Benediction on the steps of the Ganges

Varanasi, one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world, has been described in many ways, but calm, restful and quiet would never be among the chosen adjectives. Of all our destinations in India, this was the one I was most apprehensive about – anticipating noise, sights and smells that would be well beyond my comfort zone.

Well, even my fevered imagination could not have summoned the Hieronymus Bosch landscape that is Varanasi.  From the moment we left the airport and drove into town,  we bounced and jostled along a broken-down goat path, passing small groups of men huddled over fires, tarps strung over falling-down shacks and animals wandering down dark lanes. It felt like travelling through a post-apocalyptic refugee camp.

As we drove closer to the city centre, we came upon this scene. A massive wedding was underway and the festivities had moved into the street.

On the advice of a friend, we opted to stay right in the old part of the city – made up of ancient crumbling buildings and alleyways so narrow that cars cannot pass through. Lodgings in this area are less than pristine, but to stay elsewhere is to miss out on the essence of Varanasi. The driver led us down a long alleyway to our guesthouse and while it is not exactly dirty, it is not exactly clean either. That has been our experience with restaurants (Lonely Planet-approved) as well – the tables might be sticky and the windows smudged, but they are clean-ish. Good enough – this will not be the city where we tempt fate with the street food.

IMG_0068

To describe Varanasi as being filthy is like describing Bill Gates as being rich. Buildings and doors and paving stones are crumbling. Water leaks out of crevices and runs down gutters. Garbage piles up in corners. Animals roam as freely as humans – dogs, cows, water buffalo, goats, monkeys – and the streets are their toilets. It is no small feat to walk around the alleyways, dodging animal (and possibly human) shit, great gobs of spit and nasty little puddles of murky water. It smells just as appetizing as it sounds.  Add the constant sound of chest-rattling horks and spits, and it can be a full-on sensory overload. “Mouth breathe. Mouth breathe” has become my mantra.

IMG_0067
Varanasi is a holy city. Myths and mysticism date back 10,000 years and pilgrims, both Hindu and non-Hindu, travel here for spiritual enlightenment.

Besides the 2000 temples in the area, the main draw are the more than 80 ghats (stone steps) that line the Ganges River. Two and a half million people come each year to bathe in the waters and receive blessings. In addition there are 300 cremations every day. Being cremated in Varanasi on the Ganges is very desirable – it is said to break the cycle of birth and death.

Finding peace after death supposedly requires 350 kilos of mixed wood to burn one body and the cost to families can be over 10,000 rupees ($2000).

We watched a couple of funeral processions. Bodies are wrapped in colourful cloths, anointed with fragrant oils and brought down to the river to be immersed.  Obviously photos of the actual cremation are strictly forbidden, but we were allowed to take photos of the massive woodpiles.

img_8431
The Ganges River is one of the most revered rivers in the world and it is also the second most polluted – so much so that even touching the water is considered dangerous. However, that does not deter many Indians, who believe that bathing in the water will release suffering. While the river plays an obvious holy  role in the death of its citizens, it is also where much of daily life revolves – bathing, swimming and laundry.  We even watched one man fill his plastic bottle with water from the river and drink it.

Think of old city Varanasi as a crescent, with a path that follows for about 6 km. and at least 80 ghats dropping down to the river.  To reach the old city from the ghats, you must climb up steep stone steps that lead into a labyrinth of alleys. We were not that interested in visiting temples, so spent our time right in old city.  The best time to visit the ghats is dawn and dusk, for the diffused light and the cooler temperatures.

img_8439
We had read about the persistent vendors, the young children begging and the sadhus or holy men who are looking for photo op cash.  They were all there in abundance which made the atmosphere far less peaceful than it should have been in a holy city.

The children broke our hearts. These are not the happy little faces we’ve been seeing throughout India. These kids approach with hands held out and practiced sad faces – tilted to one side. It is very difficult to walk past them, but that is what we’ve been told to do – the country really wants to discourage this practice, in an effort to have these children in school rather than begin or selling on the street. A noble notion, to be sure, but we saw so many kids on their own, without an adult in sight.

These kids are so vulnerable – half of India’s children live in acute poverty. Figures for missing children go as high as 500,000 each year and those numbers are considered conservative as many are unreported.

These kids had cleverly strung up a pole across part of the walkway; stopping passersby for a five rupee toll.

IMG_0047
We watched the mother of this tiny boy send him off with a bag of trinkets, presumably to sell them with his older brother. He struggled along, pants in one hand and bag in the other.

IMG_0040
This little boy tugged at my heartstrings  – so young and so alone.

IMG_0033
The animals don’t fare any better – dogs are skin and bones and covered in mange. I witnessed a few moments of kindness – a man stopping by to drop bits of food to the street dogs, and this man – so gentle with the puppy.

IMG_0006
The number of beggars in Varanasi is really distressing. People with gross facial deformities, club feet, open skin lesions, missing limbs, missing eyes – all in desperate need of help.

We spoke to a young man who is in Varanasi to earn his Masters degree in English. We asked about the street kids and he acknowledged the problem in Varanasi was very bad. His view was that everyone we saw had a place to live ( a mat on the ground) and food to eat (scraps) and a job to do (begging). The next life would provide better circumstances. The Hindu belief in reincarnation supports that thought, but since everyone is bathing in the Ganges to reduce suffering, it is hard to imagine that people are sanguine about their station in life. To witness such wretchedness is almost more than we can bear.

We watched young mothers begging with their babies – in one case a young girl slapped her baby to make him cry and hopefully elicit some sympathy. She looked like a little animal – hard and desperate, as of course, she was.

This young woman was stationed outside the restaurant we ate at regularly, her hand out for spare change.

IMG_0112
The  sadhus (holy men) are fascinating. Most of them go about their business, and will offer blessings for a coin.

