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Kodaikanal

11 Feb

There isn’t a lot to say about Kodaikanal or “Kodai” as it is known by most people here, except that it is a world away from the stifling heat of the plains. In fact, the high temperatures here are only in the 20s° Celsius. It gets cold at night- very cold for southern India- around 9-10° Celsius.  And it has rained a little every day that we have been here save one.

There are hills everywhere in the town and you get an amazing workout as you walk around- which is the easiest way to explore. Astrid and I took a “walk” yesterday to Silver Falls, about 7km out of town. Our hotel concierge told us that it was an easy walk to take a shortcut through the town. And it was..until we reached the end of the path and realized we had to climb down the side of the mountain on a single track dirt path to get to the falls- in sandals. We finally made it…and the falls weren’t that nice, garbage everywhere, interstate tourists clamoring for a photo, clothes hanging from the branches of nearby trees as if they were swept down the river that feeds the falls. So we stayed for a little bit, ate a pomegranate and walked back- this time by the main road…uphill…very uphill. We figured that we walked about 14 km yesterday- around 9 miles.

That isn’t the only place to walk in Kodai though. A huge attraction is the man-made lake just below town. We have walked it everyday since we got here and it is beautiful- watching the mists roll in over the hills while families paddle around the lake in pedal boats, red and blue kingfishers search for food and purple and yellow Lotus’ float in the water. The lake circuit is 5km and it has been great to be able to get some exercise while we’ve been here- something that you can’t do in most places in India.

I’d definitely recommend coming here, but only for a few days, it can get tedious after that with frequent blackouts and restaurants that close at strange times. Check out Cloud Street Cafe, the best coffee in town, Pastry Corner for a mean brownie, and the Royal Tibet Restaurant which serves up good Chowmein and Momos. Hotel Hilltop Towers has been our address here for a week and the people are really nice and have been good to us. The rooms are clean and it is close to everything.

We leave tomorrow morning to Coimbatore to fly to Mumbai tomorrow afternoon where we’ll meet our friend Hana and check out the most expensive city in India.

Cheers until then!

What We’ll Miss Most About India…

8 Feb

With less than a week left on our trip we find ourselves both happy to be returning home and sad to be leaving. India is such a big country and we have seen and experienced so much of it. I assume that a lot of things will continue to hit me as we reintegrate into the world. There are so many things to miss about India that we don’t quite know where to begin…

We will miss freshly cooked and (more or less) healthy food. Particularly Dosas and Sambar (a South Indian specialty) in the morning, organic/ biodynamic coffee from Auroville, freshly squeezed juices like pomegranate, lime, pineapple, coconut, apple, mango and tangerine for Rs. 40 or less, and grilled tandoori specialties like Chicken Tikka and Nan from REAL tandoors.

We will miss the land; from the tall peaks of the Himalaya, the fresh air of hill stations, the warmth of the plains, the holy rivers, the sparkling waters of the Arabian Sea, the lush tropical jungles of Tamil Nadu, hills that look like piles of stones, coconut palms, beaches, temples, and monuments.

We will miss getting on a train on one side of the country and waking up on the other side of the subcontinent to the calls of, “ChaiCoffeeChaiCoffeeCoffeeChai.” and offers of breakfast and other assorted sundries. Drinking chai on a train is an experience in and of itself-nothing like a shot of sugar and caffeine to get you going in the morning as you chug past farm fields, villages and towns, and waving children.

We will miss the people, travellers with whom we shared time and other travellers who live in India who love their country with pride and are so excited to talk about it. We will miss the hearts and smiles of the Tamil people- by far the nicest people we have come across. As well as the wisdom and persistence of the Tibetan people that now make India home. Most of all we will miss the head wobble- there is no other gesture that is more appropriate for this country.

We will miss screaming down the road on a motorbike…horn blaring- dodging trucks, buses, rickshaws, people, and cows while the wind blows through our hair and the sun warms our skin. There is no other place in India where you can feel as free as you do on a motorbike exploring the world around you.

We will miss warmth by day, cool by night, being able to leave your windows open-as long as you have screens or mosquito netting, and wearing light clothing. We’ll miss the intoxicating smells of India from the fragrant jasmine, to the earthy sandalwood, the smell of burning wood fires, the lighting of incense morning and evening and the odors of spices like cumin, turmeric, chillies, ginger, garlic and curry wafting through the air.

