Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Jessica Got Mugged a monkey.  The alternate title for this entry would be "Monkeys are thieving bastards!"  Or if it would be how I feel at this moment "I wish my stomach was better and this internet cafe sucks ass".

So anyways, the story of Jess getting mugged goes like this.  I was having the same stomach troubles I am right now two weeks ago so wasn't feeling well.  After convincing Jess to let me rest for a bit I promised to go with her to the tiger reserve that afternoon.  The big thing to do there is a boat around the lake to spot wildlife and we went in a couple of hours early to book tickets on one of the boats.  Since we had skipped lunch do to my stomach Jess was munching on potato chips just as we arrived in the park.  A monkey jumps down from a tree and begins pawing Jess trying to get to the bag.  Jess freaks out and covers her face and grabs me, still holding the bag near her face.  After a paranoid yell of "Drop the bag!", I had to snatch it myself and toss it to the little bastard before he started biting.  We got laughed at by a few honeymooning Indian couples as the thief ran away with his prize.

Those same mobs of honeymooners also had booked up tickets for the boat hours in advance, so we had to settle for just walking around a little.  We spotted plenty of other monkey thieves stealing from anyone with food in their hands and more often than not fighting with each other over their ill gotten gains.

The funniest stuff happened when we were sitting in the snack bar getting Jess something to eat after losing the chips.  Tons of monkeys were outside trying to reach into the room while signs warned us in no uncertain terms not to feed the monkeys.  Now in most countries park personnel would keep the tourists in check and enforce the rules.  In India the park personnel were having a laugh taunting the monkeys with food just out of their reach.

So the best thief of them all waits until everyone leaves for their boat trip and it's just Jess, myself and an Indian couple in the snack bar.  Before anyone realizes what's happening the monkey has opened the door, jumped onto the Indian couple's table, snatched a bag of peanuts from the table and an ice-cream cone from the now screaming Indian woman.  The monkey then jumped back to the door, managed to somehow open it with both hands full and ran off with his goods.

So even though I wasn't feeling well it was still a pretty interesting day.  And I was a stupid idiot and forgot to add the other two things we did on that first day.

#1  We rode an elephant, it was Jess's first time!

#2 We watched a show of Kalari, the local form of martial arts.  Wasn't too shabby.

So that was just about it for Kerala.  We also saw a local form of theater after the monkey thieving business called Kathakali.  It might have been fascinating if I understood it at all but we both got seriously confused and bored pretty quickly.  Then an 8 hour drive to Trivandrum, the state capital, the next day only to find out at 8 in the evening that all hotels were booked full because of the International Kerala Film Festival.  Took us about an hour but we found a fairly nice and very expensive hotel on the outskirts of town.  After Jess flew out two days later I headed out on a train and began the solo leg of my trip... (to be continued)

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Kumily - Part 1

After our pleasant stay in Fort Cochin, Jess and I began making our way up to the mountains.  Early on I decided if we only had 2 weeks together that we should try to see a variety of places but not get too excited and spend most of our time on the road.  And I have to say that was a smart move *pats himself on the back*

So our first mission was to get out of Fort Cochin which is easier said than done.  The main city is Ernakulam which is across the river from Fort Cochin.  I guess the presence of a big city nearby spares Cochin of a lot of the hassles of other Indian cities.  Sadly it also means that you need to go to Ernakulam for any buses and trains that are leaving.  And since we were headed into the mountains that meant taking a bus from Ernakulam to Kumily, a trip lonely planet promised would only take us 5 hours.  Lying bastards.

These are Indian buses.  They're a bit old but not so bad.  It's just the amount of people that get stuffed into the buses that make them absolute horrors to ride in for long periods of time.  And the fact that I have the world's smallest bladder and that the buses make few if any stops doesn't help matters.