IMG_0031

Others will stroll by, eyes sunk deep in their lined faces, smile and mutter, “photo. photo.”

IMG_0040 (1)
The vendors were easy enough to brush off. We learned not to engage in conversation, not to allow someone to grab our hands, and to just keep walking. It didn’t feel polite, but it felt way happier than being trailed and hassled.

There were many people who smiled and said, “namaste”, and kept walking. They didn’t want anything , they just wanted to be kind. They saved us, as we were becoming quite soured by everything.

One big attraction in Varanasi is to take a boat out on the Ganges at dawn or dusk. We chose a sunset cruise for 1 hour for roughly $5 and found our way down to a tiny wooden boat that already had three other people in it. Very convivial company, but our boatman pulled a classic trick – “I can take you out for an extra 1/2 hour and then you’ll see the show as well.” Steve and I had already seen the show (more later), but the other three had not, so we went along with it. The 1 1/2 hours turned into 2 hours and cost everyone double – not a big deal at $10, but it was the principle of the thing. We are so tired of being grabbed at for every last rupee, and having little tricks like this played on us and being outright lied to.  It becomes exhausting.

The sunset cruise was not that interesting – we would have been better off getting up at 5:30 am for the sunrise. However, we did see the Aarti Ganga show from the water’s perspective, surrounded by dozens of other boats.

img_8402
The night before, we saw the Aarti Ganga show from shore. It is quite a spectacle that is held every night –  to thank the five gods of the river.

Varanasi has been way harder than we thought it would be. We’ve been trying to find the beauty and the redemption here, and have to remember than for so many, that is exactly what Varanasi offers.

To leave on a happier note, some images of Varanasi that will stick with us.
Meditation

IMG_0041
Bathing in the Ganges – it was so hot we were (almost) tempted to join them.

IMG_0049
Typical alleyway.

IMG_0071
Cricket being played on many of the ghats.

IMG_0017
The magnificence of some of the buildings.

IMG_0009
Early morning clean-up.

IMG_0046
Laundry hanging on a line – fresh from the Ganges.

IMG_0012 (1)
The animals of Varanasi have adapted to their surroundings. The cows climb up and down steps easily.

IMG_0053
The goats are naturally built for heights.

IMG_0046
Varanasi in the early morning.

IMG_0049
Flower seller

img_8356
Whew! This was a tough one – to experience and to write about. We talked to people who love Varanasi, have come here many times and intend to return. We can’t get out of here fast enough. Maybe we’re missing something. But we are very happy we came here. This was an eye-opener and will stay with us for a long time.

On to Rajasthan – home of palaces, forts, deserts, camels and snake charmers. We land in Jaipur tomorrow.

Advertisements

Pondicherry’s spiritual aura

Although French rule ended here in 1954, the small colonial city of Pondicherry is still very much under the influence – in architecture, food, and street style. The French Quarter is solidly French – right down to street names and door signs.

IMG_0002
There are many shopowners, hoteliers and restauranteurs who are French nationals and the vast majority of tourists are also from France. (You can pick them out – they are insouciant and lean. The men with expensive loafers and sweaters tossed over shoulders; the women with glossy bobs and fabulous bags.) Well, once again I have proven to myself that whatever capacity I had for speaking French has vanished. My clumsy high school French was no match for their effortless and charmingly accented English, so I gave up.

No matter – Pondicherry (or Puducherry, as it is now called; Pondy for short) is welcoming to all and well worth the visit – a feast for the senses. One can find a genuine croissant as well as a path to spiritual enlightenment.  Pondy draws thousands of visitors to the world-famous Sri Aurobindo Ashram and to the experimental village, Auroville, which is just outside of town.

The French Quarter is the main tourist area; several blocks of leafy streets fronted by a gorgeous stroll along the Bay of Bengal. The Gandhi Memorial is situated mid-way along the water, providing an eternal image of the great man in mid-stride.

IMG_0021

The French Quarter is divided by this particularly odiferous canal, with “real India” happening noisily and chaotically on the other side.

IMG_0005

If you come to Pondy, be sure to book well ahead to snag a room in a charming heritage building right in the French Quarter. We waited too late and were lucky to find a room at all. Our hotel is in a new building a couple of blocks away from the canal, and down a side street, so we glide through the many faces of India several times a day. We move from this tranquil and lovely room…

IMG_0002
… to the main street, filled with traffic, markets selling cheap western clothing and an eye-watering blend of smells. We cross over the canal and enter the rarified world of the French Quarter once again. This hotel is beyond our range – rooms run about $300 a night, but the structure is typical of the lovely buildings that line the streets.

IMG_0011
Even the tuk-tuks match the decor.

IMG_0043
More street colour. This makes me wonder why we favour such drab, “tasteful” colours for our exteriors in our cold countries – the greys and blacks and tans. In the middle of February in Canada, wouldn’t we all feel perked up with these yellows and oranges and pinks?

IMG_0073
Although we are still in the south of India, Pondicherry does not feel as oppressively hot and humid as we had been experiencing for the past several weeks. It is a great relief to simply enjoy what we think of as “summer weather” – hot, with a breeze, and cool at night. Apparently the dogs don’t share my view – they still spread out for naps during the day. The dogs in India appear to have sprung from the same gene pool – mid-size, light-coloured, short-haired and relatively benign.

IMG_0042
There are plenty of cows wandering the streets on the Indian side of Pondy, but on the French side, we have seen just this one stopped outside the gelateria. Perhaps some cosmic connection between her milk and the finished product  filtered through to her bovine brain.

IMG_0039
Pondy is undergoing quite the facelift – we are curious to know what it will look like in five years. Currently, for every beautifully finished building, there is a derelict one – often they exist side by side.

img_8299-1
Several important buildings are also under renovation, with bold banners showing the before and after shots.

