A Travellerspoint blog

Fort Kochi/Munnar, Kerala

by gabrielle

sunny 87 °F

I met a girl in Charleston this past spring who had just travelled to India and she went on and on about something she called the “Indian head wobble,” I was intrigued but quickly forgot about it. Now, about 3 weeks into our trip I can agree that the head wobble is serious around here! The head wobble always comes after you ask an Indian a question. For example, “is it okay to sit here?” the wobble meaning yes could be best described as a balloon wobbling from the bottom as it slips through your fingers and floats up to the sky. A question like, “is the temple that way?” might receive the “unsure” wobble which is a combination of the side to side wobble and a nod. We rarely get a wobble that suggests a resounding “no” but the closest would probably be after offering a bargaining price that seems too low. This response is usually the side to side wobble a bit up tempo accompanied by a chuckle meaning “are you kidding?” We have yet to fully grasp what wobble means what although I feel we’re getting better. In fact, we are so consumed with figuring out that Swhite said out of no where as we were trying to fall asleep and not talking, “I think that wobble from the women on the bus did mean that she wanted my seat…darn.”

Now an update on our current locale: Getting to where we are now from Mysore was quite possibly the most outrageous bus ride yet. The driver zoomed like a bat outta hell down a seemingly endless slope dodging potholes, tailgating within a foot of the vehicle in front of him all the while laying on his horn. Absolutely unnecessary and terrifying to be perfectly honest (sorry Mom, but it’s true!) We were slightly relieved when we noticed all the locals seemed nervous too and the Indian man next to Melanie verified that this driver was indeed mad. But we survived and went on to have a great week in Fort Kochi.
We have been in Fort Kochi in the Southern State of Kerala for the past week. It’s a quaint little island town on the Malabar Coast. This area is known for its backwaters and tea/spice plantations. The backwaters are similar to the Florida everglades I believe and one of the major bragging points for the locals. The three of us decided to do a 7 hour tour through the backwaters on a long 30 foot-ish house boat looking vessel. Our guide was crazy and adorable as he explained always with dramatic pausing and repetition about the two products being made along the river. We stopped for lunch, took a treacherous ride around a smaller island in a tiny, tippy canoe, ate spicy food on banana leaves, and then made our way slowly back to where we started. It was a beautiful trip, but we were happy we didn’t pay lots more to do the overnight.

Melanie ditched us on Thursday and Sarah and I went to the beach called Chennai on the island north of where we are staying. As the only westerners in sight we were nervous to shed our clothes and get into the ocean. We were glad we did because the water felt great since it was the hottest day yet. We intentionally chose a spot where no other Indians were hanging out because our glowing skin would be quite the spectacle. It didn’t take long for a small crowd of about 8-10 male passersby to stop and wait for us to get out. We stayed with only our heads above water for about 25 minutes extra until the crowd dispersed and then made a break for our clothes. No harm done.

Over the weekend Sarah and I decided to do an overnight to a small town called Munnar in the mountains. From the flyer, the pictures reminded us a bit of Ireland with the lush, green, rolling hills. The ride up was steep and curvy the warning sides on the road had a legit “Z” instead of a cautious “S” squiggle arrow. We stopped to see 3 baby elephants and 2 enormous adult elephants get their bath in the river on the way to the mountain. It was so cool! (pics later)

Our homestay in Munnar was a sweet little bright blue building right smack in the middle of the mountain. Our host was great and he made some pretty bomb Keralan food. The view was absolutely stunning! It was a pretty foggy day so the pictures don’t really do the place any justice and I am convinced anyone who visits would agree. Once there, we took a tour of the tea museum and learned about how the area had been developed into the successful, morally upstanding tea hub it is today and has been since the early 19th century. Day two was spent visiting various viewpoints, dams and waterfalls in the area. At one point we decided we could easily be standing on the side of the road on I-84 looking at the Columbia River in Oregon.

Today, our last day in Fort Kochi we decided to take advantage of the cheap spa treatments and got manicures, pedicures and our eyebrows done for less than $6 each! Something I could get used to for sure! Afterward we rented rusty, old, Ladybird bicycles and rode to the other town on the island called Mattancherry to visit the 400 year old synagogue. On the way back we rode through a school zone where we quickly attracted a gang of middle school boys in their uniforms eager to race and impress us with their wheelies.

After a super relaxing week we feel set and excited to take on Northern India over the next month. It’s supposed to be louder, brighter, more conservative and crazier all around so it should be interesting. Melanie has the computer so look out for more pictures once the trio reunites!

