Monday, January 30, 2012

Saying goodbye in Chennai

I have been on the edge of tears for a couple of days. It seems silly. I have only known these people for two months at the most and three weeks at the least, yet knowing they will not be with us for the rest of the trip is incredibly sad. We have become a family. Certainly dysfunctional at times, but what family isn’t?

Thinking back to December 8th when most of us met in Kathmandu for the first time, we were all strangers. It took us the first week to learn each others' names. Now that seems like it was years ago.

The great thing about these kinds of friendships is they are a clean slate so to speak. We don’t really even know each others' last names, but we know the essence of each others' personalities, what each of us is good at and what shortcomings we may have. There is a general acceptance of the highs and the lows, because we need each other and depend on each other for so many small things each day. It is a special bond — but it is fleeting.

Sure we have a facebook page and have exchanged email addresses, but a large part of our close-knit group will be going their separate ways tonight and a new group of strangers will be stepping in to fill their places so to speak. I am sad because I know that this special bond will fade soon and I guess I want to hold onto it as long as I can.

Tomorrow morning four of us veterans and three newbies will board a train for Tirupati. We leave our big blue TOURIST bus and drivers behind as well, and begin this leg of the trip on trains and jeeps. We have a big adventure ahead of us travelling off the beaten track and we are all ready for the challenge.

But all of that doesn’t make saying goodbye to the people who shared 53 days of India with us any easier. I know when I think back on each experience along the route, each temple/fort/mosque/bazaar, each meal, each journey or each night under the stars with a glass of rum in hand, I will be thinking about these special people that contributed so much to our trip thus far.

Thanks for the memories guys! We are going to miss you ...

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Madurai and Trichy and their colourful temple complexes

The locals in Madurai consider the Meenakshi temple complex to be the Taj Mahal of Southern India. It is a very large complex of Mayan style architecture (pyramids) that was first built in the first millennium, but whose present carved stone structures were originally built in the fifteenth century. Additional sculptures were added on top of the stone structures in wood and stucco in the seventeenth century.

At a glance from a distance, the temples are amazingly colourful and intricate. It took several questions to our guide to ascertain that the temples are indeed repainted and updated every twelve years and not original pigments from the 1600’s. With this new knowledge, our evaluation and appreciation of the entire complex seemed to lose its luster so to speak.

On closer inspection, the abundant sculptures covering every inch of the structures, all painted in a pastels and “brights” as I would call them, were more akin to a Disney animated movie palate than the spiritual respect that one would expect should be accorded a holy shrine. The sculptures themselves were amazingly Disney like. So much so, that I am quite sure the inspiration for many Disney characters must have originated here.

I had a hell of a time understanding our guide’s English so Google, as always, to the rescue. Here are some facts.

“The enormous temple complex is dedicated to Shiva, known here as Sundareshvara and his consort Parvati or Meenakshi. The original temple was built by Kulasekara Pandya, but the entire credit for making the temple as splendid as it is today goes to the Nayaks. The Nayaks ruled Madurai from the 16th to the 18th century and left a majestic imprint of their rule in the Meenakshi - Sundareswarar Temple.

The temple complex is within a high-walled enclosure, at the core of which are the two sanctums for meenakshi and Sundareshwara, surrounded by a number of smaller shrines and grand pillared halls. Especially impressive are the 12 gopuras. Their soaring towers rise from solid granite bases, and are covered with stucco figures of dieties, mythical animals and monsters painted in vivid colours.

(We also visited) The Thousand Pillar Mandapam is considered the 'wonder of the palace'. Actually the number of pillars count to 985 beautifully decorated columns. Each pillar is sculptured and is a monument of the Dravidan sculpture. There is a Temple Art Museum in this 1000 pillars hall where you can see icons, photographs, drawings, etc., exhibiting the 1200 years old history. There are so many other smaller and bigger mandapams in the temple.

Just outside this mandapam, towards the west, are the Musical Pillars. Each pillar when stuck produces a different musical note. The kalyana mandapa, to the south of the pillared hall, is where the marriage of Shiva and Parvati is celebrated every year during the Chitirai Festival in mid- April.”

The next day we drove a short distance to Trichy, home to the Rock Fort and Ranganathaswamy Temples. We found more of the same there, just without the guide who I couldn’t understand.

