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.

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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.

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

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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…

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… 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.

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Even the tuk-tuks match the decor.

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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?

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

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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.

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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.

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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:

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

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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.

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Even the hospital looks inviting:

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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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.

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

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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.

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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.

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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?

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

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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.

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

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

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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.

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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.

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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:

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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.

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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.

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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:

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

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One beautiful scene after another:

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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.

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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.
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We passed this happy group twice – here for the weekend and armed with selfie-sticks, they were having a grand time.

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

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We passed by the simplest of dwellings:

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

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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.

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

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

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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.

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.
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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.

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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.

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

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

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Homeopathic medicines delivered right to your door

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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.

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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.

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Our boat, tied up and waiting our next adventure.

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Like any neighbourhood, there are homes of all types.

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

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

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

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A stern-looking woman standing sentry.

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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.

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One last beautiful scene before we headed back.

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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.

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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.

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The entrance to Green Magic Hotel.

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The view from our hotel balcony.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.
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Munnar’s town market is quite lovely – filled with such exotica as banana flowers.

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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.

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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.

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

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And again…

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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.

 

 

 

Feeling the heat in Fort Cochin

We are now in sultry Kerala, one of India’s southernmost states and it is hot. The past few days have simmered in the low 30s, and a sweaty humidity has settled right in. Not that we’re complaining …  We are engaging in that most Canadian of pastimes – commenting on the weather and considering what our friends up north are dealing with, I will stop right now and tell you about cozy Fort Cochin.  Portuguese, Dutch and English settlers have left their mark on this luscious city perched on the Malabar Coast – part of “God’s Own Country.

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We booked into Casa Mia Homestay, run by the gracious and hospitable Usha, who welcomed us with a kiss on both cheeks and a glass of freshly squeezed grape juice. Usha and her husband and son live on the first floor and her guests are on the second floor. We have a clean and spacious bedroom and bathroom and meet up with the other guests   for breakfast in the family dining room. Most homestays are variations on this theme and are an excellent way to mingle with Indians and  foreign tourists. Usha’s husband Antony built this home, finished with rosewood trim on the walls and a small quarry’s worth of marble on the floors. Our room is the balcony on the right.

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Cochin is a small city in Kerala and Fort Cochin is an idyllic section that is charming, walkable and surrounded by the sea. It is full of idiosyncrasies and non-stop photo ops. On one street you will find this – all polished and white – remnants of the British Raj era:

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Right around the corner is this building. At first glance, it appeared to be vacant, but I saw women walking inside – it has become a squat. Elegance and wealth; poverty and squalor – the two worlds exist side-by-side. Fort Cochin is too small to have enclaves.

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Our street is an interesting mix of homestays, small shops and even a tiny church. We appear to be in a Catholic area (our hosts are devout Catholics), and this little chapel is always open, with a candle lit, ready for anyone to drop by.

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Further down our street is this fabulous car – the HM Ambassador. This quintessential Indian car was based on the British Morris Oxford series, with rights purchased in 1956 to be produced exclusively in India.  It was known as “the King of Indian roads” and ceased production in 2014. I would dearly love to have a car like this back in Canada, right-hand drive and all.

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We hear chesty coughs wherever we go. Many tourists, Stephen included, appear to be affected by the daily burning that goes on throughout the country. This is a common sight – sometimes just leaves or papers; other times there is plastic and household garbage burning, which is far more toxic.

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We walk past the ugliness of the burn piles and come round the corner to this beauty:

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Fort Cochin has provided many examples of artistic design against a backdrop of whitewashed cleanliness that is a balm for our souls. This is the first time so far in our travels in India that we have encountered these pockets of calm and it has made us appreciate how restorative it is. We realize our survival and enjoyment of India will depend upon us finding small pockets to escape to, to allow us to plunge in again.

This little canal smells just like it looks. We walked about three kilometres to Mattancherry, the old spice district, which now has many antique emporiums and tourist shops. On the way, we walked through neighbourhoods like this, past people’s front doors that open to the street. This is yet another taste of life in India.

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We passed by a group of men bathing in this water – soaping up their bodies and washing their clothes. The building behind them is the Mattancherry Palace, filled with Hindu murals preserved from the 1500’s. They were impressive, but we were just as happy to be inside a cool building with whirring fans and a window seat.

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Another important building in this area is the 400-year-old Pardesi Synagogue. The inside is simple and elegant, with a gold pulpit, hand-painted floor tiles, chandeliers and glass lamps. Photographs were prohibited and I couldn’t even sneak one, as we were being watched like a hawk. Apparently we had just squeaked in 5 minutes before closing, so we were ignominiously ushered out almost as soon as we sat down. “You go now. Get out.” Probably lost in translation a little, but I did manage to get the guard to tell me the congregation of this synagogue is just five people. “But tourists are welcome.

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This area of Cochi is called “Jew Town” – a moniker I find quite jarring, but apparently it has come about without any ill intent or bigotry. As the sign proclaims, it is still an area for commerce.