Posted by 3ifBySEA 06:59 Archived in India Comments (1)

Ahmedabad, Gujurat

Meli Baba flies solo (sadly, sans magic carpet)

sunny 85 °F

Ahmedabad, Day 1&2
Melanie

After only a week of traveling through India, I was frustrated that we didn't seem to be connecting with anyone here. I was worried that we'd be floating from place to place, looking and observing without interacting with any Indians who didn't want to sell us something. Last Thursday morning, when we arrived in Mysore, I updated my resume and sent it off to a NGO with a microfinance branch that I'd been introduced to through a friend of a friend. I told them that I would love to volunteer for one to three weeks if there was any way that I could help on such short notice. (A mere few hours later, we met our wild Indian friends who toted us around Mysore for several days. We wanted to meet locals and the universe provided. It's cool what happens when you throw an idea out there.)

Now one week later, I left Brie and Swhite in Kerala to fly to Ahmedabad. This city is India's seventh largest, and the center of Gujurat, India's richest state. The NGO is called Saath. The volunteer coordinator was out of town, and the woman helping me arrange my volunteer service could only recommend a hotel that cost $175 per night. Not really in my budget. I decided to try getting some information from some locals via CouchSurfing.org, a website that connects travelers with hosts who have a spare couch and penchant for meeting foreigners. I created a couch surfing profile, sent messages to three people in Ahmedabad, and the next day had three responses from locals excited to meet me and willing to put me up for a few nights!

Thursday afternoon Rusher picked me up from the airport, stopped to show me a beautiful Jain temple, and brought me back to the house he lives in with his wife, parents, and grandfather. His sister, her husband, and their adorable one year old baby happened to be visiting as well. Insta Indian family! Rushir took me to look at a few hotels in his neighborhood (which also happens to be where Saath is located). He left me outside with the scooter while he went in to check on prices. We found one that I can move into on Saturday. I was excited because it's on a bustling street with bright shops and restaurants crowding both sides, and everything looked relatively clean! This is a nice neighborhood, most of the buildings are in excellent condition (this is the first time I've seen a cluster of buildings that are not run down and dirty). While I was waiting with the scooter I was watching all the hubbub with a renewed sense of enthusiasm. Spending only a few hours with an Indian who didn't want or expect anything but conversation from me was fantastic! I was worried that I was going to severely dislike planting myself in the middle of one of India's largest cities for three weeks, but at the moment I'm quite pleased that I made the decision to stay in one place for awhile.

I showed Rushir and his family the clothes I planned on wearing to Saath. There were some raised eyebrows and then Rushir's mom instructed him to go fetch something from an upstairs closet. He came back with a few bags of hand-me-down Indian wear. I meant to get some more appropriate Indian attire before arriving here, but did not manage to do so. Now I'm set! Clothes look a bit dated, or maybe matronly, but I'd much rather wear them than my Ali Baba pants and a t-shirt. (A Muslim shopkeeper in Fort Cochin told Brie and me that we should wear Indian clothes. He said it was ok to wear foreign clothes in Mumbai and Goa, but that's it. As he spoke both Brie and I were sporting tank tops and knee-length shorts. I hadn't noticed any sort of negative reaction to our clothes, but I immediately became uncomfortable as the shopkeeper was talking. He was very nice about it, just sharing his opinion without any judgment. After that conversation it occurred to me that maybe our clothes have been inhibiting our interaction with Indians, particularly the women. I'm curious to see if my new clothes change the way people respond to me at all.)

This morning I arrived at Saath at 10:30am in my hand-me-down salwaar kameez with my tiffin (stacking metal tupperware full of rice and curry) slung over my shoulder. ( www.saath.org ) Divyang, the CEO of Microfinance, forgot that I was coming today and didn't get to the office until about an hour later. I was perfectly content. While I sat reading some info about Saath's initiatives, a woman came around the office handing cups of delicious ginger chai to everyone in sight. While I was sitting there an American who's interning here for two months introduced himself and sat down to chat with me. I admitted I didn't know much about microfinance and he gladly started spewing from his wealth of knowledge on social enterprise.

Traditionally development work has been done by 1) non-profit NGOs who fund raise to carry out their programs, or 2) for-profit corporation's charitable giving programs. Both of these models are dependent on money being available to hand out, and therefore always at risk when revenues drop and charitable giving is no longer a critical part of the business plan (as seen particularly sharply now in the current recession). Social enterprises attempt to take the best attributes of both scenarios. The social enterprise model is basically a for-profit enterprise with a social conscience. Saath is an NGO that works more like a social enterprise. None of the services it provides are free. Participants in the microfinance program, for example, have to buy shares of the bank (minimum $1 value), and pay interest on any loans they take out. I'll go into more detail once I have a better grasp on the organization and its driving principals.

