Monday, February 25, 2013

Alleppey + Backwaters, Kerala, India

The riot police bus we took due to a general strike in Kerala.
In the backwaters, the canals are used like roads. Complete with street signs.
A hibiscus flower dangles near rice paddies.
Sun setting in the backwaters.

Walking in rice paddy fields.
The church on the rice paddies.
Sunken canoe.
Bree and a houseboat.
A man emerging from the canal.
Palm trees. water and rice paddies.
Houseboats in Alleppey.
Bree took a cooking class to learn some real Keralan recipes.
The Indian Coffee House, a cheap but tasty chain of restaurants in south India. The waiter's uniforms are awesome.
White birds cling to the palm fronds.

The train to Alleppey was only a couple of hours, and we enjoyed riding in unreserved second class on a nearly empty train. The general strike was still in effect in Kerala. At the train station there were a few young guys offering to take tourists into town on the back of their motorcycles. We opted instead for the crowd control bus that was dropping people at various places around town for free. We wondered briefly about whether they were shuttling us in a riot police bus because it was their only free vehicle, or for our protection. We had picked our guest house for the night based primarily on its promise of free wifi, but realized how nice it can be to have AC and clean sheets every once in a while. The wifi turned out to be slow, and over burdened by all the travelers stuck at home for the night (many of whom had their travel plans cancelled by the strike). Since there were no restaurants open, the guest house was kind enough to make a big dinner for everyone.

The next morning, we ran a few errands in town. With the strike over, all the shops were open and the charming chaos of India had returned. We should have enjoyed the calm that the strike brought while it lasted.

We took the ferry to our home-stay on the backwaters. We had looked at doing an overnight cruise on one of the "converted rice barges" (which are floating 4 star hotel rooms nowadays) but realized that for the same amount of money we could spend 3 nights in a home-stay, and rent canoes to explore by ourselves. Greenpalm Homes is a series of big family homes, on a canal and backing the rice paddies. Our room was in one of the daughter's home, with a few older people on a month long tour, a German couple, and a Spanish couple. In the brother's house was a family with young kids from Vancouver, A Japanese couple with their 3 kids under 6 and a few members of the tour. We all ate together, fed by the family matriarch. We joined the other young couples on a small motor boat tour, took a canoe through the small canals with the Germans and explored the island on foot. The Germans and I did a cooking glass with the family Amma (mom) and learned to make all the dry vegetable curries, liquid coconut curries and coconut chutneys that I love. We even went back after lunch for a bonus chapati lesson, unfortunately we didn't get to make parathas, and the instructions still leave me a little confounded. We surprisingly realized that we thrive under a strict schedule, breakfast at 8, then a boat ride/walk, lunch at 1, read/write/nap, tea at 4, another walk/bike ride, dinner at 8, socialize, bed by 10. We were actually more productive than if we had an unrestricted schedule. Most people probably figured all that out years ago, but I guess I was a hold out for freedom.

We were pleasantly surprised by how clean the canals and pathways around island were. There was the odd candy wrapper here and there, but not the piles of garbage that usually fill most rivers or streams in India. The people really do live with the water, washing clothes, dishes and themselves in the canals, and it obviously affects their relationship with it. It was really nice to be able to wander through the backwater villages and chat with people, rather than just gliding by them on a boat (even if many of the conversations with kids consist of: “give me one pen, no pen? Ok, give me one coin, give me your water, Ok, give me one watch". Again, I rue gift giving travelers!)

- Bree

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Kollam, Kerala, India

Water buffalo seen from the train.

Our beach front guest house.
Local kids having a dramatic photoshoot.

 We headed back North, into Kerala, this time to the backwater town of Kollam. We knew our hotel was a little out of the center of town,  but were a little confused when the auto rickshaw dropped us at a temple with young guys swimming in a big step well behind it. We wandered a bit, with no sign of a guest house, and finally asked a shop keeper for directions to "Summer House Holiday Home". She pointed us down a lane, where we found a house with a sign that said Summer House, but it was padlocked and shuttered. We wandered back to ask again, and this time we were directed to another lane that led right to the water, with only one gate. We were ready to give up and stay in whatever crummy place we could find in town, but went through the gate just in case.

We are glad we did, as the guesthouse turned out to be exactly what we were looking for. The rooms were quintessential beach shacks, put together with an assortment of boards and latticework. There were curtains made out of saris blowing in the sea breeze, a bug net over the bed, and one of the cleanest bathrooms we have seen. As we got settled the kid who let us in (the only staff person, he was bell boy/waiter/sometimes cook/cleaner/gardner/caretaker) set up a table for us, and restocked the refreshment fridge outside our room. Free bottled water and big beers for 100rupees whenever we wanted them. The other guests, a family from Germany, came back from their backwater cruise, and we all enjoyed a delicious South Indian dinner while the sun set.

