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.


Matt said...

That McChicken must have tasted amazing!

Jane said...

That was a lovely update Mark. I thik travel is so amazing because it really does create compassion and respect. At the end of the day we are all human! I really like how you scrubbed down in the river, not many people have these experiences and I think they are a must.