Tea tour time

14 Sep

Enjoy these snaps of my tour of tea fields last week! I’d post more, but upload times here are achingly slow and I suppose I do need to sightsee at some point. Cheers!

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I’ve moved!

9 Sep

I created a travel-only blog. From now on you’ll find my blatherings here. http://whitsnews.wordpress.com/ And you should stay in touch – I’m heading for the Himalayas this weekend, on a toy train. And via Delhi! Wish me luck.






Kerala Backwaters

8 Sep

It’s been over a week since I toured the Kerala Backwaters, and I’d be a bad vicarious traveler if I didn’t share some images. The main soundtrack when you ply these watery neighborhoods is the soggy slap-slap-slap of women smacking wet clothes on rocks. I was a bit shy to point my camera at them, so you’ll just have to use your imagination. I have video too, but that may have to wait.

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Fort Cochin fun

7 Sep

The Kathakali Cultural Center, just down the road from my place in Kochi, has all manner of temptations for a cultural novelty seeker like me. Sure, I love me some historic ruins or beautiful temples, but what I really swoon for is actual people doing actual things I’ve never actually seen before, particularly if it’s participatory and/or involves music and/or involves unusual garb. And boy does the Center deliver. There are live meditation morning ragas, followed by hatha yoga. At night there’s traditional Keralan martial arts, then Kathakali ritual dance theater, followed by traditional music and/or dance.  I’ll post pix of the ritual dancing shortly, but first a little on the music and yoga.

Rocking the raga

I caught the tail end of the morning raga. I have a thing for Indian music but know very little about it, and these poor unsuspecting musicians made the mistake of inviting questions when they were done. On the sitar, there are like 23 strings that get strummed or picked, and a bunch of bonus resonator strings. The metal frets, which arc over the wooden fingerboard, are movable. All of these strings must be retuned when you change the key.

The tabla player showed me how he makes the drum “talk,” using his fingers, palms, wrists, you name it. In fact, now that I mention it, there are a lot of names. Each little tabla riff has a name, like Ti Ra Ki Ta, and he whipped off a number of them in succession.

The River Road in Kochi (Cochin)

But I was really there for yoga, and yoga is what I got, from a Yoga Mom. She redefined “yoga gear,” appearing in typical Indian dress, wearing a pale orange embroidered long shirt and loose leggings, long scarf, all color coordinated, with a few extra pounds around her middle. She told me that her husband is her guru, and that he’s known in the area. Their three kids play instruments, husband tabla, and she sings. She took off her scarf, had me lay down, and soon we were doing Hatha yoga (I’m used to vinyassa, fyi).

First there was a series of 24 quick exhales, repeated three times: cross-legged across from me, she shouted EX-hale! EX-hale! EX-hale! EX-hale! EX-hale! EX-hale! EX-hale! Then, I relaxed again. There were leg lifts, and she told me I’m flexible (I don’t feel very flexible). Between each pose, she gave me a long rest on the floor. We did warrior pose, cobra, some that are familiar, some not (like the nostril thing), some comfortable, some not (like the nostril thing). Best of all she showed me how to do a handstand! She spotted me, but said “See? Just two fingers! You are doing it!” Then she showed me the DIY version, how to do a headstand on the wall. “You can do this in your room!” she said, and I think I will. I figure that it can’t hurt to see the world from another perspective, literally.

I walked back, passing cricket players sharing a field with goats.

It's wet here.

At the hotel, I noticed pictures of the Virgin Mary, and asked one of the owners if their family was Catholic. She explained a bit of Kochi history to me. The hotel is just a block from the Santa Cruz basilica, built originally in the 1500’s. Christians go much further back here, though, to eastern Christianity, and many can trace their ancestry back to those baptized by St. Thomas in the year 1 CE to the Syrian faith, an orthodox Christianity.

When the Portuguese came in the 1500s, they converted folks to Catholicism, often forcefully. Today the Catholics do the service in Latin on big days, Malayalam (the language of Kerala state) and Hindi on most days.

She told me that the local Catholic church is imposing rules galore now, like requiring attendance if members want certain services or rites performed. They must prove through attendance cards that they’ve been active. She says that the church depends on the laity to keep things running, this is their way of keeping people in church (though it will like wind up driving at least the younger folks away).

I told her about how the fundamentalists in the USA are pulling everyone to the right. We talk a bit about the Republicans running for president.

