Saturday, January 31, 2009

Appreciations and Meditations

Enjoying this kind of trip really means having a strong partnership, and I was triple blessed by elephants AND having MHB along to cuddle with, discuss the day’s events, analyze what we saw and felt, get tips and advice on what to include in the blog, be the photographer and tech guru, take care me when I fell by the wayside, put me back in place as required.. All good, all the time.

If not for you, babe, I couldn’t find the door,
couldn’t even see the floor, I’d be sad and blue

If not for you…

If not for you, babe, I’d laid awake all night, wait for the morning light to shine in through, but it would not be new

If not for you…

If not for you, my sky would fall, rain would gather too

Without our love, I’d be nowhere at all, I would be lost,,

Ohhhhh, what would I do if not for you….AND YOU KNOW IT IS TRUE

Winter would have no spring,
Couldn’t hear the robin sing, I just wouldn’t have a clue, Anyway it would not ring true, if not for you….

If not for you…


Sarong Maintenance
Many men, especially outside of Mumbai downtown, wear sarongs (lunghies?). They wrap twice around (or near as I can tell) and can be worn ankle length or doubled over to be just above the knee. They are continually adjusted, re-wrapped, tightened, fiddled with, parted in the front for easy peeing, and basically fondled more than any other piece of clothes I’ve ever seen worn. Think of a young USA guy wearing jeans where the waistline falls to just about 2 inches from the crotch, with boxers exposed and crotch line down around the knees, and the guy is walking (sort of) down the street while trying to keep his pants from falling to his knees cuz his belt doesn’t really work to keep his pants up. Maybe not as much hand maintenance required on the sarong, we’re in the right neighborhood.

Women and Men
Maybe this is too broad a topic (like that would keep me from chatting away). Basically, my impression is that for the vast majority of the time, women do the vast majority of the heavy lifting (cooking, cleaning, heavy lifting), take care of the kids, handle the scheduling, and when in public are supposed to show total deference to the men even to the point of protecting the men from any for of sexist accusations.

The men stand around, talk up other men, sit at desks in small shops for endless hours doing almost no commerce, take on most semi-public jobs (drivers of all sorts, most guides, maitre d’s, waiters, police), stand around some more, read the paper in public, adjust their sarongs, work in the fields some, visit other small show owners, handle security guard functions, hustle to catch the train, very willing to help tourists when they can, loving talking to their male friends, ready several papers after finishing the first paper.

And for the most part, men and women to not mix outside, and are rarely seen conversing in any meaningful way (that I could tell).

Food, Subsistence Farming Support and Shopkeepers
During one of our rambling philosophical world problem solving sessions, Martin mentions something that very much resonates for me: that probably the most important thing the first world can do for the rest of the world is make sure that subsistence farmers around the world can make a “living” wage farming small plots. Since the west subsidizes big ag, this makes it very very challenging for non-first world countries to compete and keep the vast majority of the population gainfully employed. We would have to pay more for food, and in exchange billions would live on small amount of money and not be undercut, and eat better than getting fast food corn syrup salty snacks pushed off as real food.

To say that India is a nation of shopkeepers is a slight misnomer. Yes, there are millions and millions of these shops, every single street in everything above a village (and even in some villages) is one shop after another, endless and countless. Are they really shops? Not in our sense (in my opinion) where you are competing against some significant challengers you don’t see on every street (supermarkets, Wal-Mart, internet sales). They are basically places where men (see above) can go and spend the day hoping for a few sales, enough to pay the (must be ridiculously low) rent and then provide for the extremely cheap living expenses (remember when we ate out and got an all-you-could-eat lunch for as little as 40 cents in a nice place?) Imagine what eating at home costs for an extended family.

Begging: Outlawed, kids, terra cotta horse Shrine, Kids in the Temples
Begging has been outlawed (at least in the state of Kerala) and except for our initial exposure in and around Juhu Beach, we actually saw very little outright begging. Yes, some in Mumbai downtown, a few times in and around several temples, a few times at major tourists spots (the walk of vendor hell to the Elefanta temple), about the same as you might see in Morelia, Mexico. Not near as much as we expected. A few kids, one slightly disfigured, again if you said “no” you were left alone.

Back to the terra cotta horse shrine, where 10-12 year old girls basically grouped around us, singled up to hold each tour members hand, chatted each of them while we tour, and then “begged” for cookies, pens, and money and showed extreme disappointment when we got on the van and individual girls weren’t rewarded by their “partners” with goodies. This was as close to outright pimping I’ve seen anywhere we’ve been and can not understand how adults tolerate it because it seems such aberrant behavior (these girls were reasonably well dressed, well behaved, spoke English well). How can you teach a 11 year old girls values of this sort? Spoiled brats begging for cookies? What society tolerates that, and maybe (though I doubt it) there is something about this location and this shrine (since it was the only place we saw behavior this extreme and for so long amount of time) that made it ok in local parlance.

Since the walk to the shrine through the horses is sooooo good, it is hard to say “avoid the place” and thus avoid the pimping. Since the walk to the shrine is soooooo long, this makes the girls’ efforts all that more impressive.

Sorry, no answers here (damn, the boy skips giving an answer!), much heaviness in thought and lack of understanding.

And, in the shrines, we were often swarmed over by kids (mostly boys, few girls) wanting to “chat” and have their pictures taken, not expecting money or pens or anything. I still was very uncomfortable, though many of the tour were not. I don’t mind (much) being gawked at, I’m the other here after all. I do mind being bumped into, assumed to be willing to take a picture, having 13-17 year old boys (my least favorite group of humans? Fortunately, I skipped these years myself), pushing and prodding me for favors while trying to be a part of the place I’m standing in. Equivalent: you’re in MOMA (or at a ballgame) and there is a steady of 15 year old boys wanting to chat you up in bad English, asking you to take their picture, bringing their friends over to have their pictures taken, giggling, prodding, shaking hands. So, you really want to look at that Anselm Kiefer in corner?

Power Outages
Scheduled and unscheduled, a basic fact of life here, happens all the time. My favorite: the night there was a power surge in Cochin and I could finally read the menu without a flashlight, all the bulbs were suddenly 120 watts. Lasted about 20 minutes. More normal, no matter where we stayed, the bulbs ranged from 20 to 40 watts, we have lived very dimly at night for the last 3 weeks and (with my weak eyes) will be very much looking forward to seeing again. So, for those of you who think traveling with your own pillow (good idea) and meds (excellent idea) and kindle (weight reducer), I also recommend you consider traveling with your own light bulb.

Locals Mix-match
I have a one word summary: NOT! Okay, what am I talking about (yep, more opinionated words/blather about things I know nothing about and have no real way to know…I must be suffering from blog-itis). This country is full of subgroups: castes, religions, regions, villages, tribes, work guilds, political parties, men, women, on and on and on. From all sources, what we heard is how great everyone gets along, so often that I finally came to the conclusion that what they meant was that nobody was killing each other (not right now, in South India). They live near each other, are willing to talk to each other now and then, occasionally work together, share public transportation, all the external views of society, and yet we heard enough to realize that there ain’t that much overlap, there is a ton of separation. Soooo…makes the country fairly astounding, so much ease of movement and yet so much separation. However, fraught is building the bridges to a new world society and the concept of integration and cross-breeding.

Groups, Gangs and Hanging out Together in the Hood
People in India love to be together. We noticed it when individuals would sidle up to walk beside someone in the group, pretending to listen in to Martin or just to walk along. A family sleeps in the same room, and certainly in villages it was nothing for someone from another house to show up for a sleep over, no invite needed. Clearly, people love to be with other people, nature abhors a vacuum big time in India.

