Monday, February 23, 2009

Kerala backwaters, Varkala, and Kanyakumari.

Right after breakfast in Allepey (back on Feb 19th), our little group of 5 found a lovely houseboat on which to do a 22 hour tour of the famous Kerala backwaters. Renting a houseboat was not greatly appealing. Earlier in our travels we were warned several times that the whole "backwater tour", while probably something special 20/30 years back, is now a very commercial enterprise. Indeed, in the canals we navigated there was quite a bit of traffic, complete with honking. The tour was also relatively brief, partially because we were not able to make the 11.30am departure (leaving instead around 1.30pm). However, it was still interesting to move around these waterways, which consist of broad and narrow canals between endless rice patties. Being in a little group also made the time more fun, making things feel a lot like a short holiday. Once we relaxed on our super upper deck, the whole thing was very pleasant...

(Very pleasant banana.)

(Downstairs on the boat.)

(Very pleasant view of the backwaters.)

(More very pleasant.)

(The canals are at once panoramic and fully functional for the communities living around them. The fisherman above was on the more "exotic" side of the spectrum. The rower below on the "sexy" side- check out those muscles!!)

(Sunset. And surprisingly few mosquitoes.)

Unfortunately I don't have many good pictures of this particular trip. With just one click, however, you may view many more on Brian's photo sharing website!(Just scroll about half way down the roll.)

On Feb 20th we were back in Alleypey and under Erica and Aoife's suggestion we made our way to Varkala. Brian insisted that the following picture be posted on the blog, in order to illustrate our super Kerala train-ride down to Varkala. This is one of the best trains we have seen so far.

Varkala is an interesting place. It's an over-developed, commercial beach town, filled with a wide range of white tourists: from old time hippies who've been coming here for the past 20 years (long before the beach was so developed), to package tourists seeking luxurious lodging in a tropical setting for cheap, to students of various ages, and other travellers. There aren't many Indians around (except those working in the many shops). The actual beach is protected from development because it lies at the base of a huge cliff. Our first day there I was very skeptical about the town. It is by far more commercial and populated than Agonda, so to me it felt a bit like a tourist trap. Our meals weren't very good either. AND, there are HEAPS of trash lying on the cliff!

(View of the cliff from the main road at the top, where the restaurants and lodgings are. There is trash like this all along the cliff surrounding the beach.)

Slowly, however, the place grew on me. I think that is true for all of us to different extents: we liked Varkala more as we spent time there. While we spent the first day cooking in the midday sun, we learned very quickly to keep out of these burning rays between 11a-3pm.

(Hanging out on the beach at noon our first day. At this stage we still looked pretty fresh. It was only around evening time that we felt the power of the heat...)

Instead of lying on the beach all day, we learned to take advantage of the middle of the day for other activities, such as yoga...

And eating GOOD food at the best restaurant on the cliff (a vegetarian one which we found on our third day).

(This was one of our best meals in Varkala. From the top, going clockwise: sauteed okra, pumpkin curry, rice with dahl thadka, malai kofta- a potato based dish cooked with dry fruit, tomato fry, and tofu cashew masala. So delicious! One of the perks of being a larger group is that we can order more dishes and sample lots of different things...)

We also discovered that sunset is a great time to hang out on the beach. The man below (Jose) has been in Varkala since November and every evening he takes on his position, complete with small speakers that play a sithar accompaniment, and plays soft tunes on his tenor sax. It's wonderful to watch the sun set and the stars come out while listening to his sounds...

After about 3 days of beach life, (during which I had my first, very oily and pleasurable, Keralan ayurvedic massage), our group of 5 left Varkala for Kanyakumari, the southernmost tip of India, from which you can look at both sunset and dawn from the same location. We took a car there, but even with airconditioning, after more than 3 hours of driving we started feeling a little tired:

Although the drive was tiresome, getting to the tip in Kanyakumari was so exciting that it made the effort very worthwhile. Right before sunset, the tip of India is buzzing with life! In the distance you can clearly make out the giant sculpture of Swami Vivekananda. This swami from the end of the 19th century has a very strong presence on this cape. He is particularly known for being one among the first to travel to the United States (to Chicago, where he spoke at the Parliament of World's Religions in 1893) and put India and "Hinduism" on the map in the West. We stayed at his ashram, which was 1) incredibly cheap, 2) very well organized, and 3) very close to a beautiful spot for watching the sun rise. I think we would all recommend it.
(Giant sculpture of Vivekananda... remeniscent of the Statue of Liberty.)

