Over Pretty Mountains to Bustling Madurai

Today’s journey was fantastic. After a lovely sunrise, we headed up over the mountains on winding roads for several hours, and then on to the plains of the Vaigai River Valley. Sometimes the road was a torn up, potholed nightmare, and then suddenly it would change to smooth and easy, kind of an apt description of many of my Indian experiences.

Madurai is made up of mainly low-rise and colorful buildings, but it is huge and noisy and traffic-jammed nonetheless. Fortunately, tonight’s hotel is a 62-acre tree-covered oasis in the middle of the crazy, and when we arrived, music started up, flower petals were showered down from above, and a fancifully dressed man escorted me to reception under a colorful parasol where we were presented with cold clothes and delicious rehydrating drinks.

Later, we visited the Tirumalai Nayak Palace, which suffers with supreme neglect, and then the Sri Meenakshi Temple, which was majorly amazing, but again, no photos, only this time for security reasons.

I had a few brushes with authority today: first, after being frisked by security guards at the temple, I was sent out twice, once for my Fitbit and then once again for an extra SD camera card in a pocket. Later in the evening, I was escorted back to a police station and questioned after having photographed its front; that got my heart racing, but in the end I was not hauled off to India jail.

Here are some more photos. Hope you can see and enjoy them.

A room with a view.
That’s last night’s hotel there, perched among the trees.
From this . . .
. . . to that.
The offending photo.

Western Ghats, The Journey of Tea, And Not-So-Reclusive Goats

I should have done this earlier, but anyway, below please find a map of my trip. I’m down near the bottom now, heading eastward tomorrow.

Today was tea plantation exploration day, up and through the undulating green hills of tea bushes, taken in an Indian version of a Jeep over very uneven dirt roads. I also went to a tea processing plant, which was loads of fun with its countless gargantuan and jiggling machines to dry, separate, grade, etc., etc., the leaves, but I can’t prove any of that because photography inside is banned, trade secrets and all. I was able to photograph the women, some quite elderly, picking the tea, for which they are paid a pittance, in spite of the very hard work. As with the cashews, I’ll never view tea the same again. The visit also included a stop at a shop called Tea Tales, where various types of teas were sampled, and although you can get a sandwich there, you cannot buy any loose tea, nor can you order any hot tea with your lunch. Some sort of logic at work there.

Afterwards we visited Eravikulam National Park “which, with an area of 97 sq. km, is home to the largest population of the endangered Nilgiri Tahr, an endemic species of ungulates and is the state animal of Tamil Nadu.” We saw about 15, who have sadly become acclimated to humans, probably because said humans are feeding the goats right under signs prohibiting doing so. We also saw big, bushy-tailed squirrels. There are reputedly elephants, tigers, and wild dogs in the park, but they kept to themselves. A large, beautiful monkey was spotted by my tour mates, but not by me.

As for another type of wildlife, I’ve got some kind of very loud but interesting sounding critter in my room. Unfortunately, I was not able to communicate this effectively (it was a rather farcical non-conversation with me trying to imitate the calls or chirps to the non-English-speaking hotel employee), so I guess I’ll be sharing my room tonight.

Here are some photos. Hope you enjoy them,

Displayed in the informative tea museum.
Shrine in the national park.

Ok, Well, This Has Been Wondrously Pleasant

Lovely, peaceful, rural, quiet, internet free. I’ve just spent two days puttering along in the backwaters of Kerala . . . it’s places like this, I think, that cause people to imagine a heaven. It’s been warm, breezy and green, full of birds swooping and singing, giant fruit bats gliding across the water or snoozing upside down in their trees, and then there’s the slow and gentle living along the banks . . . wow.

We left the docks on a Sunday morning, and the waters were choked with pleasure boats, mainly weekend day trippers. But later in the day and on Monday, things quieted down and we were the only vessels on the water most of the time (bonus: our group is five, four tourists and the guide, but they had no boat large enough to accommodate us all, so I practically had a boat all to myself). We moored overnight, and in the early mornings, it was pretty much just me and the kites, kingfishers, herons, egrets, song- and snakebirds, until the water buses full of school kids and “commuters” glided by.

The locals, of course, use the waterways for everything: fishing, bathing, washing clothes and dishes, and brushing teeth, which is difficult for this Westerner to embrace. The traditional men’s clothing is a bright white lungi, a sort of complex sarong, and how it remains so pristinely white after being beating on a rock and rinsed in the brown water mystifies me.

The most popular local vehicle is a very narrow, long, wooden boat that sits extremely low in the water. Sometimes they’re used to haul huge rocks or sand and there’s a mere inch of edge above water; I don’t see how they stay afloat in a large wake. When herding ducks (!!) (see below), the men stand up in the boat, shout, use an oar to splash at the ducks, then use a kick-back with one foot to bail out the water they’ve taken on, all smoothly accomplished like a ballet, the ducks swerving along as one entity. Amazing.

Midday Monday, we pulled up to a bern between rice paddies, and one of the crew hopped off the boat with a machete and lopped off some banana leaves: our lunch plates.

After mooring in the evening, we took walks along hard mud paths through villages, greeting kids, grownups, cows and goats, catching two gorgeous sunsets.

We puttered by a boat bus stops, Christian churches with distinctive South Indian flavors, and a Communist meeting. I saw boats stenciled with “Rural Uplift Centre” used as mini taxis.

There were three crew on my boat, as kind and friendly as could be. It was weird for me to be addressed madam this, madam that, would madam like . . .

As the hours and the days passed, I sat near the bow, feet up, gazing upriver. Sweet, sweet, sweet.

We head for the hill stations now . . . What a journey this has been. Here are a bunch of photos. Hoping you enjoy them.

