Archives for the month of: February, 2012

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!

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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