North, South and a Wedding in Between
  • Day1

    Off to the Subcontinent

    December 5, 2018 in the United States ⋅ ☁️ 11 °C

    Subcontinent. Who calls India that anyway? British probably.

    We're all packed and off again. Our friend Don just dropped us off at SFO. California to Vancouver followed by a short, 14 hour flight to Indira Gandhi Airport in Delhi. Sophie met us here with a box of macarons given to her by a person who owns a french bakery in the airport.(see photo) It seems Sophie helped this woman load her bag in the airport shuttle and was repaid in confections! Augie is currently in route from a small town Laos to Thailand and will meet us at the airport in Delhi.

    As usual our plan is anything but simple.

    Keoladeo. Driver meets us at the airport and drives us four hours to the Iora Guest House in Biratpur. We take day trips to Chand Boari Stepwell, the Taj Mahal, and frequent visits to the nearby Keoladeo Bird Sanctuary.

    Southern India. We fly from Delhi to the south Indian city of Kochi where we join this Intrepid Travel tour. I am particularly interested in the food tours. Sophie is looking for block printing places, Augie likes the temples, and Nancy is just taking it all in. https://www.intrepidtravel.com/us/india/southern-india-108638

    Mumbai. We fly to Mumbai and attend the week long wedding of the nephew of our dear friends John (Jules) and Varsha. Nancy and I will also be celebrating our 30th wedding anniversary on New Year's Eve. After all of the celebrating Sophie leaves us and flies back to the States. :(

    Rajasthan. We fly to Jaipur and take a circuitous route exploring Bundi, Bikaner (camel festival), to Jaisalmer and everything in between. Sometime in there Augie flies back to the States. :(

    The Punjab. Train to Amritsar to visit the Golden Temple and (perhaps) rent motorbikes to explore the foothills of the Himalaya from Dharamshala to Shimla.

    Exit Indira Gandhi Airport and return to Santa Cruz in early February.

    Whew!

    Should be interesting.
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  • Day3

    36 Hours Later

    December 7, 2018 in India ⋅ 🌙 18 °C

    A day and a half later and we've flown halfway around the world, met up with Augie, driven six hours through Delhi area traffic, checked into our hotel, and taken a rickshaw tour through Keoladeo bird sanctuary.

    India appears to be much as I remember it from 45 years ago although I'm sure that this perception will change over the coming days. There's a winter haze hanging in the air from the burning of the fields following the harvest. Today the air particulate matter is hovering around a toxic 600. Beautiful green fields followed closely by sanitation nightmares. Ox carts, scooters, runaway buses, dogs, cows, diesel semis, and speeding cars all working incessantly toward sharing as little of the road as they can get away with while driving as fast as possible. Colorful clothes, inquisitive children and lots of people with laughter in their eyes.

    A couple of hours at the bird sanctuary this afternoon netted about 40 bird identifications. The four of us had a wonderful time. Here's a link to a photo album that I put together on the experience.
    https://photos.app.goo.gl/khicknZBQ3jXnHd8A

    Tonight we eat late and hit the sack early. Our jetlag is not too bad all considering. I am a bit fatigued so I'll cut this short. Tomorrow we're off to Chand Baori stepwell.
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  • Day4

    Chand Baori Stepwell

    December 8, 2018 in India ⋅ ☀️ 24 °C

    Today we hired a driver, Laxman, to take us some 50 miles west to Chand Boari stepwell. Stepwells are all over India, but are really prevalent in Rajasthan. They are wells dug deep into the ground with steps for carrying water. The temperature at the bottom of the well is 5 to 6 degrees cooler than at ground level, so these were used as gathering places during the hot weather. As the water level rises and falls the lower steps are revealed or submerged depending on the season. Monsoon. They are associated with the female goddess of joy and happiness Harshat Mata. Often women are/were responsible for the ritual celebrations.

