Claire and Ava in Gruyeres, Switzerland

Claire and Ava in Gruyeres, Switzerland

October, 2011

October, 2011
Chess in Lausanne, Switzerland

Saturday, February 21, 2009

February 1, 2009

Slept in! We headed out to see a bit of Trivandrum, the capital of Kerala, after a breakfast buffet. I can tell it’s the end of the vacation; the "travel buffet" has lost its appeal to the kids.

I myself can’t complain, will miss the great coffee down here – this morning’s had a hint of cardamom in it.

We met our guide at the Padmanabha Swamy Temple, located inside the East Fort in Trivandrum. It is dedicated to Lord Vishnu and blends Kerala and Dravidian styles of architecture. Apparently it is known for its mural paintings and stone carvings and is one of 108 sacred Vishnu Temples in India. (I say apparently because non-Hindus aren't allowed inside -- kids were no doubt relieved.) The presiding deity is Lord Vishnu reclining on anantha the serpent.

We then toured the Kuthiramalika Palace Museum (built in the 1700’s?). Today 20 rooms are open tot he public; there are many more but are in the process of restoration as the palace has only been open since 1990’s I think.

It was built by a Maharaja Swathi Thirunal Balarama Varma - the King of Travancore, "a great poet, musician, social reformer and statesman." Among other things, he started a hospital, college and bank in the area. His musical legacy continues to be celebrated each year with a special musical celebration in his honor at the palace. He spoke 17 or 18 languages. All this by the age of 33, when he died. (Yipes I'm behind -- no hospitals on my resume, only one language and somehow I don't think playing the hotel Bose CD player counts for musical talent.)

His famiy left the palace shortly after his death as they felt it was unlucky. The wood inside is gorgeous – intricate ceilings that vary from room to room made from rose wood, which is very valuable. The library ceiling had a carved lotus flower and was painted beautiful colors. The Palace's meditation room has 8 pillars representing different viewpoints. The king used it to make difficult decisions sometimes, bringing together people of varying viewpoints to discuss and help him in the process.

A window of the room looks out toward the temple, and a passageway connected the palace and temple for easy royal access.

Some of the rooms and hallways had slats in the wood for ventilation and to allow ladies to look out and not be seen. Various rooms had paintings, Chinese urns and other decorative objects (gifts from other countries).

The floor was wood with covering made from limestone, egg white and brown sugar.

Two thrones were displayed, one made with tusks from 25 elephants, another from Czechoslovakia, made of crystal.

We also saw some weapons, a spectaclarly large gun – lots of carved detail in the wood around the granite pillars – a ring, birds in different poses, adult and baby squirrels, etc.

Claire seemed to enjoy this tour in particular; she was the guide's buddy – an Indian woman in red sari with commanding delivery.

From the palace we visted the Napier Museum, which was built in the 19th century. Its indo - saracenic structure boasts a "natural" airconditioning system and houses a rare collection of archaeological and historic artifacts, bronze idols, ancient ornaments, a temple chariot and ivory carvings. Most donated by the Royal Family, according to our guide. (Nowadays they live in the area -- I think he said fewer than 10 people in a 200-room palace.) The many items in the museum collection represent a small portion of their riches, he noted.

We then visited the nearby Sree Chitbra Art Gallery, with displays of "select paintings by Raja Ravi Varma, Svetlova and Nicholas Roerich and exquisite works from the Rajput, Mughal and Tanjore schools of Art In India."

Per our guide, Raja Ravi Varma is one of India's most famous painters. Paintings by his mentor, an uncle, were also featured.

Among the collection: epic portrayals, portraits of royals, typical market/street scenes, gypsy families, etc.

Upstairs in the gallery were copies of murals that can be found in temples and other locations in the area.

Our guide pointed out many buildings in the city as we drove around to comlete the tour – lots of government buildings given Trivandrum's status as a capitol city.
Many lovely colonial style from the British time. Lots of colleges here, good infrasturcutre -- many areas with flowers and plants, communities that seemed a bit more planned/structured, homes with larger yards, etc.

Our guide said he has 2 kids, 14 and 10. In the non-tourist season he said does avariety of things – research, data entry, etc, noting that it’s not always easy to find interim work.

He described Trivandrum as a laidback city without a lot of industry, growth relatively static.

On the way back to the hotel we picked up red bananas (Ramu just drove up to a fruit stand and made the purchase out the window -- fast food Indian style). I must say they were quite good; they're more costly and less common than the yellow varieties.

The rest of our last day of travel in South India was spent having ice cream and eating lunch (in that order), swimming and shopping and having another “pina colada” in a table overlooking the water as the sun set. (Claire's choice -- not the colada, the setting.) Great food, more shrimp (hard not to tire of fresh shrimp) in a lovely warm tomato/pepper sauce with a nice kick to it.

Last Stop: the Beach!

Saturday, January 31

This morning we left Cochin for parts south – long drive but it went fast. We ended up in Kovalam, about 30 miles from the tip of India. On the Arabian Sea (the hotel) was in a lovely spot. Our drive was through lots of villages; we could see the coast at times, lots of fishermen working on their nets. We passed many canals and waterways, more Chinese fishnets, fish boats. In one spot we saw 20 or so big fishing boats used for catching larger fish at sea. En route were a number of mosques, lots of churches – all seemed well taken care of, the mosques with their lovely towers and traditional Persian architecture.

I was told the Muslim religion is the fastest growing one in the area. We did see more trash than in other parts of Kerala on our drive, but overall still less than around Dehi and other areas. And we saw fewer beggers here – more schools connected with churches. I’ve heard from several people in the area that Kerala’s near 100% literacy rate can be attributed, in part, to the European influences of bringing schools linked w/ churches to the area.

BTW on our trip we saw kids walking to/from school (all wear uniforms) on Saturday. Some school days are taken off for festivals so they make up time as needed on the occasional Saturday, Ramu said. He also said people who work in markets (stalls) generally work everyday (Sunday may be the exception) in Tamil Nadu, from 9 or 9:30 until the last customer leaves (generally between 9 and 10). He said in Kerala, which is more unionized w/ Communist party, work hours aren’t as long.

Attitudes and existence of the the whole “empowered woman” thing here is interesting here. For example, we saw a woman driving a scooter – Ramu commented that women in his world (from the viallage) don’t drive, they listen and follow parental direction, aren’t “independent” (though one wonders what that definition is).

The "woman driving motorbike" is not a terribly common sight in India but certainly is more often seen in cities. (Most women ride side saddle on the back of motorbikes, gracefully perched in their brightly colored saris, oftentimes casually holding a baby or toddler. One will see a man driving, complete with helmet. But his passengers will be bereft of headgear, even the children. Apparently it's a law that male drivers here wear the helmets, unless they're wearing a turban -- then no helmet. But no one else needs to sport one.)

Ramu informed me the day before this "independent woman" conversation that parents wish for boys because of the dowry thing (expensive) and wedding expenses, and because girls leave home to live with the husband’s family while the boys stay and work.

I don’t think he believed me when I said my husband and I view boys and girls in the same light. Much as I like many things about India, the pervasive attitude about gender inequality would be very difficult to live with.

Our Cochin guide said 40 % of women there work, and our guide in Trivandrum said women now are much more financially independent, owning homes, working, etc.

Back to travels – we checked into our hotel, hit the beach and prepared to relax at the pool, one of three – the place has 5 restaurants, too. No need to leave paradise. We watched the sunset and waves crash on the coast of the Arabian Sea. I ordered wine – now why do I continue to do that here? It was less than good so I had a few sips, learned the restaurant wasn’t one of the hotel 5 so asked the guy if I could pay later (no cash on hand). He was quite amenable so we came back for dinner. This time I had a pina colada – vodka and freshly squeezed pineapple juice. This I could do at home (when I get that juicer, of course).

And yes, a juicer is on my list; I’ve been spoiled by freshly squeezed lime juice, grape juice, guava juice, orange juice, mango juice, pineapple juice…(watermelon best eaten cold at a picnic – why bother juicing?).

Dinner was slow as they prepare everything from scratch (according to the menu, anyway – or maybe they have to go retrieve it from the ocean). It certainly was a tasty shrimp/vegetable/spice dish, served with garlic naan (typically served with rice here but I'd had enough of that).

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Day 2 -- Cochin

Friday, January 30

This a.m. we started slow, managed to find something for Ava to take for the road to eat – she’s thrown in the towel on breakfast lately. Not sure why…of all meals this one is typically easiest with both kids.

Anyway, I’ve resorted to the bad mother practice of letting her eat cookies; they’re as close to animal crackers or nilla wafers as I could find and they’re tiding her over until we find PASTA for lunch.

Our guide met us at the hotel and took us to the Hill Palace in Tripunithura, 16km east of Cochin in Tripunithura.

Built in the 19th century by the Raja of Kochi, this palace served as the seat of the Raja of the Kochi province. It is now a museum displaying the wealth and splendor of the Rajas of Kochi, including the throne and the crown. The museum also houses a large collection of archaeological findings.

The grounds are gorgeous as the palace sits on a hillside with flowers/trees and greenery crawling up the side, intermixed with lovely stone steps and fountains.
The view, unadulterated by buildings and pollution, must have been fabulous from the hilltop palace overlooking Cochin.

Inside, a museum guide took us through; he said Kerala, during British rule, tried hard to get along with the British rather than creating conflict. Thus in the plalace were many examples of gifts exchanged between the countries, pictures of leaders from both, British paintings, etc. We saw gorgeous jewels belonging to the Royal family that lived there. In the 1960’s they moved elsewhere in the area, leaving artifacts to the museum for the public to view. Many lovely, valuable things were left, including a gold crown studded with jewels.

