Saturday, October 28, 2006

The backwaters of Kerala are a-callin'.......

Oct 28th. My overnight bus arrived into Bangalore around 6:30am. As I had all day to wait until my overnight train to Kollom, way down in the south, I decided to pop into town and check it out! Bangalore is famed for being India's high tech city (ok, so you can't really tell that from looking at this pic of the famous India Coffee House chain where waiters are dressed in starched white uniforms and wear turbans..albeit a tad weatherworn looking, it is an institution and I had a lovely lunch here!). Bangalore also has the largest ex-pat population in the country! Like most big Indian cities, things are more western here, but it was definitely a bit of a culture shock for me to see so many Indian women dressed in hip, sexy, western clothes after the places I'd visited so far. Lots of tight jeans and teeny tiny tops; not a single thing wrong with that of course, just a little different to the way people dressed in holy Hampi, but to be expected for big cities, esp. those with lots of universities and colleges!

(Pic of Chinese nets 'cos the gosh darned Hare Krishna folks won't let you take a pic of their temple!). Decided to visit the ISKCON Hare Krishna temple on the outskirts of town; described in Lonely Planet as a "hybrid of ultramodern glass and vernacular South Indian temple architecture; a lavish showpiece". Hmmn truthfully, I thought it was an awful place. I know, I know that is very judgemental and harsh of me, but it was really tacky looking and there were soooo many pilgrims there to visit, yet it seemed they were only allowed 5 mins or so with each of the holy pictures they wanted to pray at, and at every turn, there were people selling Hare Krishna postcards, CD's, tons of sweets and cakes and even Hare Krishna inspired MP3 players to listen to your fave meditations at any time! Definitely a well-oiled, commercial selling machine this place was, didn't feel holy or spiritual to me at all! Have asked a few people about the connection between Hare Krishna and the Hindu religion as I thought they were two separate things, but apparantly HK is a sub-sect of Hinduism, although you can be a disciple primarily of just HK. Bit confusing and might have to read up a bit more on this...or shall I?

Pottered a bit more then headed out to the local hip mall to meet my friend Sid's sister, Shibani, who lives in Bangalore. Gorgeous girl and we had a great chat; lovely to meet someone from the city! Then headed back to the train station and my 16 hour overnight trip down to the land of the famous Kerala backwaters!

Oct 29th. The scenery as the train took me down to the southern tip of India was so gorgeous and definitely had a more tropical feel to it, with palm trees and tons of lush greenery. Arrived in Kollom and checked into the Government Guest House, described as "a former British Residency, full of character, with gracious verandas and original furniture.. THE place to stay" (thanks again LP!)....

But this place was just plain wierd! First of all they say they are totally full, and then manage to squeeze me in. I have lunch in my own dining room as the other room is full to the brim of older men eating away, so obviously it wouldn't do for me to eat with them. Fine, fine. No problem. Then after a wee walk, I basically sleep most of the day, then one of the men working there knocks on my door "Madam, dinner is ready"...half an hour early! So I come down for dinner no problem.....and the place is deserted. I mean not a peep from a soul. I ate in a different, cavernous dining room, alone, until I asked Paulus, who worked there, to please sit with me (as the TV was in the room I was in, and he had been avidly watching the Australia vs. India match until I arrived). So he sat down, and we had a delightful hour, watching the cricket together (with me completely faking it that I was totally into cricket and knew all about it!). Alas, Australia beat India and as Paulus said "this is sad, sad day for us ma'am!". Too cute! But as for the place. Hard to explain, but just a very strange "do-do-do-do twilight zone" feel to it!