    Chand Baori is one of the oldest stepwells. It was built by King Chanda between 800 CE and 900 CE. Chand Baori consists of 3,500 narrow steps over 13 stories. It extends approximately 30 m (100 ft) into the ground making it one of the deepest and largest stepwells in India.

    It is a remarkable structure and really worth a visit, even if your son didn't graduate from college with a degree in water management.

    On the drive back we asked Laxman to take us through some smaller roads in the countryside. There were lots of interesting slices of life coming to us as we drifted past. Goat herds in the hundreds, women gathering in saffron saris on rooftops, and one striking image of a Muslim woman dressed from head to toe in a deep magenta sari floating through a yellow field of rapeseed.
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  • Day4

    Agra

    December 8, 2018 in India ⋅ ☀️ 24 °C

    Today we woke at 4am and drove two hours to witness the Taj Mahal in a misty sunrise.

    It is pretty much all that everyone says it is.

    Sublime and awe inspiring.

    Still sort of in awe.

    On the way back to Bharatpur we dropped by Shanti Mangalick hospital (just as promised) where Nancy's mom, Alma, spent three months volunteering as a nurse back in the 80s.Read more

  • Day7

    Keoladeo to Kochi and Intrepid Travel

    December 11, 2018 in India ⋅ 🌫 26 °C

    We piled in the car for one last five hour drive with Laxman Singh from Iora Guest House to the Delhi Airport. Stopped for coffee at a modern shop by the side of the highway. The photo below was taken from our seats in the place. Can't get much more direct cause and effect than that. Open sewer from the Café runs right into the vacant lot next door which is filled with garbage from the same establishment. On the flight over I'd read about the contradiction between holding the Ganges river sacred as the mother of life, yet polluting it to unheard of levels. There are groups trying to make the connection and publicize the worst offenders. All the while we're driving through a thick haze of Delhi air in a diesel powered sedan and about to board a flight to the south of India. Can't get much more direct cause and effect than that...

    In the airport the family messed around with the massage chairs in the lounge for a bit while I knocked back a whiskey on ice before the flight. Sanju picked us up at the Kochi Airport and drove us into town. He was pretty proud of his home state of Kerala. Talked about the recent monsoon floods leading to 100,000 displaced people and 500 dead if one includes those still missing. Said the recovery was going well, but tourism was down. A big problem for a state with no manufacturing. He noted that the state was run by the first democratically elected Communist government. Their rule for the past decades has lead to the highest literacy rate in India.

    Kochi is a pretty chill town. Intrepid Travel, the company we're traveling with, arranged a tour. The guide, Peter, explained that Kochi's history as a port city on the Malabar coast goes back thousands of years. Jews first arrived following the second burning of the temple in Jerusalem in 79ce. Another wave came through in the time of the Inquisition, but they didn't worship with or intermarry with the first group. Jew Town has the oldest continuing active synagogue in the Commonwealth. In more recent centuries it was colonized by the Portuguese, Dutch, and British. Their architecture abounds. Lots of small shops, restaurants, and cafés. Art murals can be found all around the city.

    The guide went into a long statement about the effects of the Swiss reformed church in the area. They went to great lengths to deconstruct the caste system that had been introduced to the South from Northern India around 1000ce. They used a land tax system to make it too expensive for large feudal land owners to hold their land and incentivized its transfer to the small farmers who'd been working the land. The Reformed church also introduced schooling for all, including untouchables, which further eroded the caste system. He described the multireligious, multi economic, multi cultural tolerance that the area is known for.

    Greater Malabar is even more ancient. Dawn of human civilization stuff. Hunter-gatherers beachcombed from the African Rift Valley along the Indian Ocean coast until they reached a place of such abundance that they stopped. Kerala. It is the source of civilization in India. I learned that Brahmins pass mantras on to their sons when they reach the age of manhood. Linguists have studied these chants and found no connection to any known language. The closest correlation they can find is to birdsong. The assumption is that the mantras have been passed down since before humans took up language.

