Sunday, 25 April 2010

Backwater Village Life

Helping with dinner - chappatis!

The backwaters and our host's 'ride'

Manu with his mother and sister

A typical backwater scene

Taking the wheel

Friday, 23 April 2010

Hot, Steamy to Cool & Mountainous- Southern India

Getting off the plane in Kochi was like walking into a steam bath - maybe not the most fragrant one at times. Considering Sara's eyelids were chapped from being in the desert for 3 weeks, a little moisture didn't hurt.

We feel lucky to have seen both North and South parts of India because they are just so different in many ways. In Kerala, the dress is very different. The men wear dhotis, which look like a white skirt in the version of a sarong or bed sheet. They look very comfortable in the heat. The women, on the other hand, dress much less traditionally. Rather than the bright saris of Rajhastan, you see women in more muted tones and salwars (look like long tunics and leggings). The food in Kerala featured coconut and rice in almost every dish. They are also famous for their fish curries.

We found our itinerary in Kerala was somewhat driven by heat aversion. Originally, we were going to spend the rest of our time in India in just Kerala, but we decided to bypass the beach and head to the cooler hill stations of Kerala and Tamil Nadu.

Our itinerary was as follows:

Fort Cochin - beautiful colonial town. It reminded us quite a bit of Luang Prabang in Laos. We landed a part-time job with some fisherman (see pics) and discovered a cafe that was so good we almost weeped (sorry Panger).

Backwaters - We spent two days cruising the backwaters on a houseboat. The scenery was lush and beautiful and we ate really tasty local dishes. We went for a swim in the evening and it was like swimming in a warm bath. Not that refreshing! The captain offered us a chance to stay at his family home- which was one of the most interesting "home stays" we have done to date. Essentially, he lived in a little backwaters town in a modest two bedroom home with his parents. His sister and her children were also visiting. His nephew was only five years old and he'd never seen foreigners before. He spent the whole time clinging to his mother's skirt and peeping out at us. We couldn't get him to warm up even though his mom said he was normally "very naughty". We had the chance to live like a local for two days. I bathed in the river with Manesh and he showed me how to lather up Indian style. We also took out the family's wooden canoe for a sunset paddle through some of the community's smaller backwater canals. Manesh chatted to everyone as we went by and most likely explained to his neighbours what he was doing with two pasty Canadians in his boat. The people were so welcoming, friendly and curious. At one point, we were invited into a neighbour's tiny home for lemonade and slices of coconut. They clearly had very little money, but they had a wealth of hospitality and smiles for us.

Amma's - Going to Amma's ashram was one of the most interesting experiences in India for me. At first, when Sara told me she wanted to go to an Ashram with a guru who was known for hugging, I was very skeptical. I was calling it the "hugging camp". When we got off the ferry and saw four pink high rises looming, I yelled to the ferry "come back!" However, we did make it across the bridge and were soon installed in our room. For 150 rupee/night ($3.50), we had a clean, sparse room and three vegetarian meals a day. A typical day at the ashram for us (the less than devout) involved:

6AM - morning meditation on a beach (not the cleanest of beaches)
9AM - Breakfast - but for a little extra, you could go to the "western cafe" and get a damn good cappuccino and pb on toast.
11:30 - Men only swim (women were at 10:30 and had to swim in a sundress). I found it difficult to navigate around all the men meditating on their backs as I tried to swim around.
1 PM- Lunch. We had to wash our own plates and spoons were sparse. Sara enjoyed eating with her hands and loved making a good mess.
1-3PM- Quiet time- talking strongly discouraged
2:30PM - Volunteer time (strongly encouraged for all guests). We were in charge of wrapping chocolates for an upcoming US event. I was a master of pink foil but left choked as I didn't get one sample.
4PM- Singing and prayers. Men and women were separate again and this involved sitting on a hard floor cross legged for 2 hours. It was fascinating to watch people from all walks of life in different levels of worship. There were Indians, Brahmans and tons of foreigners, all wearing white.
8PM- Dinner
9 PM - Bed (at least for Sara and I as we'd run out of things to do!)

As part of the rules, you are not supposed to interact with locals in the town, but I did manage to sneak away for a $1 haircut when Sara was at a women's only yoga class.

We entered the ashram knowing very little about the philosophy and nature of Amma's work and we left feeling quite inspired. She has many followers all over the world of many religions that do incredible work for people in need. The woman never stops working- or hugging. They even estimate she has hugged over 26 million people! We didn't get to meet her as she was abroad on tour, but we're hoping to collect our hug in Toronto in July. Bust out your white clothes (nothing too revealing) and come along!

Munnar- At last, some reprieve from the heat! Munnar was a hill station 2,000 meters above sea level and it is famous for it's lush tea plantations. We also stayed at a Cardamon plantation for two nights and soaked up some peace and quiet.