Notice the line of people standing up back there?  Yeah, some people never got a seat for hours of the ride.  It's first come first serve and they'll take as many people as can squeeze into the thing.  The poor nun behind me in the photo was at first sitting next to me.  She started to speak to me in English but I couldn't understand a word she was saying except "Do you speak English?  English no?".  I think she ended up thinking I was some retarded German and changed seats when she could.

The blessing and curse of riding the bus is that you get a much better feel for Indian streets that the train just can't allow.  The blessing part is when you get stuck in a traffic jam as some festival thing rolls down the road with real elephants and lots of pageantry.  The curse part is having to watch the traffic and know that your driver doesn't have any relief from the onslaught of cars and trucks passing each other.

The five hour ride turned out to actually be about 8 hours and we didn't get into Kumily until after dark.  Some passengers actually got into a heated argument with the driver over his speeding in the mountains.  Or at least I assume that's what they were talking about, everyone was shouting in Malayalam while I just tried to keep from laughing at the ridiculousness of it.  Jess was a trooper here, she's a much better traveler than I thought and held up through the bus ride just fine.  Her preferences for accommodation, however, are a little more exacting than mine.

So when we arrived it was after dark.  The rickshaw driver we got drove by my first and second choice of home stays but both had closed up reception for the night.  He offered to drive us to another place and, thinking nothing of it, I agreed just to see a place that was still open.  It was a brand new homestay with large, clean rooms and a balcony overlooking an empty field that we were promised offered lots of wildlife spotting opportunities.  The quickly agreed to the rate since it was comparable to other places in the guidebook and decided I just wanted to get settled in as soon as possible.  Little did I know that this would lead to Jess and I's one big fight of the trip.  Apparently she had heard never to trust a rickshaw driver and I can't disagree completely, you need to be on your guard.  So she thought I was the biggest idiot in the world for accepting his advice and that I needed some kind of mental help.  I countered that I only agreed to see the place and after seeing it was fine accepted, and that these guidebooks are far from the best resource.  Since we're both stubborn people this led to quite a bit of tension that evening.

Thankfully the tension was removed as we woke up the next morning and Jess started to agree that the place wasn't so bad after all.  Spotting some wildlife in the field out back helped matters too.  Throughout the course of our stay we saw monkeys, wild boars, cows and tons of birds out in the field.  The boars were really cute, one mother and one piglet.

Walking around Kumily as also a lot of fun.  Being a smaller town whose main attraction is the nearby tiger preserve it has a horrible, busy main drag but many quiet streets and alleys right off of it.  I've said to a few people that one of the best parts about India is the diversity of sights you can see and how daily life is just different.  Whether it's someone using a charcoal heated iron to iron clothes in the streets or spices drying on the ground, it all reminds you that you're someplace special.

Later in the day we were at a loss of what to do so met up with the rickshaw driver from before.  He took us to some tea plantations and gave us a walking tour for about an hour.  It was Sunday so the workers had off, and I think that only added to the serene beauty of the place.

If you notice the trees scattered throughout the area near the tea plants, those are all for water collection.  And on vines growing up the trees it's all pepper plants.  On our tour we also saw some coffee, ginger and other spices growing in this area.

So our first day in the mountains was one of our best.  Really relaxing and refreshing to get away from the heat of the coast where it was around 30 degrees Celsius (about 86 Fahrenheit but it felt a lot worse in the sun).  Sadly this is the night where I started to get sick so the next few days weren't so pleasant.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Backwaters Part 2 - Fort Cochin

Our next stop after staying overnight on the house boat in Allepey was Fort Cochin or Kochi as it's now known.  A brief aside about Indian city names:  For years the standard was to use the names the British (or other colonial powers, just about everyone has a taste of India at one time or another) gave cities when referring to them in English.  Recently there's been a push to revert to the spelling of how they're referred to in the language of that state, hence Bombay has become Mumbai and Calcutta is now Kolkata.  Generally speaking though both names still get used and they aren't too far apart phonetically.  There are exceptions though and the British conventions make a lot of sense when you try to read out names like Udhagamandalam (British: Ooty) or Thiruvananthapuram (British: Trivandrum).  I'm not saying I'm against removing the colonial names, I'm just saying I can't pronounce the real names for $#!%.