IMG_0033
If you saw the movie Lion, you will remember that the boy’s mother moved rocks for a living. I didn’t know what that meant until we saw this woman at a work site. In India, very hard manual labour still exists, with many people doing the work that would be done by one machine in Canada. A reminder that so many people work so hard for so little.

IMG_0051
This is another common sight – less drudgery to be sure, but I’m quite sure no-one is over-paying this gentleman for those immaculately pressed shirts.

img_8211

Back to the French influence here in Pondy. There are many French organizations and institutions here, including a number of French schools. Here, La Lycée Francaise:

IMG_0049

Rav Nivas, the Governor’s residence, with a gendarme riding by:

IMG_0027
The Alliance Francaise, with its attentive guard. I peeked inside the gate, hoping to grab a photo of the luscious courtyard beyond, mais non. He did agree to pose for a photo.

IMG_0061

Even the hospital looks inviting:

IMG_0053
Our second day here, we left our hotel in search of breakfast, only to discover there was a one-day strike on and everything was closed. One-day strikes are common in India. So far we have had three – taxi strike, water strike and now GST strike. We can’t imagine they have any effect, other than to inconvenience the locals, lose money for the business owners and annoy the tourists.

We came upon this lovely hotel, with the gate open a crack, so we ventured in to see if they would consider feeding non-guests. At first, we were promised coffee, but that turned into fresh juice, fruit, eggs, toast, and pancakes. We returned again at lunch, since most of the French Quarter was closed until the evening. This is the courtyard of Villa Helena, our strike-day saviour.

IMG_0007

On a whole other level, we made the obligatory visit to The Indian Coffee House, a Pondy institution that was the birthplace for Yann Martel’s Life of Pi.  Martel began his book with meeting an elderly man who tells him, “I have a story that will make you believe in God….” Far from having an uplifting effect on us, we found it dirty with so-so food. But, they’re carrying on without us – the place is packed and buzzing.

IMG_0083

We bought coconut water a number of times from this gorgeous woman. We stopped to watch her hack away with her machete – hack off the top, scoop out a bit of flesh, insert straw, repeat. She had a few customers on the go; a big personality and a bigger smile. “Here you go, mama”, as she passed  me some fresh coconut.

IMG_0006
I don’t know why I like this photo – I just do. Three gents having a good ole chinwag.

IMG_0011 (1)

And onto Pondy’s spiritual life – the many faiths and belief systems that co-exist here.
We really like the kolams, found outside many homes and businesses. Each morning, the women draw them with rice flour or chalk – usually quite simple designs to bring prosperity and good luck. Sometimes bowls of flowers or small offerings are added.

IMG_0064
There are many churches and temples in Pondy – Notre Dame des Anges covers the Catholic side of things. The interior was simple, with life-size sculptures of Jesus in various states as he made his way to the cross. Accompanying inscriptions were in French – Jesu est tombe pour la premiere fois.

IMG_0047
We were allowed to visit the Hindu temple Manakula Vinayagar, but interior photography was forbidden. This exterior shot is an example of the lavish and colourful friezes.

IMG_0058
And…Sri Aurobindo Ashram – the internationally-known ashram founded by Sri Aurobindo and “The Mother” – who also founded Auroville. The ashram attracts thousands of visitors each year; many of whom stay for a period of time. Tourists were only allowed to enter a small part of the building, following a flower-lined pathway to a centre “stage” where we were invited to pray. I prayed for our family and friends, and then moved to join others in quiet contemplation. My challenge was I could not get the image of Julia Roberts in India (Eat Pray Love) out of my head, so meditation was out of the question. Still, a moving experience to observe others; many of them in raptures.

The ashram

IMG_0054
And on to Auroville, the utopian community about 10 km. outside of Pondy that was founded in the late 60s by Sri Aurobindo and The Mother. The vision of Auroville was to realize human unity through diversity and is the only experiment of its kind in the world. There are about 2500 residents – 60% of them from other countries and of all ages from infant to 80. The community is dedicated to peace, sustainability and divine consciousness and depending upon with whom you speak, has been a resounding success or a shady, self-indulgent escape from reality.

It is possible to visit for an hour, a day, a week or longer. We chose to go with a tour, which was a mistake, as we were rushed through and did not have a chance to visit properly.

First, we visited the excellent Visitor’s Centre and watched a 10-minute video before walking down the leafy 1-km. path to the main attraction, the Matrimandir.

img_8248
Along the path, there are stone markers depicting each of the twelve flowers The Mother chose for their significance to Auroville’s intentions.

img_8249
This 10-sq. km. area is beautifully planted, with two million trees and many gardens. As you approach the main area, there is a sign asking for silence, as this is a meditation area.

IMG_0021
And there it is – the Mothership. The Matrimandir  (or “soul” of Auroville) has been compared to a giant golf ball or a space ship, and you could be forgiven the comparisons. Inside is a large crystal, and the whole interior has been designed for individual silent contemplation. You must make reservations a few days in advance to be allowed to enter, so we just contemplated from outside.

IMG_0020
Visiting Auroville was an otherworldly experience. I wish we had more time to talk to people and get a better sense of the place. There are accommodations in the area for those who wish to explore the concept a little more.

Et voila! Another side of India that we had no idea existed. Our spiritual tour is far from over – next we head to Varanasi, one of Hindu’s holiest (and most colourful) cities.  We met a Scottish gentleman a few weeks ago – he travels to India frequently and is a huge fan. We asked him about Varanasi, and in the words of everyone’s favourite Donald, he replied, “It is a stinking shithole. But you MUST go.” We can’t say we haven’t been warned.

