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  • Day14

    Final Stop--Beautiful Tropical Kerala

    December 4, 2017 in India ⋅ ⛅ 29 °C

    It is no wonder our local home paper raves about Kerala as a travel destination—it is much more manageable than some of the other areas we have been to in India. European influence is very evident, starting with the Portugese as early as 1400s, then the Dutch in 16th century, and finally the British until Independence in 1947. The houses remind me of plantation homes with wide verandas surrounded by lush tropical plants and trees. Kerala has had international and multi-faith influence since the Babylonians brought Islam almost 3000 years ago. The Jews arrived in the 5th century BC and St. Paul brought Christianity in 1st AD. As we drove around town I spotted far more Christian churches than Hindu temples. 15% of the town is Christian and about the same are Muslim.

    One of the highlights of my last few days was the cooking class with Nimmy who welcomed us into her beautiful home and large teaching kitchen to prepare a lunch of various curries. For the last two weeks we have been eating almost solely vegetarian. From time to time there would be a spicy grilled fish or chicken or mutton curry available. The dishes we have enjoyed here have been substantial and varied and I never missed not having meat.

    On our final day, we enjoyed a 4-hour cruise in a houseboat along the 400-mile canal system of Kerala. Like the Venice of India. Along the canals are homes fronted by stands of banana and coconut trees. Behind the houses are large expanses of rice fields. In front of every home a long, narrow boat for fishing, commuting, and carrying produce to market. A very relaxing day and a great way to observe what life is like away from the cities.

    Now, a few more hours relaxing around the pool at the Trident resort then starts our 36 hour journey home: Kochi to Mumbai to Frankfort to Washington DC. The cyclone that lashed us with torrential rains a few days again has moved past Mumbai so hope all goes well with our travel.

    This has been a fabulous trip. Our Gate 1 Signature Tour guide, Jay, was one of the best we have ever had on any of our trips. He was a wealth of knowledge, a happy soul, and very open to sharing stories from his own personal life. The experiences were so varied and I feel we are leaving with a deeper appreciation for all facets of Indian culture.
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  • Day12

    Fighting, Singing, Dancing, Storytelling

    December 2, 2017 in India ⋅ ⛅ 26 °C

    Our trip wasn’t all temples; we also sampled south India traditional performing arts in he evenings.

    Kalaripayattu Martial Art show. Another traditional art form, the young men begin this specialized training in early in life. With a heavy emphasis on gymnastics and wrestling, paired fighters enter the arena to battle with swords, sticks, and daggers, the match ending when one of them is put into an inescapable hold. There is a bit of showmanship too—a fighter somersaults over 5 people and another jumps through progressively smaller rings of fire. It was a fascinating and impressive show.

    Music Recital. Reminded me of a jazz trio, playing several selections of upbeat toe-tapping music (called ragas) on the Veena, a gourdlike string instrument, the Mradangam two-ended drum, and the morsing mouth harp.

    Classic dance. A brief recital by a 20 year old girl and boy, she studying dance since age 3; he from age 10. Through expressive movements they tell the Hindu stories of the gods.

    Khatakahli drama show. A traditional Kerala art form dating from the 16th century that involves elaborate makeup and expressive facial gestures. The men putting on the makeup before the show—which can take up to an hour—is part of the attraction. The master of ceremonies offered a short explanation of the rigorous training the performers go through and a demonstration of how they express the 9 emotions through facial, hand, and body gesture. Traditionally this type of performance lasts 6-8 hours. For us, thankfully, they provide an abbreviated 30 minute version: the story of a god and a beautiful girl who tries to seduce him. She is in disguise as she is actually a demon and when he finds out he cuts her head off. The entire thing is done to drumming and chanting with the actors dressed in elaborate costumes and acting out their roles with the exaggerated facial and hand gestures that they perfect over years of training.
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  • Day10

    Flowers are part of daily life

    November 30, 2017 in India ⋅ ⛅ 27 °C

    In every hotel we have been, we are welcomed with a thumbprint of red or saffron paste and a flower necklace. Women wear fresh flowers entwined in their hair. Outside every shrine and temple are stalls selling garlands of flowers to be used as offered gifts to the gods. Fresh flowers figure prominently in Indian life.

    We walked through a raucous wholesale outdoor flower market in the morning. The peak time for the market is at 4 AM; we are there at 8AM and I can’t even imagine how there could be room for 4 times more people and vehicles here a few hours ago. This is where the street vendors, hotels, and restaurants come to buy their supplies. At this market alone, 6-10 tons of fresh flowers are sold daily. There are piles of red roses, golden chrysanthemum, fragrant white jasmine, and light pink lotus bud lying on blue plastic sheeting for inspection.

