Archive for December, 2010

South Tour: Kochi – Calculating the improbability of this event is pointless

December 31, 2010

4 Dec

KOCHI TO MADGAON: This morning, we went to a Dutch Palace in Kochi.

There were foreigners inside.

Young foreigners.

Young foreigners with familiar faces.

Other Rotary Youth Exchange students.

Jaws dropped, lips began moving, and soon the palace was so abub with conversation that the staff told us several times to quiet down. We’d run into a group of exchange students from Gujarat who were on a tour of South India of their own, although theirs had just begun. Three of their number – Oona, Mary and Lila – had traveled with Olivia [Michigan, USA] and me into Mumbai, and several of us from the Central States conference in Grand Rapids were reunited.

The ten minutes our two groups shared passed by much too quickly. We had time to introduce ourselves, we were able to meet some fellow countrymen, and some business cards were exchanged. But as we split into two groups while boarding our respective buses, our meeting felt woefully incomplete.

I can’t tell you a single thing about that Dutch Palace. Whatever was remarkable about it got quite lost in the moment. It’s not surprising that another group of Rotary students would tour South India, and as this is the best time of year to visit Kerala, you could hardly be shocked the group was touring this time of year. But it’s still extraordinary that we met at all.

Calculating the improbability of our encounter is pointless – the way our faces lit up when we saw each other said it all.

Just fifteen minutes before, I’d visited a church for the first times since coming to India. St. Francis church doesn’t look like much on the outside, but at nearly 500 years old, it’s one of the oldest churches in India. The church was one of those places where quietness and piety overtake you, like the meditation room in Kanyakumari where I’d escaped the paparazzi the day before. For the first time in India, I sat down in a pew and prayed.

When I walked outside, I noticed the sun was shining after a week of rain.

It was a nice moment.


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South Tour: Trivandrum, Kanyakumari, Kovalum and Kochi – Kan-ya sea the paparazzi?

December 30, 2010

3 Dec

KOCHI: Sometimes, it seems like all of South India is just one big suburb.

There’s no apparent hub city from which all of these towns emanate, but it’s been impossible to go more than half a kilometer in this part of India without finding pockets of human life. I first noticed this on Tuesday (30 Nov), as we traveled from the backwaters of Alleppy to the southernmost town in India – Kanyakumari. As I looked out the window after the sun had set, I kept expecting the city lights to give way to darkness and the bustle of city life to disappear, but that never happened.

I can’t complain about the quality of the roads we drove on that day so much as the traffic that covered it. Our 80 kilometer journey down a two-lane national highway took about five hours to complete. I can ride my one-speed bike around Champaign more quickly than our 27-seater drove us through Kerala and Tamil Nadu. The highways, rather than weaving around the cities, cut through them, doing little to ease the heavy congestion.

I don’t think I’ve ever appreciated the American interstate system as much as I do now.

In most cities on this tour, foreigners have not been hard to come by. Compared to Nagpur, Indore, and the other cities in which we’re being hosted, the sites we’ve visited have catered to tourists with ease. In general, the people by the temples, zoos, museums and palaces we’ve visited have all seemed comfortable in the presence of non-Indians.

Not so in Kanyakumari.

I’ve gotten very used to being stared at in India. As awkward as staring seems, it’s nothing more than looking. The initial unease I felt from the looks I’ve gotten everyday has disappeared. With other exchange students, the looks are distributed evenly, although we attract slightly more attention than we would alone.

The problems really begin when people start taking pictures of us.

Kanyakumari is the only place in India from which the Arabian Sea, the Indian Ocean, and the Bay of Bengal can be viewed simultaneously. On clear days, Sri Lanka can be seen far off in the distance. Although the beaches are little more than walls of rocks, they’re great places from which to catch panoramic views. Ferries took us to three small islands south of the coast, which featured majestic seaside temples and statues. Naturally, many cameras were out, poised to take pictures of the surroundings.

Except were these cameras really taking pictures of the three seas? We were witness to several 360° videos that seemed to point towards us much longer than they were pointed at the sea. Cell phone cameras would be aimed just over our shoulders until thumbs clicked down on them – just as they swiveled in our direction. Most often people would just point and click without making any effort to be inconspicuous.

I looked behind us a few times, the optimist in me guessing we were blocking the views those pictures were trying to capture. Most often though, that was not the case – rocks, barricades and other people usually made up the backgrounds of pictures stolen of us. Only once do I think permission to take our picture was asked. Cameras would be poised as people stood in groups whispering to each other. Staring at us. Pointing at us. Laughing at us.