Other items I recall from our walk through: Italian tiles on the floor, Victorian flower tiles in pastels/bright colors along the walls, original chandeliers from Belgium, pictures of Indian gods and goddesses, items from old temples, weapons, carriages, palanquins. We learned that palanquin carrying (carrying a person of importance – generally royalty) was a role that held prestige. Our guide remarked that jobs in generations of old were held in esteem, less so now.

The last thing we saw was the deer park – a big pen near the castle filled with several spotted deer milling about.

From the palace we went to lunch at a very cool al fresco restaurant in Fort Cochin. I had prawn masala and a mango lassi (very tasty but the best lassi was still back in Rajasthan).

Then we went to watch martial arts training at Greenix Village, a “cultural multiplex” with art museum of (lots of Kerala dance information/depictions), handicraft demonstrations, library/book store, two theatres and a martial arts exhibition area (Kalaripayattu Training Square).

There we sat down to watch martial arts in chairs overlooking a “ring” below, where various weaponry is displayed. The program was designed to illustrate different martial arts used throughout history in Kerala. It began with a special blessing for the success of the competition.

The kids got scared at the first demonstration as it was noisy because the fighters were using swords, so they hovered out the door where I could see them while I watched the rest of the program.

I was amazed at the speed, agility and ability of the three fighters who showed their skills. They began each demo with another special blessing or prayer to the gods. Some of the skills illustrated were done individually – i.e. one guy “whirled” a long silver spear (later he did the same things with two) so quickly it was a blur.
Another used a sword with flexible blade that curls (handle is also very flexibility) and is very dangerous. He was spinning that so fast my eyes couldn’t keep up.

There were demos with long and short sticks, with two men fighting using daggers, swords, etc. – then hand to hand combat. In one fight one of the men was armed with a knife, the other unarmed. They illustrated how they use pressure points to bring enemies down. One man showed how he used his sash to defend himself, even tying three people up together (the mast of ceremonies was the third captured).

Apparently Kerala’s martial arts is the “mother” of today’s martial arts. I am now intrigued to learn more, much to Claire’s chagrin. She saw the sword piece and probably thinks I’m going to fill the London house with weaponry. These men, of course, make it all seem so easy…they’ve only been training since they were children.

We can’t not hit a bookstore when one presents itself so each of us left Greenix Village with a book, then we had Ramu drop us at the Jew Street market not far from our hotel. It was wholesale – huge! Tons of fruits, vegetables, spices in crowded narrow streets – great fun to walk through.

Then we headed to the top of the hotel for the sunset and pool time – the sky was a lovely ball of peach setting over Cochin’s high rises.
Thursday, Jan 29

I got up early to watch the sunrise – so peaceful in the dark, with the sound of water lapping lightly at the boat. Ever so slowly the sky got a little lighter…shades of pinks and oranges phasing out the blue black of the sky.

I could hear fish jumping, and a few fishermen were out and about. Occasionally someone passed on the path along the water, heading off to school or to an early morning job.

Alas, as enjoyable as the scenery and serenity was, Ava had a rough morning and Claire was sick again, so we were quite happy to leave houseboat life and get back to the car.

We lifted anchor around 7:30 and headed to where Ramu met us after yet another good meal whipped up by the chef (fresh pineapple, omelet and buttered toast).

Today we traveled to Cochin, north of Allepey, and got in around 11:00, ate and relaxed – kids got to catch some cartoons and get back into the swing of things.

Our hotel was in the modern part of Cochin, so we drove to meet our guide in Fort Cochin, an island and historic part of the city. (There are 20+ islands in the area.) To get to Ft. Cochin we passed through a different island, where the South India naval base is headquartered.

Ft. Cochin was a mix, driving into the area we saw some trash and rundown buildings mixed in with some nice homes, then lovely European style streets and Portuguese and Dutch architecture. Big square and rectangular style houses, most now businesses (hotels, restaurants and shops).

Our first stop after picking up the guide was at the water, the Arabian Sea, to see the Chinese fishnets at work. We stopped by a big one – large wooden poles with spider web-like nets attached to them. Every five minutes the net is lifted out of water via a big rope hoisted by several men. Big rocks are anchored to the net on shore to keep it in place in the water. We watched the nets be pulled up and down several times; a few fish were dumped into a small handheld net each time by a wiry fisherman with dhoti down to his ankles and a faded British flag tied around his head. (BTW we were told the dhoti is the answer to heat/humidity here as it’s light and allows for air to circulate better.)

Free of the net, the fish were passed on to a boy to put in separate bins for market.
One of the men brought a sea frog over to show the kids – ugly round scaly little creature with sharp teeth. Apparently they’re a problem for the fishermen as they cut holes in nets.

This fishing method has been around for hundreds of years, passed on by the Chinese, and still well used today around Cochin. (Apparently they’re distinctly unique to Cochin, introduced by traders from the court of the Chinese ruler Kublai Khan). During our time in Cochin and our travels down the coast we saw numerous Chinese fish nets at work.

From the fishnets we drove around the "European" part of Ft. Cochin, stopping at the first church on our tour: St. Francis. It started as Roman Catholic, then Protestant under the Dutch, then Anglican with the English. It is now the Church of South India. It’s a well kept church, cream colored outside with a lovely, sculpted exterior. Inside the décor was simple, with various stone carvings along the walls from the different groups that claimed the church over time. Vasco de Gama’s original grave is located inside the church, though his body was moved to Portugal.

About St. Francis:

Originally built in wood and named Santo Antonio, it was probably associated with Franciscan friars from Portugal. Exactly when it as founded is not known, but the stone structure is likely to date from the early 16th century; the land was a gift of the local raja, and the title deeds, written on palm leaf, are still kept in the church today. The facade, with multi curved sides, became the model for most Christian churches in India. Vasco da Gama was buried here in 1524, but his body was later removed to Portugal.

Under the Dutch, the church was renovated and became Protestant in 1663, then Anglican with the advent of the British in 1795 and since 1949 has been attached to the Church of South India. Inside, various tombstone inscriptions have been placed in the walls, the earliest of which is from 1562. One hangover from British days is the continued use of punkhas, large swinging cloth fans on frames suspended above the congregation; these are operated by people sitting outside pulling on cords.

We also stopped at Santa Cruz Cathedral, which was decorated in a busier fashion. The courtyard was full of children as school was letting out, so it felt even busier!

About Santa Cruz Cathedral:

The original church, situated in Fort Kochi, was built by the Portuguese in 1505 and named as a cathedral in 1558. The British colonists destroyed the cathedral in 1795. The current structure was built in 1905 and raised to the status of a basilica by Pope John Paul II in 1984.

Another stop: The Dutch Palace in Mattancherry, which was under renovation so we only saw part of it. A bit of a misnomer, the palace was originally built by the Portuguese. Later, in 17th century, the Dutch modified it and presented it to the Raja of Kochi. Coronations of many Rajas of Kochi were held here. The palace has a fine collection of mural paintings depicting scenes from the Hindu epics Mahabharatha and Ramayana.

From there we went to the Jewish Synagogue, also in Mattancherry. Today there are only 11 Jews in Cochin. At one time there were thousands.

The synagogue, built in 1568, is decorated with Chinese tiles (hand painted blue and white) and Belgian chandeliers. Giant scrolls of the Old Testament can be found inside. A vibrant orange/red curtain hung at the front of the Synagogue. Apparently when a Jewish person dies the family donates a curtain to the synagogue in that person’s memory. The lamp that’s always lit at the front is still the traditional flame (not electric). Lovely, peaceful place. No photos were allowed, but we were the last to leave and 200 rupees later photos were allowed.

The streets around the Synagogue are narrow pedestrian walkways, lined with tourist shops. After the synagogue we stopped near the water to check out the fish market – lots of fish shops, some with tents overhead. Fish of all sizes were waiting on ice to be purchased for dinner. Hawkers out front offered to clean and cook it immediately, on site – al fresco dining at its most simple. If we were staying longer, I would do it.

We also stopped at the wharf, got to walk through the lobby of a nice hotel where our guide showed us how the old-style fans worked. You pull a cord and the rectangular length of cloth swings back and forth to create a breeze. (Lovely lobby in this hotel – old church pews and other historical furnishing/décor.)

The view from the wharf was lovely, too – could also see lots of construction as the city is growing rapidly. According to our guide various industries, including IT, are coming to Cochin, which hasn’t realized an economic slowdown (yet, anyway).

Our last stop before our Kathakali show was at the Art Café, owned by an American woman who churns out homemade cakes in an old European style building. Very cool space with, appropriately, art exhibited in the foyer and throughout the restaurant. I had an iced coffee, kids had lime sodas and we shared a delicious piece of chocolate cake.

Then to the Kathakali dance performance, an art form which originated in the country's southern state of Kerala during the 16th century AD.

First we watched the actor apply makeup. He put on MANY layers, much of it applied by the time we got there. It made his face look feminine, which I believe was the goal as only men perform this traditional dance. Various colors of makeup are used to depict different characteristics of those in the performance – i.e. bravery, demons, etc.

Performers don puffy skirts and sometimes head ornaments, relying on dramatic facial/eye movements, expressions and specific hand gestures to tell their stories (examples of the hand gestures were displayed above the stage).

The Master of Ceremonies for the evening introduced the art form to us, explaining its history:

Kathakali originated from dance-drama precursors Ramanattam and Krishnanattam. The word "attam" means enactment. These two forerunning forms to Kathakali dealt with presentation of the stories of Hindu Gods Rama and Krishna. Kottarakara Thampuran (1555-1605 ruler of the south Kerala province of Kottarakara) composed several plays on the Ramayana, leading to the evolution of Kathakali. Today, Ramanattam is extinct, but its storyplays continue to be a part of Kathakali.

The MC told us that a typical Kathakali performance lasted 10 hours!

