Saturday, December 27, 2008

Some bright building

Seeing as many are cooped up indoors with dull grey skies outside, I though this photo would be a booster for color-deprived eyes. This lime green building with red and magenta trim is in the town of Pondicherry, a few hours south of Chennai. It was one of many buildings in the "Tamil" side of the town that had decorative grillwork which included female figures. Definitely a noticable building!

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Christmas in India

Mid-December I began noticing bright decorations hanging in some shops, both in Chennai and then in Pondicherry. Large 3-dimensional colorful stars, garland, fake Christmas trees, lights, and cheap Chinese ornaments could be purchased by the passersby. In Pondicherry vendors around one of the old churches were selling sizeable Nativity sets.

India’s pervasive culture also has managed to intermingle with western Christmas traditions, forming a unique Indian flavor. In some homes people decorate a banana or mango tree instead of a pine tree. Instead of candles, some use the small clay oil lamps commonly used for Diwali. In the highly touristic site of Goa, huge celebrations take place on Christmas. Seen as the cradle of Christianity in India since St. Thomas arrived on the Kerala shores in 52 AD, Christmas is a large celebration throughout the south. Stew and appams (pancakes made of a batter of rice flour and coconut milk) are enjoyed in Kerala. In other south Indian states, murukku (a fried pretzel made of lentils and rice flour) are enjoyed. Rose cookies and other sweets are shared. Christmas services with their sweet hymns and chanting are accompanied with drums. Gift exchange is also common.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Christianity in India

While in Pondicherry we visited several churches. Like churches around the world, they too were preparing for Christ's birth. In the 1st century AD, St. Thomas ("Doubting Thomas") arrived in Kerala and set up seven churches and then traveled to southeastern India and continued to spread the Gospel. It was in Chennai where he was martyred and now buried within St. Thome Basilica. When the Portuguese arrived after Vasco da Gama discovered a sea route to India, they continued spreading the Christian faith. The cherished Mother Theresa was one such visitor, making India her home. Today India is home to over 25 million Christians - about the entire population of Australia! Over 3/4 of India's Christians (accounting for about 2.3% of the total Indian population) live in southern India.

India Fleece for sale

When the temps drop below 80F (26C) in south India, it's time for some to get out the fleece. This photo was taken in Pondicherry along a street where one could buy Gap and other American branded clothes (made in India) at cheap prices.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Kepi Caps

This policeman in Pondicherry is wearing a kepi, a red cap with a circular flat top traditionally worn by the French Army. Such headgear is one of many lasting influences of the French in the southern India town.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Ecole Francais - in India?

This weekend I went with a friend to Pondicherry, a coastal town about 162 km south of Chennai. Our 200 year-old hotel, once a spacious house with high ceilings, was located within the area once known as the "Ville Blanche," meaning "White Town". When wandering through this French section, one could almost be mistaken in thinking that they were in France. Street signs, the characteristic blue metal background with white letters, are written in French. Names of hotels, restaurants, and even schools also bear French names. A pleasant park is a short walk away from the beach promenade, replete with benches, a central stately white colonnaded government building, and leisurely strollers. Near our hotel was the Ecole Francais d’Extreme Orient, one of many grand French buildings painted in bright hues. Even the streets were cleaner in this area.
Pondicherry was actually one of several French colonial settlements throughout the country, part of a scheme to gain dominance over India and possibly oust the British. In the late 1600’s, the French began building up Pondicherry, transforming it from a small fishing village into a town with a strategic port. The English and French fought for control over the town until 1816 when the French regained control, lasting until 1954 when the French handed over the city. Although the city’s grand buildings were destroyed during the French-English bickering, the French stubbornly rebuilt on top of old foundations.

Today Pondicherry is a popular destination for French tourists. Ties to France continue to be strong.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Karthigai Deepam

As I was coming up the stairs to my apartment, I saw my neighbor creating a rather large kolam. Asking what the special occasion was, she told me that today was the Karthigai Deepam, a festival of lights celebrated in the Tamil month of Karthigai. In some households, the number of lamps lit are double the amount from the festival of Diwali, with the number of lamps doubled each day until Karthigai Deepam. Unlike Diwali which is celebrated throughout India, Karthigai Deepam is uniquely Tamilian.

After my neighbor deftly transformed the dotted grid of 8 points across on each edge of the hexagonal design and 15 points in the middle using fine rice flour, she placed five small oil lamps on the design. Because the family was in mourning (her father-in-law passed away one year ago), the design wasn’t as large as it normally would have been. In villages, she explained, the creation of the kolams becomes quite an affair, with a sense of competition to see who can create the largest or intricate kolam.