Anyways, back to my travels.  The history of Fort Cochin goes something like this.  The area has been the location of various bustling ports on the southwestern coast of India that have been exporting spices for hundreds of years.  Along came the Portuguese to secure some lucrative trading rights and set up shop.  Then the Dutch came along a few decades later and decided they wanted a piece of the pie, so they happily kicked the Portuguese to the curb and got their trade on.  Finally the star of the British Empire was rising and they decided they didn't want any wooden-shoe wearing, tulip sniffing Dutchmen around making money that was rightfully the Queen's.  The odd thing is that, in this jumble of history and colonial clashes, Fort Cochin was able to absorb all the influences and actually keep an amazing feel about it.

There were a few big churches around, apparently Kerala has the highest percentage of Christians in all of India.  The historical highlight was definitely Jew Town though.  And no, I'm not making that up.  It really is called Jew Town.

The narrow alleys of most of it are actually pretty deserted, just quiet people strolling along and a few shops.  Goats actually do outnumber rickshaws in this area (Lonely Planet was right!).  Towards the 500 year old synagogue things start to get a bit more touristy though, with plenty of shops and lots of touts. I actually had
my favorite encounter with a tout here when walking past his shop.

Salesman:  You, come into my shop.  Good price.
Me:  No thanks.
Salesman:  Come, come in.  Looking is free.
Me: *ignore him*
Salesman:  Special price for you.  Come and look.
Me:  *keep walking*
Salesman:  *to our backs*  Special price because you're special!
Me: *thinking* I am special, thanks for noticing.
The synagogue wasn't fantastic to look at, and sadly photos aren't allowed of the insides.  The history of it is fascinating though.  Jews came from Europe originally to trade in this area and other parts of colonial India and constructed it in 1568.  Yet facing persecution in Europe at various times, many Jews came to India to escape nasty things like the Inquisition or forced conversions.  It always amazes me when looking at the interconnectedness of human history and how deeply intertwined communities all over the world have been.

After an initial day of historical sightseeing, Jess and I decided to get out of the city and see some more of the stuff Kerala is known for.  And that meant more backwaters!  Initially we were worried we'd get bored because it'd be too similiar to our other houseboat trip but we were pleasantly surprised and had a great time.  Rather than a private boat, this was a guided tour that started early in the morning and ended around 5.  We first drove out to a town outside Cochin and met a few other tourists on the way.  They were all pleasant and I think everyone's stories of travelling India for one or two months got Jess jealous that she couldn't take a long vacation just to travel.

The first sights we saw on the houseboat portion were scenes of early morning life on the lakes.  Tons of fishermen were out, many using various methods to catch a kind of freshwater mussel that lives there.  Some people were using long poles while others were out of their boats and somehow using their feet to dredge them up.  Speaking of crazy interconnectness, another popular fishing method in and around Cochin is the use of Chinese fishing nets that operate according to the tides (or something, I really don't know how the hell they work) and are a relic from a trade mission sent by Kubla Khan in 1400 AD.

Apparently another big industry here is for divers to go down and dig up sand from the bottom of these lakes that's then used in construction.  We learned on our first backwater excursion that some of the smaller landmasses are man made and that whole areas of the backwaters and adjacent land have been converted into rice fields which require a lot of water.

After that we stopped off on an islands to take a look at a small spice garden and some local industry.  Coconut palms grow EVERYWHERE in Kerala.  Even the capital Trivandrum was covered in them, we were actually amazed when we didn't see them everywhere once we headed into the mountains.  So taking coconuts from the trees is one use for them, but another is the manufacture of toddy, a kind of palm sap gathered by chopping off the tip of the flower bud and letting it drain.

