Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Final Thoughts on India

Ah, India! We knew going into the country that most people seem to love it or hate it. Despite having already been on the road for weeks by the time we arrived, Delhi was so frickin' hard. The way we remembered where our roach motel (with good reviews - thanks for nothing, tripadvisor) was located was because the alley always had a line of men waiting for the open urinal. Continuing around the Golden Triangle was not much better with the viciousness of touts and autorickshaw drivers. In all honesty, in that first week, we both separately considered getting a flight out to somewhere - anywhere else! - and just coming back to India in time to catch the one home. Grimly we stuck it out, and in our optimism, we could say it was, at least, always interesting. Things got better and better the further we got away from the tourist trail and the giant cities, and we really got to love our time in southern India. It was so redeeming that we half-started a list of places we would like to visit if we come back to India someday... even if we are washing our hands of Delhi, Agra, and Rajasthan (still, the Taj Mahal is worth visiting).

Below are some of other odds and ends on India.

The ubiquitous Indian head wobble is contagious. In practice, the gesture can range from slight to brain-shakingly vigorous, and its meaning seems to also vary from "yes," "no," "maybe," and "you must be crazy." Despite our diligent studying, we never managed to master the movement itself or, for that matter, the exact meaning in each situation.

Granite seems to be common in India. Slabs that your average homeowner would dream of putting in for kitchen counters casually rest in big piles by the side of the road in the Delhi construction. A greasy spoon restaurant in Munnar sported granite tables paired incongruously with their plastic chairs.

Moustaches are alive and celebrated in India! In Rajasthan in particular, we saw some magnificent specimens of the luxurious, bushy handlebar-style reddened by henna. We suspect it is an unwritten requirement for doormen of posh hotels.

India was the fattest country we have been to in this trip. Individuals with more to love were a frequent sight, probably in relation to their relative affluence [For instance, we saw no one in Vietnam with an extra ounce]. We also concluded that Muk is still skinny, even by Indian standards.

These were some of our favorite drinks in India:
- Masala chai (spiced tea with milk): Richard was frequently distracted by the cry of the chai-wallahs, "chai chai garam [hot] chai garam chai." Ten cents at the train station can buy you a tiny dixie cup.
- Lassi (yogurt drink) comes in sweet, salty, and fruit flavors. At times, it could be essential for calming the fire of chillies in your mouth.
- Smokey masala chas was prepared tableside at the Rajasthani thali place. A waiter dropped spices on a burning coal, covered it for a moment with a stainless steel cup, and finally poured a buttermilk concoction into the cup. The result was a sour drink with surprisingly intense smokey flavor.
- Limca soda is like Sprite but heavier on the lime and lighter on sugar. There is also a variation where it is prepared with fresh lime juice at streetside stalls.
-Pepsi gets an honorable mention just because India was the only country we visited where it made significant inroads into Coca-Cola's world dominance. Later I learned this was possibly due to some pro-Indian business policies 20 or so years ago, which weakened Coke's strangle hold in the region.

Chennamkary and Ernakulam (India)

Our final day in the Chennamkary homestay we rented a canoe to explore the backwaters on our own steam. The water is quite flat, and the current strong, so any passing ferry or houseboat creates a ferocious wake. We paddled over to where they were shooting a movie. If you ever see a Bollywood flick with a couple of foreigners zig-zagging in a canoe in the background, it could be us!

We arrived in Ernakulam on our last day in India with just enough time to catch a performance of Kathakali, one of the traditional dances of Kerala. Dancers train for over 10 years in order to develop the supreme muscle control required (tiny movements in the corner of one eye!) and learn how to perform stories from the two great Indian epics, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana. If you come early to the show, you can watch the artist apply the elaborate makeup and hear them describe the significance of the designs. In our play, a prince (green face = good guy) searches for and does battle with a demon who has been harassing the townsfolk. Along the way, he encounters a fight between an elephant and a cobra. All the parts were played precisely by a single dancer accompanied by drums and a singer. The whole experience was interesting... but even with their painstaking pre-show explanations, I am afraid many of the subtleties were still lost on us. To someone walking in off the street, unfortunately, the performance could have easily appeared to be an angry cross-dressing clown prone to seizures! [Apologies for the cultural insensitivity.]