Half of our one-hour performance was spent explaining the dance through a demonstration. The man who exhibited his makeup showed how he used his eyes, eyebrows and all facial muscles, then hands, then put them together to demonstrate different animals and people – married and unmarried ladies, for example.

After the demonstration a scene taken from one of the traditional stories was performed. I didn’t follow the story terribly well but it was amazing to watch the 2 actors convey emotion and storytelling through their appearances, hands, body movements, facial expressions and eyes.

By the time we finished with Kathakali it was late so we had room service and crashed.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Houseboat for the night -- Kerala

Wednesday, January 28

We slept in today; I must say it was nice not to have to pack up immediately. Our agenda until noon : R&R (followed by more R&R on our houseboat, scheduled to pick us up from the hotel at 12:30).

We hit the pool after breakfast, then took a canoe ride around the pond. A gentleman from the hotel paddled while we relaxed. His name is Thomas and he told us he’s “RC.” Roman Catholic. The term cracked me up; "are you RC too?" Could be a commercial for the soda.

I decided to squeeze in a head and neck massage before we boarded the boat, as I’d been told it’s a 15-20 minute experience. As has been the case more times than I can count here, the receptionist's infromation differed from the the spa program. Plus I had to fill out a medical form and have my blood pressure checked beforehand. And the woman before me showed up late for her treatment…

Anyway, it all worked out; I did get the 30 minute massage, again having to strip down to be oiled up. Lovely ambience/facility but I preferred the more rustic experience of the first ayurvedic massage (may I hasten to add that I'm NOT complaining about this experience; I'll take a massage anyday!).

This time I started out sitting nude on a stool, getting my scalp rubbed with oil, then moved to a lovely wooden massage table to have my back, arms, neck and shoulders oiled and rubbed down. Fabulous. After a quick shower to get a layer or two of oil off we skedaddled to check out.

Our boat was waiting near the hotel room so kids hopped on and got the grand tour from our three crewmen while I handled hotel paperwork.

Marvel Cruise #4 had a couch/lounging daybed up front, right behind the captain’s seat. Then came a sitting area with comfy chairs, dining table/chairs, narrow hall with windows on one side, master bedroom/bath on the other. Further down the hall was the kitchen and stern.

Our captain -- a barefoot, swarthy guy with big green umbrellas close by for protection from the sun -- got the boat moving, and we spent an hour or so peacefully cruising along a lovely wide waterway, wherein we saw people canoeing back and forth, washing clothes and dishes, fishing, bathing. Along the way were churches and temples; at times we heard hymns and chanting. Many birds – including kingfishers and eagles -- flew overhead. The water was peaceful with lovely ripples and reflections, lots of lily pads.

After an hour or two of sailing we dropped anchor for lunch: tons of food. Rice, vegetable dish, three different salad type dishes, fried fish (which was fabulous and caught earlier in the day from the same water on which we sailed, according to the cook).

A bit later we got moving again, the captain holding his big green umbrella as he perched on a wooden chair and steered us through the backwaters. Mid-afternoon we had a tea and fried banana break (again I’ll go for the plain old banana – no frying or steaming required.)

Unfortunately, amidst all this paradise, Claire became very ill. Poor kid rowfed three or four times. Fed the fish, I guess.

When we docked for the night – late in the afternoon – we walked to the village with one of the crewmen (got plenty of attention from the inhabitants along the way, asking where we were from and if we had pens. I wish we’d brought a few boxes! We saw cows, goats, dogs and chickens, kids playing in the water and more "housekeeping" activity along the water. Like being in someone's front room, peering in as they go about their nightly chores. We could smell dinner cooking as we strolled along the water's edge, where a stone wall separated water from a path that was full of activity, much like streets in the towns are here. Social space, selling space, space for ablutions...

We walked to the village market in search of apples and carrots (per Ava’s request). She’ s been hit and miss with food on this trip. We found what we needed, Claire got sick again and we took an auto rickshaw back partway to the boat (until it got too narrow and a footbridge prohibited its crossing).

We had another good meal, again too much food – fried chicken, rice, flatbread – unfortunately I was the only eater.

No more houseboats for Claire. And one of the crewmen said some people stay on these things for 3, 4, even 7 days…

Sunset was spectacular, as were the evening sounds, water, crickets, frogs, birds.
As we got ready for bed I noted that our crew had on the thin short dhotis men wear to bathe in the canals here. No doubt they were doing the same before bedtime. They slept on the deck, under mosquito netting, while in the master we had an air conditioner, thankfully. We all slept well, anchor down, in a very quiet spot.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Thekaddy to Allepey -- Kerala trip continues!

Thursday, January 27

We left our hotel after listening to an INTENSE rain storm this morning – 2 hour downpour – it sounded so good and of course the air smelled fabulous afterward. Our first real rain since October! We’ll no doubt experience more than enough of that in Londontown.

I had a fabulous chickpea curry and Indian bread breakfast, tried the steamed bananas. It changes the flavor so they’re less sweet. I’ll stick to the unmolested fruit.

Ramu says steamed bananas are a popular late morning snack here.

We stopped at a spice garden for a very cool impromptu tour by someone who works there. He walked us around the garden and showed us a wide variety of flowers and plants. Seems like everything grows here – coffee bean trees, cocoa bean trees, huge lemons, baby pineapples (miniatures), 24 varieties of bananas (one decorative, the rest edible), lady slipper flowers, touch-me-nots (the leaves actually curl and move away from you when you touch tem), begonias, orchids, gardenias, candlesticks, vanilla beans, cardamom and so much more. Kids enjoyed it as the guide picked flowers for them, had us smell various plants and the garden cat appeared here and there for entertainment.

He told us some of the medicinal uses for various plants and vegetables and shared information regarding harvesting some. Vanilla, for example, is rather involved – must help pollinate, requires some boiling and drying in specific ways – laborious and time consuming, hence the expense.

Cocoa and coffee beans are similarly laborious to produce.

We saw plants that are good for blood sugar problems, others for stomach ailments, colds, etc.

On the road again, we wound our way down the mountain, enjoying incredible views all the way – oh the colors of green, incredible rock formations on the mountains and lush, deep valleys. We stopped for cheap tea at a roadside stand – according to Ramu, good tea, good price – 62 rupees for ½ kilo – he bought 2 bags too as he’s a tea drinker. (Indians consume a lot of tea – though I’m told coffee is more common to drink in Kerala than in other states.)

Ramu also said there’s more money in Kerala in general – higher value crops (coffee, rubber, tea, spices). Landowners are very wealthy. We saw some of their homes (very nice). He said that tea plantation owners fly over with their helicopters to "check on their crops" periodically.

Ramu also said many people from Tamil Nadu come to Kerala to work in the fields as it’s harder to get Kerala people to do so – he said fewer people here live in grass huts as in Tamil Nadu, where rice is a lower value crop and standard of living is lower.

There are more Christians in Kerala too; they don’t follow the caste system and have love marriages. Caste is in the Hindu system – he said some form of it exists in Islam – arranged marriages, etc.

We saw many churches in our travels, some on Tamil Nadu, too, more in Kerala – lots of small chapels and statues of the Virgin Mary on hilltops and mountainsides. All seemed to be well taken care of, painted in white or bright colors.

Ramu left his wallet when he stopped for a coke; thankfully a few kilometers away he received a call fro someone who’d found it so we made a beeline back.

For lunch we stopped at a village and Ramu took us to a Tamil restaurant, one he hits regularly. All veg. Again, not a tourist stop so we got plenty of looks and excellent food – vegetable sauces and rice for him and me. They pour curd or buttermilk over both sometimes; that I haven’t tried given my intolerance for milk (unless it’s melted butter on toast, ice cream or warm milk for my coffee!).

I think Ramu has figured out that it’s good to take us to local lunch spots as he gets his meal paid for when we eat with him. Given the bill was 100 Rupees (roughly $2) for all 4 of us, no complaints on my end. Kids had their fill of rice and chapatti. We all had 7-up – Ramu said he avoids local water when traveling as the variation in water causes stomach upset.

On the subject of bottled water, of which I buy a lot here, the cost range kills me. Same size/type of water can cost 13 rupees or 150 rupees…

After lunch we attempted, in vain, to get more liquid car sickness medicine – stopped at 2 Indian shops – street front affairs. Kills me how they’re “organized” – boxes and bottles stuffed in here and there. (This can be said of numerous shops here; they use every inch of space, send someone up a steep set of stairs or ladder to retrieve all kinds of merchandise, different sizes, etc., dropping them down through holes, unwrapping merchandise madly, making a huge mess that of course is all folded nice and neatly for next customer merchandise explosion).

Re: the pharmacy stores – owners generally go right to the spot for the goods they’re seeking – organized chaos, I guess.

We were dropped off at a canal to go to our hotel, the Lake Palace. Only way there is via boat as it’s on an island. We had the whole shuttle to ourselves so we sat up top to enjoy the view – many homes line the canals with stone walls/walkways around and people moving about in small boats of all shapes and sizes – rafts, canoes, etc. Lots of lily pads and other plants on the surface of the water, and many cool house boats (they look Chinese to me).

Our hotel was very nice – new with lovely grounds – a pool in the middle of a pond. We got a tour via golf cart on the way to our room, nicely situated near the water and overlooking the pool. Recreation center, spa, workout facility, etc.
Our first stop was the pool; we were the only people in swimsuits. Thirty Indian people were milling around watching us – they looked like a fabric store with all those saris. No doubt we looked nude to them.

Shortly after 5 we headed out for a sunset cruise; kids perched on the “roof” in front of the window until rain chased us undercover (back deck and inside were protected from the rain).

As we relaxed on board we saw lots of families washing dishes and bathing along the waters’ edge – lovely views of the sun setting through the clouds.