This guy was a local toddy tapper.  His job is to shimmy up to the top of the palms, cut the tip of the flower stem and then set up a collection vessel.  I believe they said they come to collect the sap every morning and evening.  Each stem only produces about 100 to 300 milliliters so to make it worth their while it means climbing a lot of trees.  The juice itself is supposed to be a very healthy drink and is recommended to pregnant women because of probiotic bacteria in it or something like that.  But where's the fun in that?  The real action comes when they leave it sitting for awhile to ferment so you get a nice 3 or 4 percent alcoholic beverage.  We sampled some along with the river mussels (I had my misgivings but the mussels were absolutely delicious stir-fried up with lots of ginger and spices).  The toddy itself is very sweet but the alcoholic kind was pretty decent.  It was pretty funny that all the Indians in our tour group specified strictly non-alcoholic toddy while the foreigners were insistent they wanted only alcoholic and wanted to know exactly how alcoholic it was going to be.   Clash of cultures I suppose.
After a good Kerala thali lunch they loaded us into smaller boats pushed along by a guy with a pole.  We went through a series of narrow, man-made canals that were great for bird-watching and seeing the villages up close.

Our next tourist stop was to watch an old women using a contraption made from a bicycle wheel to spin coir, fiber taken from the husk of a coconut, into a kind of rope.  The process was interesting, I never thought that coconut palms could be such a useful plant.

At our last stop for afternoon tea some kids were coming back from school and Jess made some new friends.  Indians are really nice people when it isn't their job to get some money out of you.  And I suppose I can't complain about all the Indian tourists wanting a picture of me when I go ahead and take some pictures of them.  I just wish they'd ask first instead of sneaking out their cell phones and snapping a few quick ones like I'm some sort of wild animal.

So that's pretty much all there was to our trip to Cochin.  It was one of the nicer places we traveled, with a really good traveler infrastructure set up and a surprisingly pleasant city area to wander around.  You could actually walk 100 meters without hearing a car horn blasting somewhere in the distance.  Sadly I just realized that as I write this in my hotel room all I can hear is my ceiling fan and dozens of horns blaring outside my window.  C'est la vie.

Friday, December 17, 2010

To Yoga Or Not To Yoga

Internet access has been scarce so apologies for the lack of entries lately.  I've a backlog of things to write about and will try to get them in as I slow down my trip.  The past week has been a bit of a downer.  I got sick off of a vegetarian thali so wasn't in a very pleasant mood.  Thankfully it wasn't serious food poisoning but something screwed my stomach up so that I was belching (no, not burping I mean full on belching) every minute or so and a few instances of vomiting.  After visiting a doctor for $2 and the $7 prescription of medicine he gave me I seem to be doing better.  But then Jess left yesterday which was a hard parting.  I feel I need to take advantage of this opportunity to travel while I can, and before things like a career and family get in the way, but it doesn't make parting with loved ones any easier.  Thankfully the internet can make the world seem like a much smaller place.

So, as the title states, yoga is on my mind.  It's something I really know nothing about and somehow got incredibly popular this past decade.  Originally I was planning to do a yoga course/cultural program in Kerala over Christmas and New Years.  But in the 2nd week of my trip I began questioning that plan and have finally decided that I'd rather spend my time traveling and exploring new places than cooped up in an ashram.  The first reason was that it doesn't start until the 23rd which would mean another week in Kerala with nothing to do.  Kerala is a nice place but after two weeks I feel I've seen what I came to see and can't think of anything I'd like to do.  The second reason being that I'd like to learn some Hindi, a language that is primarily spoken in northern India or major cities.  More time down south would mean less time to practice that.  And third, some major cities I'd like to see like Varanasi and Rishikesh are known specifically for their yoga scenes.

