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

The road to Rajasthan


                                          Our roof top view over Delhi, waiting for breakfast

We left the smog of Delhi this morning and took the long road to Bikaner in Western Rajasthan, We will be with this driver for 14 days as we tour Rajasthan, probably the most well known of India's tourist destinations. The car is a little beat-up Tata, and  the roads are pretty bad... plenty of red dust and lots of unfinished sections. Driving is pretty scary, in fact no tourists rent cars to drive themselves but rather take a car and driver.It took 10 hours to get here, and several times we held our breath as we passed donkey carts, camels, wedding parties , sacred cows and other vehicles of many kinds. And then 2 hours before arriving our car had a flat tire. Our driver was calm though and within 15 minutes he had changed the tire and we were on our way. 
The scenery is beautiful, almost biblical ,with women dressed in colorful saris, leading their goats and sheep through the dry fields, carrying large pots or baskets on their heads. Bikaner is near the Great Thar Desert making for a dry arid climate.Fields are covered in low brush and lots of sand. Tomorrow we will travel by camel for a few hours and then sleep in the desert under the stars.
As we drove today we passed troupes of goats being lead to slaughter. Tomorrow is the Muslim Eid and on that occasion a goat will be given as a gift, slaughtered and then eaten for the feast. In Delhi we walked past a huge market where the goats were being sold. The goats are very pretty, often brown  with larger white spots. They are small so I assume they are young goats.
This is festival season and the next month it is an auspicious time for weddings. We have been told that there could be as many as 30,000 weddings in India during this time! On the road today travel was slow due to the many wedding parties in the streets, complete with music, drums, people dancing and the groom mounted on a horse, as he and his family paraded to the bride-to-be's house. Each wedding party lets off huge firecrackers. The sky in Bikaner is ablaze with fireworks, which we enjoyed during our roof-top dinner. These festivities make our North American wedding celebrations seem very quiet in comparison.

I am intrigued by the iapparent insoucience of the people here. That is not to say that some of the things we have seen could be a cause for concern if looked at through our Canadian eyes. In Darjeeling for Diwali, little children played in the streets setting off firecrackers without supervision. They were having great fun especially when an anxious tourist passed by just as the things went off with a loud bang. Perhaps the thing that is the most worrying is the common site of mothers carrying their babies on the backs of motocycles, or sometimes young children sitting in front of the driver, straddling the gas tank. With the smog in Delhi and the dust on the roads here, I cannot help thinking that those little children are getting a face full of dusty, dirty air. But they look quite pleased with themselves as they sit in front of Daddy on his motor bike. Today the prize-winner was seeing a young mother sitting side-saddle behind her husband on the motor cycle, holding her young infant in her arms as he suckled at her breast. He had no idea of the precarious situation he was in, feeling secure in his mother's arms!

Friday, November 4, 2011

Arrival in Delhi

Our visit of Varanasi  included the visiting of many temples to Lord Shiva. The most famous is the Golden Temple, hidden among narrow alleyways and a maze-like bazaar area. To get there we followed our guide, being careful to not step in the many piles of cow dung that covered these narrow streets. At least we wear  sandals  and  even then our feet are filthy with dust and dirt by the end of the day. Many of the local people are barefoot and walk without hesitation through the streets. As we neared this   temple there was a strong army presence that we could not understand at first. At the entrance we were taken into a little shop and told to leave all possessions there with the shop keeper...pens , cell phones, cameras , etc. I was reluctant to do so and so kept my small purse  well concealed under my shawl. Little did I know what trouble this small act of rebellion would get me into!
At the gate we were all given  a body search, men on one side and women on the other. When I was asked if I had a pen or mobile in my bag, my guilty conscience  got the better of me and I showed her my phone. Well.... her reaction was to shove me away and shout that I had to leave immediately and go to the shop where the others had left their things. Pierre was behind me  with the guide, and as I passed them, I said I would wait out in the alley until they finished the visit, as I knew I could not find the little shop alone. And anyway, what was one less temple in the souvenirs I am carrying with me in my head?
I enjoyed watching the crowds  jostling to get into the temple, some carrying offerings and praying, others simple tourists like us..I felt in no danger and was happy to be there watching the action. However, when Pierre and the guide came out after15 minutes they could not see me and they began to panic. The guide thought I had been taken by the army and was being interrogated as to why I had not obeyed the rules. Perhaps they thought I was a terrorist ready to attack this holiest of crimes with either my pen or my cellphone.. Finally they spotted me and expressed their relief. The guide told me he had been very worried, imagining the worst.
Pierre has described the temple as being off limits for  non-Hindus so he could only peek through a fence. He saw a solid gold dome and this is the reason that the army guards the temple...fear of theft and possible violence............
Interestingly, the security at the airports here has been less stringent than in North America, but the                temples are strictly guarded.  I will be more submissive next time..

