Sunday, October 31, 2010

Early Morning Teapickers

The next morning I said goodbye to my Ella friends and got into the van that would take me to Kandy. We kept the windows open, letting the cool morning air of the mountains inside the vehicle. Tea field plantations dominated the area, interspersed with steep grassy hills and government-protected forests. Waterfalls and streams gushed everywhere, seemingly out of nowhere. They were particularly plentiful in the tea fields. Finally we spotted our first tea pickers, who were just coming to work. After tying their lunch bundles onto bushes closer to the path’s entry, the women took their pole and picking bag and marched further into the field.

After passing through a few towns, the paved road ended and construction began. Due to the dustiness, we rolled up the windows and turned on the AC. Construction workers donned hard hats and flip flops. Some had plastic-looking face masks to help filter out the dust. Although more equipment was used than in some construction in India, a lot of work still was done by hand.
Along side of the road people had produce stands, each selling about the same items within a stone’s throw of each other. In addition to the usual fruits and vegetables, they also had for sale the smelly durian and jackfruit.

Friday, October 29, 2010

And the Cycle Rickshaw Driver Paddles On

In Chennai, the black and yellow auto rickshaws rule the road - at least in terms of numbers. With their small size, these vehicles deftly maneuver their way through narrow streets and the narrowest of openings between buses. In spite of the auto rickshaw’s popularity, their older cousin - the cycle rickshaw - still tries to eek out a presence and living in in the narrow streets of Georgetown and other older, more northern parts of Chennai.

On a typical day, a cycle rickshaw driver earns around 100 rupees ($2.25) carting people on short trips. While the cycles are meant to hold two people, some are modified with an extra plank to accommodate five. How difficult it must be to cycle that amount of weight around! While this might entice a family to ride, it does not necessarily mean more money per trip, because charges are typically based on distance. Only those with extra time on their hands, very little money, or a very short distance to go would opt to choose a cycle type over an auto rickshaw. A recent newspaper article interviewed a few cycle rickshaw drivers . With the meager earnings, they weren’t even able to afford housing - instead staying with relatives or simply staying in the rickshaw. If the driver does not own the rickshaw, then his earnings will have to be shared by the owner, who charges perhaps 25 rupees for rent. Despite the low earnings and hard work, one interviewed cycle drivers’ dream was simply to own a cycle rickshaw some day. Family tradition (many are 2nd or 3rd generation cycle rickshaw drivers) may likely have some bearing on that decision, but there must be more to it than that. And so the cyclist paddles on.

Nine Arches Bridge, Ella

Back in Ella with plenty of time before lunch (I was invited to Kasun’s house to eat), we got out of the auto rickshaw at the spot where logging was occurring. Alas, no tea picking was going on today in Ella either. Instead, we walked on a path through the forest following a stream until we reached what is known as “Nine Arches Bridge.” This landmark railway bridge was built by the British to help haul timber, tea, and other resources from the region. Next to the railway, a cow, tied to a tree, happily munched on grass, its bell tinkling. People were walking on the tracks, familiar with the timings of the trains. The high arches – all nine of them – were slender and graceful. Near the tops of the arches were large beehives. The insects, explained Kasun, chose this area knowing they wouldn’t be disturbed by people or animals.

Out in the sun, the temperature was warm, so we headed back into the shade of the forest. Retracing our path, we headed back into town where I picked up a clay pot of fresh curd (a favorite of Kasun’s mother) and then went to his house. There we had a meal of rice, green beans, dahl, fish curry, pampadam, and curd. After watching a “Dennis the Menace” Christmas movie borrowed from the cousin and looking at Kasun’s stamp collection and newspaper clippings of the civil war, I once again thanked the family for their generous hospitality and went to the hotel. Shortly thereafter, the Sri Lankan hotel guest family and I were invited to the birthday party of the hotel owner’s daughter. Although not hungry, I joined the others in having a piece of cake. Now how often does that happen in large-town hotels? Had I known about the birthday party, I would have skipped the evening meal, but I still did have some beef curry, vegetables, potatoes, and shredded carrots.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Handloom Textile Factory

