Saturday, December 31, 2005

Kerala -- Land of the Coconut

Kerala literally means "land of the coconut" in Malayalam, the state's language and one of at least 30+ languages and 1650 dialects in India.

The graceful palm is everywhere here: on the shores of beaches, next to sleek highrises, in the middle of dangerous traffic rotaries and flocking the abundant backwaters. And, it is the tree of life here, economically and nutritionally, as the Keralites know how to derive 12 different products from its fruit and fronds!!!

Coconut palms take at least 8 years to mature and then sprout a bud which blossoms into a bunch of maybe 40 coconuts, which ripen over a year's time. The Keralites, especially those who subsist on the prsoperity of the backwaters, start using the trees' buds to make a type of "toddy" (wicked liquer) with its nectar that gets stronger over time, and harvest "young coconuts" at 6 months for drinking. You can see photos of us drinking coconut water from the shell in the backwaters, and frankly, it is NOTHING like a pina colada! Too bad.

The white coconut meat pops up in grated form in nearly all Kerelan foods, sweet or savory, and then pressed for milk or saved as livestock feed. Shells are used for cups, bowls, handicrafts and bbq charcoal. Its fronds are dried and woven into hut roofs or hats, and the frizzy brown coconut fluff is called coir and brushed off into giant piles for processing.

From this coir, the women ingeniously make rope!

Most village homes in the backwaters have what we'd call "old fashioned" metal spinning wheels about two to three feet in diameter, and and can spin the coir together tightly to make lengths of twine-sized rope. These are then pressed together by hand with a wooden vise-like tool, usually by children, since their mother and grandmother are occupying each end of the coir length or on a spinning wheel. The rope gets wider and stronger and so tough no man in our group could pull apart a freshly bound one-inch wide coir.

Our male guide in the backwaters told us this use was very important because women can do this work during the day while the men are off fishing or driving rickshaws or whatever else it is they do. I was somewhat appalled. Like the women here don't alreay have enough to do!?! At first as I watched them weave I felt I was seeing a different spin on the Rumpelstiltskin story, but there life is no fairy tale!

Regardless, we now have a new respect for the coconut palm and Andy has a new joke for when I'm acting up..."Now be a good woman and go make some rope!" : )

Friday, December 30, 2005

What's In A Name?

He's been very helpful ever since we arrived at 5:00am on December 26th at Spencer House. He pointed out a place where we could sleep until they fixed up our room, squeezed us in the reservation book for 6 nights, arranged breakfast in the courtyard with 'milk tea' and gave us advice on how to make train reservations to Goa.

"We appreciate your help so much. What's your name?" we asked.

"Veal-suhn," he replied.


"Umm, pardon...?" I said apologetically.

"Veeeeeel-sssuuuhhhhn," he repeated patiently.

"Right...." Andy stalled. "I'm sorry, what was it again?"


Extended pause. Small cough as diversion.

"Wilson???!!!??" I suddenly questioned incredulously.

"Yes. Veal-suhn. " he said with slight sparkles of exasperation and resignation in his dark eyes.

"Wilson," we said, embarassed and relieved. "Um, thank you again for your help, and good night."

We exit quickly, courtyard left. And feel better the next morning when we hear him on the phone with some other person repeating the routine.

And that, our friends, is the legacy of colonialism in South India!

Backwater Reflections

We're staying in Fort Cochin right now, an idyllic little part of Kochi, Kerala. This became known as the Malabar Coast, a top destination for spice trading and colonization in the 16th century, and the Dutch, British and Portuguese have all left their mark on the city.

The town itself is made up of at least five large islands--urban, not tropical--and there are old forts, the first Christian church ever built in India, a busy port, colonial homes with balconies and porte cocheres, and a legacy of diversity.

We hear the Muslim call to prayer over Christmas carols from the Catholic basilica, and the spice market is next to a synagogue which is by a raja's palace. Vasco de Gama actually died and was buried here briefly, and traders from the court of Kubla Kahn left cantilevered Chinese fishing nets that are still used today.

We came to experience Keralan cuisine, plan the rest of our time in India in a relaxing atmosphere (there are FAR fewer car, moped, motorcycle, bike and rickshaw horns here) and wander down cobblestone streets to watch the pink sun set into the Arabian Sea. Plus, to experience the infamous "back waters of Kerala", a huge yet intricate system of lagoons, canals, rivers and marsh that meander inland from the coast line.

I had this glamorous image of us floating in the lagoons under coconut palms and cashew trees for a few days, but luckily, Andy balances me out in this way and we decided to proceed with caution over my romantic impulsiveness. We instead arranged a trial 8 hour trip into the Keralan backwaters, and that was the perfect amount as I can't seem to sit still on a wooden bench or plastic chair for more than an hour doing nothing...nothing!...but looking at lush shades of green in multiple textures.

Though it was super beautiful, and I'd never seen quite so much green--a lot to say for an Oregon girl. The water, grasses, trees, palms and even muck ranged in shades of green from lime to loden in both sunlight and shadow. We rode in a primitive teak boat covered with a rattan weave to shade us from the potent sun, and two men pushed bamboo poles into the shallow waters to float us along canals and rivers. Occasionally, the winding waterways were so narrow pineapple plants and hibiscus--its glorious red and pink blossoms a shock among the green--brushed along our legs.