Varkala: Where yoga meets the sea

While Varkala is not India’s ground zero for yoga,  a walk along the town’s cliff-top path will have you tripping over tanned and toned aficionados. Signs for sunrise, sunset, rooftop and beach yoga classes proliferate. “Oh right,” I thought, looking at this poster, until I saw a beautiful woman do a similar pose on the beach, with legs in lotus position, propped on one hand. This otherworldly creature then gracefully disengaged her limbs and strode into the ocean – the far north end of the beach where no-one swims and where red flags warn of dangerous currents.  Does advanced yoga promise immortality?

IMG_0026 (1)
Another poster seems to suggest cult membership, or at the very least the chance to have a scary boyfriend for a while.

IMG_0073
And no, dear yogi friends, I’m not mocking. My body would be very grateful if I bought a yoga mat and actually used it. After a week here, I feel inspired.

Varkala is a seaside town in the south of India – with beaches that are not, in my humble opinion, nearly as lovely as those in Goa, but still… a holiday within a holiday. We needed a week to get off the road, stop travelling, stop sightseeing and just enjoy doing nothing. It has achieved all of that and more.

We booked into the Keretheerum – a nine-room guesthouse down a lane and a half-block to the beach. Clean, quiet, A/C, balcony and on-site laundry – perfect.

IMG_0054
We could have stayed here, but we figured it might not measure up to the original.

IMG_0067
We could have stayed here, at Clafouti Hotel – very pretty beach resort, but just a shade over our budget.

IMG_0036
We did eat a lot of our meals at their restaurant –  affordable, great views, warm, professional staff and clean, delicious food. Here is a view from our favourite table. We sat directly behind this table to stay in the shade and avoid the stream of vendors going by.

IMG_0002

A big chunk of the beach area is on top of a cliff, with stores and restaurants and hotels on one side and the cliff on the other. There are a few staircases that lead down to the beach.  The path runs for a few kilometres and in parts, it is like this – scenic and clean and fenced for safety.

IMG_0052

In other parts, it is like this – scruffy and filled with garbage.

img_8165
The garbage in town and on the beach and in the water is extremely distressing. The Sea of Arabia is a priceless asset and no-one seems to care. There is a sign in our room asking  us to avoid plastic as the municipality does not collect garbage and it is either being burned or thrown over the cliff.

We have seen small signs to improve the situation – workers on the beach picking up garbage, and small trucks coming by to take away huge nylon bags filled with trash, but it is a drop in the bucket. I watched a man finish his lunch and casually toss the wrapper over the  cliff – that action was as natural and unconscious to him as breathing.

At first,  swimming at Varkala felt wonderful. The water is warm and there are good waves to play in.

IMG_0009
But we aren’t in the water for long when a piece of plastic wraps around our ankles, or we step on something that feels distinctly icky. We try not to swallow any water. By contrast, our swimming in Goa was blissfully clean.

We have been greatly amused by Varkala’s lifeguards. Neatly dressed in blue, they spend their time either checking their cellphones, or gossiping with their partners. Periodically they leap to their feet and emit several short blasts on their whistle all the while motioning with their red flag to either come in, or move down the beach. Of course, no-one pays any attention and this scenario is repeated all afternoon.

We wondered what they would do in the case of a drowning, since they are not equipped with lifesaving apparatus – not as much as a ring or a board. Also, the first dilemma would be to safely stash their cellphones and remove their nice shirts.

We stopped to talk to them and they told us that their job involves saving several Indians every year, since “Indians don’t know how to swim. ”  We had gathered that – many  Indians simply play at the shore’s edge, often hanging on to one another for support.

img_8188
Since lifesaving is obviously not a big moneymaker, our new friend also volunteered that we might want him to take us out on a dolphin-watching tour. We could swim with the dolphins, but not touch – we might end up in jail for that offence. Anyway, it could be dangerous to get too close – since we are Canadians and come from a cold country, we are “fresh meat.” After a great laugh at his own joke, he jumped up for a photo.

img_8189
The surfers were out in full force on one end of the beach. There seemed to be a collegial community of about 15 or so surfers, both Indians and foreigners.

img_8191
The south end of the beach also serves as a bathing and religious area for Hindus. A couple of days ago, we stumbled upon a ceremony. Several small huts were set up, with holy men administering blessings and small food offerings for departed loved ones. We aren’t sure of the significance of this ritual, but watched as people would receive the food and blessing, then walk toward the water.

IMG_0008
It appeared solemn, but not sad – I believe this is a regular occurrence to honour the dead. The food offerings, wrapped in banana leaves, were left behind.

IMG_0010
Although we are not religious, it is always an interesting part of our travels to observe how people practice their faith. We met an Indian woman from Delhi who has great disdain for “all those little Hindu rituals” but I found that dismissive. We have witnessed Indians receive comfort and affirmation with those actions.

India’s religions have played out powerfully in their history and continue to play out today. Not for me to comment in any way, but it is impossible to be in India for longer than a day and not witness the impact of religious conflict and the seemingly impenetrable divisions that have shaped life here. The Modi government appears to want to eradicate Christian and Muslim religions; violence has broken out in many parts of the country.

Ironically, India continues to attract droves of spiritual seekers. They are perhaps drawn to the irresistible notion of nirvana that so few Indians seem able to attain.

That is what makes India so endlessly fascinating – the questions with no answers, the dilemmas with no easy solutions, and the stereotypes that might deserve a second look.

We’ve all heard about the male stare in India, and it is no exaggeration. This young man has a pushback; either he is trying to change that negative impression, or he just wants to be a little cheeky.

IMG_0004

Along with the many stores that line the clifftop, Varkala has a number of Tibetan shops. I remember when singing bowls became popular years ago in North America, which also brought back memories of purchasing Indian bedspreads and incense.

These are quite beautiful – I watched as the shopowner demonstrated for a couple of tourists.

IMG_0072
To walk the clifftop is to run the gauntlet of shopkeepers, keen to stop you long enough to lure you inside. Mainly, the shops offer identical merchandise – beachwear, gauzy dresses, sandals and jewellery.