We also stopped at a converted tea factory building now housing a textile business. Here, women worked on handlooms to create more utilitarian tablecloths, bedspreads, clothing, placemats, and other household textiles. The creaky wooden floors and overall look reminded me a bit of the granary barn on our farm. In the upstairs level, several women were working on the looms, with most of the light coming from the windows. One woman eagerly showed me how several looms and spinning devices were operated. Next she demonstrated how what I thought was a small design embroidered later was actually carefully added one row at a time, incorporated directly within the loom weaving. Through Kasun I asked her how long she had worked at the factory, to which she replied “40 years.” That would make her one of the original workers at the factory. While I looked in another room where more women were using Singer treadle-type sewing machines to make clothing, Kasun’s cousin was busy fixing a loom. After seeing some finished pieces, we moved onward.

Dowa Cave Temple

The next day we headed out in Kasun’s cousin’s auto rickshaw and headed towards the Halpewaththa Tea Factory for a tour. Unfortunately there was no production going on, since no tea had been picked the day before. I was invited to come back the next morning, but I had planned to head towards Kandy then. Equally disappointing, the only tea pluckers we spotted were way in the distance up a steep hill. So much for tea photos and tours.

The auto rickshaw coasted down the hill and then turned towards Bandarawela, where we stopped at the Dowa Cave Temple. While waiting for the attendant, we looked at the large standing Buddha carved into the rock. A sizable Bodhi tree (sacred to Buddhists) was adorned with streamers of Buddhist flags and some good-luck flags. A big skeleton key was used to open up the short doors, revealing old frescoes on the wall and ceiling. Lotus flowers were painted on the ceiling and some walls. Scenes of Buddha were painted in rows. Inside were two reclining Buddha statues as well as several seated figures. Newer rooms revealed more scenes of Buddha, depicted in a more realistic style. Through a back door Kasun showed me a cave whose entry (now blocked) once was connected to another temple.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Rawana Ella Falls, Sri Lanka

Instead of waiting for the bus, we began walking towards the waterfall. On one side was a temple – part Buddhist and the other portion for Hindu gods. Having also seen some women dressed in Muslim clothing, I inquired about religious tension here. Kasun remarked that this wasn’t an issue here. We then boarded the bus for 15 rupees a piece. Like Indian busses, these were without windows – but the floors were a lot cleaner. After taking a few photos at the base of the falls, we began climbing up the path to about the midpoint of the 19 m (62 feet) high waterfall. We saw others climbing up the rocks near the falls, even though there were signs specifically prohibiting this dangerous practice. Several calm pools were around us with their cold, clear water, a place where Kasun and his friends often went swimming during summer. Satisfied with our hiking for the day, I returned to the hotel where I had a nap and then shared a great conversation with the other hotel guests over tea and cookies. That evening I had another home-cooked meal, this time featuring fish curry.

Sidewalks are for....?

Having done a fair amount of walking in Chennai, I can attest that Chennai is NOT pedestrian friendly. Try to cross the road, even in a crosswalk, and you'll be waiting for a while; people don't stop. Walk signs (particularly working ones) are uncommon. IF a sidewalk exists, it's usually usurped by vendors and service people (i.e. the shoe repairman, tailor, or bicycle tire pumper). Or, it has become a parking lot for motorbikes, auto rickshaws, construction material, and cars. Trees and electric or light poles also occupy front and center, leaving little or no room for which to pass. Therefore, pedestrians are often forced to walk on the road. That can be particularly unpleasant after it rains, because the flooded streets require people to either walk further out into the street, slog through the filthy water, and hope you don't get sprayed by a passing vehicle.

In today's Hindu newspaper, an article reported that 42% of all road accidents in Chennai involve pedestrians. 34% of all daily trips involve either walking or riding a bike, with the facilities for both transport modes woefully inadequate. In a study for the Chennai Metropolitan Authority, of the nearly 1,200 km roads in the city, only 20 km have 1.5 meter wide sidewalks. Of 217 major traffic junctions, only 36% have pedestrian crossing signals. Since 1970, the percentage of people walking has actually increased. with reasons cited being impossibility of using cycles and cost of other modes of transport.