Kodaikanal, Tamil Nadu- Kodaikanal was 140km from Munnar which meant a six hour car ride (of course that makes sense). Kodaikanal had a good vibe with it's mix of Indian honeymooners, trekkers and international students. There is a big international school there that ensures the town has a few western amenities- Baskin Robbins, Hello! We did a good 5 hour hike with a local guide. At one point, we were literally amongst the clouds and it felt like we were looking out of an airplane.

Mysore, Karnataka - After two six hour government buses, we arrived in Mysore (the birthplace of Mysore yoga). Govt buses are never the comfortable way to travel and we always wondered if we were missing some pages in our Lonely Planet because we never saw any other backpackers on our journeys. However, we never felt more immersed with Indian locals as sharing a 50 seat bus with 80 Indians. People were always friendly and smiling even if language was a barrier. Unfortunately, I woke up with "Delhi belly" the first day so spent the day recovering while Sara tracked down some drop-in yoga classes. After weeks without much alcohol at all, we happened upon an Indian beer garden- which seems almost like an oxymoron. The last page in the menu featured the top 10 ways to avoid a hangover- which included drinking a glass of milk before going out. They also notified patrons that barf bags were on hand and one was strongly encouraged to make use of them for the benefit of other customers. The funniest thing about all these warnings was that the restaurant itself was very tame and had a
"women and family" section.

Mamallapuram, Tamil Nadu - After a night train to Chennai, we started having visions of Delhi again. The Lonely Planet was having a really hard time selling Chennai to travelers and we weren't sure we had the energy to deal with such a big, industrial city. Our solution? A beach town two hours away referred to as "backpackistan" in our guide book. This was exactly what we needed.

We'll probably be digesting India for some time to come. However, Sara and I both agree that traveling India has been an incredibly rewarding experience. It's not always easy (or ever!) but it is so rich in life, learning and experiences. It's almost like an overload to your senses. Everything is sharper- the colours, the smells, the sounds, the tastes. There are so many contradictions that make you really pay attention and think about things. We've been trying to think about ways to describe our travels in India but we have found it difficult. However, we've decided that this difficulty is part of the beauty- it will give us food for thought and discussion even after we're long back in our regular life.

Cheers Mark

P.s. Don't expect me to come back a skinny, yogi vegetarian- I rewarded myself with a Double McChicken meal at Kuala Lumpur airport.

Sunday, 18 April 2010

The Backwaters of Kerala

Fort Kochi, Kerala

Pushkar- Pilgrims, Hippies...and good Coffee!

Sunrise hike to the hilltop temple - hard but worth the view

Weirdest yoga class ever.
The ghats

Bundi- the Friendliest Town in India

Eating at a hair cutting celebration for a one year old we'd never met (friendly folks in Bundi!)
New friend Martha and Mark- after a 2 hour motorbike trip to some waterfalls
Watching the sunset from Bundi's fort
The monkeys watching the sunset from Bundi's fort!

Sunday, 11 April 2010

Udaipur- City of Lakes...with No Water

It looks a lot more romantic by night, but it's a funny ol' lake!
Just another day on the streets of Udaipur.


Mark practicing his Indian squat. This is a daily exercise.

Jodhpur- The Blue City of Amazing Lassis!

The best hotel...we splurged a little ($50) after the little dump in Jaisalmer...

Thursday, 1 April 2010

Rajhastan, India - 24 hour full power no toilet no shower...

We have now been in India almost three weeks and I have held off on a blog posting as words are hard to find to describe all the things that happen everyday.

Two days ago, we got in both a goat and a cow traffic jam whilst riding motorbikes to a waterfall. Yesterday, I got hip checked by a cow. Today, a monkey jumped on a power line and we were without power for the morning. Where do I start really??

I left off our last post in Agra. The Taj was every bit as stunning as we hoped. Gleaming, white and as beautiful from a distance as up close. We spent a lot of time sitting at the front gates watching the professional photographers take pictures of Indian families in formal and silly poses. A crowd pleaser was the illusion of a person picking up the Taj with their finger tips. Never got old! At lunch, we met an Australian couple that had just got engaged at the Taj. You could tell they were still in shock. Even the guy- and he planned it!

From Agra, our route has been:

Jaipur, Jaisalmer, Jodhpur, Udaipur, Bundi and Pushkar.

Trains have been our preferred mode of transportation. Not that they are overly comfortable, but they have been a wonderful way to meet local people. On our train from Udaipur to Bundi, we sat with a troupe of Rajhastani singers, dancers and musicians. They were a cross-dressing troupe and performed as very lavish (yet portly) looking ladies in lots of makeup and finery. Some were quite feminine and some were married so it was a confusing bunch to peg. One kept petting Mark and giving him eyes- but men hold hand and are quite affectionate here so it could have been anything! Although the troupe spoke very little English and we spoke no Hindi, we had a lively train ride. They shared their dinner with us and I cut up my watermelon to pass around. I tried to share my samosas that we had made in a cooking class that day, but they didn't want them. Scared of my indian cooking perhaps? The people here can be so generous and friendly. It really warms your heart. I also got Hindi lessons from an older man in the the compartment. He taught me the basics of conversation and scolded me when I pronounced things wrong (all the time). After all the SE Asian languages, Hindi is finally a language I think I could learn some basics. It's a nice change.