Below are some pictures from our sunset in Kanyakumari. Although the images are not enough, they do give a sense of the crowd that gathers at the beach. We hear it's like this every evening. It might also be that ours was a special sunset, since it was on the eve of Shivaratri, a huge festival dedicated to Shiva in which people stay up all night chanting and making offerings to Shiva. The whole cape, however, is generally set up like the grounds of a big entertainment park, with booths of all sorts selling shells, food, horse rides (!) and cheap toys and souvenirs...
(Giant and mini shells are sold all over the cape. There is a large fishermen population in Kanyakumari: many of the shells must just end up in their nets. Some of them are so large they don't look real...)

All sorts of people gather on the beach to look at the sunset: these nuns and "lay women" (as described by one of the nuns) were bathing in the warm and agitated ocean waters while singing hymns to Jesus...
There were also families...

And the usual people interested in taking pictures of the (relatively few) white women...

The pictures below might give you a sense of the crowd that gathers for sunset. The energy was electric: the waves of the ocean(s ?) beating against each other, the laughter of those swimming and jumping in the water, some flirtation among the younger people, and the general awe that comes with the beauty of sunsets.

A really beautiful time.

(David looking West. The beach around the cape is dotted with large boulders that break the waves and make for a great soundtrack.)

Here is our little group caught in a "historical" picture at the cape...

Once the sun was down, we walked through the plastic toy bazaars around the beach. I had a great time: it felt like the grounds of an oldschool amusement park!

Kanyakumari was our last night together. The next day, Brian was to take off for Madurai while Aoife and Erica were headed to Trivandrum to go to Goa and then back to New York. The 5 of us spent had a wonderful night together, hanging out on the beach by the ashram and listening to the loud chanting going on in the temples all around us. It is not surprising that not all of us made the dawn the next morning :-) David and I went off to see the sun come up at around 6am. The dawn was beautiful. Again there were many people up to see it...

(Some of the sand on the sunrise viewpoint beach was pitch black. I have saved some in a little bottle: it weighs like lead... anyone know why sand can turn out like this?)

(Watching the sun rise with a garland of jasmine in my hair... part of a much longer series of "self portraits" taken during David's meditation. This is the only one to have survived a careful selection.)

What was really delightful, however, was what came after the sun rise. David and I made our way back into town along the beach (which we had not done before). In order to get some breakfast, we walked past the fishermen's boats...

(You can see the giant sculpture of Vivekananda on the horizon, further South from the fishermen's boats.)

From the beach we walked inland, through the fishermen's village. There, on more than one occasion, we were surrounded by children of all ages holding plastic bottles filled with red, blue, green, and yellow dyes. More than once we had to look at the as sternly as possible and with a loud (and clearly scared) "No!" stop them from squirting the ink at us. It was early in the morning, and the laughing and menacing children definitely got our hearts racing. Finally we came upon a HUGE group of them. We thought this time we were definitely going to get it. Luckly, with the help of some adults who were standing around this maddened crowd of children, and with the awe that only cameras can infuse, we were not only able to escape the danger of the dyes, but actually got a great shot of the feasting children! (If possible, zoom in and look at some of their faces. They were really partying!)

We later discovered that we had walked in on their Fat Tuesday celebrations: a Christian holiday (which in Italy is celebrated with masks and costumes and greasy food as Carnevale). Really cool to see the Indian version of these celebrations.

Also on our morning walk, David and I walked passed this little sweet pea:

We left Kunyakumari on the same day. David and I spent a night in Trivandrum with Aoife and Erica, and then made our way back to Varkala. We have been here for the past 3 days for a little more yoga, fruit salads, and massages, and we plan to leave March 2nd for Chennai, where we will begin our exploration of Tamil Nadu after briefly dipping into Andra Pradesh.

The heat is starting to make itself felt. We spend the hottest hours of the day in the protection of the shade. Our nights have been particularly tricky lately: I have been getting up in the middle of my sleep for a night shower, in order to cool down a bit! Still, the warmth is pleasant on the body and we can't complain...

A presto,

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Belur, Halebid and Sravanabelagola and MUNNAR!

This is going to be a recap of the days from after Mysore to our sweet break from the heat in the cool hills of Munnar. After the beauty of Somnathpur, David and I decided to visit two other Hoysala sites, Belur and Halebid, about 4 hours North of Mysore. The sites are a few kilometers away from each other, and we used Belur as our base. It is in Belur, at the glamorous Vishnu Residency Hotel, that we were finally introduced to how to correctly look at Hoysala art. This "warning" is located in the hotel's "wing" dedicated to all the Hoysala sites in the area:

(If you can't quite make it out, the text : "Oh Pilgrim! Adore at the door, before you enter. This is not only the STONE, it is a NETWORK of STONE ART.")

In any case, the art in both Belur and Halebid mainly consisted of variations on the Somnathpur theme. I enjoyed the temple at Somnathpur more than the temples at these sites, as it was located in the quietest and smallest of the towns and had some of the more intact and subtly sculpted details. Below are just a couple of images (all from the Halebid site) to give you a general idea of what we saw:

(Although the temple at Halebid was not as intricately carved in the higher parts of the building as Somnathpur, it had a much more intricate floor plan, resulting in these labyrinthic niches all around the outside walls.)