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Fantastic buildings in this area – I loved this lineup of shutters, and also loved the still-intact poster of Prince Charles, probably from his end-of-marriage trip to India with Princess Diana, when she famously posed alone at the Taj Mahal.

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We had a wonderful lunch in this art cafe, and watched the world go by from our window seat. The light fixture is made from a metal flare used by ships to act as markers to warn other vessels of their whereabouts.  This is the kind of thing that appeals to me – repurposing items like this. I have a folder of ideas poached from our travels for the day we settle and make a home again.

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Finding hairdressers while we travel is always a challenge and we’re both hitting that shaggy stage. On the way home, we passed by a barbershop and dropped in. It was not the cleanest little place. I’m betting that bottle of Dettol in the cupboard has not seen the light of day for years. Certainly the comb and scissors were not treated to a disinfectant. Oh well, Steve has no open sores on his head and he came out of there with a great cut and beard trim. The barber seemed quite pleased to have a foreigner in his shop and he reminded Stephen that his cut (which cost 200 rupees – $4), would be 2000 rupees in his hometown!

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The Chinese Fishing Nets are another tourist draw – we did not manage to capture the magical, sunset tourist-bureau shots of these nets, but they are a relic of the traders from AD 1400 court of Kublai Khan. There are about half a dozen of these massive contraptions that require four people to manage the counterweights that lift and drop the cantilevered nets into the water. We watched for a while – massive effort for a few flopping fish.

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At a nearby children’s park, we came upon this curiosity – a statue of a mother standing beside her little boy. I’m showing you the rear view, but the anatomically correct front view clearly shows this little fellow peeing. There you have it – a public endorsement of that oh-so-familiar site – males of all ages relieving themselves wherever they want.

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We witnessed another example of behaviour we had been warned about – the dangerous scam of refilling plastic bottles with tap water and selling them again. We have all been well warned about checking our water bottles to make sure the cap has not been opened already and we are careful  – neither of us are keen to experience water-borne illness or dysentery.  We just happened upon this scene – a young man crouched down beside a water tap, filling up plastic bottles. There may be an explanation, but it looks suspicious.

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After that ugly scene, a beautiful one – that’s the rule.

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And back to the not-so-nice. This is from a Western and animal-loving perspective – many Indians would not agree with us, as the elephant is an important part of their culture and is used in a number of festivals. This was the case with these five elephants – they were brought in for a festival where they would be outfitted with elaborate headdresses, but we were not prepared for the chains and the lethargy. One of the elephants had a number of sores and wounds on his body – we had to leave.

Another strange situation played out in the little restaurant right across the street from our homestay. We stopped by for a couple of cold drinks and were quite excited to see an eagle land right in front of us. Not so excited when we found out the young men running the cafe had captured this bird and clipped its wings – they wanted to make a pet out of it.

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More beauty – a permanent installation at one of our favourite art cafes. Our first night there, we split a watermelon and feta salad, followed by fabulous fusilli pesto – after three weeks of delicious Indian food, we were ready for a change.

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One of our favourite drinks in India is lime ginger soda – a couple of ounces of fresh lime juice, fresh ginger and topped with soda water. It is absolutely refreshing and perfect with Indian spices. We have had very little alcohol since arriving here – in many places it is not readily available. There are three dry states in India and we will not be visiting any of them, but with the exception of Goan beaches, restaurants that serve alcohol are few and far between. We are gratified to find we don’t miss it.

As much as I don’t appreciate being stared at, you can’t help but have fun people-watching. As we were walking back home this afternoon, we saw a beautiful young woman taking a photo of her boyfriend. She was a classically gorgeous Indian woman, and modern –  wearing very short white shorts. Her boyfriend was striking a pose against  a wooden wall – the whole thing looked straight out of an ad.

Just beyond them were these two gents, having a good gander at the woman’s backside. Stephen asked them for a photo and they obliged.

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My final shot is of an ayurvedic retreat – Kerala has a number of ayurvedic retreats and hospitals – our host Usha is a big advocate of ayurvedic medicines, but as she warned, “you have to know who are the good ones.”

Our friend Kathryn is still in her 30-day retreat – we are keen to hear how it is going for her. Ayurvedics, yoga, spiritual retreats – these are all important reasons for people to visit India. We are travelling strictly as tourists, to see as much as we can, but our eyes are being opened to so many things we didn’t even know existed.

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Tomorrow, we trade the steamy heat of Cochi for the cool mountain air of Munnar. Time to visit tea plantations and do a little hilltop trekking.

Mysore: City of Palaces

Oh, I know what you’re thinking,”can’t wait to hear all about the palaces.” I promise you this post will have so much more; Mysore is our first big Indian city and there are lots of interesting things to tell you about.

Such as: There is no shame in pretending you are Indian royalty.

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As much as we have read about the many scams at work in India, didn’t we fall prey to one on our very first day here. We were approached by a tuk-tuk driver who wanted to show us the “old market” for 30 rupees. ( 60 cents). We were tired from hours of walking and gratefully climbed in and rode along for about 10 minutes – into a neighbourhood we might otherwise not have discovered on our own. Much of Mysore’s centre area streets and alleys look like this – at first glance rather sketchy but in fact simply modest.

