Wednesday, February 18, 2009

India 6: Cochin

From Calicut, we took yet another too-early-morning train down the Malabar coast to Cochin, tourist capital of Kerala.

Fort Cochin is the old city It's a very walkable area full of old European buildings. The chaos of urban India is minimized . The whole place is extremely touristy and packed with Westerners; most businesses here cater to foreign tourists.

Across the harbor lies Ernakulam, the true modern heart of the city. Ernakulam is far more Indian than Fort Cochin (which at times seems almost a foreigners' sanctuary).

Beautiful old church in Fort Cochin. A visit inside reveals the diversity of European influences Cochin has received; the church was built by the Portuguese, but the inscriptions on many graves are in Dutch, and of course control of Cochin eventually passed to the British.

The Jain temple, and scenes from the daily pigeon feeding. Jains believe it's sinful to harm any living thing (this is why their religion does not permit them to become farmers) and helping animals is a way to accumulate merit. In Mumbai there's a Jain animal sanctuary that we didn't get to, but our guide book makes it sound almost like a petting zoo, with very well-cared-for animals.

I'm almost ashamed to say that barely a week later, in Cairo, I tried pigeon meat for the first time. The Jains would not have approved. (But they also would have disapproved of the fish I ate in Cochin, and of the mutton I ate in Mumbai.)

Cochin is near the geographical heart of Kathakali dance, and it is extremely easy for tourists to find local performances. A proper Kathakali performance is an all-night affair; most newbies perfer to see abridged performances that tend to run about 90 minutes. I saw one such performance at Northern Virginia Community College in the States a few years ago, and I saw my second in Fort Cochin.

Before the performance, the actors spend an hour applying their intricate makeup in full view of the audience. Then we had a local expert give us a short talk on the ways and customs of kathakali, and had one of the actors demonstrate the subtle facial expressions and sign language used. The actors do not speak out loud - they communicate through sign language while guys off to the side sing their lines.

I didn't take any still pictures of the performance because of the ban on flash photography (which many of my fellow audience members brazenly ignored), but I made a minute-long video:, which I would upload but apparently uploading a 100-megabyte video on blogger takes approximately forever.

Another attraction of the Cochin area is the substantial backwaters. Peaceful yet touristy, motorboats and rowboats ply the lakes and canals.

We signed up for a two-part tour. In the morning, we took a motorboat around a vast lake, at one point stopping to visit a factory where toddy is made from palm coconuts. (Although we had the option of buying some juice, there was no aggressive selling - this was a legit and on-the-level tour.)

We got a decent thali lunch on the motorboat, then switched to hand-rowed boats for the afternoon, when we traveled through rural canals and saw rope-making and coconut harvesting.

On our last evening in Cochin we went to the Shiva temple in Ernakulam to witness some temple festivities.

There were crowds, music, and elephant processionals. If we'd wanted to stay into the evening we could have seen a full performance of kathakali, but neither of us really felt up to it.

The next day we departed on our 26-hour train ride to Mumbai...

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

India 5: Calicut aka Kozhikode

From Wayanad, we took the bus to Calicut, which is more properly spelled Kozhikode. You have the rules of Malayalam romanization to thank for that - I understand the zh is pronounced somewhat like an English r, for example.

On our way there our bus passed a demonstration of some kind in a Keralan city:

I still don't know what that was all about, but massive demonstrations are nothing unusual in Kerala. The state is heavily politicized. Demographically, Kerala is much more Christian than India at large. Kerala is also much more Muslim than India at large. And Kerala has a long tradition of far left-wing politics, including outright Communism.

Marx, Engels, Lenin, Stalin, Castro, Che, Mao - all their faces are common sights on political posters in Kerala. The hammer & sickle logo is stenciled on walls and sidewalks in the cities.

One time I saw a political poster from a bus window that appeared to show Saddam Hussein (as he looked at his trial, after he was overthrown). At first I was highly confused, but then I convinced myself that it wasn't Saddam at all, but rather just a local politician who happened to resemble Saddam.

A couple of days later I read in a local paper that some Communist posters in Kerala really had appropriated Saddam's image, using the logic that because he opposed the U.S., he was a friend of the Communists. (This is, of course, silly. Saddam was not at all supportive of the Communist Party in Iraq, and during the later years of the Cold War he was cozier with the U.S. than he was with the Soviets.) So that really was Saddam's picture I saw; at least plenty of Indians were just as puzzled by his presence as I was.

Calicut turned out to be a pleasant little city that I wish we'd scheduled more time for.

We explored the old Muslim neighborhood, which contains several nice old mosques. As a non-Muslim woman, Jenna wasn't permitted to enter these mosques and I didn't particularly feel like leaving her behind, so we just admired them from the outside.

This extended family invited us into their sprawling home for a chat and some Tang.

The large market in central Calicut, which sells all kinds of goods, particularly textiles and other clothing.

As I've said, Calicut is one city I feel we could have scheduled more time for, although most of my regrets are food-related. Calicut's got close economic and cultural ties with the Gulf states and apparently there is a tasty fusion-type cuisine you can get here. Calicut's also known for its locally made halwa, which is one of many Indian sweets I never got around to trying in India.

