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India

Asia, Destinations

The countryside

December 6, 2012 • By

Twisting and turning through narrow one-lane roads 6,000 feet above sea level, we arrived to India’s favorite honeymoon destination and a former summer vacation spot for the British when they occupied the country. Kerala is known as God’s Own Country and with the innumerable terraces of tea trees, plantations, valleys, forests and spices you can understand why.

Barely avoiding another vomiting incident caused from extreme motion sickness, we arrived at a village called Munnar, a Hilltop Station on the Western Ghats mountain range. Jill has taken to calling me a sensitive bunny because every other day I react to food, sun, noise, bugs or pain. In India, you can expect the unexpected. Armed with local anti-vomiting meds and motion sickness pills (sometimes you just need to give it up to the travel gods), we embarked on a sightseeing mission of sorts through plantation villages, dams and the highest mountain peak in the area. The bangled ones, the name we have coined for the female newlyweds marked by red bangles the length of their arms, were out in full force mirroring our path. I am having a hard time accepting how a couple can meet once, marry and then take a lovey dovey honeymoon. Jill won’t let me interrogate the driver anymore about touching since she thinks he is uncomfortable with my line of questioning but public displays of affection are rare in India and I just really want to know if these people are evidence that love (I mean lust) at first sight exists.

The newly married brides are dressed in decorated tunics and elaborate sarees with a hint of red to ensure they receive proper attention. That’s fine but why exactly would one want to rock climb sandy, slippery, steep steps in tunics and high heels. Jill and I could barely manage in sneakers and jeans. It was 85 degrees with higher altitudes than we are used to and dehydration set in quickly. We abandoned the look out point and settled for panoramic views from our perch and acknowledged the women hauling around purses and climbing in two inches heels were clearly nuts or very talented.

In Kerala, women wear lighter fabrics and reflective colored sarees and tunics mostly in cotton since the temperatures are extremely warm. The men wear a traditional garment called a Doti (solid color)/Lungi (mixed color/pattern), which I have taken to calling diapers and loogies. They resemble a sarong or a wrap skirt and the men are constantly unfolding and folding them and I am never sure if they are meant to be showing us their goods. I asked our driver what the men wear under the Dotis/Lungis and after a chuckle he pointed to his pants declaring “trouser shorts” aka boxers. The men working construction sites wear collared shirts, Dotis/Lungis and flip-flops. It’s a whole new concept in ready to wear. Lastly, the locals carry umbrellas to fend off the heat but Jill pointed out the obvious. They carry black umbrellas absorbing the heat not reflecting it.

Our next destination on the Kerala route included Thekkady, a remote village near the Kerala and Tamil Nadu border and a popular safari destination made famous by the Bengal Tiger. Sadly, there are only about 350 tigers left in the country and 52 in Kerala. In other words, we were not seeing any tigers, which left me confused as to why I needed to be here in the first place. We took a very lovely boat ride on one of the lakes that feeds into the backwaters. Life vests a must, I fell asleep with my ready made pillow cushion and darted awake every few minutes when the locals oohhed and ahhed over a deer sighting. We considered the boat ride a success after we saw a few monkeys and elephants and returned safely to the dock. Our guide seemed shocked we actually saw elephants and kept saying, “you lucky, you very lucky.” On the way out of the park, we even caught sight of a Bison(buffalo). We snapped photos more to appease our driver than for our great find.

Half way through our plantation tour with Yunice, our Muslim guide, my body weakened and while Jill was running away from eight inch Charlotte Webs, I was dreaming of food. There is always some miscommunication when you travel but today the driver forgot to tell us lunch was not included in the program. There are only so many bananas and crackers I can eat before my body craves real food. Our guide informed me I looked sick and somehow thought coffee would do the trick. We piled in the car and ended up at a bakery located on top of a storefront. It screamed Delhi Belly but we were starving. Jill ordered a cheese popover and told me if she died I had to tell Bobbi (her mom) she was hungry. Knowing my issues, I stuck with the Indian banana lassi and the chai masala. The good news is we both lived.

Our guide, Yunice, studied spices and tourism in school. He is 34 and married with two children. Unlike most men we encountered, Yunice disapproves of how Islam treats women. He distanced himself from the religion because he doesn’t think women should cover yet his wife does. In this town, most people are Christian with a sprinkling of Islam and Hinduism and pop up shrines appear every few kilometers. Imagine glass enclosed two-storied, brightly colored airport elevator shafts with a Hindu god or Jesus placed at ground level for worship purposes (See below).

A character of sorts, Yunice kept us on our toes all day guessing the different spices and smells at Abraham’s spice garden, which produces excellent cardamon, cinnamon, pepper, nutmeg, cloves, cacao and robustia and arabic coffee. These incredible spices are exported all over the world. Many of the US spices come from Brazil and Vietnam but a few from India make it to our shores. Europe is the largest importer of Indian spices. With our awakened taste buds, Jill and I visited a spice store and purchased masala for tea and fish, chocolate (more me, less Jill), vanilla stalks and a few home remedies.