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We passed by several little structures like this – not much more than lean-tos.

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A quick stop at the “special market” and then the scam unrolled – we, the guileless tourists, were escorted to some shops that will kick back a decent commission to the driver if there are sales. First to  a shop where rosewood was being carved and polished. The tuk-tuk driver assured us the white inlay was wood but when I picked up a small piece of plastic cut from the “wood inlay” off the ground, he said nothing.

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Next up – An aromatherapy shop where we were greeted by three very excited people. Before we knew it, we were being swabbed with sandalwood, black jasmine, ylang-ylang, geranium, etc.  Stephen was laced with some essential oil that promised  (with a wink) to give him “eight hours of manhood”. Tempting, but prices started at $60 for tiny vials so we had to disappoint them. It was awkward.

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Somehow I have managed to reach this stage in life and still be surprised to discover that not all people are honest. Being in India requires constant negotiation and second-guessing –  a big push-pull game of Let’s Make a Deal. We have money and they want it. They will tell you what you want to hear (your laundry will be ready by 5:00) and they will blithely overcharge you on just about anything. We are learning how to haggle without being insulting – not wanting to rip off or be ripped off. You never really know. Stephen developed a deep fondness for these luscious potato buns, filled with onion chutney and served warm. He has paid 10, 15 or 20 rupees, depending upon who was behind the counter. That felt more comical than anything else – a lovely family business with no malice intended.

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I am coming to terms with my situation in India now that we are out of beach-y Goa. Our hotel in Mysore is in a Muslim area (we awaken each morning at 5:30 am to delightful call to prayer) and many women are dressed in black burkas.Our first morning here we ventured out to explore the back streets and soon raced back to our hotel.  I was treated to several disapproving stares as well as that nasty tongue-clucking sound that makes me want to pick up a rock and throw it. My crime was wearing a knee-length, scoop-neck, sleeveless dress. I grabbed a shawl, wrapped it around my shoulders and went out again without a problem. The other issue is legs – they need to be covered or at least mostly covered. I bought these pants which are very fine cotton, incredibly comfortable and cool, and roomy enough for a few more veggie pakoras, but I’m not happy.

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I’m not happy with the bold stares, the open contempt, and my feelings of discomfort. I am a visitor to India and as with any other country I want to respect their culture and customs, but it is such an unpleasant feeling to be judged so harshly. To clarify – most of my encounters with Indian men have been positive and warm. I believe the divide is a fundamentalist religious one as well as an uneducated one. The educated moderate Indians do not hold those views toward women – they are gentle and kind.

I discussed this with a gentleman here who warned me to be very careful, especially up north in smaller towns and villages, where a woman’s smile or gaze is interpreted as an invitation to have sex. With or without consent.  Clothing choices would obviously also be an issue.

Currently,  in many states in India violence has broken out over the release of the movie Padmaavat which has offended the sensibilities of some Indians to the point that cars have been torched, a schoolbus full of children was stoned and several women had to be stopped by police as they were planning to self-immolate. A reward has gone out for the delivery of the nose of the lead actress. 

I may not be happy with my status here but you can bet I’ll be keeping those feelings to myself. So…with that off my chest, on to far more positive things. Like, the palace.

Mysuru Palace is one of the big tourist draws – a staggeringly impressive structure that was home to the maharajas and has interiors worthy of one of India’s premier royal buildings.

The Public Hall

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The Marriage Pavilion, used for royal weddings.

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One of the interior courtyards

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The side entrance to the Palace

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St. Philomena’s Church is another Mysore attraction – a Neo-Gothic Catholic cathedral that is currently under restoration and was covered with scaffolding and tarps. I didn’t take any photos but while we were inside the crypt we spent a few minutes checking out the names. “Captain and Mrs. Ross”; “Federico Coelho” – mostly Portuguese and English names, with a smattering of Indian. I noticed a couple – Barbara Gordon and Tony Gardon – and wondered at the obvious typo engraved in marble for perpetuity. It would make me so upset to imagine a similar fate would befall me when my time comes and I would be laid to rest as Ginny Muller.

And on to the marvellous Devaraja Market of Mysore – a photographer’s delight.

This scene repeated itself dozens of times – we loved the elegance and strength of these women.

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For all the squalor and disorder outside the market, the stalls are a study in geometric perfection.

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I love red onions, but back home they are often too big or a bit mushy. These were just perfect.

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The heaping cones of kumkum, which are the coloured powders used for bindi dots.

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Flower garlands everywhere

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Incense, especially sandalwood, is quite particular to Mysore, as are many essential oils.

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This scene could make a vegetarian out of me. The chickens were being slaughtered, plucked and cleaned right on the counter, in the heat, with the flies swarming. As much as I love meat, I will try to stick to vegetarian dishes for our stay, as FoodSafe is not a thing here.

