As you may know, my Dad joined us on our India leg of the trip. We had been talking about doing a trip to India with my dad ever since he started travelling there for work when we were young. I remember one year he brought back a beautiful travel guide full of photos as a gift – I was hooked. Here’s Dad’s take on India!
-Claudia

Camille and Claudia have asked me to do a “guest” blog post, so here are a few observations through Dad’s eyes.  This is a trip we’ve talked about for a long time, and everything came together at last to make this happen this month! Since C&C have described the earlier part of the India trip, my notes start midway through our two week tour, after Mamallapurum (south of Chennai). Travel here requires a lot of energy. I cannot believe that coming to India would be a “rest” for someone with a desk job in the West.

After Mamallapurum we had a hard day’s travel – four hours by bus and a less-than-pleasant five hour train ride to Madurai further south. Madurai was tiring for everyone with its horn honking, heat, smell, and crowding. There is an amazing temple complex – one of the things I remember when I was first here in January 1980 (32 years ago – jeez).  First we saw the temple (travelling by bicycle rickshaw), then the banana market (yup, lots ‘o bananas alright – wholesale only), then the Ghandi museum. In the evening we all trooped back to the temple to observe a daily ceremony where Shiva (I think!) is transported from the sanctum sanctorum (sounds like a serious medical condition) to another location in the temple. A lot of chanting, incense burning, the sounds of an instrument that looks like a clarinet on steroids, and in general a lot of “ceremony”.  I guess the ceremony was no less ceremoniuos than a Christian ceremonies with swinging incense burners, bells, chanting, and a priest dressed in elaborate vestments.

The next day had another longish bus ride to the Periyar area where we visited a spice plantation and a tea factory. That night we had an Indian cooking class and made a bunch of stuff, and consumed rather large quantities of beer (hydration is always important in hot countries). Pretty good actually.

Another five hour bus ride took us back to the west coast. It was a hot steamy afternoon at our “home stay” in Alleppey where we spent our last night of the Gap tour. I had expectations of being in a thatched hut with chickens running around the kitchen, a couple of dogs sleeping in the shade, and a short smiling grandma with some missing teeth and a large gold nose ornament. Well, it was a lot more civilized than that.  Unfortunately the group was hit a GI bug – including me who has been heard to boast a “cast iron constitution”.  The next morning we took an idyllic boat ride in the back waters then yet another bus ride back to our starting point in Kochi (aka Cochin).  All those bus rides were hard on us, and me in particular who says “I don’t do buses!”.

Needing to rest after two weeks of intensive touring, we decided to check out the beaches of Goa – a real Westerner hangout.   After a grinding 14 hour train ride from Kochi in a shared six-person sleeper compartment, we arrived at Goa’s main train station at 3:30 AM and took a one hour “taxi” ride to a beach town called Palolem in the south of this small state. We were dropped off at the beach around 4:30 AM and looked for a place to complete our interrupted sleep. We didn’t have to walk very far along the beach to find a bar still going strong (yes, at 4:30 AM) that had rooms available, so the three of us shared a room for a whopping $7.00. We woke up to a lovely day and spectacular beach, had a couple of Bodum coffees (quite adequate) and very passable oatmeal, then began searching for a better place to spend our next four nights. While Camille guarded our gear, Claudia and I walked the beach and settled for two beachfront huts. Very basic – no hot water and you have to pay extra for toilet paper. No, it’s not the Grand Hyatt at Kauai but I’m paying only $20 per night and I’m happy!

The construction quality of my hut reminds me of a project I undertook when I was about seven years old. We had some old lumber lying around the backyard and I decided to build a playhouse with not one, but two, stories.  I remember my dad coming home from work and me beaming with pride. Although happy with my initiative, he was concerned that it could collapse, crushing me and a few neighborhood kids, so he and my mother somehow convinced me to let him reinforce it. My hut kind of looks like that except that it has electricity and running cold water.

Our beach has many standard-issue brown Indian dogs with curly tails.  Because of the extremely high likelihood of fleas, most people avoid petting them.  And cows. Cows on the beach. The Goa airport now boasts direct international charter flights from Russia and the UK. One could almost believe that there might be cows-only charters from Wisconsin. Cow tourism.

