Saturday, February 13, 2010

India, for real this time Pt 2 Kerala and Goa

India, for real this time
Pt 2 Kerala and Goa
We made our way back from Jodhpur to Delhi to catch our flight down to the beaches of southern India. Our first stop was Varkala. A cliffside town full of backpackers, massages, cheap, excellent seafood and pervy Indian guys.  This place was a welcome change of pace and might as well have been a different country from northern India. There were still touts and all but they all had beach spirits. They wouldn't bother you all that much and wanted to relax as much as anything. So we found a great place to stay about 100 meters off the beach with a huge room, clean bathroom and a little private veranda. The beach itself is at th bottom of a 80 foot cliff that you stair down to hit sand. The top of the cliff lined with restaurants, shops, massage spots and Internet cafes. The beach is full of sun worshiping westerners and peeping Indian creeps. There are policemen on the beach patrolling the beach with the sole purpose of keeping Indian men from walking around perving on the women in bikinis!  There is something askew when you have a society so repressed that men get their jollies by taking a peek at woman's arm or leg, but that being said there are plenty of guys on the Jersey shore doing the same thing. I guess the staus of women in India and the false front put towards human sexuality was one of my biggest problems with India, but hey I'm just a visitor. So the beach town wasn't spectacular itself but the respite it offered us was incredibly important and vital for our sanity!
We'd heard of this local massage that they offered in Varkala and decided that we should give it a go. We found a place near us and scheduled a time. We get to the "spa" and we each get masseurs. Nicky and woman and a man for me, they made it an extra point to assure us that we would each get same sex masseurs, sure whatever I thought, I would figure out why soon. So we go to our rooms and there is a table and a stool and some oils, all looks fine. Ok so I'm asked to get in my underwear and sit on the stool I'm getting a head and neck massage, cool. He guy then proceeds to take off his shirt and wraps his little skirt style thing into a sumo-esque diaper, a little disconcerting but I'll go with it for now.  The guy starts by pouring a shit-load of oil on my head and starts-a-rubbing for a good 15 minutes. I'll be honest it felt pretty good and the guy was working hard and it we hot in the room, so that explains the shirt-off. So the head massae is done and he says ok take off he rest of your clothes and lay on the table. Now I see a sheet on the table but don't see a towel to cover up with. He sees me look around and gives me a nod towards the table. Well shit I got nothing to be ashamed of so off come the drawers and I hop up on the table, when in Rome and all. 
So out comes even more oil and this guy is is taking this seriously and proceeds to give me a thorough if not slightly awkward massage. By the end I was relaxed and greasy as hell. I shower off with their "organic" soap and shampoo and still feel as slippery as an ell. The towel is more like a piece of cheese cloth and it's all a bit comical but fun none the less. 
Our next stop is up the coast to a small town whose name escapes me at the moment. Anyway we're on the train when we run into these 2 young locals asking if we're on our way to town and they tell us about this place that they play music at and work etc. We're a little weary of the pitch but one of he guys reminds me of Luke back in NY. I'm not sure why but he looks a bit like him and plays guitar and sings. So we agree to check the place out and has a bit of a hippy commune feel and we dig it so we stay.  Anyway we're in this town to find out about the backwater tours that they run through the little villages etc. Most of the houseboats are a couple hundred bucks so we find out about the local paddle tours. These are run by local villagers and they paddle you in their dugouts around the little back channels of heir villages. We figure that we'd rather give our money to a local guy rather than a tour company so we book it for the next morning. We head back to the hippy spot and sure enough Indian Luke shows up and gives us a big smile and chats a bit before he gets his guitar out and starts playing. It seems like everyone that works there plays an instrument and they all join in. We got drums, bongos, guitars and singers. They're singing Beatles, Oasis, Stones everything and we feel a lite surreal sitting and watching but we had a great time. 
Next morning and our guy is there to pick us up for the boat trip. 
We take the ferry to his town and we walk to his house to pick up his canoe. The whole village is criss-crossed with canals instead of roads and it is awesome. We meet his wife and two cute little girls along with his mother and father and brother. They all share this 2 room house that can't be bigger than a NYC studio apt. They are the epitome of hospitality and are all smiles. The girls are smiling and hiding behind their mother's skirt feigning shyness. So off we go on the tour and he paddles us around pointing out interesting landmarks along the way. It is quite beautiful and as it is in a small village everyone knows everyone. He waves and chats to his neighbors as we float by and we're as happy as can be. Lunchtime comes and he takes us back to his house for grub. His wife has prepared a hell of a spread including fried fish (tiny little silver guys) fried chicken, rice, chapati and some other curry. This is all served on banana leaves on their bed. That's right, they don't have a dining room so they lay it all out on their bed. I feel this weird mix of warmth and guilt as we eat this feast. I'm worried that we are eating more than they would in a week but then I figure that we are going to pay for the meal so it works out best for them. It's funny because they are so concerned that we are enjoying our meal that they keep coming in and checking on us to make sure that we are ok. It's true that the people that seem to have the least
material goods are the most generous and richest in spirit. After lunch we noticed that he girls had dressed up in their Sunday best. We asked and were told that there was a wedding taking place and pretty much the whole village was going. I took a bunch of pictures of the cuties and while they
pretended to be shy they quickly ran up to take a look at hemselves in the camera. So now it was time to head back to town, we thanked them all for their hospitality and off we went. 