Particularly in Mumbai or the crowded temples, large crowds would ebb and flow without seemingly getting overcrowded or bottlenecked (unlike the streets full of honking cars). More like schools of fish or ants, large numbers did not phase the locals and they seemed to pretty much walk at similar paces (unlike Beijing, where I had to put on my passing signal non-stop). Lots of life is lived right on the streets: gathering to chat, reading the paper, setting up your desk and chair, doing upholstering job (we saw this!) and many other tasks on what we will fondly refer to as the sidewalk.

There was only one time we felt physically unsafe. We were in a temple walking as a group and a guy around 30 joined in, carrying a bag (about the size of a large fitness gym bag). He joined up and then strolled in the middle of the group. Then he put the bag down when we stopped to look at a detail in the temple, and strolled away. One of our group noticed and got very tense, then we noticed her getting tense and then several us got very spooked. Then he came back and got the bag and started walking with us again. At this point, we were very jumpy, nobody carries a bag like this around. Finally we mentioned to Martin and either he, the guide (can’t remember if we had one then, don’t think so) or Carol talked to him for a minute or two and he went away. Otherwise, I think you are extremely safe from bodily harm. On other hand, we did think petty theft happened a lot, purely a crime of opportunity, though nobody on the group ever mentioned having anything taken.

A Meditation on what a Sidewalk is and How to Maintain it
Actually, sidewalks do not exist in India (okay, technically, there appears to be an area between the shop fronts and the street, but they ain’t used to walk on!). Most of the walking is done in the street. So, you get to dodge the tut-tuts, cars, street hawkers, guys moving stuff in small carts on foot (I’m talking from the smallest town to the largest city, it’s all one long song) by walking on the fringe of the street. I was shocked at how fast I learned not to care if a car or scooter honked behind me, if they won’t hit cows then a westerner should be doubly blessed.

In downtown Mumbai almost no sidewalk was intact, our guide to the airport (hmmmm…what else could he be, we also had a driver! India believes in excessive full employment, see note about shopkeepers) explained that they are tearing out all the sidewalks because they are cemented down, and being “repaired” by placing them in sand so they are easier to maintain.

I will now let you use your imagination on what maintenance in India is like (dreamin’….dreamin’….more dreamin‘). In other words, we hardly saw anything being maintained, the buildings all look somewhere between 50 and 1000 years old, most probably never had paint on them. They were also putting in sewers on the waterfront in Mumbai, directly across from our hotel. At 3-5am…TRUE!

Soooooo, back to making the sidewalks easier to repair. If you pull them out and never finish the job, then it must de facto easier to repair because now you never have to repair them. Second best, you finish the replacement job and somebody notices that the cute little blocks set in sand are missing, shifting, breaking, used in riots, and any myriad number of other uses that means while the repair is on the sidewalk is a sandpit (except during monsoon, when it is a “tank” or water buffalo nesting spot).

Tanks, or How I Learned How to Chat my Friends up while Bathing
Most cities or towns in S India have large mostly rectangular or square “reservoirs” near temples or city center. Many rural areas are near or on canals or rivers.

In effect, the tank is a prime source for drinking and purification Having said that, we never saw a tank any westerners would dip any body part in…the best we saw was one used for drinking water (Please, no bathing or…worse), and we could see large clumps of algae growing right up to the edge. All the others, murky brown bodies of water.

We saw everything from bathing to using the canals as a toilet, and washing of cattle (I mean giving the cattle a scrub and rinse!). From what I understand, this is ritual purification, and often people had little steps down to the river or canal to help aid entry and exit. And, see above note on crowds and being alone, it was nothing for a guy to be taking his bath with four or five men around. The same little stepping stone was also used for washing clothes, mostly facilitated by slamming the item down (WHAP) hard on the stone. I only once saw this job done by a man, and this was in town where they raced giant snake boats (think really elongated dragon boats) and he was doing the wash to stay in rowing shape (maybe? Maybe not?).

Men would take off their sarongs by subtly covering themselves in towels (or washing sarongs). We rarely saw women in the water, and if so they also were pretty much fully clothed. Boys (never girls) appeared to just jump in and swim around. Favorite towel anecdote: one of the tour, while we were on the houseboats, saw the boat guys wearing the same towels we used in the bathrooms as a sarong. Hmmmmm….ritual purification is a shared habit? Quien sabe?

Another story: Brahmins, a higher caste, have their clothes washed by a lower caste. Since the lower caste touching the clothes makes them impure, when the clothes come back the Brahmins rinse them in water again. Hmmmmm….

We saw many people brushing their teeth, and in general the people have terrific looking teeth, smile often, and are extremely eager to help if they see you are struggling. Now, I never asked to borrow a toothbrush, so maybe I have put these two thoughts together at random.

I’ve touched on this subject before, and right up there is zoning. It is hard to believe, you almost get used to seeing huge areas of plastic garbage next to nice houses next to repair shops next to…fill in the blank, anything goes next to anything else. People seem very clean (and clean cut), houses are clean inside (even in the poor villages), the backyard can be a total dump. On the out of Mumbai to the airport, I could swear that there was so much garbage piled up in spots that it must be the town dump. Since there are no garbage cans or garbage trucks (that we could see), I kinda doubt it. Maybe…

We saw guys throw plastic bottles and small juice containers out the windows of the ferry. Nonchalant, no big deal. MHB took a picture of a tree in Cochin that somebody had cleverly stuck plastic bottles on all the dead tree branches, maybe 150 or so. At first, I thought maybe they had just blown up there and got stuck, then decided the law of large numbers would mean the other trees would have some too.

And, of course, since cows, goats and dogs roam free, there is plenty of ploppen to be avoided. Interestingly, the animals seemed to use the sidewalks (oops, what seemed like space reserved for sidewalks) more than humans.

Three Seasons
Our trip was taken in the depths of winter. Other than a few nights up in the Periyar Sanctuary and a few half-days at the end in Mumbai and a few trips on the water where breezes were gratefully received we were hot and clammy for basically three weeks. There are two other seasons: summer (sit in a sauna for 19 hours and then turn off the light inside) and monsoon (no definition needed, this is near the equator).

One More Cup of Coffee Before I Go
Your breath is sweet when we go out, like jewels in the sky
Your back is straight your hair is smooth on the pillow where you lie


Your loyalty is not to me, it is to the sky above


One more cup of (S. Indian filtered) coffee for the road
One more cup of (S. Indian filtered) coffee before I go to the valley below

How to sum up (damn, THIS is supposed to be the summation, now he’s telling us he doesn’t know how to do it…unbelievable)?

Overload and getting used to it, accepting the holding of (many) conflicting ideas in your head. Understanding how this part of the world influenced western thought and got/gets little credit for it. The wonder of the temples and getting a Holtbyesque hint of the meaning of what we’re seeing. Surviving the chills after years of good health. Seeing India from vans, trains, boats, tut-tuts, taxis, rickshaws, on foot, every possible way except riding a bike (next time!).

I again want to emphasize that this is really a work of creative (non-) fiction, because there are many many things wrong, partly truthful, impressionistic, delusional, and in this part of the world you collectively have to find your own way (another paradox).

Day 24 - Jan 30, Mumbai to London

Day 24 - Jan 30, Mumbai to London - Miscellany - Mumbai to London, we’re in the front row!