    Wild.

    This afternoon Augie and I took a walk along the waterfront where we met up with several pilgrims who had left their village to do a pilgrimage to the holy sites of South India. Jevesh said that every few years he goes on a pilgrimage with the other men from his village. Usually in December and January. He told us a story about an ailing queen who was tricked into sending her second born son into the wilderness to get tiger's milk to heal her ills. The boy came back riding a tiger. The father then recognized the son's divinity.

    This evening we took in a traditional dance exhibition. Tomorrow we're off to the mountains.
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  • Day9

    Journey the Nilgiri Tea Highlands

    December 13, 2018 in India ⋅ ⛅ 22 °C

    Our Intrepid Travel tour is made up of eight individuals, four of whom are well known. Two couples have joined the trip, one from New York, Ina and Anatole and the other from New Zealand, Suzanne and Scott. The guide is VJ from Rajasthan. Everyone is a veteran traveler. So far so good.

    Yesterday we left Kochi and headed up to the tea highlands by train. We rode in second class cars and were fortunate to have seats together. I got a little bored on the train and spent part of the time taking photos of all the methods concocted to keep trays latched. We had an amazing lunch at a roadside restaurant along the way. Thali trays of South Indian delights. One of our number, Suzanne, is a chef's consultant in Auckland and is really into the food end of things. This should be fun!

    Once we made it to the Tiger's Hill Inn in Conoor Nancy, Sophie, and I took off on a nice hike in the tea fields. The road snaked along the side of a steep mountain dipping in and out of dense forest. As dusk set in a gentleman came alongside on a scooter and urged us to turn back because 'animals are coming!' Up here that could mean any number of things, including lost big cats so we decided to grab the next rickshaw and hightail it back.
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  • Day9

    Tea Highlands Tour

    December 13, 2018 in India ⋅ ☁️ 15 °C

    Augie and Nancy came down with separate illnesses overnight. Augie wasn't up for the day's activities and stayed behind in Conoor to rest. Nancy, Sophie, and I spent the morning touring the Highlands Tea Factory in nearby Wellington. The tour was good although it covered a lot of familiar ground. We learned that tea harvesting happens all year, but the main harvest is in June when the monsoon rains bring fast growth. The guide explained that they employ one hundred pickers year round and several thousand during the wet months. While there, we noticed that several of the workers in the factory were migrants from Southeast Asia. He also explained that a picker's quota of leaves for black or green tea is around 40 kilograms or 88 pounds per day. The same pickers quota of white tip tea picked is 100 grams or less than a quarter pound per day.

    In the afternoon we caught a toy train from Conoor to Ooti. A World Heritage experience. Both towns were Hill Stations and are tea centers. Quite a nice ride through some lovely country. Much like our epic train ride through the Highlands in Sri Lanka.

    Upon return we found Augie to be much improved and ready for tomorrow's safari in the Bandipur Tiger Reserve.
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  • Day10

    Bandipur Tiger Reserve

    December 14, 2018 in India ⋅ ⛅ 22 °C

    We left the tea highlands and the state of Tamil Nadu and headed north to the Bandipur Tiger Reserve in Karnatika state. As we drove into the reserve I caught the photo of the young mahoot talking on his cell phone while driving.

    We stayed at a very nice lodge with amazing food. Lunch was a collection of indigenous items including three dishes made with millet. Anthony Bourdain said of Indian food that it is the only menu in the world that could make him not miss eating meat. This was certainly the case. I counted 22 different dishes.

    We boarded a safari vehicle and took a bumpy three hour ride into the reserve. We didn't see any big cats, but did see two types of deer and a few mongoose. As we drove back to lodge we saw a wild baby tusker in the brush. See photos.

    The next morning Augie and I woke early and went birdwatching with a local naturalist. I caught a few nice photos from distance. The photo below is of a Bramany Starling. The Bramany comes into play in the name when the rust chest appears.