Most of all, we’ll miss the chaos that is India.  The 1.1 billion people who get up every morning and work their butts off in taxis, hotels, farm fields, factories, and schools to make a living and to make their country better.  My hat is off to you.

India, you have entranced us- we will definitely be back.

    Fort Cochin and the Backwaters

    2 Feb

    I can see that Ft. Cochin is a nice place. Relaxed, laid-back, easy-going…you know sleepy. The influences of the spice seekers is plain in the architecture, Chinese fishing nets, Jewish synagogues, Portuguese houses, the Dutch Palace all on a little island that faces out into the Arabian Sea. It really is quite beautiful and although we had a annoying experience at our guest house, there were some things that really stood out. Lunch and coffee at the Kashi-Art-Cafe, walking by the Chinese fishing nets at sunset, tea and dessert at the Teapot, and spice and antique shopping in Jewtown. I totally recommend going to Kochi, but it really is a two-day stop, any more and it gets REALLY boring.

    While in Kochi, we took the opportunity to take a backwater tour that was a combination of a short tour in a “country boat,” read canoe that took on water, and a longer tour of the backwaters in a houseboat that is designed like a kettuvallam, or rice barge. These boats are made of wood and then a frame of bamboo and reed is attached on top. Throw on a few chairs, two boatmen, and 16 or 17 of your closest friends and you’ve got yourself a tour on the Keralan backwaters. It was long, but it was also beautiful. Small islands dotting the waters, pink and yellow lotus flowers growing out of the mud, villages in the middle of nowhere, and gorgeous kingfishers (the bird, not the beer) flying around you.

    We took off early this morning heading to Coimbatore in the Western Ghats of Tamil Nadu on our way to Kodaikanal, a hill station nearby to do some trekking and get some fresh air.

    Less than two weeks to go! 😦

    Varkala, life on the edge

    24 Jan
    Well we arrived here in Varkala almost a week ago and I find it a very nice change from the normal beach scene in India. The imposing cliffs (see photo at left of sunset from the cliffs) stop the buildings from pouring onto the beaches like most resort towns and that makes the air and environment a little cleaner and more relaxed. The state of Kerala understands that the beaches here are an important resource and they take care of them and their tourists accordingly. There are teams of women in olive-drab sari uniforms that come and clean the beach daily, lifeguards that actually make sure people are not drowning and police that chase off the ever popular gawking Indian males and drum salesmen.

    They fail on one area however and that is what to do with the massive amounts of garbage that accumulate on the cliffs. There does not seem to be a dump anywhere around so garbage ends up being swept off the cliff onto the cliff sides on the approach to the beaches. The cleaners only clean the beach itself and will not clean the cliff sides. The result is very sad; potato chip bags, plastic water bottles, leaflets, and lots of other garbage end up on the cliff sides everyday- and nobody does anything about it. The prevailing theory is that as long as it is not on the cliff top, it doesn’t exist.

    But aside from that Varkala is a beautiful place. Watching from the cliffs as the waves and swells on the Arabian Sea roll in while fishermen in small boats along with their helpers bobbing up and down in the blue-green waters, pulling in the days catch is something that can take up hours. The sightings of dolphins in the area are frequent and amazing- the sight of them gliding and jumping through the water stop people on the cliffs dead in their tracks.

    We are staying in an interesting place- I don’t know if I would recommend it or not, but the name in itself is something to write about. You see we are staying at Santa Claus’ All Seasons Village and Ayurvedic Resort. Yes, you read that correctly because as we all know when he is not making tiny elves slave over toys in the North Pole, Santa and Mrs. Claus spend all their free time in Varkala, India having Ayurvedic Panchakarma treatments and eating continental food. The room is cheap at Rs. 500 per night and there is a “swimming pool” of which I use the term loosely as it is more a place to wash off the sand from the beaches nearby. The lock broke on our door the other day, and in typical Indian fashion a man came to oil the lock with lavender-scented Odonil, a room freshener. That lasted for a half day and then the lock went out again. Luckily there is another door that leads out to the pool which we can use. The coconut palms around the property are painted with all kinds of interesting scenes including traditional Keralan Kathakali dancers and St. Nicholas. It kind of makes you scratch your head and wonder…

    Getting past the hawkers on the cliffs is another story- every shop owner lurks outside their business which looks EXACTLY like the one next door imploring you to “Yes, have a look my shop?” Some are more aggressive than others and I simply try to ignore them. The restraunts on the cliff are very similar- as the dinner hour approaches the workers lay out the days catch to try to entice you. When that doesn’t work they get in front of you while you are walking and lure you with promises of “strong drinks and chilled beer.” When that doesn’t work they ask you questions like; “You walk by here every night and you never come eat here, why not?” Last night a man asked me this question and I turned to him and said with a smile, “I only eat in restaurants where people don’t attack me as I walk by.” He seemed so confused by this statement as if people enjoyed being hounded by restauranteurs as they take an evening stroll.