1. Taj Hotel and Gateway to India
2. MHB gets a too
3. There we are on boat to Elefanta wearing our FabIndia shirts
4. 2 street scenes, traffic and note people walking in the streets
5. Sign (explanation to follow later)

Update on the tut-tut argument in Cochin: Shreeraj (guide, better spelling) got turned in by the lead tut-tut guy who was more argumentative and leader of the pack, for being a guide without a license. The police were called, and eventually Shreeraj got off with a “warning” because the police officer was Hindu, Shreeraj was Christian and the complaining tut-tut guy was Muslim, so it was two against one. Martin relayed the info, another insider view hidden from us (gives you an insight to just how wrong the rest of this blog can be!).

  • Yesterday’s lunch in Mumbai (Chinese food) was the big splurge, $30 for the seafood, $25 for the chicken and $20 for the veg. There was one other table of four eating lunch, otherwise, we had the place to ourselves. Might not have mentioned, they had two waitresses who looked Chinese, both from N. India, neither had anything to do with China
  • I know you’re waiting for the confirmation, in the Elefanta cave temple there was such a Holtby moment that both of us caught it right away, nice confirmation of an earlier observation. Let us say that we didn’t expect it, even though we had Freud and Einstein floating in the air along with all the versions of Shiva. And, the cave temple itself (repeating here for emphasis) was quite large and extremely impressive, well worth a detour!
  • There was a gathering for the goodbye dinner, one member passed, five left for the airport around 7:30pm. Only two ate dinner, the rest had drinks, a round of farewells, and then we headed to the Taj with one other couple for a final-final small meal. Food not near as good as almost anywhere else we ate (no surprise, too westernized, poor hybrid).
  • This morning we breakfast with Carol and Martin and debrief for 90 minutes (one other member joins with about 20 minutes to go) and they are very receptive to our feedback and (of course) have been talking throughout the trip about needed adjustments. Nice way for us to pass along our thoughts in person in a very non-confrontational mode. All seem delighted with the conversation (we sure were)..
  • On the way to the airport, we get a better (ie, slower) look at the slums and note that every 30 feet or so there is a “road” that tunnels in from the street, about 3-4 wide. Gets dark within a few feet of the entrance, must seem very maze- and warren-like once you enter. And the ones we see are mini compared to the big ones elsewhere in Mumbai, the one in slumdog is probably the one with 5 million, and the movie is very accurate of the visual
  • Many of the vehicles have signs on the back begging: Use Horn Please, meaning (I guess) since they can’t really see the cars behind, the horns help them. However, since everyone honks all the time (whether behind the begging for a horn guys or not) it seems the ultimate sardonic request.
  • Air quality has dropped from extremely poor to oxymoron since there appears to be no more air left (see earlier comments re sunrises and sunsets; we did have another pretty sunrise this morning).
  • We ended up with $12 in rupees out of an initial (and only) ATM stop of $200 lo those many days ago. We charged very little after the first stop at Sun N Sand, the tour picked up almost every expense except laundry and miscellaneous snacks and drinks (eg, beer with meals). Made it hard to spend money, and it is already hard to spend money here in any quantity. A 100 rupee bill ($2) goes a longgggg way.
  • They are waxing the floors in the airport (ya gotta come to your faithful blogger for all the best updates) because most of the flights come in or out in the early morning hours, so noon (our time) is now midnight for the airport.

The BIG news: British Air has upgraded us from premium economy to business class!! Ahhhhhh….hot nuts and free champagne, oh, and a bit more leg room). Here are some awesome features:
  • Massive leg room (Alec, you would not be able to reach the seat in front of you)
  • Individual seat / bed pods that take hours to figure out all the controls and stations, we will probably be in London by the time
  • We have facing pods, so are chatting away; if our relationship doesn’t survive the flight (or snoring gets out of hand) we can put up the cute little S-curved frosted privacy glass that separates us
  • A pulldown (“squeeze the catch” must be some Britishism of “mind the gap” fame) foot rest that is more like a seat for your feet
  • Plugs that do not require converters, so I am typing (“keyboarding” in Americanismics) on my computer without using the battery…awesome dude!
  • Choice of meal: Salade Nicoise! (horrible)
  • Headsets that keep out all sounds, including of my seatmate
  • A choice on BBC Audio by a British comedian titled: What’s so great about Bob Dylan? If they had wifi, which appears they don’t, I would have issued the fatwa and the guy would be gone before we hit London. Rock Trivia: Al Kooper grew up with Paul Simon and then played organ on Like a Rolling Stone (howwwwwwww does it feeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeel). Nice threesome…Hey, he changed songwriting, he stuck with his changes even when the audience boo’d (You don’t knowwwwwwww what is happening here, do youuuuuuuu, Mr Jones), and the guy influenced the Beatles (is that a qualification?). Guy is the Shakespeare of our times. In the dime stores and bus stations, people talk over situations…

We land on time, make it to the Renaissance Marriott and hot showers, luxurious towels, fitness center open 24 hours and room service coffee (not S. Indian filtered, unfortunately).

On to United later this morning and home later today (Saturday).

Ralph and MHB

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Day 22-23, Mumbai

Day 22 - Jan 28, Cochin to Mumbai
- Miscellani
- Mumbai

The pics are from Cochin street scenes, there are few ways to accurately show what we are seeing without taking 100 of pics and streaming them really fast.

There are 14 official languages in India and they all appear on the currency! Three primary: Hindi, Tamil and English. I am still amazed at how many people appear to speak English and yet there is still a tremendous communication gap. Partly I think it is the idea of never wanting to say no, so I think they actually are saying yes, they understand, and only later find out that the real answer (because they did understand what I was asking) was no.

Up very early and off to the airport, multiple security checks, and a near 2 hr flight. The guy next to me wants a kindle explanation, and he’s never heard of Amazon. Looks like they have market penetration potential.

We arrive and transfer to a bus and then on to the heart of Mumbai, where the terrorists attacks occurred in November. We’re in a small beachfront hotel with views of the bay (we’re on a peninsula, and the other side is the Arabian Sea). Lots of talk on the way in by the local guide and Martin of the disparity of what is now an extremely wealthy few and a huge underclass. From the airplane we see one slum that rivals Slumdog vistas. Basically, there are around 21mil people living here and 5+ mil live in slums, and another 5mil commute daily from the suburbs. Our bus ride into town takes 1.5+ hrs, covers roughly 10 miles very very slowly.

Favorite sign: Anti-corruption Bureau Office to the right while we’re hearing that a local judge has ok’d payouts to the local mobs as legitimate tax deductions.

We check in to the hotel and find 14 moth balls scattered around the room, an lo, no moths. After lunch, we head to the art galleries around the corner from the hotel. Quite a thrill, we’re going all of 1.5 blocks and during the walk MHB asks 6 times about the location of the galleries (after having to get help from a nice old guy to get the front desk to write down the addresses of these same galleries). Basically, assume we’re looking for a Geary building with only two galleries and for some reason you have to know the name of the building to find the galleries, there are no street numbers, no street level signs, nada. The sidewalk is totally missing, the shopkeepers are sitting on small stools out front, and there appear to be 100+ people roaming one to two small blocks going somewhere or nowhere (K: slightly faster than Beijing!).

Galleries exhibits ok, nothing special. One, The Guild, has another local spot we should go see, and the gallery assistant (25-ish young woman dressed in jeans and a blouse, would be perfectly placed in any store or gallery in the US) draws us a map. The other gallery is on 4th Pasta Lane, first white building on the right. Ok…off we go, down the main street and now the street traffic is really picking up. We are reassured when we get to 1st Pasta Lane (I am not making this up, the real English name), on to 2nd, then 3rd and then we’re a bit confused because something smaller than a lane is the next street and unsigned. We keep trudging along and there it is: 4th Pasta Lane and now we’re experienced so we just start walking up the stairs of the first white building we see and there is the gallery! A-maze-ing, we can now navigate Mumbai.