We also stopped at a number of village homes planted among the palms. That was definitely interesting as we saw how they make a living from the plentiful trees, but you somehow feel like such a gringo as you float and watch them go about their life. They bathe in the backwaters and a number of soapy yet smiling faces greeted us around river bends, and women wash saris and sheets as the family ducks keep her company.

On one level, it's cool and enlightening to glimpse this, and on the other hand I end up feeling shy and somewhat bad. Reversing the role, I wonder how I'd like it if somone came to watch me pad about in bunny slippers on a Saturday as I did my laundry and contemplated what to cook, and maybe snapped my photo...?

Their children, however, are all used to seeing us tourists (Westerners and higher-class Indians in this case) and they have the brightest smiles that light up their faces as they wave and say, "Hello, hello, hello!" You can't help but wave back with similar childlike enthusiasm and call, "Hello!" right back. (or at least I can't...)

When I first started traveling, I remember feeling so energized by seeing how others live and reveled in the differences. Now, I'm not sure how I feel about it.

Perhaps there was a loss of innocence along the way and I know better what the divide actually means, or maybe I've lost a bit of the edge on the utter newness of things. I'm not sure, but this is why I love traveling and find it so good for the soul. When I get caught up in the rest of my life... when there is no time to sit and 'do nothing' or I don't make time for that...I often forget about or don't notice these feelings. On a trip, there's time to contemplate and process, even if I don't come up with an answer.

Thursday, December 29, 2005

First Indian Cooking Class!

Even more than shopping for bright orange saris and handwoven textiles in India, I wanted to absolutely take regional cooking classes. Andy and I love Indian food and have been slaves to our cravings for vindaloo, chana masala, samosas and more. Rarely was there a better Friday night than take out from Little India (I was usually eating hot naan out of the bag in tehir parking lot because that flat bread is so delicious!) and together time over mango lassis at home.

What is that spice? Look at that sauce color! Mmm...I love fried samosas and chutney.

Alas, the journey to demystify spices, unearth special techniques and disclose secret recipes began yesterday.

We followed a unimpressive sign advertising "Cooking Classes" down a small street and to a small guesthouse and met with Maria George, a Keralan native who helps her husband run Monte Carlo Hotel and manages the tiny, primitive kitchen for its courtyard restaurant.

Maria is petite, hospitable and sweet with dark eyes and a quiet voice. Before discussing the imperatives of the class, we saw photos from her other classes and a family album of a trip to the Western Ghats, plus her daughter brought us homemade Christmas wine to sample and shortbread she'd made with Indian flair by using ghee (clarified butter). Andy and I chose the menu, deciding to tackle his favorite vindaloo--with fish instead of meat for picky me -- along with a Keralan vegetable, rice and our favorite fried goodness, samosas. Our class was arranged for 3pm and we arrived promptly with a bottle of water, camera and notebook...so the kitchen geek could write it all down.

In the kitchen, Maria is still petite, hospitable and sweet, but also very focused and agile...we're all dodging 2 children, 1 grandma, 2 hired girls, 1 hired boy and a dog named Apu in an 8' x 12' space where chai-filled glasses and trays of banana lassis get whisked downstairs via barefoot delivery to the courtyard.

We sat at a narrow table with bowls and plates filled with fragrant ingredients: mustard seed, cumin, cilantro/coriander, green chiles, mint, ginger, turmeric, coconut, cinnamon, cardamon and more. There were also two small silvery, freshly cleaned fish that she'd bought at the market for us to use in our vindaloo, and shredded cabbage, carrot and green bean for our vegetable thoren. Thoren is the term for a vegetable mix in Kerala that contains coconut. And nearly everything Keralan contains coconut and we're pleased by this. It's savory sweetness adds a yummy texture to even less glamourous veggies like cabbage.

We learned right off how to make spice pastes by blending garlic, ginger, mustard seeds and cumin together for the vindaloo. And then adding white vinegar!?? Who knew mustard and vinegar were the secret ingredients in this dish, and that you use Kashmiri chile powder to make its vivid pink-red color?

Andy was brave and tasted the green chiles (like serannos) raw and impressed her with his tolerance, while I madly scribbled down her measurements and directions. Maria had every recipe in her head and just measured out her spices my memory in front of us, using a "one-quarter teaspoon of turmeric" (and we're talking quite heaping teaspoons) here and "two teaspoons of cumin seed" there. She was also impressed that Andy was interested in cooking (can I just say, Andy is the BEST!) and took special care to show him how to finely chop shallots and make sure he understands that you use only 3 cloves and 3 cardamon pods for rice.

We moved on to making the mint chutney for the samosas, a spicy green delight of chiles, mint, cilantro, ginger, tamarind, onion and garlic. Maria chopped everything roughly, and then took us out to a small standing stone block out on the backstairs that link the kitchen to the restaurant. She showed us how she rolls this stout heavy rolling pin of stone over the fresh spices to create the best paste. Quickly and elegantly she rolled over the mint, chiles, cilantro and more, squeezing out zesty smells that tinged our noses to create a moist green puddle of chutney. It was SO awesome -- she just talked about how she learned to cook from her mother, aunts and husband's mother, and told us to roll gently but firmly to get crush for flavor...all while her kids and helpers ran trays of tea and snacks up and down the narrow stairs!