    The alleys are narrow and muddy as it had been raining overnight. It is noisy and active, each stall deep in haggling between buyers and sellers, while small pick up trucks spilling over with large plastic bags of just-purchased flowers snake through the narrow alleyways making deep mud ruts.

    Like almost everything else in India it is sensory overload—sweet fragrance, sucking mud, a saturation of colors, juxtaposed against the backdrop of rotting garbage behind the corrugated metal lean-to.
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  • Day9

    The Final Temple

    November 29, 2017 in India ⋅ ⛅ 3 °C

    Here are pictures from our visit to the Meenakshi Amman Temple in Madurai on Wednesday, 11/29. This is an enormous complex, 60 acres, built in the early 1600s. The other temples we have been to so far have a shrine to one of the major gods, Shiva or Vishnu. This one is unique as it honors both the god Shiva and his wife, the goddess, Pavarotti. This is a major stopping point for pilgrims on their way to the final temple destination in Kerala. 20 million pilgrims pass through this temple each month.

    As we entered the first gate, we pass through a long busy market area selling all kinds of items associated with temple and religious practice here and at home—threads soaked in yellow turmeric; small tubs of red and saffron colored paste to mark the forehead; packets of cow dung ashes to sprinkle over the ‘minor’ god statues in their alcoves; tiny bowls of hardened ghee (clarified butter) with a fabric wick to light at the god statues; and of course garlands of flowers to thread into women’s hair and use as god offerings.

    As non-Hindus we are not permitted to enter the shrines within the temple honoring Shiva and Pavarotti, however there is plenty to keep us busy. This temple is a beehive of activity. We came across a bangle ceremony where the women family members of a pregnant woman place glass bangles on her arm creating a light tinkling noise that is supposed to be good for the baby.

    We passed by half a dozen marriage ceremonies. Mostly the young girl looking serious and apprehensive and the groom with a big smile on his face. Arranged marriages are still the norm. Even if the bride and groom know each other, the family history and horoscope of each must be evaluated to make sure it is an ‘auspicious’ match before the marriage can be approved.

    This is the 10th temple we have visited on this trip. Each one was significant, historic, different, and interesting. The Meenakshi Amman Temple feels like finally arriving in St. Peter’s Basilica after seeing all the other beautiful churches in Rome.

    Our guide Jay is very generous in sharing his experience and knowledge of the culture. He has been a tour manager for 28 years and is originally from south India, the state of Kerala which is our final destination. Here are a few more interesting things about marriage that he shared with us (I hope I have captured this correctly).

    It has become the trend, at least in the the state of Tamil Nadu where we have been traveling, for the friends of the groom to produce large billboards and posters that they mount all over town to announce the marriage. It will be a picture of the bride and groom (the brides photo is often photo-shopped in since the bride and groom may not physically meet until just before the wedding day). The men who are giving this billboard as their wedding gift have their photos also displayed at the bottom in super life-size. The government is trying to dissuade this practice since there are so many weddings and the plastic billboards produce so much trash. The Indian equivalent of ‘moment of fame’ perhaps?

    Weddings are a large financial and ‘political’ investment as tradition dictates that everyone the bride and groom and their parents know in each village, at work, all family and friends—and the families of all of those—must be welcomed. An average wedding in a small village will have 800-1000 guests. A well-to-do wedding will often hire a producer and the wedding will seem more like a Bollywood production than a vow exchange, with several thousands of people invited and all expenses picked up by the bride and groom and their parents.
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  • Day8

    Night Market in Madurai

    November 28, 2017 in India ⋅ ⛅ 26 °C

    The internet at our last location was very difficult. We spent two days in Thanjavur (highlights that I’ll have to update you on later) and are now in Madurai for the next two days. Madurai, the oldest inhabited city in India, has a population of 1.4 million making it only the 4th largest city in the state of Tamil Nadu which is the area we have been traveling for the last week. It is nicknamed ‘temple city’ and is home to a very significant 17th century temple which we are going to see today.

    Last night we walked around the night market, wending our way through throngs of pilgrims, families, shoppers, and sellers crammed into long narrow corridors in the centuries-old massive granite pavilion next to the temple that now serves as an indoor market space. The labyrinth of alleyways are organized around sections where all the same goods are sold. A long alley of gold braid and beads for dresses. An alley of men sewing dresses and shirts on foot pedal sewing machines. Another long row overflowing with brass temple ware: candlesticks, pots, and tiny bowls to hold the lighted oil candles. A long row of booksellers with school books in Tamil, Hindi, and English for kindergarten up to graduate level stacked up precariously high in boxes behind them. And my favorite, the huge ‘kitchen store,’ several alleys of bowls, molds, strainers, utensils, huge aluminum and iron pots, and cast iron skillets that stand as high as my shoulder. Talk about ‘iron chef’!