I would love to see wider sidewalks that are wheelchair friendly set up, with fines discouraging parking. Trees could be trimmed. More crosswalks need to be added along with pedestrian crossing lights. Motorists who fail to yield to pedestrians need to be fined. Underground or crossing bridges will also help. Certain areas could be made pedestrian-only zones. How about the re-introduction of the trams? What to do with vendors? That's much harder to deal with. Yea, I know I'm being overly optimistic that Chennai will solve its transport problem any time soon.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Hike to Little Adam's Peak, Ella

The next morning I was awakened by the horn of a train, which coincided with the time the residents of the small town began to go about their daily business. After breakfast at the Sun Top Hotel consisting of eggs, mounds of toast, freshly made pineapple juice and honey made from palm trees, I returned up the small road to Kasun’s house. With his brother and younger cousin joining us, we walked through the tiny town and up the road towards Little Adam’s Peak. Amidst the tea bushes was a large tin corrugated roof structure, from which sounds of kids, dogs, and chickens emanated. Kasun said that over 200 tea pickers lived there, many whom were from Tamil Nadu (India) or were Tamil in origin. In addition to speaking their native language of Tamil, these workers also spoke Sinhalese. He added that the tea pickers (always women) earned about 15 rupees (13 cents) per kilogram of picked leaves and could pick up to 50 kg per day. Many families had around five children, creating a financial burden. Up past the dwelling I saw Hindu temple in early stages of construction.

On the way up, I paused to look at my surroundings – and beautiful they were. Blue and yellow flowers dotted the embankment by the tea bushes. Trees popped up amidst quilted landscape of the tea bushes. Looking forward on the path, Ella Rock appeared in the distance. Buildings occasionally punctuated the green landscape. Kasun explained that there were four tea factories in the immediate area. The government owned the land, but rented it to the tea companies in exchange for part of the profits. Hotels were also going up, especially in the hills. Although they would have a beautiful view, Kasun was concerned about water availability. We also walked past a plot of land with its trees being cut down. These trees were planted by the British but are not conducive to the land (take too much water, not good wood, birds don’t like), so new ones are going to be planted to take the place of the pine trees.
Up more paths and some steps, we arrived at Little Adam’s Peak. Oh, what a green view! The steep slopes were covered in grasses. Nearby hills had grass and were tree-covered. Red busses made their way along the narrow, slithering mountain roads. Near Ella Rock we could see Rawana Ella Falls – our next destination. On clear days, one can see the sea and some lakes, but with the haziness of today, all we could see where distant bluish mountains. After taking in the view for a while, we headed back down the hill and into the small town. Here we had a snack of curd (made from buffalo milk) mixed with fresh fruit, as well as some tea.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Down a Friendly Path, Ella

Wanting to at least scope out part of the town, I took a hilly path past the police station and into a wooded area. Through the clearing, Ella Rock was visible above some tropical trees. Going past several small colorful houses, I had reached the end of the small road and so I turned back. At one house, I took some photos of eager children and their mothers. Next door, a grandmotherly woman came out and greeted me, asking if I wanted tea. (Thankfully there are many drinks with names common across languages, such as tea, coffee, coke, and juice). As she went to make the tea, I met her adopted sons, one of which was around 18 and the other around 25. The older son spoke fairly good English and eagerly showed me a school report he had made of Ella, with writings in both Sinhalese and English, and photos taken by him as well as postcards, etc. After tea and hard biscuits, the younger son asked if I could help him with Photoshop, of which I eagerly obliged. It was nice to be able to give back a bit, with the teen already feeling more confident with his new skills. When I bid the family good-bye and thanked them for their hospitality, the older son offered to take me the following morning to Little Adam’s Peak and some other local sights. Such generous people – something you likely wouldn’t discover so quickly in large cities!