Our beloved samosas were the most work and the most fun to make. We learned how Maria pressure cooks the potatoes and peas (and for the record Andy told her: "We'll definitely buy a pressure cooker when we get home") and that the secret spice which has puzzled me in every samosa bite is oregano...seeds. Who knew there were oregano seeds and they're used a ton in North Indian cuisine? I equate oregano with only pizza no longer.

And, I learned about the secret rhythm of cooking Indian spices. Put the onions in first and saute alone, then turn down the flame and add turmeric. Don't let it get too hot or it will discolor the food and always add it first to the onions! Then, add the garlic, saute, and then the ginger. Ginger can burn so it's nevery added first, and adding a small piece of chopped ginger to cauliflower or cabbage will help erase their bitter taste. These basics are the foundation for most masalas and dishes in South India, and always get your cooking oil hot enough to pop mustard seeds but never too hot to burn cumin seeds. Maria defintely had a rhythm to the way she moved and monitored the gas flame on the stove and made us look at its level for each step of a dish.

Occasionally, Maria would jump into the kitchen to help someone cook a dish for a customer and her daughter constantly brought us treats to sample. Fried salty batter drops with cumin seed, some candy that tasted like fig newton filling, a bit of Christmas plum cake and, of course, chai...yum! Chai is a mystery and adventure every time you drink it here: sometimes it has cloves and sometimes it has cardamon and sometimes it has both or none. Always with milk and scalding hot, this is not the sweet Oregon chai you're buying at Cost Plus or Safeway for sure. It tastes and seems more rustic and individual.

Her husband's mother lives there and cooks for the restaraunt too, and she'd shuffle by in flip flops, a wild patterned muu-muu house dress and what I swear were men's horn-rimmed glasses, and show us fresh curry leaves, a different chile or explain who'd just arrived to visit and drink chai.

Samosa dough was our last endeavor, and she quickly mixed a batter reminiscent of pie dough that used coconut oil as the fat and grabbed a special Indian rolling pin that is about 8", made of dark wood and 1 1/2" wide in the middle but scaling smaller on each end. They're triangular pockets of fried dough and filling in their final form and Maria had Andy working the dough and learning how to make perfect cones with seamed edges and perfect folds. She was moving his hands in the right ways to get proportion and closure with the dough and I just looked on and imbibed the scene and spicy smells.

After 3 3/4 hours of talking, learning and working in Maria's kitchen, we got to indulge in our feast of fish vindaloo, vegetable thoren, samosas with mint chutney and rice. Everything was amazing...pungent and fresh, delicious and demystified! We stayed talking with Maria and her husband for a while longer and then waddled out 4 1/2 hours after wandering in, contented by both food and knowledge.

A few photos from the cooking class are posted here:


Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Photos from Kochi / Fort Cochin

We just wanted to share some photos from the Kochi area, I added some comments as well!

Please click the link below to see ALL the photos (just 10):

The Magic of India...?

I've wanted to come to India for years. I love the exports of its culture we get in the US: food, fabric, film; ceylon, spice and spiritual diversity. I just felt like there was magic to be found here and I wanted to experience it in every sensory way.

Honestly, the magic has been hard to find...at first.

The India we've seen so far is not of splashy brochures and five star indulgences; it's very real. There are masses of humanity everywhere, piles of trash next to temples with elephants, and smells can go from garam masala to garbage real quickly on some streets. Men are visible and women are hidden, or at least very, very busy when they're not. And poverty is evident in both the beggars and bus systems.

But if you look deeper, there is magic to be found in this chaotic, colorful, cacophony of sounds and smells.

Indians are very religious and the daily evidence of their devotion is startling. Most every Hindu has a red dot or smoky smear on his/her forehead in reverence to a special deity or blessing. Despite their small incomes, Indians buy garlands of flowers that last for maybe 2 days as offerings to the gods. They also stay up late and draw kolams (swirled, flowery Hindu symbols) on the street in front of their home or business on a daily basis to encourage prosperity. I originally thought these were drawn in chalk but later found that to be false. Instead, these artful drawings are done in rice flour-- colored and white --as not to harm any living creature that might come into contact with the design.

And every day, people come up to us and say, "Hello! Happy Christmas! Where are you from?". Honestly, at first you're wary because everyone and their brother seems to have an autorickshaw for rent, but most all of these are genuine. Children definitely do this and we had a group of them come up to us on the beach today and bring us different kinds of Indian snacks to taste. They stayed with us and told us about each, and wanted nothing more than for us to take their photo. On the train, two different people helped us get our bearings for our journey. One man got off at our same stop at 4:30am and negotiated a taxi for us, made sure we understood where we were going and then gave us his card to call him at any time if we had troubles. At 4:30am!!?? Can you imagine doing that at DIA as you're racing home from a long journey?

Magic lies in the mystery of India...you never truly know what to expect. You might turn a corner into a Hindu temple and see an elephant. Or follow a sign advertising "cooking class" and find yourself in someone's private home, drinking chai and eating homemade cookies as they show you family photos--all before you ever discuss what the class entails. A moped carries a family of five here in India, and I was more worried about hitting a goat or cow when we rented bikes than being hit by a car. And while nearly every one and every thing seems impoverished, there is still free, blessed rice for all to eat equally at centuries-old temples.