Some of the stuff looked quite nice, but since no amount of pleading will convince the merchants to allow you to browse without being hassled to death, I didn’t dare stop.

IMG_0064
There are quite a few tailors in Varkala as well, offering ready-to-wear and custom designs.  I couldn’t resist this sign as I realized I no longer own a “dearest piece of clothing”  There are times when living out of a suitcase and wearing the same easy-wash, low-wrinkle clothing gets very, very boring.

IMG_0023

Our first night in Varkala, we ate at a rooftop restaurant and watched the sun set behind this palm tree. It was so tropical, so romantic…and then we saw a rat run up the trunk. I think my aversion therapy to rats is coming along nicely – I keep seeing them and my reactions are becoming less hysterical.

IMG_0026

Ir you look closely at this photo, you will see a few lights – the night fishermen were just setting up. In the morning, they might bring in a prize like this – yellowfin tuna. And yes, those are Stephen’s feet in the background.

IMG_0069
We’ve had a perfectly relaxing week in Varkala and now we’re ready to go exploring again. Off to Pondicherry tomorrow – India’s French colonial city – we’ve been promised real croissants. We’re there for a few days of civilized, leafy ambience.

Welcomed like family on Munroe Island

We would have missed Munroe Island, but for the chance meeting of a fellow traveller and her heartfelt endorsement. She had just come north from staying at a nearby ashram and raved on about the beauty of the area.   Canoe rides through narrow canals. Cycling on flat dirt paths by the river. Losing an afternoon reading in a hammock.
Yes, please – this was everything we had hoped to find in Kerala’s backwaters.

Getting there from Alleppey was easy – we hopped on a regular unreserved train and headed south for 1 1/2 hours. Cost – 40 rupees for two – less than $1. Ambience – priceless. This is an unflattering shot of Stephen, but will give you an idea of the train’s interior. The ceiling fans do a not-bad job, and the wide -open doors also help with ventilation. It hasn’t been cleaned in a while, but that’s what hand sanitizer is for.

IMG_0009
Images of Indians clambering on train rooftops are familiar to moviegoers;  I guess this stencilled notice is here for good reason. This action is apparently  “punishable”, but they’re not saying how. Since no-one came by to check our tickets, I think travelling short distances by train for free is not uncommon.

IMG_0004
The train stops at each station for about 30 seconds, so you need to be ready to roll. Stephen jumped down, grabbed my suitcase and helped me down. Boom – train resumed travel and was gone. We grabbed a tuk-tuk, and 15 minutes later, we arrived at Green Chromide Homestay, to be welcomed by the lovely Sunaina. This picture manages to make her look freakishly short and me freakishly tall.

IMG_0007
Sunaina recently switched careers and lifestyles – she left her job at Yahoo in Bangalore to open Green Chromide Homestay in her husband’s family town of Munroe Island. They built a home with their quarters downstairs and two guest bedrooms and bathrooms upstairs and have been in operation since September. Her husband commutes each week to his job in Bangalore, but is on hand on the weekends, along with his brother, to help Sunaina welcome their guests.  They all pitch in with preparing the fantastic meals. This was one of our dinners – the namesake green chromide fish, along with more food than we thought we could eat – but we managed.

IMG_0037

Sunaina’s little daughter is also thrilled with the move. In Bangalore, she missed her extended family and was confined to an apartment; on Munroe Island she runs barefoot and has the whole neighbourhood watching out for her.  Her self-appointed job is to watch out for her 2-year-old cousin. The little cousin has an older brother – he and Stephen would solemnly fist pound each time their paths crossed.

IMG_0011
Indian kids are the cutest. Almost all the children we’ve encountered are curious, confident, sweet-natured and very well-behaved. “Hello. What is your name? Where are you from?” – they call out to us, and we call back and then they giggle. Stephen has taken to saying,”Where are you from?”, which causes them no end of consternation. (How could he not know they are from India?) The older ones sometimes get it. Steve being Steve, this joke will never get old, so I am doomed to hear it for the next two months.

On our last evening on Munroe Island, Sunaina invited us to join her family at a festival at another family member’s home. We still don’t know what the festival was about, and neither did our host. He shrugged – apparently the whole neighbourhood was lighting small candles and offering food to departed relatives. Most of Sunaina’s relatives and friends did not speak English and needless to say, we were the subjects of much curiosity and also the recipients of tremendous hospitality.

I got to hold this little dumpling – she must be so used to being passed around to adoring relatives, she didn’t bat a (kohl-rimmed) eye.

IMG_0018

Sunaina’s relatives live on a large property with three buildings – the original 100-year-old small home, the much larger family home and a shrine. We began celebrations by slurping a sweet liquid out of our hands (I accidentally ate with my left hand – a huge no-no), and then went back to the shrine for the brief ceremony.  The woman with the pink sari began – offering prayers for about five or ten minutes.

IMG_0015

We followed by throwing flower petals around the shrine and then moved back to the main area. Our hosts had made small sweets – something like a little banana pudding wrapped in leaves and steamed over a fire for an hour. Delicious – plus we got a few more to take home. I got lots of arm pats and looks and giggles – it felt very warm and welcoming, although of course they could have been saying anything about me – how would I know?

We came to Munroe Island for a peaceful backwaters experience and lucked into this lovely new friendship. It was an honour and a privilege to be part of this family gathering, and will remain one of our top Indian experiences so far.

On to the backwaters… Munroe Island is a cluster of eight small islands, covering 13 square kilometres, linked by innumerable small canals, a large lake and a river.

The view close to our homestay:

IMG_0014
We borrowed a couple of bikes at the homestay and took off to explore the island.