    The area we are in now is inland from where we had been the previous week. It is a very tropical and prolific agricultural area. We passed cashew farms, coconut groves, banana plantations, rice fields, plus small groups of wandering cows, goats, and chickens. Our current hotel is on the side of a hill overlooking the city of Madurai and as I did my yoga on the veranda this morning I could hear chanting, drumming, bells tinkling—the sounds of a temple city welcoming the day.

    Here are pics from the night market and the view from our hotel room, looking over the city of Madurai. Also Ben helping the cashew seller roast her cashews over an open fire on the side of the road.
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  • Day6

    The French Connection

    November 26, 2017 in India ⋅ 🌫 25 °C

    On Saturday we headed down the coast to the independent district of Pondachurry. This used to be part of the French holdings in India until 1960 and it still has French flavor in building style, street names, and food. It is a popular seaside resort town and we saw more non-Indians today than we have during the rest of our trip.

    Before lunch we visited what I would equate to a “commune”, a place called Auroville designed to be a community where religion, nationality, and ethnicity does not matter, a place for world harmony. Auroville owns about 200acres of beautiful forest and gardens and operates several streets with small service businesses. It is quite a robust tourist operation with hundreds visiting to walk the gardens.

    We went to a traditional paper making factory where they use old newspapers and recycle it into hand crafted paper items. During a walking tour of the town we had to make way for an elephant marching down the road, right through the cars and pedestrians. He was part of the temple which worships Ganesha, the elephant-figure son of the god Shiva. Every afternoon they heard this poor creature through town and into the narrow temple doors where they ring a bell and make offerings before tying him outside so people can take photographs.

    Another spectacular beachfront resort for tonight’s lodging. Our room has a large covered veranda with a sofa (I was tempted to sleep outside!) and a bathroom that opens to a tiny private courtyard. Getting spoiled.
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  • Day5

    Silk Saris and Ancient Temples

    November 25, 2017 in India ⋅ ☀️ 28 °C

    On Friday we went to Kanchipuram, City of a Thousand Temples. We visited 3 of the most important ones. One temple dedicated to Vishnu, the other to the god Shiva, both made of intricately sculpted granite. There were many groups of pilgrims arriving, all men, wearing saffron or black wraps, having walked and fasted for 30 days. The final temple is now a historical monument, made of sandstone which is more porous and has deteriorated and so is no longer used for worship. All of these temples are dating back more than 12 centuries.

    Kanchipuram is also the wedding dress capital of India. There are many weavers in town and they are reknown for their hand-woven silks and saris. Wedding saris often have intricate patterns of medallions, birds, or flowers woven into them with 22K gold thread. There were bride groups at every silk shop. Weddings are truly a family affair and the bride, all the women in her family, and her friends are involved in the choosing of the wedding sari. My highlight was being dressed up in a beautiful blue and pink sari. Felt really elegant. The fabric is 18 feet long and over 3 feet wide. A real art to rolling it and folding it to have it drape just perfectly—and not fall off (no fasteners of any kind used).

    Before dinner at a beach side restaurant, we swam a lap in the 2nd longest pool in Asia, 660 feet long.
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  • Day3

    Thanksgiving at Temple Beach

    November 23, 2017 in India ⋅ 🌙 27 °C

    Happy Thanksgiving from Temple Beach in Mahabalipuram!

    We spent our day of thanksgiving at a Hindu Temple, walking through a cultural village, and climbing around 6th century rock sculptures. In an unexpected move, Chinese food for dinner tonight.

    Before leaving Chennai this morning, we visited the 7th century Kapaleeshwarar Temple and were lucky enough to catch a wedding ceremony in progress. At first I thought it odd that Thursday morning would be a wedding ceremony, but since most marriages are still arranged and the date and time of wedding is determined via horoscope it makes sense now. It’s a very colorful temple with lots of activity. We as non-Hindus could go in to the complex but could not enter the small temples where the god statues are worshipped.

    Next stop was the Village of Dakshina Chitra, with a nice walking tour of restorations of various types of traditional houses, furnishing, and handicrafts, such as coffee farmer, silk weaver, and money lender. An Indian version of Williamsburg VA.

    We are very impressed so far with the accommodations on this tour—for the next two days we’ll be enjoying a beautiful view of the Bay of Bengal from our Temple Beach resort hotel. We had some time in the afternoon to walk on the beach and cool off in the pool.

    Our final event of the evening was the UNESCO World Heritage site of Mahabalipuram. This was really impressive—intricate sculptures from Hindu mythology and everyday life carved into a massive granite rock outcropping, estimated to be 1200 years old.

