the median. Chauhan got out to talk to the bus driver, and the driver denied any wrongdoing. I’m not sure how most accidents are handled, but I get the impression that insurance information being exchanged is not the norm. Chauhan got back in the car and we drove off. I could tell that he was nervous and upset, so I suggested we pull over at the next open dhaba (roadside open air restaurant). There he told me he was so angry, he wanted to slap the bus driver, but he didn’t because I was there. (Phew!)

I jumped out of the car — did I mention we had been driving through walls of rain? — and ran to the dhaba to get us Limcas. As I was trying to pay my Rs 50 tab in much confusion, Chauhan came up and clarified for me that I was trying to hand them a Rs 5 note. That was why they initially told me 50 rupees but then were angrily saying 45, 45. After a good laugh, Chauhan and I took a bit more time to calm down and then continue on our way.

Did I mention the eclipse? We left for Jaipur the morning of the eclipse, which was a big phenomenon in India. We did not get to see it in Noida because of the cloud cover, but Chauhan saw in Delhi. Many people saw it as a very holy event. Chauhan said it was bad luck to see it. He later blamed the accident on the eclipse.