Oct 30th. Up at 6am bright as a spark (must have slept too much the day before!). Headed into town, and after the most delicious Indian breakfast (yup, masala dhosa and tons of chai again!) at a local cafe, I booked my day cruise on the Keralan backwaters. So before I go any further I should probably give you a wee intro on what the backwaters really are all about, right? Well,the state of Kerala stretches for 550km along India's southwest coast, and is famous for its lush, jungle-like landscape and beautiful hidden waterways, due in part to having two monsoon seasons a year. It is said that one of the most memorable experiences for travelers in India is the opportunity to take a boat journey on the backwaters of Kerala. Immortalized by Arundati Roy in the fab book "The God of Small Things", it describes beautifully the maze of gorgeous, shimmery waterways, with lots of tiny lakes and rivers, lined with tropical plants and higgledy piggledy villages almost hidden from view. People come down here to chill out after the busyness of the north, and some rent a house boat for a few nights, or chill out at Fort Cochin (where I'm heading to after my river cruise). Kerala, and the south in general, is meant to be much more relaxed and the people a tad warmer than those in the north. So far I'm finding everyone lovely and smiley so I can't compare, but lets see how things go!

Met some lovely folks on my cruise. Was funny to see tourists 'cos I hadn't seen any for a few days...then all of a sudden, they began to appear as our boat was about to depart! Hannah and Emma from London, who had just arrived in India - lovely girls! And Paul and Mark, brothers from Melbourne and Vanessa from Paris. Great bunch. We had a lovely time, chatting away as we sauntered down the backwaters. Also met two lovely wee girls who took it upon themselves to try and teach me a bit of Hindi - ok, it didn't last too long but we had a great giggle together! Hannah, Emma and I had decided, (separately but nice to have a chum or two to share an experience) to spend the night at the Hugging Mama's ashram, which was situated half way through the trip. Prior to this, we stopped off for lunch at a pretty, riverside restaurant, very nice especially as you had lunch served on a gorgeous banana leaf! Yup, straight on it, and no knives and forks. All hands, well right hand only! Getting quite good at it now... except for rice with curry using your hands, gets a bit messy!

And so the time came for us to be dropped off - literally at the side of the boat, for Mama's ashram. Now I didn't know anything about this woman until I started reading up for this part of the trip and she truly is an amazing person. Her mission, called "Mata Amritanandamayi" at Amritapuri, is her home and she is renowned as one of the few female gurus in India (yes, girl power!). Known affectionately as the "hugging Mama" because she gives each of her visitors a personal hug and special moment with her (sometimes there are more than 5,000 people at one darshan AKA prayer time so it has to be a quick hug)! We had planned to stay the night but did hear rumours that "Mama" was actually on tour in Europe and America.....Alas, that was true! So after hanging out for a few hours, taking in the atmosphere, and speaking to lots of people dressed entirely in white, who in very sweet, hushed tones asked us "Is this your first time to Mothers'?"....we decided "Hmmn....maybe we wouldn't stay over after all! Again, without judgement, this turned out just not to be our collective kind of place. Everyone seemed just a tad too "controlled" or "vacant"..or just coming here to find themselves which there is nothing wrong with of course(but there were lots of Westerners dressed in Indian clothing). I know that sounds mean, and I also know ashrams are like monastories where you are supposed to be quiet and spiritual and meditative. Maybe I'm just not good at that, but some of these people looked a little too "cultishy" for me....oh well!

So essentially, we shifted it! Grabbed a taxi across the bridge, to the local train station and had a lovely journey up to Ernakulam. Saw the most amazing sunset as the train rolled along; the colours here are amazing! Bit full on when we got out of the station to look for a taxi. After much bargaining negotiations between the three of us (yes, I had attached myself to Hannah and Emma like a limpet!) we got this crazy but super lovely rickshaw guy who drove us like a madman, I mean it, like a proverbial bat out of hell (never really understood that particular phrase!) across town to Fort Cochin! Seriously, at one point we thought we might have lost Hannah, as she hung galiantly to the side of the rickshaw for dear life. But we got there safe and sound, just a wee bit windswept looking. And yah - what a cute place this looked like. Delighted to be here for a few days....

Oct 31st. Had a great night's sleep; we loved the fact our hotel is on Princess Street (ok, was funny at the time that we thought it was the perfect street name for us!) so woke up ready to explore this gorgeous wee place. Cochin or Kochi as it is now called, is Kerala's prime tourist destination, spreading across lots of islands and waterways between the Arabian Sea and the backwaters. The old town of Fort Cochin, where we were staying, is linked to the new (and frankly unattractive) town of Ernakulam where our train came in, by a series of ferries that go back and forth all day long for the ridiculously cheap price of 2 rupees! Fort Cochin had it all - exotic spice markets, gorgeous Chinese fishing nets along the coast, India's first European church and even a village green! It's also home to Kerala's famous Kathakali dancing, which I knew I wanted to see! Had a lovely potter then decided it was time for the dreaded Post Office!!