We thought we had just enough time left for a quick nap and shower before heading back to the States, but it turned out that our adventures were not quite over yet. On the way to the airport, an autorickshaw-van-conversion suddenly decided to turn right from the left lane, cutting us off on the highway. Our taxi driver had to brake hard, sliding past the concrete-walled median, and drive into the oncoming traffic for a while to avoid him. Traveling in Asia, near misses become an almost daily occurrence, but this was by far our closest call. We were probably going about 60 miles per hour. Richard reckons the impact would have killed the other driver, but I am not entirely convinced that we also would not have died or been seriously injured. We thanked our taxi driver (who was also shaken up) for his excellent reflexes, and, thankfully, the rest of the way to the airport was uneventful.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Alleppey and Chennamkary (India)

Further south lies the town of Alleppey, aka Alappuzha. Luckily, our visit coincided with the 58th Annual Nehru Trophy Boat Race. Boat clubs from all over the state of Kerala compete on a 1.5 km course in snake boats (long, narrow canoes) with crews from 20 to over 100 men! Transport to the mini-island with our section was via a ferry so packed it threatened to tip when the eager spectators were disembarking. Though we were slightly farther from the finish line than the more expensive Tourist Silver and Gold stands, sitting in the mid-priced Rose Corner meant being right in the thick of the most ardent Indian fans. At times, the raucous chanting and shouting surrounding us could rival those of English football hooligans. The other unanticipated advantage was our location alongside the VVIP (very, very important persons) section, which included such dignitaries as the Governor of Kerala and, the guest of honor, the President of India! This guaranteed some prime photography as the 100-men snake boats lined up to salute Her Excellency during the opening ceremony. Many of the actual races were highly competitive, and it was thrilling to see the athleticism of the rowers (even if some of them have pot-bellies!) as they sped by, casting up sheets of water. In the lull between heats, we amused ourselves making fun of the English announcer, a woman who, speaking over the play-by-play commentator, sounded as if she had just been handed the microphone and knew about as much about boats as we did. Her inane comments included such gems as, "The heat has begun, and definitely, the heat is on" and "Next is a boat presenting the various art forms of Kerala, and you know, Kerala has various forms of art." The finals had the spectators standing on their chairs and cheering themselves hoarse as all four boats were racing neck and neck at the finish. Immediately, another mad rush to the ferry resulted in mosh pit-like crowds and several foreigners losing their tempers in the stampede. All in all, the Nehru Trophy Boat Race was a fantastic outing!

The rest of the year the other reason most come to Alleppey is because it is also the gateway to the backwaters of Kerala. There are two ways for seeing the lakes, rivers, and canals that make up the backwaters - by houseboat or by homestay. We chose both.

Our private houseboat was one of many thatched barges available with its own crew for an overnight trip. As the houseboat drifts slowly along, you catch glimpses of daily life in the tiny communities that line the waterways... Women slapping laundry on stone steps, and men in dhotis (a sort of wrap-around skirt, which seems to be more common in the southern India) bathing and fishing. In the background, coconut palms and banana trees line large rice paddies growing the giant, fluffy rice of Kerala.

For the more up close and personal backwaters experience, our homestay was exceptional. In the small village of Chennamkary, the homestay really is a family affair: staying in Maria's house with her older brother Thomas handling the bookings, her younger brother Matthew guiding walks, and their mother doing the cooking in the joint compound. We took a couple of walks by ourselves around the island, but one of the highlights was an evening guided walk. We learned more about how the families of the different trades/former castes (toddy tappers, mud diggers, fishermen, carpenters, etc) and different religions (Hindu, Muslim, and various Christian denominations) have worked and played peaceably in the community for generations. At dusk, we boarded a canoe to float the rest of the way back with Matthew and the canoeman sharing a few traditional folk songs. It was easy to imagine the call-and-response over the Keralan backwaters, especially when some of the guys on land joined impulsively in on the rendition of the boatmen's chant that had rung continuously in our ears during the Nehru Trophy Boat Race. Richard also took advantage of the opportunity to do some fishing off the pier, catching 3 fish with only a set up of a stick-and-fishing-line with dough as bait! He decided to stop after catching a catfish with spikes that Matthew ran out to tell us were "deadly painful" (clarifying later that they would only sting... but very painfully... for at least a week). But we have to say, the fish were delicious when they arrived fried for lunch the following day!

Our homestay also allowed us to taste an array of Keralan dishes. The homecooking differed from the Indian food we had been eating in the prevalence of its local giant rice (grains the size of your fingernail!), abundance of fresh and saltwater fish, and frequent use of coconut meat and its oil (Kerala can be roughly translated as "land of coconuts"). Some of our favorites were: steamed rice flour cakes with egg curry for breakfast, finely chopped beet salad, a spicy tomato and onion sort of pico de gallo that we took seconds of everyday, water buffalo curry with the stretchier Keralan version of parathas, the parade of vegetable-and-fresh-grated-coconut dishes, and iddlyappam (rice noodles with coconut formed into nests).

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Ernakulam and Munnar (India)

Catching the overnight train from Goa to Kerala, a state even further south, was pleasant. Richard booked us into first class sleeper, which meant our two berths were in an air-conditioned cabin with its own sink and wardrobe. Turn down service converted the cushiony bench seat for daytime into a less comfortable bed for night time (go figure). The private cabin was appreciated though since the journey to Ernakulam station was over 14 hours long.