The next day we really needed to use the internet to plan our next week or so, but there was a strike. In the rest of India it was just the auto rickshaw drivers, striking because of increased harassment from authorities or high petrol prices (depending on who we asked). In Kerala any strike is a general strike, as in everything is shut down. All transportation, all shops, all offices. The guest house owner and his son obviously had the day off from work, and so were doing some maintenance on the grounds. They graciously offered to let us use the internet at their house, where the owner's wife even made us fresh lime juice with biscuits. Another afternoon of looking for crabs on the rocky beach, playing cards listening to the waves, drinking beer in the sea breeze and we knew we had to move on or we would spend the rest of the trip there. 

After all my gushing about the upma the kid had made us for breakfast the first morning (after requesting Kerala breakfast please!) we were treated with appam, made specially by the owner's wife on the second morning. I love Keralan food, but I think that the breakfasts are my favorite. I generally want savory breakfasts anyway, and have found that an egg curry or spicy sambar in the morning is perfect. We have managed to re-try all my favorites, idlies and dosa made by Mini, puttu made by Mini's mom, idiappam made by Ammachi and now upma and appam. I know that I will not find most of these dishes at south indian restaurants in New York, and I am afraid that the preparation is a little involved (overnight fermentation of a rice flour batter) so I will have to make a concerted effort to get these dishes back home (maybe I'll have to start sucking up to Keralan nurses to get care packages).

The guest house owner told us we would have to take a train to Alleppey, since the ferries and busses were also on strike, but his son could drop us off at the station. We are especially appreciative, as we later heard about violence against people giving rides to travelers during the strike. All in all, the guest house ended up being one of our favorites of the whole trip, we are glad we gave it a shot. 

- Bree

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Kanyakumari, Tamil Nadu, India

The end of the line. After riding through some of the most beautiful scenery we've seen in India, we arrived at the southern end of the Indian sub-continent. Kanyakumari. The last stop on the train. Having traveled the from the Nepal/India border in the north all the way down to the southern tip there was a sense of accomplishment. While there isn't all that much to do in town, the vibe is that of a nice seaside town with fishermen found in any shady area during the high heat of the day. A unique feature of Kanyakumari's geography is that you can watch the sun rise and set over the ocean. Normally I find sunset is the more spectacular, but not this time.

- Matt

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Kochi and Nellimugal, Kerala, India

Chinese fishing nets and boats on Fort Cochin's shore.
A fisherman throwing his net.

A lack of internet has made us late, with lots pent up to say, sorry for the long post. Intermittent internet may become the norm for the next couple of weeks as we head first into the backwaters, and then to the Andaman Islands.

 Kerala has, in the past decade, secured itself a place on the international tourist trail. When I was here just 15 years ago, the lazy backwaters were attracting Indian tourists and a smattering of foreigners, but the tour groups were not yet here. The state at that time was already prosperous and progressive. In 1957 Kerala had the world's first democratically elected communist government. This resulted in frequent strikes, but also improved education and health care facilities. Kerala had, and still has the highest literacy rate of any developing nation, 89-99% depending on the source, and even village girls are frequently educated to a masters degree level. The state has a high standard of living, but used to have high unemployment, the income coming from the huge number of Keralites working abroad, especially in the Persian Gulf region.

Our first stop in Kerala was Kochi. It's a lovely seaside town, and we stuck mostly to the peninsular area of Fort Cochin and Mattancherry/ Jew Town (it's really called that, on the map and everything). The water side is lined with Chinese Fishing nets, kept and operated more for their tourist appeal than their actual efficiency for catching fish. Behind each net was a fish monger, hawking all kinds of fish, prawns and crabs, most likely not caught behind him, but hopefully not imported from Vietnam.

On arrival in Fort Cochin, our attentive and persistent host informed us that our room would not be ready until tomorrow, but that we could stay at the neighbor's "guest house". It turned out to be a family home with a room with attached bath, and a kindly Grandma entreating us to join her in some TV watching. Back at our guest house the friendly old Uncle was no less interested in our comfort and experience. In all we felt like teenagers stuck for 3 nights with doting relatives. The hands on South Indian hospitality at it's finest.

Our first night out we went to (and walked out of) 2 restaurants looking for South Indian cuisine, settling finally on one of the fish shacks. Subsequent nights we stuck to a restaurant near our guest house that served Kingfisher (beer) in teapots. We searched in vain for a South Indian breakfast, one waiter even laughed when I asked for some dosa or idli.

I think that our main problem with Kochi is that we have been in India long enough to not be impressed by the exotic-ness of the town (unlike many of the 2 week tour travelers), but also cannot yet see past the dirty beach and smelly canal to the seaside haven many Indians experience. We were also not quite ready to be back in the land of multi-cuisine restaurants, and marauding tour groups.

Visiting the village.
Appachan, Ancy and me at Appachan's hardware store.
Rubber plantation.
Rubber tree.
Rubber harvesting
The family home.

A cory (chicken) in the yard.
A kaidachuka (pinapple), weirdly one of the few Malyalam words I remembered.
Fresh papaya.
Fooling around with the ladies.
The girls, Anju, Ancy, Lincy and me.
Nellimugal, 16 years later.