I know there's more magic to be found, as well as more hard travel that causes involuntary gulps and meditative mantras of "I'm so lucky...I'm so lucky". So far, it seems like India and I are having a slower seduction than first anticipated, but for now, it feels like the romance of the journey by trip's end will be potent.

Christmas in India

We first remembered it was the Christmas season upon arrival in Chennai on 12/18. Buses of men dressed in plastic Santa masks (like the cheap Halloween ones we wore as kids) hung out of open windows, some dressed in red tunics while others only in street clothes, yelling "hello" and "merry christmas" at us as they zoomed by in honking frenzy. Definitely unexpected!

The Santa masks remained common as we headed further south to Pondicherry, and while somewhat creepy--this wasn't a jolly Santa face...something about the black slit eyes threw off one's ability to conjure a "ho, ho, ho"--it was fun to remember the holiday season at home.

Anyway, Pondy's strong French and Christian influences meant numerous hotels, guest houses and restaurants had nativity scenes and trees too. The creche scenes were neither rustic or stylized like the ones in the US and instead, kind of a funny "Barbie goes to Bethelem" type of stable and figures. The trees were fake, but had tons of lights strewn about along with lots of colorful mylar garlands and plastic glitter ornaments. (right up my alley!) Seeing these items next to blue-faced, many-armed Hindu deities, kolams (prosperity symbols) and smoky incense flames defintely made me think India has nailed how to live in multi-religion harmony.

We overnighted to Kochi via train on Christmas night, and as we coasted into town at 5:00am on an auto-rickshaw, sparkling star lights greeted us in the pitch dark at every corner. Not the natural kind of starlight, but colorful lanterns of all sizes in various star shapes hung from nearly every house! Many houses had multiple star lanterns hanging from balconies and a few even had their bushy banana trees filled with glowing stars. Neither Andy or I had seen this before and it felt especially festive to see as the town slept and we encountered a few blissful minutes without the honking and hawking of India.

Monday, December 26, 2005

Er.... what?

Hello All,

we hope you had a great christmas. A couple of our christmas presents were a 4 hour bus ride followed by a 12 hour train ride, but we arrived happy and we're now on the opposite coast of southern india!! We're in a place called Fort Cochin that was long held by the British, prior to their colonization of India. This is in the state of Kerala which encompasses most of the western coastline in the southern part of india. The title of this post is due to the train station we arrived in, which is called ... Er... Ernakulam. not the easiest name to tell people you are getting off at and be sure that you understand when the Ernakulam station is coming up! Fortunately we met some very nice indians on the train ride and they helped us out.

If you look at this map, we are essentially where it is labeled Mattancheri, out on the long outer peninsula:


we're distilling some impressions of our train and bus travels along with our new town and we'll post some more soon. We expect to be here for several days.

Holiday Cheers from both of us!

Saturday, December 24, 2005

The REAL bobble-heads

The lonely planet book says that a sideways movement in the head can mean yes, maybe, "I understand you" or even No in Indian culture. This sounds to be a challenge, but how much do we really shake our heads? not all that often.

Unfortunately, this is not the case in India. For some reason, even Indians who speak very workable English are quite reluctant to say "Yes" or "No". Instead, you are far more likely to get "The Bobble". This is much better demonstrated than described, but basically it is a mostly round motion of the head with a diagonal emphasis, like one of those little dogs you see on the back shelf of someone's car, but with more of a diagonal movement as well. It is certainly floaty.

So, when do you get the bobble? Well, all the time. Our first experience in Pondicherry was negotiating for an autorickshaw (like a fully covered tuk-tuk) from the bus station to our hotel. I was gunning for a very good price of 20 rupees, and I had the competition of rickshaw drivers on my side, the first offered 50, the second offered 35, and the third agreed with my 20, I just didn't know it, because his head was bobbling wildly with no sign of speech, as I repeatedly asked "20 rupees okay?" he was repeatedly agreeing, but the diagonal movement just wasn't convincing for me. Add to this that there are hardly any street signs, and the unbelievably chaotic streets with 1000s of signs and vehicles, and I was convinced we were being taken back to Thailand for some exorbitant fare! However, we held out and arrived just where we wanted to be quite directly. I gave the drivers a tip for actually taking us where we wanted to go. Trust the Bobble!

But not all the time. Often the Bobble means "who knows" or "I can't do anything for you". We have also noticed that the bobble is an unbelievably effective way to get waiters over to your table, which is all the more surprising because 1. we have found no other way to get such prompt attention and 2. indians use the bobble all the time in conversation so how can the waiters use it as a signal from the customer? I think the only possible explanation is that my imitation of the bobble happens to be the "we need service NOW" bobble in the Indian bobble parlance.

We are still studying the possibilities of the bobble...

Travels and tribulations

Well, we are starting to learn more about how to travel here in India. While a 10-day vacation in one of these countries should be carefully planned ahead of time to maximize the use of time, part of the idea behind our long trip is to be able to ramble around a bit. However, we are noting that we need to plan a little bit ahead of time, since although we have stayed in our room for the last 3 nights, its availability for tonight is still uncertain. it's looking good though, which is important since there are very few other rooms available in town. Since this is the high season along the western coast beaches which are our next destination, we will start planning around 5 days out.