Sounds a bit dramatic but to be honest, posting a parcel home from India is a wee bitty different from other countries. First you have to find a box to pack all your things in.Then once that is securely packed, you have to go to the Post Office to have it weighed. Then to the tailor, who wraps it in cotton and sews it together like a wee bag. After that you go back to the Post Office and then hey presto, it's off!!! Yup - seriously! But to be honest, much nicer to do it in a small place like this rather than a big city, where I've heard it can take hours to complete this rather protracted process. Anyway, no probs and actually, everyone was very helpful to me so phew, all done there!

Visited St. Francis Anglican Church, then Santa Cruz Basilica where I got a lovely personal tour from the wee man who wanted to show me every aspect of this 500 year old church (couldnt get away for ages but then, it was quite interesting!). The rickshaw drivers around here are hilarious...practically follow you down the street, in their rickshaw, talking about how their's is the only Ferrari rickshaw and they can give the best guided tour ever! All in fun tho' so I had tons of laughs with them!

This might be an interesting point to address my Indian heritage and how it has become much more of talking point, shall we say, here in India! As most of you know, I am half Indian, although its never been something that has come up that much in the past. Actually, when I was in South America, I had people asking if I was Brazilian or Columbian. On holidays over the years, others have thought me Spanish or Italian. But since I entered Nepal and even more so since I arrived in India, for some reason (obviously because I do look it?) everyone says to me "What is your country, madam because you look Indian". I mean just about every person I meet; in a shop, on a train, a rickshaw, even in the street! It's quite an interesting dynamic! Then of course we get into, do you speak Hindi, what part of India are you from, do you speak your state's national language. Yes, Indian people do love to get right into the nitty gritty and ask the personal questions.. but doesn't bother me at all! Anyway, as part of this new phenomenon, now I have this one rickshaw guy who says hello every time he sees me (Fort Cochin is a really small place so I see him prob. once an hour or so!) and calls me his "India Girl".

But as usual I digress. Pottered some more, had a lovely experience where I popped into a backroom type place where I had seen some lovely older ladies, for chai. They seemed quite delighted to see me, and we had a lovely chat (although none of us could understand each other!) while I drank about ten glasses of chai and kept being fed kachori after kachori (think that's the right name for these deep fried balls of bread that come with sambar, a tomato curry-like sauce; so delicious!). We had lots of giggles and all this cost me 6 rupees - ridiculous eh! Then I met the girls at the Kathakali centre where you arrive early to see the men (yup, its all men!) applying their make up prior to the show, then the performance gets going about an hour or so later! Very interesting especially as the narrator explains that it takes 8-10 years to train in this ancient Indian art form.
There is no speech during a performance, all facial expressions, dance moves and finger movements. The costumes are wild (look a bit like our pantomime outfits and seem very heavy 'cos the men were perspiring profusely during it!). There were also four grown men in the background, two of them were drummers, two singers/narrators. All very comfortable being on stage with just a dhoti on (white material wrapped around in sarong like style). Chests bared, lots of laughs and smiles between them, seemed very relaxed. The Indian culture is so intriguing; in some ways, any showing of inappropriate flesh is really frowned upon, yet in certain "approved" circumstances, e.g. in a dance forum, bathing by the river, or even on the street, is totally fine! More for men that women admittedly but still, very curious about it all!

Met up with the boys and Vanessa for dinner, and as we sat looking out on the water, with the Chinese nets silhouetted against the red sky at night, chatting away to new pals as well as Mohammed and his pals who run the restaurant we were eating at, drinking "alcoholic tea" out of teapots (similarly to holy Hampi, you're not supposed to drink alcohol here at all and in fact Mohammed had just spent four days in jail for a similar offence recently - oop!), but for me, it was yet another lovely "lucky me" moment! A good night!