So we'll see.  I'm working my way slowly northwards and have been enjoying the trip a lot so far (except for the getting sick part).  At the moment I'm in Ooty, an old British Raj era hill station in Tamil Nadu.  The city is marginally cleaner than other small Indian cities but still noisy, dirty and chaotic.  I'm looking forward to getting out and hiking tomorrow though, I've found India to be absolutely amazing once you get outside the main drag of the city.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Backwaters - Allepey

So when I was planning this trip for Jess and myself in India there was a huge range of places to choose from.  Did we want deserts or mountains?  Beach or jungle?  Well, with the advice of a professor from college who said don't miss southern India I decided to head down to Kerala and see what was up.  I've written briefly about our time in Varkala at the beach but sun and sand aren't what Kerala is really known for.  The must see destination are the backwaters, a series of interconnected lakes, rivers and canals that run all through the state.  Historically they were a major source of food and a hub of transportation before there were roads and train tracks and stuff like that.  And to be honest, traveling on the backwaters still beats driving on India's roads any day of the week.

There are a lot of ways to travel the backwaters but the most famous by far is to take a houseboat for an overnight trip.  If all you want to do is sit in a chair watching village life go by while someone else drives the boat, cooks your meals and cleans up after you then this is the way to do it.  And to be honest, after a few days being overwhelmed in India's cities it's just what we needed.  I whiled away the day reading a book, looking out at the scenery of coconut palms and villagers hand-washing their clothes in the river and chatting with Jess.

The pace of life on the boat is great.  Probably the best part is watching the people go about their daily lives that are so far removed from my own in America or even Taiwan.  The backwaters are really the hub of life here with people fishing, washing, bathing, commuting or just enjoying their idyllic beauty.   Watching old men row their young granddaughters to school in a small canoe definitely made me appreciate little things like roads or automated transportation.

 At some point we stopped in the day at a place selling crabs and prawns that we could buy to add to our dinner menu.  Knowing we already spent thousands of rupees to get on these boats (we paid 7000 rupees for an AC room, around $160) they were certainly overcharging.  We paid 690 rupees for 2 admittedly giant freshwater prawns measured out on a vintage scale.

And the delicious finished product...

It should be noted that the food was also excellent on board.  I can't bring myself to eat curry every day, and a few of the meals we've had here have been lacking, but the chef on board our boat knew his stuff.  I should also apologize to my friends in Taiwan for being a hypocrite and taking a picture of my food after laughing at countless Taiwanese people doing the same.  But I figure if I'm paying $15 for two prawns I'd better get a picture of them.

One bit of excitement we had right before dinner was when another boat passed us by while Jess and I were on the rooftop balcony.  Suddenly a giant light flashed, a clapboard slammed shut, music started blaring and we got to see the filming of an Indian movie on the river!  This all came out of the blue and I guess that's part of the magic of India, expect the unexpected.

And one last photo of the scenery because it was just that good.  I'm wishing I'd taken a course on photography at some point because I can't begin to express how serene these scenery is when you're relaxing in a chair and letting it all pass by.  My next post will be about our day trip on the backwaters near Fort Cochin and the city itself.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

First Impressions

So I've finally made it to India in one piece and it's going well.  I think I would have been blown away had I not lived in Asia for the past 4 years.  Less surprises me today than it did when I first stepped out of the Bangkok airport all that time ago, but our first few days haven't been without a few little shockers.

To begin with, I can now honestly say I know why India has the highest motor vehicle accident rate in the world.  The driving here is absolutely insane.  For one the two lane roads become 3 or 4 lanes when scooters, guys pushing a cart or the people constantly passing everyone else are factored in.  Now my general impression of India is that things go at a reasonably slow pace, you'll probably wait 10 minutes just for a waiter to come take your order.  But when driving is concerned it seemed like everyone but bus drivers and our lone taxi driver were willing to endanger their lives rushing into incoming traffic just to shave a few minutes off of their drive.  That said, our taxi driver was nice and I got a chance to ride in that famous Indian car that I've heard mentioned so many times: the Ambassador.

Arriving in Varkala we got to hike around in our backpacks looking for a place to stay.  I knew I wanted to be up on the cliff where a lot of restaurants were but that meant passing dozens of small shops and guesthouses and having the same conversation at least ten times in 15 minutes.  Trudging slowly with big backpacks on we made easy targets.

