India January 31, 2015
As we said our goodbyes and boarded the van, Dr. Ramadas hugged us goodbye and took our picture. Ethelyne made up a goodbye song. He recorded it as we sang it to him. So cute. He hugged each and every one of us as we boarded to leave.
We now begin the touring portion of our trip provided by Redback Travel.
The first 30 minutes into the trip was in silence. The sights are quite humbling. We see the remnants if what was a highway that was going to be built, but then abandoned. There was once a bigger industry setting in Coimbatore, but the manufacturers had to leave since they could not get a consistent power supply. You have electricity for 4 hours, then it is cut off for 8. Then, you may have it for 10 hours and its cut off for 4, etc. Vaidyagrama has consistent electricity since everything is run on solar panels and back up generators. You don't even know the power supply issue exists. But you do when you leave.
There are roadside shacks with barefoot people and it happens to be a cellphone store. Its a lot to take in. The buses are beautifully decorated in flowers and a million colors of mandala designs. These people are doing the best they can with what they have to work with. What is surprising is that some of the concrete, beat up structures have satellite dishes outside of them. Cell phones and technology are definitely a priority here. There is a college of Engineering and Technology in every town and roadside village. Eye-opening.
Also, everywhere you turn, you see a woman sweeping the street to try to maintain cleanliness. Then a big truck passes by and puts all the dirt right back. The attempt at cleanliness is larger than I anticipated. I must say, so far we have been in pristine environments with plenty of local, clean, boiled water to drink. None of us have felt threatened or been ill in any way.
The experience of being in a vehicle here is like no other. Its chaos. You are on both sides of road. You compete with motorbikes, minitrucks, large trucks, tuk tuks, people and animals. There are no rules of the road. Horns are blaring and you are going as fast as you can, passing anyone in your way. I have a small video that shows a piece if our ride and we are all calming chatting with each other. This makes my 95 mph ride on a dirt road (through the Yukatan Jungle) to the pyramid of Coba look like a piece of cake.
Hang on, smile and nod.
The people are all going about life with the same daily activities as us. Metal factory, construction sites, clothing stores, car dealerships, etc.....on a different scale.
Men wear bright orange turbans to keep head cool in blazing sun. They don't have baseball caps with visors.
We watched a large group of people walking on the side of the road dressed in different shades of orange. This went on for miles and miles. There are walking 100 km for pilmagrage to celebrate Durga. They must fast for one week and wear bright orange to show fasting....then walk that 100 km to the temple.
There are walk to wall coconut trees. There is abundant coconut water and they use the skin as mulching for planting. It also retains water for flowers, etc
Now we start on switchback roads with no guardrails. So bumpy. Wreaking havoc on my back. I am not comforted by the fact that the driver believes in reincarnation. Beautiful scenery, majestic trees and dried up waterfalls. They will return in monsoon season. The drop offs have my heart pounding and I cant bare to look. Not sure how Jamie can stand in the front seat!
It is evident that the powers that be are attempting to clean up the country. There is garbage in certain areas, but it is really less than I expected. This may be different in the north, but Kerala is very focused on natural healing and preserving mother earth. I am even amazed at how every man we have spoken to knows the name of every flower and tree in the surrounding area....and he is excited to tell you about it. I have seen roadside signs that say "The only cure for litter is you" and "Plastic free zone- do not litter here". So encouraging!
We started the accent to Munnar by passing through a tiger and wildlife sanctuary with elephant crossing signs. The sanctuary went on file a couple of hours drive! We did see a few antelope, but that is all. The elephants stay in the forest during the heat of the day.
Did you know that India was the first country on earth to instill animal rights? They treat all animals with love and dignity. Even if they are meat eaters, the cows are well taken care of. Which brings me to a point to clarify. Indians do not worship cows. I think its a misconception that they do so. In the south, they are mostly strictly vegetarian and they believe the cow is sacred, as it beings us the capability to use the milk for sustenance. We also make ghee, cream, butter, yogurt and cheese. It is an important animal and it is celebrated with thanks for its life giving properties. In some countries, the dairy product of a couple of cows may be all that is keeping a small village alive. (Thats why Heifer Intl is one of my favorite charities to donate to)
After 2.5 hrs drive, we reached checkpoint to cross into state of Kerala. We stopped for bathroom break and there were monkeys everywhere! We watched as one proceeded to open the satchel on a motorbike and take out all of its contents. The owner came yelling and chasing him away. We had one little guy on out van that kept trying to get in the front door and sat on the outside side mirror. I cant image being surrounded by animals with human capabilities.....like taking your stuff. Wild.
The ride consisted of many bumpy and winding roads, all through local villages. There is no major highway, so consider driving 200 miles on side streets with a max speed of 30 mph. The sights are quite humbling. Lots of shacks. Lots of bare feet. I do not see many westerners. I have seen about 5 so far on this 6 hour drive.