Invited inside her apartment, she gave me a sweet bowl of rice (which looked like Rice Crispies) cooked in jaggery (unrefined sugar made from the sap of palm trees) and shredded coconut. As I enjoyed the sweet treat, she turned on the TV, on which a live special celebration in Thiruvannamalai was taking place. As I had visited this holy place this August, I was particularly fascinated by how the huge temple grounds had been transformed into a near carnival-type atmosphere, illuminated with strings of white lights, fireworks, and mobs of people. My neighbor recalled the time she went to the event, uncomfortable with the sheer number of people. This year security was tighter, in light of the recent events in Mumbai. On the zenith of the hill I had ascended a few months earlier, a large torch was lit. Here it is believed that Shiva’s jothi (light of fire form that Shiva assumed) is visible on this night.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Steeple Scaffolding

This image is "scaffolded" from the previous construction photo theme. While taking photos of a Kerala-style church building in Trivandrum, I found an old man staring back at me when looking through my lens. Although the steeple was not very tall, the construction scene still looked rather precarious.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Church construction

Since I’m on the topic of construction, here are some photos of a church that is being built in my neighborhood. Note the rather crude scaffolding. No OSHA standards here!

Sunday, December 07, 2008

Piling on the Bricks

With a population of around 7.5 million, laborers are plentiful in Chennai. You see people sweeping the highways and roads with a broom, cleaning out the road drainage by hand (even during the rain), and conducting a fair amount of the construction with manual labor. This man carefully balanced himself as he proceeded to pile more bricks on top of each other, walking with the load on his head towards the apartment construction site. Watch your step!

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Get out those striped winter hats!

As I went out for my morning walk at 5:30, I actually felt a slight chill in the air. Not that it was cold, but for a place where temperatures rarely dip below 80 F (32 C), the morning temps around 70 (21 C) were a big change. While walking and then on my auto rickshaw ride to school, I noticed more people wearing those striped "hats" - essentially a wide knitted strip with an attached knitted band to tie below the chin. Older ladies with saris, men with shawls draped over their shoulders, children, and the many motorcyclists all donned these fashion headgear.

It reminded me of in Mali where during this time of year I would find the men huddled around the fire, wearing winter jackets and commercially knitted hats. Granted, the humidity during this time of year was very low. I received quizzical stares as I walked past them wearing only a long-sleeved cotton shirt, smiling as I enjoyed the morning air.

Now we'll see how I do when I go back to Wisconsin for Christmas....

Monday, December 01, 2008

Melissa's artwork of India

I have now posted the paintings I have done of India on my website. Two are done in color pencil, one in watercolor, and the fourth in pastel. Here is a sneak peek:

Soccer Net - or Water Polo?

Above are two pictures of the Gandhi Nagar Cricket & Sports Club. It is a favorite spot for young men who spend countless hours playing the country's favorite sport - cricket. During heavy rains the sports field tends to flood. Looking at the goal net reflecting in the water, one might wonder if they're looking at a water polo field instead....

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Cyclone Nisha's Aftermath

Although the cyclone has passed, we still are experiencing some after effects. Rain, albeit more intermittent, still likes to pour down in force. Streets just beginning to drain once again fill with water, making it difficult for pedestrians and motorists alike. Rivers and canals are now quite high, leaving only a few feet of space between lower bridges. I saw thatched huts submerged in the water, with only the sloped roof showing. Mud-brick thatched huts were also in danger of collapsing under the strain of so much rainfall. The family of my neighbor’s housekeeper had their house full of water. They stayed in my neighbor’s apartment until it subsided. How many others are in similar situations, with their simple homes built along the banks of rivers and canals? All total, 86 people perished in Tamil Nadu.

As for me, I am beginning to see the effects in my apartment. Wet spots on the wall and in the last two days I've found mold on stuff ranging from some clothing, leather items, wood, and textiles. Paper feels limp and damp. Yuck! I guess I know what I am doing tomorrow! If you have any tips on how to get rid of mold, send them this way.

These photos were taken a couple of days ago. The waters actually got higher, but I didn't want to risk my camera as it was raining. Actually, it's raining AGAIN!

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Cyclone Nisha and Chennai Floods

Today we had our first day off of school - not due to snowfall like I experienced last year in Belgrade, but due to the heavy rains associated with Cyclone Nisha. I couldn't find rainfall totals since the cyclone came on land, but on Wednesday alone, Chennai got over 5.5" (14cm). Considering that it rained just as hard today and there's more to come, the city will get a lot of rain.