That evening, I had supper at the Sun Top Hotel, consisting of homemade beef curry with coconut milk over local red rice. Okra, cassava, pumpkin, mushrooms, and pampadons were also brought out. Along with a drink, the large meal was about $4.50. Although some of the dishes were similar to what I’ve had in South India, they were less oily and gentler, probably due to the coconut milk. Back at my hotel room, the night was dark and quiet. Only the sounds of frogs and insects punctuated the silence. Lightning bugs flickered on and off, adding their touch to nature’s concert.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Train Ride to Ella, Sri Lanka - pt 2

Further up into the highlands, the train chugged through tunnels, some of which were rather long. Children in the observation car stuck their heads out the open window, shouting and screaming in the dark. Daylight once again revealed lush vegetation of the area. In some parts, one side of the train revealed a beautiful view of the valley below. The other side, by contrast, might only have the side of hewn rock quite close to the train window as a view. Passengers familiar with the area alerted me to upcoming large waterfalls, granting me time to go to the open train door and get a better shot. Occasionally misting, the high points of the mountain were enshrouded in rapidly-moving low clouds and fog. Coupled with the streams and waterfalls, it gave the area a sense of serenity. Still higher, the tea plantations were replaced with tall trees that were not of the tropical variety.

By now, the observation train was mostly empty. Most of the warm Sri Lankan families I had met on the train had now reached their destinations. Thankfully even the tiny train stations had their signs posted in the triple language. The train began a slight descent towards Ella, once again revealing some tropical trees. After peeking out of the doorway to see the station sign, I quickly grabbed my backpack and headed onto the platform. Here I was met by the owner of the small hotel, who led me on a tiny footpath behind the train station down a hill to where the hotel was. Apologizing for the unavailability of the room at his Sun Top Hotel for that night due to a couple who decided to stay an extra day, he had already arranged with the neighboring nicer hotel to accommodate me at the same rate.
Ella Train Station

 Comfort Inn, Ella

Train Ride to Ella, Sri Lanka - pt 1

Instead of touring one of India’s many destinations for our October break, I decided to visit its southern neighbor, the teardrop-shaped island of Sri Lanka. Arriving in the capitol’s airport at just before 4AM, I quickly made it through immigration, got my visa, and some cash to get me started. A city bus took me within a few blocks of the train station – much cheaper than getting a taxi. After purchasing a few local snacks for the train, I purchased a ticket for a seat on the observation car - less than $7 for what would be a ten-hour ride.

Train Ride to Ella
Morning light revealed rather flat land, with many rice paddy fields barren or flooded. Paths between the fields were also made muddy with the recent rains. White pinnacles of Buddhist stupas peeked between the palm trees. Moving slightly higher in elevation, we began seeing some rubber trees and plenty of bananas. Fields gave way to steep tree-covered hills. Rubber tires were placed as steps, assisting navigation up step paths to homes perched up high hills. Farming of the terra-cotta colored ground here was mostly restricted to terraced methods.

Between the trees, I spotted some tea bushes – the first of many to come. Soon the landscape was converted into an emerald green carpet of tea bushes, the hills and mountains appearing as if manicured by giants. Streams flowed through the fields, carving right through the plantations. Waterfalls of varying sizes became a common sight, emerging from forested areas and cascading down rocky slopes. Signs in Sinhalese, Tamil, and English indicated to which tea plantation the land belonged. The white of the larger buildings made it easy to spot the many tea factories dotting the area. Occasionally distant flecks of color were spotted in the tea fields, indicators of women tea pluckers. Near villages, plots of land was reserved for vegetable gardens. The mounded ground particular to that area reminded me of a Hershey’s bar. Auto rickshaws in a variety of colors scooted along the narrow road, with artificial flowers, pictures of religious icons, small statues, and writing distinguishing one from the other. Colorful Hindu temples, white Buddhist stupas, and green minarets (along with the occasional Christian cross) dotted the sides of the roads in towns.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Monday, October 18, 2010

Dambulla Cave Temple

My photos of the Dambulla Cave Buddhist Temple, a UNESCO World Heritage site in Sri Lanka dating between the 1st and 18th century

Tea hill and landscape

Tea hill and landscape, originally uploaded by melissaenderle.
Here are some photos of my travels through the hill station region around Ella, Sri Lanka. Lush, verdant beauty! 