Nov 1st. Up for sunrise this morning as it's supposed to be a gorgeous time to see the Chinese fishing nets in action. And it was true! Not sure how Chinese fishing nets ended up on the south coast of India over 500 years ago (no-one could really explain that to me!) but they are so beautiful and elegant looking, and obviously very functional too! The fishermen were just lovely - met Raju, Ahmed and Krishna - and they are so delighted to show you their nets and explain how they work and would you like to try lifting them? Eh, no thanks I replied very politely! These things are heavy, folks! Takes four men all their strength to really push it up and into the water, and they do this continuously from early morning till around lunchtime!

After all this heavy lifting (not!), met Paul, Mark and Vanessa for a lovely Indian breakfast on the waterfront. Our breakfast man was so sweet, and delighted that we just kept eating (emm,,maybe I shouldn't have mentioned that part here, but hey, the food was fab!). Met Hannah and Emma (not quite early morning girls, which I think they would agree with!) a little later to take the ferry over to the new town. Hmmn we are not too organized on the ferry front. Ended up on a completely different island to start with, then poor Emma went back to the hotel, not feeling so good! Hannah and I (after much exploring) found our way onto the right ferry (after queuing in the "woman's only" line for our tickets -love that!). The town of Ernakulam isnt up to much; we kept looking for Cloth Barn street for some shopping. Ended up in Macho Man Electrical and Aluminium Street instead.. talk about getting some stares. But we laughed it off and went for a coffee, where we met DJ Jamie, bit of a crazy dude who apparantly plays a bit of music in Goa and other beach side resorts and loves to use mind altering drugs on a regular basis! Did I mention how open Indian people are! Anyway, he was quite a pleasant chap, so we chatted for a while, then headed back to the hotel for a snooze, hard work this "hanging out" lark!

Nov 2nd. The girls left early this morning as they were going to visit an elephant sanctuary then head off further north. So sorry to say goodbye as we had a great few days together and they are such sweethearts! But as I've said before, that's traveling for ya! Took a rickshaw to find a laundry lady - talk about down alleys and around corners and up lanes - dont think I'l ever find my way back there! Then just pottered around till lunchtime when I got a lovely surprise. The girls were back. Decided they liked it here so much, they'd stay an extra day and leave tomorrow. Yah!!!

Decided to treat myself (oops, sorry isn't that what this whole year away has been teehee!) to an Ayurverdic facial. Kerala and the south in general is famous for this type of treatment hence the only reason I felt I should try it out haha! As I was just about to begin (it was in a wee lady's house so the doorway only had a curtain over it,) I heard this voice I recognised, so ran outside and there was my pal from Nepal, Ms Sandra from Switzerland! SOOOOOO brilliant to see her. And so random as we hadn't emailed that we would be here, in fact it wasn't really in my plans originally or hers! So nice! We decided to meet up later for dinner, then I headed back for my all natural facial which was incredible. I looked about twenty years younger after it, I'm not joking!

Later that night, the four of us had a great dinner together chatting away about all of our travels and where we were planning to go next. The girls headed home as they really were leaving tomorrow, and Sandra and I went for some late night chai and more chatting. So funny - its like we have known each other for ages, but we only met a few weeks ago. That's another strange phenomenom; how quickly you get to know people when you travel!

Nov 3rd. Didn't sleep a wink last night. Hmmn... might it have been to do with too many late night chais perhaps? Met the girls and said our final fond farewells as we were all leaving today, except for Sandra who would be hanging out for a few more days here. Have really enjoyed my time here in Fort Cochin. First time for a wee while that I'd been in one place for a few days, and it does make all the difference, I have to say! Took the ferry across to town then a rickshaw to the train station, where of course I was very early as usual. Sat and people watched for what seemed like hours; noticed I was the only tourist here (kind of wierd being that this is quite the tourist area!). My overnight train came as usual, a tad late... but hey no biggie. Ended up having yet another great experience. It seemed like we had the party carriage, where I met a ton of nursing students (boys and girls) going back to their studies. Again intrigued about their interaction with each other; lots of touchy feeliness, but all just friends. Indian people in general are much more tactile than us in the west. Men everywhere walk holding hands, sit in each others laps or very close to each other with arms around.. actually it is lovely to see and they have no awkwardness about it, which is even lovelier!