We entered a long stretch of densely-treed road that had an extremely high and impressive fence on both sides. It was made of stone and electrical wire with barbed wire at the top. It seemed like a scene out of 'Jurassic Park'. It was serious. I was concerned at what it was they were trying to keep from coming to the road. It went on for miles and miles. Finally, I had to ask the driver if they were blocking the elephants. He said no, that is was actually US they are keeping from entering there. Turns out we were passing through an immense Sandalwood tree forest! All of the sandalwoods are government owned and highly protected against deforestation. Even those who grow sandalwood on their own property must register and report it. Each tree is tagged and tracked. The trees may not be cut down whatsoever. Each one must die and fall on its own before it may be harvested. Yay!!! Go India!!!!
Arriving in the Munnar area is breathtaking. Its cooler here. We have been ascending for a couple of hours. The mist in the rolling hills steams off the tress in the sunshine. The dropoffs are still a big scary to me, but I am distracted by the beauty of the landscape. The rolling hills are a thousand shades of green. The terrain is coated in tea trees...I am estimating a couple hundred thousand acres. It is all owned by the Tata Corporation. The CEO is the great-grandson of the original founder.He also owns the Taj hotel in Mumbai and the Tata car company. The trees were planted by the British during the colonization in the late 1800s and they can live for 400 years. These are all the original planted trees, with additional ones added after a major flood in 1927.
Munnar hilltop station is an extremely busy and crowed town. The traffic is equally crazy and wall to wall people. I didn't expect such a small town to be so busy. It is lined with hundreds of shops- cell phone stores, clothing/shoe stores, vegetable stands, coffee/tea stands, etc. There are even numerous shops with men stringing garlands of fresh flowers. There are rows of lined up tuk tuks for hire. There is a river running through it with a bridge crossing over to all of the hotels. There is a temple in the main square and small side streets lined with fruits, vegetables, spices, nuts and grains. Wonderful!!
We stopped at a local hotel (sister hotel of where we are staying in the jungle) for lunch. Great surprise to find out we already paid full board and this is included in our stay. We got a table outside on the balcony (covered from the sun) with a cool breeze and no noise. I had a very surreal moment that I am actually in India eating lunch on a balcony in the tea tree plantations. Of course, we had the best lunch ever with vegetable biriyani, coconut rice, breads, currys and fresh squeezed lime juice drink. This was our first meal outside Vaidyagrama and we all ate too much. We agreed that would be the end if that :)
First stop is the Tata Tea Museum. We pick up our local guide, Augustine. He is a 30something guy wearing trendy jeans, a soccer jersey and Converse. He jumps in the front seat of the van as we stop for 1/2 minute.
I never knew that 7 kinds of green and black tea come from the same plant! Augustine walked us through the picking of the leaves and which parts are used for white, green and black teas. Then we saw the machinery that grinds, drys and separates all the different grades and waste products of the teas. He explained why some of it has caffeine and some doesn't. Even the waste products used by going back into the land. Then I got to have a cup of the best Chai I have ever had for 5 rupees (10 cents)!
We are all a bit tired and ready to get to our hotel. Off we go! After just a few minutes, the tea tree landscape disappears and we are enter into a very thick and dense jungle. The hills are just as steep, but the terrain completely changes. The trees are tall and magnificent. There are banyans and eucalyptus and honeybee trees, with vines covering everything. There are exotic flowers of every color. The sun is just starting to descend as we arrive. Our hotel is on the road in the midst of all of it. It is an old English Tea Estate and the owner is an Indian man, Mr. P.J. George. It sits adjacent to an Ayurvedic garden and medicine plantation. Yay!
Our lodging is pristine again. The cleanest bedding, huge bathrooms and this place even has toilet paper! The entire entrance and front of the owners home is lined wall to wall with potted flowers. A green moss covers the land like grass. The entire driveway and large walkway to the lodging in the back is made of red brick-pavers in the shape of flowers. It is lined with hanging baskets for more fruits, veggies and flowers. The entire area is a huge garden of tomatoes, cardamon, black peppercorns. Its like paradise..........and we are excited that we have wifi too!
The lodging part of the place consists of 2 buildings with 4 units in each one. The upstairs units have small balconies overlooking the beauty of it all. Tresa and Marcia are upstairs from Barbara and I and they have 2 balconies in each direction! The back part of the second building has a common terrace that overlooks the jungle scene of a million tress and vines. It left me speechless. In the other direction is the road and a huge ascending hillside up to a mountain named Lakshmi ❤️. I will tell you more about our trek up that hill later.
Dinner is made for us in the kitchen by the owners wife. It is divine and made with love. There is another gentleman who has completely taken care of us. He moved our luggage, made us hot water in the morning for our kashayam, toured the property and gardens and took us on an amazing trek....all with big smiles.