First up – a dad and his son skipping rocks across the water.

img_8131
This little store is very typical in India – sometimes they carry fruit and vegetables, sometimes cigarettes and toilet paper – others carry jars with small candies and perhaps a few bottles of shampoo. I think they function on a greater level as a hangout.

IMG_0016 During our three days on Munroe Island, we were serenaded day and night with chanting, singing, and prayers – sometimes at teeth-rattling decibels – part of the festival. We cycled by this woman who was reciting prayers from a book, much enhanced by the mic and loudspeaker.

At first, we were aggravated by the noise, especially when it began at 5:00 am. It soon became part of the background and we stopped hearing it – we must be surrendering.

IMG_0019
We arranged with Sunaina for a canoe ride through the backwaters. We were picked up at 4:00 pm for a two-hour tour, on a typical Keralan dugout canoe. I sat in the middle and Stephen sat in the front – he was soon instructed to start paddling as well!

Our captain:

IMG_0199
As in Alleppey, the river life unfolded, but in a much quieter way.

IMG_0162
One beautiful scene after another:

IMG_0109
Birds were a big feature of our trip – we were accompanied by birdsong the entire time, and we did see a hornbill, although my only photo is a bird in silhouette on a wire, so I’ll save you that non-image and give you this video instead.

More boat-and-trees-reflected-in-still-water-shots.

IMG_0075
The birdsong was disturbed by our captain’s nonstop expectorating. Even by Indian standards, he was outdoing himself.  Every five or ten minutes, we would hear a phlegmy, chest-rattling hork, followed by an emphatic pttchoo into the water. I looked back at one point to see him crouched and covered with a towel.
IMG_0068
We passed this happy group twice – here for the weekend and armed with selfie-sticks, they were having a grand time.

IMG_0142
These sturdy wooden boats are called into duty for any number of things, including the transport of household appliances.

IMG_0209
We passed by the simplest of dwellings:

IMG_0023
As well as a more comfortable home, complete with a jaunty Christmas tree.

IMG_0190
And boys – lots of boys. This little crew reminded us that boys are the same the world over – they yelled out to us, with big bright smiles, and then a couple of them felt obliged to climb a tree and hang over the water.

IMG_0093
We approached two young men – one very proudly sitting on his new bike and the other taking photos. They agreed to pose for us.

IMG_0203
Pick-up volleyball by the river. This game was going on every night we were there.

IMG_0217
Stephen heading under the bridge, wearing his new Tilley-ish hat bought in a market in Alleppey.  The days when we would not have been caught dead in a hat like this are over – function over form is our new approach to travel fashion.

IMG_0160
A parting shot – good-bye to bucolic Munroe Island – we are on our way to another beach holiday in Varkala for a week.

IMG_0210

Waterworld: gliding through Alleppey’s murky green canals

The backwaters of Kerala have been compared to the American Bayou and billed as “Venice of the East”. This area of low-lying barrier islands is linked by five lakes, 38 rivers and hundreds of canals, both natural and man-made.

IMG_0118
Kerala backwaters have been used for centuries for transportation, fishing and agriculture; the dykes built to keep freshwater and saltwater from mixing are similar to those in the Netherlands. In places, houses run along a narrow strip of land on one side of the canal with rice paddies,  and fields of bananas, cassava and yams on the other.

IMG_0144
This dreamy, languid region has attracted tourists for years. Drawn by the irresistible notion of rollin’ on the river, (albeit in a comfortable fully-outfitted houseboat, complete with A/C and staff), the hordes have arrived.  Sadly, tourism has grown to the point where there are serious environmental threats from over 2000 houseboats and untold numbers of smaller vessels.

img_8119

Alleppey is one of the two main hubs where one can arrange for boat tours. There are half-day and full-day tours on double-decker boats, small canopied Venetian-style boats and low wooden dugout canoes. Heavily promoted as a “must-do”, overnight houseboats come in a staggering range of price points and amenities.  They all offer bedrooms, bathrooms, dining facilities, lounging facilities and on-board staff, and quality ranges from frankly frightening to quite luxurious. Prices correspond accordingly. This was one of the nicer houseboats that passed by – we waved at one another, as you do whenever you are onboard any  boat.

IMG_0175
To step back for one minute – we chose to stay right in the city of Alleppey, instead of one of the more rural canal-side resorts, as we had a number of housekeeping issues to take care of – laundry, ATM, assurance of good wifi, etc.  It was perhaps not as authentic and laid-back as we had hoped, so we are tacking on another few days in the backwaters further south, after we leave here. However, we had yet another fantastic homestay experience with our host, Jose, his wife Tiny and their two adorable small girls – Angel and Annie. Jose and his cousins Jiju and Simpson run the homestay; his wife is an elementary school teacher.

Jose, Tiny and Jiju, heading out for the evening.
A side note here: I want to figure out how Indian women deal with heat. They are unfailingly elegant, unruffled and covered from neck to toe in layers, complete with floating scarves and gold jewellery.  I, on the other hand, am panic-stricken and cannot find a way to calm myself. Red-faced and beaded in sweat;  my damp, wrinkled clothes cling to me like saran wrap – I am not doing a good job of representing western female tourists.

IMG_0037.jpg

Our homestay neighbourhood is fun – on our street we have a mosque, a recycling depot, a girl’s school and a ruby financier. One narrow alley leads into another and by now we have figured out the labyrinth.

IMG_0034

On our first day, we wandered around the town of Alleppey without much success. Our bodies were coping with the shock of being plunged back into dripping humidity and temps in the high 30’s. Like a scene out of High Noon,  we arrived at the lighthouse, an Alleppey landmark, only to be urged by the caretaker to “run – we close in 10 minutes.” The purpose of the lighthouse visit was to climb its many interior stairs and enjoy the panoramic view of the city. We could no more have run those stairs than run a marathon, so on we trudged down a shade-less street toward the beach. We became so dispirited by the broad stretch of dirty sand that we hid out in a small cafe and drank lemon soda.