    I’m thankful for our health, for the love of our wonderful families, for our dear friends, and for the opportunity to deeply experience this amazing world of ours.
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  • Day3

    Historic Sights in Chennai

    November 23, 2017 in India ⋅ 🌙 27 °C

    We met our group of 9 others this morning and began our Gate 1 Spiritual South India tour with a traditional South Indian lunch at Malgudi restaurant. That’s me posing in front of the restauant.

    For lunch, we each received a large platter lined with banana leaf that was used to serve small bowls of curries, rice, chicken in cream sauce, fried fish, dal (lentils), yogurt, and rice pudding, all eaten with parotta, a type of fry bread local to the Tamil Nadu area. Tiny portions but very filling all together.

    Finished off with a dessert of fermented rice flour pancake dipped in a sweetened cardamom sauce. Dark South Indian coffee was served, again traditional style. That’s Ben demonstrating the pouring technique that mixes the cream and sugar into the very hot coffee.

    Two historical sights today: the Government Museum which is a sprawling compound of archeological, historical, and architectural treasures. We saw carved Hindu statues dating from 600 A.D., and the largest collection of bronze statues in the world dating back hundreds of years and magnificently detailed. Then to the Museum at Fort St. George which houses collections of memorabilia from the fascinating British history in India. Unfortunately they do not allow pictures at either Museum. There’s a picture of us at St. Mary’s church, the oldest English church in India, dating from the 1700s and still in use today.

    Then a drive along the extensive shoreline along the Bay of Bengal with a beach area estimated to be 20 miles long. The part closest to the city has many parks and food trucks and you can imagine in a city of 9 million, lots of people walking on the beach (water is not safe for swimming).

    Further down are the fishing villages. We could see the boats, not too much larger than dinghies, rowing right up on the sand and hauling their catch directly to a family member manning a makeshift stall along the road, selling the fish literally fresh off the boat (we saw very little use of ice). Our guide said that Indians prefer their food to be bought and cooked as fresh as can be, so everything must be sold that day. It’s one reason WalMart has not taken off in this big market—the people here generally do not use prepared or packaged food. This area was hard hit by the tsunami in 2004, destroying miles of small homes near the water and killing hundreds. Even 13 years later so many still living in make-shift shanties of scrap metal or wood with a roof of plastic sheeting. The government is slowly rebuilding apartments, but still so much need.

    We are going through water like crazy. It’s hot and humid and the tap water is not safe for us to drink. We are being handed water bottles everywhere we go. You know what a conservationist I am so it’s killing me to add all these empty plastics to the trash problem of over a billion people. It’s either that or risk a case of ‘Delhi belly’ (the Indian version of Montezumas Revenge). We have been so fortunate on our trips to be spared from any GI issues.
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  • Day1

    Chennai--our first day

    November 21, 2017 in India ⋅ ⛅ 28 °C

    We arrived in Chennai at 0100 AM on Tuesday, 11/21 after 16 1/2 hours of flying time plus a 4 hour layover in Frankfurt. The first thing that hit me as we left the airport was the heat and humidity, high even at 1AM. We planned today as a rest day so we had no schedule to meet and could nap and walk around, getting used to the time change (we are 10 1/2 hours ahead of the east coast).

    Chennai is the Detroit of India, its primary business being manufacturing, especially automobiles. The streets in the area of town near our hotel are filled with small shops and street stalls—ironing services, fabric printing, mechanics, packaged spice carts, stalls selling fruit juices and others selling chapati and other hand snacks. Although there are many people walking, the raids are not pedestrian friendly. The sidewalks are narrow so you must walk mindfully around potholes and piles of debris, often stepping into traffic to squeeze by some large sidewalk obstruction. The traffic on our hotel street is very heavy, a mix of cars, small trucks, tuk-tuks (like a golf cart for hire), motorcycles, and scooters. Everyone uses the horn, a lot. No pedestrian crossings, just venture out when there is a slow down in the flow of traffic and wend your way across the 6 lanes.

    The last time we were in India was 2010 and it was north India: Delhi, Agra, Jaipur. The first thing we noticed here was far less unsolicited touting, that is men who want to “help” you do something (for a fee) —take you on a tour, carry your luggage, drive you someplace—than we remember from Delhi. Still a few persistent tuck-tuck drivers but much more enjoyable to walk around without having to say “no”all the time.

    Surprisingly, there is a Starbucks around the corner from our hotel. Yes, it’s the real deal. We also found a small grocery store and had fun checking out the variety of fruits and vegetables, spices, seeds, nuts, and sauces. Stocked up on several gallons of water. Now, a little relaxation at the pool at our hotel before dinner.
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