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And Gandhi – his skinny, bespectacled golden figure standing guard over the madness of roundabout traffic.

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Traffic – how does it work? In India you drive on the left side of the road, unless you prefer to drive on the right. In that case, you cut across three lanes of traffic and go wherever you please. Cars, trucks, buses, motorbikes and tuk-tuks zoom along with inches to spare and no-one hesitates – as in SE Asia, it flows. One of our new friends in Hampi advised us not to drive in India. “Too stressful for foreigners.” We wouldn’t know where to begin.

The van you see on the left? He will simply drive through the line of motorbikes. The concept of  “After you. No please, I insist – you go first.” does not exist here – either on the road or on the sidewalk, or lining up at the ATM.

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We kept seeing black and yellow cows and finally asked someone. There was a festival last week and the cows were coloured yellow as part of the celebration.

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I stopped these young women to ask them about their tops – it is not easy to find tops that don’t go to the knee or longer. While the clothes here are exquisite, I’m trying to find things I will wear again in Canada. We had a nice chat, followed by the inevitable selfie.

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We hired a tuk-tuk again to take us to Chamundi Hill where there is a sacred temple and the usual complement of monkeys.

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Today is Republic Day (representing India’s freedom from British rule) and a national holiday. There were dozens upon dozens of busloads of tourists and the queues to enter the temple were terrifying. We stayed outside and watched as the crowds arrived; many passed holy men for blessings and bindis.

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We were quickly surrounded by a very friendly Indian family who wanted our photos. The funny thing we have noticed about many of these group photos is that once the selfie-stick or camera is in place, everyone assumes a very serious demeanour, even the little kids.  I felt very much like a smiling white-haired lady towering over everyone.

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A view of Mysore taken from a lookout on the road up to Chamundi Hill. We have not had a lot of bright blue skies since we’ve been here. There is a haze over the city with smoke coming from hundreds of small fires that are set daily (people burn their garbage). Both Stephen and I have sore throats and cold symptoms.

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I was not as captivated with Mysore as I thought I would be. It is a smallish city (just under 1 million) with many historic buildings and monuments, but with the exception of the Palace, many of the attractions were in disrepair.

This was a good introduction to an Indian city, as it sharpened our travelling wits a whole lot.  We are not planning to visit any of India’s huge cities, except for Delhi in April. There are so many places to visit that don’t demand such stamina and perhaps offer more reward – tea plantations, bird sanctuaries, backwaters, tiger reserves, elephant reserves, the desert cities with their forts and palaces and the Himalayas.

We fly down to Cochi tomorrow and then we will be firmly in Kerala State for a few weeks.  We’re still very much in the early days of being in India and still being swamped by new impressions and emotions to sort through.

One final note on our hotel: Unlike the horror show in Hampi, our Mysore hotel is a dream. Polite, professional staff on the front desk and in the dining room. Huge spotless room, with tiled floors, comfy bed and modern bathroom. Air-conditioning and wifi  – both of them in good working order.  Big breakfast included. And…we paid almost the same as we did in Hampi – just under $50 a night. We have made a decision not to skimp on our hotels in India – the $25 room beckons and is often just fine, but we really want to have a sanctuary to come back to after our sightseeing each day. We’re staying at Casa Mia Homestay in Cochi  – we’ll see you again in a few days.

Following the hippie trail to Hampi

For many visitors to India, the road from Goa to Hampi is a well-trodden path, a rite of passage for the seekers and pilgrims who flock to this “unearthly landscape that has captivated travellers for centuries.” (Lonely Planet).

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Hampi is a UNESCO World Heritage Site which encompasses the ruins of one of India’s largest 14th century empires with kilometres of giant boulders, softened by emerald green rice paddies and banana plantations. In addition to being a holy site, Hampi is also the bouldering capital of India. Throw in yoga classes, ayurvedic treatments, and cheap guesthouses and the throngs of young tourists with their hennaed hands, baggy harem pants and bindi dots will follow.  We saw the odd grey head wandering about, but we were older than most of our fellow travellers by at least 30 years. So far, no henna, but I have succumbed to purchasing a pair of harem pants. Photo to  follow at some point.

The path to Hampi is not a straight one. All trains and buses arrive in Hospet – a dusty town about 15 km. from Hampi. This was our first glimpse of real India – and yes, those stories about cows (or in this case, water buffalos) holding up traffic are true.

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Our tuk-tuk dropped us at the “ferry” – a small boat that transports passengers back and forth to the main guesthouse area in Hampi.

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We had to remove our shoes to walk through five inches of water to board the boat and then again on the other side. The boat is filled to well beyond capacity; we loved that there was a single life jacket hung over the railing. Up the hill we trudged, past women washing laundry – a captivating first impression.