    There are a few good restaurants where they won’t attack you- check out Kerala Coffee House, which doesn’t serve very good coffee, but has great food, Clafouti- who boasts Thai food and a Pumpernickel Bakery-which doesn’t serve pumpernickel bread, and Trattorias (notice the random plural)- which also serves Thai food and has- you guessed it– a German bakery- that only sells croissants and other French pastries.

    We are trying to decide what to do with only three weeks left in our trip- do we want to continue travelling or do we want to take it easy? We’ll let you know.

    Cheers!

    Kerala

    21 Jan

    It is known as “God’s Own Country” but it is really just India.  We arrived fresh off the train the other day in Trivandrum and decided to try to go directly to Varkala, about 50 km north of the city.  I tried many different places by telephone, but either could not find anything available or felt like they were being dodgy about prices.  After about 45 minutes of calling guest houses and trying to hear anything over the roar of trains, people, PA announcements, (why do local telephones in India all have to be outside where you can never hear what is being said?) and all other loud things, we decided to stay in Trivandrum for the evening – easier said than done…

    You see EVERYTHING affordable near the train station was taken by early afternoon.  I mean EVERYTHING!  We ended up spending way too much at Wild Palms Home Stay which was actually very nice and included a typical Keralan breakfast the next morning which consisted of rice noodle patties with shaved coconut and a coconut curry that was reminiscent of a Thai coconut curry- very delicious.  We tried to go to a movie in Trivandrum and that fell through as well- it just wasn’t our day.  So we had some dinner and went back to the room to go to bed.

    On first glance, Trivandrum is a very clean city- full of the normal hustle and bustle of other Indian cities, but somehow different.  People are more educated here and most that I talked to speak at least some English.  Kerala’s government has been Communist since the 50s and that may account for the push for literacy- which is amazing for a developing country at 91%! A strange thing about Kerala that I have notiiced is the absence of street dogs- I mean they are gone in Trivandrum itself.  I think I saw one street dog the entire day.

    Next day, we took the state bus from Trivandrum to Varkala- which does not go straight there by the way- just ask at the bus station which bus to get on- people are very helpful in Kerala.

    So here we are on the cliffs of Varkala overlooking the Arabian Sea.  I’ll post more about this beautiful place later.

    Cheers!

    Tiruvannamalai and Gingee

    11 Jan

    Yesterday Astrid and I took a taxi from Auroville to Tiruvannamalai to check out the Arunachaleswar Temple and see the Sri Ramana Maharshi Ashram. The trip was excellent, leaving in the early morning mists, driving through farm lands and seeing people getting their day started. We passed schoolchildren in their uniforms riding bikes and talking, farmers working in the rice paddies, herders moving goats and cows off the road, toward the cattle market, and vegetable sellers readying their stands for the day. We passed through frenetic bazaar towns where traffic came to a screeching halt while horns honked, people haggled and laughed, and dogs barked. The land changed from fertile, super neon green fields, to rough rocky terrain that looked like someone just picked up a pile of boulders and set them down on the landscape to form a mountain.

    We arrived in Tiruvannamalai at 9:3o am and went straight to the Arunachaleswar Temple that covers 10 hectares and is one of the largest temple complexes in India. It dates from the 11th century, though much of the structure was built in the 16th and 17th centuries. It boasts the second tallest gopuram in India (pictured at the right) at 13 stories. From the minute we entered the temple you could feel the peacefulness of the place, there were few beggars, few people trying to tout their guide services, and no priests trying to lure you into a puja that you didn’t want. It was wonderful, we were able to walk around totally unmolested and just drink in the beauty of the Technicolor shrines (below), the chanting of the Vedas over the loudspeaker, and the overall serenity of the spot. We sat on the steps of the main temple and watched as the Indian elephant that blesses devotees was led out for the temple closing at 11 am and then watched as the two sacred relics were carried out on a temple chariot by fifteen men (moving to a raucous tune of a horn and drum) to be ceremoniously locked away until the temple reopened later that afternoon.