We took a bus to a port town called Ft Cochin. A surprisingly cool little town whose claim to fame are the Chinese fishing nets that line the coast. We found it to be much more than that though. We arrived late and only had a chance to grab dinner and get some sleep. The next day we found that the town had a great Italian eatery run by and expat and had an amazing pizza and pasta!  Total surprise. We walked around looking to replace my terminal flip flops and stumbled across a good footy match takingplace between two kid's teams and the impressive part was that it was hot as all hell. It was in the upper 90'a and we could barely walk around let alone sprint. Anyway we stopped into every shop that had AC and discovered that the town had a bunch of little boutique shops with great stuff. Outside one of these places was where we met David Allen the best tuk tuk driver EVER. We explained that he had friends in Chicagothat come to visit every year, he proceeded to show us their number in his cell. He had named his tuk David Allen because after a couple of years visiting his friends from chicago David and Allen had bought him the tuk tuk!  Well this guy was super friendly and he told us that he would take us around for the rest of the day for like 150 rupees which was way cheap. He said not to worry about the price, if we liked the job he did we could tip him at the end, fair enough. Off we went to explore Cochin. We saw a fort and the port and Jew Town, apparently there used to be a small enclave of jews that had lived in town and we visited the synagogue that by now had a congregation of about a dozen chosen people. Our last stop was the spice port. Ayurvedic Medicine is a big deal in those parts and we were shown the warehouse where a huge variety of the essential herbs and spices were kept. This place was great, it smelt like a candy shop, perfumerier, kitchen and health spa from room to room. He would reach into bags and pull out some twigs, shake em and break a couple and he would have us sniff these amazing aromas. Some familiar and some totally alien. He would explain what each was used for and give us their western names. He knew it all, this David Allen and we appreciated it. The last room had golden raisin!  Natures's candy. I'm a bit nuts for raisins and golden ones are my favorite. I had to have some so I got David Allen to ask the guy to sell me some of his wholesale stock and I was as happy a a kid in a candy store. If I could have bought the whole bushel I would have. So he dropped us off at our hotel and needless to say we gave him a great tip. He just opened his shirt pocket and said "I don't need to see the money just put it in here". So we did. We ran into him
later that night and he came up to us and said thank you and gave us a lift to wherever we were going. 
Next stop Goa
We stayed in a beach town called Palolem in a great place run by a Brit and Swede couple called Home that had great food and an awesome beach that even the cows loved. We spent a couple of relaxing days there and finally got to do some yoga!  We recharged our batteries there before heading to Mumbai

Mumbai is like a cross between South Beach and Delhi. A real interesting city.  Out of all the places in India it is the only place that I could imagine living in if that tells you anything
We got to be a little metropolitan and had drinks on a hotel rooftop with the "pretty people" of Mumbai. We did a little bit of shopping here and had a great breakfast at the Taj Mahal hotel near India gate.  This was the same hotel that was attacked last year by the islamic fundamentalists and the work on it has pretty much been completed.  Security was pretty tight as it should be but the service was impecable. Elephant island had a bunch of ancient caves with carvings and statues all over, but to be honest we were a little burnt out and really needed to rest, plus it was hit as Hades.  overall it was a good final stop in India.  So with that we say goodbye to India. Quite an amazing country and obviously we only got to scratch the slightest bit of it, but enough to make us want to come back.  Off to SE Asia, first stop Thailand!      

India, for real this time. Pt 1 Rajistan

India, for real this time
Pt 1 Rajastan
Saying goodbye to Bhutan we jetted to Delhi for the start of our extended time in India. We'd spoken to a couple of peoe and they said that he second time you get to India you appreciate it more since you know what to expect and the bananas-craziness isn't so bananas-crazy. So with this in mind we ready ourselves for India redux. Delhi was a brief stop on ou way to explore Rahjistan. Agra, Udipur, Jaipur and Jodhpur are on the agenda for northern India before we head to Kerala and Goa for some beach time before Mumbai and then SE Asia. As a matter of full disclosure I am writing this on my iPhone on an overnight bus from southern Cambodia to Siam Reap so I may not have the sequence in exact order but all the things did happen.