In Delhi we are staying at the "Holiday In....ternational" commonly called the Holiday Inn,  which is not part of the International chain but rather a budget hotel in the busy backpackers area of Old Delhi..   As in other cities  this place in teeming with people and various vehicles all vying for their place on the narrow packed streets. The smog here is very bad and  today it was difficult see any distance.  We visited Ghandi's  cremation place, in grounds that also hold the ashes of Nehru, Indira Ghandi and her two sons.New Delhi has lots of parks and  wide boulevards. The difference between the old and the new is remarkable here.

                                           The Red Fort, Delhi
                                          The back of our  bicycle rickshaw driver.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Train travel and the Holy City of Varanasi

                                             Early morning baths on the ghats of the River Ganges

After an overnight trip on the train from New Jailapuri to Varanasi we are are now in the holiest of Indian cities, both for Hindus and Buddhists. The trip to get here was not the cozy cabin ride we had imagined, but rather a two tiered berth (Pierre on top bunk and me on the bottom). We shared the berth with two other men who occupied the opposite berths, no curtain in between. This is called 2 tiered AC car and is the recommended way to travel overnight in India. The berths are relatively comfortable and bedding is provided. Miraculously we both slept pretty well, despite the loud snoring and burping of one of our berth-mates, and the rather dirty toilet that we used and shared with all. We are feeling truly acclimatized to this country and have learned that humour is a great help. Train travel is also a good way to meet locals and learn from them.

Varanasi is believed to be one of the oldest LIVING cities in the world. there are over 1000 temples to Lord Shiva. At Sarnath, nearby there is also a very famous buddhist temple that is a pilgrimage site for Buddhists world-wide. It is believed that Buddha preached his most famous sermon and  achieved  enlightenment  at that site.

To take a rowboat ride along the Ganges is a very moving experience. In the evening after sundown there is a Hindu ceremony of chants, gongs and bells while young priests light candles and sing praises the river Ganges. Little candles float on the river, placed by the people who say as prayer to Lord Shiva as they row down the river.

Our boat took us to the site of the funeral pyres where we saw bodies being cremated in the Hindu tradition. Their relationship with death seems much more open than in our culture. They worship the natural cycle of birth  and death. It was inspiring to watch the families prepare the bodies and place them on the burning wood fires one after the other, a ceremony that can last several hours until the bodies are burned to ashes and then spread on the river. The belief is that if you die in Varanasi and are burned and returned to the river Ganges, you escape the cycle of reincarnation and reach Moksha (Nirvana)

This morning we again were rowed down the river to see the ghats (there are 80 in all). On the ghats(steps to the river) we saw men and women bathing in the river before going to temple. There were  also priests chanting, processions  singing and playing instruments, as well as others practicing yoga and meditating on the ghats. We have felt that the spiritual here permeates every part of life. There is no escaping its presence when visiting India.

                                       Darjeeling view from hotel room.....Mount Kangjungjonga

                                         Teesta River Valley view...separates West Bengal from Sikkim
                             Young monks studying and playing at monastery near Gangtok...boys will be boys

                                                    Lall market scene, Gangtok, Sikkim