I went for a short walk this morning when the rain abated for a bit, then later to my principal's house for lunch. Even in a few short hours, the water in front of their house rose considerably. The local cricket field once again resembles a pond. My neighbor later warned me not to go for a walk in the next two days, as power lines might be down and feeding electricity into the flooded streets. Indeed, over 22 people have died within the last 24 hours, mostly due to electrocution or walls falling in. One auto rickshaw driver got killed when a tree fell onto his vehicle. I thought of the poor people living in thatched huts near the rivers, canals, and sea. How many of their homes were flooded or destroyed? Considering the polluted nature of many of the region's rivers, I certainly wouldn't want that water going in my house! Once again, I realized how fortunate I am, as there are many who don't have a dry safe house to escape the rains.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Terrorist attack in Mumbai

This morning when I checked my usual websites as part of my morning routine, I saw the news headlines in which a photo of the Taj Mahal Hotel in Mumbai (Bombay) was on fire, with the headline reading that a series of terrorist attacks had been carried out late last night. Two five-star hotels, a hospital, and a train station were attacked, with an unknown Islamic group claiming responsibility. Details are still unfolding, but it is known that over 80 are dead and over 200 injured. Hostages may have also been taken. There are some reports that the terrorists at the hotels were seeking to find USA and UK passport holders. Cosmopolitan Mumbai is the economic capital of India and the places were carefully chosen for maximum impact - frequented by foreigners, the wealthy, and high-ranking people.

Two of my former colleagues in Belgrade are teaching in Mumbai. Thankfully their apartment is located quite a distance from downtown where the events took place. As a precaution, their school is closed for the day, with all told to stay home and lay low.

Chennai, located in the southern state of Tamil Nadu, is far away from Mumbai and has different demographics. It has far fewer foreigners (toursits and expats) and is less developed/more sleepy- if one can say that for a city of over 7 million people! There are also far fewer Moslems here. I also have school off today, thanks to the weather. Like my colleagues in Mumbai, I will stay at home, using the opportunity to get some artwork done. Do know that I feel safe here.

My First Cyclone

Yesterday afternoon the uncharacteristically strong winds invited the rains to join in. Since then, the rains have continued, at times quite heavy. From past experiences I knew that the ride to school would not be one to look forward to, but I had to leave anyway. One of the apartment residents was surprised that I was leaving, as the city's schools and colleges were canceled for the day. Not ours. Just like snowy days in which faculty & students felt like they should have had a day off, people were abuzz with the weather and the challenges they faced getting to school. For some, it took way over 2 1/2 hours just to get to school from across town. Thankfully, after school activities were canceled and everyone ordered to leave after the end of the school day. Instead of the auto rickshaw with its open sides I took to school, I got a ride in a car with a colleague. No splashing road water for me!

The reason for the sometimes heavy rain and strong (65 kmph) winds? Tropical Cyclone Nisha. Now over Tamil Nadu, this storm has caused flooding and up to 28 deaths, mostly due to electrocution or walls caving in. Many teachers (particularly those near the Bay of Bengal) were without power since last night. Not me! Finally one benefit of living near the Adyar River and not the sea. We were told to bring along our telephone trees and I saw many a teacher doing the "rain dance" hoping for a day off tomorrow. We'll see...

Monday, November 24, 2008

One Year On: "One Sunday Morning"

Just one year ago I was writing about a heavy snowfall which caused a freak chain reaction leading to an electrical surge that could have sent up the school in flames. That was in Belgrade, Serbia. Now, one year on, I am in Chennai India - definitely a world away. With "fall" temperatures hovering around the low 80's (27°C), snowfall here is but a foreign concept. Empty snow-covered hills are replaced with flat, bustling, puddle-filled streets. Instead of the Sava River view from my apartment, I smell the Adyar River. I now go to a large purpose-built school instead of a small one whose main buildings are villas. Serbian and American names are replaced by Korean and Indian ones. Getting around consisted mainly of hopping on a tram, bus, or walking. Now I get to school with an auto rickshaw.

I miss my friends and colleagues in Belgrade. I enjoyed the change of seasons, the old architecture, and ease of getting around. I remind myself that India has much to offer - so much to see, great shopping opportunities, and exposure to cultures totally unfamiliar to me. Although I will never blend in here, I do look forward to getting more familiar with Chennai, meeting more of the local people and experiencing its many cultural events and various sights.