Marc and I had mixed feelings about both towns and both temple complexes. The Disney style seemed to us inappropriate for places of worship (very presumptuous of us I know, but that is how we felt), yet the structures and complexes were magnificent in their own strange Indian way. Marc read somewhere that this style of architecture (Dravidan) has been compared to an Indian style Baroque. I think we both agreed that this was an apropos description.

But we will let you make your own decisions. Here are some photos. The first batch are in Madurai,

and these are from Trichy.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

where the Bay of Bengal meets the Indian Ocean and the Arabian Sea ...

Although this was not an official stop on our trip, Al made some changes to our itinerary a couple weeks back to allow us to experience the southern most tip of India. And we are very happy he did! Cape Comorin, or as it is called in India, Kanyakumari, is the spot at the tip of India where the Bay of Bengal meets the Indian Ocean and the Arabian Sea. This spot has significant spiritual significance for Hindus and is dedicated to the goddess Devi Kenya.

After we got settled in our hotel overlooking the meeting of the three bodies of water, we joined the masses of Hindu pilgrims to visit a rocky Island a short ferry ride away which is dedicated to Swami Vivekanada. He apparently meditated on that spot in 1892 before becoming one of India’s most important religious crusaders.

The ferry ride of course was a sight to be seen. We lined up first inside a crowded hallway and then outside in the mid day sun. As we approached the rust bucket they call a ferry boat in these parts, we saw a pile of life jackets on the pavement and a sign requesting us to wear one at all times while on the boat. Any semblance of order in the line up, turned to complete chaos when there was a mad rush for the life jackets and a dash to the boat even before it was secured and ready for boarding. The added bonus was that most people were holding their life jackets with all belts dragging on the ground under everyone’s feet. Much tripping and yanking of jackets until we were all snuggly (like sardines to be exact) in our seats for the 10-minute journey.

As in all holy Hindu sites there is the added pleasantry of leaving your shoes behind before entering the temple, shrine or tomb. We are always reluctant to do so, knowing that there is no doubt we will be stepping on spit at the very least, and probably other bodily fluids at worst. But such is the custom and we must conform!

We visited the shrine and enjoyed the magnificent views before repeating the ferry experience to get us back to the mainland where even larger groups of pilgrims were visiting the temple or shopping in the many seashell and trinket stalls along the beach. After watching the sun set, Marc and I stopped at a street food stall and enjoyed a delicious onion dosa and deep fried banana with a local crowd before returning to our hotel.

At about 5:00 am next morning, the loudspeakers just outside the local Catholic Church started blaring a form of Indian sounding hymns (ending with amen so we knew it was church music!). We all found it strange that in a town holy to the Hindus and filled daily with multitudes of Hindu pilgrims, we were all forced to listen to the prayers of another religion — for about three hours. The positive side of it was that we were all up for sunrise, which was stunning. Everyone was either enjoying it from their balconies, the rooftops of their hotels or all along the shore.

We decided to walk back to the shore and share the sunrise with the pilgrims. Everyone had his or her phone in the air capturing the sun rising over the small Island shrine to Swami Vivekanada. A loud group sigh could be heard as the sun became whole and bright red just beside the shrine. It was a moment to remember.

I stopped just then to pinch myself. A reminder that I was standing on the Southern most tip of India, watching the sunrise. It is easy to forget, when you are in another town every other day or even every day, and you are so inundated with new sights, flavours and experiences, exactly where you are and how far you have come.

We have been traversing the highways and byways of India for eight weeks more or less. From this point on, we will be moving northward each day. There are two short legs of the organized India trip left and we have just booked our flight out of India to Singapore on February 24th. By that time we will officially have been “homeless” and “unplugged” for five months.

Although it has been a lifetime of experiences so far, it seems like just yesterday I was worrying about what to pack! Now I am worrying about what to get rid of (as I knew would happen!)

We waved goodbye to Cape Comorin shortly after sunrise, heading for Maduri and Trichy where Myan like temples covered in elaborate and colourful (Disney like) carvings awaited us.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

The backwaters of Kerala

So much time and so many adventures have come and gone since our day and night house boating from Alleppey located on the backwaters of Kerala. However, I would be remiss if I didn’t at least post some photos and give you at least a short rendition of our experience.

We boarded the well-equipped and beautifully appointed four-bedroom houseboat at midday. It would be our place to relax, eat beautifully home cooked meals, enjoy a game of cards and a glass of rum and coke and enjoy the incredible view. We all settled in immediately. Our cook, assistant, and boat pilot arrived shortly after us carrying sacks of vegetables, rice, fish, eggs, breads fruit and two large cakes of ice to fill the two coolers. One was for perishable food and the second one was for all of our various cold beverages.