We have also learned that making reservations on the Indian railway should be done 3-5 days in advance as well. We were surprised to learn that the Indian railway is the largest employer in the world (!). Though booking is computerized, the system is complex enough to make travels a challenge. Tomorrow morning we will take a bus 3.5 hours to Chennai, then about 1 hour from the Monster Chennai bus station described in a previous post, to the main train station. From there, we will take a train leaving at 4:00pm and arrving in Kochi (which is on the opposite coast) at about 3 or 3:30am. This rather awkward timing is due to our booking 1 day in advance during a busy holiday period. Our train tickets cost approx. US $15 each, even though we are in an A/C 3-bunk berth (we wanted 2-bunk but it wasn't available).

In comparison, Air tickets from Chennai to Kochi cost approx. US $135, and still require the 4+ hours of bus ride to get to the Chennai airport. We will see how much fun the rail travel is, It MUST be better than the bus, but we may be more motivated to go the air route next round!

Please view our Pondicherry photo gallery!!

I have posted some images from Pondicherry, where we have been for the last 3 days and will leave from tomorrow morning, It was a French colony for many years. I have added comments below each photo, so if you have time please read those comments, they should add some context to the images:

Please click here: http://bitjug.com/gallery/Pondicherry

Pondicherry: not quite subcontinental Paris

Pondicherry, South India is a mysterious masala of French and Indian influences. A former colony of France until the 1950's, one sees a lot of pastel-colored colonial houses with stylish balconies and columns...and with Hindu blessing symbols drawn in chalk on the front porch to attract the prosperity of gods and goddesses. Baguettes and cafe au lait are sold in cafes alongside pakoras and chai. It's pretty cool to see the blend of cultures and colonialism, though I'm very grateful I wasn't a white memasahib here in the 20th century trying to survive the heat in corsets and petticoats.

We toured around some of the city's sites and, by far and away, my favorite thing was being "elephant blessed" by a real elephant!!! There's a special Hindu temple devoted to Ganesh (the elephant god) in Pondicherry with a lovely, big, live elephant standing out front wearing silver ankle charms and painted with Hindu symbols. It stands there quietly, kind of flopping its trunk around and waving its big, wrinkly ears, but will bless you if you put a rupee inside of its trunk! Yes, inside its trunk!?! Both Andy and I had to do this, so we took a turn and went up to the elephant -- they're awfully big when you're one foot away -- and dropped a rupee coin into one of its pink nostrils (which are like the size of our mouths up close).

I was worried mine was somehow going to roll right through his trunk to his brain, but the elephant just nodded it's head (quite perceptibly) and then I bowed my head and the elephant rested his trunk on my head gently for a second. I was so excited -- I've never been elephant blessed and loved being so close to a gentle beast that's regarded highly by this society. Then, after I stepped away, the elephant moved his trunk behind him and dropped the rupee coin on the cement by a temple worker! I could have done that a few more times for sure, but didn't want to make more of a spectacle than I already was in my white bare feet and Western clothes.

In fact, during our tour that day, Andy and I were barefoot almost half of the time! We weren't quite expecting that, but Hindus and other cultures belief the feet are unclean (and ours definitely are here!) so you're asked to remove shoes before entering temples, ashrams and other special buildings. It's a little shocking to be walking the streets without shoes, but it's good for the soul to experience things in reality and I'm looking at the skin-on-gravel regimen as good foot exfoliation. ; )

We also visited another old temple that had a very old statue of a monkey god, and were asked to eat "pradesh" afterwards. Hindus and Sikhs believe in the communal, uniting factor of food and have temple-blessed snacks (usually rice) on hand in many temples for people to share in before or after visiting. Isn't that awesome? It's such a great way to look at the act of eating and the Sikhs especially believe that eating is an act of equality, that eating together is more important and equalizing than obeying the stringent caste systems.

Anyway, they have temple workers who volunteer and cook the "pradesh" and then wait outside to give worshippers a helping on a banana leaf. Yes, a perfectly green, waxy banana leaf. In our case, "pradesh" was a saffron-lemon rice the color of gatorade with bits of peas, carrots and onion. I wasn't sure if I should partake of it, but the man behind the giant cauldron of rice bellowed at me, "Madame!" and pushed a serving of the banana leaf out to me. Startled, I reached for it with my closest hand, my left!, and that was a mistake!!! "Right hand, right hand," he bellowed at me again. I quickly switched hands and grabbed the leaf and then walked off to surreptiously watch others eating.

Many of the Asian culture believe the left hand is unclean and used only for bathroom duties, so I committed a faux pas by sticking out my left hand. Whoops! The other people grabbed the pradesh with their right hand, then placed it in the left hand for holding only. With their right hand, they dug into the rice with gusto and ate with fingers. I was feeling self-conscious at this point and just kind of poured some of the rice in my mouth off the banana leaf so I didn't have any more hand mix ups. Andy learned from my mistakes and ate with fingers quite adeptly from the banana leaf--I'm quite certain he's on his way to being part Hindu.

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

You have not lived until ...

...you've ridden on a public bus in India!!!