At one point I glanced down to check on Claire, who was moving between decks (small craft with a very congenial staff). And low and behold she was driving the boat! Ava took a short turn at it as well – both had lots of fun on board.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Wildlife Safari by Boat -- Thekaddy (Kerala)

Monday, January 26

This morning we watched breakfast be delivered as apparently we were the earlybirds. We enjoyed a great view from our restaurant balcony: a cascade of flowers and trees down the mountainside and across the Ghats.

Claire tried the rice cakes and approved of them, kids had one last turn in the playground, and after attending scraped knees we headed to Thekaddy. The drive went fast, much of it retracing our steps from the prior day.

We were in Thekaddy by noon, checked in the Green Forest Hotel – a new resort in the center of down and went to an Ayurveda massage place, recommended by driver. (Chearper and better than hotel spa, he said.)

Ayurveda (the 'science of life') is a system of traditional medicine native to India and practiced in other parts of the world as a form of alternative medicine. In Sanskrit, the word Ayurveda comprises the words āyus, meaning 'life' and veda, meaning 'science'. Evolving throughout its history, Ayurveda remains an influential system of medicine in South Asia. The earliest literature of Ayurveda appeared during the Vedic period in India. Ayurvedic practitioners also identified a number of medicinal preparations and surgical procedures for curing various ailments and diseases.

I was taken around the building, tromped through a run down area and went inside a non-decript room where very relaxing “massage” music was playing. The masseuse told me to take everything off and had me lay down on a table covered with a layer of cloth. She proceeded to oil me up and rub me down, head to toe. All my travel aches and pains disappeared in short order – nearly every part of me was massaged and oiled up, even breasts. Thorough, I guess…

She rubbed me down with a few cloths to get a couple layers of oil off, told me to wait an hour and then take a hot shower. All this for less than $14.

From there I melted into the car and we had lunch – the Kerala bread is delicious – a puffier version of flat bread with lots of layers. That and a vegetable dish flavored with coconut and local spices made for a lovely lunch.

Next we headed to Periyar Wildlife Refuge for safari by boat. A bunch of tourists – local and foreign – milled around waiting for boats. Five came in at once. We watched as 4 of them lined up, one next to the shore. Each positioned itself so that the doorways led from one boat to another – and in typical Indian style everyone tried to exit at one time.

And no, there was no organized cue for getting on, either. I’ve become better at pressing my way in, carrying Ava and hanging onto Claire. A lovely Sikh family helped ensure she got on without being railroaded by overzealous tourists.
Thus all passengers on boats 1, 2, 3 and 4 gathered in a big group and pushed our way onto our respective boats; Claire scored us 2nd row seats on top of our boat, behind the people who helped us navigate the boarding process, two grown sons and parents who spoke English. Ava and the mom became fast friends and she spent part of the trip sitting on her lap, showing her an Elmo band aid and eating candy the woman gave her.

The object of our boat ride was to spot wildlife – safari by boat. We’d done jeep and elephant safaris in Corbett park, so this was a nice variation on a theme. Very relaxing and beautiful as the sun glinted on the wide waterways we passed through, with green grass and forests on each side. Big old dead trees stuck up here and there in the middle of the canals, several that passed through the park, which extends from Kerala into Tamil Nadu.

We did spot much wildlife, as it was late afternoon -- feeding and watering time for many of the animals. First sighting: wild boars wandering along the water. We then came upon a lone elephant that moved into the forest; we could see him stopping here and there to eat.

A bit further on we saw a group of elephants – 15 or 20, perhaps, with 2 calves. We later saw a similar group on the other side of the waterway. Around one bend was a small group of bison – 5 or 6 adults and a calf. As we traversed the canals we saw many birds, some with nests in the dead trees. We saw at least three nests with baby birds in them.

Also sighted: a single otter along the bank and later a group of 8 or 10, eating fish and coming in and out of the water. We saw more wild boars and a few lone deer. On the way back two deer were in the water – one had a recent gash from a predator. Four foxes were hovering nearby on the banks – orange-red with black tails. And of course we saw plenty of monkeys!

A great wildlife experience in such a relaxed and beautiful setting.

On the way back Ramu left us at a shop of some friends – nothing there we couldn’t live without, so we meandered to the hotel, stopping at a flower festival teeming with people.

Kids had popcorn while we wandered through the booths selling trinkets and food. A carnival was set up on one side and in other areas displays of medicinal plants and flowers galore. On stage was traditional music and dance, later political speeches. Today is Republic Day here. During our drive we saw many school children participating in ceremonies at their schools, then being dismissed late morning to enjoy the day.

We also saw many red flags and gray jeeps packed with people headed to political events and parades. Most were communist as that’s the prevalent party in Kerala (which happens to have the highest literacy rate and lowest amount of poverty of any state in India. It’s also cleaner than other states.)In one village we drove through a parade.

Driving through the Ghats

Sunday, January 25

This morning we left for Munnar after I tried a fabulous rice-nut-coconut pudding concoction for breakfast. (Coconut finds its way into a wide array of foods here – and every part of the tree has a use, it seems – coconut oil, the bark from the trees is used to make ropes and mats, the leaves are used for houses , etc.)

The drive was gorgeous, windy and green – early on we saw more rice paddies. Village streets were a bit quieter as it was Sunday. Then the geography started to change markedly – more hills, then mountains, tons of rock. Much rock is exported to Italy and other countries for gravestones.

We also saw lots of brick making today – the kind used for cooking.

The roads got really windy and in parts very bumpy – not the best for stomachs. This time it affected Ava. (Claire’s been great on this trip – I found some medicine in Singapore that actually works to prevent carsickness.)

We stopped for lunch: rice for the kids, Ramu and I had rice with vegetable paroti and fried fish (the latter I’d ordered in hopes Claire would eat some as she likes fried fish). However, small fish – the size in many home aquariums – appeared, with heads, tails and scales. Nicely fried up with a spicy mixture. I must say it was very good, though I left the head on the table.

After lunch I took photos of the kitchen, a downstairs affair with big (I mean BIG) pot of rice boiling and blackened work surfaces throughout the space – one for making breads, a roast waiting to be cooked and a chef in dhoti and red shirt working on 2 or 3 sauces. All this was across from a less than desirable bathroom; I did my best to put that image out of my mind.

Onward up the mountain we continued, winding back and forth; views just kept getting better. Verdant green with perfectly manicured tea bushes cascading down the mountainsides.

For tea, only the soft new growth is harvested, clipped as new leaves pop up at the top of the shrubs. Thus the bushes – about a foot and a half or 2 feet tall -- look like perfect gardens with trees scattered around and a few throughout the acres of tea.

We saw cardamom plants growing close to the ground beneath trees. They’re a shade crop – got to taste some of the green berries. They need to be more mature for harvest. We also saw green and black pepper in pods and alongside the road, laying on cloths to dry.

(I continue to be amazed at what I see along the road in India; in Tamil Nadu people were using the road to dry their rice. Cars just went around it. In other spots a layer of rice and chaff was laid on the road so the cars would run it over and help separate the rice from the chaff. Think about those tires next time you buy rice…)

To get a break from all these windy roads we stopped to check out a lovely flower garden. Paths led through flowers of all sizes, shapes and colors. What can’t they grow here?!? On one hillside were roses, dozens of different varieties.

Our other stop was a huge dam near Munnar – lots of boats on the water and people walking along the bridge for the views. Market there, too. Shopping is such a way of life here – and they say the western culture idolizes material goods…

Poor Ava was ill again before we got to our hotel, which was on top of a mountain. It was appropriately named “Tall Tree” and the setting was spectacular. Since we arrived before sunset we wandered the grounds, then went down to a viewing area for a spectacular evening scene: the sun dropping and changing the light over a circle of mountain tops and tea plantations. Talk about paradise. Earlier in the day I saw a convent on the hillside (lots of Christians in this area) and thought if you were going to become a nun, this would be the place to do it – heavenly beauty to enjoy every day.

The kids checked out the hotel playground and we ate dinner in the restaurant overlooking the valley below. One of the world’s loveliest places, I think.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

South India trip continues to Madurai

January 24 – Friday

Today we left Tanjore (Thanjavar)after breakfast, which was hastily moved from the buffet room to the bar next door – we were sent there to eat, only to find no food, chairs, dishes etc. Five minutes later a wave of waiters and breakfast rolled in.

En route to Madurai, the 2nd largest city in Tamil Nadu, we saw more rice – Tamil Nadu is the rice bowl of India, and many other crops are grown here, too, including peanuts and sugarcane. We saw the latter today. We also saw many people shelling and prepping cashews for market, even stopping to watch as they heated the nuts to get the outer coating off, then roasted and bagged them to sell.

We also stopped at a forested temple (my term – no doubt they have a formal name for it). It was in a very peaceful setting – a remote area of the village with lots of trees and greenery around, the walkway to the temple lined with plaster horse statues. Many were missing heads and in a state of disrepair, while mingled throughout were recent colorful statues. Apparently each year for festival new horses are created and added to the mix and the others are left to decompose.

Priests were doing special blessings or ceremonies as we wandered through and many villagers were on hand as it was some kind of festival or holiday.

A group of kids followed us in and out, pressing close, curious to learn more about us -- as is often the case here – too close for my children. As we departed we watched a family working on separating rice from chaff by hand and with the help of oxen.

Another stop we made was at a bird sanctuary. Ramu said normally many more birds can be seen in the water there. I can’t imagine the places with more than what we saw – hundreds in the trees and swooping across the river, where a few locals were fishing. Most white and gray, chirping in the trees.

A little further down the road we climbed a fort for a fabulous view of the area. It was a steep climb up age old rocks, with the fort wall making a jagged path down the steep slopes around it. Several Indian families also made the climb, perching on rocks to visit and enjoy the view. The rocks were HUGE and looked like they might tumble down the hill at any minute.