Once we were untied and gliding through the still waters, any tension any of us was carrying dissolved. Within seconds we all sunk into our chairs to enjoy the day.

It was magical and delicious. The views were incredible all day and into the night. The food prepared in the small kitchen at the back of the boat, just kept arriving. None of us could understand how such large quantities of beautiful, colourful and aromatic dishes could possibly have been created in that small room, yet here we were in the middle of the water so it must have been true.

Between courses there was much rum and coke to drink (the drink of choice since we arrived in India), and snacks that we all brought along to share. The houseboat even stopped at a dock with shops halfway through in case we needed more food!

We tied up for the night just before sunset and our second four-bedroom boat arrived and tied up beside us. We unfortunately had the bad luck to end up on the second boat, which was not nearly as nice, but that was just for a few hours of sleep. By the crack of dawn Marc and I were back on the beautiful boat to wait for breakfast and a morning boat ride back to our waiting bus. Breakfast was as wonderful as lunch and dinner, and we were all really sorry to have to say goodbye to the backwaters of Kerala and our houseboat cruise.

It was an experience that all of us would do again in a heartbeat. Nothing like a day on the water, with nothing but beautiful scenery, cold beverages, good food, and great company to soothe the soul.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Sights smells and culture of Cochin

Cochin or Kochi was our next stop after our wonderful home stay in Wayanad. From the information we had all read about Cochin, we were all looking forward to a big Indian city with a beautiful seaside old town. What we found instead once we were dropped at our hotel was a very smelly ordinary Indian town. Our hotel was on first glance, acceptable, but very quickly we discovered that the theme of the next two days would be one smell or another.

As I have already told you, we took the opportunity the first night to get prescriptions filled and were by that time so nauseous from the smells of the open sewers in the streets that we opted to have a dinner of peanut butter sandwiches in our room. But how to do that without touching something dirty? I managed to rig up something with plastic bags and toilet paper and using Marc’s Swiss Army knife we had our sandwiches with tomatoes and carrots for dessert. Our hotel room was humid and smelly and we felt the walls closing in on us.

It was one of those nights where we asked ourselves how we ended up in such a dump? But we sucked it up, turned the fan on high, opened all of the windows and prayed that we would fall asleep quickly.

In the morning we were all taking a boat cruise which included a city tour of the Old Town of Kochi which included viewing the famous Chinese fishing nets, which are not seen anywhere outside of China, visit the historical sites in Mattancherry/Fort Kochi - Jew Town, Jewish synagogue, St. Francis church (Vasco de Gamma’s original Tomb), Santa Cruz Basilica, Dutch Palace, Fort Kochi beach.

Our boat cruise got off to a bad start and went down hill from there. Al and Anja had booked a private boat and guide for us, but when we arrived, we were told that we were part of a tour that included Indian tourists as well. Our guide would do the tour in English and Hindi. Not to worry, he was very professional, we heard him tell Anja. But in fact we could not understand his English at all so he may as well have been speaking Hindi! And he was not much of a guide at all. He simply alerted us to the things we were seeing from the boat with little explanation. He also told us that due to it being Friday, we would not be able to get into many of the sites on the tour. On top of that he seemed to be in a big rush to get us through each stop on the tour once we got off the boat.

The Chinese fishing nets were indeed a highlight and we all wished for more time and a better explanation of how it worked. Luckily there is Google so I can actually fill you in.

This fishing method was introduced by the Chinese explorer Zheng He. They were set up between 1350 and 1450. The beaches of Cochin are beautifully lined with these Chinese nets. They are locally known as Cheenavala. In Cochin, the Chinese nets are suspended in the mid air all along the coast. The nets are set up on bamboo or teak poles and are basically fixed land installations. These nets are horizontally suspended over the sea, giving an appearance of a huge hammock. For balance, these nets are counter balanced by stones tied to ropes. Each net spreads over an area of about 20 meters.

The technique of fishing by Chinese fishing nets differs from the technique of ordinary fishing nets. While fishing by Chinese fishing nets, the nets are submerged into the sea, kept for a few minutes and then raised by six fishermen. All of these six fishermen must maintain the balance while picking the net out of water.

A basket full of fish is retrieved from the net and offered for sale fresh from the sea. Across the street there are restaurants where your fresh fish can be cleaned and cooked. We didn’t manage to have a fish dinner, but it looked very inviting.