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We then walked about a kilometre down the road until we arrived at our guesthouse – a less captivating experience. Our guesthouse had very mixed reviews on TripAdvisor, as did all the guesthouses  – people like us are not their target market. There are areas in India where finding reasonable mid-range accommodation is challenging, and Hampi is one of them. Our room was dirty, we had no hot water, wifi disappeared after our first day, never to return – and no-one cared. We heard highly entertaining excuses for everything, with no solutions. Since the rest of our fellow travellers seemed unfazed, we tried to go with the flow, but my vivid imagination would not let go of the images of those who had slept before us on the stained sheets stretched over our hard, lumpy mattresses.  Still, our guesthouse was in a gorgeous setting overlooking rice fields and this was the sunset on the first night.

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After much deliberating, we decided to rent a scooter the next day to see some of the sites that were close by. I was the one doing the deliberating because of a) the condition of the roads and b) my memory of the fatal accident last year in Laos. Stephen was raring to go, so we hopped on a  scooter and took off with the rest of the helmet-less hordes.

Apparently I am a bad passenger, as I squirm around too much, so I was under strict orders to hang on and not move. Unlike the blasé Indian ladies riding sidesaddle and talking on their phones, I never entirely lost my nerves.

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Still, it is the best way to get around and see the countryside. Stephen’s biggest challenge was dodging crater-like potholes and avoiding marauding trucks, so it wasn’t relaxing for him either. Along the way, we stopped a number of times for photos.  I couldn’t resist this sweet little baby water buffalo.

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Stephen couldn’t resist taking a brief video of me waving at a truckload of kids.


Our first stop was Hanuman Temple. We were met at the bottom by this crew of kids, who swarmed us for photos. This is very common in India – everyone wants a selfie with you and we have obliged dozens of times already.

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Climbing the 575 steps up to Hanuman Temple is a pilgrimage for some; most devotees climbed the entire way in their bare feet.

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We kept our shoes on until we reached the summit, and then removed them to walk around the outer perimeters. There are a number of monkeys up there and as long as you don’t feed them, they keep their distance. I’m not entirely comfortable around monkeys, so I was content to take photos from several feet away.

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This view is the reward – a simply stunning panorama.

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We were intrigued by this purified water stand, especially since our water bottle was almost empty. The Indians lined up to drink clean water, and they all drank from a single stainless steel cup! We shied away from this petri dish of communicable diseases.

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The climb down was much easier, and we were treated to the sight of this woman arranging scarves and colourful clothes on nearby rocks. There were surprisingly few vendors and the ones we saw were quiet and respectful.

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As we drove along, we noticed a young man on his motorbike who had stopped to take a photo and we pulled in behind him. There was a woman in the field tending to three cows, and as I noted to this young man, the image was like “something out of National Geographic”.  Coincidently, he used to be a photographer for Nat Geo and has now been living in Bangalore for the past three years, working as a freelancer. He travels India looking for shots like this. I would love to see how his photos turned out.

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We drove by women working in the rice fields, planting rice to be harvested in a few months.

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We were so struck by how hard so many Indians work, and for so little. Collecting and moving materials about – firewood, rice plants and hay.

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Many children don’t go to school. We passed by this sad-eyed young boy, hauling his load of snacks and drinks on a heavy cart.

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We arrived back to our guesthouse to see the resident Doberman in an absolute froth over the monkeys who were perched up on the rooftop, taunting him.

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The next day we met up with Raghu, who took us out for a full day tour of the ruins on his tuk-tuk. Raghu was charming, knowledgeable and spoke perfect English, so we had a memorable time.

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He is from Hampi and began by giving us an interesting overview of the town, before launching into the history of both the geology and the 14th century ruins. The ruins cover 26 square km. and it would take three more blog postings to cover it, so I’ll spare us all and just treat you to some photos.

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More monkeys. Cute baby being cradled by a very protective mama.

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We were the only ones visiting this temple and came across this woman who was camped out in the cool shade with her basket and some food and drink. She didn’t pay us any attention, but we were curious as to why she was there.

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The military were out in full force, right up to ranked officers. They were happy to have their photos taken.

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Three women heading into the fields in front of The Elephant Stable.

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There were a number of women working the fields, turning the soil and pulling out dead grass with pickaxes. The stables in front of them used to house elephants.

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The Stone Chariot used to actually move – hard to imagine that now, and even harder to grab a pic without crowds of people in front. The elephants had been piled with kids all morning; this was a rare child-free moment.

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I got almost as excited seeing this parrot as I did seeing the ruins.

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A school trip was in full swing just in front of me and as I was watching the parrot, I was being watched by young Indian boys, who demanded a photo.

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The next thing I knew, their classmates had joined them.

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Hampi is a magical, mystical place. I felt the beginning of a sense of India’s deep spirituality and symbolism there.

Now we’re in Mysore and will be back again in a few days.

Dolphins, saris and Speedos: A typical day on Palolem Beach

There are many ways to amuse oneself on Palolem Beach – swimming, kayaking, stand-up paddle boarding, and dolphin watching.   The beach is lined with boats ready to take tourists out for an hour-long ride – dolphins, eagel (sic) sightings and Honeymoon Bay. All this for $10 – how could we refuse? The captain of our boat assured us we would see dolphins if we showed up early in the day and he delivered. We set out on the 8:00 am boat and passed an atmospheric old fishing vessel on our way out.