I think I can be forgiven for loudly singing Lady Gaga’s Paparazzi, although I doubt many of the picture-takers recognized the song. We devised several ways of dealing with our own paparazzi. Sometimes looking them straight in the eye would be enough for them to become flustered and turn the camera elsewhere. Sometimes we mocked their attempts at subtlety, holding our cameras in obvious places and clicking photos while looking away from them. At least twice, Jordan walked straight towards the picture-takers and told them flatly to stop. Our best (or worst) idea was charging people for pictures with us, but for some reason no one was willing to pay our Rs. 500 fee.

There’s a lot more I could write about being a foreigner in India, but I’ll save it for another entry. Kanyakumari, despite the day’s troubles, was still worth the visit.

For the first two weeks of this tour, almost every day was a busy day. Museums here and temples there. Botanical gardens left and spice gardens right. Hill stations in the morning and palaces in the afternoon. The incessant rain we’ve had since arriving in Mysore did little to ease the chaos.

Then we spent two nights in Kovalum, and we had to find the chaos ourselves.

All of our time yesterday was free, and a lot of it was spent on the beach, just as in Mahabalipuram. Although expectations for the beach were moderate, and rain tried to dampen our moods, Kovalum was too fun for us to have low spirits. The waves never exceeded a meter in height, but the slope of the coastline was so slight I could walk 100 meters through the water and jump off the ocean floor like it was the surface of the moon. I spent at least three hours on the beach, just enjoying the feeling of being in the water.

And for two days we were actually able to sleep in. This of course meant most of us chose to stay up late into the night, but for once most of my sleep came in a bed, not on a bus.

Today we did nothing. We spent six hours driving to Kochi, ate Western non-veg fast food for lunch and dinner, and watched TV in the hotel. Kochi, from my limited views of it, appears to be quite a modern city – I’ve seen more high rises here than anywhere else on this tour. The nightlife and modern amenities are like those of Bangalore and Hyderabad. I’m surprised I’d never heard of Kochi before this tour, save the loss of their IPL franchise.

Tomorrow, for the first time in two and a half days, we’ll be going sightseeing. It should be an interesting day.


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South Tour: Alleppy – Recollections of a blinking night sky

December 28, 2010

29 Nov

NR. ALLEPPY: I’ve spent most of the last 10 hours staring at palm trees swaying in the warm winter wind, flocks of birds flying over fishing boats, and the beautiful blue backwaters of Alleppy.

But all I can think about right now is what the sky looked like tonight.

I’d forgotten that stars actually twinkle. Had I not seen them tonight, I may have even forgotten the stars exist at all. With the sky devoid of moonlight, and the light of the other houseboats across the waters barely visible, those stars were my only source of light, if only for a few moments.

Even so isolated from the outside world, we made some excuses for chaos this evening. The temperature somehow went up after sunset, making our clothes rather uncomfortable. Once I leaned against our other boat precariously, and had to leap monkey-like to avoid falling in the water. And of course we had our now-routine late-night bonding session.

Yes, I’m on a boat – this time a houseboat – and it’s another life experience I won’t forget and don’t regret. In spite of the mosquito breeding ground that is our main room, the aura of today’s journey has far outweighed any of its pitfalls. (Don’t worry, my bug spray works quite well!) We were welcomed on the boat with fresh coconut juice – straws sticking out of the coconuts themselves. Sabrina [Austria] and I couldn’t resist reenacting a scene from Titanic – inspired by the movie’s music playing from someone’s iPod. The views, the sounds, and the smells from the day were all ones not to be replicated. As Jordan told me: “I wish I had a moment camera.”

However many words I write, and however many pictures I take, some things in life just have to be experienced. Being on a houseboat is one of those things. The view can be captured, but what about the gentle, subtle sway of the boat? What about the enticing smells of fresh fish and roasted bananas? What about the songs playing in my head, reminders of our post-dinner group dance-meeting that’s become so routine but is always so…indescribable?

What about the view tonight? It felt odd to stand alone – if only for 3 minutes – and a bit awkward to peer around the ceiling for a half-view of the sky. The stillness is captivating, similar to the one earlier in the afternoon, when seven of us sat quiet on our deck looking at the scenery, light music in the background, the boat carrying us not to any particular destination, just onwards, ahead, somewhere. We didn’t need words to enjoy the moment.