Our tour guide rushed us through this very interesting stop on the tour and we were less than pleased.

From here we were taken to a street of shops and directed to the closed Synagogue and Church. We were quickly told that there are seven Jewish families left in Kochi who look after the Synagogue. He didn’t have much more to say about the community or the history of this very unique Jewish community.

Once again Google to the rescue:

Among all the commonwealth countries of the world, the Jewish Synagogue, Kochi is the oldest existing synagogue. The prosperous Jewish trading community built it in 1568 AD. It was partially destroyed in the 1962 war. Later it was rebuilt by the Dutch. This speaks for the historical importance of the monument.

As far as the architecture of the Jewish Synagogue in Kochi is concerned, it is wrapped with painted Chinese tiles. None of these tiles resemble the other. In the mid 18th century, the clock tower was attached to the main building of the synagogue. The interior of the Jewish Synagogue at Kochi is adorned with Belgian chandeliers and grand lightings.

When I asked the guide how many Jewish families lived here in the heyday of this once vibrant community he told me 25,000 families. It seems that almost the whole Jewish community left Kochi for Israel after India’s Independence in 1949. I found that quite strange and needed a better explanation. Had they been forced out for some reason? After a bit of research I found that the reason for leaving was their fear of assimilation into greater Indian culture. This Jewish community was so entrenched in their religion and traditions that they felt their only hope of keeping their true identity was to emigrate to Israel.

Interestingly, this is probably the only significantly large Jewish community in recent history, who left a country of their own free will and not due to persecution.

I found the story very intriguing and felt that it was really too bad that the tour guides in Kochi did not know anything about a very significant part of Kochi history. I also learned from Leslie that one of the Kochi Synagogues has been reconstructed in the Israel Museum in Jerusalem and that a large number of Kochi Jews reside in the coastal city of Ashdod in Israel. I tried to find some more information on how they got there but haven’t found anything yet.

We found only a few signs of the rich Jewish past in this city. We visited the Jewish Cemetery and noticed one shop with Jewish artifacts. Other than that, it was a town full of Indian trinkets, clothing and spices.

Looking back, there was a rich history to appreciate but somehow we missed the mark in where we stayed, and the tour guide that was provided. If we had it to do over again, we would have stayed in Jew Town (I hate that term) and watched the fisherman balance their nets at our leisure. We would have chosen fish from their basket and had a fish dinner on the side of the “lake” (Actually, the body of water separating the main city of Cochin and the original town is clearly a channel, not a lake. Marc questioned why our guide continually referred to it as a lake. Our guide explained that the government of Cochin recently designated this body of water a “lake” because they thought it would be more appealing to tourists! India, you gotta love it.). We would have come on a day when the Synagogue was open, or have attended Friday night services in the oldest Synagogue in this part of the world. Next time!

There was one highlight of our stay in the new town of Cochin. It was the Indian coffee house just up the street from our smelly hotel. Crystal, who had done this trip eight years ago, remembered this coffee shop and steered us all there. The place was buzzing with locals. They served inexpensive local fare that was amazingly good. Coffee was strong and sweet and the dosas to die for. We had several meals there, served by men in turbans. The very local experience took our minds off the smelly streets below.

On our last night in Cochin we attended a Kathakali performance. Google to the rescue again to give you some background.

Kathakali is one of the oldest theatre forms in the world which originated in this area of India. Kathakali is a group presentation, in which dancers take various roles in performances traditionally based on themes from Hindu mythology, especially the two epics, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata.

One of the most interesting aspects of Kathakali is its elaborate make-up which we were allowed to watch been applied.

The technique of Kathakali includes a highly developed language of gesture, through which the artist can convey whole sentences and stories. The body movements and footwork are very rigorous. To attain the high degree of flexibility and muscle control required for this art, a Kathakali dancer undergoes a strenuous course of training, and special periods of body massage.

The extraordinary costumes and make-up serve to raise the participants above the level of mere mortals, so that they may transport the audience to a world of wonders.

The next morning be boarded our blue bus for a short ride to the ferry dock where we picked up our houseboat for an amazingly pleasant trip down the backwaters of Kerala.

More on that later!

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Coffee plantations, mountain tops, houseboats and beaches

Things have gotten out of order somehow, and days go by and I realize that significant experiences have been left out. Like our home stay experience in Wayanad (with an amazing hike up the second highest mountain in Kerala) and our houseboat down the backwaters of Kerala from Alleppey.