Friday, November 21, 2008

St. Thomé Basilica, Chennai

San Thomé Basilica, located near Marina Beach in Chennai, is one of only three churches in the world built over the tomb of an Apostle of Jesus - St. Thomas, otherwise known as “Doubting Thomas.” An emboldened St. Thomas came to India in 52AD on the West Coast, preaching and setting up churches in the region of Kerala before making his way to the Eastern side of India, including Chennai. It was on a hill now known as “St. Thomas Mount” where he was martyred. The present-day church was erected over his tomb.

In 1956, Pope Pius XII elevated the church to the rank of a minor Basilica. Pope John Paul II also visited this important religious site.

San Thomé Basilica is built in the Gothic style, a distinctive landmark of Chennai. A large church, it is 155 feet in height with a nave of 112 x 33 feet and is filled with tall stained glass windows depicting St. Thomas and the other Apostles. The front of the church has a large crucifix sculpture of Jesus, with its kind eyes transfixed upon the viewer.

Off to one side a sculpture of Madonna and Child - “Our Lady of Mylapore” was encased behind glass, framed by a “curtain” of jasmine and other garlands of flowers. The basilica also includes a smaller adjoining chapel for mass, a small museum, gift shop, and a recently added entrance to the lower level where worshipers and tourists alike can view St. Thomas’ tomb without impacting services above.

I received a personal tour of the basilica, led by a young travel agent who proudly traces his ancestry back as a descendant of one of the original “St. Thomas Christians”. Some of the most important events in his life and that of his family took place within these walls – as well as being a central figure in daily life. The sky, initially a bright blue when we arrived, was now fading into an early evening sunset. In front of the church several men made preparations for carrying a smaller replica of a praying Mary around the church grounds.

See more photos on my website. For more information on San Thomé Basilica, visit this official website

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Do Videnja Yugo!

This morning I scanned the BBC website as I normally do every morning before I go to school. One article piqued my interest - Yugo production grinds to a halt. These cheap ($4,000) cars continue to be a mainstay in Serbia, owned by young and old alike. These cars definitely would not win prizes for their aesthetics & design (boxy & plain), nor do they win praises for safety ratings. Nonetheless, they continue to be a source of pride for Serbians, as one of the remaining symbols of former Yugoslavia. Like the country of its namesake, now the production line for Yugos is no longer. Do Videnja and farewell!

Monday, November 17, 2008

Riding the Jesus Bus

In Kerala, a sizeable percentage of the population is Christian. As in Chennai, it was common to see one’s religious affiliation displayed in the form of images and symbols on auto rickshaws and other vehicles. Here in Kerala, they go one step further, naming busses, trucks, etc. according to their religious affiliation. Here you can see the Jesus bus. Or if you prefer, you could take the Hindu Ammu bus!

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Jew Town Adventures, Kochin

With the morning to spare, we decided to visit Jew Town and its many shops. One of the teachers immediately realized that she left her backpack in the back of the auto rickshaw – complete with her passport and money. Immediately a person offered her his bike. Although she pedaled fast, she wasn’t able to find the vehicle. Soon a crowd mobilized, all offering to help. Through the deductive work of fellow rickshaw drivers and the tenacity of a police officer on a motorbike, the rickshaw was finally located. The driver delivered the backpack and all its contents – a happy ending. Shortly thereafter a TV station arrived to report on the story – our second time in the news during our trip to Kerala.

Relieved, we spent some time going through some of the many shops in the area. Some of the salesmen were quite sleek in their pitches. Unable to completely avoid the lure of the dominantly northern-India crafts, we all emerged with shopping bags and fewer rupees.

For lunch the manager of the homestay cooked us a briyani rice dish with chicken and sauce. It was another example of the warm Kerala hospitality. As we sat on cushions on the hotel’s rooftop, it was hard to believe that our trip was drawing to a close.

