Thursday, December 1, 2011

Trekking with leeches

Leaving Fort Kochi we headed to Periyar Tiger Reserve hoping to see wild life. Our trek started at 08am with the giving out of anti-leech socks by the guides. These lovely socks were made of thick cotton and pulled on over our socks prior to putting on our shoes. They then covered the total lower leg up to your knee where they were securely tied to prevent the little beasts from crawling into your pants! The guides also powdered our shoes and pants with tobacco to discourage the leeches. When there is rain in India there are thousands of these leeches in the wooded areas, seeming to fall out of the trees. We all had them on our clothes and had to keep doing leech checks throughout the day. And even then, when we took off the magic socks , there were lots of little leeches  waiting on the tops of our shoes, trying to sneak in.
                                                 Anti-leech socks, a new fashion statement

Part of or trip was by bamboo raft, where you sit on long bamboo branches that are tied together. Two men paddle at the back.. The passengers sit with their legs in a small amount of water as the middle of the raft is under water. Given that it rained for the entire eight hours we were out, we were all soaked, and of course the animals we hoped to see were all seeking shelter from the rain. So apart from lots of leeches and a huge scorpion that Pierre almost stepped on, we did not see any tigers or elephants. But we did see lots of elephant poo which is hard to miss!

                                         Bamboo rafting in Periyar Tiger Reserve

Periyar Tiger reserve has about 40-50 tigers living there. They have started to increase in number since a ban was placed on hunting them in 1971. However there is still poaching, as tiger parts are apparently of great value to some Asian peoples and fetch high amounts of money. Periyar Lake where we walked is a man-made lake, a result of the British flooding the land over 150 years ago. One of the hotels in the reserve was a former hunting lodge. One can only assume that hunting was good in this area that  abounds with wildlife. We saw huge deer with antlers, called Sambor, very similar to the Canadian moose. In fact. if it were not for the elephant  droppings, barking deer and the occasional wild pig or monkey, one would think we were canoeing in Parc du Mont Tremblant.
                                          Blue scorpion in attack mode with tail up
The area around there is rich in spice, rubber and tea plantations. Driving back to the coast we passed huge plantation estates with large homes, very different from other areas of this country. the price of commodities has increased drastically and these landowners are raking in the profits.

Our last few days have been spent in Varkala, a wonderful beach town that is still trying hard to resist the tourism boom that has hit India, although hotels are going up in most places. It was wonderful to swim in the Arabian Sea and to soak up some sunshine. The ocean on this coast is treacherous with wicked undercurrents, so swimming is done with caution. The beaches here are segregated, lifeguards preventing any male locals from coming to ogle the sight of white bathers in skimpy suits. Given that at local beaches, only men swim and in their clothing at that, this precaution is understandable.

                                         The Beach at Varkala, Kerala
We end out trip in Pondichery, and as a token to this former French protectorate and my French readers: je vais ecrire ces derniers mots dans la langue de Moliere. Il s'agit d'une ancienne colonie francaise qui a conserve son alllure distincte. On se croirait sur la Mediteranee. Croissant et cafe au dejeuner, gendarmes portant le kepi des legions etrangeres, architecture Francaise etc. Il y a meme des Indiens qui jouent a la petanque!
Adios, le voyage ce termine.
                                    Varkala sunset/  coucher de soleil sur la mer d'Arabie

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Culture in Kerala

We have found paradise in the south and are now relaxing in Kerala where the pace is much slower. This is at the same latitude as Panama so hot and tropical. We spent 3 days in Fort Kochi, a town that is steeped in history.Vasco de Gama landed and died here, and the Portuguese traded for many years before the arrival of Dutch and then English traders. There are churches and forts as well as other reminders of the colonial past of this fascinating town.
This part of India is in fact the seat of Catholicism in India, with Syrian Catholics (brought here by doubting Thomas) and Roman Catholics who had an important role in developing an excellent educational system under the Jesuit missionaries. And of course there is a dwindling Jewish community with about 9 families left and the oldest synagogue in India and the British empire. It has been a bit of a welcome change to visit historical sites that relate to a religious past and present more familiar to us than Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism.
We soaked up some culture by attending a Kathakali have to see and hear it to believe this art form. It is basically a dance and music performance based on old Hindu texts (the Mahabharata). The artists use hand and facial expressions while the story is sung by a narrator. Their makeup takes hours to apply. They meditate prior to performing in order to fully enter their roles. Costumes are fantastic.
                                          Lord Krishna telling Bhima that he did not sin by killing the enemy