We find ourselves now in the beach town of Varkala where we are staying for three days and there is simply no excuse for not catching up except sheer laziness.

Today we spent the morning on the beach and even took two swims in the Arabian Sea, paid for an umbrella on the beach and really enjoyed the sun and surf. We managed to do two shifts (morning and afternoon) of laundry by hand and marveled at how quickly clothes air dry on an outdoor line in the amazing warm temperatures we are enjoying in Southern India. Tonight we chose a beautiful red snapper from the abundant cart of fresh fish outside our favourite restaurant, and had them prepare it for us in garlic and lemon butter. We both commented more than once today that we could get used to this!

This is the first time we have been anywhere for three days in our almost eight weeks in India. The idea that we still have another full day and night here has made us all a bit giddy. And what a beautiful spot it is. All of the hotels, shops and restaurants are situated on a cliff with several sets of steps leading down to the gorgeous white sand beach below. No one bothers you there except the sun lounge and umbrella boys. Amazingly, all of the hawkers of wares you don’t need are too lazy to take the steps down to the beach, so you are really able to enjoy the pristine beach and the amazingly warm salty water.

Aside from enjoying ourselves, and relaxing, we are also realizing that the organized part of our trip will soon be over and we will have to start giving some serious thought to our next adventure. There are many ideas afloat which all require research and planning which, at this point, seems quite overwhelming to me. So even though I have been procrastinating about catching up with blogging, I much prefer chatting with you than spending my time doing Google searches for flights or accommodations.

So let’s start with our home stay.

Home stays in India are sort of like bed and breakfasts in our part of the world. Except better. It is a chance to get to know a family, have them cook fantastic meals for you and take you on tours of their coffee plantations (or whatever other activities they are involved in). The accommodations are luxury from an Indian perspective and the experience is amazing. Maybe they are not all like this, but our group was divided between three different home stays in Wayanad and we all had similarly memorable experiences.

In addition to the home stay experience; the area offered a number of optional activities that were enjoyed by all. Marc and I took two hikes that tested our "out of shape" bodies, and reminded us how much we enjoy the outdoors — and a challenge! The first hike was to two beautiful waterfalls. We got started late-ish in the afternoon, so we had to keep up a good pace to get both waterfalls in before nightfall. The walk proved to be a challenge, due to the heat of the day, the steep down hill climb and the hoards of Indian tourists with the same idea. As I described in an earlier post about the Indians accompanying us to the other side of the river in Hampi, they seem to have a habit of swarming and have no problem pushing and shoving even if falling off the side of a cliff into a rushing waterfall may be the final result. Add to this the fact that they were all very excited to see a group of white people, and you have complete mayhem!

We made it to both waterfalls and up the steep incline before nightfall all in one piece, and had time to shower and clean up before dinner. Those of us not interested in  hiking were treated to a tour of the coffee plantations and a description of the process of picking, drying, husking, grading and selling of coffee. All of us were treated to taste of steaming homegrown coffee as well as a delicious home cooked meal.

The next morning a small group of us set out to climb the second highest peak in Kerala, a mountain called Chesma, which stands at 2100 meters. Our portion of the climb was about 1000 meters, which traversed seven peaks to hit the top. Most of the climb was straight up, and, combined with the heat, was indeed a challenge. Reaching the top and taking in the 365 degree view was worth every drop of sweat and every sore muscle. Marc and I took it very slowly as he had been ill just 24 hours before, but I knew that the outdoors is always the best medicine for anything that ails us and it was in fact the case. I was pretty stiff the next morning, but Marc was feeling great!

This hike took us through tea plantations, down to a heart shaped lake, and up seven rolling peaks covered in green foliage. The sky was perfectly blue and the air clean and fresh. The difficulty of the trek kept most other tourists (foreign and local) out of our way so we were able to appreciate the solitude of this very special spot.

As we traverse the subcontinent of India we are finding that this is a country of many colours, flavours, aromas, and experiences. Some that suit us and some that rub us the wrong way, some that irk us and some that leave us awe struck wanting more. We can see at this point that it would take a lifetime to experience it all, and 82 days is just a drop in the bucket.

We left the comfort of our homestay the next morning for Cochin which proved to be another type of experience altogether.

But that my friends is a tale for another post!

