Train to Ella

It didn’t look very promising. The first class car on the train from Colombo Sri Lanka to the highlands town,Ella pulled into the somewhat dinghy Colombo train station on schedule. I had booked my ticket online based upon the understanding that this was a train designed to give tourists the best view of the fantastic mountain scenery. Finding the unmarked ticket window, standing in a line at a window with no service——didn’t bode well.

As I search for my assigned car, I realized that most of the cars were second class, hard seats, open air windows. One car however was painted in splatter painted colors. It looked dirty and the windows were small and dusty.

However this was the first class car, hooked immediately behind the engine. Three smiling stewards welcomed passengers. And sure enough there was air conditioning, upholstered seats and up ahead a TV screen showing the same mercats-themed film I’d had to witness on the airplane from Chennai the evening before. Blessedly the sound was low and as the train chugged out of the station it was drowned out by the sound of wheels upon rails. We were off!

For the next 10 hours we climbed, slowly and gently at first and then spectacularly along ridges from which we could see on both sides tropical forests, waterfalls and streams, and vistas of mountains that seemed to stretch forever with mists and clouds reaching around the tops and creating a magical effect. We chugged through many many tunnels. The train crept up steep inclines.

We passed miles and miles of tea plantations, the bright green rows of tea shrubs climbing impossibly steep hills. Tamil workers were picking leaves here and there. Although this area of Sri Lanka is Buddhist, most of the shrines we passed in the fields were those of the Tamil people, and honored Hindi gods. The Tamil people were the losers in a 25 year plus war that ended in 2009. More than 25,000 civilians of this population died and many more immigrated.

Most of this population lived in the north and their cities, libraries, and temples were terribly damaged. The infrastructure and economy of this region will be slow to recover. The terrible Tsunami that impacted so many nations of Southeast Asia took its toll here as well.

But as I ride the rails I do not think of these things. I feel that I am experiencing a paradise. Breakfast is served, then coffee, then lunch, and a snack and tea as the train rocks and rolls past small communities. I notice terraced platforms where cabbage, potatoes, beans, turnips and squash are growing. Farmers are producing a huge variety of vegetables here.

The air cools, the mist thickens and at dusk I leave the train to find my lodging in Ella.

Sri Lankan towns have Indian style auto rickshaws, the shoebox shops. But the vibe is different. Smiles are sincere. Trash on the streets is nearly non existent. The restaurants with English menus offer distinctive foods.

Tourists are pouring into the country. Over 2 million visitors enjoyed the mountains, hikes, beaches and ancient capitols of the country last year. Every year more come and Ella, a village with sunny skies, cool air, and enviable views, is adding small hotels everywhere. There seems to be no plan or zoning. How long will the landscape, the views and the charm survive?

 

 

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Which English do you speak?

Jojo George didn’t need to ask. The 23 year old guide on the perimeter of the Periyar Sanctuary has a keen ear. He entertained me by imitating all the different accents he had heard from Germans, Australians, British, Americans and Indians from various states. He had the talent of an actor and helped me feel more than justified that I’d had problems understanding and being understood. Being a “native speaker”, I really feel for those for whom English is a second or third language. Unless they are very experienced, they would be having a tough time communicating. I had said “I am sorry, I do not understand”, repeatedly and drawn pictures, mimed and about every other device I could imagine to communicate. At times I had been frustrated. Jojo forced me to see this situation from his perspective.

Imagine the guides, drivers and waiters serving us tourists. They may speak one or more of the Indian languages and then they must struggle to understand us. Not easy.

Jojo had carefully selected myself . Kirsten and I are both in our seventies and that age is really “over the hill” in India. He had reason to doubt our abilities. But after he checked us out on a couple of steep slopes, we carried on at a fine pace.

During a rest period, he admitted that he preferred to tour with European or American people. “You are quieter and don’t expect me to produce an elephant and a tiger within the first thirty minutes of the walk.” He commented wryly. “You are willing to be still and really look.” I was flattered.

Later Jojo understood that we didn’t choose to row about a lake that was reduced to a near puddle after poor monsoons and a long dry season. Instead he insisted that we take a second hike, through the bushes to an opening from which we could see an entire open valley and distant hills and temples. His commitment to seeing that we had a great experience was impressive.

Jojo and his mother both work for the outfit that runs the “safaris”. I wondered about this young guy, with a hip haircut and an earplug in one lobe. He serenaded me with his favorite tunes from one of the popular
boy bands with just the right falsetto and impeccable rhythm. He told stories drawn from myths about tigers. Surely this person would have “plans” for his future….but no. He would wait until he was twenty five and have an arranged marriage as expected by his Catholic family. He would “be in jail” as he phrased it blithely. But he is a happy person, loving his hills, his interactions with tourists, and is content within the conservative framework of his culture.

Lucky man!

INDHRIVANAM: forest retreat

Morten Svendsen and his wife, Sarah Cassidy welcomed my travel companion Kirsten and me to Indhrivanam, their home for the last five years near Kumily in Kerala India. Here in their homestay cottage I would spend my birthday and the last of my days in India.