Them:  "You want room/t-shirt/breakfast?  You come, take a look."

Me:  "No, thank you." (attempt to smile after only getting 3 hours of sleep)

Them:  "Take a look.  Good price.  You come inside my hotel/shop/restaurant."

Me:  "Not now, thanks."

Them:  "Okay, you come back tomorrow.  You promise okay, you promise me."

Varkala is a nice beachtown with a lot of restaurants and the like crowded onto a cliff overlooking the sea.  The place has a definite backpacker feel which I like but it strikes me as little different than other beach destinations on the Banana Pancake Trail in Southeast Asia.  The first day was cloudy but after we got ourselves settled in a hotel we headed out for our lunch.  The seating overlooked the ocean and I had my first meal: Paneer Butter Masala and a Chai Latte.

So all of that was a pretty normal beachtown experience in Asia.  As noted above I've found customer service moves slowly, the sales pitch is pretty direct when walking around and sometimes you have to be firm.  When I discovered our room had no hot water I went in search of the clerk and brought him back with another guy to take a look.  Five minutes later they were able to produce a slow dribble of hot water out of the showerhead.  I started speaking to Jess in Chinese (woohoo, I have a secret language) and then asked them to change the room.  Promptly the clerk's friend tried to convince me our room did in fact have hot water, couldn't I see that the dribbling showerhead was in perfect working order?  I stood my ground, politely insisting they change the room.  Since we'd only paid for one night we had some leverage and got a nicer room.

Our one fun adventure was when Jess found my plug adapter didn't convert voltage so her hair dryer was useless.  This is apparently a necessity which inspired us to head off in search of either a hair dryer or a voltage converter.  After walking the length of Varkala Beach and into the laidback villages, all while trying to explain in simple English and funny hand gestures what we were trying to buy, we finally broke down and hailed a rickshaw to take us into Varkala town itself.

We then spent some time asking at a few electronics shops where we might be able to purchase "an electric machine that you use to dry your hair...vrrrrrmm" and finally got pointed to the Titanic, the most eclectic shop I've ever seen.  I took one look and almost turned around, there was no way this place had a hairdryer.  The left side of the entryway was all medicines and shampoos, the right side a bundle of various toys.  Near the counter there were tons of knickknacks, including a few crucifixes complete with dead Jesuses that hung off of chains containing Chinese lucky money coins (I have no clue who thought to put those two together).  In the back were a few women chatting over jewelry displays.  But enter we did and after passing the busy clerk at the counter we headed back towards the women.  They didn't seem to speak English so we waited while another shop clerk helped a European couple find some board game (board games were located on the top shelf, above the bath accessoraries).  When asked for a hair dryer he looked puzzled for a moment until rushing towards the front and looking under, over, behind and between other boxes and random products.  Finally, behind the opened front door and under a few other boxes, he pulls out a box that was lying on the floor where no customer could possibly see it.  Mission accomplished!

We returned to the beach triumphant and in a good mood after the successful mission.  Jess took her hot water shower that we fought so hard for and was in good spirits.  And just as she's about to plug in the blow dryer there's a two hour long power outage.  Needless to say I had an unhappy girlfriend and we changed hotels to one with a generator the next morning.  So there's my first couple of days in India, a few hassles but just enough interesting experiences for me to want to sink my teeth in deeper.  Tomorrow we're off to Alleppey where we can take the houseboats Kerala is so famous for.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Still a Spaz

Anytime I'm leaving on a big trip it's always the same thing.  I'm calm and collected for weeks leading up to it.  These past few weeks I've even impressed myself by being on top of vaccinations, buying supplies, researching destinations and all the other little stuff that's necessary (and some that probably isn't).

Then, when the trip is only a couple of days away, I turn into an overstressed idiot who is scrambling to do a dozen things that should have been a long time ago.  So right now it's game time and I'm wearing flip-flops on the tennis court.  My mom should get that reference.

Here's how my packing progress is going...