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Customer service Indian style

At first glance, it would seem impossible to get anything done here. But in fact, the opposite is the case in many instances. You simply need to know how it is done. Firstly you need to know how to obtain the information you need. If you learn the formula, almost anything is possible.

When we hit Cochin, which is a city with a population of 6.5 million, we knew we had a chance to get a few things done. There was a prescription to fill and Marc’s Blackberry needed servicing. In Vancouver, the prescription would have entailed an appointment with a doctor, the writing of a prescription, drop off at a pharmacy and pick up later in the day. In India, filling a prescription is as simple as writing the name of the drug and the dosage on a piece of paper, jumping in a tuk tuk to the nearest hospital (they seem to be as prevalent as Starbucks in North America!), standing in line at one of the many pharmacies at the entrance of the hospital and voila — mission accomplished.

Servicing a Blackberry may have seemed to be a much more difficult mission, but this where India shines.

While in North America, customer service has all but disappeared, due to our desire to shop without being bothered by sales people, In India the shopping experience is quite different. Storefronts are just that. A man or a woman standing at a counter with all of their goods crammed into a long narrow shop behind them. You have no idea what they have back there so you have to ask. Miraculously, if you hit the right store that seems like it may have the type of item you need, almost always they have what you want — or they will point you in the right direction.

And so the tale of replacing Marc’s Blackberry trackball begins.

We stopped in a mobile phone store (seems like a good start) to ask if they serviced Blackberrys. All three men gave us the Indian head wobble and said we needed to go to Broadway Street and see Road Mobile next to the Star theatre. They wrote it all down on a piece of paper with a phone number. We explained that we don’t have a phone so the phone number would not help us. Marc also showed them what the problem was, which led to several more head wobbles and a verification that Road Mobile would be able to help. One of them called the shop for us and explained that it was too late that day, because the shop was closed, but the next day the shop was open at 10:00 am.

The next thing you need to know about shopping in India is that the tuk tuk drivers are a huge source of information. When in doubt ask a tuk tuk driver. We had no address, but a name of a shop in a busy city and a landmark — the Star Theatre. The tuk tuk driver got us to the theatre. Then we needed to find another mobile phone store to ask again about Road Mobile. Luckily there are also mobile phone shops on every corner so we found one near the theatre and asked. They had not heard of Road Mobile, but they knew of a Blackberry service shop in the building across the street. We climbed the stairs and found a Law bookshop and many other shops, but couldn’t find Road Mobile. One more question and we were directed around the corner on the same floor where a large sign reading ROSE MOBILE alerted us to the fact that we had made it! Road, Rose, close enough!

When we peered into the door of Rose Mobile, we found a young man in a very small blue office sitting at an IKEA type desk covered in phone parts. “I think you can help me!” Marc said to the Blackberry repair specialist as he viewed his work-table, and began explaining his dilemma. Our astute Blackberry specialist assured Marc it could be fixed. The trackball needed replacing and he had the part. “How long will it take?” Marc asked apprehensively. “Five minutes” he answered with the obligatory head wobble, “have seat”. They negotiated a price and within literally seconds, Marc’s Blackberry was apart, cleaned, and new roller ball installed. Another minute or two and it was powered up, and good as new.

I shook his hand and let him know that he had made my husband a happy man in just five minutes! He was absolutely beaming, so pleased to have been of service.

I think you will all agree that trying to repair a four-year old Blackberry in North America would have been all but impossible. We probably would have been advised to buy a new phone rather than send it away to be fixed. They would have told us, I am sure, that they would not be responsible for loss of data and there would have been no guarantee. The price would have been hundreds of dollars in parts and labour, and Marc would have been without his phone for days while they waited for a part.

But not in India.

A 40 cent tuk tuk ride and a $17 charge, a five minute wait and a friendly head wobble.

The prescription by the way was another 40 cent tuk tuk ride and a $6 charge for months of medication. No waiting and a friendly head wobble.

Got to love it!

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Hanging in Hampi

It has been, I guess, a week or more since my last post. We left off in Goa at a beautiful beach town enjoying the solitude. From there we had a long driving day to Hampi, which proved to be another highlight of the trip. Hampi is one of those towns split in two by a river. On one side you have the small tourist town where we stayed, and on the other side a bustling small local town on the edge of a large site of active Hindi temples as well as ancient ruins. The ruins cover so large an area that we were all piled into tuk tuks to navigate through the temples and palaces. We had a very knowledgeable guide whose English was very good. In the time we had, we could only cover a fraction of the ruins, but we made the best of it and opted to continue with the guide for an additional couple of hours after a very nice lunch at a restaurant called the Mango Tree. It is situated on the cliff overlooking the river with tiered seeting allowing all its customers to enjoy beautiful views of the river, rice paddies, and the amazing rock formations that make Hampi one of the loveliest locations we have visited in India. Lunches there are served on a huge banana leaf and, of course, there are mango lassis on the menu!