It is so hard to describe the street scenes in India, a bit easier to describe the interactions with the people: invariably polite, cheerful, often confused, often you hear yes when it means no (or more likely, I don’t know), appreciative, usually hopeful you have a positive outcome, clueless. Fascinating if troubling for Westerners that appreciate a direct answer to a direct question.

We take a walking tour of downtown (mostly buildings built by Brits in 1800s) in the late afternoon with Martin as guide. Almost no beggars, plenty of street vendors, and few westerners (terrorism must have cut into tourism here).

One couple has taken the afternoon off to find the place where she stayed as a child in 1945 before taking a ship back to England with her mother and siblings. We bump into them on the way back and share beers on a nearby rooftop terrace overlooking the bay (we’re on the inland view of water side of town, a bit further west is the Arabian Sea). She of course did not find the exact spot (trees are 65 years older, let alone any changes in the neighborhood). She remembers waving goodbye to her father who was a staying behind (I think she didn’t see him for another 2 years) at a famous local landmark, the Gates of India, a structure built to honor the visit of George 5th (if I remember it right) in 1911 and then more famous now for the place in which the last British troops left India for good later in the century (before WWII I think).

Dinner on the front porch of the hotel, most of us are ordering more western dishes, a big mistake, but we are thinking, dreaming, drooling of food from home and it is too tempting. Some even order pizza. Not good…have to hold off one more day.

Day 23 - Jan 29, Mumbai
- Miscellani
- Elefanta Island
- Mumbai Mambo

  • Coracles (better spelling), the round boats, are also seen in England and Ruth Rendell novels
  • At the front desk this morning, I ask for a hair dryer. The guy behind the desk has to hear it twice and I use hand signals, though he speaks English. He then turns to the bellboy next to me and repeats it twice (in Hindi, I assume) and then some guy from the back, speaking English or Hindi, I can’t tell, says something to the guy at the front desk, who reaches his right hand down and pulls out the hair dryer, he didn’t move an inch during the entire exchange, it was as close to his fingertips as I am to the keyboard. Please take 5000 words and explain.
  • Sunset and Sunrise: one occurs an hour early, one an hour late as there is so much pollution in the air that the sun is not visible from quite a distance from the sun.
  • Meters on the cabs are outside the cab on the passenger side of the front hood. Today’s ride from about 2 miles from the hotel: 60 cents.
  • Breakfast was to start at 7:30, even this far into the tour I think they should tell the hotel 15 minutes earlier than needed (or tell us to come down 15 minutes later).
  • Outside the hotel on the waterfront, there were many terns dueling with crows for tidbits. I’m voting on the crows…
  • Mumbai contributes 38% of the country’s taxes
  • There is a generic dog here in Mumbai (and maybe all of India), mostly brown and white. Years of cross-breeding seems to have made them all pretty much look the same!

We head out to Elefanta Island early, before all the other tourists. We’re on a boat by ourselves…well, not exactly…the first of the hawkers selling terrific, really terrific precious stone necklaces. They warm up by trying to sell us such awesome bargains. The good news, one of the guys volunteers to take group pics using all our different cameras.

We take a short train (think Tilden Park steam train) and than walk up the hill to a tremendous Shiva temple, where by traveling clockwise we see all the phases of Shiva in spectacular stone carvings, from the 7th century. Great way to spend the last full morning, these are as good as any we’ve seen on the entire trip, plus a very accessible lingam altar that is still in use for blessing (we toss coins, there is no ash available for the forehead).

Boat back to Mumbai for a tremendous Chinese meal. We are across the street from the Taj and the Gateway to India, the place is quite posh. MHB has the fish special meal and I have the chicken. We start with terrific soups, the chicken is essence of chicken and the seafood is laden with scent of fish and ginger. Then we get various dim sum (all good, almost Beijing dumplings!), bow, I get duck in mu shu wrappers, lobster, prawns (even though I am on the chicken meal, I am getting everything), then another plate with chicken/mushrooms, noodles, bok choy, green beans. Finish up with vanilla ice cream topped with coconut/honey fried sticks.

This is maybe the best meal we’ve had on the entire trip. If you’re in Mumbai: Henry Tham. It appears we are the only eaters in the entire restaurant, which helps explain the great service, and how much food we get. I will check later with Carol as to cost.

We had been pre-ordering for an early dinner so that we can send off those leaving tonight with a meal. The longer lunch lasts, the more people are revising their orders for dinner downward.

Then MHB and I walk the city, do some shopping, visit another synagogue and various side streets. The walk is great, of course many people out, mostly men, and we stroll (hah!) through the streets of Mumbai. It also turns out to be a relatively cool day. We finally end up at the VT Railway terminal, where an immense number of people are shuttling to various platforms.

I’ll update the rest of the day if appropriate. In the meantime, we off tomorrow at 9:30am for the airport, 1:30pm flight to London.

Ralph and MHB

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Day 21, Jan 27 Cochin

Day 21 - Jan 27, Cochin - Miscellani - Cochin, more Cochin, Cochin all the time

Pic 1, Ralph and MHB in front of Chinese fishing net

Pic 2, Synagogue in Cochin, the entrance to the sanctuary is on the left

Pic 3, two houseboats tied together in backwaters, taken at sunrise

We’re feeling like the trip is winding down with little of note. Not sure why we’re in Cochin for another day. There are tons of tourists wandering the streets, which given the heat is a real act of determination. The consensus of the group is that we’re doing very touristy things without a lot of interest, the local guide is very accommodating though there’s not too much that needs accommodating, and Martin and Carol do not have any special insights here that would heighten the experience.

Humble apology: Basically, I have three main stressors around pictures: I don’t like to pose, I don’t like to take pictures, and as a viewer I don’t like to look at a ton of pictures all at once. One of the beautiful things about blogging is the ability to combine pictures with text. Sooooo, not too much posing, not a lot of picture taking (we are reserving a batch, you lucky dogs, just for us), and you get the pics doled out over time, in context. We’ve had some very limited success posting, mostly (I think) due to a lack of high speed wi-fi (any wi-fi!), technology inexperience, and bad luck. So, here’s what may happen: we’ll update the blog with pics tp gp with the right postings when we get back in the rockin’ free world, we might do some in Mumbai (unlikely), we will put together a flicker account and send that out, all or some of the above. ARGGGGGGHHHHH!

Perfect time to do a book review! Tree of Smoke by Denis Johnson, takes place mostly during the VN war from the perspective of a rogue CIA colonel and the people around him. Long, very enjoyable read. Highly recommended, good travel reading.

Question: How do you know you are in a climate that is too hot for you?

Answer: Even the cold showers seem too hot!

This morning we gather a group of tut-tuts, and the first stop is 100 yards away, to again visit the Chinese fishing nets. Someone must have figured out that the stationary net dropped 100s of times a day will catch fish, somehow I would think the fish would figure it out, too.

On to a cathedral just down the street. The tut-tut group follows along and one of the drivers says our guide has taken us to shops that are paying too high a price and he is getting a big commission. What shops? All we see are more little stands and some hawkers that swarm all over us., Nobody is buying a thing…

Cathedral of note for the giant fans with lines that run to the outside where some poor guy pulled on the rope during the services. Rebuilt by the Brits in late 1700s, first Christian church in India when originally constructed in late 1500s.