I was tired. We had risen at 4:30 a.m. to travel by jeep and foot through a wildlife area. We had trekked as quietly as possible up sloping, slippery paths, over exposed roots, under tree trunks trying not to frighten away whatever animals might be near. We were ready for a bath and a long nap. We had discussed a possible trip over the next days to Madurai….but our plans evaporated as we approached this retreat.

Our rickshaw climbed high and took many small roads to reach this place of surprises. First, this home and nearby cottage is made of granite stone blocks, a departure from typical structures of Kerala. Even the dining table and benches are stone. Roofs are red tile, and the beautiful hand-crafted doors and accordion shutters are natural wood.

The interior space of the home is a simple, open, airy great room with lofts at either end reached by attractive spiral staircases. Perhaps these were inspired by castles. The furnishings are rattan, the cushion colors muted.

Second, the surprise of intelligent conversations and having so many of my questions about life in India answered during meals. As the saying goes, Morten and Sarah could “write a book” about the cultural adventure of buying land, establishing a business, constructing these buildings, and developing a circle of friends in the nearby village and in Kumily. What they have learned is patience and how to stay committed to their vision in spite of communication, budget, supply and other sometimes frustrating limitations. Having personally experienced this kind of challenge as a resident of other countries I am filled with admiration.

Third, the surprise of meeting people who live their values. This place represents a commitment to reducing the human impact upon the environment. Sustainability and simplicity are the keystones of life here. Eco tourism is best represented here.

Another surprise: Details. Details are important to a traveler and are too often overlooked. They are a way of life at Andhrivnam. At our stone cottage, we are introduced to a clever composting toilet, to a system of rainwater collection from which we will drink and bathe, to the use of waste water to irrigate the many varieties of fruit trees that will eventually bring a plethora of fruits to the table.

And of course the surprise of perfect, varied and delicious vegetarian meals. At breakfast we feast on homemade breads, banana preserves, mango chutney, cashew butter, peanut butter, and fruit and veggie smoothies. The pressed coffee and the tea is locally grown. And when possible the vegetables that will be prepared for other meals in myriad ways will be organic. Generous lunch and dinner meals are South Indian vegetarian fare—many with fresh grated coconut served over a several different types of rice.

Our room is supplied with an electric teakettle and for the first time in India I can make that early morning cup of tea or coffee. BLISS! There is a canister to keep snacks safe from insects, incense to burn, a mosquito coil, candles to provide cosy lights during those pesky electrical outages, maps of hikes, descriptions of tours and entertainments, and even a list of stores in Kumily that carry the things we might need. Oh, to have started our Kumily experience here rather than to flounder about in a sea of miscommunication.

Were this place in the USA, it would certainly win sustainability awards and recognition.

As I write I am on a shaded “sit out” extending from the “cottage” into the forest. I spy the red of an amaryllis, a spray of red coffee beans, large elephant ear plants. Wild boars and other animals sometimes pass close in the night. We are warned not to be dismayed by the night sounds outside and to close the doors in the evening. We can entertain ourselves with WiFi, with music and film available to us on our computer….but who needs these? The forest is sufficient…

 

?

Later I will witness the preparation of lunch and dinner dishes and perhaps, just perhaps, I can eventually share these treats with family and friends. They will be reminders of this place, the people who created it, and of the possibilities of living a dream.

Sarah and Morten are relatively young (just over 40) to know themselves so thoroughly, to research the possibilities and to leap from the career paths their educations would have predicted. I pray that there are many like them, showing us a way to preserve this beautiful planet and to be mentally and physically healthier humans.

SOUNDS AND LIGHTS

The evening begins with a bumpy ride to a smallish town about 45 minutes from Kottayam famous for an ancient Hindu temple dedicated to Shiva. My friend Kirsten and I had visited in the morning to see ancient murals (1560 AD) that survived somehow upon the outer wall. These were obviously not so important to the temple owners. T\\\hey were not well protected and those inside the gates were obscured by various processional furnishings stored directly in front of them. The lighting was poor and it was impossible to properly see these rare works.

Disappointed we paid attention instead to what appeared to be a blessing ceremony for small babies. Their mothers held them as a priest distributed ash and some drummers and trumpet players made a racket. Behind this group, and beyond the tall post covered with gold that indicates a sacred place, men and women entered the inner temple to make their sacrifices of coconut, oil, and flowers. Men took off their shirts and entered bare chested. We began to walk the outer perimeter of the temple and noticed that the walls were lined with tiny oil lamps. One of the priests was scooping oil into each. “When are the lamps lit?” I asked another priest. “Tonight at six.”

In fact, every evening at six. Naturally we would have to witness this. My imagination flashed, but my mind could not comprehend how so many tiny lights could be ignited quickly. We tried to estimate the number. Perhaps more than 12,000?

So now I am ready to see for myself. At six sharp, I sit along a low wall waiting. Nothing seems to happen. Then a priest begins to light a few. A woman takes a light to another section, and a child begins somewhere else. Over the next half hour the lower six louvers of the temple walls began to flicker with a soft glow just as the sun set. Kirsten and I walked slowly around and around the walls as they glistened with fire. Such a tranquil time. So mermerizing.