And then to continue our cultural experience we attended a concert of classical music from Northern India.  This was sitar and tabla, and truly something new for us. The sitar has a haunting sound, mindful of Ravi Shankar and the music we first heard via George Harrison and the Beatles.
                                           Tabla and sitar musicians at the Kerala Katakhali Cultural Center

This photo is of the Chinese fishing nets that are used in Fort Kochi to catch fish which are then sold fresh on the board walk. It is amazing to see the men lower and raise the huge nets at high tide. The ropes are all weighted with huge rocks. It takes about 6 men to pull up the nets attached to these heavy weights. It has been good to eat fresh fish for the last few days, cooked in Kerala style...different from the usual Indian cuisine.
                                           Chinese fishing nets at Fort Cochi

Tomorrow we trek into Periyar wildlife reserve, in the hopes to see wild elephants and if lucky (very lucky), tigers. From our treetop hotel room we can see many birds, water buffalo, mongoose, wild pigs, and deer.This is beautiful country.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Incredible India

This is indeed a country of contrasts.

Only in India can you see:

  • whole families on motorcycles with the youngest member (a child) in the front
  • elephants walking down main street in the traffic
  • a motorcycle driving on the road with a monkey as  the passenger
  • your driver pull over in front of a bus on the interstate highway and stop to give the bus driver a piece of his mind
  • shrines to an orange Monkey God called Hanuman who was the great ally of Lord Rama, one of the incarnations of Vishnu
  • a seven year old boy come up to you and invite you to come into HIS shop
  • no one ever has change for your 100 rupee bill
  • a clerk running after you when you have not bought something from his shop..or refusing to give you your change when you have bought something
  • hotels who do not provide toilet are expected to provide your own
  • an autorickshaw (tuk-tuk) made for 4 passengers with more than 12 people inside and two on top, one holding about 10 cartons of eggs
  • a jeep made for 6 people with at least 16 piled in, hanging out the window and the back door
The list goes on, but what a ride it has been. This is what makes this country so wonderful. It is full of surprises and one can never know what the next one will be.

Only in India can you see:
  • beautiful mustard fields , their yellow flowers blowing in the wind
  • women dressed in colorful saris, working in the fields in the distance and dotting the scene with their bright colours
  • temples, castles and forts that take your breath away at every turn
  • history that fascinates and makes you want to know more
  • the Taj Mahal, a thing of such beauty that despite the number of people( and the story of the Shah who built it and eventually was thrown in jail by his own son after living a life of debauchery once he recovered from his grief at the loss of his second wife), you cannot but help be mesmerized by it
  • amazingly different and spicy cuisine
  • friendly and curious people who want you to love their country
This is what we are experiencing and wish to share with you all.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Water and a climb

Leaving Udaipur, we moved on to Pushkar, passing through the beautiful hills arround Udaipur. This is much richer territory, green farms, gentle rolling hills, and many small lakes. In much of Rajasthan, water is very scarce and there are chronic water shortages. Although there seems to be more in the hills than in the desert areas, most people in the countrysides have no running water and there are wells throughout the towns and villages. We passed woman pumping water and filling up their water pots that they carry on their heads back to their little homes. Men and children wash themselves at the wells and both men and women wash their clothes at the wells or at the local river or lake.
In Udaipur we attended a dance show that was a wonderful demonstration of Rajasthani culture. Many of their dances deal with everyday life in the desert. One woman danced  with 9 pots piled on her head, telling the story of women who must go to the well every day and bring back the family's water supply balanced on their heads.
                                                           Dancing with water pots

The next day as we left Udaipur and stopped to visit a 10th century temple, a young girl passed on the road with her pot of water carrid on her head. The posture of the women here is perfect. They stand tall and graceful, moving with ease, even with heavy loads carried on their heads, either water, bricks, wood or large basins of cement. Such elegance despite the hard work they do.
                                                           Water carrier

Pushkar is a small town around Pushkar Lake, a sacred place for devout Hindus who come here to bathe in the lake and pray on the ghats (steps) leading down to the water. There are many people here anxious to give blessings and a Pushkar passport for a fee...that is you float some marigolds in the lake and then allow yourself to be blessed by what you hope is a legitimate holy man. For some rupees, the more the better, you will be given a red string bracelet..thus the "passport". Many of the local holy men look rather ragged and may have reached their Nirvana with the amount of bhang they smoke. But it is fun to walk around soaking up the smells, sites and feeling of India..a true awakening for all the senses.
The hike up a little mountain to the temple of Savitri, wife of Brahma, was a vigorous climb that allows for a spectacular view of the whole area, replete with many temples, camel tents, mountains and the beautiful lake. On the way down we met many people climbing up, holy men and Indian women, all carrying bricks on their heads, children in their arms and  climbing barefoot. I have no explanation for the bricks, other than to think that once at the summit, they would be constructing a simple temple. So many things are fascinating here.
                                                           Climbing to the temple

