December/January 2003

Southern India In Three Episodes

Episode 1 - princess tour 2003 (and pharmaceutical roadshow)
greetings everyone & happy new year from india!
despite the very impressive efforts of my former back right bottom molar to keep me in chicago, i have successfully made it to sourthern india (sans tooth). i got the go-ahead from my doctor at the 11th hour (literally 24 hrs prior to my departure) and am traveling armed with an array of drugs which would make any pharmacist proud (2 big ziploc baggies full of goodies (one for prescription drugs, one for non, anal anal) like the 60 inch-long antibiotics i have promised to take 3x/day and enough vicodin to keep brett favre really happy for at least a few days).

so far, it's been great. as my brother once said, he never thought he'd use the word "quaint" to describe anything in india, but the southern part definitely qualifies. i landed in madras and immediately took off the next morning for madurai, home of the hindu sri meenkashi temple, which has 5 huge colorful towers. it gets roughly 10,000 visitors a day. the highlight was definitely my return visit in the evening to watch the ceremony where the priests and devotees carry the god vishnu to his consort's bedroom (parvati) and sing them lullabys before closing up the temple for the night (although the two statues of vishnu & parvati that people pepper w/butter balls to cool them down was a close second). afterwards, long story very very short, i had to walk back to my car barefoot thru the streets of madurai. fortunately, it was a lot less icky than you'd expect it to be!

madurai was also where i had my first ayurvedic massage (southern india is where ayurvedic medicine began). the massage experience is very interesting. very very interesting. but definitely relaxing. let's just say the ancient technique is a very, um, natural experience. today i overheard a man recounting his experience to his wife and was relieved to realize i wasn't the only one who spends part of their massage trying desperately to keep a straight face & not to giggle at the ticklish parts.

basically (i've had 3 of them in 3 days- at $20 for 60 minutes, life is okay) they grease you up so much that, by necessity, the traditional ayurvedic massage table looks more like a big wooden rimmed meat platter on legs. the rim is to keep the massive quantities of oil from going onto the floor. also no padding, just wood & some nice carving if you're lucky. they generally start you out by massaging you while you sit on a stool. and at one point they do kind of a karate chop thing all over your head.

from madurai it was on to the western ghats (i still have no idea what a ghat is, but that's what they call the area - looks to me like the word might mean land of many steep hills and curvy roads) to visit the periyar wildlife sanctuary - home of lions & elephants and boars, oh my. game watching at the sanctuary is done by boat. i went out on two trips during my two-day stay and it was great - it was really pretty & the air smelled great, really sweet & i saw two small herds of wild elephants (one had about 12 elephants, including two babies) as well as lots of boar, deer and birds. the elephants were pretty great :)

after a couple of days at a lovely resort just outside the sanctuary (thatched roofed bungalows, spice plants growing everywhere, awsome food) it was back in the car for the 3 hour drive to the southwestern part of india in the state of kerala where i am now. kerala (which means, fittingly, the land of the coconut) is a pretty laid-back place. typical of many very hot places i guess (too hot to get yourself too worked up over small things, which is definitely a great kind of place to relax).

on the 4-hr drive here, we drove thru tea & rubber plantations, which was pretty cool. also, our route was the same one that, in january, is taken by hindu pilgrims who walk 150 km from madurai to a temple south of here. barefoot. i think my driver said that the journey takes two weeks for them to complete. once they have successfully completed their pilgrimmage, they hop into heavily decorated cars and buses & go speeding back to where we came from. so our drive included lots of pilgrim sightings as well as many oncoming vehicles covered in marigold garlands & palm fronds, some even had steeples attached to their roofs.

now i'm at this chi-chi resort on the shores of vembanand lake. it is very picturesque with all kinds of wooden & thatched watercraft going by. i've got this "traditional" keralan bungalow which has an outdoor bathroom. it's kind of weird to have to lock the bathroom door once you're done using it. interestingly (well, to me, anyway) the last time i had a bathroom which was open to the elements was in nepal where a rat ate my soap during the night. well, it appears that my soap, purpose, which is vegetable-based, must be darn tasty to critters, because during when i awoke this morning, my bar of soap vanished. alrighty then.

well, i'm off to lunch (lots and lots of things w/coconut in them - surprise - as well as stupendous fruit) and then it's time for massage #4. tomorrow, my houseboat comes to pick me up at the hotel jetty (princess tour indeed) and i'll spend 24 hours crusing the backwaters (they call kerala the venice of india) seeing what there is to see.

needless to say, this has all been pretty relaxing. it's a shame my tooth had to miss it but i'm really glad that ultimately i didn't have to! the pace of my trip will pick up after the rice boat journey as i'll be doing more cities & temples than the nature/boat trip massage thing).

i hope you all are well!

Episode 2 - breakfast w/abraham

Greetings everyone from the Indian state of Karnataka! I am in the lovely (not really) city of Hassan in my hotel's "internet" area which has a very slow dial-up connection, however, you get what you pay for: 50 rupees for an hour or $1.06!