There were no large crowds, as I had expected. This was after all an everyday event. Light against the darkness. Protection from the “night”. Older women walked past, some children accompanied their parents. At the inner sanctum, more people entered to make their gifts to the gods.

Reluctantly, we returned to our rickshaw to bounce toward our host’s home. We rushed through supper and walked with him along the clay roads to a large Catholic church that was sponsoring a festival. Kerala has a huge Christian population thanks to the Portuguese and Dutch colonists of the past. And St Thomas himself is believed to have founded the church in Southern India and been killed and buried here.

Neon lights and every other type of electric bulb blazed from the church steeples, outer shrines, and around the courtyard. Vendors were ready to sell food and trinkets. Loudspeakers blared music. In fact there were competing loudspeakers, each with different music. We crossed a footbridge to stand across a canal that reflected all of the lights and waited for the procession.

It was a long time coming. Meanwhile families set up small altars on steps that led to the canal lighting hundreds of candles. Fireworks boomed from the direction of the procession. A drum corps led the way with the fast-paced tattoos cutting sharply through the loudspeakers blare. The congregation of more than 3000 began to walk past carrying candles and lanterns. They had traveled many kilometers stopping to pray at various shrines. Many carried brilliant red, green, gold parasols and others carried holy images from the church. (George, our host, remarked that we should see a big procession when there would be thousands of these rich parasols.)

The last to come were the priests walking below a canopy. Then came prayers and chants and at last the fireworks. Fourth of July and New Years rolled into one.

Exhausted after so much stimulation, we walked home by flashlight. Hours of booming and music would continue. We hoped to be far enough away to sleep through it. And the villagers? I think they are used to it. Every evening and early morning is punctuated by loudly broadcast chants….prayers to Allah and the Hindi gods. Christians are expected add their sounds and lights to the mix!

Lost on the Keralan Backwaters

Well, not exactly lost. But don’t ask me how to arrive or how to leave this “homestay”. I feel entirely dependent upon George. My host George, an Indian belonging to a Syrian Catholic Church whose bishop is in Antioch, and his wife are caring for me, a Danish woman about my age, a couple from Germany and a Spaniard married to a Japanese who runs a restaurant in Hiroshima. Okay we are an odd mix. The male of the German couple was born and raised in Namibia Africa. When traveling, I meet the most amazing people. We share stories over breakfast at 7:30 and dinner at 7:00. George waits our table and sits as we eat to help us plan the day. He deals with ordering transportation, giving directions to ferries, discussing sightseeing options, and finding lost guests….like me.

The homestay faces a huge spring green rice paddy. I look through palms and beetle nut trees as the white cranes, royally feathered kingfishers and an assortment of water fowl fly to and fro. In the early morning the exotic calls of birds compete with roosters, dogs, goats and the Public Address system of a temple which fortunately is far away. My room is air-conditioned and has a mosquito net, but I’ve not used the net. The room is also “rumored” to have hot water, however the most I can experience is barely tepid. Oh well. When the humidity and sun are high, cool showers are terrific.

At least twice a day between 6:00 to 6:30 a.m. and 9 to 9:30 p.m. the state furnished electricity is off and the generator replaces it. My handy-dandy headlamp is a boon.

One arrives here from bus or train via a pre-arranged auto rickshaw. George’s driver knows the way…..and it is indeed complicated. One bumps over teeth and bone rattling asphalt, around curves, across clay paddy paths and canal byways. It is a long ride that begins to seem longer if your bladder is full! It’s at least 40 minutes from the closest large town, Kottayam. I envy those in canoes gliding smoothly and silently along the network of canals.

On my first evening, I walked along the canal path to the closet village. Village children rushed out to greet me. Three boys offered grapes from their little store bought cache. All wanted their photographs taken. What sweet people.

Yesterday my Danish friend Kristin and I learned that we did not know the way home. We had managed to walk the 40 minutes along the canals to the small village that is the final stop and turn around point for the very worn ferry serving this village twice each day. Three times we walked past the dock asking for the ferry. I was looking for a big structure. Finally we noted people gathering before a small concrete protrusion……..and that was it. The ferry arrived, we boarded and sat at the bow. The seats were covered with torn plastic revealing coconut fibre stuffings. The friendly captain could speak some English and would occasionally come up to point something out. The Keralans are friendly. They waved, asked where we were from and smiled as we passed. We slowly chugged along, watching life on the canal. Women washing dishes and clothes on the steps that lead from house to water. Except for the occasional motor bike, the tractor on the canoes, the occasional tv dish next to a simple house, these scene could be occurring hundreds of years ago.

 

 

Uniformed children heading to school, men poling past in canoes, some tied together catamaran style and carrying machinery, others with sacks of rice or coconuts. Rice paddies stretch on either side of the canals behind the houses. In effect the canal paths and areas where the houses sit are dykes that hold back the water of canal and paddy. Pumps along the way regulate water level in the paddy. Water lilies bloomed, kingfishers darted. And disturbingly the invasive water hyacinth seemed ready to take over the smaller waterways.