Trust us. When boarding the bus, you're lucky if there's a seat. The buses are hard metal boxes with seats that hold three people on one bench, two on the other, and have lots of ceiling holds for the unlucky souls who get to stand in the aisles. Please note, that was us and it sucks with a 35 lb backpack on your back, 8 lb pack on your front.

Metal slats serve as the windows and in bad weather, you can drop down metal shades to decease the breeze but increase the claustrophobia. The only glass is on the front windshield that the driver, who's wearing a light blue, short-sleeved business shirt and sarong, can see out of to avoid the perils of cows on the road and maniacal moped drivers.

Hindu decorations of flower wreathes, prayer beads and bright-colored paper garlands hang from both the ceiling and front window, and all of the crazy color and texture somehow softens the metal about you...until the bus starts moving and the reality of a bumpy road--sometimes paved, sometimes not--sets in to your backside.

Conveniently, food vendors jump on the bus with you at one stop and ride to the next. They carry heaping plates of dosas (fried pancakes) and samosas (fried dumplings) plus all sorts of bagged salty snacks that we're afraid to try since that will lead to thirst, which leads to water, which leads to the need for a bathroom. The food vendors push their way up and down the crowded aisles, yelling their marketing and tapping loudly on the ceiling with a rupee, all the while balancing a metal platter of loose snacks on their shoulder.

The bus zooms ahead, its horn honking more frequently than not, as you lurch past water buffalo at mach speed. And then, the repetitive indian pop music starts BLARING from the speakers...

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Mamallapuram Update

Mamallapuram (which is as much of a mouthful to say as it appears) is a tiny beach resort town where we're literally and figuratively getting our feet wet in India. As introductions go, it's definitely memorable.

Andy and I debated on how to describe all that we're seeing, smelling, tasting and experiencing....it's unlike anything our Western eyes have seen before and there's both beauty and sadness in every gaze. We're absorbing it all one day at a time, processing the polarities and trying not to get caught up on the surface experiences as there's so much that lies beneathe.

The colors are incredible! All of the women wear traditional saris in hues of violet, magenta, vermilion, canary, chartreuse, and many more. All are shot with gold and silver thread in decorative motifs. (you can see a couple of women in photos in our photo gallery) Bright textiles hang from every corner shop and fruit stands abound with pineapples, oranges, mangoes, bananas, guava and other exotic fruits not even found at Whole Foods.

And yet, the poverty, filth and primitivity are incredible too. Garbage is strewn about, and mud and grit stick to everything..including our flip-flopped feed and the Indians' bare feet. People haul buckets of water on their head and weave palm fronds into hut roofs. Ambient lighting is non-existent and entire families of five squish onto one rickety motor scooter for a ride to town. You forget how much you take for granted in our every day life: clean water, omnipresent restrooms, cars, city systems that "just work", paved roads and more. But, that's India from our perspective of plenty.

The Hindu religion dominates this area and we see the incons of multi-armed goddesses and elephant gods at every turn. It's so amazing and cool they have such a unifying force in this chaotic country.

Most people here are just living their lives -- and trying to make a living off those of us who come to explore. We've awakened each day in Mamallapuram to the sound of chisels hitting upon stone sculptures in the rough, free-range (in a different sense) cows mooing and frantic horn honks from scooters, buses, mopeds, motorcycles, cars and buses going every which way. There are lots of sculptors and lots of shopkeepers seeling their wares who beckon us at every step to come in and look around, plus "businessmen" who run restaurants, internet cafes, guest houses and more. Save for the visions of color the women make in the street, the women are mostly invisible; they're busy shopping at the market stalls, cleaning off porches and rooms, minding children, cooking rice in giant silver pots or hiding shyly behind laundry pretending not to catch our eyes as we walk by smiling.

Our hearts are getting a little hardened from saying a constant "no" to that, not to mention the others who follow and try to sell you on the street, but they're just trying to capitalize on the little bits of prosperity that rolled into town. And I'm trying to remember just how petite and heavy my backpack is...for now. ; )

Mamallapuram Photos!

Tiffany did a wonderful job of describing some of our experiences, but here are some photos of Mamallapuram, where we have been for the last two days. The photos of the beach, temples we visited, and ourselves, are here:


Monday, December 19, 2005

please view our photos!

wow, it is tough posting images from a camera in some places, but I did it just for all of you!

please check out the 9 pictures from bangkok we posted in our gallery, you can click on the small pictures to get bigger ones.

Click Here: http://bitjug.com/gallery/bangkok1

Holy Cow, we have arrived in India!!

Yesterday late morning we left from Bangkok international airport on a Thai airways flight heading for Chennai (Madras) in south India. We arrived mid-afternoon at the Chennai airport, with about 3.5 hours in flight time. Chennai is apparently only second to Bangalore in software engineering in India. We spent at least an hour trying to figure out how to get some cash, we tried an ATM but it didn't take our foreign cards, and eventually found a money-changing desk operated by the state bank of India where we could obtain some cash.