When arranging for a transfer from Ernakulam to our hotel near Munnar, we thought the cost was extortionate. However, we realized it was fair enough when we finally arrived at our destination over 4 hours later. Reminiscent of the Blue Ridge Parkway, most of the drive up towards Munnar winds through beautiful hills (mountains, really) with scenic viewpoints and the occasional waterfall. Also like the Parkway, the person who is driving should actually not be taking in the gorgeous landscape, lest the car end up tumbling down the mountain... with the added bonus of local buses seeming determined to make that so.

The real draw of the Munnar hills (and Richard's first true love) is tea. Tea plantations blanket the steep hillsides interspersed with native trees and cultivated eucalyptus. The tea museum, besides also sharing the history of the region, housed working tea processing machinery. Richard, of course, was delighted with the free sample of masala chai with entry.

Outside the town proper, our hotel overlooked lush forest and cardamom plantings. The location made a relaxed and peaceful setting, but the isolation sometimes could also be a burden. We were at the mercy of taxi drivers and the hotel's restaurant, whose small (and mediocre) menu appeared to shrink even more the longer we stayed. On a positive note, the monsoon rains were very picturesque, especially when viewed from the coziness of our private, covered veranda with a pot of - you guessed it - masala chai!

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Benaulim, Panjim, Old Goa, Candolim, and Calangute (India)

A taxi from the airport took us out to Benaulim, a quiet beach town in Goa. Quiet, we discovered, meant absolutely deserted in the off-season of the monsoon. Watching enormous waves crash into the shore in a dismal downpour, we abandoned the idea of a seaside holiday.

Instead, we adjusted and used Panjim (aka Panaji) as a base. Although it is the capital of Goa, the city is easy to walk around and the atmosphere relaxed. With plenty of local options for dining in Panjim, we consistently found reasonably priced and delicious meals. Goan cuisine is very different from the Indian food we have had so far, partly because the state was a Portuguese colony for over 400 years. It features many seafood dishes due to its location on the coast and even pork! The notorious vindaloo seems to also have its origins here, probably related to the proximity of spice plantations. Richard was really pleased with Panjim's central bus station, which was easy to navigate and allowed us to make hassle-free day trips to other towns in Goa for about 0.40 USD round trip.

Before the Portuguese moved it to Panjim, Old Goa (aka Goa Velha) was the capital. The area is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site where you can visit several restored churches. The most popular for the pilgrimage circuit is the Basilica Bom Jesus, which has a blingin' gold altar and a dead guy. The corpse is St. Francis Xavier, the Jesuit missionary famous for converting hundreds of thousands of us Asians... and also for bringing the Inquisition to the East. Ok, so maybe the two are related, but it was good enough get universities named after him! [Mom, you can be glad now that I finally made it into a church on this trip... since I am guessing the Buddhist or Hindu temples didn't count]

Old Goa's archaeological museum houses sculpture (both ancient Hindu and Christian), a gallery of old Portuguese viceroys (including one listed as 'Luis de Miranda' - any relation?), and - most amusingly - a children's activity centre with a sign bluntly admitting that parents drag their uninterested children into dull museums and then wonder why they are not engaged or enthusiastic... so here, we are going to give them some crayons and paper!

When another break in the weather presented itself, we crossed off another item on Richard's list, renting a scooter to explore the towns of Candolim and Calangute. Candolim is the less developed of the two, but it has a couple of forts built in the 1600s that are nice to wander around for views of Aguada Bay and the Arabian Sea. Candolim Beach was strewn with debris, the remains of an erosion control project, and most disturbingly, a giant tanker that had run aground and has been rusting on the sand since the 1990s! Even if it was not a red-flagged day, Rich still would have refused to put a toe in the water.

Calangute Beach was popular despite the no swimming conditions, and several lifeguards were still scanning the waves though only a few men were playing even at the knee-deep waters. Most of the crowd was staying dry, hanging out and taking pictures on the sand. Richard got asked to be in someone's picture, but declined, suspecting a scam although we could not figure out what it could be. A couple of ice creams - cashew/sultana and chickoo (sapodilla fruit?) - marked a pleasant end to our seaside visit (is this an English tradition?).

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Udaipur, Ahmedabad, and Mumbai (India)

Arriving at the Udaipur train station over an hour early, we saw and heard no notice that our overnight train to Ahmedabad had been cancelled despite having checked the status a couple of hours previously. We only found out by asking the station manager a few minutes before it was supposed to leave. Our schedule was already tight traveling through Ahmedabad and Mumbai/Bombay to get to the southern state of Goa so this delay threw our carefully made plans for a serious loop.