Eventually our small canal led to a larger one. Here we begin to see a few resorts and moored to the shore twenty five of the famous houseboats. These former rice barges have new life as luxurious mini hotels. One can tour the backwaters and be waited on hand and foot on these barges. Spendy. But I am content with this chuggy ferry, the opportunity to interact with the populace of this seemingly idyllic area. As we picked up more passengers, I noticed that at some stops the “dock” was simply a few logs sticking out into the canal.

Our round trip of three plus hours took us across a palm bordered great lake boasting mansions, resorts, and many of the Chinese fishing nets. We watched as fishermen swam from their canoes and dived for shellfish, or cast nets. When the ferry reached the turnaround, we took a break to explore-a fish shop, a huge new church and school, some lovely homes. Not much to see at this stop.

So back we chugged, arriving at our tiny village. Map in hand we decided to take the alternate route home. All we had to do it appeared was to walk along another canal for a distance and turn right.

The sun was high. We walked, walked and walked. Finally we reached a huge new Catholic church. We’d been on the road for over an hour. I called George. HURRAH FOR MOBILE PHONES! We were miles off base. He mercifully sent a rickshaw to pick up his “lost ladies”.

A shower, a liter of water, tea, a sandwich and a nap revived us both.

At dinner we planned a canoe excursion……and a visit to a temple.

 

Fort Cochin—tourist oasis

Ernakulum is the busy port city closest to Ft. Cochin. Here I stepped from my train to find the way to Ft. Cochin, the historic trading center of the area and a must see tourist destination. Typical of India Ernakulum’s streets bulge with shoebox sized storefronts, huge billboards, blowing trash, buzzing auto rickshaws, belching trucks and buses and smells from urine to car exhaust. Horns punctuate the air and ear. Reaching the Main Ferry dock from the train, I waited in the Ladies Line as it grew and grew in length along with the even longer Men’s queue. No station agent for a while….then one appeared only to count his money and disappear again. After nearly 40 sweaty minutes he returned to slowly sell the 2.5 rupee ticket. Grateful to end the ticket ordeal, I exited the steamy ticket area to the dock.

My little ferry chugged across the wide harbor past container docks with monstrous steel lifts soaring over the ships docked nearby. The sea smell seemed slightly sour. The sky was obscured by the smog of the city. But the breeze dried my sweat and I could see the palms along the island that holds Ft Cochin. In the distance a huge ship moved toward us. Off the ferry, I heaved my suitcase and daypack into a rickshaw and bargained for the price to my hotel. My youngish driver announced he was” in training”. That became obvious as he sped along futilely searching for Vasco de Gama Inn. He repeatedly asked others for help and we reversed directions several times. We seemed to locate every possible store or guest house with the Vasco de Gama name, but not the Inn. Finally I stopped this charade, paid him off and walked to the hotel which was half a block off the beach behind a larger hotel.

Despite the frustration the wild ride showed a very different tempo and style from crazy Ernakulum. And it demonstrated continuing pride among Ft Cochinans that Vasco de Gama, the great Portuguese navigator lived and died here. He helped build the busy Portuguese spice trade. Today few remnants of the great fort exist. Its walls are replaced along the blocks closest to the water front by the graceful Chinese fishing nets, busy stalls of fish vendors, Rajastani women selling crafts, juice bars, and small restaurants ready to cook fish you buy from the fish stalls. Indian and European tourists mingle and the crowds of rickshaw drivers call out for business. “Hey, you walking, Good for you, not for me!”, “Hey step into my Ferrari!” I watch as teams of fisherman lower and raise the cantilevered nets into the sea from platforms, scooping out their catch and deliveringit immediately to the vendors that are nearby.There is little street traffic and noise reducedfrom of Ernakulum. The mood is decidedly more relaxed. Big trees shade the waterfront, there is a promenade stretching along the beach where runners get their morning exercise and families walk and people watch in the evenings. Large homes and buildings from the Portuguese past are scattered along the way. There is a parade ground where young boys kick a soccer ball and others play cricket. And side streets are narrow, great for walking and rickshaws, not so inviting for cars. A shady cemetery holds the graves of the early Portuguese traders and colonists.

The inn’s hearty, hefty manager, Viney is fairly typical of the front desk people. He knows every schedule, every sight, and where to find or buy just about anything, Do I need a beer? He sends out the elderly man who is the gofer and night clerk. Do I need a marker to address a box, a piece of tape…..Viney offers it. What would I prefer for the hotel offered breakfast? And so I am established in a pleasant room with air conditioning and hot water 24-7. Whew!

After a hearty Indian breakfast of puffy rice cakes and veggie sauce, I am off to explore. I plan to walk the front road around to the two museums I want to see. Along the way I enjoy the Chinese fishing nets that are being lowered and raised into the sea by a teams of fishermen. They scoop the unlucky fish from the huge nets and rush then to the stalls where they are displayed for sale.

As I walk I purchase a ticket (for less than $1.00) to the international Biennale, the first ever in India. Its venues are scattered throughout this city, and particularly in the historic warehouse district, the heart of the old Portuguese trading area, with wharfs just behind the warehouses. ( Later I visit over 30 exhibits showcasing the creativity of artists from around the world. Much of the work has a social justice or environmental message. Many artists are multimedia with a strong reliance on video.)