She’s observed that here the Muslims (who’ve been a big part of Kochi forever) seem to be suddenly flush with cash and are investing like crazy, but that “nobody knows where it comes from.” Counterfeit notes are on the rise, and might be one way, and the banks are on alert. Many of the Muslims, according to her, are getting more conservative too.

Together we wondered why things are trending rightward, and what will happen because of it.

Living the travel cliches

4 Sep

Today I lived the classic travel anecdotes that reside at the opposite ends of the spectrum of experiences available to the India traveler, and, for good measure, one that resides somewhere in the middle. The stories are familiar: tourist wanders purposefully into impoverished neighborhood (and is mobbed by lovable urchins), tourist wanders awkwardly into posh resort (and is overwhelmed by the luxury among such poverty), tourist wanders into awkward off-the-beaten-track location (and is ripped off by polite locals).

Snacks for the train ride

First, a little how-I-got-here-and-where-I-am.

I’m writing from Kumarakom, (so many K towns! Komarakom, Kollam, Kovalam, Kottayam—all in Kerala, no less) a hamlet next to a bird sanctuary and Kerala’s legendary backwaters (which I’m here to tour tomorrow). My guidebook dismisses the area as a “line of ultra-luxurious resorts…” for “wealthy metropolitan Indian tourists,” completely overlooking the village, and neighborhood where I found this dusty, dingy overpriced room in a homestay.

As my Facebook friends know (thanks to instant gratification-SMS-enabled status updates), I upgraded from missing a train stop to missing an entire train, despite having arrived on the correct platform an hour early. I’d stood for the train (on the advice of a polite young woman, who apparently couldn’t decipher the damn ticket either) in the wrong location, and by the time I’d walked the mile down the train to my car, it was moving.

My sweet seat on the train

Once I made it to Kottayam, a kind businessman named Sam helped me find my way here.  He told me he had “Seventy family members in United States,” including one who’s a professor at Howard University. He’s not interested in moving to the states himself because he owns a rubber plantation, “lots of land, family, pregnant wife, small son, I cannot move.” Yet when he applied for a 21-day US tourist visa (and paying $300 just to apply), he was turned down. This is one of many stories like this that I’ve heard on this trip. Citizens of Burma and India have a very hard time getting US tourist visas. Even Germans have a hard time—one that I talked to gave up because of the onerous amount of personal information she was asked to provide.

But I digress.

Why so many switches? Why so filthy? Why have a dial switch where there's only one speed?

After dumping my bag in my icky room (I have no idea what most of those 12 switches connected to, or why they were so dirty), I went for a bimble (thanks for the term, Kat!) past undeveloped, overgrown lots and canals. I turned left down a narrow road that ended at the lake, a major tourist attraction, to see what all the fuss was about. Small houses lined the street, some grim bare cinderblock, some painted in cheerful blues and yellows with white trim. Women in housedresses and men in lungis waved from widows and doors.

Yes, there are fish on those lines.

“Fish! Fish!” A boy pointed at a small metal spittoon-like thing, and sure enough there were about eight tiny fish inside, way too many for the size of the little jail cell they were in. Other kids with the same model fishing pole (short line, slender stick) greeted me with “Fish! Fish!” and “What is your name?” We introduced ourselves, everyone struggling with the “wh” sound in my name (this is true for adults as well).

I took a lot of photos and we giggled at the poses the kids made. They pointed at each other and said “monkey!” or “rabbit,” trying to get me to agree. They asked for pens and sweets but I had neither (mental note: always travel with pens and sweets).  Minu, a poised and gentle girl of about 13, still in her blue school uniform, spoke about six words of English, and used them all, sometimes creatively. She showed me the crucifix around her and her brother’s necks and had me sign her notebook, which also contained an essay about a wealthy businessman who found success despite poor performance in school. It was written in perfect English script by her big sister. “You send picture?” she asked repeatedly, then more assertively, “Picture, family? You.” I promised I would.

Minu, left, with her sister and mother. They all have beautiful smiles, but wouldn't flash them for the camera.

Minu walked me back down the lane, and women in saris and house dresses and men in lungis came out to take a look, and sometimes try out a phrase or two of English. A group of women in rich dark cotton prints stood in a doorway, encouraging a woman with long curly black hair peppered with white standing behind them in the shadows to speak. Finally she did. “Hello. How are you today?” I replied: “I am fine. How are you?” which brought on fits of giggles and fingers raised toward mouths.

Flexing, or posing, I'm not sure which.