When last I left off, I was lounging in the lap of luxury at a resort on a lake on the backwaters in the state of kerala (which could be synonymous for a state of bliss). The next day my very own houseboat picked me up at the hotel's jetty for a 22 hour cruise along the backwaters. As is the custom, the houseboat had been converted from an old rice cargo boat. It had two bedrooms, two bathrooms, a little kitchen w/a hunk-y cook (eye candy is always a plus) and a dining area up front complete with a mattress-y thing on the deck right behind where the captain sat. all but the mattress-y thing were covered with a roof made of palm fronds & coconut rope & there were big windows on all sides which had big shutters made from the same & held open by bamboo poles.

For hours, we just cruised along, past villages & palm trees & people fishing (and, of course, other rice/houseboats). The food was fabulous. At night we dropped anchor and I got to hang out alone on the deck and watch the stars come out & their reflections in the water of the canal. Awesome (of course, not to spoil the image, but I was holding a burning incense-like anti-mosquito thing-y in my hands the entire time I was lying on the deck & I kept dropping the ashes and burning embers onto my t-shirt -oh the glamour of it all!) (oh, yeah, and then there is the music which seems to perpetually be broadcast over enormous loudspeakers by every Hindu temple, or at least from 6am until 10pm - I think it may be some sort of rule)

After the cruise, my amazing Keralan driver, Mr Kumar, picked me up and we were off again, this time to Cochin, capital of the Indian spice trade. There have been Jews in Cochin for something like 1600 years, and the synagogue there is a major attraction. It is, of course, conveniently and appropriately located on "Jew Street". It's easy to pick out the remaining Jews (all 14 of them) - - they are 70+ years old and whiter than white in a sea of brown indian faces.

I think some of their Jewish mother-ness over the last 1600 years must have surely influenced the other inhabitants of Kerala. I have to say that never in my life have I had more people urging me to eat more food. On the houseboat I felt like a constant source of disappointment to the cook as I tried my very best to stuff every last morsel I possibly could down my gullet. I finally told him that the only thing possibly more insulting to him than me not eating any more of his food would be me getting sick from eating too much. (okay, okay, language barrier, I do my best!) Then, at a friend's house, her mother continually plied me with sweet tea snacks until I thought I would burst. Even the chef at the Taj Hotel's restaurant kept stopping by my table to encourage me to eat more. Lord they are going to have to roll me back onto the plane to come home!

While in Cochin, I also toured my first Maharajah's palace. My big takeaway: being a Maharajah's wife was not a whole lot of fun. They seem to have spent their entire married lives confined to what is basically a very luxurious basement. It was one of those, don't call me, I'll call you kind of arrangements, with the Maharaja popping down for visits when the mood struck and the Maharani (?) not allowed upstairs at all. Lovely.

My guide for that adventure also turned out to have a husband, Abraham, who is a yogi (at least that's what I think you call someone who does nothing but teach and practise yoga? And what's a yogi doing with a name like Abraham?!). anyway, the next morning I took a private class with him which was incredible. it was really exciting when, for the first time ever, i successfully managed to balance my entire body weight on only my hands (not for much longer, though, if my eating keeps up!)

Abraham and his wife live in a lovely traditional-style house which they just built two years ago. The roof deck & yoga area face the Arabian Sea - really cool. After the class, I was invited to eat a traditional Southern Indian breakfast with their family. It's not often that I dine as a guest and use nothing but my right hand to eat with - it was delicious - chickpea curry served with puttoo, which is this kind of steamed rice & coconut log thing that you mash into a ball & eat the curry with.

Now I'm here in a part of Karnataka which is inland from Kerala. After sadly parting ways with the oh-so-patient Mr Kumar, I am now in the hands of a much more typical Indian driver. That is to say that whoever taught Mr Natraj to drive convinced him of two things: 1) the car will not move forward unless the horn is being blown (I swear I have heard two different horn sounds coming from our car, but I have yet to investigate fully) and 2) using the headlights is a horrible drain on the power system of the car and uses extra gasoline.

The car is also a more typical Indian tourist car: The Ambassador. I believe it is copied after some British car from the 50's. Suffice to say that if I banged either my head or my knee four times in the first four times I got into the car, I shudder to think of what all those tourists who are bigger than 5'2" do!

Okay, so to wrap up. I have now driven past miles and miles of scenery that looks like this: emerald green rice paddy with women in colorful saris in foreground, emerald green sugar cane in middle ground and emerald green palm trees in background. Oh, and throw in some bullock-pulled carts loaded with a 10-foot high stack of hay or a horse cart piled high with green coconuts going by.

Oh, and finally, can I just tell you that at a temple I went to in Mysore last night, I watched a troop of monkeys sliding down the marble bannister of the staircase? It was a riot & they were clearly enjoying themselves and I was tempted to join them.