I enter the historic warehouse area where trucks unload, traders sit at stalls ready to negotiate prices for rice, spice, tobacco. Spicy odors float in the air. Then these working warehouses transition to Kashimi owned shops displaying carpets, silks, pashmina shawls, and jewelry. Their salesmen stand ready to lure the shopper. “No hassle” promise their signs. Inside shelves and displays of rich fabrics, handmade lace, shawls and silk saris of every color and design. Bargains are possible if you have patience for it. There are antique stores loaded with furniture, statuary. This is a shopper’s paradise. I negotiate with a young Muslim woman who has just opened her shop with a Christian friend. On the wall are both Muslim and Christian prayers, blessing their endeavor.

By now the heat and the humidity have risen. I am without hat and thirsty. A lime soda renews my energy. But whoa! It’s Friday and the ancient synagogue is closed for the Holy Day. And so is the Dutch Palace the old mansion, now a museum. I will need to return on another day, That does it. I am in no mood to shop.

I decide to walk back through the center of the town, discovering the real Ft. Cochin, cut through with canals green with who knows what…..banks and walls filled with trash, warrens of small houses near the canals, narrow alleys leading into the neighborhoods. Coconut palms and banana trees are scattered here and there. Women in burka move past, my ears hear nothing but the chants and sermons broadcast from the mosques. It is also the day of worship for the Muslims. I find the busy streets and markets of the neighborhoods, not quite as hectic as those of Ernakulum, but just as congested with signs and rickshaws. Aryuvedic pharmacies, fruit and veggie stands, shops selling the long loose house dresses that must give freedom and air to those burka and sari clad women as they do their work at home. Pots, buckets, hardware, tires, bike parts, you name it. This area has it for sale.

Finally I return to the comparative peace and order of the tourist area, drop gratefully into a restaurant chair and drink a liter of water before I order my meal.

My days in Ft Cochin fall into a pattern of shopping, finding welcome restaurants that serve western style breakfasts of luscious filled omelets, honey soaked pancakes, tropical fruits. I begin to have fun timing my meals in these places. Fifteen minutes to receive a menu. Ten more minutes to order. Thirty minutes waiting for the meal. Eating the meal, getting the bill. Another 40 minutes. Jane had warned, “Bring a book, your journal or your lover. For you will have time for all.” So right. But Ft. Cochin and in fact all of Kerala is not about efficiency. It is about forgetting time and your expectations. Laid back is the theme here. I will need to extend my stay in order to complete my list of “to do and must see”. Is this a conspiracy?

After lunch, I shower away the sweat of the morning.

I meet fellow tourists. A couple from Denmark and I share seafood salad and shrimp stuffed marsala snapper in the candle lit garden of the Harbour House Hotel.

 


I discover some fine shops offering excellent block printed fashions. My good friend Jane Smiley returns from her days at a spa. She is now practically a citizen of the Fort and takes me to visit artists and textile workshops. We splurge on fine dinners with wine at the Malabar Hotel where we are entranced by the interplay between drums and flute performed by Indian musicians. I experience a much abbreviated performance of the local dance/theater form: Kathakali, watching as a story that might take 10 hours to perform at a temple festival is condensed into an hour. The pre performance demonstrations of elaborate makeup, the incredible eye and facial muscle control of the actors, and the vocabulary of mudras (hand and finger positions) that tell the story are impressive. The performers have trained their bodies and meditative focus for years. The play begins as the principal actors step out in dramatic full skirts and elaborate headgear. Drummers add to the dramatic tension through rhythms and strokes that seem to emit groans from the drums. A singer carries the theme and story line forward. The actors speak only with their hands and facial expressions. This is far away from the kabuki style theater I had imagined.

 

On my final day, a tailor stitches

white cloth covers over two boxes that I address and carry to the post office. I wait to receive necessary forms. They must be printed out, as needed. I wait as the printer malfunctions. I wait as the electricity halts. Finally forms completed, fees paid, my boxes are off to the USA and Italy…..my load is lightened, clothes I do not need and gifts I don’t want to carry are on their way,

I am ready to move on to the next adventure.

New Year’s Eve- where the wild things are

A bonfire flames on the hotel driveway. The hotel workers, all male, gyrate energetically to their favorite Bollywood tunes broadcast loudly to the skies. A brilliant moon and stars light the heavens. We guests at Tamarind Lodge are invited to a New Year’s Eve celebration where I dance my own Bollywood imitation and urge the rather shy Indian women to join in, which they do meekly. The UK guests rally round for a chorus—“Should auld acquaintance be forgot”. The one beer brought by a guest is portioned out among us westerners as a pitcher of petrol thrown on the fire flames high and loud…..2013 has begun. Hugs and handshakes all around.

By bedtime, we are all the best of friends. I feel suddenly at home in Wayanad at the end of my first day in this jungle.