Aware of the distance to the airport, we decided to "splurge" and take a taxi instead of trying to cram ourselves and baggage into a rickshaw. A wise choice. At the new-looking airport with Kerala-inspired architectural elements, we were disappointed to see our flight delayed. Not much to do but wait. There we met the French teacher at our school. Her animated conversations helped pass the time until we boarded the plane. An hour later, we were back to the bustle of Chennai.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Kathakali Dance-Drama

Now dark, we walked from our hotel to the location of the kathakali story-play, a highly-evolved classical form of dance, drama and music dating back about 400 years. We arrived early enough to see part of the make-up application process that usually takes about four hours. Symbolic colors, comprised of mineral pigments and lamp black, were surprisingly vibrant. A white paper frill was then attached to define the jaw line. While the all-male actors were finishing their dress-up, one actor came on stage and explained the basics, emphasizing the importance of eye movements/gestures and special sign language. Starting rather modestly, the music and movements became more rapid and emotive, with the two main characters twirling in their voluminous colorful skirts until good finally triumphed over evil. I was glad I was able to sample the famous Kerala Kathakali dance drama, but I don’t think I’d want to sit through the all-night performances held in temple courtyards during religious festivals.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Fort Kochi

Not having a detailed map, we were unable to ascertain where the bus station was located relative to our destination – Fort Kochi. Thinking that the auto rickshaw drivers in this metropolitan city were simply charging us tourist prices for a short distance, we were surprised as the driver took us farther and farther, across long bridges until we finally reached the natural harbor of Fort Kochi. Feeling a bit guilty and grateful we got a ride that far, we gave him a bit more money.

Dropping off our stuff at the brightly painted homestay, we began our exploration of this Heritage Zone. A rather compact area, one could visit the pleasant park, see the Chinese fishing nets, and enjoy the myriad of historical architecture erected during the Dutch, Portuguese, and British occupations. St. Francis Church, built by the Portuguese in 1502 and one of the oldest churches constructed by Europeans in India, had its simple façade scaffolded. Other buildings of note included an unusual –looking mosque, the ornate Santa Cruz Cathedral, and some charming restaurants/shops.

Many auto rickshaws were around, but I told the drivers that I preferred to walk. One told me that if I got in his vehicle and went into a large shop mere steps away, he would get a liter of fuel. I admired the handicrafts and textiles in the store but didn’t purchasing anything. In the driveway, the driver was waiting for me. I once again re-iterated that I preferred to walk, but he insisted and said that he’d take me around for free. Realizing that I didn’t have a whole lot of time before the concert that evening, I decided to take him up on his offer. He took me to the true spice warehouses, through the thick-beamed entryways and into the rooms with spices and ayurvedic plants/medicines ready in large bags for export. It smelled so good. With the lighting now golden, we arrived at Jew Town. Unfortunately the synagogue was closed, so I took photos of the exterior and other neighboring buildings. The entire area here was full of shops selling textiles, jewelry, and other goodies for tourists.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Munnar Town

Back in Munnar for the evening, we took advantage of the opportunity to buy some tea and spices grown locally. The prices for cardamom and masala were quite a bit less than what they were elsewhere. Ayurvedic medicines were also a popular purchase for the town’s tourists. While two teachers went to purchase a Communist flag, another teacher and I enjoyed a cup of tea at a small Christian-owned shop located in the market area. Just before we were about to leave, the lights dimmed and then the power went out in the entire market area. Calmly the store clerk lit the handy candle, anticipating the generator in front of the store to be started any moment. Soon the market was filled with the sound of generator engines and fumes of fuel.
For our evening meal, we ate at another restaurant popular with the locals. Our food was served on a banana leaf. Curiously, our waiter had coral-colored nail polish on his fingers – a bizarre sight.

Following an early breakfast of toast, jam, butter and oranges, we thanked our hotel hosts and walked down to the bus station. Our bags were getting heavier and bulkier. Thankfully this bus driver wasn’t as heavy on the horn on the same twisty narrow roads. Not wanting to slide into our seat companions at every turn, holding onto the bar on top of the seat in front of us became a habit. In the early morning light we could see kids walking to school, churches perched on top of hills, beautiful homes, and tall poinsettias lining the road. Waterfalls, both large and small were spotted as we passed by. After a short while, passengers began shedding their layered clothing, the temperatures quickly rising. By the time we arrived in Cochin 4 ½ hours later, humid heat was once again upon us.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Eravikulam National Park

During the afternoon we visited Eravikulam National Park, located on the border with Tamil Nadu. The highest peak (2,695 m – 8,842 ft) south of the Himalayas is located here. This park was established during the 1970’s with the aim of conserving the endangered Nilgiri tahr, a rare breed of mountain goat. In fact, the park harbors the largest surviving population of this agile goat.

Walking along the paved path, we spotted quite a number of the tahrs, some quite close. With dense clouds obscuring the view, it was sometimes difficult to spot the wildlife. In areas with lighter fog, one could see the dense shoals – tropical montane forests unique to the Western Ghats. Small waterfalls and streams could be spotted along the path. Recalling the photos we saw of the blue kurunji flowers that transform this landscape into a sea of blue, I tried to imagine how even more stunning the view would be. Sadly, the kurunji flowers bloom only once every twelve years, the last time in 2006.