We hailed another autorickshaw back to the city proper and headed straight for the nearest travel agent with power (Udaipur was in the middle of another cut). Our plans to actually stop and look around Ahmedabad and Mumbai were soon abandoned, and both cities have been hit pretty badly with the monsoon season anyway. However, we still had to get south somehow.

The plan involved taking an overnight bus from Udaipur to Ahmedabad and flying the rest of the way to Goa via a Mumbai stopover. Honestly, the overnight bus was pretty sketchy. Our double sleeper was a mat inside of a cubby hole with sliding glass doors the size of windows, which you reach by climbing a short ladder. The poor folks who only paid for sitting seats were underneath us, and the purported single sleepers were actually doubled up. Our backpacks had to go in the back trunk, supervised by a guy who demanded payment for both depositing and retrieving them. There was no air conditioning so the only airflow was through a tiny window in our cubby. Thankfully, someone on board must have been eating so I was grateful for the wafts of mint and cilantro... the alternative was a packed house of body odor. Sometime around 4 a.m., someone pounded on our "door" and told us our stop was next. We barely had time to grab our stuff before getting rushed off the bus. Deposited in the middle of the night in the middle of the road somewhere in Gujarat, we had no choice but to pay the only autorickshaw driver there his asking price for the Ahmedabad airport. Our hurried exit made Richard paranoid he had left our passports in the bus so we had a few exciting moments of "Follow that bus!" until he found them in our packs.

By comparison, our flights were uneventful. Mumbai airport was a blur through security and grabbing a couple of awful sandwiches. We eventually made it to Goa, where the monsoon rains met us so intensely that the plane actually had to make a second attempt for the landing.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Udaipur (India)

Udaipur has been called the "most romantic city in India" because of a beautiful palace sitting in the middle of Lake Pichola (also seen in the James Bond film, Octopussy). Unfortunately, the lake in question is currently so low that donkeys play on the grass underneath the walking bridge, and the debris is pretty noticeable along the ghats. On the plus side, it still looks charming in the rain of the monsoon, and Udaipur is by far the most relaxing Indian city we have visited yet with the least aggressive touts.

The City Palace is the residence of the Mewars of Udaipur, the longest serving dynasty in the world at 76 generations, and houses a museum. Besides exhibits on weaponry and the days of the British Raj, the palace contains many rooms lined with intricate murals in the Rajasthani miniature painting style or covered in elaborate glass tile mosaics. Apparently, if a fairytale wedding is what you really desire, you can even book the courtyards with beautiful fountains for the big event!

We also visited Jagdish Temple, which is supposed to be one of the largest temples to the Hindu god Vishnu. The structures are elaborately carved, and at night, our dinner restaurant gave us a great view of the multicolored lights illuminating the temple... and the poor man in charge of ringing the bell continuously throughout the long service (he had to keep switching arms).

For my ongoing "anthropological studies," I had a fantastic ayurvedic massage from an Indian matron in a red sari and apron. The head massage portion involved a substantial quantity of fragrant oil poured in my hair and her scratching my head for about 15 minutes, which I could see would be great for anyone with dry scalp issues. This is also the first time someone else has wiped out my belly button, which was a little on the awkward side!

Finally, a note on Indian food... we noticed we have been paying handsomely for lackluster and sometimes downright disappointing meals in India, and we have several theories: 1) we were extraordinarily spoiled with the abundance and quality of Indian cuisine in Cary and surrounding areas; 2) we are too much on the Tourist Trail, and these places are accustomed to catering to Westerners who only ask for butter chicken and other non-spicy dishes; or 3) perhaps, as in Morocco, the best food is at home (cooked by the ladies) and not in restaurants (cooked by the men), which would explain why the best restaurants we ate in were in Delhi, where, presumably, urbanites do not cook as much. It is probably a combination of all of them, but our cooking course instructor seemed to favor theory #3.

Shashi is an admirable Brahmin woman who started teaching cooking classes after struggling to raise her two sons when her husband died. The class took place in her 2-room apartment with another couple of students. Over the 6 hours, we made masala chai (Indian spiced tea with milk); 4 kinds of pakora (fried snacks... cheese, onion, potato, and mixed veg), 2 kinds of chutney (mango and cilantro); vegetable pulao (rice dish); aloo mutter (potato and pea curry); and 5 kinds of bread (chapati; plain, potato, and sweet parathas; and my personal favorite - garlic cheese and tomato naan). Shashi was full of suggestions for variations on the recipes and also explained how to go about making curd (yogurt) and paneer (fresh cheese) at home. Unfortunately, we lost our heads a little with the fried goodness that were the pakoras with chutneys so we could not each much of the rest of the dishes. However, Shashi insisted we at least take the breads for breakfast the next morning, and they went well - even cold! - with a nice pot of masala chai.