Then we take tut-tuts to buy spices, it is right next door the gallery we visited yesterday and the whole group buys spices and visits Dorrie and the art. As we depart, the next stop is short walk to a ginger factory with much ginger in different stages of drying out. NOT very appealing process, more moldy and using lime than we want to know.
Tut-tut drivers are now in rebellion, too much standing around and we aren’t visiting the stores where they get a commission for each fare dropped off. Martin now in a shouting match with the lead guy (the guy who complained earlier about our guide). We’re all way too hot and dehydrated to get much worked up about it, though it makes for quite a good street theater for the neighborhood.

We visit the Dutch Museum to see 450 year old murals that are a) wide open to being touched, sneezed on, etc. and b) under no semblance of humidity control. The shock is they lasted this long.

Some head back to hotel, subset go out for lunch in neighborhood. We join the neighborhood group and eat in the a/c room! Well, ok, the room with ceiling and wall fans. Dhosas (crepes filled with potato mix, I believe) and talit (the array of small dishes around a mound of rice) and 4 mango drinks between the two of us. $9 total for 9 meals and 15 drinks, would’ve been $4 if we had been in the main dining room.

MHB goes with another couple to do a bit more shopping and on the way back the tut-tut stops for gas…and the driver gets a cup of gas, and while waiting they are approached by someone who sez if they visit a specific shop he gets a t-shirt and small gratuity, no need to buy anything. Novel approach, the gas-hustling tut-tut driver/huckster combo!

We take the sunset harbor cruise, only 9 of us including Carol and Martin and Sri Raj, the local guide. We visit the fishing boat tie-ups, seeing small shrimp being shelled by hand by about 20 women. Then the shelled shrimp are put back in a net and dipped right off the boat several times, to get that local flavor? The key moment, all the cruises are lining up so that the cruisees can get a shot of the sun behind the Chinese fishing nets. About 5 boats jockeying for about 45 seconds of screen saver shots. Best part from our perspective (we didn’t even bring the camera) is the nice breeze throughout. We also see dolphins with pink snouts and tips of the fins, on grey bodies.

Another pre-dinner party to finish up the last of the scotch, beer and wine. Then dinner, too many times at the hotel, we’ve each run through the items on the menu we like several times, and then to try and get some sleep before the 5:15am wakeup knock on the door (there are no phones in the rooms!).

Ralph and MHB

Monday, January 26, 2009

Day 19 -20, Jan 25-6, Alapuzha and the Backwaters to Cochin

Day 19 - Jan 25, Alapuzha and the Backwaters to Cochin

- Health report

- Cochin

MHB and I are now off the critical list, having slept without drugs and feeling fine (except for the head clearing of accumulated sinus stuff). We have been sharing a boat the last few days with the younger couple, he’s a smokejumper, manages a team that gets parachuted in midst of fires. He asks if I am interested in going for a jump and much hemming and hawing and talking up my vast set of prior exploits (foremost: taking the parachute ride in Puerto Vallarta in 1974 behind an unlicensed boat….VERY brave). He then proceeds to tell us the story of jumper who’s chute collapsed and ultimately had her lower right leg amputated. I decide that my parachute career ended sometime in early 1975.

Also early in the morning we notice three people in a small circular boat (called a caracol, I believe), pulling in fishing nets. This is a boat that looks impossible to steer, it like sitting in a large almost flat basket and always going in the same direction.

At breakfast, a bucket of rolled dosas filled with shredded coconut are brought, except that the guy serving corrects me, these are pancakes! Hmmmmm….soon we’ll be having waffles, muffins, caffe lattes and scones for breakfast. MHB thought these were the best breakfast item on the entire trip!

We boat back to a pick-up point and back on a van for a ride to Cochin, an older trading harbor. The ride is remarkable! For a long distance, 30 miles?, we are on a true divided four lane highway that is smooth going. Awesome, dude!

Along the way we learn:

  • In the last 6 years, there have been 5 republicans on the trip. Carol thinks that has something to do with a lot of Bay Area participants. Everyone on this trips ranks from quietly Obama-ish to people that were active to very active in the campaign.
  • Indian governments support themselves on excise taxes, very little is collected via income tax. Of course you’ve all heard it is a land of small shopkeepers. Until you’re here and see how many millions of these 10x15 shops doing almost no business, it is hard to understand what it means. My interpretation: very little business is still enough to keep the business viable.
  • The government has nationalized most of the major industries (such as oil) and is actually done the most for the underclass by a continual redistribution of land, moving away from the huge acre ownership by the few.

On the ride in we pass a field where 2 games of cricket are going on and an actual game of baseball! Martin says it is the first one he’s ever seen in India. The players see us and immediately break into Rickey, Hall of Fame, Rickey, Hall of Fame cheers!!!!!

We arrive at the hotel and have lunch before seeing the room. I order the catch of the day in banana leaf, excellent and spicy. We also try the brownie with ice cream and chocolate sauce, not near as good (it is a gingerbread brownie, if there is such a thing).

Our room is palatial, truly huge. It is also one of the two for our group without a/c, so it is a big trade-off. I will let you know how that works out because a) I am reporting so much drivel, it will fit right in and b) in the rare off-chance one of you decides to go on the trip, you can make an informed choice!

We rest up and try the internet cafĂ© next door, the jump drive concept doesn’t work. Then the group heads out to tour the waterfront with Sri Ravi. He’s a street vendor Carol and Martin met on one of their scouting trips. We don’t get too much out of the tour, it’s very hot and there are a lot of tourists and vendors selling to tourists. MHB bought a plastic roll of spices up in the mountains and everywhere we go it turns out she got a good deal.

Then to see another set of traditional dances. This one is a lot better than the others, make-up is amazing and dancers excellent. One number included a guy getting worked to a fever (to the tune of The Time has Come Today by the Chambers Brothers) and running into the crowd down the middle aisle (I was hoping he would behead the guy sitting there next to me taking pictures…no luck). As part of the pre-game, you watch the actors/dancers put on extremely elaborate makeup, and four of our group, including your very own MHB, decide to get henna tattoos. This brought back memories of the LL event where Julie had her (very pregnant) stomach henna’d!

Several of the party leave early looking for a drink. When we meet up later with them at the hotel for dinner, they’ve struck out. And the hotel does not sell beer either. We hear from Sri Ravi, who has stayed to share dinner, that the licenses cost quite a bit and the ongoing payoffs to local officials do not make it profitable for most hotels.

Dinner is grilled fish, pretty buttery and quite good and MHB has spaghetti. After dinner, it turns out that two couples do not have functioning a/c, not a good thing in this heat (we at least know we don’t). This hotel has a sister around the corner, apparently with functioning a/c. It’s 9:30 at night, not sure if anyone decided to move or not. Another meal where we are all present, Ripken is starting to get a bit nervous about the streak…

Day 20 - Jan 26, Cochin

- Health report

- Cochin

We’re doing amazingly well, physically. Mentally, the length of the trip and heat are starting to slow all of us down, and the sightseeing in Kerala is not as exciting as the temples of Tamil Nadu. As one of the tour said, the heat here is preparing us for Mumbai.

One couple did sleep in the other hotel, and were very grateful. Today is Independence Day (national holiday of sorts), a solar eclipse is gonna happen, AND we think the a/c will be fixed? Hmmmmm….

There are no seagulls, this is crow territory. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a beachfront area where seagulls are not the dominate bird.

We visit the oldest synagogue for miles around. It is actually now non-functioning, they don’t have enough male members to make a minyan. The sanctuary is a small room, maybe 30x40, with a small balcony in the back for the women (we meet two of them at Sarah’s Embroidery, they are welllllll up there in age and clearly products of intramarriage). There is a lectern in the middle of the space, guess sermons were done in the round. The torahs are behind a very handsome curtain, we do not get to see them. The floors are Chinese tiles in the Delft manner. Many Indian tourists have come to see the place.