Sunday, November 09, 2008

Munnar Tour

The following morning, the tranquil sight of mist-shrouded hills greeted the early riser. Singing birds performed a duet with gentle radio. The sun punctuated the foggy morning, casting its warming rays across the otherwise cool temperature. From our hotel balcony we could see the green tea plantations, large bushes of flowers, and people beginning their daily chores. Such a contrast to the hot, crowded, and loud Chennai that we left just days earlier!

(our only) Organized Tour
Taking our only organized tour of the trip, we boarded the government van. While some of the stops were worth a photo or two, the sheer number of souvenir stalls with tacky stuff was enough to spoil the scene. For those with more spending money and time, one could also take a speedboat, paddle boat, ride an elephant, or try one’s hand at horseback riding. Trout Lagoon was rather pretty though, with its tall eucalyptus trees rustling in the breeze and high hills reflected in the still waters. Litter, as noted elsewhere in Kerala, was rather uncommon.

As we were driving along, we noticed several vehicles stopped along the side of the road. Down the steep hill in the clearing were three elephants, including a baby. Out in the wild, seeing these large animals was a treat.

Tea Plantations
While driving through one of the many tea plantations dominating the Munnar landscape, we spotted some workers in the field. A large green sack was draped around the women’s heads. Around their body was a vinyl-looking sheet, probably to help protect against sharp branches. Gathering and cutting was done by hand. Considering the large area covered by the estates (about 65,000 acres), it amazed me just thinking how these manicured-looking landscapes were accomplished by human hands. Our driver’s wife was one of 37,000 tea workers, working long hours and earning a salary of around 100 rupees ($2.11) a day. Modest housing is provided, but as the schools are inadequate, the driver had his children stay with relatives in Chennai for schooling. Sadly, the monopoly company TATA (which also has its hands into so many aspects of the Indian economy) owned most of the estates.

Going still further up the winding hills, the van stopped at one of the higher peaks, located near the state border with Tamil Nadu. Thick mist shrouded the hills, creating an even more serene atmosphere. The bushes, trimmed to a height of 1 – 1.5 meters, appeared to flow as they hugged the undulating landscape, its ripples being the spaces between the plants. A truly breathtaking, spiritual sight.

For more information about the tea plantations in Munnar, visit

See my Munnar photos on Flickr.

Saturday, November 08, 2008

Bus Ride to Munnar

With no train going into Munnar, the only form of cheap public transportation was the bus. Arriving in Kottyam a few hours later, we took advantage of the layover time to eat and get a few provisions. Wanting to ensure we had a seat on the bus, we arrived plenty early back at the bus station but had to wait until the appointed time anyway. Thankfully we all got a seat, something we appreciated especially with the winding roads and long journey.

In typical Indian fashion, the bus went rather fast, liberally honking its loud horn at pedestrians and vehicles alike to pull over and make way. Patience was not a virtue. Even when a vehicle was spotted coming in the opposite lane, the driver still pulled out to pass, barely making it into the correct lane before colliding. I was amazed how the driver could share the narrow roads with logging trucks and other buses. Even in villages where there was a “no honking zone,” the driver chose to ignore the signs and continued blaring the horn.

Following a rather lengthy break to gas up the bus, the elevation suddenly increased and roads became very twisty and curvy. On top of the hills one could see churches. Near one church was a funeral procession. Other hills bore the marks of terraced farming. Along the way we also saw rubber tree tapping, an elephant, and a few waterfalls of varying sizes. Albeit later than expected, we finally arrived in the town of Munnar and its cool night air.

Friday, November 07, 2008

Kettuvallam Houseboat Ride

Serenaded by the auto rickshaw driver, we arrived at the spot where we would start our houseboat ride aboard a kettuvallam. To get to our boat, we passed through a slightly bigger one that was receiving its annual maintenance. With the old thatched roof covering removed in some spots, one could see the framework created out of bamboo and tied together with coir coconut fiber ropes. Our boat had two bedrooms (each with a small bathroom), a back kitchenette area, and a sizeable covered balcony in front. It was here that we spent most of our time.

Once used to ship rice, spices, and other goods in the region, these beautiful boats later became living quarters for royalty. Riding the modernized kettuvallams down the backwaters is now at the top of the list for tourists coming to experience Kerala. Although the basic design is similar with curved roof/sides dark Anjili wood for the main boat portion, variations did exist in look and amenities. Some had a “double-decker” with an upper balcony. Others went beyond the average 67 feet (20.4 meter) length, accommodating an extra bedroom. For those demanding luxury, boats with air conditioners and satellite TV could be rented.