At midday we reached Madurai and ate at a favorite local spot of our driver. He ate with us as everyone spoke Hindu and I somehow doubt they get many tourist customers. We were served on banana leaves, no utensils. Messy but delicious mutton biryani over rice, as well as some kind of vegetable over rice and fried fish. The mutton was wonderful; I later learned it was goat, which is often served in this area.

I tried a little shrimp curry, too, which was very good – kids ate rice and I was able to track down spoons for them. Let me just say rice is not easy to eat with fingers. Thankfully a sink was close by, as napkins aren’t the norm in this restaurant, either.

Incredibly good food and the rice was fluffy and white (later we had rice with a red streak in it, another time it was a more yellowed color – many different varieties throughout Tamil Nadu and Kerala).

That food experience was delicious, authentic and memorable – and inexpensive. Can’t beat that.

Ramu said Madurai never sleeps and that people here celebrate food. Most are non-veg, he added.

We met up with our guide after checking into the hotel and headed to the Thirumalai Nayak Palace, which was built in 1636 by King Thirumalai Nayak.

It was the main palace where the king lived, the original complex was four times bigger than the present structure. (Much of it was destroyed by the great grandson of the king who had it built, as he’d been told by his astrologer that it was bad luck to live there.)

The Palace is a classic example of the Indo-Saracenic style of architecture, divided into two major parts: Swargavilasa and Rangavilasa. The royal residence, theatre, shrine, apartments, armory, palanquin place, royal bandstand, quarters, pond and garden were situated in these two portions. A total of 1,000 huge pillars were used in the complex. High walls running 300 m from the east to the west, 200 m from the north to the south and 12 mt high enclosed the complex. These walls are called the Pari Madil and are said to have survived till a hundred years ago.

Today what remains is a courtyard and the theatre used for dance entertainment for the royals.

All was under renovation so we could see bursts of fresh color amidst the scaffolding, along with gorgeous detailed ceilings, lovely arches and immense pillars. Apparently the structure has appeared in several Ballywood films.
We walked around the dance theatre, where statues were exhibited. (They're normally kept in the center, which was also full of scaffolding made from local trees.) The statues were mostly gods uncovered during excavation and building of the Palace, according to our guide.

From the palace we went to the most important temple in the region, the Meenakshi Temple (also called the Great Temple) which is visited by thousands each day. Much of it was being restored; every 12 years everything is repainted. It takes 9 mos to complete (it’s important to follow this specific timeframe as it has to do with important numbers in astrology and Hinduism).

Because of the holiness of this temple I had to put on a long sleeved shirt and my Capri pants were too short so I had to wrap a dhoti (cloth that is wrapped around and tied to be held in place) around my legs. (BTW in South India I’ve seen the majority of men dressed in dhotis. There are various ways of wearing this garment – wrapped around and up between the legs, more like shorts, or long and wrapped up in the middle, a bit more like baggy pants, or as a sarong. Common sight to see men rearranging the dhoti regularly. The garment was most often paired with long sleeved shirt. Ramu said it's the ideal garment to deal with the intense heat/humidity in summer.

Ramu says white dhotis are worn by men for important occasions – meetings, events, etc.

The temple is huge, covers something like 60-65 hectares. Lots of halls, shrines, etc. 108 is an auspicious number for Hindus, we were told, so for example we saw a big oil lamp holder in one of the temple entrances – it holds 108 oil lamps.

This temple is the only “twin” temple. The temple in the southern side is dedicated to Sri Meenakshi, the consort of lord Sundareswarar (Shiva), and the other to lord Sundareswarar. This is one of the biggest temple complexes of India. The temple is about 258 meters in length and about 241.4 meters in breadth. Of the five Gopuras (towers) that surround the 48.8 meters high southern tower is the tallest. The towers are noted for stuccowork.

Below is what I understood from our guide; I apologize if I’m relaying conjecture:

The twin representation came about when the temple was being rebuilt after its destruction by Moghuls. Both types of worshippers wanted to be represented, so a legend was improvised to incorporate both (hence the twin piece). Carvings relaying this story can be seen on the walls.

Temples in general feature carvings that relay stories/messages. Hymns and stories are etched or written, along with pictures. Our guide said many of them represent fables from the gods’ lives and carry messages about life in general – sex, marriage, family, work, community. He said figures carved in stone share information about procreation (examples of the process) so people over the years “know how to do it” (though he hastened to say they don’t practice at the temple).

We sat near the temple tank, which is used during festival time, learning more about the religion. Our guide talked about the important of the 5 elements in the Hindu religion, enabling people to clear their minds and relate to gods/goddesses. Earth, water, fire, air and space. So for example people walk barefoot in temples to experience the acupressure from the uneven ground, a healthful experience that can aid in connecting w/ the gods.

He said there are 30,000 Hindu gods – think of a person in different roles – father, brother, husband, student, boss, employee, etc. and relate that to gods being depicted in a wide array of roles.

From the temple we went to a “tower” – top of a government controlled shop that the tour company has a contract with. Guides brings tourists to the shops for fleecing. Nice things, though, and bargaining is an option. This time we just skipped up to the top, enjoyed the sunset over a vast array of rooftops haphazardly laid out around the city. Reminded me of Florence with its rooftops of various shapes, sizes and colors, with a haze of pollution and an orange red sunset. We also had a nice view of the vast temple area.

The rooftop would be a lovely spot for a small outdoor café but the owner said it would soon be way to hot to sit outside.

Thereafter, miracle of miracles, my Citibank card came through with cash (biggest challenge in India: our banking).

Now to fulfill an ice cream quest (temple exploration has its excitement limitations for the 3 and 7 year old crowd, who are not into taking off shoes and have cheeks pinched by half the temple attendees).

Now how is it that when you don’t want ice cream the shops are everywhere and when you NEED the stuff it’s no where to be found? We ended up at a vegetable market/quasi small supermarket and got the pre-packaged cones – seemed a bit healthier than the stuff out of tubs – those looked like they’d thawed and re-frozen a few times. Refrigeration is a little shaky here due to power outages.

In homes, our driver said, refrigerators are a rarity – for his family included. So every day women buy fresh food from the market and prepare it soon after bringing it home. (I love the market but have no plans to relinquish my fridge and Harris Teeter card any time soon.)

After dinner at the hotel we headed back to that mammoth temple again, this time to meet our guide for the nightly ceremony of putting Shiva to bed with his wife (no doubt it carries more significance than my Catholic lay person’s explanation). A crowd was hovering – mix of Hindus and tourists. First was a procession of a different god via palanquin, carried by 4 Brahmin priests (highest caste; priesthood runs in the family, and even positions at temples are passed down. Later we passed through a very nice neighborhood near the temple. That area is largely inhabited by Brahmin priests, we were told).

The priests doing the bedtime rituals were shirtless and wore special dhotis and paint/symbols on their faces and bodies. They held candles, sang and were accompanied by music. Apparently their prayers are all in the Sanskrit language (the basis of today's Hindi and other languages spoken througout India, such as Latin is root of French, Spanish, etc.).

Our procession started at 9:30 (time changes slightly for this ceremony each day due to moon, I think). First Shiva’s shoes were removed, then he was paraded around on palanquin to say goodnight to his 2 sons en route. Our guide, who was great w/ the kids, whisked Claire around and I held Ava for a better view.

The ceremony happened quickly and we only saw the palanquin with curtains on it and shoes being removed as Shiva doesn’t appear until inside the chamber, where non-Hinds are not allowed.

About our guide here: the youngest of 7 children, he is studying business and speaks several languages. His brother was getting married in a few days and he gave us an invitation – alas we’ll be in Kerala while the event takes place.

The brother’s marriage was arranged; I asked the guide about his status and he said his case is different. He fell in love and his parents are “ok with it.” She’s from a different caste and her parents are not ok with it. He didn’t elaborate further, nor did I ask. How sad for all parties, I think.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Tanjore and Trichy -- Tamil Nadu

Friday, January 23

This morning started with flat omelets (Claire’s preference) and excellent coffee (a little bit of really strong coffee and hot steamed milk mixed in is fabulous here – I want to know the secret).

My first agenda when I get reconnected to my own coffee pot in England will be to practice the art of South Indian coffee (Lord knows I’ll need it with all that damp cold!).

Our guide for the day was a salt and pepper haired man who was fabulous at explaining things and engaging the kids – good thing, as we spent 12 hours with him!

First we headed to Brihadishwara Temple (yes, same name as mentioned in yesterday's discourse, different venue) in Tanjore (Thanjavur). Our guide relayed information re: the Hindu religions that made it easier to understand – so many gods/idols (idol worship), each god presenting itself in different forms to convey different messages, each with different vehicles (bull for Shiva, for example).

And different types of temples – Vishnu for those following that god, Shiva for Shiva followers (determined by family lineage). The former are vegetarians, the latter non-veg.

Three main gods: Brahma (creator), Shiva (destroyer of evil), Vishnu (sustainer). Then other gods, Ganesh (elephant god) etc.

First temple of the day was a Shiva temple (most in South India are Shiva temples, per our guide). A granite temple, it is the “finest example of Chola architecture” per eyewitness travel guides – and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It was completed in AD 1010, built by Rajaraja Chola I as a symbol of the “unrivalled power and might of the Cholas.” (Politics and religion have mixed for a long time, haven’t they?)

This temple has the 2nd largest bull of any temple in India. It is carved out of a single block of granite that weighs 25 tons and is 20 feet long.

At the temple was another elephant whose Tamil name means “White Mother” in English. She is 53 years old (factoid: elephants live as long as humans). She’s been at the temple since she was a baby. Her trunk is freckled; apparently that happens as elephants age. All 3 of us got blessings from her and Claire put money in her trunk.

We then went to the Royal Palace, now a museum, with beautiful granite and bronze statues from the 9th-18th centuries. A mix of gods/goddesses from temples and archaeological digs. We went to the “tower” (really just one level up in the complex) for a better view and there saw a whale skeleton that seemed to go on forever.