Our second stop in Kerala was possible the exact opposite. We took the train to Chengannur, and then had to convince a taxi that we really did want to go to Adoor. Adoor is a small town near enough to Sabrimala Temple to have some Hindu pilgrims, but solidly off the tourist trail. After searching a bit for a guest house that was not under construction or crawling with young single guys, we settled on one that then produced a thin comment book proving that they had indeed host a few foreigners over the years.

Our next stop was Nellimugal, the village I lived in for 3 months, 16 years ago. The T-junction village was much the same as it had been, a few shops had grown to two stories, but the buildings still only stretch a few hundred feet in all 3 directions before giving way to rubber plantations and new homes built with Gulf money. We were greeted by a family friend who remember me all these years later, and told us Appachan (Grandfather) was at lunch. We walked the 10 minutes out of town, and easily found the house even though there was a new Catholic church on the once empty lot across the road, and a new home next door built by Appachan's second son.

The main house was, except for the vibrant color change from blue to peach, exactly the same right down to the comforting smell. The lunch prepared by Ammachi (Grandmother) and her daughter-in-law was the Kerelan food I have been trying to find for past 15 years. At that dining table, eating that food, I suddenly remember how to eat comfortably with my hand, it's like it took the other sensory inputs to make the muscle memory react.

My little host sisters had, as expected, grown into gregarious, beautiful, well-educated young women. They have that self-confidence and happiness provided by the security of a strong family and community. The eldest, Ligi is married and living in Oman with her husband, her sister Lincy has her MBA and was recently back from looking for work in the Gulf. Their cousin Ancy has her degree in Bio-medical Engineering and is hoping to find work closer to home. As she discovered while at school in Chennai, the village life suits her. Her little sister Anju, the baby that Mini and I used to carry around on our hips, is finishing up high school, focusing on commerce. I always thought it must be so difficult for the two wives of Appachan's sons, living with their husbands' family, while their men were away in the Gulf. I see now they are like sisters, and have the camaraderie of the other housewives in their local "neighbors group".

Matt got a small dose of my 3 months, being watched while you eat, encouraged by Ammachi to eat more and more, sitting in the middle of a group of ladies speaking Malayalam hearing your name repeated. I learned to laugh at myself, and not take myself too seriously during those three months, a lesson worth repeating every once in while. I also learned to trust that the chatter was not malicious, and that observations and comments that seem a little too personal to us westerners, are said with affection.

Being in the village reaffirmed the real reasons we travel. To see other places and people, and try to understand a bit about how they live. Maybe it will change how we live our lives, even if in small ways (I know I am a better at hand-washing clothes thanks to my Keralan Aunties). It also gives us a new prospective on the struggles new immigrants have coming our home, a place foreign to them

- Bree.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Bangalore (Bengaluru), Karnataka, India

Apparently, to be "Bangalored" means that your job has gone overseas, outsourced to someone who will work harder and cost less than you. For us, being Bangalored means basking in the incredible warmth and hospitality of our friends Mini and Baskar and their boys Vikram and Gautam. It also means being so spoiled by the comfort of their home, the delicious home cooked food and the parties with their friends and family that we stayed a little longer than we meant to. Add to that a little sightseeing and a lovely day visiting with my friend Deepa and her Mom, and we kind of forgot we were supposed to be "on the road".

Many of the people who live in Mini's community work in IT, and either went to school or worked in America. It's in coming home though that they are really living the American dream. The kids play in the street, and move from house to house visiting the neighborhood dogs, knowing someone's always watching, ready to call home if needed. There's a clubhouse with yoga for the adults and art classes for the kids, a pool, science fairs and children's theatre. The parents can enjoy a raucous dance party (which we were fortunate to attend) knowing that the little kids are safely sleeping in one house, the big kids in another. When we went out of the gate to the dusty street after a couple days we suddenly remembered we were still in India and not SoCal. 

Bangalore has a nice old town, steeped in colonial history, and sprawling suburbs, accommodating the IT crowds. We ate at Mavalli Tiffin Room, a traditional south indian restaurant, serving diners en masse, 40 at a time, since before independence, and at Toits, a busy brew pub with loud music. There were a number of day trips we meant to make, but they will have to wait for the next trip.

Sadly, we are back to fending for ourselves and repacking every few days, such is life!

- Bree

Bannerghatta National Park. We saw lions, tigers and (sloth) bears.

A white Bengal Tiger.

We helped out Vikram make a costume for his  school project on France.
Bree and Mini at the Aerospace Museum.
Vikram and Gautam looking cool in front of a helicopter.

Gautam stops running around just long enough for a photo.
Gautam points out some models of airplanes.
Matt and I went to the Visvesvaraya Industrial and Technological Museum.
A room devoted to Dinosaur.
There were several scenes, complete with dusty mannequins, displaying key inventions throughout history. Dad, this may be the same machine you did your computer science homework on at university.
Mission Control.
Bree with Deepa and her mother at the Botanical Garden.
Baskar, Vikram, Mini, Bree, and Gautam displaying an iPhone.