We separate from the group and find the one modern art gallery, of course run by an American woman (from Detroit). We spend one and half hours chatting, looking at some combo photo/paintings by a gay artist from the north of India, and she gives us a free catalog (very nice), Her business has been suffering quite a bit since the economic downturn as she has many clients from the around the western world who are no longer buying.

We continue walking back to the hotel, risking heat prostration and yet feeling really good to be walking. Of course it is hot and steamy. On the way, we see a casket being carried in the street and then into a mosque, it is covered in white cloth.

Rest up in the afternoon and then head on the ferry for a shopping expedition on one of the islands in the harbor (or at least, we pass islands, maybe we are back on the mainland). It’s a place called Fab India, a chain that specializes in handmade and hand dyed garments. Small purchases are made and MHB finds a nice shirt for me.

Back to the hotel where we have our first collective cocktail hour, our guide has bought beer and wine (Indian chenin blanc, a truly acquired taste, actually sort of the same for beer). We host, since our room has room for parties of 40 and we’re only 13. One of the tour has a bottle of scotch of which many partake. A number are wearing new Indian-style clothes, all quite handsome and some even exotic.

Then dinner in the hotel for most of us, four members have found a local place that is supposed to quite good.

At dinner, the power goes out, it is pitch black. Maybe the solar eclipse? We hear the a/c has been fixed in all the rooms…hmmmm….

In the middle of the night it starts raining, hard, and then a HUGE thunder clap. I elevate several inches off the bed, and somehow we both go back to sleep. All this steamy humidity has finally meant a thunderstorm. As best I can tell, this is the only thunder of the night, and it was right on top of us.

Ralph and MHB

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Day 17 and 18, Kumarakom and Alapuzha

Day 17 - Jan 23, From Kumarakom to Alapuzha and the Backwaters

- Corrections

- Medical update

- Muslim swimwear

- We’re motoring through the backwaters of time

- One and out

Around the world in 80 gardens appears to be title of the show, and I still hold to David Niven as host until the real host is identified, Another set of bonus points for first in.

We’re all feeling better, now I’m only feeling the congestion from the head cold, the bacterial thing (formerly known as viral thing) is fading away, I am not real strong yet, not feeling weak either. We’re all up and on the boat at noon, a nice leisurely start. Before we leave, a group of 20-34 yr old Muslims come to the pool for frolicking and fun. The women are wearing identical style swimsuits: long bike shorts covered by full tops with little skirts on them, in a range of somber colors, though not all black. Men wear fairly standard suits, not baggy, not long, and all black. Everyone showers before getting in. The sign on side of pool: no cotton, nylon only. Apparently, some of our group witnessed some of the men fondling the women under water...time for me to go put my suit on again.

We head off in spacious boat, covering is of woven cocoanut and needs to be updated each year after the monsoon. Local guide, Madu (means sweet or honey) joins us, English is easily understood.

We’re alll clustered up front, small dining area and chairs. Boat is much quieter and no heavy diesel fumes are created (big improvement over Ha Long Bay tour). We get cocoanuts to drink and off we go. We travel very slowly, hear a bit of the history of the area and Kerala. Women very important here, to the point that in their history they had polyandry, one woman married to multiple men (always brothers). I ask the same question I always do: what happens to the extra women since fewer men in the marriage pool. All baffled (same answer I always get too).

Shortly after heading off the lake onto a spur canal we are approached by a small boat carrying a Styrofoam cooler. He attaches and holds up his offerering: giant Malabar prawns. Carol and Martin are vegs, so they don’t show much interest. I do! Group orders six, mostly wiping out his stock. Back to the kitchen they go. More slow boating. We see storm billed kingfishers, bee eaters (great!), spectacular golden backed woodpeckers, and then tie up for lunch. The prawns are the best thing we’ve had on the trip. They have taken the lobster like legs out and cooked them separately, yummy little tidbits, tender and flavorful (some of us think ginger, may be more garlic and turmeric). Bodies also more like lobster, MHB gets our big tail piece out and I eat what I can from rest of body. Shells go overboard, it’s perfectly acceptable to throw food scraps out in the countryside. A big success, rest of lunch is twice cooked rice (more fluffy than usual), a few items to put on top and tuna cutlets (not bad, they are usually so thin that all of what you taste is the coating. You don’t order your fish rare here. {I check later with Carol, $30 for all the shrimp, making it the big splurge and well worth it.}

We visit a local village, every single item of vegetation is used to sustain the place. In the backwaters, there are 50 villages and each holds about 1500 to 2000 people. In Kerala, about 2000 villages, maybe a bit less. Implies a lot of people in cities.

The story of how house boating tourism got going here is similar to FedEx, a guy from around here went to Harvard, came up with the idea, did a small test, got some funding for 6 boats, they did well, attracting foreign tourists, then Indians figured out it was a great honeymoon concept, and in the last 15 years have sprung up 500 hundred boats and numerous lake and canal front resorts.

Along one of the canals we come upon a movie set (had to happen with as many movies made here). We need a volunteer to watch all the new releases for the next 6 months looking for the following characters: 5 guys dressed up in turquoise tiger outfits that could best be described as weak high school mascots, say from somewhere in rural Montana. The director sits in a powerboat moving up and down the canal. The main characters wave, we tony-the-tiger right back.

Apparently, alcoholism is the local obstacle to overcome, the men drink something called a toddy, yep, a hot rum like drink with high alcoholic content. Then Madu tells us a local myth: Shiva spots seven beautiful maidens sitting in luscious pool and decides to sleep with all. He converts himself into a fireball and appears in the pool. Several months later all seven women find they are pregnant, each with a son. The sons grow up to be a caste that translates as firewater, and they are the ones that are in charge of harvesting the ingredients that go into the local drink. Guess firewater turns out to be a common indigenous term for alcohol.

During our village visit we see more birds: crow pheasant, which is actually a cuckoo and subs her eggs for another bird’s eggs, Indian tree pie, and a pair of barbits (extremely rare, I’m the first to spot them because I looked to the left of a kingfisher in my confusion).

MHB has just advised me, we’re up early the next day, that we are not to live near a mosque, the chanting early and late is colorful once, something to write home about twice, and three times is a no-go condition. Muslims here live in general more low than Catholics or Hindus, less educated, more traders than agriculture or white collar workers. We also hear chanting and firecrackers, that is the local Catholic custom to celebrate local festivals, and we periodically hear booms that sound like they are trying to chase birds out of the rice paddies, we guess local festival related as well.

Off to dinner…..well almost. As we dock and realign bags across three boats (of course the heaviest bags are going to the furthest boat)., Dinner is on shore. I make several short trips off and on the boat, and the third one is at 7:58. At 7:59 I feel my body heat rising and my energy level dropping dramatically. At 8 I am back in the stateroom (two per boat) fumbling for cipro and motrin and laying down. MHB appears some time later (after dinner), adds ambien to the mix for sleep and I am out until 6am (where you are now the recipient of the typing).

Day 18 - Jan 24, Alapuzha and the Backwaters

- Health report

- Observations

- Smoked and left for dead

- Watch out Cal, your streak may be in jeopardy

We’re feeling much better! Now we just really have the head clearing and cleaning to finish off the cold/cough thing. Same for most everyone else, the tour is getting healthy.