Then we checked out India’s oldest library, housing palm leaf manuscripts and old European books collected by one of the rulers. Each manuscript looked like a group of neatly stacked leaves with intricate writing on them.

The library also houses old maps and some paintings from colonial days (London as it appeared in the 1800’s). Once just a resource for royals, the library is now available to the public for visiting and doing research.

After our library stop we went to a government controlled shop and got a hard sale from a nice young salesman who REALLY thought I should buy lapis lazuli (sp?) necklaces. I passed but did get a lovely bracelet; Claire and Ava were served chips and coke, I had jasmine tea and Claire had a nice chat with one of the salesmen about semi-precious gems.

Kids each got pretty carved ornaments made in Kashmir – most items in the store
(75%) were made by local artists, we were told, 25% from N. India. Many of the tourist shops I’ve seen in India in general carry silver jewelry; Ramu told me it’s for tourists as most Indian women prefer gold gold gold, and of course the wedding dowry must feature gold.

I’ll take the silver.

After disappointing the sales staff at the shop by leaving plenty of merchandise for other tourists, we stopped at a bronze and painting “factory” – a village workshop where 2 artists sit on the floor in a single room working.

The painter, who has won national awards and traveled outside India to showcase his work, showed how he paints on glass and wood. With glass he must paint the image in reverse using oil paints. He was working on a large scene featuring Hindu gods when we were there. Most of his works incorporated the gods, though he also had some family and rice farming scenes.

On wood he paints in the area’s traditional fresco style – natural paints derived from plants and limestone, mixed with water.

The bronze sculptor, we were told, is the only artist of his kind still creating bronze statues like those made in the 11th century and earlier. Five different metals were traditionally used – silver, copper, zinc, tin and gold (gold given its cost is less commonly used today, except to produce higher value items). A 5th metal is instead incorporated but I can’t remember what it is).

He gave us a demonstration, start to finish:

- 1st he showed us a bees wax/resin figure (he heats both materials so they mix and are pliable).

- From this mixture, he forms a figure, 1 part at a time (the example he was working on was the elephant god Ganesh; he’s first done his stomach, then an arm, trunk, etc.) While we were there he formed an ear with his hands and a tool, then took a narrow, hot rod from the fire and heated both the ear and side of elephant’s head where it would be placed. He applied it, then told us it would be covered with clay once the little figure hardened.
- To illustrate the next step he took a wax figure that was already hardened and made a watery paste with some kind of herb, whch was poured over the figure. Apparently it has a property that helps ensure a good impression.
- A big ball of wet clay was then applied all around the figure, with a hole made from figure outward.
- The ball sits in the sun for 2 weeks until dry.
- The ball is then heated so that the wax drains out.
- Once drained, metals – melted in a vessel placed in a charcoal oven at some absurdly hot temperature -- are poured into the newly formed mold through the hold in the clay ball.
- I think the artist said after a day or 2 the outside of the ball can be broken off. He gave each of us a hammer to remove the coating of one that was ready.
- Out came an undetailed but surprisingly smooth, well formed statue of a baby!
- The final step is the carving of all the details – fingers,jewelry, hair, etc. – and polishing.

After the demo we were escorted to his private show room, where figures of all shapes and sizes were displayed. He said most of his statues are sold in local shops; we saw several of them at the government controlled store.

Eventually I felt compelled (huge sales pressure) to walk away with something so we are now proud owners of a small Ganesh, the elephant god that represents properity.
From that shop we drove to Trichy (Tiruchirappalli). Situated on the banks of the river Cauvery, it is the fourth largest city in Tamil Nadu. It was a citadel of the early Cholas which later fell to the Pallavas. The town was built around the Rock Fort by the Nayaks of Madurai.

There we had lunch w/ our guide, who did the ordering. I had a fabulous vegetable curry and flatbread along with chicken and rice, served in a clay pot (a traditional serving method to retain heat and add flavor, I was told). That dish was particularly good. And the kids enjoyed their fried fish. The guide ate entirely with his hands; the three of us were brought silverware -- apparently they figured we wouldn't know where to start with shoveling rice in sans a fork.

Afterward we went to a special area of the river used for prayer at funeral time. We saw the stalls where priests pray with families of deceased as chickens wandered by (they're used at special times for cock fighting, we were told).

At the river we saw many people along the banks and in the water, washing themselves and their clothes. Brightly colored garments hung on fences while sunlight glinted on the water.

We then stopped at another shop. Here arts and crafts made by women are sold; the kids each found lovely necklaces and I a pendant.

Then we walked through the Sri Ranganathaswamy Temple, the largest temple complex in the world:

It was built on an island in the middle of the Kaveri and covers an area of 2.5 km. Enclosed by seven rectangular walled courtyards, this temple has 21 gopurams, the largest of which was completed in 1987 and measures 73 m in height. The temple is replete with excellent carvings and numerous shrines dedicated to various gods. It is believed that Sri Ramanujar the Vaishavite saint and philosopher is embalmed inside the temple premises in the Sri Ramanujar Sannidhi.

Some of its many towers were being painted so were covered by thatched “roofs,” thus looked like dingy haystacks. One beautiful temple, uncovered, was kept in its original style – a cream colored stone one that is now a World Heritage site. We climbed up to a special viewing area for a closer look and watched a lovely orange-red sunset.

We ran out of time to hit the city’s fort, a little “mountain” – we passed by it twice, though – a lovely focal point of the city with what appears to be a great view.

The spectacular Rock Fort Temple, the landmark of the city, is on the shores of the Kaveri. It is perched on a massive rocky outcrop at an altitude of 83 m above sea level. The Thayumanaswamy Temple, dedicated to Lord Shiva, is situated halfway to the top. It has a 100-pillar hall and a vimana covered with gold. On the southern face of the rock are several beautifully carved rock-cut cave temples of the Pallava period.

We did, however, find time to seek out South Indian sweets – the 3rd shop we hit had what our guide was seeking to share with us – some kind of cashew milk candy. Yum! I bought a box of various S. Indian sweets to enjoy during our travels.
Then back to Tanjore for the night.

South India Trip -- day 4

Pondicherry to Tanjore

Today our only agenda was a 200 km drive from Pondicherry to Tanjore, so we stopped a lot en route to check out whatever interested us.

Along the way we saw many people working the fields – mainly rice – along the road. Hard work, lots of bending over and tending to younger plants; in other spots people were harvesting, carrying stalks atop their heads to transport them to machines.

Ramu said people who work the rice fields do so for six months of the year, “relaxing” the other six months.

Over and over he talked about how the village life is relaxing and peaceful, but without opportunity to make money. He grew up in a farming caste, which he said is a middle class occupation. He, his brother and brother-in-law are all drivers, having left their villages for Chennai in hopes of making more money. It sounds like they all rent small houses in the city.

Ramu said the transition was hard, particularly for his wife, as he described city life as less personal and much faster paced – “no one stops to chat.” (And in India, I see groups everywhere gathered, visiting; it’s more rare to see people spending time alone. There must be a very strong bond in these small villages where people are so interdependent, with generations living together or very near to one another, and family/friends going about chores such as bathing, dish washing and water gathering together.)

He also said several times that it’s very difficult to be middle class in India – you must work so hard, yet it’s still not possible to buy real estate. The best occupational pursuit (not exactly a direct translation), he said, is to own your own business.

Back to rice. In fields where there wasn’t a machine to separate the rice from the chaff, people were doing it by hand, beating the stalks against something hard. Again, I must remark on the beauty of the paddies – verdant green young plants, those ready for harvest had hues of sunset in the tops of their stalks.

Regarding the workers, Ramu said Muslims rarely work in the rice fields. He noted that in one village we drove through, where many Muslims live and own large houses, many in that that area had gone to Dubai for a couple of years to earn money, returned and built nice homes.

He also said that marriages between Muslims and Hindus are rare, as too many cultural and religious differences exist between the two groups. Hindu/Christian marriages are more common, he said.

Ramu’s marriage was arranged; he said the matchmaking was difficult for him because of his astrological profile. The 7th girl was the one who made the grade! He was in his late 20’s by then, which is “old,” he said – most people are married in their late teens/early 20’s.

Ramu said most people in Tamil Nadu have arranged marriages. He said that love marriages can be extremely divisive (parents can walk away from their children if they choose an alliance that families don’t agree upon). He also mentioned something about the importance of following the arranged marriage process to help ensure longevity (that of parents’ or bride and groom – or both? Not sure).

Many of our stops were at temples as we travelled; the first one Ava and I tromped off to see (Claire’s not too big on taking shoes off and she’s had her fill of temples). It was called Nataraja Temple in Chidambaram – it was huge, colorful, with several temples and a tank (many temples have the latter given the central role water plays in life and religion for Hindus).

We were both amused by the goats wandering around the temple, eating offerings provided by visitors.

Later we stopped at Gangaikondacholapuran (how’s that for a long word? And I thought German words were lengthy.) Incidentally, puram means village. This village was the capital of the powerful Chola dynasty during the reign of Rajendra I (1012-1044)/ The temple is called Brihadishvara Temple. It features beautiful sculptural friezes (lovely stone carvings).

Others we saw included the Kashivishvanatha Temple and the Adikumbheshvava Temple, both in Kumbakonam, where we stopped after lunch).

We landed at our hotel late in the day and promptly hit the pool, then had Ramu take us to dinner at a local restaurant he described as “cheapest and best.” It was both – a 2-level narrow, non-descript restaurant serving Indian food, no alcohol, lassis, milkshakes or juices (the latter 3 were on the menu but apparently are optional for the restaurant to serve…). No pasta with sauce either, much to Ava’s chagrin.
The place was packed – mostly locals – and waiters scurried around – thankfully the kids liked the fish tikka. I had a fabulous prawn curry. A beautiful Muslim family came in before we left, the dad doted on Claire and Ava.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Day 3 -- South India Trip

January 21 -- Off to Pondicherry

This morning we hit the road to Pondicherry, a former French holding (colonizers left in 1954) that retains its French influence.