In Jaisalmer, Mark and I decided to do a camel safari. A note to any potential Jaisalmer visitors- this is the biggest hustler place we've been in India so far. Beware and don't stay at Hotel Golden City! It's only money, but it never feels good. On the bright side, our guides and some of the people on the safari were a good laugh. The guides were happy, energetic and always ready with a song. They had spent so much time in the desert that their skin was a crispy brown and had a certain agelessness under their turbans. They also had the most interesting footwear. One guy was wearing black dress shoes that he had worn down so much at the back that he shuffled around in them like sandals. After dinner and our play in the desert, a group of performers performed in the dunes for us. It was another strange experience as it seemed to be a family that was out for a stroll and stopped to sing a couple songs. The dancer was breast feeding during part of the performance and the baby howled the whole time. It was truly bizarre. Afterward, Mark started feeling the onset of heat exhaustion and we ended up getting a ride back to Jaisalmer in a jeep with all 8 musicians and their instruments. After a visit to the local hospital, where the male nurses were dressed like they were ready for a 1970s disco, we returned to an air-conditioned hotel where Mark rested for the day. I headed out to see the fort with a French, Belgium and Romanian group of girls from our safari. Mark is now back in fighting shape but won't be hopping back onto a camel anytime soon!

Bundi has been my favourite place in Rajhastan to date. It was a small town and much less equipped for tourists. People were curious and friendly. There were no restaurants and hotels but many guesthouses in old heritage homes called "havellis". We stayed with a really nice family and felt very comfortable in our blue cave of a room. The women of the family were fantastic cooks and a little boy that worked there (yes, child labour is still prolific in India) was constantly smiling, dancing and singing his favourite Bollywood numbers for us. He wore a rambo-like headband and hiked up his acid wash jeans past his navel. A real 10 year old stud and a very happy character. In Bundi, everyone said hello and smiled at us. We made friends with an older man and his 10 year old grandson who owned a convenience store. Everyday, we would stop for a popsicle and a chat. The boy would practice his English (he was on Summer break) by asking Mark and I our favourite sweets, chips and drinks in the store. It could go on for hours and it was all very serious stuff. The grandfather was very kind and intelligent and gave me a list of all his favourite Indian poets and authors. We were also lucky enough to be invited to a hair cutting ceremony in the town. An owner of a local guesthouse invited all her guests as well as Mark and I. They served 700 people dinner just outside the town. It was quite a feat! Everyone ate in shifts sitting on the ground. The food was delicious and I had to watch everyone around me to figure out how to eat with no cutlery or serviettes. I was a mess but it was good fun. As always, the women and the men were segregated. Mark wasn't sure if he could sit beside me, but it seems that foreigners are exempt from this rule. It also took a little getting used to that women and men don't really speak unless they are related. On two occasions, I was introduced to a woman around my age by someone in the family and although Mark was beside me, he wasn't acknowledged. He tried not to take it personally!

We are now in Pushkar for the last leg of Rajhastan. There is a nice breeze in the town. I'd like to say it's from the holy lake, but there hasn't been any water in the lake for a few years so it's a bit of a mystery. In both Udaipur and here, the lakes are very low or non-existent. Apparently, they haven't had a good monsoon in recent years and water levels have been effected. I hope it fills up soon as the towns look so much more beautiful with full water. Plus, it hides the rubbish! Pushkar is a mix of pilgrims and hippies which we haven't really seen in India. It feels a bit like Pai with an Indian flare. We have seen some real foreign warriors with dread locks down to their waist and tattoos on their faces. Hard not to stare! Mark had a reiki treatment this morning and we both took a yoga class at a temple. It's quite different than we are used to as everything is focused on the meditation, spirituality and breathing. We enjoyed our class but I can't shake my desire to get my body moving a little bit while doing yoga. We are going to try and do classes wherever we go so we can get the full experience. So far, we have done one in Udaipur and one in Pushkar. I'll have to get Mark to write about the Reiki treatment, but the Reiki master was a gem himself. He had a big bushy beard and long hair. He had a very soothing voice and we sat with him for almost an hour this morning just chatting. He is one of those people that likes to talk and has a very captivating way about him. I could have listened for hours. He was very interested in life, reading and the world. He had many good stories. At one point he said, "life should be lived with positivity and love". I liked that!

Time to get back into the fray.