I was looking forward to a lot to the food here, as a self-appointed ambassador of Indian food. I have prepared several Indian dinners back in Vancouver, so many (apparently), that Camille now asks “Doing Indian again tonight, Dad?”. Well, we’ve had wobbly stomachs on several occasions now and the code for “What shall we eat tonight?” is ABI – Anything But Indian!

So a few more days on the beach and it’s on to Vancouver and London.

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Even my Dad, who has used us as guinea pigs for his newest Indian recipes every other Sunday night, was uttering the words “anything but Indian” (shortened to ABI) when we reached Mahalibalipuram.  Luckily we were in the right place at the right time, a bona fide Western (and Indian) tourist hangout.  How could it not be, with its rich history and beach proximity.  First things first: Nicoise salad prepared by a French woman.  Ah, to eat fresh vegetables again.  We were lucky to be in area during a month-long arts festival, and after a lazy day joined the audience of a local dance exhibition.  Indian dance is thoroughly entertaining, and it was easy to see the influences of this ancient dance to Bollywood-style dancing today (which dominates 99% of the TV channels here).  Only in India – the Tourism Minister’s face taking up 1/3 of the stage backdrop front and center.

Despite our ABI attitude, we had dinner plans at a local restaurant which we kept.  As you’ve read so many times on the blog, it truly is a small world after all.  The name, L’Attitude 49, lit up the driveway, which we were sure couldn’t be referencing the 49th parallel which separates (somewhat) Canada and the US, marked in Vancouver by the Peace Arch.  However, greeting us was the former owner of Chutney Villa, a Vancouver Indian-food restaurant institution where we have been many times.  Her new place has some distinct Vancouver touches like beams that look of natural wood and clean, white lines.  We enjoyed one of our favourite meals of modern Indian food.

The Eastern coast of India was also affected by the 2004 tsunami that ravaged Khao Lak, Thailand (where we were two weeks ago).  When the water receded 2 kilometers offshore, it uncovered a chain six ancient temples linked to the one left above ground, known as the Shore Temple.  The attempt to re-build these on land by having scuba divers move the materials was scrapped, and the temples remain underwater for curious fishes.  The Shore Temple is one large piece of rock carved into 5 separate buildings and including an elephant and a bull, built by Pallava kings in the 7th century.  We jumped on the back of a bull for a family photo, and were later joined by 15 new friends eager to be immortalized with some silly Westerners.

Also in Mahalibalipuram is the world’s second largest bas-relief, depicting god Shiva and scenes of Hindu myths and a cat performing penance.   Claudia and I have now seen the largest two bas-reliefs in the world after seeing the largest at Angkor Wat in Cambodia earlier in our trip.  We should get a star in our passport or something.

The town is also host to the Butterball: a massive, round rock balancing precariously on a rock slope.  It has not budged since it was first discovered the 7th century, despite the effort of earthquakes and the strength of 6 British-employed elephants.  Coming up with no rational explanation, you just have to chalk it up to Vishnu as the locals do.

After a morning of ancient Indian art and architecture by bike, we were tempted to take the afternoon off to relax out of the hot Indian sun.  But we happened to be in Tamil Nadu for the Pongal festival, and a local village (and Tourism India) was inviting foreign tourists to join in on the fun.  Pongal celebrates the harvest over three days, and it is marked by locals by painting bulls’ horns and decorating the sidewalk in front of their respective homes with colorfully-died rice flour (I think someone could make a lot of money by introducing coloured chalk).  As a part of the festival agenda, the village included Musical Chairs, I think to get some entertainment from the visiting foreigners (we understand this isn’t traditionally part of Pongal celebrations).  Claudia convinced me this was a good idea, so I joined 12 others at the front of the assembly.  Soon enough, the 12 dwindled to 1, and my opponent could not match my lightning fast reflexes (or my extreme competitiveness), and I was crowned Musical Chairs Champion.  They did not mention winning included addressing the entire festival, but giving a speech is not as difficult when your audience enthusiastically cheers everything you say.  Next up was clay pot throwing, an Indian version of the Mexican piñata.  Claudia was not left out of the limelight – everyone wanted to know how we liked the festival, including a local TV station.  After ceremoniously stirring the festival dish, a rice pudding cooked in clay pots on cow pies, I returned to find her swarmed by reporters and cameras.  At the conclusion of the festival, I was happy to accept a carved elephant which I have named Pongal and pose for photographs with about 40 local politicians (after all, this is India).