Met Yossi, a fun Israeli guy traveling around India on his own. Had a great chat with him as he had been to tons of places I would love to go, but don't have time to visit this trip! Oh well, just means I have to come back again - definitely! Great train food too - chapatis and lentil dahl. Talk about making a mess, but fab! All of the guide books say train journeys are the way to go in India, to experience the real India, meet local people, and see the best scenery and its all been so true for me! I have heard of some horror stories but for me, I've loved every moment of my train travels to date! So goodbye to Kerala. And onwards to Delhi and the beginning of my Rajistan adventure!

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

The holy city of Hampi!

Oct 25th. Up way too early today.. 4:15am to catch my train to Hampi via Margau. Just my luck (or as the man in the station told me, this is India) the train was late! Very late.. nearly 2 hours late. Got to Margau and of course managed to make my connection 'cos that train was running late too! Yah! But really, getting around India really is so easy, can't believe I was a bit nervous about it before I came. And everyone speaks English (just about!) and is so kind and helpful. Really enjoying my time here so far. But again I digress! Started chatting to this fab German couple, Sabine and Berndt, while waiting for the train and as you do, we struck up a wee how this happens!

Sat in the carriage with them chatting away, when a group of students sat down next to us. We came to find out they were geology students doing their Masters and off on a field trip. We had such a great time with them; Addi, Jennifer and Pankaj. So sweet and respectful the way they spoke to us, but really good fun too! We talked about absolutely everything with them, from the caste system (they were all Brahmins; who knew that even in that caste,there are many different levels!), religion, relationships (love vs. arranged marriages) name it, we discussed it.
Very interesting to get their point of view. They had definite opinions on certain things e.g. that only seeing your girlfriend once a month or so helped strengthen the love between you, that they wanted to marry for love but realised that they had to please their parents too, that most young Indians (at least those in the cities..) dont really believe in the caste system anymore and so in 50-70 yrs they think it will be irrelevant (although they agree that it will always remain strong in the countryside). They were all so earnest and I have to say this was such a brilliant experience; not just the fact they were so open and wanted to talk to us about these things, but just that they were so lovely and charming and sweet. I know these descriptors sound so old-fashioned and its hard to explain, but Indian people (at least those I have met so far) are just so...innocent is probably the wrong word too....but they have no qualms about sitting down and talking away, no awkwardness, no self consciousness at all! It's just so different than if you were sitting on public transport at home; Boston or Scotland. People don't just chat to complete strangers; everyone is in their own little bubble (myself included) and we isolate ourselves from these types of experiences. I know part of it is 'cos I'm traveling so I'm more open to chatting away but still, it is very very different to my "normal life".

Finally got to Hospet (next town over from Hampi) and had some tussles with quite aggressive rickshaw guys desperate for a fare. Met Anna, another German girl Berndt and Sabine had met the day before so we all set off for town together. After checking into Rocky's Guest House (love that name!) we all went for a walk around town, met this lovely old man (hmmn think I'm going to like this place) then lunch at Gopi 's. Met another new pal, Merijn from Holland (just back from 7 months in Africa! He had brilliant stories from that trip!).

And so a little on the famous holy city of Hampi. Also called Vijayanagar, "the City of Victory", this "village" spills over from the river Tungabhadra, littered among a bizarre and somewhat surreal landscape of red boulders and leafy banana fields. Some of these "balancing rocks" are said (in Hindu folklore) to have been flung down by armies in a show of strength to potential invaders to this land.

Oct 26th. Up for breakfast at Gopi again (think this will become a habit as the food is good and the people are just lovely). I had to sort out my tickets to get to my next destination (the beautiful backwaters of Kerala) as I'd heard its pretty tough to get trains and buses at this time of year. Then I met up with my fab new pals and we headed off to visit the Virupaksha temple in the centre of town next to Hampi Bazaar. The temple dominates the town, and has a steady flow of pilgrims from all over southern India visiting. Organized our "sunrise" trek for tomorrow and then headed out to visit Hemakuta Hill, dotted with tons of temples dating back to the ninth and eleventh centuries. The landscape and views here are just is quite incredible, as far as the eye can see, giant, red boulders and beautiful, ancient ruins. Just fab! And the photos really don't do it justice.