Polonnurawa, Sri Lanka

Buddha and Guardian Stone, originally uploaded by melissaenderle.
Here are some photos of another UNESCO World Heritage Site in Sri Lanka, an ancient city complete with palaces, HIndu and Buddhist structures, and some beautifully carved Buddhas.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Photos of Sigiriya, Sri Lanka

Here is a link to my photos of Sigiriya, Sri Lanka. Sigiriya is the site of a UNESCO World Heritage 5th century palace, complete with water gardens, incredible frescoes, a lion stairway, great views of the jungle below, and 1202 stairs.

Ayudha Puja Time again

Already in the airport, I saw signs of today's festivities. One of the computer monitors had the sandalwood paste splattered over it. On the way home from the airport, banana stalks were flapping in the breeze, attached to the sides of the auto rickshaws. Motorbikes, buses, cars, bikes, and even the local recycling dude's tricycle cart had garlands of flowers and other decorations on them. Special stands were set up for auto rickshaws where they could get the TLC makeover treatment for their vehicles - wash and decoration. Over some businesses, one could find more floral garlands and hanging palm frond decorations.

Read more about this festival honoring/worshiping the implements of labor on my blog post from last year:

Friday, October 15, 2010

Sarawathi Puja

On the ninth day of Navaratri, the Sarawathi Puja is celebrated. On this day, all books and musical instruments are placed in the puja room of Hindu homes and worshiped. Sarawathi is regarded as the goddess of education and learning. Pictured is a kolu doll of this popular goddess.

Friday, October 08, 2010

Celebrating Navaratri

Navaratri is also known as the Festival of the Dolls. During this 9-day festival of good vs. evil celebrated during the month of either September or October, women bring out their carefully wrapped dolls and place them on stepped displays. Many of these colorful dolls are made out of clay. The house also takes on a more colorful look, with decorative lights, mango leaves, and colorful kolams adding to the festive look. During these nine or ten days, devotees pray, perform puja rituals, and enjoy socializing. Women visit each others' homes and eagerly show off their kolu display. 
Below is a kolu display at a local grocery store.

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

Frescoes at Kailasanth Temple

For those who walk quickly through the Kailasanth Temple at Kanchipuram, it would be quite possible to miss the intermittent splashes of colors found in the many niches. Some of the relief sculptures such as the one above had patches of background still visible, whose kaleidoscope of brilliant colors reminded me of a stained glass window. In other niches, one could see portions of frescoes still visible. Again, how brilliant the colors must have once been! I found the linear quality of this fresco particularly beautiful.

Tuesday, October 05, 2010

Missin' the Colors

Soon it will be fall. I hear descriptions by my family members in Wisconsin and friends in Serbia about the leaves that are beginning to change colors. Visions of leaves aglow in the Kalemegdan Fortress of Belgrade pass through my mind, reminiscing about the wonderful walks I had in Serbia during the fall. Here in the South Indian city of Chennai, the only thing that really marks a change in season is the growing puddles (or floods) in the roads from the start of the monsoon. The colors of monsoon are drab or downright disgusting; brown mud, tar black puddles just waiting for a large vehicle to splash you while traversing in an open rickshaw. 

How I miss the colors of Serbia...and my dear friends.

Sunday, October 03, 2010

Flower Vendor, Georgetown

Flower Vendor, Georgetown, originally uploaded by melissaenderle.

My latest painting - a pastel of a wholesale flower vendor in the old section of Chennai known as Georgetown.

Friday, October 01, 2010

South Korea in South India

The Tamil Nadu state government has just announced the establishment of an industrial cluster exclusively for South Korea. Currently there are about 160 South Korean companies in Chennai, a figure reflected in our school demographics. Already at end of 2009, there were over 8,400 S. Koreans living in India, of which 3,000 were in Chennai. A year after this statistic, I can imagine that figure is much higher. Hyundai is one such company that has made a significant impact in the state.

Kailasanth Temple Yali figures and symbolism

Like many South Indian temples, the mythical creatures known as yali grace the columns of the Kailsanth Temple. Yali have the head of a lion, tusks of an elephant, and tail of a serpent. They are deemed as creatures who protect the temple.

The circumambulatory passage of the Kailasanth temple symbolizes birth (seven steps = seven births), which leads to a dark passage (representing the journey of life), and then finally to a narrow outlet which indicates death.