Just prior to that, we had visited the other Alleppey attraction, the Revi Karuna Karan Memorial Museum. The widow of the late wealthy businessman (second-generation owner of a massive coir factory, among other ventures) housed their personal collection of porcelain, ivory, precious stones, furniture, crystal and art  in a spectacular white columned building. She was hoping to create her own Taj Mahal, as a testament to their love.

It was interesting enough ( she has the world’s largest collection of Swarovski crystal), except we were followed by a “guide” who kindly read the plaques on the wall for us (“this is a table with ivory inlay”), and rushed us through, then hinted at a tip.

Note to self: not everything listed in Lonely Planet is worth visiting.
IMG_0001.jpg

Back to the main event – our boat trip. We arranged for a half-day tour on a private boat – just us and our captain, Sudo. The sarongs Sudo and Jose are wearing are very common in southern India.  The men endlessly unfurl them and wrap them up to miniskirt level, then drop them again. I’m sure they are cooler than pants.

img_8076
We met up at 9:00,  and soon we were underway – happy to sit back in our rattan chairs, a light breeze on our faces and watch life on the river unfold. Contrary to what we had heard from other tourists, we witnessed no bathroom habits, but we did see people brushing their teeth, bathing and washing their hair.

IMG_0182
Many women were washing clothes, scrubbing them with soap, then pounding them against the stone steps.

IMG_0080.jpg
Commerce is conducted waterside – we passed a number of boats carrying a variety of goods.

IMG_0213
img_8110
Homeopathic medicines delivered right to your door

IMG_0062 (1)
We stopped for breakfast at Tasty Land, where we were greeted by a very warm woman who brought us coffee and pancakes and watched us carefully as we ate every bite.

IMG_0068

Sudo brought us round the side of the restaurant, where there were two eagles with wings clipped, posting on a perch. This seems to be a thing in India – this is the third or fourth “pet” eagle we’ve seen.  Sudo wanted the eagle to sit on my shoulder, but it kept hopping onto my head – perhaps confusing my hair for a nest.

img_8087

Our boat, tied up and waiting our next adventure.

IMG_0069
Like any neighbourhood, there are homes of all types.

A modest houseboat:
IMG_0079

A modern, newly-built two-storey home:
IMG_0099
A luxury resort:
IMG_0110
And most of the services you would expect to find in a small town.
A hospital:

IMG_0170
A school.   Jesus has been thoughtfully outfitted with an umbrella to guard against the harmful rays of the sun.

IMG_0177
Lots of people-watching. This family waved at us as we glided by.

img_8109
A stern-looking woman standing sentry.

IMG_0120
And, as we’ve seen everywhere in India, such brutal manual labour. We watched men  fill and carry massive baskets of dirt and stone on their heads, from the boat to the yard behind.

As you would expect in this environment, there is regular ferry service.

IMG_0173
One last beautiful scene before we headed back.

IMG_0107
The entrance to our boat tie-up is pretty grim – where old boats go to die. It would appear that derelict boats are not hauled away – there were dozens like this and it is obvious they had been there for many years.

IMG_0240

This was an extremely interesting introduction to life on the backwaters. We’re heading to Munroe Island tomorrow, which is about two hours south of here. It is isolated, rural, and promises walking, cycling, canoeing and napping. Sounds perfect – expect more backwater photos in a few days.

Munnar: our first Indian hill station

Our five-hour bus trip to Munnar was entertaining (non-stop Bollywood dance sequences), comfortable (clean seats, A/C) and calm (our driver drove the twisty, winding roads in a safe and gentle manner; allowing the impatient masses behind him to pass on blind corners without challenging them to a game of chicken). We left behind blistering heat in Cochi to reach the cool, serene heights of hill station Munnar, former resort to the British Raj elite. Our final ascent to our guesthouse in the hills was by tuk-tuk.

IMG_0096
The entrance to Green Magic Hotel.

IMG_0082
The view from our hotel balcony.

IMG_0027
Green Magic Hotel was a perfect choice for us – just five rooms and run by the sweet and hospitable Robin, who also happens to be a professional chef. Each breakfast and dinner guests met around a table groaning with food. Robin explained the dishes and left us to chat. So far we have met guests from England, Germany, Denmark, Switzerland and India. Last night we had three mother-daughter groups, two friends who had left kids and husbands behind and us.

img_8057
Our guesthouse is set high in the hills about 6 km. from the town of Munnar. At night, it is silent – the stars come out, the temperature drops and we sleep with windows wide open to cool mountain air. We wake in the early morning to raucous birdsong. If this was the turn of the century, we would be in the mountains “taking a cure”.

The area around Munnar is the largest tea-growing region in south India, and the oldest; plantations date back to the late 19th century and plants like this are 75 years old. As you can see, they thrive on poor soil – the gnarly roots appear to grow right into the rock.

IMG_0002

From a photographic point of view, our timing was off – the tea pickers were in another area the day we went hiking and they don’t work on Sundays. Picking tea has not been mechanized – each leaf is still picked by hand. Just the shiny light green top leaves are picked – the rest are left behind.

IMG_0016

The rows of tea plants are trimmed like miniature ornamental hedges – immaculate and glossy – they stretch for as far as the eye can see.

img_8033

Munnar is well-known for its “soft trekking” – unlike the Himalayas, the Western Ghat Mountain range is rounded and more gentle for hiking. It is possible (but not advisable) to head out for the hills without a guide. The paths are wide and easy to navigate and the incline is gentle and gradual enough for beginners. There are 25- 30 km. treks, but we opted for a five-hour, 15 km. hike.  Our guide Ramish met us at our guesthouse at 7:30 am, and within 15 minutes we had reached the trail, bitterly regretting not having brought a coat or hoodie. There was frost on the plants and ice on the ground. Munnar frequently gets below-zero overnight temperatures in December and early January, but as is the case in the rest of the world, Munnar is experiencing climate change and unseasonable weather. We don’t stay cold for long, and soon the rewards of the hike begin to unfold.