Saturday, November 12, 2011

News from Rajasthan

Our trip through Rajasthan continues, through desert, many towns, mountains and beautiful scenery. Three flat tires later, we have finally arrived in Udaipur, after 8 hours on the road from Jodphur.....remember the pants, all you anglos out there who grew up wearing jodphurs? Well originally they come from this town where the local princes (marahajas) wore them to play polo with their English chums! These princely types still live in each town we have visited, but since 1971 when Indira Ghandi removed their titles and their state pensions , they have been relegated to the status of ordinary citizen. So in order to pay for the upkeep of their beautiful palaces, they have converted many of them into hotels or museums.They head princely foundations to support the upkeep of the beautiful forts and palaces found throughout Rajasthan. In fact, today we are in Udaipur, apparently called the Venice of the East and the number one destination for romance...imagine!! The Lake Palace here was used in the James Bond film Octopussy as was one of the Maharaja's antique cadillacs that is on display in the antique car show sponsored by the present day Maharaja himself.
One of the unusual practices seen here is the piles of dried cattle dung patted into round pancakes mixed with hay and then dried. These cakes are then stacked  into elaborate piles along the roadside where women buy them, place them into large metal pans or baskets which they carry on their heads  back to their homes. This fuel is reportedly very good for cooking fires, giving a pleasant odour and pungent flavour to the food. The cows are strictly vegetarian with a little garbage thrown into their diet, thus the smell of their excrement is not that of a meat-eating animal.
                                           Cow patties for sale
                                           Camel-man, camels and Canadian tourists
                                          Sunrise in the Thar desert, luxury accomodation

                                           J&P with Jodhpur fort in the background

Children on the way to school via Tuk-Tuk

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Tradition versus development..musings during a camel ride

Today we are in Jaisalmer, the golden desert town.We are staying inside the fort, built in the 12th century. There are concerns that due to overpopulation and therefore over-use, the fort is gradually sinking. Lonely Planet refuses to recommend any of the hotels inside the fort, encouraging tourists to be environmentally conscious and not contribute to the ongoing decay. As our hotels are prebooked by our driver we are not respecting that advice...of course I feel guilty, but it is pretty impressive sleeping inside of a fort. It feels a little like King Arthur and we are inside one of his gated cities, with a little middle-eastern look!

The Thar desert is between India and Pakistan. e are not far from that country. There is a huge military base at Pokanar, not far from here. We have been told that nuclear tests have been done in the desert near there.

Yesterday we lived the real tourist experience. Our desert escapade was lots of fun. We rode camels over the scrub and dunes to watch a beautiful sunset. We met troupes of goats, cows  and sheep in the desert, gathering at a local watering hole. Many of these animals are herded by children.....they work to support their families, not going to school in many areas, especially rural ones, and the government is hard-pressed to do anything about it as if these children did not work, they could end up begging on the streets. In Khuri, the desert village where we ate and met our respective camels, there is a school and our camel man/boy, told us they attend from 10am until mid afternoon and then they help with the camels.

Riding on a camel is no easy task. Getting your balance and then feeling safe as the camel walks or trots over the dunes required some getting used to. The hardest part is when they lie down, back legs first (camel man says to lean back) and then front legs (camel man says to lean forward). Each time I thought I would fall off. But we saw locals galloping over the desert on their steeds, so I guess you eventually get used to the feeling. My camel kept kicking himself, probably to bat at the flies, but each time he did so I got a good shake and had to steady myself so as not to fall off. Pierre's camel whose name was Disco, was much calmer and did not give him such a rough ride.

After a delicious meal, complete with Rajastani music and dance, we escorted again out into the desert on a camel cart and spent the night sleeping under the stars. Beds were set up for us, complete with dusty old blankets. The stars and moon were incredible. Of course, this is all done for the tourists, and the local camel owners have become wealthy catering to those who wish to have a desert experience.

The villages are clusters of little adobe huts with thatch roofs, or flat roofed square houses built with local- made bricks or stone. Once again they remind me of pictures in bible-story books. But the paradox is the camel man talking on his cell phone as we sleep in the desert, the sound of jeeps in the distance, and most of all, the miles and miles of windmills we could see in the distance. One cannot help reflect on the effect development and the arrival of outside influence has had on the lives of the people here.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Family Outing

                                           Grandmother, mother, father, child, on motorcycle