My stroll brought me past Kumarakom Lake Resort, a five-star colonial style walled paradise. A guard let me in through the heavy wooden arched door-within-a-door and I was led to an elegant restaurant that was open to the beautifully landscaped grounds and a view of the lake beyond. Servers in gold-trimmed cream coasted from table to table. A plate of “typical Keralan sweets” appeared before me, and I wanted to tuck the plate under my arm like a football, break through the walls and bring the treats to the kids not a kilometer away.  Two tiny cups of tea cost me 240 rupees (the same amount and type of tea had cost me 10 rupees near the Varkala bus station earlier that day).

I’d been invited for dinner by the homestay owner, Reggie, at 8:30. He seated me on a plastic chair (done in a black metal style that was popular in suburban 1980’s USA) at a dark grey glass dining room table. Mrs. Reggie soon brought out dish after dish: first chunks of curried chicken, then a heavenly vegetable of some kind (they didn’t know what kind, and I couldn’t guess) sautéed with onion and ghee, and dal. I thought this was plenty to keep the giant plate of rice she set down before me company, but more came out: two bowls of tiny fish cooked two ways (one fried, and another in a bright yellow sauce), a spicy red thing, pappads, and plain yogurt.

Mr. and Mrs. Reggie joined me to chat (as much as our limited language skills would allow) but wouldn’t eat. She wouldn’t sit down. I asked about their kids, and soon their two daughters were standing against the wall with their mom, watching me eat, too. Grandpa poked his head out of his room a few times, as did grandma, from the kitchen.

Some new friends I met at the train station.

On the wall next to the table was a wooden inlay picture of the last supper.  Turns out Reggie and his family are Syrian Christians one of 500 families. Syrian Christians have been in the area since 51 CE, he told me. Making small talk, I asked if they sing in church. He showed me his harmonium, a sort of table top accordion.

Breakfast was blissfully free of spectators. Having both dinner and lunch included was making me feel better about the nastiness of the room. The sink hadn’t been cleaned, the walls were dirty, there was a patch of something gritty on the floor next to the bed, and the bedding (they really weren’t sheets) was iffy. The window was blocked by a wall a foot away, so it had been hard to see the dirt when I’d arrived. At 600 rupees, this was the most I’d paid for a room, and by far the nastiest. And because it was so far off the beaten track, it would have been a challenge to find another place, and I paid 600 rupees round trip to get there. Eating at the home of the owner, I could see that they didn’t live like they expected me, a tourist in a guest room, to live. I wondered: do they really think that we foreigners have such low standards?

Alas, I learned when I checked out that dinner and breakfast were not included. After grandpa asked for “a percentage” (I declined), Mrs. Reggie asked for 250 rupees for the meals (I grumbled, but paid).

Lesson learned: there’s a reason the beaten track is so well beaten. It’s okay to keep the beat.

Viva la solo traveler!

4 Sep

Being a woman on the travel-buddy prowl, I would eye every person who walked alone down the path in front of the café. I’d think “oooh, too young,” or “she looks grumpy,” or “that one could work.” But I was a little shy about chasing someone down on the street.

Though I hadn’t found someone going my way (who was also willing to tolerate me), I did made friends. We would spend many hours each day at the Rock n Roll Café talking about the contents of our backpacks/politics/travel gagetry or checking our email or Facebooking or blogging or playing board games.

Some of these people were recruited by Billy, co-owner of the cafe, who, upon hearing of my plight, decided to chat up every solo diner in the café and invite them over to our table.  I didn’t get a travel buddy in the deal, but I did learn something: solo travelers might be the most interesting people in the world.  Think about it: you know they’re independent and adventurous. Odds are good this isn’t the first independent and adventurous thing they’ve done. They’re the juicy bon bons of the traveler world. And so many are women! Here’s a sample:

  • N, who told himself that if he “made it to 50 in good health,” he’d take off traveling. And so, after selling everything save for the three plastic tubs of stuff left in his Land Rover, he bought a plane ticket. He doesn’t know when he’ll return to his home in England. He’s a stone cutter and teaches survival skills (and has a survival kit along with him, of course).
  • A, (the one from the Vipassana retreat). A lawyer back home, she told us about riding on the roof of a bus for 8 hours in the Himalayas (I promise, Mom, I won’t do that).
  • N, who was at the ashram with A (but didn’t, of course, meet or speak with her until after the 12 days), and has been a dive master in Thailand, chef and “stewardess” on luxury yachts in the Caribbean, and was training to be a yoga instructor. She’s been traveling and working abroad for six years and she’s 25 years old.
  • A, who tried on careers in archeology and pharmacy before settling on teaching, which she clearly loves, and I’m certain she excels at. She’s even more of a softie than me, buying trinkets from charming vendors to help share the tourist dollar love in this, the off-season.
  • P, a young Brit in his 20’s, who one day walked into his workplace and said, “there’s more to life than cubicles,” gave his 2-week notice and was on a plane to India three weeks later.
  • (And now, in Kochi) N, a veterinarian (who lived in Boise for a spell!), arrived in India two weeks ago for a nine-month volunteer stint at a clinic that serves street dogs in Kochi. Turns out the clinic has no staff and no supplies (such as, for example, latex gloves), and the British director of the place is difficult, to say the least. Yet N wants to stick around because “who else will help these dogs?”

I’d happily travel with most of these folks, but alas, none are going my way. I’ve posted on the major sites (India Mike, Couch Surfing, Lonely Planet), but most of the hits I’m getting are from single Indian men offering tour guide services.

Max and Billy, the cafe owners, and Nigel, another stellar solo traveler.

I think I’ll just get my socializing ya-yas with my blog and the occasional call from the US. You can call my Indian cell phone for pennies a minute via Skype, hint hint.


3 Sep

You’re told (and I’ve said) that when you travel alone, you’re seldom really alone. You meet up with folks headed to the same place, and you travel together for a bit, often making friends (or maybe just reinforcing stereotypes) for life. I traveled Central America like this, swapping out partners here and there as I moved from charming colonial city to provincial village to beach town.  Some I’m still in touch with, and I’d counted on making similar connections in India. Finding a fellow traveler lonelyheart was proving harder than I’d expected.  Every traveler  I’ve met has either already been where I want to go, or isn’t interested in traveling.

Bombay toast

Yeah. Foreigners visiting India who are not interested in travel. These are otherwise known as “health tourists” or, to use an old fashioned term, “hippies.” Mostly women, these are here for Aruvedic training or treatment, yoga teacher training or treatment, or, in the case of the hippie types, going to or coming from ashrams and/or meditation retreats. Ads for all levels of Aruvedic treatment abound in Kerala, and apparently there are plenty of ashrams, including one of the biggies, where the guru Amma , guru-izes (I’m not sure what to call it).

Not being into Aruveda or the ashrammy life, I find myself in a different India-specific affinity group.  Our group shares a common befuddlement at the apparent popularity of traveling great distances, only to stay largely within the walls of an ashram, spa or yoga center, spending time with (though not necessarily, in the case of a silent meditation, speaking to) fellow westerners. A number of us more conventional backpackers have found each other at the café, sharing tales of encounters with bright-eyed young women fresh from the ashram. There are, apparently, foreigners in India who have spent months moving from ashram to ashram, never dipping a toe into the world the rest of us visit—or live in.

One of my favorite travelers, Andrea, with a coconut vendor.

We encountered a young British lawyer who had just emerged from a 12-day silent Vipassana retreat. A lawyer in England, she’d decided, after months of solo travel, to give it a try. Her knees were aching from sitting nearly motionless for eight hours a day for ten days and she seemed unsure as to whether the retreat had brought her more peace or had stirred things up for her instead. She told us that because life is so stripped down there, so very focused on the essentials (meditation, sleeping and eating), that it’s common, once released from silence, to at first overreact to what had once seemed like life’s routine foibles.

The next night we were joined by another young woman who, after months inside, had just been kicked out of her ashram for sleeping with a guru.  She was clearly overwhelmed by even the mellow off-season café, and was perplexed as to why her pizza was taking so long. Relentlessly checking her email and Facebook account on a borrowed computer, she managed to talk on and on about her two boyfriends and answer at length her own question “what should I do?” until she had emptied the table around her.

Those of us escaping the talking ashram exile regrouped at a table in a corner. A Keralan man mentioned he’d worked at a number of ashrams. He saw many who returned time and again, in search of community they can’t—or won’t—find at home. “They go home, lonely. No friends. Come here, ashram, make friends,” he said.

My friends going through Aruvedic treatments seem far more grounded. This might be because they’re able to travel and speak as they please, and even sneak forbidden beers, cigarettes and—gasp!—eggs and bacon when they feel the urge. They even have wifi at their place and are able to communicate with their communities back home.