As it happened, the day of our tour of the ruins was a festival day and we were able to watch the locals bringing their sacrifices (coconuts) to the temple, crack them open and spill the coconut milk over the alter, either to make their wishes or to be thankful for receiving them. The local elephant (The Elephant God Ganesh is very important!) all painted for the occasion was accepting 10 rupee notes in her trunk in return for her blessing, which was a pat on your head with her trunk. The locals have revered this particular elephant who lives in luxury at the temple in her own quarters, and I guess has been performing this trick for 20 years or more. She was very good at it and it really seemed to be performed with love. Although the elephant did not bless us, we did watch many of our group as well as many locals take part and it was actually quite a nice experience to observe it. There were times when a whole group stood together and she let her trunk cover all of their heads at one time. We were not allowed to bring our cameras in, so unfortunately I don’t have any photos, but it was a special experience that I wanted to share with you in words at least.

Getting to the other side of the water was also an experience, exacerbated by the fact that this was a festival day.

We met at the water’s edge at 8:00 to board some kind of boat to take us to the other side, which was only a four or five minute ride. When we arrived there were hoards of locals with the same idea waiting to board boats and hoards on the other side watching the elephant (the one I was just describing) being washed in the river. A bit of a madhouse in a semi dangerous situation. Hundreds of people. Small rickety boats. Overcrowding. Everyone in a hurry to see the Elephant. You get the picture.

When we were directed to walk onto a small boat already full of people, we all took a look at the boat, the water and the distance and did the mental calculation that we could always swim if we capsized. Everyone was uneasy but we boarded the slightly oversized rowboat with an engine, all standing, and closed our eyes and hoped for the best. When we made it to the other side (phew), there were other hurdles to get past. Indians are not the best for patiently waiting to exit the boat in an orderly fashion. We almost capsized at the edge of the river due to everyone seated standing up at the very same moment.

Then we had to walk through water on slippery rocks being pushed and shoved by the locals, and then negotiate a seven-inch stretch of pavement (sort of like walking a tight rope with a hundred people) to actually get to the grass bank. There, of course , the rest of the crowd was either watching the elephant, or involved in a bathing ritual (including one man with his finger down his throat clearing his system through induced vomiting!) or just standing in the way so that we could not get past.

All part of the Indian experience!

The tourist side of Hampi was a real treat. Very small and intimate. One street of small hotels and eateries, and as Israelis have made their mark here as well, most signage in the town appears in English and Hebrew. All menus have at least one page of Israeli fare, and comforting signs in Hebrew alert you to the spots with cooking as good as your mother in Israel cooks for you! Great marketing I must say!

As it happens, we ended up in Hampi and Pushkar (the two towns on our tour thus far frequented by Israelis) on Friday night. In both locations, there is a Chabad house and if we were so inclined we would have had a Friday night service to attend! We did not partake, but were happy to hear the familiar sounds of the welcoming of the Sabbath in both locations.

Many of the restaurants in Hampi offer movie viewing as part of the evening’s entertainment. The Big Lebowski was playing at a restaurant close to our guest –house so four of us had dinner there and watched the “Dude” on a huge screen in this small tourist town. Next door a large group of Jews from all over the world welcomed the Sabbath singing softly behind the vulgar language of the movie we were watching. Quite the juxtaposition indeed!

Another special delight in Hampi are the two German Bakeries and the real coffee to go with the best baked goods we have seen thus far in India. Nothing like a nice cappuccino and a cinnamon roll or slice of chocolate banana pie to smooth out the rough edges.

And then there is the setting. Hampi is nestled amongst fields of rolling terraced rice paddies. We walked out through the paddies at sunset, watching a woman bent to the knees harvesting rice. The work that goes into a simple bowl of rice is staggering. Makes you appreciate everything much more when you see what goes into making it ready for your dinner table.

We left Hampi wanting for more, just as we had felt leaving Goa. Southern India has been amazing so far and we haven’t even hit Kerala yet!