-from Camille

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We start our India journey in Fort Cochin, an ancient trading post with strong Portuguese, English, and Chinese influences, and more importantly, finally some decent shopping. Camille and I were in desperate need for a few more long sleeved shirts on rotation for our last three weeks of travel- I think I speak for both of us when I say I’m looking forward to my wardrobe again!

We spent our first two days in Fort Cochin (when we weren’t hiding from the heat drinking lime soda) checking out a 1.25kg gold crown gifted by the Portuguese to the ruling family in the 1700’s, seeing India’s oldest European-built church (about 80% of India is Hindu, but some areas of the South are Christian), and checking out the Commonwealth’s oldest Synagogue.  We watched the sunset from the seawall over Chinese fishing nets, a legacy from the court of Kubla Khan in the 12th century.

We ventured out at night to experience a traditional Keralan dance called the Kathakali – decorated artists (men) depict mythological characters from Hindu stories only with movements of their eyes and hands, accompanied by two live drummers and a singer that play off the facial signals from the actors. Sounds weird but it was incredible.

From Fort Cochin we took a hot, sweaty train to Waynad. This was our first introduction to Indian train travel and romantic it is not- the smells, heat, and dust is overwhelming. Thankfully Waynad is a forest reserve and higher in elevation, with cooler temperatures and very few tourists.

When I say few tourists, I mean few non-Indian tourists- little did we know, it was school picnic day in Kerala the next day! Our hike to a local waterfall was packed with Indian school kids who all wanted a photo with my dad. Hilarious. They were so cute. We must have posed for at least 20 photos before we escaped. I think I have a small idea now of how annoying it must be to live somewhere and always have tourists taking your photo. We were wearing running shoes and hiking gear- the Indian women braved the challenging trail in gorgeous saris and little heeled flip flop sandals.

After the waterfall, we headed up to the Edakai Caves, where you can climb to see 3000 years old petroglyph. One thing we’ve found funny about Indian attractions is you’ll typically see two or three dates attached to each event or item- you can ballpark the age by taking a median of the three.

We finished our day enjoying a late thali lunch at a gorgeous, quiet lakeside spot. Thali is a South Indian dish of fluffy local rice, traditionally served on a banana leaf, with sides of spiced vegetables, curd, and chutneys to be mixed in with the rice with your right hand. We were ravenous, which is a dangerous combination with thali- it’s basically a vegetarian all you can eat! We watched the sun go down with full bellies and a bottle of local Kingfisher Beer.

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We file off the airplane, shuffle nervously through customs, collect our backpacks, and step out into the sea of waiting faces.  After waiting for a few minutes, we see my dad stride towards the arrival terminal – a familiar face in a foreign place.  He steers us toward the taxi stand not wishing to repeat the 2 hour bus trip he had just endured to meet us, and off we go.

The India in my head is formed by the many books I have read – A Fine Balance, Shantaram, White Tiger, and many others.  However, we were not in Dehli or Mumbai, we were in Fort Kochi, an ancient crossroads of many cultures in the 12th centuries and onwards.  The city is strikingly civilized, minus the goats roaming the streets and affinity for public urination.

One of the lovely differences between Asia and India is the clothing – “Gucci” and “Prada” are (thankfully) replaced with exquisite colours and patterns of the women’s saris.  Most women wear this, some covering their head and hair with a scarf, some wearing the pant/tunic combination.  Men on the other hand are either dressed in a typical Western uniform – trousers and a button up shirt, or the dhoti, a long skirt that sometimes gets rolled up with the heat to become a lungi.