En route we enjoyed a lovely scenic drive, passing backwaters (water flowing back from the Bay of Bengal). People worked the rice fields on both sides of the road – harvesting, carrying bundles to machines for separation of rice from chaff. Lots of brightly attired women with bundles on their heads bent over plants, tending new crops – apparently they get 2 cuttings of rice a year.

Ramu said it’s not a high quality of rice and that people who work the fields in the area make little money, typically live in huts made from palm leaves and/or grass. (We saw many of these on our drive, often clustered together with markets nearby.)

As we passed backwaters we saw thousands of birds – mostly white – on the water – an abnormally large number in one are, according to our driver. Lovely as they circled and landed on water glistening in the morning sunlight.

Further on we saw salt-mining – people out in the muddy marsh doing something – trampling? And adding some chemical (?) -- (some things translate decently between driver and myself, some don’t). Anyway, it was all in the name of getting the salt out, I guess.

We stopped when we saw an uncovered bright white mound of salt (most were covered with thatch for protection). We tasted it – definitely salty! Big crystals with light salt flavor. Next time I cook (which will be soon, I guess, given we’ll kiss hotel life good-bye next month) I’ll picture that big hill of salt…and try not to remember the muck from which it was extracted!

As we wrapped up our photo opp a big group of salt workers came in to take their breakfast break; Ramu said they start work early in the day.

The drive was lovely and passed quickly – much greenery – am reminded how many shades of green there are in the world. Many lily pads, lotus flowers in the water along the roadsides, with villages here and there. People here speak Tamil (state of Tamil Nadu). Ramu, who grew up in a village in this state, said government schools (which are typically attended by students whose families cannot afford to pay for public and private education) do not offer languages beyond Tamil and English. (Apparently there is a difference between public and government education -- that difference is not yet clear to me.)

Ramu said he doubts the quality of the English language program at most of these schools. He also said the because Tamil is the only language taught (unlike in states where other Indian languages are taught) people tend not to move in hopes of finding better jobs in other states.

We made it to Pondicherry late in the morning and checked into our hotel, which faced the Bay of Bengal – its lovely shutters opened out to the Esplanade for a great view of the waves crashing against big black rocks, a big statue of Ghandi and all kinds of beach activity (people strolling, visiting, kids playing games…).

After a quick walk along the Bay we hit the hotel pool, then had our driver take us to the French district for lunch at a rooftop café (with roof, though, so I don’t quite get that). Great food with a French twist – this part of town has stone streets, sidewalks, orderly blue and gray buildings, big park with playground in the middle and streets laid out in an orderly fashion. Definitely a different feel than other cities we’ve seen here.

After lunch we wandered a bit, found some cool cafes and shops, then met up w/ our guide – the first female guide we’ve had on our trip. She was great – very good with the kids.

Our first stop was Aurobindo Ashram, an important meditation center. (Aruobindo Ghose was a firebrand Bengali poet-philosopher who took refuge in Pondicherry, where he studied, wrote about and popularized the principles of yoga. His disciple, Mirra Alfassa, known later as “The Mother” was a Parisian mystic, painter and musician who came to Pondicherry with her husband during WWI. Sri Aurobindo’s philosophy inspired her to stay on and she was later instrumental in establishing Aurobindo Ashram in 1926.)

The center, naturally a very quiet, peaceful place, was packed with pink, yellow, orange, purple, white flowers and tons of plants – smelled fabulous – a path led to the tomb of Sri Aurobindo and meditation area. People prayed and meditated over and around the white marble tomb as we made our exit through the bookstore and onto the rest of Pondicherry.

About 7,000 French nationals live in Pondicherry today, said our guide, and we saw several of them as we passed French schools in the colonial part of town. She said Pondicherry has a population of 700,000 – we drove through parts of the Indian area, markedly different from the Rues we’d been driving through. Less structure, lots of market activity here there and everywhere. The Muslim part of town had “squarish” houses with nameplates and gates in front.

We stopped at a paper-making factory, which was very cool – they use all recycled materials to make the paper – cotton, gunny sacks, rice, tea, etc. – all materials are shredded and put in boiling water, with or without dye. The resulting paste is then shot through pipes to a tank where the pulp is manually separated from the water. The water is drained off and the pulp is placed on a tray. The tray is then flipped over and stacked between cloths to drain more water from it. The stack is moved to a machine that presses yet more water out, then each pieace is hung to dry.

We moved to a different room to watch as a man made prints on the paper. He took sheets of bright blue paper and, after sprinkling oil paint and making designs with the brush in oil/water, he laid the paper on the water (both sides), then put them on a drying rack. He made the girls each a small sample.

In the store room we saw big machines that the dried paper is put through and pressed to acheve the final thickness/smoothness needed, then it is cut to size. Stacks of paper galore! Our last stop was the shop – I bought stationery, the kids each got small notepads.

Afterward we stopped at a very boldly colored red and white church – the Church of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. It is a Gothic church and we were told a highly revered religious destination in Pondicherry. Built in the 1700’s, the church has large stained glass panels depicting incidents from the life of Jesus.

From there we perused the Pondicherry Museum, which features a mix of regional artifacts -- paintings, big statues from the 11th and 12th centuries, numerous smaller ones of Hindu gods, coins and minerals from the area, pottery from ancient civilizations, burial urns, 17th and 18th cent furniture and dishes.

Then we hit the temple – Manakula Vinayakar Temple (dedicated to Ganesha, it has a golden spire and walls portraying 40 different forms of the elephant god).

Like others we’ve seen it has the colorful paster figures at the top – we came at 4:00, when temples open after an afternoon break. Many people were lined up to enter, several from North India, according to our guide, who said she could tell by the style of their saris and because some wore head coverings (not done in Pondicherry, I guess). They also spoke Punjabi, she noted.

When the temple opened they rushed in and lined up at an altar; we walked around the peramater, then waited for the elephant -- Lak Shme. Apparently she’s at the temple daily. She lumbered up the pedestrian-only street, her face and trunk decorated with white and gold paint. The priest with her put silver anklets on her legs as she patiently lifted first one, then the other. Then she touched the people gathered around her with her trunk – they held coins out and she grabbed them with her trunk and gave them to the priest. Some people gave her food, too – she’s part of the temple experience here, and elephants play a role in numerous other temples in the area, we were told.

Ava wanted to touch Lak- Shme so she held out a coin and had her head blessed by the drooly trunk. Lots of tourists and Hindus gathered around – fun and festive atmosphere w/ lots of laughs as elephant bestowed her blessings.

After the Lak Shme experience we wandered into the market, where our guide led me to a shop she recommended for good quality silk – I bought two meters – cheaper than the shop we’d hit earlier in our trip.

We wandered the market a bit – kids were given several flowers as we walked down the “flower” corridor…and of course fruits and vegetables galore, tons of rice (so many varieties), ginger, garlic, onions – I saw tamarind in big gooey looking cakelike form – and a wide array of items I couldn’t identify. Ava scored a free tomato.

From the market we parted company with our guide, hit the pool and took a walk, along with everyone else from Pondicherry, on the Esplanade. The sunset was gorgeous, lots of small groups of people strolling, talking, sitting. One memorable sight was that of 7 or 8 little old ladies, all with lovely saris on, having a chat.

Before dinner we checked out a bazaar near the water. A bunch of stalls were set up for local artisans to show off their wares. Then we were off to dinner at the Lighthouse Café, a rooftop deck (the real thing – could see the stars, a great view of the lighthouse next door to the hotel, and the water). I tried a lovely local fish dish w/ dry spice rub recommended by the waiter. The spices here carry more heat, which I really like.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Day 2 -- South India trip

January 20

After a breakfast that included delicious freshly squeezed lime juice we headed out for our next destination – Kanchipuram, where we checked out two temples both dating way back.

Kanchipuram holds the remains of 3 great dynasties: Pallava, Chola, Vijayanagar – which weathered internal conflict and external trade but never northern invasion, per my guide book.

Apparently the dynasties “jostled” each other, building ever greater shrines to their developing and intertwining sets of deities. Until recently people in Kanchipuram were segregated by caste.

Today the city is nicknamed the Golden City of 1,000 Temples and is one of the seven holy pilgrimage sites for Hindus, with some temples to Vishnu, the majority to Shiva. Through the diversity of building styles in Kanchipuram, the development of Dravidian temple architecture from the 8th century to the present can be traced.

We visited the Sri Ekambaranathar Temple, which was originally built before the mid-
9th century by the Pallavas.

Its most significant feature – a massive, 200 foot gopuram with more than 10 stories of intricate sculptures -- was a 16th century addition by Vijayanagar kings. The temple is dedicated to Shiva, who appears in the form of earth, one of Hinduism’s five sacred elements.

Inside the courtyard is a mango tree believed to be 3,500 years old. Origanlly 1,000 pillars stood in the mandapam, now fewer than 600 remain.

As with many temples, this one has a tank, which was in use by many people while we were there. They'd made their pilgrimage to the temple and were bathing/washing clothes. Our guide said this temple's water is now stagnant so fish have been added to help clean the water. Big job for the poor fish. I think I'd pass on washing anything in that water, but then I'm not traversing from parts far away without another bathing/washing option. And here it's common to see people washing themselves and clothes in rivers, ponds, "tanks" of rainwater. Meanwhile I buy the Indian version of Downy so my hand washables don't smell like the hotel tapwater...

The second temple we visited was the Kailasanatha Temple, named for Kailasa, Shiva’s Himalayan paradise. It was built mainly during the reign of King Rajasimha (700-728). This temple “carried the development of Pallava temple architecture one step beyond what had come before.”