So you’d like to see an Indian elephant or two. You’d like to experience this jungle? Welcome to Wayanad, one of several huge biospheres preserved by the Indian government as sanctuaries for the diminishing numbers of tigers, lions, buffalo, and elephants. This area in the north part of the state of Kerala provides a rural, cool retreat from the humid, hot beach areas of the Kerala coast and its crowds. Birds sing from banana groves, monkeys cavort among the coffee and cardamom trees, elephants munch in the spiky, tall bamboo clumps. A few buffalo roam and spotted deer graze the roadsides. If you are keen eyed you might spot a wild boar, peacock, a giant black tree squirrel. Most people experience an elephant or two. And if you are incredibly lucky, a tiger.

Roads twist higher along hillsides and low mountains peep through the mist. Rice paddies, ginger, coffee and spice plantations cover acres of land. There are pale orange sunrises, and misty moons and clear stars above in the nights. Ancient temples and caves with prehistoric art can be found on guided treks. Everything seems to be a long drive from everything else. And blessedly, there is little traffic and few horns.

Don’t come here expecting to hurry. Slow down. Relax. Regenerate.

December 31 began with a 6 a.m. breakfast and a long jeep ride to the Sanctuary entrance where I queued to sign in showing passport and paying fees. A guide jumped aboard the jeep and we headed onto a rutted, teeth rattling track. My field glasses at the ready, I was slow to see anything pointed out. Our lithe guide positioned himself outside the jeep to scan the trees for the tiger he had promised.

 

Pickings were slim. I can’t say I was surprised for I can’t imagine an animal wanting to be near a track where noisy jeeps by the dozen are moving through in the early morning. There are acres of quieter, safer territory. What we did spot was difficult to see in the heavy brush that lies beneath the tall trees that scatter through this “jungle”.

Yet the terrain and jungle scenery were worth the drive. This is not an Amazon variety jungle where plants compete and crowd each other out in dense growth, rather a more spacious, open woodland, punctuated by green ponds and meandering rivelets. There are “flame of the forest” trees breaking through the greenery. Thick vines envelop some trees while others are decorated by tree fern or morning glory blossom.

 

Our “safari” ended by 9:00. On to Kuvuru Lake another place where Indians can experience nature in the raw. Applause and kudos for the efforts at environmental education experienced here. A fee to get in, a need to check in plastic water bottles and pay for camera use. Then I hop aboard a huge bamboo raft with forty or more Indian tourists to be pulled across to one of the many islands that dot this huge lake, and the only one open to people.

Disembarking I walk along a smooth 15 foot wide path bordered by fences of spiky bamboo. “DANGEROUS ZONE” read countless signs. Swarms of blue and black butterflies move through the air. And swarms of fellow travelers follow as more rafts cross to the island.

Groups of young men are enjoying a holiday together. We chat and take photographs. Large families with fathers warning their children that butterflies might lay eggs in their hair. More signs implore us to appreciate the experience of nature.

A few candy wrappers here and there, but basically the way is litter free (for India). A baby monkey dashes along carrying a plastic goodie bag. He smells the sugar. Then the path brings us to a stream where among the rocks children play in the water happily splashing. Such fun and for too many in India too rare an experience.

Nature in the raw? Not for me, a spoiled Oregonian. Yet it is good to see what can happen in a heavily populated land so long neglected environmentally and to appreciate the efforts to change the mindset of its citizens. Go Sierra Club and every other environmental organization! Write your checks my friends. An ounce of prevention is better than the cure!

Back to the hotel for a long siesta.

At 9:30 p.m. a group from the hotel shares another jeep for an hour’s slow drive along the roads nearby. Better luck! The alert driver spies muddy elephant tracks on the road and the headlights find an elephant in a bamboo clump enjoying its dinner. And what? There is its baby. We watch in wonder and move along soon spotting the bull. And then the driver stops and peers into the trees. Tiger? Perhaps he has seen its red eyes.

Eagerly we flash our “torches” toward the branches above. Can I see the tiger? Alas not.

Our hour is up. As we return home, we again see our elephant trio. Startled, mother elephant trumpets loudly and hurries her child into the bush. We are as startled as she.

Returning to the lobby of the hotel, a fellow guest exclaims, “You want to see animals? Come to Africa. I have a house in Botswana. Come and see for yourself!”

Having seen the photos of my grandchildren’s Tanzanian safari last May, I am certain he is right! Yet there is something satisfying about seeing these animals in this jungle environment. What a happy new year’s eve.

Leaving Paradise

If you define Paradise as a coconut palm shaded area, replete with banana trees, a golden beach, a comfortable room fanning breezes your way, terrific Keralan food served by smiling staff, a host who seems to predict your needs and quietly provide, you will want time in Kunnar’s Thopetta Beach, KK Costa Malibari……under the management of Tourist Desk and Kilian—a dohti clad middle aged Keralan who is the local expert on Theyyam rituals. By the way he seems to know the bus and train schedules to and from anywhere in Kerala… He scoots between three locations- all within walking distance of one another. One guesthouse sits above a beach, with lovely views of the ocean and an outdoor covered dining room. The other two are off beach surrounded by tropical woods and many many planters.

One of the joys of this type of lodging is meeting your fellow travelers. During my stay I met a pediatrician from Portland Oregon, her friend from Boise, a German woman who owes an antique store, a Greek couple, an Austrian couple, and an Englishman. With the exception of we three Americans, all travel yearly or bi yearly in India and Sri Lanka and were great advisors about best places for Aruyvedi treatments to festivals, to lesser known rural temples. Traveler tales circulated. These stories all of the, I can beat that one type, tend to get old, but they are fun for a while.