We had decided on the airplane to head right for Mamallapuram which is a city a little ways south of Chennai on the coast. According to our lonely planet guidebook to South India, it was reputed to be a small laid back village on the coast. Our first task was to get a bus to the central bus station in Chennai, which is the largest bus station in Asia (!!) We thought that we could then get a bus from there down to Mammalapuram. As soon as we got out onto the main boulevard in front of the airport, we saw a different world from Bangkok, let alone the US. The streets are very busy in Chennai with so many motorcycles, autorickshaws, and buses it is hard to imagine without seeing for yourself. In any case, there are no lanes whatsoever and the use of the horn is very popular. We asked a gentleman in a white uniform which bus went to the central bus station and he told us to get on anything with a '70'. This brings up a good point, there are fewer travellers in India than in bangkok, but it is much easier to find English speakers. Most bus-riders in Chennai, for example, we found had at least basic English skills, some even fluent.

So, when a 70 came by, we hopped on, and the bus was packed. we were the only westerners on this bus, but everyone was friendly and helpful. Also, while the men wear basically western style clothes (simple button shirts and simple slacks, often dark), the vast majority of women wear beautiful saris in such vibrant colors! Their clothing is a treat to see on a full dirty old bus! With our 36lb large backpacks we were certainly out of the ordinary. When we arrived at the vast central bus station, we found that it did seem more like an airport (albeit a third world one) than a bus station. we asked for directions a few times and found our way to a platform with a bus numbered 188 waiting. this matched what our guidebook said and a fellow we asked said it was going to Mamallapuram as well. We got on the bus and stuffed our big backpacks into the overhead shelves, a tight fit. The bus ride was about 2 hours from Chennai, and we again asked others on the bus to let us know when to get off, since stops are not announced and it is hard to see road signs in the rain.

Once we arrived in Mammalapuram, we were quite tired and decided to just enlist the services of an autorickshaw (a covered tuk-tuk) to get us to the siva guest house, where we wanted to stay. We had not had a chance to figure out how to call from Chennai, so we were arriving unannounced and hoped they had a room. We squeezed into the back seat, just a touch bigger than the back seat of a porsche 911, with our backpacks for a trip just a half mile or so to our guest house. We were pleased that they had a room, which is quite basic (two small beds pushed together, sink, bathroom with open shower and toilet, no hot water), but priced accordingly and very clean. It costs the equivalent of $5.51 a night. We have subsequently found (from reading the guidebook) that the optimal accommodation seems to vary buy town, for instance here in Mamallapuram we could spend 4 or 5 times as much and not get much more in the way of a room, or we could spend 20 times as much (really) and get a very nice room with veranda, swing and beautiful garden areas, but it would be hard to justify. In our next town we plan to spend 2 or 3 times as much as we spent here.

We went out for a quick bite at a nearby restaurant, then crashed out in our new room. Most restaurants here are geared toward tourists, though there are not too many tourists here by percentage of people it is still a very big part of the local economy. we have seen a smattering of western tourists, but they do not seem to be primarily American by any means. This morning we decided to have a very late breakfast at a thatched roof restaurant right on the beach. It was a treat to see big waves breaking along the shoreline and look out onto the Bay of Bengal.

We had some great ginger tea with milk, a nice tomato and prawn omelette, and a couple of coconut pancakes. We then took a nice walk along the ocean. The beach is nice, and the waves are very irregular in a way that I don't think either of us are familiar with. water can come shooting an extra 20 feet up the shore easily and get your legs all wet! This lends credence to the guidebook's warning that there are many riptides in the area, so we don't plan to go in the water. We should have plenty of chances to do that on the western coast. It is incredibly humid here, though (knock on wood) it has not been to hot yet. An early afternoon rain turned us around and pushed us back to our guest house, where we retired to read the guidebooks and rest. we then had a snack at another nearby restaurant, walked around town and found some TP. The town is very famous for its stone sculptures, so we were able to see several sculptors working and many statues, including a beautiful big 7'x4'x2' hindu elephantlike god, Ganesh, who is a popular image around here. Then we headed back to our guesthouse and started posting messages here for you all to read! we plan to stay here for another day or two, then move on to Pondicherry, which is another couple of hours south and is an area the French only released control of 40 or 50 years ago, if I recall correctly. It should have a very different feel, and since it has more of a european influence we decided to spend christmas there.

We hope you enjoy hearing about our travels! Things are a bit unpredictable here, so don't worry at all if you don't hear from us for a few days or a week, or whatever, but we will try to keep in touch.

Thai-ing One On In Bangkok

Bangkok is an assault on the senses and somewhat violently welcomes one to Asia with the honk of a tuk-tuk's horn and the hot smell of spicy street food. We stayed in the "backpackers haven" of Banglamphu in a little guest house, and eased into our own backpack lifestyle. We ate curry for breakfast two days in a row, and felt proud when the friendly Thai women nodded at us approvingly and said, "You eat Thai breakfast!"...meaning we weren't caving to omelettes and muesli cereal (yet!) like many Westerners and got acclimated to the time zone, temperature and sensory experiences of this part of the world.

It actually seemed less polluted to me than 8 years ago, but many of the cabs and tuk-tuks are running on natural gas/butane. It seems like Bangkok is embracing its top position as a tourist destination of SE Asia and doing its best to romance visitors with growth and modernism. New malls and buildings are springing up everywhere, and while the scaffolding and ladders made of nothing but bamboo give you pause, you do feel energy and optimism.