Internet is much harder to find here, even in the tourist district (explaining the tardiness of this post). The Indian is delicious  – our most memorable meal so far was at a vegetarian place serving an Indian wrap of Indian bread, slightly crispy with a buttery sweet flavour, with paneer and vegetables.  If only I could find one of those in downtown Vancouver…  We also thoroughly enjoyed the pumpkin masala. The tuk-tuks here sound better than Asia, making an authentic tuk-tuk noise.  My dad has joked about importing some to Vancouver and racing around Stanley Park.  (Apparently they’re only $500 bucks each- anyone interested in a new business venture?!)

India – so far, so good.  We have a busy two weeks of travel ahead through the South to wildlife reserves, old temples, spice and tea plantations, palaces, and will spend the last 5 days of our trip relaxing on the beach in Goa.  I have yet to see the famous Indian head-wobble, though my eyes are peeled…

-from Camille

One last day in South East Asia.

We woke up on Koh Phi Phi an hour late, for the first time both of us sleeping through two alarms. We mobilized quickly and in 10 minutes were packed up and out the door to catch our boat to Kuala Lumpur. We had hoped for a good breakfast and some solid wi-fi time before the 22 hour journey ahead… not meant to be.

We had a relatively painless boat to the mainland and bus to the Thai border town, until we boarded the small bus to the Malaysia boarder. About two minutes into the trip, we realized we had left our iPod charging in the wall of the travel agency. &#%!!  Amazingly, the driver was very friendly (for what felt like the first time in Southern Thailand) and our iPod was delivered to our van by a motorbike two minutes later.  Huzzah.

We then boarded a large charter bus for the overnight trip to KL.  As soon as the bus started we knew it was going to be a long ride- the bus was about the temperature of Siberia and despite pleading the bus driver to turn the AC down, it just wasn’t happening.  Sleeping pills were a life saver- we were too sleepy to get too upset/cold and managed to squeeze in a few zzs. We arrived into KL at about 4:30am and stumbled around Chinatown with our two new English friends, Chris and Phil, finding a total dump for 40 ringits (about $13- KL is expensive!) which worked to pass out and start a new day fresh(ish).

KL is a big food city and for one day we were determined to try as much of it as possible. Down a narrow alley near Chinatown lined with food stalls and packed with locals, we found our lunch spot.  Picking a table at what looked like the busiest stall, we asked the guy sitting at our table how we should order- he politely suggested he order for us.  Shortly after, fantastic noodles and wonton soup arrived at our table which we enjoyed while chatting with our new friend about his job, football, and life in Malaysia. He insisted on paying for our lunch to welcome us to KL.

We had a great day touring, eating, and shopping. We met the English boys for dinner at a recommended streetside restaurant. After a good meal, we were to meet some expats we met on Koh Phi Phi for a beer at a pub close to the restaurant. No problem, right? So wrong.

We spent about 45 minutes looking for the right street, and decided it would just be faster to get a cab there. Mistake. After a 15 minute circle tour of the city, we finally ask our cab driver where we were going. He then pretends he doesn’t speak English (funny, he was speaking just fine five minutes before…) We convince him to pull over and insist that we’re not paying for his unofficial and unwanted city tour, and walk away.

5 minutes later realize- $%&! – we’ve left our iPod that we were using for a map in the cab.

We quickly headed back to the place we left the cab, and upon finding the driver still there, Cami realized he had no idea about the iPod – and we should leave it that way. We told him we’d pay him a fair price if he took us where we were going, and got back in the cab. Reunited with the iPod- phew!

He STILL didn’t take us to the right place but we cut our losses and got out. We hailed another cab to take us back into the area we needed- and just guess what he did.

We vowed never to take a cab in KL again. Well, until the next morning, when we were late for our bus. But our third and final driver was lovely- turns out his wife is a racewalker on the Malaysian National Team. He apologized for our cab difficulties, and delivered us to our bus in the nick of time.

Off to India we go.