IMG_0018
The mountain range layers away in all directions, from deep purple to forest green to the palest lavender. For the first time since we’ve arrived in India, the air is pure and the sky is bright blue.

IMG_0022

We walked past a group of people resting on a boulder. Some of them were sitting right on the edge, with feet dangling over the abyss.

IMG_0024
A rare sight at this elevation – a high tree and some shade.

img_8022

We stopped for a water break and to admire the view. A long line of blue uniforms began to appear – the Navy cadets were heading toward us in full force. About 50 young men trooped by and settled in on another rock just in front of us. The drill began and so did the push-ups. We had a great laugh watching some of the guys trying to fake it after about 10 push-ups – they have a way to go yet in their training.  We found out they were from Delhi – an exuberant group of 20-year-olds down for a weekend camp.

img_8030

Ramish points out Anamudi Mountain – at 2695 m., it is South India’s highest mountain peak.  The mountain is in the background – that’s Ramish in the foreground; a little the worse for wear for having helped an old lady down a steep incline. After I slipped and nearly fell a couple of times, he became alarmed. He stepped in front of me, grabbed my left hand over his shoulder and performed a cross between a fireman’s carry and a human shield to bring me to safety. My trusty Keen sandals are normally solid, but they would not grab the talcum powder surface of the dusty slope.

IMG_0054
We spent two days with Ramish and got to know him a little. His English is not great, but he tries very hard and really wants to improve to become a qualified tour guide. Our host Robin recommended him (they are good friends), and we were happy with his services, but we got a bit of an insight into the challenges of his life.

Ramish is 31 years old, has a wife and two young children and has lived in Munnar his whole life. He has a night job with the tea factory; he works from 10 pm to 7 am and he and a friend switch off duties during the night so they can take turns napping (probably not an encouraged practice.) He earns 300 rupees each shift – about $6 Canadian dollars. His company also pays his health care, his children’s school costs and gives him a house to live in until he reaches the mandatory retirement age of 58. Hopefully in the intervening years he will have made other arrangements for a home. To supplement his income, he bought a tuk-tuk and drives during the day. Three to four times a week during tourist season,  people like us pay him 1200 rupees ($25) for five hours touring – four times his salary at the tea factory. By many Indian standards, he is doing fine. The challenge for Ramish is that he is bright and ambitious but he only has Grade Nine education. When we stopped for lunch, we sat by a guide and his Italian guests and we watched Ramish observe them. That guide was obviously educated, fluent in English, and polished in dress and demeanour. How does our Ramish find the time and the opportunity to improve his lot? Both Stephen and I felt his longing for more – it was palpable. Ramish is charming, decent, very hard-working and bright – in Canada that would be his ticket to a comfortable life. Still, he seems to be a happy man – young, strong, self-sufficient, surrounded by community and living in a beautiful place.

Heading down the mountain and through the tea plantation; Ramish walks this almost every day and never gets tired of the view.

img_8049
Ramish took us out in his tuk-tuk on another day for a tour of the area. The draw to Munnar is the natural beauty, the trekking, the cool, clean air and the escape from the chaos of urban India. Munnar’s tourism board feels the need to gild the lily by marketing a raft of unappealing and pointless attractions, such as a garden centre with a couple of acres of parched dahlias and listless roses. We passed on that, so Ramish headed for Mattupetty Dam.  He instructed us to walk over the dam and “come back in 10 minutes.” Dutifully we obliged, wondering why we were staring through a chain-link fence to garbage and murky green water. We walked along the lake for a bit and headed back to the tuk-tuk.

IMG_0051
There are bison and wild elephants in the area, and although we saw dried-up evidence of animal visits on the pathways, we did not see so much as a squirrel while we were driving and hiking. As luck would have it, a mum and her baby elephant appeared, but sadly too far away from us to get a closer view. They were way down on the beach while we were way up in the hills. But still, it was a squinty-eyed thrill to see them.

img_7996
Ramish pointed out a low shrub called Kurinji that blooms just once every 12 years, and 2018 is the magic year for the next mass blooming. Apparently the area around Munnar has the best viewing, but I’m hoping we will be able to see this flower in other parts of India as well – they are due to bloom in March and April.
In the meantime, the hills were filled with giant colourful flowers – red, blue, yellow – names unknown.
IMG_0078
Munnar’s town market is quite lovely – filled with such exotica as banana flowers.

IMG_0092
Just a few stalls down, we watched fresh banana chips being made – scraped from a mandolin into boiling oil. We couldn’t resist this perfect Indian snack.

IMG_0088
Today, we went for a six-km. walk into the plantations and hills around our guesthouse. We ran into these characters – here on holiday from Toronto. The gentleman with the Blue Jays cap has lived in Toronto for six years and works as a chef with Aramark – the company that provides food for Rogers Stadium. He is originally from this area, and obviously could not resist doing what you can’t do in Canada – sit on the top of a Jeep while driving down a steep mountainside.

IMG_0007
One of the many viewpoints from the winding paths leading to the village below.

IMG_0009
And again…

IMG_0004
Our time in Munnar has been picture-perfect.  We had planned to visit Periyar Reserve, and nearby Thekkady, but learned from our host that the 900 elephants there are no longer easy to view. Three years ago, a couple was trampled to death by an elephant when the flash on their camera startled him. After that tragedy, the park closed trekking into certain areas of the park, and elephant sightings are now very rare.

Disappointing, but there are a number of other great animal reserves in India, which we will hopefully visit. Tomorrow we head for Alleppey, which is the hub of Kerala’s backwaters.