Words can only take me so far…

I’m going to turn the lights off now, and think about the stars shining a million miles over my head. I’ve already touched the sky on this tour. Can the stars be that far out of my reach?


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South Tour: Chinnar, Munnar & Thekkady – Rain clouds not reflective of our moods

December 27, 2010

28 Nov

In spite of the incessant rain and our inappropriate footwear, our two-hour trek was an enjoyable one.

NR. THEKKADY: Let’s play the good-idea-bad-idea game:

Trekking though the jungle in sandals? Bad idea.

Climbing a precarious-looking steel tower in the rain? Bad idea.

Feeding wild monkeys Parle-G’s? Bad idea…but well worth the risk.

We spent half the day at a wildlife sanctuary in Chinnar on Friday (26 Nov), but we hardly saw any wildlife. True, you could see elephants and buffalo on the hill across the river (if you had 20/20 vision), and yes, we saw tracks that definitely belonged to elephants, but as far as it came to seeing mammals in their natural habitat, we had to settle for monkeys.

Deep into our hike, we approached the Chinnar River, which separates the states of Kerala and Tamil Nadu. Getting there had been surprisingly uneventful – compared to the paths we’d tried to climb in Ooty, the ones here were easy to navigate. It was raining, however, so most of the hike was spent with my head down. And I probably should have worn socks, although some sported footwear even less practical than mine.

The monkey we saw by the river was the first and only animal to approach us. In fact, monkeys have been the only wild animals with the courage to approach us. We’d run into some earlier, and each time they’ve willing accepted our Parle-G’s, crackers and fruits. Even though a monkey once came two steps from passing through our open bus door, members of our group always light up with glee in the presence of monkeys. The reactions are similar with cats and dogs, as most of us come from cultures where such animals are pets, not pests.

I was struck at several times on our trek by inexplicable poignant moments. They usually occurred when we were too tired to talk, when little could be heard but the soft patter of rain and our dull footsteps. Even from the tall steel tower, our views weren’t spectacular – it was more what I couldn’t see than what I could. There was no doubt that something had been there ahead of us.

Yesterday I rode an elephant.

Riding an elephant is one of those things that you shouldn’t go to India and not do, like eating chapatti for dinner and visiting the Taj Mahal. My ten-minute ride was unremarkable and devoid of any unusual happenings (although two French tourists did take pictures of us). Our elephant carried Michelle [Germany], Anaïs [France] and me a few hundred meters down an asphalt road for five minutes, turned around, and took us back.

I was asked what it felt like to ride an elephant. My answer?

“It feels like I’m riding on an elephant.”

The experience is about what you’d expect from such a creature. Elephants walk slowly, trundling along at about five miles an hour. We swayed a little from side to side as one massive hind leg was placed in front of the other. Our elephant also had much more hair than I’d expected. The ride was enjoyable, and the Rs. 150 was well-spent.

It was just another first-time experience that this tour has given me.

Just because I’ve grown used to having new experiences, however, doesn’t mean I enjoy them any less.

29 Nov

An already crowded traffic situation got worse when a bus got stuck in the only small passage.

An already crowded traffic situation got worse when a bus got stuck in the only small passage.

NR. ALLEPPY: Yesterday was the most boring day of the tour.

We braved the rain to visit a spice garden, saw a traditional Kathakali dance this evening, and waited in line for a boat ride through the jungle – only to be turned down at the ticket counter.

On the bus ride to Thekkady, the crowded roads became even more congested than usual. Just seconds before our bus was to pass by, a ten-meter tree fell across the road, presumably because of weight from the incessant rain. As our bus was at the front of the long queue to pass through, we all had a good view of the effort to clear a path. Dozens of people got out of their vehicles to help, and within minutes they’d cleared a path thin enough for small cars to drive through.

That initial effort was wasted, however, when a small bus tried squeezing through. The ground was too muddy for it to gather any traction, so traffic once again came to a standstill. We could only wait for an emergency vehicle to come with a machete and clear more room. After 20 minutes of tree-climbing, picture-taking, cable-avoiding, branch-chopping and leaf-dragging, the road was once again clear – the only casualties two power lines to which I assume (and hope) the power had already been cut.

Most of the remainder of our journey was spent asleep. I passed out on my bed at 9:30 that night, too exhausted to write.


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Merry Christmas!

December 25, 2010

Merry Christmas to everyone reading this! I hope everyone has as happy a holiday as I’ve had so far!

I will continue posting entries from the South Tour tomorrow, followed by an account of my Christmas in India.