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Kathryn, ready for her dolphin adventure.

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And then, true to our captain’s word,  there they were – a small school of dolphins.  We stayed in the area for about 15 minutes or so – long enough to see several swim up quite close to the boat. As with many dolphin or whale sightings, unless you snap one of them spinning in the air, photographs don’t tend to capture the excitement.

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After the dolphins, we were deposited on Honeymoon Bay and left wondering what exactly was expected of us. One of the sailors mimicked holding a camera, so we dutifully took photos.  The young Russian couple who shared our boat smoked cigarettes  and took selfies. Eventually we were allowed back on the boat and resumed our tour. We did see an eagle (or big bird of some sort) and one of the sailors, in the interest of making us feel we were getting our money’s worth, pointed out a rather listless monkey.

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All in all, a somewhat lacklustre boat trip, but it is always enjoyable to be out on the water and gain a different perspective of land.

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Back to the beach, where a broad mix of cultures meet with their accompanying ideas of appropriate swimwear. Palolem is a huge draw for Brits, Germans, Israelis and Russians, and modesty does not seem to register with any of those groups. The Russian men in particular are fond of tiny Speedos – a costume that is flattering to so very few. That, combined with butt cheek shorts and  minuscule bikinis  strapped onto every imaginable body type and it does make me wonder what the locals must think of us all. Watching Indian families on the beach gives us some idea of their preferred attire. These two ladies were out for a stroll, but if they decided to go for a swim, they would simply enter the water fully dressed. Their men, on the other hand, favour form-fitting boxer briefs.

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Every afternoon, we watch the boats being brought back up to shore, well off the tide line. This video shows how this has probably been done for generations.


I dropped off our laundry this morning, and ran the gauntlet past three ladies gossiping by the entrance. “Nice dress,” said one, grabbing hold of my (knee-length) dress after she had given me a good once-over. “Where are you from?”  I have no idea if I passed muster, but I had a pleasant chat with them and then they all had a good laugh as I was butted by a cow on my way out.

We can’t stop taking cow photos – they are still such a novelty.

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And water buffalo – they are less likely to be roaming the streets, as they tend to hang out in the marshy area just outside of town, but we happened to see them heading home.

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The two main streets of Palolem are lined with small shops and restaurants. They are fun and colourful, but we are resisting buying anything so early in our trip.

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Steve did buy a couple of light cotton shirts to help cope with the heat. He asked if I thought he looked like a tourist – I’ll leave that to you to decide. #notalocal

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This was taken a couple of nights ago on the beach. We sat in front of a bonfire, listened to the waves, and enjoyed cold beer and chicken tikka. A memorable night.

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India’s national beer is Kingfisher – not burdened with flavour, but light and cold and a good accompaniment to many of the dishes. We had an interesting experience the other night – Kathryn, Stephen and I were coming back from dinner, and decided to buy a bottle of white wine and drink it on our front deck. I struggled to twist open the screw top, and then it became apparent it had been tampered with – it had already been opened! Back to the store we indignantly marched and the young man seemed entirely unfazed – he returned our money and put the bottle back in the fridge, to be sold to the next unsuspecting tourist.

It is a common scam to fill plastic water bottles with tap water and sell them – it falls to the consumer to make sure the lid has not been broken. We wonder what the scam was with this wine bottle – watered-down wine or the shop-owner’s home-brew? Many parts of India are dry and alcohol will not be available, so this will hopefully be a one-time issue.

Now the food – that is another thing. Look at this gorgeous display of fresh seafood – caught off the Goan waters. That long beak-y fish is a barracuda – I felt those sharp little teeth –  and those are the biggest prawns I have ever seen.

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There is a good-sized Israeli population in India, and a number of them live in Goa, and in particular in Palolem. I asked one of our favourite restaurant owners about this sign (with what looked like a rabbi), and he pointed us down the opposite street. “Many Israelis live down there.”

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Sure enough, after about 10 minutes, we came upon a Jewish open-air congregation – more like  a community hall. We kept walking and the street provided a whole other glimpse into residential Palolem life – neat, homey and inviting.

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Some homes were barely shacks.

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Others appeared prosperous enough to warrant protection.

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And then we came across this home, with the Swastika symbol – which is an important Hindu symbol and in Sanskrit means “conducive to well-being”.  It is hard not to associate this peaceful symbol with the co-opted Nazi symbol, turned on its side.

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We’ve talked to a number of people from different countries who have moved to India, either full or part-time. It is warm, extremely cheap to live, the food is great and the people are wonderful.  Religious tolerance would be another draw – Goa is home to a number of religious and spiritual practices.