Home of the Taj Mahal and Red Fort and not a whole lot more, but it realy doesn't have to be. Agra is pretty full on but luckily we are ready for it having just been in Delhi and the touts don't really phase us as much. A simple and stern no and they move onto the next lot. The events and trip to the Taj were uneventful but the Taj is jaw-droppingly epic. In the middle of an otherwise typical Indian town stands this testament to love that shames all other mortal's attempts at shows of affection. No matter how many pictures you've seen or shows you've watched walking past the gates and laying eyes on it takes your breath away. I'm not going to bore u with the history of the building, u can google that yourselves, but I will try to convey the sense of awe and solemnity that you feel despite the facts that there are tons of people milling about. The gardens are maticulously groomed and the fountains and waterways lend to the scale and elegance of the place. The marble glows, it litterally glows and your drawn to it like a moth. You have to take off your shoes before u ascend the stairs and it actually helps connect u to where u are. The cool marble soothes you from the heat of the day and each step heightens your senses. Inside the simplicity is elegant and the details and workmanship is unparalleled. Stone mosaic flowers of every color crawl up walls and dance along lattice work. It makes you forget that your actually in a mosoleum. The cavernous chamber has high reaching ceilings that lend a feeling of heavenly calm. The only structure was an enclosure wrapped in lattice that looked over the tombs below. The chambers on either side were similarly decorated and provided small nooks for a number of couples to sit and canoodle. Back outside we sat behind the Taj and just stared. We weren't the only ones staring, but most of the Indian tourists were looking at us!  This time they didn't just look they recorded it. We were asked to be in about 10 different groups pictures. Completely random folks all sorts. Young girls, families, random creepy dudes u name it they wanted pictures with us. Nicky was especially popular with the creepy dudes but they usually asked me if it was ok and I'd tell them that they could have a pic with her if I could have one with their wives, that usually ended the request. Apparently they wanted a pic of Nicky so they could go back and tell their friends that they bagged a western girl!  Cheeky bastards.  With the both of us were to show off their new western best friends. So we are now in a bunch of random peoples memories and scrap books, fair enough.  Anyway the Taj was the highlight of Agra, off to Jaipur. 
We start in Jaipur the pink city. 
So the pink city is the old home for the Raj and his family which has now been turned into a museum and arts and crafts co-op type place that really does have some wonderful artists working there and some not so great ones that create things that belong on dorm room walls. There's a great audio tour that goes along with the tour that explains the significance of the Tajs in Indian history as well as their symbolic present day role. The throne rooms and reception halls are resplendent in their gold, emerald, diamond clad oppulance and the chandeliers are tributes to French craftsmanship and seem to defy gravity by remaining attached to the ceilings. I tried to take a picture of one in the trone room and got chased by a security guard and had to erase it!  Damn. Anywayswe were being driven around the pink city and Jaipur by a cool tuk tuk driver that told us we should check out the Amber fort, so off we went. On the long road out he mentioned that I looked awfully Indian and I reassured him that while I am handsome I am not Indian, he got a kick out of that and asked me if I wanted to drive the tuk tuk. Well hell yeah, move over!  So I hopped in the front seat and took over. He wouldn't let me go too fast as apparently he wasn't aware that I am an excellent driver. So he let me drive for a while until we got near the fort and then I had to get in the back so he wouldn't get caught by the security around the entrance. The amber fort is a massive Goliath of a building situated on top of a tall ridge with protective walls encircling the land. There isn't a whole lot going on inside the fort in terms of artifacts etc but you do get to tap your inner Indy Jones and explore the halls and staircases that can be found in the most unusual places. While we were exploring we ended up geting a little lost and turned around and eventually found a group of guys in the same situation. We bonded over this and mimed communication to each other and eventually found our way back to the main courtyard and freedom.       
On to an overnight train for Udaipur!

 Have you seen Octopussy?  If u are in a pinch go to any backpacker spot in Ud at 7 and you'll catch a viewing. A majority of the movie was filmed in this lovely town and the charm is still there. Set around a large lake the city spreads up and around the surrounding hills with small winding streets cracking throughout. It reminded us a little of Venice in that way. We made our way to the guesthouse that was recommended in the book and we were really jazzed with the accomodations. We had a great room with pastel plastered walls and a rooftop restaurant with amazing views of the floating palace. This small island is actually a 5 star hotel that glows stark white as it hovers in the water like a low slung cloud. This was Octopussy's lair in the movie. As dusk moved in the first night the mosquitos came out and the deet and ice cold Kingfishers helped them stay away or go unnoticed. And at 7 on the dot the theme music known the world over started, 007 had arrived.  We spent the night relishing this town and looking forward to taking a look around.   Katy had told Nicky about a great cooking class in town so we went looking for it the next morning.  Luckily the place was only a few streets away and we booked a class for the next day.  Meanwhile we went and explored the town a bit and took in some sights, monkey temple here, Ganesh temple there really quite enjoyable.  We crossed the footbridge and had lunch in a great terraced restaurant seated in a veranda with views of the lake and the city palace, perfect. 