Needless to say, life continues to be okay! I hope you're all well -

Final Episode - last installment:  the potty break

since arriving in karnataka 5 days ago, i have pretty much spent all of my time sitting in the car contentedly gazing out the window at rural indian life and happily tromping around temple grounds. in all, it's been approx. 22 hrs of driving during which time mr natraj (the driver with an affinity for his horn and an aversion to his headlights) and i have seemingly proven that, in a pinch, the ambassador classic can in fact double as an suv. this was particularily evident during one very interesting two hour short-cut (?) he took on our way from hassan to hospet when the "road" turned to dirt in several places and had potholes the size of me in most others.

ah, sounds glamourous you say? never fear, this chauffer-driven life definitely has its downside, as i discovered during an unpleasant episode during our 8-hour drive from hassan to hospet when i requested a pit stop. now, mind you, as an adult, needing to ask anyone, for a potty break is kind of annoying. having said person ignore your oh-so-polite request for "toilet" for THREE hours, is downright infuriating (practise yoga breathing: in thru the nose, out thru the nose, in thru the nose, out thru the nose...). before the situation could get really ugly, i pretty much forced the car over when i spied a convenient underpass that ran under a train trestle (don't ask). needless to say, on our 7 1/2 hour drive back to bangalore today, mr natraj verrry proactively identified several rest stop facilities along the way. much better...

but enough of the potty talk - the reason i've been doing so much driving is to get to some really obscure parts of india to see some stupendous 14th century ruins. first, though, it was a stop in mysore (i think it's called the sandalwood city - they make a lot of incense there & any street urchin will happily take you to see "his mother" rolling out incense sticks for a small fee). toured the maharaja's palace there - WOW. no basement living for his wives (the son of the last one still lives in the back part of the palace - apparently once a year he gets to pretend that he really is a maharaja - okey dokey.). it was definitely the epitome of palatial, even without a stick of furniture. it was gorgeous and ornate and downright huge (you gotta love a place with carved solid silver doors).

then it was on to hassan, 3 hours north to see what my guidebook says are two of the possibly finest examples of hindu architecture in india: belur & halebid. it still takes my breath away to think about them. i don't use the word exquisite lightly, but if anything deserves to be described this way, it would be the temples at belur and halebid. they are pretty much entirely covered in intricate soapstone carvings.

define intricate? how about stone bangles that freely turn on the statues' wrists? completely hollow skeleton skulls? dangling pendants? 3-D stone lace? it was incredibly gorgeous. gods, legends, everyday life were all depicted in the carvings. it was one (two?) of the most remarkable things i have ever seen - right up there with angkor wat and the taj mahal. i am so glad i made the detour!

next it was the ill-fated 8-hr drive to hospet, the jumping off point for hampi.
during the drive, we passed scores of bullock carts. indians seem to love decorating things. they paint their houses bright colors. they decorate their trucks, they paint their carts and yes, ladies & gents, they decorate their bullock's horns (i am assuming at one point someone tried to actually paint the bullock with bad results). most are just painted an ordinary blue or green. some have gold rings & tassels in addition. and then there are the ones that have incredibly intricate designs painted on them - i saw some that were yellow, green and red, polka dots, swirls, diamond patterns - awesome. although i have to admit i think my favorite was the bandana wound around the base of one's horns today, pretty much a bullock doo-rag. excellent :)

another thing we've seen a lot of is/was grain thickly spread across the roads. this is an example of a most excellent adaptation by the farmers to modern technology: quick and cheap threshing. the passing cars and trucks run over the grain (altho they don't seem too happy about it and swerve to miss as much as possible) and then the farmers & their wives sweep the whole mess back off to the side of the road & then the women sift out the grain - no wonder there are sometimes stones in the food here!

but back to hampi & hospet. i came to this part of the world based on the recommendation of my dear brother who accurately likened this world heritage site to angkor wat (and yes, michael, i did see lots & lots of monkeys. in fact, my hotel room in mysore had a sign on the windows asking me to keep them closed to keep the monkeys out :). yesterday, i spent a full 8 hours wandering the ruins with my guide. the ruins were really cool - big old decaying temples and the remains of old city buildings. lots of intricate carvings and other-worldly natural settings (again, with monkeys and parrots, too).

my guide was a lovely old man who, at first, i worried was tubercular (and, of course, i was wondering how contagious he might be...) then, after his 3rd, generous exhortation to take a nice peaceful 10-15 min stroll around the ruins by myself, i realized that he was just looking for a way to cop a cigarette break. not tubercular at all, just one heck of a smoker's cough. lovely. fortunately, it was nice to have the benefit of a guide but with time to myself to soak up the atmosphere of the ruins.

today it was the 7 1/2 hour drive back to bangalore (where every cement company seems to be vying for the title of best cement in the world) and tomorrow begins the last segment of my trip: madras (flying). this part of the trip will combine relaxation with ruins as i'm going to see an old famous temple while staying at the beach. it should be a nice end to a great trip.

i'll leave behind a world where people still farm by hand, every woman looks beautiful in her sari, a place where you can sit on a rice boat and float past villages and coconut palms, restaurants with amazing dinners for $1.87, lots of stars at night, even in the cities, and a place where elephants, monkeys and parrots roam.

and now, having achieved one of hallmarks of a good vacation, teva tan lines, i am ready to return to a world where the water is pretty much always hot, it is possible to drive without worrying about hitting a cow, there are no mosquitos in january and nematodes do not come out of the tap with the water (true, it was an outdoor one, but yuck!).

i look forward to seeing/catching up with all of you soon -
over & out - ss

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