From “dressed stone” (rocks formed into regular shapes, the construction of this temple progressed to granite foundations and the more easily carved sandstone for the superstructure. Cell-like structures surrounding the sanctum are similar in design to the Five Rathas: all have extensive sculptures of Shiva in various poses, symbolizing different aspects of his mythology. Lining the inner courtyard are 58 small meditation cells w/ remnants of multicolor 8th century paintings.

From there we stopped at a silk weaving facility. Oddly enough (though at this point I shouldn’t be surprised by much) we passed by 2 cows with calves, which live in the same complex where saris and other silk garments are woven. (Cows outside, weaving inside.)

The rooms were big, this one had 4 looms inside and one of the craftsmen was working on a 50,000 rupee sari for someone from Bangalore. He said women from different areas wear different colors: Chennai – burgundy, Bangalore yellow/gold.

This sari was made in part with thread from gold. More gold, more expensive, naturally.

We got to feel the thread out of the cocoon – soft though tangled, then a bunch that had been dyed – so soft. The silk threads used in weaving are incredibly delicate. We were told it takes 2 weeks to make 1 sari.

After watching for a bit we went upstairs and I fell in love with a maroon fabric, got measured so I’d like how much silk I would need for a shirt and left w/ material and 2 scarves for kids. We’ll see if the little shoppers wear them…

Onward we continued to Mahabalipuram, on the coast (Bay of Bengal). Our hotel was very nice – pool overlooking the Bay’s lovely waters and rocky shore. Down the coast we could see the Shore Temple, which we visited after a delicious buffet lunch w/ our guide at the hotel. (He pointed out some south Indian dishes for me to try – vegetable curry was particularly good, and fried pineapple for dessert was fabulous – hard not to like anything fried. Kids enjoyed the fish sticks, made from fresh fish – much better than those things that come in a cardboard box at home.)

After lunch we hit 2 World Heritage Sights, both old temples, now monuments.

1st: The Five Rathas – most famous example of Pallava architecture, the Five Rathas are called the Pancha Pandava Rathas for the Five Pandava sons in the ancient Hindu epic Mahabharata. They are carved out of 5 pieces of granite, each with its own elevation, plan and detail. Draupadi, Arjuna, Bhima, Sahadeva, Dharmaraja, with 3 animal sculptures – elephant, lion and the bull Nandi (vehicles of gods) completed the display. Carving was done by first making holes in rock, putting boiling water inside the rock, making it easier to carve (Egyptian technique).

We also saw the bas-relief sculpture on the back wall of the Krishna Mandapam (a later cave temple) showing Krishna holding up the Govarhan mountain to protect his people from floods.

2nd stop: The Shore Temple – this temple was my favorite, largely due to its location, facing the Bay of Bengal. It’s a UNESCO sight so now has a lovely garden and walkway leading to it to help protect it and to create a greater ambience for visitors.

Despite the ravages of sun, sea and sand – and the '04 tsunami – it still retains many details from its origin in the early 8th century, built by Pallava king Rajasimha. Temple is entered from the back, through a courtyanrd surrounded by a massive wall topped w/ reclining bulls and 2 Shiva towers. An image of Vishnu living in cosmic sleep on the sea, can be made out.

Last stop: a huge bas-relief (96 feet long, 43 feet high), of the Penance of Arjuna (Descent of the Ganges) carved on two adjacent boulders. It dates from the 7th century and incorporates 3 themes, senses of proportion, reason and humor. River Ganges is depicted flowing through, different figures carved to illustrate different themes.

From there it was back to the hotel for some pool time and views of the Bay – not a real walking beach given the rocks but lovely grounds to enjoy. After all that travel I convinced myself a head and foot massage was in order – could become addicted to massage – the masseuse used traditional oils (warm and luxurious).

For dinner we ate at The Wharf, a restaurant overlooking the water – lovely to dine to the sound of waves (and American 80’s music). I had the large prawns w/ traditional dry rub. The food was as fresh as it gets; I watched the poor prawn be lifted out of the tank 10 feet away.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Day 1 -- trip to south India

First Stop: Chennai -- January 19

After getting quickly out the door and traversing a foggy Gurgaon, which led to a delayed flight, we headed south to Chennai, on India’s east coast.

Or course the departure experience wasn’t lacking in bad airport behavior. I will not miss the cutting in line business that seems so common here. As we were waiting to check in a small gap formed between us and two Asian men. In no time an Indian man from out of nowhere moved into the space!

The Asians looked like they didn’t know what to do so I told him they were in line – he had the grace to look embarrassed and find another line in which to cut.

Prior to boarding the plane the guy at the coffee stand shorted me 150 R – when I called him on it he was also quite sheepish. I may be foreign but math still works the same.

Our flight went fast; now Ava asks every time we get on an airplane if it’s going to be night time when we disembark.

Sunny, warm and breezy, palm trees and blue skies greeted us upon arrival – airport seemed nicer and less chaotic than Delhi’s (probably the case with most any airport).

Our driver for the 2 week south India trip was named Ramu. After a heated discussion with some Asians who ran into our car in the hotel parking lot, he and our guide gave us an overview of the city. (Not much damage done to the vehicle; apparently the Asians backed into it.)

We were told Chennai is the 4th largest city in India, with a large IT presence. It’s the “Detroit” of India w/ car manufacturing galore, silk industry is huge here too, emphasis on handicrafts, as in other parts of India. Seemed to be a very busy city. In the area rice, sugarcane and a wide array of fruits and vegetables are grown, we were told.

Fort St. George – seat of Tamil Nadu’s government -- was gray and non-descript from the outside, other government buildings alongside it, many crisp and white. The old train station is a mix of English, Mogul and Hindu architecture – a lovely big red and white building. St. Andrew’s Kirk was being restored, also lovely, white and airy. Other buildings we saw – many used by the government – were built in the colonial style in the 1930’s, when the English ruled.

We stopped at Basilica of St. Thomas, a pretty, white Minor Basilica with tomb of St. Thomas beneath. Inside a bride and groom were wrapping up photos; she had a gorgeous burgundy sari with white veil. Striking contrast. We later saw them having photos taken outside in front of a statue of the Virgin Mary surrounded by gorgeous, brightly colored flowers.

Their car was decorated with flowers, too – a much nicer presentation than cans, I’ve decided.

The Basilica has a wooden ceiling, stained glass and white walls inside and out. Details:

The Basilica of the National Shrine of St.Thomas is one of only three churches built over the tomb of an Apostle -- others are the Basilica of Saint Peter in Rome and the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela built over the tomb of St.James in Spain.

St.Thomas came to India in 52 AD. After preaching on the West Coast, he came to Chennai (Madras) and suffered martyrdom on a hill at the outskirts of the city, today known as "St. Thomas Mount." His body was buried on the spot over which the present Basilica stands.

The church – Gothic in style -- is an architectural “treasure,” rising 155 feet from the ground, with a nave of 112 feet by 33 feet, and an imposing sanctuary 62 feet long and 33 feet wide. It is adorned with stained glass windows depicting St. Thomas and the other Apostles. Inside the sanctuary is a statue of St. Thomas seated.

A valuable work of art kept in the Basilica is an ancient painting of Our Blessed Mother, in front of which the other great apostle of India, St. Francis Xavier, used to pray.

We went to the tomb, very peaceful and simple, then walked through the museum, which houses old stone tablets, pieces of pottery, old Bibles in Latin and documents proclaiming the church a Basilica. (By Apostolic brief dated 16th March 1956, Pope Pius XII gloriously raised the Cathedral Church of the Archdiocese of Madras-Mylapore to the dignity and rank of Minor Basilica.)

We then visited Kapaleeswarar Temple, Chennai’s largest Hindu temple and sight of many festivals. It, too, was lovely, clean and quiet, made of stone with brightly colored plaster figures of the gods. It dates from the 16th century, is a Shiva temple of Dravidian architecture (style that emerged thousands of years ago in the Indian subcontinent, consisting primarily of pyramid-shaped temples dependent on intricate carved stone to create a step design of numerous statues of deities, warriors, kings, and dancers).

Our city tour took us along the Esplanade – the 2nd longest beach in the world (13 km). (The longest is in Rio de Janeiro , we were told.) Here 200 people were killed during the December 26, 2004, tsunami. (10,000 people in the area died during the storm.)

For dinner we walked a block to a local restaurant our guide recommended. Walking a block in this case meant navigating around some kind of construction project in the middle of the “sidewalk” (a term I use loosely – most sidewalks here are dirt and host a flurry of activity at all times), not falling into a hole in concrete where sewer can be spotted (certainly smelled) below, and dodging bicyclists, motorcyclists, auto rickshaws, rickshaws etc. whilst maneuvering. Then crossing a street full of moving vehicles with a mass of people to ensure our safety, as I’m not sure what the “crosswalk” rhyme or reason was.

Dinner was good – spicy local fish dish. We were the only foreigners in the place; kids had Miranda and ice cream floats (Miranda = Fanta = orange soda, for which they’ve developed an addiction. Dentist would cringe). All for under $5.

Monday, February 2, 2009

We're back -- and off to London in March!

After two wonderful weeks in south India, we are back to Gurgaon, where the weather is lovely -- warm and sunny.

I'll be updating this blog with our travel adventures over the next few days, but wanted to share the news that we'll soon be living in London as Joe assumes a new role with Bank of America there.

We'll live a bit more conventionally in Londontown -- good-bye Crowne Plaza, hello house or flat, schools, etc.! (Frankly, I have no complaints about hotel life -- haven't made my own coffee in 3 months...)

We look forward to continuing our international experience and will share more details as our plans crystalize.

Jama Masjid, Old Delhi

Jama Masjid, Old Delhi
Largest mosque in India