After pushing off with a long bamboo pole, we were now sailing smoothly through the rather still waters, with the motor barely discernable. Other kettuvallams dotted the waters, their relaxed passengers waving or busy recording the experience with a camera. Also sharing the water were boats of various sizes, including some canoes hitching a ride behind kettuvallams. Throughout our boat trip we spotted locals wearing umbrella hats, which provided shelter from the sun and also the rain.

We had entered an environment dominated by water and lush groves of coconut palm trees. Through breaks in the groves we could see large rice paddies. In the fields people could be seen hunched over, sickles in hand. In one field I saw a combine at work. The smell of freshly cut rice grasses reminded me of cut hay on our farm. People expertly walked along the boundaries of the paddy fields and river banks – from where they came or where they were going was hard to tell, as there often weren’t any buildings in sight. Small villages dotted the river edge.

Just as I had on my magical boat trip up to Timbuktu, meals were eaten on board. Fish, was a common element, just as it had been on the Niger River. Coconut was used in many dishes, including a cabbage salad, the main dish sauces, and dish of green beans. In the afternoon a small boat pulled up to our kettuvallam. Our boat’s cook selected a giant prawn for each of us, a wonderful filling treat for supper. Somehow we managed to find room for tasty chicken curry.
In between chatting, reading, and eating, some of us decided to test out the waters. The waters were refreshing, and being able to swim in our bathing suits without being stared at was welcomed. While jumping into the cool water was easy, it took a bit more strength and effort to get back on board.

For the evening, we docked at a village in the region of Kuttenad. While two teachers got an oily Ayurvedic massage, another teacher and I opted to take advantage of the late afternoon light and walk through the village. Children in school uniforms soon gathered around us, some asking for pens, chocolate, or money. (In Mali the villagers also asked for pens “bics”, candy “bon bons”, or medicine).

As the sun began to set, we got into a canoe piloted by an old man. A teacher was asked to paddle at the other end. From the vantage point in our canoe, we were able to glimpse into the homes of people lining the canal edges. Through the open doors we could see the single ceremonial brass candle lit, with the sounds of chanting gently accompanying the sounds of nature. In other homes, the flickering illumination of a TV dominated the room. Rather fancy homes were scattered in between simpler ones. Litter was rare.

Nearly finished with our canoe trip, our boatsman pulled up to a “pub” to get some toddy, the local alcoholic beverage made from coconut palm sap. A teacher even had to provide a plastic water bottle for the milky white-colored drink. Back on our houseboat for the night, we tried a very small amount of the toddy, which had now caused the bottle to expand to alarming dimensions. Just putting the glass up to my nose was enough to turn me off. I did take one sip just to humor the purchasers; it was more than enough, as the taste was disgusting. Dumping the rest of our glass’ contents into the river, we offered the bottle to our boat crew. Docked for the night, we figured they could have a drink – that is, if they could handle the assault on the olfactory and taste senses.

The now quiet village and pleasant temperatures provided a great sleep environment. The next morning was just as tranquil. A light fog enveloped the village and its waters. Kettuvallams lined the river edge. In the small cement niches of the river banks in front of homes people were taking a bath, washing their hair, or brushing their teeth. These rituals were performed fastidiously.

Reluctant to leave our serene village but eager to continue our journey to Munnar, our houseboat set off for Aleppy.

Thursday, November 06, 2008


Just a block away was our hotel, part of the backwaters tour package. Our rooms were at the top level, its interior walls created from woven palm fronds. Although pretty, those thin walls left little in the way of privacy.

On our way to the beach, we walked next to the city canal. Known as the “Venice of the East”, the waters in this Kerala town were teaming with canoes and small boats, escorting tourists and locals alike to other parts of the town. Once at the beach, we were treated to a joyful sight – kites flying, kids (of all ages) giggling as they splashed water on each other, beach vendors, and sand creations including a curvy woman sculpture. Family members held hands as they walked along the clean sands. Others enjoyed the relatively warm waters, with the women entering the waters in their saris. Was this air of delight a common one, or was it made extra special due to the Diwali holiday? After the sun finally disappeared beyond the pink-cast sea, we headed over to the nearby restaurant – another Indian Coffee House. Finishing our meal over fluorescent flashlight (power cut), we returned back to the hotel, tired after the long day.