In Rajastan there are these paintings that they make that use old stamps as paper. These stamps aren't like the ones we are used to, these are about the size of a sheet of paper and are about 100 years old so they have this great aged quality about them. Well we had been looking for a nice one for a while and as we were waking through some small winding roads found an art school/ co-op. We took a look inside and got to talking to one of the students and he explained how the different levels of skill worked and showed us examples of the work. We found a coue that we liked and started negotiations. Now these pieces weren't particularlly expensive, but once you get used to haggling, buying things becomes sport. Ma, you would be proud of me!  I'm actualy a little worried that I won't be able to stop when I get back in the states, I can imagine myself trying to buy some coffee and a cake asking if that really the best they can do. Oh well. So after a couple days of talking with the guy we came to a fair price and off we went. 
Besides haggling with art students we took a little boat ride around the lake and got to go to the floating palace. Amazing place, wonderful gardens full of Franjapani trees and orange trees, a little floating paradise. That night we had our ckkoing class and we were really looking forward to finally cooking for ourselves. The owner of the shoo was a pleasant guy that walked us through the basics of Indian cooking. You need yourself a spice box he told us, with that you could prepare any Indian dish. I forget all the spices that were there but it smelt of heaven. While we were preparing the first course 007 came for a visit, the song echoed through the streets and our guys face gave a quick flash of familiar annoyance. I asked if he got tired of the movie and he said that he'd never even seen it!  He remembers them filming it 20 odd years ago and says that Roger Moore was a very nice guy, chatty etc but he never bothered to watch it but he could probably recite every line verbatim. Anyway we prepared some curries, chapati, chai, desert and got to ask him a little about Indian life. Chai, chapati, chatting and children the quintessential aspects of indian life.  We wanted to know how come there aren't many other cuisines in India and he told us that there were such a variety of Indian food that there wasn't a need. He rattled off a bunch of different curries to give examples  Now I like a good curry as much as the next guy but you could only dress up curry so much, it's still curry. We asked about the beer in India and he pointed out that Indians don't drink for pleasure they drink to get drunk so whiskey is their choice. But drinking is frowned upon as it lends to a poor reputation so it is usuall done in private, only in homes and never inter-generationally. So a father and son would never have a drink together and women would most certainly never be caught drinking, you wouldn't be able to marry them off if they got the reputation of a drinker. Stange to us but fair enough this is why we travel. The meals were excellent and we had a great time with our host. Off we went to sleep it off and head to the next town in the morning.
Jodhpur,  the blue city
Anchored by a clocktower in the central market this heaving mash up of everything under the sun was same same to the markets we'd seen thus far and since we only had a short time to visit here we had to hit the highlights the Maharajah's palace, this one was in amazing condidltion and was a particularly proud symbol for Jodhpur. The tour was narrated by the current Raj and it added a wonderful touch of hospitality.  As we walked up the steep walkways we were told a story about the building of this palace. It seemed that  originally a hermit had lived on the spot where the palace was to be built. Now u know hermits as well as I do so he wasn't to thrilled with being told that he had to get up and go. He decided to throw a curse on the building saying that there would never be water available as long as the fort stood. Well this scared the early raj and so he went to consult his priests etc. They told him that a great sacrafice would be needed to break this curse. Well what to do...up steps a brave soul and he says that he would be the sacrafice that they need. So as we are walking up the ramps the guide points to a marker on the wall and tells us that this is the spot where this brave soul was buried alive into the wall.  I thought it would be a prize sheep or something, but this guy was in the wall, pretty impressive.  
As we walked into the courtyard the raj would tell us about the day that he was crownded. His father had died unexpectadly and at the age of 6 or 7 this young boy was thrust into a very public and important role. Not that there were many political decisions that had to be made, but he was still an important symbol in the city, pretty heady stuff for a little kid. The courtyard is surrounded by tall walls with lattice screens all around. We were told that the screens were where the women used to stand behind and watch the goings on. Since at the time women weren't allowed to be looked upon this allowed them to see and not be seen, how considerate. These screens would pop up all over the palace especially hidden away in meeting rooms. The wives would be allowed to listen in on meetings and would later give their counsel to the Raj, so it was a bit surprising for me that they were valued for their opinions but couldn't actually be seen, but baby steps I guess.  That was is for our whirlwind tour of rajastan and we regrettably had to skip a few spots, but that gives us something for next time.