Although I was reluctant to leave such a peaceful spot, my train, the one I dreaded taking because it would certainly be hot and crowded, left right on time. Like a child facing a new experience I checked and rechecked with others on the platform whether I was in the correct spot to hop aboard my assigned car. Once on board, a tall young man hoisted my too heavy bag to the rack above before we took our seats on the same bench and the trained pulled away. This train has reserved seats, open, barred windows. It is a bit dingy and worn, but swept clean. My fellow passengers are quiet, even the children. A few hawkers sell snacks, tea and coffee moving through the cars. Over the six hours a few beggars come by as well . Although begging is illegal on trains, a few take their chances anyway. At each stop there are more opportunities to purchase food including biriyani both vegetable and chicken. But as we move further south, the temperature and humidity increase. The ventilation both from windows and overhead fans is terrific. I am warm, but not miserable. Although I am not hungry, I buy a fried treat that I love…… a little crisp triangle stuffed with potato, carrot, peas and spices. Yum. My seat mate states that he will wait for home cooking later in the evening and he advises me not to give to the beggars.

As we talked further, I discovered an ambitious person who thinks seriously about India. His English is excellent. Probably not yet thirty, he is an identical twin, with five brothers. He’s only one not married and living with their mother. The son of a physicist, his early memories are of Nigeria where his father taught and died at 42 of heart attack. All of the brothers have advanced educations—a finance person and pharmacist live in Dubai, a brother owns a tourist home, another is also in finance. My new friend pursues a PhD online in sociology—his thesis is on alcoholism in India and I am filled in on how prevalent this is. But his real passion and what keeps him at home is Kung Fu and Yoga…..he is a third level black belt and instructs at three centers. Yes he could make more money out of the country, but this is where he knows he is happy. He manages rice production and sales from family land and he helps with family owned tourist homes near Alllepuzy—-a backwater destination. The family is Christian (and his mobile phone screen has a Jesus screensaver). He admits that he has some concerns about Catholicism, but the religion is a part of his family culture and tradition. It is important to go along with family expectations. In another year (after the degree), the family will arrange his marriage. If he could change one thing about India—–education! How? By teaching more about social responsibility—how to be in the world of India. Without that knowledge, people cannot make good decisions for themselves or for the country. Wise young man.

As my train arrives at Ernaculum Junction, we exchange cards, he unloads my bag, and we shake hands. We both enjoyed this train ride. Although he works with tourists very few want to talk, he admits. And I cherish each glimpse of India from a “real person”.

I find a Tourist Desk and get directions to my hotel and suggestions on transportation. First a tuk tuk (20 ruppees), then a ferry, then a tuk tuk. Fine. Hurrah for Tourist Information.

At the ferry station I join a Ladies Only line (which is much shorter). We wait. And wait some more. The heat builds. Sweat runs down my back. No action. The lines (male and female) extend. A clerk comes and counts his change. He leaves. We wait. The station is filthy. Through the windows I watch ferries arrive and depart. We wait. A German woman offers to buy my ticket so I can sit down. I remain in line. We talk. I wait. After more than 45 minutes the window opens and slowly tickets are sold. By now several hundred people are crowding for a ticket. I have no small money. Small money is more precious than gold here. Someone pays my 2 ruppee fare just to get the line moving. What inefficiency. A Swedish tourist and I commiserate.

My German friend become my good fairy. I think my grey sweaty hair helps me look pretty vulnerable. She helps lower my suitcase to the ferry and we talk as we move across the water…..the cool breeze drying our sweaty clothes.

Then I hire an auto-rickshaw for what SHOULD be a very short hop to the hotel. My driver is “in training”. He doesn’t know the hotel. He confers with other drivers, we buzz about here and yon at warp speed. He finds the wrong hotel. Finally I get out, pay him, walk two blocks….and there she is, Vasco de Gama Inn—-not far from the tomb of the great explorer, not far from the Chinese Fishing nets. I have arrived at the old Dutch trading center, Fort Cochin.

My chubby host, Viney welcomes me and soon I am enjoying an air conditioned room. 24 hours hot water, and a desk. LUXURY! By the way breakfast will be served at 8:15. Should it be Indian or Western.? I opt for Indian…….western means an omelet and terrible toast…..I’ve had a week of that. Enough!

Dubai Architectural Fantasy Land

dMoney money money money——with enough of it the sky’s the limit and so Dubai has a national bird—the construction crane……..Thousands of skyscrapers reach into the murky sky…..Yes it rained hard the morning I arrived—–scarce rain that allows luscious plantings on the neutral grounds that border miles of excellent freeway—no expense spared to make the city beautiful. By the end of March the temperature will reach 50 plus centigrade, the flowers will be removed and gravel will replace them until once again fairly cool weather arrives (in the 80’s).