    Nancy is still up coughing at night and generally feeling low.
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  • Day12

    Mysore

    December 16, 2018 in India ⋅ ☁️ 25 °C

    Today we entered Mysore. A busy metropolis of some 1.8 million people. We started things off at a local temple marking the site where the demon Mahishasura was killed here by Goddess Chamundeshwari. The demon believed himself to be indestructible and the goddess pretty much proved that this was not the case.

    Nancy toughed things out in the morning, but by afternoon she was laid up with a low grade fever. She skipped the visit to the Maja Raja's palace and the follow up visit to an incense and essential oils factory. The palace is said to be the second most visited tourist site outside of the Taj Mahal. It is an interesting structure with loads of history. One guy who was born nearby came up to me and opined, "You know where they found the money to build this here? From us and our labor; you know". The women were dressed to the nines. We saw many exquisite saris and lots of regally made up babies. At 7pm on National holidays and Sundays they light up the palace. We stuck around with about 1.4 million Mysorians and witnessed the event. Augie caught it on video:
    https://photos.app.goo.gl/N5cHfcvgpXKNYZqRA

    We also had a chance to visit an incense and essential oils factory in town. The purveyor showed us how they roll incense sticks and dabbed scented oils on us explaining each oil's essential properties and various uses. Augie and I learned a lot while Sophie participated in the stick rolling and bought some of the more essential oils. I think that lotus flower oil was my favorite.

    Nancy also missed some of the nonsense we were caught up in around the taking of selfies. It seems that everywhere we go we are stopped by people asking where we are from and requesting selfies with us. It must be a 'thing'. Sophie and Augie respond congeneally. I respond by uninvitedly joining people's attempts at family photos and seeking out interesting groups to solicit my own selfies. (see photo with some of of my new Tibetan friends)

    Tomorrow we're off to another temple and end up taking the night train to the east.
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  • Day14

    Worst Possible Timing

    December 18, 2018 in India ⋅ ⛅ 16 °C

    We spent the day in Mysore visiting the market. Sophie and I went to a government run silk factory where they make material for many of the gorgeous saris that this city is known for. They didn't allow cameras, so we left without photos. They wind 10 strands of silk into one thread then feed them through giant looms. Everything was mechanized, but there were hundreds of employees tending the machinery. The shuttles moved incredibly quickly back and forth across the loom. Couldn't really follow them with our eyes as they moved.

    In the evening we had dinner at the home of a long time Intrepid Travel guide and his family. Chicken Birryani and an eggplant dish. The food was delicious.

    We then boarded an Indian Railways overnight train for Chennai. Accommodations were a bit different than the last time I traveled on one of these trains 45 years ago. Porters bringing chai, making up the compartments, and seeing to every need. Now first class tickets have to be reserved months in advance. All other classes basically require a mad scramble with no guarantee that seats/berths will be together. Our second class berths were in an open compartment with eight others. At bedtime we folded the backrests up to form a middle of three berths per side. The seats at the passage end make up the seventh and eighth bunks. It is crowded.

    The night didn't go so well. I thought it would be a good sleep from the gentle rocking of the train. The ride was much more jolting than I remembered or expected. Sleep was difficult what with people moving up and down out of the bunks, babies crying,, and Nancy's snoring exacerbated by her headcold. Then it got bad. I thought it was motion sickness from the movement of the train. By 3:00am I was scurrying to the squat toilet at the end of the car. I'll spare the details, but this sort of thing is not easy or sanitary on a train moving at 60 mph and jolting back and forth.

    Sophie and I spent the last 24 hours sick and sleeping in our hotel rooms in Mamallapuram. Another of our crew experienced the same. All three of us had taken seconds of the aubergine dish the night before.

    Nancy and Augie spent the day experiencing the charming city, going to the beach, and riding bicycles around the temple complex. Their report follows.
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