We are watching sunrise and the early morning washup by the crew (which we awoke by getting up and out at 6am). Just across from us a fishing guy preps his nets and head out A few minutes later the school bus shows up, a giant dugout canoe pulls up to the dock and 5 students climb aboard and spread out single file in the boat, the first kid in grabs an oar and off they go. They waited maybe 10 - 15 minutes for the bus. They get picked up at the point where Kollam is 63km down one canal, Chambarkkulam, 8km, down the other fork.

We have appams for breakfast, rice tortillas that are more like crepes with holes in them. Excellent with jam.

We get in small dugout canoes, an are poled and oared down narrow canals full of hyacinth plants. We see grey egrets, common kingfishers, pink and whitish water lilies. We see cricket players, more chanting in honor of Rickey. The highlight, we get out and walk a while and come upon a local barber and mountain man (the only guy with a beard) decides he needs a trim. Scissors only, and he gets charged $1.25, the local fee is 50 cents but the locals only get cut on top (nobody has beards of note) and this time the barber has to work sideways the whole time. Mountain man is now just foothill man. I am very disappointed, was hoping that really old Playboys might be brought out to share while we wait.

We then get back in the boats and get thoroughly smoked. It is very hot and steamy, no shade, and slow going. I am about to lead the local mutiny (if only my fellow mutineers are alive to join me) when we reach our destination village an slurp up all the cold water and mango soft drinks available at the first stand we find. Our large boat is there and while some head off to shop (and pay top price for spices) some of us decide to recover on the veranda of the boat). Pass also on seeing the local Catholic church which is reportedly gaudily painted though not gilded.

We see the snake bird swimming and realize it lives up to its name: very long neck shows and the body is entirely under the water. Fascinating. We see a sailboat loaded with bricks floating along. The sail appears to be made of colorful plastic bags, and the boom is at a very odd angle, 45 degrees up from the mast and yet somehow the whole sale is square. Bricks, these guys are sailing a ton of bricks. Supposedly they pole (punt) when not enough wind. A ton or two of bricks.

Back for lunch, we’re all there (one stayed back from the smoking in the canal, excellent decision).

In afternoon we do another long boat ride (on our real boat) and at the turn around point see (so the claim is) the Arabian Sea.

Back for tut-tut rides to the local festival (reason for the booms) and the two highlights are seeing the entire outside of the shrine being lit by 1000s of small cocoanut oil lamplets and hearing the Benny Goodman quartet, lead by a guy playing the nada shwarma (a giant clarinet/kazoo combo), accompanied by cymbals, drums (he is terrific) and something like a box that is opened and closed (a weird accordion).

Tut-tuts back to the boat and we’re all there for dinner, two meals in a row. It has been over a week since we were all at lunch and dinner at the same time. Ripken, we’re coming to get you. And, if we find out you didn’t vote for Rickey, I will personally make sure our tour eats every meal together for the rest of the trip. For those of you who didn’t know, all the living HOF members get a ballot. Maybe they sent ballots to some of the dead guys who forgot to send in their ballots.

Later, Ralph and MHB

Day 14, 15, 16, Madurai and Periyar

Day 14 - Jan 20, Madurai to Periyar Wildlife Sanctuary

- Medical update

- The vote is in and it’s official, rage in the streets

- On the train

- Off to paradise

- Elephants, boars, otters and birds

MHB is feeling better, I am starting to feel more feverish and am upping the dose of Excedrin. The two down-and-outers are ready for the train, only looking very worse for wear.

I know by the time you read this, the upsetting news about the vote will all be forgotten; since we are in the land of cricketeers with bats in their hands, there will be a lingering discontent in the hearts and minds of many: Rickey did not get voted into the Hall of Fame unanimously. Here, we’re hanging In effigy the guys who forgot to vote for the best power/speed leftfielder of all time (that did not enhance himself with too many performance enhancing drugs). We’ll see if we can get a pic or two of the effigies.

Up very early, too early for those of us dragging, and off to the train we go. It’s nice, we’re in 1st class, which means there are cushions on the seats, and some sit 2 across and some 3 across (both if you’re small). At the first station, every car is loaded with metal shoes about 2 feet long and probably weighing 40 pounds. Now you can’t get the restrooms very easily. Hmmmmm…are we better off? I did use the toilet when we were in a station. Of course, it’s a hole down the area between the tracks. The train starts up. Now we’re on a hole different plane when it comes to hitting a moving target (as one the tour put it: you weren’t sure what to hold on to).

The van meets up at the station down the tracks (it’s a slowwww train comin‘ - one of my faves when the Dead back up Bob) with our bags and we head up into the mountains. We cross the border from Tamil Nadu to Kerala {the lights just go out, I think we’ve left our flashlight in Chettinad, and it is REALLY dark here without lights}. Kerala is primarily a spice growing region, tons of agriculture dedicated to various spices. Martin tells a long, very good myth about the area (sum: the 4th son cuts off his mother’s head at the request of his father, later an arrow is shot out to sea and the distance from the shot to where it lands in the ocean becomes Kerala). We also hear a bit about the history of the area, going back to the Portuguese (came for the spices to use in Europe as medicines), the French, the Brits, and finally this area is now governed by a freely elected communist party. The highest literacy rate in India (closing in on 99%), very progressive, and very densely populated.

The wildlife sanctuary is at the top, along a lake created by a dam the Brits put in around 1915. The lodge is quite nice, sort of a mini-Ahwanee. Everyone shows up for lunch, including some monkeys outside that steal someone else’s meal. First time in several days we’re all at a meal together (If I don’t feel better, the streak ends at one). For lunch I have mulligatawny soup and veg biriyani (rice dish) with raita side (yogurt with red onions) and a lime juice soda. It is served a la carte and we had to order ahead of time. Not sure why (and why is he telling us this? The blog goes on and on and on…as it is).

Much talk of the big event of the day, Rickey you were honored…er, rather, Barry you were honored. In fact, Carol (co-leader) has arranged for the bar to stay open so those that can make it to 10:30pm, not me, will be watching the inauguration live. We have a 7am boat tour, a boy needs his beauty (and health) rest. I will watch later on you-tube.

For Hindus, paradise is jungle rather than garden (of Eden) and jungle means any uninhabited land. This does not look like jungle, for forest than tropical. Garden is an environment controlled by mere mortals and a jungle is uncontrolled and dominates mortals!

Rest up, meet at 3:30 and we take a boat tour on the lake. We’re on the top level, it’s quite hot (though we have all brought layers in case it gets cold. It does not get cold). The people behind us are from Chicago (much bemoaning about Rickey and just a touch of pride in their adopted son becoming president). They forgot binoculars, so we take turns so they can see the wildlife ashore, they seem very appreciative, I am sure they will be writing to the HOF soon).

It’s very hazy, so since we start around 4 the visibility is not great. As the sun goes down, we get lots of great shots of the animals, some very close and some off a way.

We see: elephants, boars, sambar deer, bison, and a frolicking family of river (lake?) otters, maybe 10 or so, squirming along the shore and diving in periodically and snagging fish. Thrilling for all, including us otter snobs who think they grow on (slough) trees.

Birds: Kingfisher, cormorant, tern, snake, egret, white necked stork, doves, babblers, laughing, night heron, regular stork, cormorant babies.

Regroup for dinner, we haven’t been at full complement in quite a while at a meal and this is no different.