India 4: Kannur and Wayanad

We had great fun waking up at two in the morning in Udupi to catch our three o'clock train to Kannur. It was even greater fun when we arrived at the train station only to find out that the train had been delayed to four o'clock. Then five o'clock.

We boarded the train shortly after 5, took a nap, and arrived at Kannur's train station at around 10 to meet the guy who'd been dispatched from the homestay to meet us. He took us to Costa Malabari, an excellent beachfront homestay a short drive outside of Kannur that we strongly recommend.

The beach is wonderful, guests are given huge portions of Keralan food, and the owner is knowledgeable about the local religious dance form known as theyyam.

Theyyam is an all-night affair, consisting of a heavily made-up dancer (distinct from kathakali dance, but still rather reminiscent of it) who gets possessed by spirits and dances himself into a frenzy. Our host kept himself informed on the local theyyam scene, and let us know that we'd be able to see one local theyyam performance reach its apex if we took a rickshaw to the place just before dawn.

So we woke up early, a rickshaw was summoned, and we traveled to a temple where a sizable crowd had already gathered. Amid drums, a dancer jumped about and got up on stilts. Another dancer in awe-inspiring makeup had torches - real, flaming torches - stuck in his chestpiece, and he rushed about, bringing his torches alarmingly close to the spectators, who cheerfully reached out their hands to feel the flames.

And then the sun was up. All in all, a worthwhile experience.

That day we left the Malabar coast for Wayanad, a highland inland area of Kerala.

I snapped a couple of pictures from our bus. This is what urban Kerala looks like, everyone.

In Wayanad we stayed at Varnam Homestay, another homestay I highly recommend. Friendly management, good food, and a friendly dog.

His name is Jimmy and he is very very very very very happy when guests are friendly to him. And at night he helpfully barks when wild boars are passing through.

From Varnam we went on a morning tour of Tholpetty Wildlife Sanctuary. The sanctuary's main attraction is its elephants. We saw three - one on the way to the sanctuary, and two within it. I did not get a good picture of any of them (you ever try to get close to a wild elephant? You better be able to run fast) but I did get some decent monkey shots.

These monkeys are langurs - a different species from the macaques who are so common in Indian towns and villages. Other wildlife in the sanctuary include peacocks, deer, and tigers - we didn't see any of the last, but our guide pointed out footprints.

After our successful little safari outing, we wandered through the rural fields near our homestay.

A little group of village children on their way home from school stopped on a path to try out their English on us. These are elementary-school children who live in a farming village in a developing country, far away from any major city. And do you know what I noticed, and remembered?

At least one of them had a cell phone. Maybe they all did.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

India 3: Udupi & Mangalore

From Hampi, we took another sleeper train back to Bangalore, then transferred to a long-distance bus that took us to Mangalore. The bus was the most comfortable that we ever took in India (good thing, too, as we were on it for a very long time) and we stopped twice at roadside food joints that served remarkably good vada, dosa, and coffee. In Mangalore we transferred to a rather less luxurious bus to travel up the coast to Udupi.

We found bus terminals in India to be surprisingly confusing and difficult. There's astonishingly little English signage for a country where it's the national language (and there wasn't much Hindi, either - how exactly do Indians from other parts of the country cope?) and, particularly at Bangalore, it was never quite clear where we were suppposed to be waiting. Asking locals for help, even ones in official-looking uniforms, yielded confusing and contradictory responses. We always ended up on the right bus in the end, but only after much worry and confusion. When we caught a bus from Cairo to Aswan in Egypt, the terminal was a model of clarity by comparison.

In Udupi, we set ourselves up at the first hotel we saw after getting off the bus. That's the view from our window above.

Udupi is a very pleasant little city. It's best known for its temple, which is internationally famous; we saw a number of foreign-looking worshippers on our tour. It's also well-known for the local cuisine; the masala dosa is said to have been invented by local inkeepers to feed hungry pilgrims visiting the temple.

We arrived in time to see a temple festival, when a decked-out ceremonial chariot was pushed and pulled around the ring road that circles the temple. There were fireworks and drums, and the best explanation we heard was that the festival was held to honor a generous local donor.

After a full day in Udupi we took a day trip back down to Mangalore to give the city a more thorough investigation.

This is Milagres Church, which is said to date from 1680, although frankly its facade doesn't look nearly that old. I don't know if that means it's extremely well-maintained, or if it's been recently redone.

The chapel at St. Aloysius College. The interior is decorated with beautiful 19th-century religious painting. I believe the Portuguese are to thank for the heavy Catholic presence along this section of the west coast.

There's quite a mix of cultures in this part of India that I wish I'd been more cognizant of when I was there. The Udupi-Mangalore area has its own language, Tulu, which despite being closely related to Kannada is still quite distinct. There is a distinct local form of spirit worship called Bhuta Kola, which I didn't know anything about until after I'd left the region.