Divyang explained that the job descriptions for microfinance employees have not been updated as their roles have evolved in recent years. My task here is to meet with all 54 employees (both at the head office and at the 6 branch offices in slums around the city) to write up new job descriptions. In part, I will be trying to identify where responsibilities have been jumbled up and down the organizational chart so those gray areas can be clearly assigned to one job description or another.

This is a bigger assignment than I was expecting to take on. I was hoping to finish in less than 3 weeks so I can meet up with Brie and Swhite sooner rather than later, but Divyang suggested that this is going to take 3 weeks "at a minimum". I think that if I focus and work efficiently, it will be very do-able. My first afternoon I read through the microfinance institution’s operations manual, and put together the first draft of a survey that I can use as a starting point when interviewing all of the employees (many of whom do not speak English, so I'll be working with someone from the head office who will translate everything...)

All in all, I am very excited! As microfinance is a field I have considered as my next career move, I'm eager to see it being implemented in a developing community, and how I might be able to contribute. Saath is an award-winning organization, I got very lucky in terms of being able to observe and learn from such a high impact NGO.

On the ten minute walk back to Rushir's house I bought some age appropriate clothing. Upon arrival at the house I had tea with the mother and grandfather, and then helped cut the ends off peas for tomorrow's lunch. Verging on cliche cultural immersion setting, but I loved it!

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A few interesting things I learned from Rushir:
1) Homosexuality is not at all an issue in India. Same sex intercourse was officially legalized last year, and same sex marriage is one the docket to be legalized next year. We've noticed that while men and women rarely hold hands in public, friends are very affectionate with each other. Men have their arms slung around a pal, hold hands, and rub each other's shoulders and legs all the time.
2) All of the cows and goats wandering the streets actually have homes! They roam free during the day, walking haphazardly through intersections and lying down in the middle of whatever they please, but always go back to whoever owns and feeds them every night.
3) I assumed that the lack of toilet paper in public places and hotels was because people carry around their own. Rushir explained that Indians don't use toilet paper (they think it's to dry and entirely ineffective). Indians have faucet and buckets next to the toilet; they splash water with their hands to clean after using the toilet. How they dry off from all that splashing remains uncertain... perhaps the reason for all the baggy pants and long tunics...
4) I was able to enlighten Rushir on one thing: freckles. No, they are not a disease. Yes, they are fairly common. No, I was not born with them, they appear in the sun and only fade a little during the winter. I got mine from Norway. The Vikings inserted them into the Irish, so both those countries have many freckled folk.

Posted by 3ifBySEA 22:53 Archived in India Comments (2)

We have photos!

click the following link to see the almost 300 pics we've taken in the first 2 weeks... sheesh!

0 °F

http://www.travellerspoint.com/photos/gallery/users/3ifBySEA

Posted by 3ifBySEA 01:47 Comments (0)

Mysore, Karnataka

by sarah

semi-overcast 70 °F

After our experience with the sleeper bus we decided to get a sleeper train out of Hampi to Bangalore in search of our next destination. Once we were on it though, we realized that it wasn’t much better. We’re still unsure about which type of sleeper train is the best bet, but we have plenty of time to test them all out. After our 10 hour train ride we arrived in Bangalore unsure of where we were gonna head next. We had heard that Bangalore was very similar to Mumbai and just another big, busy city so we decided to leave straight away. Our other traveler buddies we’d met had all suggested Mysore, and that was in the general direction we were looking for so went for it. Luckily there was a train leaving in half an hour so we didn’t have to wait long. The train was pretty full, so Mel and I had to end up sitting in the luggage compartments, but they worked just fine for us. By the time we arrived in Mysore we were all dirty, tired and hungry. After settling in to our new hostel we went in search of food. I asked a stranger for a recommendation and he directed us to a little restaurant that was ‘real India’ (no silverware). Later we were wandering around and bumped into the same guy again, Moula, who offered to show us around his city. We ended up having a great afternoon with him and his friends Syeed and Shaka-Laka aka Master Blaster (obviously that isn’t his real name, but he was the craziest person ever so that’s what we called him). We got a private tour of the market, a sandalwood working factory and were taught all about incense making and aromatherapy. By the end of the day we had personalized wooden ornaments of mango and jack wood, and vials of aroma therapy oils (medicinally charged perfume). Of course by the end of the day the crazy Shaka-Laka had fallen in love with me, and spent the remainder of our time together trying to win me over – he even told me that if I had a bindi and a sari I’d be ‘perfection’ – awesome.
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  • snake charmer*