(A great image, possibly of an avatar of Vishbu, holding up the earth - with its trees and fruits - surrounded by all of creation.)

We spent one day visiting Belur and Halebid. The next morning, we took yet another bus to visit the giant Jain Buddha at Sravanabelagola. I talked about the hybrid nature of this site before (the result of a mix of patronage for both Jain and Hindu beliefs). On a hill situated in the middle of a large plain, there are about 650 steps carved into a giant boulder that take you up to the temple. It's really great walking up there!

The Buddha at the top is indeed HUGE: 17.38 meters. Again, one of those objects of which you will find better pictures all over the internet, etc. In any case, the shot below gives you a sense of the detail and simplicity of the sculpture:

This Jain Buddha is called Gomateshwara. It is always depticted naked, in standing position, with vines climbing up his body, and an anthill at his feet. The story tells that he was a prince, son of a very powerful emperor. When his father died, the prince and his brother fought a long and horrible battle to succeed him to the throne. When the prince was just about to win, he realized the futility of it all, left the empire to his brother, and went off to a forest, where he eventually reached enlightenment. The vines and the ant hill in the sculpture are meant to symbolize the prince's total absorption in his meditation: he didn't even notice plants were growing on him! His nakedness stands for his giving up of all material things. Very beautiful in its simplicity, and a nice break from all the detail and decorations of the Hoysala temples.

In Sravanabelagola, on our way to catch a bus to Bangalore, we ran into a fun musical procession moving along the main road. We weren't quite sure what was going on, but eventually were told it was a wedding! The couple seemed really excited to have their picture taken. Later David tried to run after them to get their emails (in order to send them the photos), but by the time we had the idea they had already moved far! It was a really festive procession :-)

(The couple is walking under the umbrella. She is wearing green and carrying some fruits in a basket, he's wearing white and a turban. They had great smiles!)

(The musical accompaniment.)

We eventually left Sravanabelagola on a 4.5 hour bus that took us to Bangalore, where we caught a plane to Kochi (Kerala). The Bangalore International Airport just opened up 8 months ago and felt as clean and fresh as a hospital after our 3 days of constant bus riding. I could actually feel the dirt on my clothes/skin while standing there.

We slept in Kochi, or rather it's neighbouring town, Ernakulam, in order to catch a bus to Munnar the next day. Here is the only memory I want to preserve of Ernakulam (where the only food we managed to eat was one samosa each at the bus stand, and not because of lack of time):

(This was the COURTYARD of the Paulson Park Hotel, where we slept in Ernakulam. Fantasy inspired. Very, very strange...)

So far, Ernakulam makes the top of our "worst places we visited" list. It was a chaotic, polluted, noisy town. The people at our hotel also seemed slightly dazed and generally confused every time we asked for information. It was a bit of a worrying introduction to Kerala... Luckly, by escaping to the hills (on yet another 4.5 hour bus ride, this time with no glass windows and very hard seats), we found some relief. Munnar is a small town 1,450m high, located in a valley sorrounded by tea, cardamon, and coffee plantations. I had never seen tea plantations before, and the first impression was of a gigantic and very manicured Japanese bonsai garden, with dense green bushes that look like puzzle pieces fitting into each other, and random rocks springing up every now and then. Really stunning.

We went on several walks around Munnar. One early morning we found this print in the sand:

(David circled the print. It's a little hard to tell because of other shade in the image, but it consists of 1 paw with 3 claws, facing left.)

Different people who saw it said it's a tiger print. It was close to some hoove-like prints, like the ones of a deer. There are tigers around Munnar, but it still seems hard to believe!

In our walks around Munnar we encountered women cutting down the tea bushes

caught glimpses of beautiful views,

and were amazed by the biodiversity of the jungly forests all around.

We also learned that while tea needs the sun to grow, cardamon needs the shade. The bushes/leaves at the bottom of this image are cardamon:

And, for the first time, I saw what fresh coffee beans look like. They look like this (the bean is left to dry inside the fruit):

Very instructive, our walks.

We left Munnar yesterday afternoon, with a car drive that turned just scary enough once the sun set. David told me "If you don't look, it will hurt less," so I tried not to pay too much attention to the cars and buses driving towards us in our lane.

Now we are in Allepey, were we met up with Aoife, Erica and Brian and with whom we plan to hire a house boat to travel South along the famous back waters of Kerala. We are staying at the Vrindavanam Heritage Home, a pleasant hotel with two interior gardens in a building that is more than 180 years old.

(The courtyard of our hotel. Definitely a great place to stay in Allepey. And their cook is great!)

We had a lovely sleep in the humid warmth of the ocean and I am about to leave this post to go have breakfast.

A presto,