Dubai has been positioned as Asia’s hub for commerce attracting international companies, importing workers from around the world, and creating a building spree that sees acres of land converted into skyscraper neighborhoods in no time at all. When the desert blows in sands, a zillion workers simply sweep it away. Trade fairs, expositions, etc mean that Dubai is luxury hotel land—and hotels such the Atlantis offer indoor water world kingdoms for their guests with elaborate waterslides and other delights. No alcohol, no gambling—-well not recreational gambling anyway……just invest your corporate money here and see if that gamble pays off.

Terminal three of the airport is the international terminal and the runways are crowded with airplanes waiting their turn to leave. It takes 20 minutes to be bused from plane to terminal……so it seems that the terminal has outpaced the development of the airport’s runways. Entering the airport I am struck by the vast emptiness of the place. One feels small and crowds of debarking passengers are absorbed in the space. A fairly long hike, interrupted by moving walkways takes a good 10 to 15 minutes to the main entrance. Along the way, I arrange my day tour and while waiting for the driver, enjoy a cup of very very sweet Nescafe and some sweets provided by the tour clerk—-who explains his family’s long heritage in the area and prints out a story from the Koran to illustrate a conversational point. Men in long white robes with the flowing headgear saunter by. Women in black robes trimmed with sparkling sequins move past.

My guide is a Filipino. He’s been here 18 years. His children were returned to the Philippines when they were teenagers because they can never be citizens of the Emirates—-never vote, etc. He chose to send them away. But here is opportunity he cannot find in his homeland.

So enjoy the display of fantasy architecture and wonder with me if this “bubble” in the desert will endure the ages.

Figure 1 the Atlantis Hotel/ Dubai

 

 

 

 

 

And do consider purchasing some of the gold jewelry from the Souk….surely you will want to invest? There are hundreds of merchants willing to do business with you.

Meeting with the Gods

The small temple glowed with fresh white paint, new shrine doors. Marigold garlands looped from the roof. Small oil lamps hung at the doorways. Inside each shrine glowed torches and oil lamps. A huge bonfire blazed at one end of the sunken, packed clay courtyard. A small bamboo frame rested near the fire, containing various foods, gifts for the gods.

Seated on the temple step, on plastic chairs in one area, and standing 10 deep around the courtyard, hundreds of villagers and we few tourists participated in an ancient, profound, and colorful ritual. It begins in the late afternoon, as a team of performers, drummers and attendants gather to set up dressing areas, sort out regalia, install bright spot lights, and prepare the torches, fires, fireworks, and myriad details essential to the ceremony. A few booths provide refreshments.

When we arrived at 4 a.m. the following day the ritual was culminating in the arrival of the gods or theyyams. Over the previous hours performers had prepared themselves through various rituals, being painted with detailed designs, often fasting and meditating, and finally being costumed elaborately to represent an ancient god. Before they burst onto the temple area to excited drumbeats they look deeply into a mirror and “become” the god they have spent their lives emulating. They take on this god’s personality, fierce, warlike, angry or the opposite. They strut about rhymically enacting their story wearing headdresses that tower three to 20 feet above their heads. Their intricate outfits were “designed” ages back. They are usually red and include pleats, shiny metal, bells. Depending upon the story they swing swords, carry bow/and arrow or torches. These stories often are violent ones. Over the eons, these gods that probably had little to do with Hindu beliefs have been incorporated into the Hindu mythology….they are now seen as appearances of Hindu gods and their consorts. The people count on them to ensure successful harvests, healthy and prosperity.

Male attendants rush about tending the bonfire, refreshing oil in lamps, guiding the deity and helping to balance his huge headgear. At times they wave white cloth fans to cool this overdressed performer. All the action is accompanied by a team of 10 drummers who vary the tempo and the level of drama with rapid tattoos. Two brass instruments wail away.

After an extended period, the god will be seated and receive the villagers who line up for what appear to be brief counseling sessions. What are they asking….and what is the god’s response to their concerns? It is clear that the people believe they are having a personal interaction with their god.

During the performance, I wandered about, sometimes standing on a plastic chair to see over the rows of heads to the main event…..and sometimes checking out the action off stage as the next “theyam” was prepared to appear. Then in a rush of drumbeats and torches, he would rush from his dressing area onto the temple stage sometimes to fight or dance with the performer already present.

During one of these mock battles, fireworks went off, the bonfire was intensified with more fireworks, and cannon level firecrackers exploded in eardrum shattering levels. High drama indeed.

Toward the end of our observation, about 7 a.m., the story of a blind god unfolded. He wore silver eyeplates and was guided wherever he went. A line of male guests were honored to take turns walking him around the area and received a blessing of ash from the torch the god carried. This was a calm scene and we noticed that many villagers were drifting away, having been in attendance for 10 hours or more. We decided to return to our guesthouse and sleep. But learned that hours more performance would occur after we left.

The performers and their attendants are members of various castes and there is a complicated hierarchy among these castes as to which perform the various roles and rituals. They are not paid much for their years of training or energetic performances. This is a duty they inherit at birth. There are over 400 deities that you might meet at one or another of these events.

Before leaving, we guests lined up to make a contribution and receive in return blessed food to take away. Theyyams occur 300 times a year. So if you are in the area, you are likely to experience the appearance of the gods. What would you ask of them?