-from Claudia

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It’s hard to re-join the backpacker world after a couple of days with people you know and love, especially when it’s pouring rain. Luckily, we were well stocked with organic dark chocolate (thank you, Chomiaks!) to ease the slight homesickness, which faded completely the next day when the sun finally broke out from behind the clouds.  With our spirits restored, we set out to hike to the lagoon, a salt water pool in the middle of the island with our new friend Tom.  I’m sure he was later cursing himself for following us crazy Canadians.  The “path” (aka not so dry waterfall) was pure mud.  Gingerly at first, we pulled ourselves up the steep slope, later giving way to the inevitability of absolute filthiness.  The trek was definitely only suited to those with a strong sense of adventure – luckily, we have double ;).

That evening, we watched the sunset from the beach and enjoyed Thai food overlooking the ocean.  Our entourage quickly grew with people we met over the day, and dinner transitioned to the classic Thailand evening festivities of Chang beer and dancing.

Claudia and I woke up painfully early the next morning to catch the ferry to Koh Phi Phi.  Despite the deluge of vacationers and backpackers, we found a friend from home Harry Jones walking down the street!  It’s a small world after all.

We did have a little bit of stress when we were told the road to KL was flooded and wouldn’t be open for a few days.  Panicked, Claudia and I immediately started researching other options – an expensive and very long ferry to Malaysia or an expensive and inconvenient flight.  Before handing our money over, we double checked with a couple other places on the island who reported no such flooding.  Lesson learned – do not make big decisions without eating breakfast, without getting at least two opinions, and while on a slight Chang-over.

Our stay on Phi Phi was unexpectedly delightful, even if it was for only a day – we rented a kayak and checked out a secluded beach bay, found a cat napping in a beer fridge, met some great people in line for Papaya Restaurant, and danced the night away with our new friends at the beach.  A great way to bid adieu to Thailand.

-from Camille

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When I found out my university housemate from 4037 Locust Katie and her family were going to be in Thailand on a family vacation, we made sure our itinerary had us there at the same time. After graduating from UPenn, we all went our separate ways – Katie now lives in Washington DC working for NBC, so we only see each other once a year or so. Her family invited us to stay with them at the beautiful Marriot Resort, complete with the longest swimming pool in Asia! Our two days here were true bliss. We thoroughly enjoyed the breakfast buffet satisfying our Western food cravings of the last two months (feta cheese, olives, sushi, smoked salmon, capers, eggs benedict… the list goes on), watching the waves lap onto the shore from beach loungers while alternating between the Economist and In Style magazines, enjoying a Thai massage on the beach, and biking to a local waterfall. The true highlight of course wasn’t the resort or the food, but spending time with the lovely Chomiak family.

Over Thai food for New Year’s Eve dinner at a hut on the beach, we all reflected on our resolutions for 2012. Thinking about our objectives for the New Year also inspired us to think about our conclusions from travel. Something that Claudia and I have found that Anne of Green Gables puts so nicely (free download on iBooks!):

“Kindred spirits are not so scant as I used to think. It’s splendid to find out there are so many of them in the world.”

At the end of the night, we released large lanterns for good luck, the fireworks sparking as they rose into the atmosphere, sipped on champagne while watching a fire show and fireworks. We were a bit misty saying goodbye, but new adventures beckoned!

-from Camille

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We’re in India! We have a queue of blog posts on the laptop, looking for a good internet connection to post! There is an absence of wifi, something we didn’t expect from the IT capital of the world.

It’s fabulous so far- fantastic food, beautiful scenery, and very friendly people. We’ve asked ourselves a few times, “is this India?” (Some of the smells remind us that we are.)

Alive and well, expect updates from the rest of Thailand, adventures in KL, and our first few days in India soon!

-Claudia and Camille

baby it’s better

down where it’s wetter

under the sea!

It’s easy to get entranced under the water following a trumpet fish or a lion fish or a clown trigger fish – but for me, what’s amazing about diving is stopping, weightless, and taking in the schools of fish, big tunas, garden eels, and coral all together, everywhere around you.

The Similan Islands are a marine national park on the Andaman Coast, considered one of the top 10 dive sites in the world. They are incredible- smooth granite formations covered in rainforest and edged with white sand beaches, surrounded by turquoise blue water.

We took a two day, one night liveaboard trip. The weather was perfect, the food was delicious, AND we saw a turtle and an octopus. We agreed it was the perfect Christmas gift for each other.

– from Claudia

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