    After the temple we took a short drive to the Sri Ramana Maharshi Ashram set at the base of the beautiful Mount Arunachala. As we arrived, the ashram was in the process of feeding about 100 sadhus and other poor people in its parking lot- something they do everyday at 11 a.m. and walked around the site and visited the shrine where Sri Ramana achieved samadhi or conscious exit from the body. The feeling there was incredibly serene and very relaxing.

    On the way back to Auroville, we stopped in Gingee (pronounced ‘shin-gee’) to visit the ruins of the Krishnagiri Fort that dates from the 13th century and has been held by many armies including the Vijayanagars, the Marathas, the Mughals, the French, and the British. The only armies that were here yesterday however were an army of goats that were climbing the 500 misshapen granite steps to the top and eating leaves from the bushes in the process. From the top of Krishnagiri, you can look out over the surrounding countryside for miles and miles away from (most) of the traffic noise and people. We could have also visited the Rajagiri Fort across the valley, neither of us felt like walking the 1560 steps to the top of that one!

    After a month here in beautiful Tamil Nadu and Auroville, we leave on Tuesday to take the overnight train to Trivandrum in Kerala and begin to work our way north to Mumbai to leave on 14 Feb.

    Cheers!

    Auroville…The Grand Experiment

    23 Dec

    What do you get when you cross an arid plateau-which is now a lush forest, 25,000 Tamil villagers, 2,000 international residents from 71 countries, really bad potholes- which masquerade as roads, an alternative lifestyle, and a 70 meter golden golf ball?

    You get Auroville International Township, a place where ecology and spirituality combine to make an alternative community open to people throughout the world. Auroville was founded in 1968 and the vision for it is that there will be 50,000 people living there in a sort of futuristic utopia where clean water, renewable energy, education and no money reign supreme. The charter of the city sums up these intentions nicely:

    1. Auroville belongs to nobody in particular. Auroville belongs to humanity as a whole. But to live in Auroville, one must be the willing servitor of the Divine Consciousness.
    2. Auroville will be the place of an unending education, of constant progress, and a youth that never ages.
    3. Auroville wants to be the bridge between the past and the future. Taking advantage of all discoveries from without and from within, Auroville will boldly spring towards future realisations.
    4. Auroville will be a site of material and spiritual researches for a living embodiment of an actual Human Unity.

    The center of Auroville is the Matrimandir or Temple of the Mother that does not belong to any religion or sect. It is known as the soul of the city. When the township is completed, the Matrimandir will be the absolute center of the city and all buildings will emanate from it in a spiral, galaxy-like fashion. The Matrimandir itself is really a sight to see. The entire surface of the ball is covered in large and smaller concave discs that are embedded with golden pieces of glass. It is an engineering marvel and totally beautiful from a distance- especially at dusk when it is lit from below.

    There are many issues holding back progress in Auroville though- a lack of housing is causing newcomers to have a difficult time of integrating into the township. Newcomers must go through an entire year to become an Aurovillian and they must also be able to pay for their own land and house to be built- which becomes the property of Auroville. The money exchange system is difficult too- Aurovillians get a small stipend (called maintenance) on which they are supposed to live each month. The maximum amount an Aurovillian can receive is 5000 Rs per month, or around 112.00 USD. Now, it can be done but it is difficult to be sustained on this amount and newcomers are not even eligible for this maintenance.

    So while there are problems, there are many great things about the community as well. Education plays a huge role in the township and local Tamil villagers are being educated both as children in integrated schools and adults in handicrafts and vocational work. Ecologically, the 20 sq. km have been transformed in the 40 years of Auroville’s existence from an arid plateau with very few trees to an amazing jungle teeming with flora and fauna. While Auroville has a way to go to realize their goal it is amazing to see what they have accomplished in such a short time.

    Astrid and I were only staying for a week originally, but we decided to find a longer term place and spend a few weeks exploring the township, doing some yoga, and looking into life here. It’s not a place where I think we would ever live permanently, but it is an interesting experiment. We’ll post more later.

    Cheers!