Andy and I visited a big shopping center (the MBK center) to work on getting the cell phone going, and honestly, it was too overwhelming for me. Yes, that's right -- a mall was too overwhelming! Probably because it was 7 full floors of sensory overload in the ways of cell phones, electronics, knock off clothes, questionably real cosmetics, Thai handicrafts and shops brimming with jellied and fried sweets one only sees in this part of the world.

We also spent a day exploring some of Thailand's most beautiful Buddhist temples -- Wat Pra Kaew and Wat Pho. (wat is temple) It's so hard to explain these sites because they are unlike anything we have in the West. The temple sites are littered with stupas -- tall structures that point to the sky with a rounded edge and look somewhat like upside down turkey basters (but with a rippled-ridge, bulbous bottom) and are covered with everything from gold to glass to porcelain. These structures glitter and glimmer and look like a set of multicolored disco balls exploded on their outside. Surrounding some stupas, demon monkey creatures stand about guarding them from the spirits of evil. The devil monkeys have wild painted faces and clown red mouths, yet a severe wild creature face, and they wear glittering uniforms of mirror and glass mosaics.

And then there are the Buddhas of each temple.... Tens and twenties and hundreds of golden buddhas statues abound in the temples themself, all with elegant faces, almond eyes made of mother-of-pearl and elongated fingers and toes. Their sizes vary: some 5' high and others are 2' high, a famous reclining ones number 46 m long while a very hallowed small one is no more than 2' high but made of emerald. Because it's winter right now, all of the Buddha statues are wearing some sort of a swath of saffron-colored fabric...to keep them warm! The King of Thailand even changes the Emerald Buddha's clothes himself in a special ceremony.

You see tons of monks around Bangkok and I love that! So many shades of monks clothing to enjoy--from traffic cone orange to marigold to sunflower and golden brown. Definitely a dream for a girl who loves orange! Most all boys in Thailand spend at least a year in the monastery, and some remain for many years or permanently. On the Chao Praya ferry, there are special seats that this painted across the back: "Reserved for Monks". Yet, Bangkok is a modern city and we saw many a monk carrying a cell phone and talking on it. That, of course, begged the question: "Where does a monk keep his cell phone?", as those robes don't seem to have pockets.

Our last night, we enjoyed walking in Khao San, a set of chaotic streets that sell everything from pad thai to postcards, cocktails to clothes, and ate from street vendors. Bangkok seems to be like nowhere else in that regard -- every street has at least 3 vendors cooking behind large metal, wheeled carts with a hot griddles and fresh ingredients, ready to cook you noodles, banana pancakes, bbq corn or cut you fresh mango or pineapple that you eat with a toothpick. You can imagine the melange of smells on this street...warm spices, freshly stir-fried veggies, sweet pancakes, pungent meat (blech!), ripe fruit and burning incense, the common offering to the spirit houses prevalent in every shop and home. Only in Thailand!!!

Saturday, December 17, 2005


We wanted to let everyone know a little about what we have been doing. We have been "relaxing" in bangkok (if that is possible in such a busy city) for the last couple of days, trying not to overdo things. The street vendors have such an amazing variety of food, mid day today we bought some coconut custard cups that were just amazing. fresh squeezed tangerine juice and too many other items to mention are available everywhere. the guidebook says something about how far you can be from a restaruant in bangkok, it seems like the maximum distance you could be away from one is about 10 feet, counting the street vendors. We spent yesterday visiting some of the major temples and hope to have some photos up soon, but it is a challenge to find a computer with a DVD reading drive even though internet cafes are everywhere (!). We will be flying out to Chennai tomorrow morning so we have been trying to arrange everything for that. Not too much time right now but we will post more info later. We at least have our cell phone sorted out so we hope it will be easy to buy prepaid cards in India as well.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

We are here!


After leaving Seattle mid-day Tuesday, we had a very long day with a 9.5
hour flight and 17 hour time change across the international date line
flying to Narita airport near Tokyo in Japan, we flew in a Boeing 777. We
stayed in the international terminal for a couple of hours while we waited
for our flight to bankgok, tiffany slept and I bought a japanese sour
gummy grapefruit and sour gummy lemon to eat. We had an additonal 2 hour
time change to bangkok, we were again flying united but this time in a
747-400, this flight was about 6.5 hours. We arrived in bangkok at about
11:30pm local time but the airport was still very busy at this hour. we
had to navigate around the official looking but "expensive" taxi stands to
the "real" taxi line, then were able to take a taxi quite a distance to
our guest house for 210 baht.

our room is very nice with air conditioning and hot water provided by a
small in-line hot water machine, it works very well. we have a private
bathroom and a small safe in our room. after we woke up this morning we
went to breakfast just a few hundred meters down the street at a small
restaraunt that specializes in fried flatbread. we each had a dish of
mosseman curry, which is sweet but not too hot, a flatbread, and each had
a stuffed veggie flatbread which was very good. tiffany had a passionfruit
juice and I had a sweet iced coffee. this was a great breakfast for us
because we were very hungry. portions were small but we got to try lots
of things, and our total bill was around $4.50 US.

I am sure we will not have this much detail for all of our travels but
hopefully it is fun for you guys to hear about our trip and arrival.

Best wishes!

Tiffany and Andy