Day 15 - Jan 21, Periyar Wildlife Sanctuary

- Morning boat ride: Calling Bruce Wayne

- Medical update

We get up early, and head back to the docks for another boat ride. This time is just our tour on the boat and the ride is a lot longer, we go much further up the lake than yesterday. This morning it seems much more like Ha Long bay in Viet Nam, without quite as much diesel fuel, the mist is similar…

The most interesting site is the snake (aka anhinga) birds with there wings outstretched to dry off in the first light. Perfect imitation of the Batman call. We see jungle crows, shrikes, wagtails, mynahs, a pair of black monkeys, more boar, bison (with calf), and then return to the hotel (one of three in the park). At the hotel, during lunch, I am fading, fading, fading. MHB and I decided to stay by the pool and pass up the afternoon walk (the first event I have missed on the trip). The group goes off, split into two, and see elephants up close, vipers, many birds, all thrilled.

Ahh, the ragman draws circles up and down the block,

I’d ask him what the matter is, but you know he don’t talk.

And the ladies treat me kindly and furnish me with tape

Deep inside of my heart, I know I can’t escape

Ohhhhh, mama, can this really be the end, to be stuck inside of Mobile with the Memphis blues again….

At 5pm, I head to the room and get under the covers and shiver (not chills, just shivers) for the next 9 hours. MHB brings dinner in, soup with rice and with what is a true act of incredible will, I move from bed to table eat a small amount. Cipro, the wonder drug, is taken, then get up and take aspirin at 2:30am, shivering symptom seems to be fading. Sleep must have occurred, it is now 7am.

The railroad men drink up my blood like wine…….OHHHHHHHH mama, can this really the end??????

Day 16 - Jan 22, Periyar Wildlife Sanctuary to Kumarakom

- Medical update

- Two truths and a lie

- Another myth

- Ah Hah : the Fred Holtby moment

Another tour member shows up this morning with a cold, and another does not show up as he has the shivering virus thing. We start trying to figure who has been healthy the entire trip besides our co-leaders and eventually decide it is only one couple. The good news, half of the couple is the doc, and we are thrilled that he’s hanging in there. The cough/cold types are considered vital humans compared to the four us that have the viral thing (and at least one of us has both: me).

Two truths and lie (for those of you novices, pick the lie out of the following three statements):

- Once upon a time in England, pacemakers were installed as outpatient procedures, local anesthetic only, and the pacemakers were used (ie, not new), and came packed in olive oil from Italian cadavers (hey, not bad for the first one, right?).

- To prep for a specific pilgrimage, the month before starting you switch to an all veg diet, bath twice a day (hmmmm….since we see where they are bathing, we definitely think this a true devotion), and give up sex (hey honey, not tonight, I’m gonna be a pilgrim). Then you wear a black sarong, and after getting to the trailhead, walk 8 torturous days through the jungle (or 3, if you’re found the shortcut) all the while wearing a cocoanut on your head.

- The driver of our van drove extra-cautiously in order to ensure we all arrived safely and maximize his tip. The driver and his assistant slept every night in the van, watching dvd’s on a screen set up at the front of the van. Only the assistant was allowed to load and unload the luggage while all the hotel folks lugging bags in and out watched (and kibitzed).

- We are now at a gorgeous resort, very Hawaiian, open verandas, infinity pool, spectacular sunset, native music in the evening, sipping mai tais and in general feeling closer to human than we have in several days.

Post your answers (that means write them on your palm).

First, we stop at a spice garden. This is one of the gardens featured on a BBC series called 80 gardens in 80 days (David Niven was the host….I’m making the host thing up!). We are led around by Abraham who clearly is in the top three all-timers in the ear hair division. His garden was started by his grandfather, and his dad is wandering around while we’re getting the tour. In about 20 feet, we have seen an amazing number of spice trees, vines, climbers, shrubs, all with their own unique pollinating and harvesting methods. Vanilla is expensive (#2 to saffron) because each bud needs to be pollinated by hand. After 45 minutes I repair to the van, where the most recent viral victim has remained. We nap for another 45 minutes and the tour proceeds up and over the mountain. We might get as high as 4,000 feet, hard to tell since we don’t see any signs that would tell us.

HAH!! Bonus points to those of you who figured out there were four questions, in India all paths lead to more paths and we’re now in the moment: a pilgrimage is a painful trip of devotion, and for some on the trip we are reaching for that destination which is the center of things. The pain puts you in the moment.

Here’s the pilgrimage story: One of Shiva’s (or was it Vishnu’s) sons grows up to kill a demonic water buffalo. As he slays the buffalo, it turns into a beautiful young woman who thanks him profusely (kiss frog prince) and he realizes they are destined to be married. He agrees to be married with one condition. They create separate abodes on two mountain tops, and he will join her after the first year in which no first time pilgrim visits his house. 800 years later….they are still coming and coming and coming, every year there is at least one first timer in the crowd. She’s waiting. The billboards show him tied in such a way that he can’t get an erection. We hear that Paneer, the guide that hosted us to dinner, has made the trip 8 or 9 times. Some men (it’s always men) start the walk from their house. This is one of the truths, even the cocoanut stuff on the head.

We don’t make it to the hotel until three, so maybe the driver was going slower than usual. It’s so hard to tell, as we get closer Carol, who is sitting in the back, has to shout up to Martin to slow down, it is bouncing too much behind the rear axle (best seats are up front and reserved for the most deserving pilgrims, er, the most ill pilgrims).

Now, we also hear the story of the bare breasted Nadars. The Nadars were a low caste that for centuries untold the women had to appear topless whenever in the presence of a member of the Brahmin caste. The Brits some time in the 1800s decided that this was taking things a bit too far in the wrong direction and banned the practice. The caste just above the Nadars was furious, some of their place in the vast hierarchy that is India was being usurped, and they went on strike, caused major problems at the local level, and forced much discussion between Calcutta and London (via the mail boat?). Brits refused to back down and finally some genius in London (male) came up with the answer: make the cloth covering the breast flimsy enough to see through. Order was restored…apparently the Brahmins didn’t care that much though we didn’t hear too much on their side (front) of the story.

After late lunch, most of us repair to the pool for swim, chatter, more Kindle lessons (it’s the e-book I’ve brought along and as usual for those not familiar with it, very intriguing…terrific for weak eyes and those that don’t like carrying heavy reading weight with them on pilgrimages). There are no drinks to be had here, it is another hotel that doesn’t serve alcohol because it is Muslim owned. So, this is the lie.

For the few: Martin comes out to swim and it finally comes to me, this guy is very much like Fred Holtby, Uni High English teacher, of which I managed to have 4 of my 6 high school semesters (or was it 2 of the 7? It was a long time ago in a very distant place). MHB thinks it is a remarkable fit except for one (prominent) aspect: there do not appear to be any UCLA coeds monitoring the trip from the back of the van and fawning all over the guy during breaks.

We have drinks on the veranda with Boulder couple, he’s brought Scotch in with him and he and MHB partake. I feel fortunate to still be awake and semi-chatty. We skip the traditional music and dancing show.

One other note about the hotel (OH NO, now he’s going to start comparing hotel rooms….ARGHHHHHHH). The bathroom is actually huge and half of it is open to the sky, a very nice touch. Not so nice, it also is conjoined the bathroom of the room next to ours, which means MHB and her potty pal are once again as one. Let us say that on this trip there has been more discussion of toilets and toilet habits and toilet goings than in all others I have ever taken.

Dinner and to bed.

Two more notes, MHB advises me that this is bacterial, not viral (and thus why I am not the one administering drugs or advice, we have a real doctor to do that).

And, all words in the blog are by me and me alone. I get plenty of help from various sources, I own all the great material you are plowing through. MHB is not reading along, so is she in for a treat or what when we get home….Honey, not tonight, YOU are going on a painful pilgrimage of devotion…repeat.

Ralph and MHB