However, tolerance of Indians marrying outside of one’s own religion or race is still a huge problem in smaller centres. We spoke to two young men who both faced this dilemma. One of our favourite waiters at a beach restaurant was an exceedingly handsome and charming 26-year-old man from the north of India – in Manali. Luckily for him, although his marriage was arranged, it was also a love match. If he had chosen to marry outside, not only would he be cast out of his village, but so would his family. He works in Goa for the winter and returns to Manali  to work in the summer and be with his wife and family. He is personally happy, but does not like the fact that his culture still operates in the old ways.

Our guesthouse host faces a significant challenge. His girlfriend is Russian and if they married, he would not be able to continue living in Palolem. He is 38-years-old and they have been together for five years, but he shows no signs of wanting to leave his home, family, his friends and his business.  So for now, they remain in limbo, with impossible choices that will may bring an end to their relationship, no matter what decision he makes. He seems sad but resigned and says it is not like this in the big cities – just in the small towns. But he tried living outside of Palolem and was not happy.

The younger generation wants change, but it could take many decades. As an outsider, it is easy to be critical of harsh and outdated beliefs, but we need look no further than the glacial pace of societal change in North America to realize we cannot judge.

We plan to eat a lot of vegetarian and vegan food while in India – both for better health and to improve our chances of not eating tainted food and getting really sick. Palolem has a number of good veg/vegan options and Little World became one of our favourites – great coffees, wonderful breakfasts and interesting and colourful clean food options.

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We became almost daily customers, stopping in for at least a coffee, and we got to know the folks in there quite well, with Shanu dancing to “Uptown Funk” and Ruby serenely working the room, and Nitin lending a spiritual presence. They invited us to come for dinner as their guests and tonight we gratefully accepted their hospitality.  It was a lovely evening with delicious food. This photo does not include Shanu – he was temporarily distracted by two beautiful blonde women who dropped by for long hugs and then needed a motorcycle drive home.

Nitin, Ruby and us.

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Our time in Palolem is coming to an end. Last year, while travelling in Vietnam, we came across a couple from Scotland who were kite-surfing instructors, of all things, and who had been travelling the world. They offered advice that we have taken to heart – Don’t try and pack too much in. Get a feel of the place. Stay there until you are a bit bored, then move on.

We’re there – we’ve had a memorable start to our trip, but now we’re a bit bored and ready to go. We’ll take a day-long train to Hampi and stay there for a few days. See you in a bit.

 

Goa: the shimmering jewel of the Arabian Sea

Swimming in the Sea of Arabia – doesn’t that sound romantic? It is exactly that – and so much more.  Palolem Beach, in south Goa, is our very soft landing.

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We picked Palolem Beach because Lonely Planet told us it was one of Goa’s most postcard-perfect beaches. Palolem is a small town on a wide crescent beach, with rocky outcrops separating it from other, smaller beaches to the south – all of them accessible on foot.

Goa’s beaches are divided into north and south, with the northern beaches being famous for trance parties and drug-fuelled all-nighters. The southern beaches (including Palolem) are quieter and more family-oriented. They still have beach parties, but incredibly, they are silent: participants wear headsets and groove in their own little bubble, without bringing down the neighbourhood.  It works well – they get to party, we get to sleep.

We are staying at a small guesthouse called Alba Rooms – just five rooms set back from the road and buffered by loads of plants, so it is quiet at night, yet 100 metres to the beach. Each room is large, tiled, spotlessly clean and best of all, they have private patios out front. Our hosts, brothers Sanjay and Tutu are simply the best. They speak perfect English and are so hospitable and welcoming and helpful.

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Originally we were to stay here for just one week, but we’ve extended our stay for another several days – it is too relaxing to leave. As well, our friend Kathryn has arrived in India, and is also staying here at Alba Rooms. She has been travelling the world since June and it is starting to catch up with her. Time to hang out and do little.

Life on the beach is constantly changing, depending upon the time of day. Four or five o’clock in the evening is our favourite – the water is calm, the light is soft and the heat is lessening its grip.  In a town filled with yoga centres and studios, beach yoga is a natural.

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So are boys kicking a ball around.

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There are scenes of quiet contemplation.

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There are many, many boats. Some are fishing boats but many are for the tourists – boat rides out to see dolphins and outlying islands.

These men have developed an ingenious method of moving their boats out of the water and up onto the beach. They lay out long wooden poles on the beach, and then roll the outrigger boats up along them; move the wooden poles and keep rolling until the boats are in place for the night.

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Naturally, there are the requisite stray dogs, but seeing cows on the beach was a new thing for us. They wander about, but since there is a dearth of food on the beach, they tend to congregate and just chill like the rest of us.

Interestingly, the cow patties are few and far between and they’re easy to spot and avoid. Surprisingly to us, the beach is very clean.

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Cows are one of India’s iconic images. Depending on the survey, there are between 200 and 300 million of them, wandering the streets, stepping out in front of cars and on airport runways, and adding greatly to environmental challenges. However they are considered sacred in most of India’s states, so their numbers are not likely to go down any time soon. Here in Goa, (where they do eat beef), cows plod along the streets and on the beaches, and some shop owners throw out food for them. We walked by these two, feasting on cauliflower leaves.