We walked for ever, and it is hot, hot, hot here in Hampi. Visited tons of different ruins and temples, including the small Hanuman temple, dedicated to the monkey god of the same name. We found this wee boy who explained his family have some connection way back to this god (hmmn, think this is what he was explaining to us!)...or he is just very entrepreneurial, dressing up as Hanuman and guiding us through and then providing a fab song and dance to the gods for us! He was such a cutie... we spent ages with him. He was saving up to help pay for his wee sisters new school uniform. Lovely boy.

Later we began to realise, even tho' many many tourists visit Hampi, so too do many pilgrims from other parts of India where tourists are less known. Hence began the "photo taking" phase of the day. Everywhere we went, people wanted to either take our picture with their cameras, or ask us to take a picture with our cameras of them! Hilarious. This ranged from the men and women working on the roads, to a group of four massive families, all visiting Hampi in a giant truck. What was even sweeter - they all come and shake your hand afterwards with a "thank you very much, lovely to meet you, your country is??" dialogue. We even had the local bus slow down and people in cars and tuktuks stopping and getting out to have their photo taken with us! Crazy stuff! I had heard this happened but until you actually experience it for yourself, you can't understand how daft and yet lovely it makes you feel! Everyone is so smiley, which is then so contagious you spend the whole day smiling and laughing yourself. Have I said I love India yet...well, I do! It is an amazing, eclectic, enigmatic place. Definitely makes you think about things in a different way, so much is so very different, much of it very sad, like the poverty you see most days, but much of it so uplifting and inspiring, like the warmth of the people and the beauty of the places I have visited so far! Wow!

Late afternoon we were pooped, so headed back to town for a late, late lunch of masala dhosa, my new favourite food. Imagine a giant spicy crepe folded in a giant triangle shape, with a potato and onion filling! Yum! Pottered around town some more, really lovely feel to Hampi I have to say! Later that evening, we all met up for dinner at Garden Paradise, and paradise it was. Fab food yet again - have I mentioned that Indian food IN India is so incredible; I can't believe how good it is, really! Funny thing about Hampi being "holy", no alcohol or meat is allowed in this city, but some of the restaurants sneak a mean "teapot" or "juice" for us bad tourists who are desperate for some of the hard stuff. So of course, we imbibed.. just a fruit cocktail thingy, adding to an already fab time!

Oct 27th. Up early this morning at 5am for our sunrise trek to the top of Matanga Hill. Quick glass of chai on the street corner then we were off! Climbed to the top and watched as the beautiful sun came up! And wow! Only from this hill can you have a 360 degree panoramic view of the valley and Hampi itself. So amazing, definitely worth the effort! (mind you made me realise yet again my couch potato tendancies are in full i puffed and panted my way up - phew!). After the sunrise, we walked to yet another bazaar and temple (oops, bit confused as to which one it was, we saw so many!) then walked down to the river, where we all sat and had chai, and met this older lady. After our imbibing, we took a coracle boat down river, after chatting to the local people who were hanging out there and again, curious about us and wanted us to take their pics! Checked out the famous Vitthala temple, and talked a bit more about the Hindu religion. Did you know there are over 2 and half million Hindu gods of one sort or another.

I mean come on, that is wayyyyyyyy too many for anyone to even begin to remember, and most people we spoke to don't even try! Speaking of gods and holy folks, we visited some meditation caves and met this lovely priest who lives there and prays most days.

Phew at this point we were all a wee bitty tired. Had been up since 5am and it was now 10:30am! Back to guest house, checked out as I was leaving on an overnight bus to Bangalore as I was heading down to Kerala later on. Spent my last day in Hampi just hanging out with the gang, as we were all a wee bitty temple'd out at this point. Had a great time here and yet again, met fab people who helped make a gorgeous place even better fun, with their company! Really beautiful and quiet and calm. Loved it and so glad I managed to fit it into my ridiculously tight schedule hahahah!