Continue reading Ok, Well, This Has Been Wondrously Pleasant

Kingdom of Coconuts

Kerala, the land of coconuts! It’s a very tropical place, and distinct from other Indian states: it’s cleaner and the literacy rate is the highest at 95%. Vasco de Gama perished here; it boasts the oldest European church in India (1503). They don’t speak Hindi. Ayurveda is widely practiced. It’s on the Arabian Sea along the Malabar Coast (geez, that’s cool to report!).

Yesterday I mentioned the area’s similarity to South Florida; one main distinction is that fishing boat crews don’t chant as they haul up the fishing nets, not that I recall anyway.

I learned a new word today; the guide spoke of the elderly, and then included the youngerly.

The evening concluded by attending a Kathakali dance performance; yet another superior travel experience. Hope you enjoy the photos.

A bit of Vegas, my tour mate suggested.

Ok, Well, That Was Unpleasant

I’ve taken some marvelous train journeys – Australia’s Ghan and Indian Pacific and the sleek French TGV come to mind – but last night’s Indian train journey was anything but. I’d both been aware of the level of train service in India and knew that this overnighter was on the tour itinerary, but I’d assumed from the standard of the hotel accommodations that the train trip was to be acceptable, maybe comfortable, definitely clean. But you know that saying about making assumptions . . .

Prior to boarding, our tour guide had much repeated, “No visit to India is complete without an overnight train trip.” After boarding the train last evening, my tour mate much repeated, “This is grim.” So, ok, my India trip experience is complete; I have had my India overnight train experience. Please don’t make me ever do it again.

Alas, most unfortunately, we have one more such journey. Yuck. Photos not available. Use your imagination, and then quadruple the ick-factor.

Anyway, the purpose of the train journey was to get us to Kerala in South India, and here we are. It is very much not as I had romanticized, and actually reminds me of Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

We took an evening boat trip around the harbor and the several islands in the bay, and there was a dramatically beautiful sunset, but alas again, my camera wasn’t feeling well and I wasn’t able to get a perfect shot. Do what you can with these.

Goa in Some Detail

Oh baby baby it’s a wild world . . . You can’t hide your lyin’ eyes. These are the lyrics I hear coming from a bar on the beach as I write this on my little patch of gorgeous outside my room. So, yeah, Goa is pretty Western after all.

Although the tour itinerary touted this day as “relaxing and exploring at leisure” that was not the case. But it turned out to be good thing even though I had certainly been looking forward to a day of la dolce far niente.

We began the day with a local guide who took us through Velha (old Goa) and the churches of Igreja de Nossa Senhora do Rosário, the Basilica of Bom Jesus, the church of St. Francis of Assisi and the Chapel of Santa Catarina (I think). The guide, whom I liked very much, is a trained classical Indian dancer; she showed me some videos of her performances and did the awesome neck slide so famous in that type of dance. Pretty cool.

Next we visited a spice farm, where I learned some cool stuff about various spices, but the last act of the day turned out to be something I won’t soon forget: a visit to an Indian cashew processing facility. I will never, ever look at a cashew – something I eat quite a bit of – the same.

Enjoy the photos.

At first I thought this Saint was taking a selfie. Everyone takes selfies. All day. All the time.

Goa Via Mumbai

Today was mostly a transit day, leaving Udaipur on an early flight to Mumbai (nice airport!) and then another flight to Goa. Then a two-hour drive to the hotel.

The first words spoken to me by a Goan: “We’re Western; we don’t say ‘namaste’ here.” Which turns out to be untrue, by the way.

The tour company books a variety of hotels; this one in Goa happens to be rather posh. Sadly we’re here only two nights.

Here are a few photos to mark the day and take advantage of reliable internet. Reliable, that is, when the electricity is on . . .

The view from my room.
Said room.

Udaipur Redux Redux

I forgot to mention in yesterday’s post that we visited a collective of artists, some of whom paint traditional miniatures. One of the tiny brushes uses camel eyelashes for fine painting; the even finer strokes use squirrel-tail hairs. I was told the eyelashes are removed from camels who died, but the squirrels are distracted with peanuts before being plucked. This information was imparted with complete seriousness, but I think some Indians enjoy fooling the gullible.

Anyway, this morning we visited the gardens called Saheliyon-ki-Bari and then attended a cooking class where we ate the finished product. I have decided I’m moving to India in order to eat this fantastic food morning, noon, and night. And go on a yoga retreat. And be awakened by the sounds of the early morning worship. And maybe start a trash pick-up awareness program . . . India is indeed incredible, and also very trashy.

As for the tailor made clothes . . . That didn’t turn out as I expected. I had this idea that being measured and having clothes made especially for me meant they’d fit well and accentuate the positive, but OMG, that was not the case. See photograph below of one pair of pants I had made.

The day ended with another lovely roof-top dinner. I had a dish called Dum Aloo Kashmiri, and it was so unbelievably delicious. Heaven in a bowl.

Here are some photos. I hope the image of my new “pants” makes you laugh.

One of my neighbors.

Udaipur, Redux

Today we explored the narrow streets (yikes!) of the old city and paid a visit to a Hindu temple and the City Palace, which was so crowded, it being a Sunday, that I can barely remember anything besides the queues and the shoving. Later in the day, there was a boat ride on one of city’s five lakes, Lake Pichola, which was considerably calmer. After that, I was fitted for tailor-made clothing, a first and exciting experience, and then dinner at the roof-top restaurant of the hotel. Delightful.

Here are some photos. Hope you enjoy them.

Rich kids’ toy: a gold tractor.
Elephant jewelry!

Live all you can. It's a mistake not to.

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