The next day our new friends agreed to take us to an ashram nearby. It was a good idea to begin with, but we then got caught in a monsoon on the back of some scooters, and started to rethink the idea. Our friends didn’t seem fazed so we carried on. En route we pulled over to see a snake charmer pull his cobra out of a tiny basket, and as we left his monkey tried to wrap himself around my leg. The day turned out to be beautiful and a great place for our makeshift picnic we had brought. We even had a mini dance party on the rocks. On the way there and back we stopped for a tea break 3 times (it was like being in England again!) and of course us girls had to pee each time, and the lovely Shaka-Laka would always check if it was a ‘big job or small job’ – so so crazy.
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  • route to the ashram*

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  • another tea break*

For the first time in 34 years the end of the Muslim holiday Ramadan and the beginning of the Hindu festival Ganesh fell at the same time, and we were here in Mysore to experience both! We got Indian outfits made (Melanie was told that she is ‘strong like a dog’ whilst getting measured, and we’re still not sure if that was a compliment…) and purchased some pretty bindis to fit in with the locals. There wasn’t much to see for the Ramadan celebrations, but we were invited to Moula’s friend’s house for a real Indian meal, which was delicious.
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  • part of the Ganesh parade*

The celebration of Ganesh (Hindu god with the head of an elephant) seemed to consist of a lot of noise making and flower buying, which started in the middle of the night from the sounds we heard outside. But during the day time there was a parade that went all around town. Feeling confident in our Indian garb, and Gabrielle desperate to join and Indian dance party, we followed the parade around for a while. We spotted some crazy guys dancing and were invited to join them, which G jumped at the opportunity to do. Melanie and I were hesitant at first, but it looked like too much fun to not participate. In the end it was just the three of us with two Indian guys dancing with the biggest crowd around us. There was a professional photographer and video man there, so we’re pretty sure we’re gonna be on the news or in the paper at some point. (even closer to our Bollywood dreams!)
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  • shopping in Mysore*

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  • palace illumination with our bindis*

We met up with Moula and his friends again in the afternoon. They took us for a crazy ride in a tricked out rickshaw with a ridiculous sound system, listening to Wannabe by the Spice Girls on repeat. We’ve decided that that is our preferred way of travel from now on. Moula had warned us that they are the craziest Indian’s we’ll ever meet, and I don’t doubt that that is true.

For now we are still undecided about the next location, but I’m sure it can only get more fun from here!
Swhite/Chara/Whole (meaning of Sarah in Hindi...apparently)

  • *still waiting on wireless to post all the photos**

Posted by 3ifBySEA 00:32 Archived in India Comments (7)

Hampi, KARNATAKA

by Meli Baba

sunny 73 °F

Though only a couple hundred miles from Goa, Hampi was an 11 hour overnight bus ride away. It was a "Sleeper" bus. The image I saw on a poster when buying the ticket showed two people happily resting on body length berths with fresh white pillows and pretty blue curtains. At 8pm we climbed aboard a bus (likely older than me), that smelled of curry BO and stale urine. The sleeping berths were for 2 people each: 4 feet wide, less than 6 feet long (we know because our lanky British friend Alison is 6 foot exactly and did not fit), and about 3 feet from the ceiling. The berths ran up and down both sides of the bus with rows of reclining seats underneath them. My berth had 2 restraining bars running from pad to ceiling (I still feared falling) but poor Swhite had 4 feet of open space to plunge down onto the sleeping Portuguese/German menage a quatre that had formed at the back of the bus (where flying over speed bumps was felt the most). There was no plunging, everyone managed to stay in their berths through the night.