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The first day we were in Palolem, this steer walked right into the restaurant. If this is not an incongruous sight, I don’t know what is. (Cow walks into a bar…) The cows tend to be docile and just stare blankly at you, which can be disconcerting. The owner had a soft spot for this one, and gave him a piece of bread. Later, when another cow tried to enter, he chased her away – telling us she was too aggressive. Apparently, it is not uncommon for cows to head-butt people without any provocation, so we tend to give them a wide berth.

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The town of Palolem runs along one main road, with a number of smaller roads leading off, either to the beach or into residential areas. The main road can be crazy, with pedestrian, bicycle, scooter, motorcycle, rickshaw, car, bus and truck traffic all vying for space on a road that barely qualifies as two lanes. Right of way is yielded to whomever is bigger or bolder, and survival as a pedestrian depends upon being fleet of foot, quick of wit, and having eyes in the back of your head. In the midst of this madness are calls from every vendor to,”have a look inside, madam. Good prices.” 

This morning, we headed to the next small town to access the ATM machine, and grabbed a three-wheeled rickshaw for the 3-km. ride. Our driver was telling Stephen that tourism has been down this year, and since he only has three months to make his money driving rickshaw, it is a bit worrisome. We can only imagine the same is true for the dozens and dozens of small shops selling virtually identical stuff – your heart goes out to them all.

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This is the little psychedelic bus we drove in on from Panaji; complete with natural air-con and a rattly sound system. It’s great fun for an hour or less.

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The town is filled with all kinds of wonderment, including this colour-coordinated assortment of oddities, advertising Coca-Cola and laundry services (presumably without a washing machine – that is usually stated.)
By “wonderment”, I mean just that – we frequently find ourselves saying, “I wonder why?” or “I wonder what?” Questions that have no answers.

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Another question unanswered. Today as we were sailing by in our rickshaw, we saw this gentleman leading a cow wrapped in a saffron embroidered cloth. I missed the cow, but caught the man. At some point, we will discover the significance.

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I’m also curious about this tiny corner store. Christianity is prevalent in Goa, but this is the first time I’ve seen the Baby Jesus aligned with mercantile endeavours. And what is the significance of Frosty the Snowman?

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One of the hardest things to resist here are the spice stores. Beautiful bowls neatly heaped with the most fragrant spices – such a treat for all the senses. These are not for us to buy this time around – they simply wouldn’t last the trip for the next three months. I asked this young woman for a photo and noted that her sari matched her spices.

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And of course – on to the food. We have eaten really fresh and delicious food in Goa. Our challenge is to avoid loading up on samosas and pakoras and naan, and try to find cleaner, lighter food. One restaurant we’ve been going to a lot is called Zest – a vegetarian and vegan restaurant that has imaginative and beautifully prepared dishes.

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It will be very easy to eat mainly vegetarian food while we are in India. Our intention once we leave Goa is to avoid meat, to mitigate our chances of  contracting the dreaded “Delhi Belly”.

This plate – pakoras, raita, coriander chutney, chapati, brown rice, tomato salad, and vegetable curry – incredibly flavourful, and so reasonably priced – about $7.

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In this same restaurant there are several very striking photographs, done by local photographer Francisco de Souza  – http://www.francisco-desouza.com

Stephen took this shot of one of his photos of a young girl on a train, nicely juxtaposed with a  young woman on a computer.

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Minor annoyances so far?  All restaurants are required by the police to post No Smoking signs – an edict that is ignored by most restaurant owners and patrons. There is little to be done – it is a cultural norm that is not even close to changing. The fine is 200 rupees – about $4 – not much of a deterrent. Last night we found ourselves surrounded by smokers, literally encased in smoke. Remembering our mantra, “Just surrender”!

The other challenge so far has been the beggars – admittedly not a fraction of what we will encounter in much of India.

We have poverty in Canada and it is no less heartbreaking to see homeless people on the streets there. We give money both directly to people and to food banks and agencies – we give what we can.

In India, the scale of poverty is a whole other thing. Millions of people are doomed by birth to remain dirt poor and hungry, with little in place to help them.

It is wrenching to see a woman crouched in a ditch with her hands out. This is nothing but pure poverty and desperation and hunger and fear.

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We’ve been told so many times during our travels in Mexico and SE Asia not to hand out money, especially to children, as there are agencies who are trying to break the cycle through education. That is all good, but it doesn’t change the fact that people are suffering. It is also impossible to hand out money to everyone, so the dilemma remains. We give where we can.

There is a flip side to this.  Yesterday I watched as a tiny woman in a pink sari deliberately bumped into Kathryn.   Since Kathryn had her hand firmly on her bag, that effort went unrewarded, but it was a good reminder that we need to pay attention.

The other good reminder is not to be angry or fearful. If I was that poor, I would likely steal as well.

I’ll wrap up with a photo that has no special significance, other than I like it. This was taken on our walk from Palolem Beach along the coastline.  Still lots to explore and report back on, and so many impressions to talk about. See you again in a few days.

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