The final adventure of the day was not for the faint at heart. We watched a martial arts performance packed with knives and fire. I was more into the men than the arts but the oohs and ahhs from the crowd continued. We walked out on the traditional dance performance, which was more of a dancing eye performance. How many times can I watch eyeballs go round and round at unnatural speeds? The answer: Not many.

Kumily and Thekaddy are small villages known for spices and wildlife and for the annual Shabadi pilgrimage. We enjoyed meeting the people in this area. They were eager to please and more simplistic as village people tend to be. It’s a charming place to spend a few days relaxing and taking in the tastes before heading out of the country.


Asia, Destinations

Farewell to India

December 6, 2012 • By

Today is our last day in India. We spent the morning leisurely sailing along the Arabian Sea backwaters on a houseboat. The Kerala backwaters have been compared to the Bayou or the Everglades but they seem more magical as narrow slivers of land divide the widening and narrowing water pathways that surrender to rivers, lakes and eventually the sea. The locals depend on the water for transportation, fishing and agriculture and most of the land bordering the canals is used for rice growing and now with the tourist boom boat making.

The Kerala backwaters are a chain of lakes and canals fed by 38 rivers and likely created centuries ago by a tsunami or earthquake and replenished yearly with monsoon rains three to four months of the year. Forceful waves from the Arabian Sea created islands and destroyed villages but most believe a great flood in the mid-14th Century created much of what we see today.

We stayed on a private houseboat the night before along with three staffers catering to our every need. The boat consisted of a kitchen, master bedroom, eating area, roof sundeck and resting area. It had beautifully polished wooden floors (no shoes please), a thatched woven roof and local antique furniture – perfect for napping in the warm Kerala sunshine. The food abundant, the bugs persistent and relaxation required. We departed at noon for a five -hour cruise and I napped most of the time, while Jill read. Suddenly, our boat docked and we found ourselves on the shores of a tiny remote fishing village. As we made our way from store to store, we realized this would be our last shopping adventure in India. Jill announced, “No Village Untouched,” as we darted to the ATM machine with our crew/bodyguards in tow. We wrapped up the shopping excursion I mean sightseeing tour visiting the 1,500-year-old Christian Church constructed by St. Thomas the Apostle and the purpose for our stop. We boarded the boat with bags in tow and Jill looked at the other crewmembers and stated, “We like to shop!” Tuckered out from our big day on the boat, we retired to bed early in a fully air-conditioned suite. It’s sticky hot at sea level.

Back at the DREAM Hotel, we caused all sorts of commotion trying to send another box home via DHL. I advise anyone planning a trip to India to pack underwear, socks and shoes and buy the rest. The entire country is a shopper’s paradise. We were certainly the crazy Americans making a scene. It’s like we can’t help ourselves.

The Dream is a dream. It’s the place to be in Cochin.

Signing off from India, a land ripe with possibilities and a country rich with history and enduring people. All aboard to Singapore.

Highlights of India

  • Seeing the Dalai Lama
  • Visiting the Golden Temple
  • Learning about Hinduism and Buddhism in Varanasi and participating in a ritualistic world very unknown to us
  • Watching the Changing of the Guard on the Pakistani/Indian Border
  • The spirituality of the North and the serenity and beauty of the South
  • Shopping and Shopping and more shopping
  • Attending our first ever Indian wedding and wearing sarees
  • Learning to dress in sarees and the fiasco that entails
  • Seeing the Taj Mahal up close
  • Floating on the Arabian Sea backwaters
  • Meeting Kirat and Sumir and their friends in Amritsar
  • Spices, flavors, tastes and a whole lot of food
  • Spending time with our guides and learning about all the incredible history India has to offer
  • The eagerness of a country and its people to please

Favorite cities
Dharamshala, Varanasi

Worst Moments

  • Kelly’s outbreak of Delhi Belly (Kelly’s worst moment)
  • Kelly’s freak out moment at the Amritsar Hotel Ritz (Jill’s worst moment)
  • The horns and long car rides

Funniest Moments

  • When Jill returned from her Ayurvedic massage looking like a grease slick and I told her she smelled and suggested she take a shower pronto because she reeked of beef or garbage and she defended herself cracking up that it was the “toxins” being released from her body. “It’s the toxins, Kelly!”
  • When we traveled off-road through an abandoned village on the way to Amritsar from Dharamshala and Jill woke me up and we were in the middle of haystacks and animals attempting to find a road
  • When someone showed us a $12,000 carpet and thought we could afford it
  • The Jammu to Dharamshala Driver/Runner we were convinced was a drug trafficker
  • The hermaphrodite and the celebrity photo pictures at the Golden Temple
  • Our guide in Delhi calling Jill – Jilly and telling her he would catch her if she fell.

Humbling Moment

  • When our Kerala driver told us his rent costs $2,500 rupees ($45 USD) and we had given him $2,000 ($36) as his tip for 4 days. He lost his father at age 8 and supported his mother and sister. He is married and has a 3-month old baby he only sees 3 days a month because he is on the road traveling the rest of the time. In spite of this, he was the most kind and sensitive man.
  • Seeing the poverty in Delhi and Mumbai
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