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Luckily Hampi was nothing like the bus ride. Hampi is known for its 14-17th century Hindu temples strewn about over several kilometers of phenomenally gorgeous boulder-covered terrain. I'm not sure what caused the rock formations, but what I gathered from a guide is that they are red granite in an old riverbed. This ancient river must have been massive to have played Jenga with rocks five times the size of a car. The boulders are stacked precariously in a fashion that made me genuinely doubt that it was natural. (Our photos don't do them justice at all!) As we were pulling into town I expected to learn that the past inhabitants of the area had spent hundreds of years hauling the rocks up on top of each other with an intricate system of ropes and pulleys. But no, all Mother Nature's handiwork.
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We were only in Hampi for two days, but easily could have stayed for more. The scenery was breathtaking every time I looked around me. The small town (only a couple thousand residents) is centered around a Hindu temple that soars over the bazaar and all of the multi-story guest houses. The temple has a resident elephant! If you give her a coin (by dropping it right into her giant nostril) she hands the coin to her keeper, turns around and "blesses" you with a pat of her trunk right on top of your head. So fun! She was very much accustomed to throngs of people petting her trunk while she stood eating from a huge pile of branches and leaves.

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In the afternoon we rented scooters to go in search of an ATM and a bear sanctuary that Alison had read about. (There are no bears in the UK - which makes sense but since we practically have them in our backyard I forgot that other people would consider them exotic.) At the ATM in a nearby town we ran into the charming Portuguese men from the bus who decided to accompany us to the bear sanctuary. We didn't really know where to go. At one point three of us were asking for directions at the same time, and each received a finger pointing us onto three entirely different routes.

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It was a 22 km ride to the sanctuary (which was a little scary, given the wee bit of petrol we'd bought for the scooters), but gorgeous! Scooters are just so fun. Zipping through ruins and sunflower fields, along rice patties and banana plantations, and passed hundreds of adorable Indian children ecstatic to rush out and yell out "hello! hello!" Even most of the adults walking along the road smiled at us.
The bear sanctuary was not quite what we expected. Guests can't mingle with the bears, but we spotted them from a viewing tower several hundred meters away. The scooter ride was well worth it, and the panoramic view from the tower was fantastic! There was some excitement on the return to Hampi. The Portuguese guys had gone on ahead (motorcycles are so much faster), but came tearing back angrily about 20 minutes later. Apparently when they'd been passing through a village the road had been blocked by a group of men who tried to charge 200 rupees ($4) for passing through their town. When the guys got fiesty (one tried to throw a punch) the men backed off and one of them said something about waiting for the scooters (that would be us, the stragglers with minimal horsepower). In the end the guys came back for us, split up so they could ride with Brie and Swhite, and told us to power through town. We did just that and didn't meet any resistance at all. One theory is that the Portuguese guys just didn't want to wait for us to put-put along slowly all the way back into Hampi, so they got us moving faster with the scare. I'm kidding. I'm sure they were saving us damsels from possible distress, but we did make it back much more quickly than when we'd arrived. Manuel was willing to push the scooter with two passengers much harder than Brie would.
On day 2 in Hampi we set an alarm to watch the temple elephant take a bath in the river. We saw the keeper scrubbing her down with brush, and then she showered herself with trunks full of river water. Classic elephant move!

We'd arranged to see the ruins with local guide. He was so tiny I couldn't tell that there was a second person on the back of my scooter. The guide (who's name I forgot but I know it means Monkey God) was about 5'2" with a perfect row of pearly whites. He was in his later 30s, graduated from college with a history degree a couple years ago, and has two children. He told us when the temples were built and what was happening in the art carved into all of the sides. My favorite fact was that the hundreds of 4 inch wide pillars supporting the ceiling of the Vitalla temple all have a musical ring when hit. When the temple was in use, men would play the pillars like a giant stone organ that could be heard for one mile in all directions!
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In the afternoon we wandered the bazaar street and took the scooters for one last joyride through the boulders. (We learned that "joyride" means car theft in the UK, so Alison was thrown when Brie was exclaiming about how much she loves joyrides.)
For dinner we went to Mango Tree. The address was "Riverfront, Hampi" and the food was delicous! We watched the sunset over the river and then fireflys started puttering about. Swhite told one of the restraunteers that they are called "fireflys" and he was thrilled with such a fun new word.

From Hampi we took an overnight train (also smelly and uncomfortable) to Bangalore. Now called Bengalru, this city is the flashy IT capital of India. The guide book talked mostly about its shopping, fine dining, and the beautiful and expansive Infosys compound that's not open to visitors. We heard from many people that it's even more hectic than Mumbai, and decided to move straight through and onto Mysore. Our express train took about 3 hours. The only place we could find to sit was (I believe) the overhead luggage racks. Yes, we got some odd looks.

  • **We are having trouble finding WiFi but once we do, we will post all 200 photos we have taken so far and attach a link to our Traveller's Point Photo Gallery***

Posted by 3ifBySEA 23:23 Archived in India Comments (3)

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