And in more modern cultural-clash news, a major domestic scandal broke in Mangalore the day before we explored the city. A local gang of fundamentalist Hindu thugs heard there was nude dancing and other immoral behavior going on in a bar, so they comandeered the place and physically roughed up several women drinking there. In the following days the local media was full of outrage at the incident, with many Indians decrying the rise of "Talibanization" in the country.

Right-wing Hindu groups are nothing new in India (they're quite active in Mumbai politics) but physical intimidation of innocent people is obviously not the way to generate good publicity.

India 2: Hampi

Our overnight train from Bangalore took us to Hampi, where we spent the next couple of days.

Five hundred years ago, Vijayanagar was a major power in South Asia. The city ruled most of southern India and became the center of Hindu civilization after the bulk of northern India became dominated by Islam. In 1565, Vijayanagar was defeated and sacked by enemy troops. The city was abandoned, and every wood and mud building was left to rot.

What remains are the ruins of stone temples, strewn over several square kilometers of rocky plain. The nearby village of Hampi caters to the many tourists who visit. (Seriously - Hampi's economy seems to be entirely tourism-based.)

Although Hampi consists mostly of guesthouses and shops catering to tourists, it also contains Virupaksha Temple, which is of some interest.

Those are cattle in front of the temple entrance. My first authentic Indian wandering cattle.

A macaque hanging out at the temple. In the late afternoon, monkeys become very active in Hampi, foraging for food and comically falling out of trees.

That's the temple elephant. If you put a rupee in her trunk, she blesses you by thwunking you on the head. I gave her a banana. She gulped it down and then began sniffing my bag (which had more bananas). I quickly made distance between her and me before she could investigate further.

Once you leave the town of Hampi proper, you find yourself in an arid, rocky landscape full of temples and rocky ruins.

You cannot see everything there is to see in one day. You can spend several days wandering the area to take it all in.

On our last day in Hampi, we crossed the Tungabhadra River by coracle to see the Hanuman Temple on the north bank. The temple is located on top of a large hill; you have to climb about 500 steps to reach the top. Once you reach the summit, you find some spectacular views to share with the handful of other backpackers who also made the climb.

Afterwards we re-crossed the river by coracle near the town of Anegundi. The two of us shared the tiny coracle with three men and their motorbikes. It did not appear to be a terribly safe situation at first but we (somehow!) crossed the river without sinking.

We crossed just adjacent to a bridge, under construction, that was to span the river (and possibly put the coracle operators out of business!).

Later that day, as we were preparing to leave the Hampi area, we heard of a bridge collapse in the area. We figured it probably wasn't the unfinished bridge we saw (the time frame seemed too restricted), but this story in The Hindu seems to confirm that it was, indeed, that same bridge. It must have happened minutes after we left the scene.

We were never in danger; we would not have been hurt even if we'd witnessed the collapse. But we were so close to it.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

India 1: Bangalore

On January 18, we flew Tiger Air from Singapore to Bangalore. This was my first-ever trip to India, and I excitedly waited for all of my preconceptions to be either shattered or confirmed.

We arrived at Bangalore's spiffy new airport late at night, went through immigration and security (the first time I'd ever had to go through security after a flight) and soon ourselves in the van of a guy who offered to take us to MG road downtown for 1,200 rupees. Which is about twice what the guy we asked at the airport said it should have cost. Jenna (an old India hand) objected, we removed our luggage from the van, and walked away. The guy didn't even try to haggle with us. Amazing.

We took a cab with a meter (the fare came to around 600 rupees) and arrived at the hotel sometime after midnight. All eating establishments in the area were closed, so we lived with our hunger until the following morning, when I had my Official First Authentic Meal in India in our hotel restaurant. I recall it was idli and masala dosa, and it was delicious.

For a fairly well-known city, Bangalore isn't terribly high on anyone's list of tourist destinations. MG road, where our hotel is located, and Cubbon Park form the focal point of the central city, which is where Jenna and I spent the bulk of the day wandering about on various errands. I'd briefly been introduced to a few other large cities in developing countries (Cebu, Philippines and Padang, Indonesia) so I was not completely put off by the glorious mess of central Bangalore's traffic. I saw neither cattle nor monkeys yet, but the streets were full of rickshaws and motorbikes.

This is MG Road. That's an elevated rail line being built above the road. Good thing, too - one thing Bangalore could use is more mass transit.

That evening we met Jenna's friend Hemant at Pecos, a bar near MG Road that served the following range of alcoholic drinks, in full:

- Kingfisher by the bottle
- Kingfisher on tap

Pecos also serves an impressive range of food, including a surprisingly large number of beef dishes.

Hemant took us to a nearby restaurant that serves Hyderabad-style biryani dishes. I wasn't terribly hungry when I entered the restaurant - I'd been snacking all day - and I was worried I'd end up picking at my food. I need not have worried. I ended up gobbling mutton biryani so good I spent the next few days wondering when I'd get to go to Hyderabad so I could have more of it. (And I never order the biryani when I'm at an Indian restaurant outside of India.)

We left Bangalore that evening on a sleeper train for Hampi...