Despite our fatigue, none of us slept well. Firecrackers pierced the night air in celebration of Diwali. Then the rain came as a downpour, its sound exaggerated by the tin roof. In the pre-dawn hours more firecrackers could be heard, along with the early call to prayer. Just as it became light, the crows began to do a tap dance on the tin roof, ending any chance to sleep. At least the day would be a relaxing one on the houseboat.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008


Shoving Match
Emerging from our air-conditioned train car, we now were in Kollam, a port town 71 km north of Trivandrum. Piling out of the 25-cent ride rickshaw, we were at the banks of the water, where backwaters tours could be arranged. After some negotiations in price and package, the designated taxi driver arrived to take us to the start of our canoe portion of the trip. Immediately the driver came up to the tour operator and pushed the then-stunned man. One of my colleagues came to the aid of the tour operator, breaking up the provocation through her gestures and forceful voice. After completing a written police statement, two auto rickshaws took us instead.

Canoe Ride in Ashtumudi Lake
The rather large canoe hewn out of thick dark wood then pushed off into the waters of the Ashtumudi Lake. Sharing the waters were some other canoes and the large Kerala houseboats known as kettuvallams. Soon we were in the more secluded canals and river waterways around Munroe Island. Coconut palm trees cast strong reflections on the still brown waters. Flowering bushes dotted the river edge, shored up with a protective stone barrier. Along the meandering paths walked young women clad in brightly colored saris and salwars, chatting merrily as they gestured with one hand and carried an umbrella in the other. Young children emerged out of their small homes, waving to us with unrestrained cheeriness. The soothing sound of Kerala music wafted through the air. Goats munched on the abundant green grass. Chickens clucked as they ran across the yard. Cormorants dried their spread wings, sitting on a branch. Occasionally we spotted a Kingfisher bird, perching in a tree or on electrical wire. Kite birds circled above.

Village Walk
A few times we got out of the canoe to meet some of the villagers. Here we observed a demonstration in which the fibers of the coconut were transformed into strands of rope, doubled and then twisted. Most of this rope would be exported to the US. At another residence we saw an assortment of herbs and plants used for medicine and food. Scattered about the yard were plants such as peppermint, tumeric, little hot peppers, ginger, black pepper, a special plant for the diabetic wife, beetle nut tree, jack fruit, pineapple, and tapioca plants. Watching the elder man of the house deftly hack open a coconut for us to drink, one teacher asked if people sometimes cut off a finger. In a convincing tone of voice, our boatsman replied “Well of course. Even this man has a finger missing!” Looking carefully, we realized that our boatman was once again exercising his sense of wit and humor.

Inquiring about the population of Munroe Island, our young boater told us that about 30% work in the Middle East. This probably helped supplement the sustenance farming, dominated by rice. Considering the 99% literacy rate of Kerala, I hope that those workers are able to utilize their education. Scattered throughout the island were Hindu temples, many of which employed the distinctive Kerala architecture including the red tiled steep sloping roof, triangular windows and entryway mantles. According to our guide, 98% of the islanders are Hindu, with only one large family being Christian.

Through the Canals
Going deeper into the canals we came across a pond-like area full of lily pads. Our guide scooped up one waterlily and deftly transformed it into a necklace with alternating color “beads.” In some areas we had to duck way down to avoid hitting the narrow bridges. Boating past a net-covered fish farm we noticed a dog peering out of a crude open-air doghouse.

Back onto the main waters we spotted the destructive contributions of man. Plastic bottles floated in the water. A floating pool of gas trailed a houseboat.

Contrasting this was the emerging sunset, casting a pink hue over sky and water. Still hearing the radio of the female singer, the scene was idyllic as our boatman poled his way along the final stretch.

Kollam Town and Beach
By the time we arrived in Kollam, it was dark. Dropping off our luggage at the hotel, we walked into the section of own near our hotel. Enjoying a very tasty meal of spicy chicken, we also sampled pastry at a very clean bakery prominently displaying its Christian faith.

Having some time before catching the ferry the following morning, we went to the beach just across the road from the hotel. All along the beach men could be seen squatting, using the sand as a litter box. We knew we would have to watch our step as we proceeded to the water.

Scattered throughout the beach were single flip-flops and sandals, reminding me of the lone socks that emerge from the washing machine/dryer. The strong riptide and waves kept crashing in, preventing us from getting to the calmer area beyond. Considering the dubious cleanliness of the sea, perhaps it was just as well.

See photos of the backwaters around Kollam