Now, we turn in for the night. The jungle is pitch black. You hear the last sounds of the birds for the day and all of those nighttime animals calling out to each other with romance in their voices.
A gentle and loving hug with a soft goodnight at the end of an amazing day.
India February 1, 2015
I awake in the darkness and the silence of the jungle.
I am trying to be very quiet so as not to wake Barbara. I want to take a shower and get outside soon as possible. I want to hear the birds singing see the sunrise!
To my dismay, I discovered there was no hot water and it was too early in the morning to ask anyone about it. The hotel manager won't be here until 7 a.m. He is nice enough to come early to prepare some hot water so we may take our kashayam an hour before breakfast.
For now I was in for a cold bath with my bucket and water cup. I tried to stay as quiet as possible, but Barbara wakes up at the same time I do. She was ready for her cold bath immediately after me. Neither of us liked it.
The sun was rising by the time I stepped outside. The jungle was alive and the sunbeams coming through the trees were magical. The sounds of a thousand birds is something I can't describe. I have attached one pic to this post. Just imagine.
The hotel manager could see how enthralled I was with my environment, so he took me over to a small tree to show me the pink speckled eggs of a local bird that I cannot rename. Again he was naming all the plants, flowers and trees in the environment. He was explaining the medicinal properties of each one. These guys amaze me.
We all got together at 7:30 am to take our kashayam and it seemed much more difficult to prepare ourselves. The black herbal tablets will not dissolve, so we will have to come up with a strategic plan for tomorrow.
Breakfast from the hotel owners kitchen arrived at 8:30 a.m. and was as wonderful as ever - Fresh bananas, a polenta style porridge with mustard seeds and fresh made chapati. This morning I decided I'm having chai. It proved to be a wonderful choice! The chai here is a party for the taste buds!
Prior to walking to the front of the hotel to be picked up by our driver, we decided to take pictures sitting in a 200 year old banyan tree that sits at the front of the property. We giggled as we each sat in lotus in the tree. So fun! Then we boarded the van to drive back to the Plantation for a morning hike.
The morning drive and the view was just as stunning as the day before. I believe it must be about two hundred thousand acres of tea trees. Its already hot and its only 9 a.m. I am not sure of the elevation, but intend to check it when I get a chance. The sun is blaring and the landscape seems unreal.
The women are out picking across the fields now. Augustine describes that they each pick 100 kilos a day, which is over 200 pounds. As we stopped on one of the switchbacks, I grabbed my camera to take a picture of a woman with the huge bag of tea on her head. They stare at me and I think they may be offended, but suddenly they have big smiles and wave frantically for the camera. They are happy to have the photo taken.
We stop the van, exit and start walking up the trail. We find that we are quickly tired as we've been at rest for the past two weeks and this is the first physical exertion we're doing. We smile and laugh with each other as Augustine takes pictures of us in the middle of a sea of tea trees. He further explains the entire history of the area, landowners etc.
We had to take a couple of breaks from the intensity of the incline and the sun....We loved it, but were happy to come back to the coolness of the van and some water. We decided that we'd also like to ride an elephant today, so the next step will be to see the large dam (constructed in 1947 to generate electricity) and then off to the elephants!! My excitement is building. Riding an elephant has been on my bucket list for 30 years!!
We walked along the dam and it was quite impressive. It reminded me of the Hoover Dam ,just on a smaller scale. We went under a fence to cross a small path to get a better view and we're getting yelled at by the locals selling fruit....Augustine assured us it was OK. The venders were NOT OK with it!
Back to the van and off to the elephants!! Again....the traffic, the people, the tuk tuks, the colors, the sounds and the smells are all wonderful on this road! The scent of cooking reminds me that it's about lunch time!
We arrived at the area with the elephants and it was quite crowded with tourists from other places in India. We still have yet to see any other Westerners here. There have been maybe 20 during the entire trip. We make our way in through a large crowd to buy our tickets and wait among the crowd. There are women who are covered in jewelry and henna and even one woman who's going to ride the elephant in a dress and small heels. (By the way, the 'crowd' is everywhere in India. You are never NOT in a crowd!)
Of course after seeing how big they are I become a little bit apprehensive. Jamie, Tresa and I stand on the platform waiting and I start to feel nervous. We've decided that I'll be in the front. We all get on board and I seem to be a little short and cannot reach the side rails to brace my feet on. Our lovely lady is named Camiha. She's walking slowly and there's a photographer to capture the moment for you. All is well and I'm grinning from ear to ear. Jaime keeps asking how I'm doing as I shared how very exciting this was for me. Everything was great until Camiha started to turn left down a small switch back and go down hill. Because I was in the front and could not reach the foot rest, I was having a hard time bracing myself and felt like I was going to fall forward over her head. I was having an extreme moment of anxiety until I finally grasped the bar behind me and Jamie grabbed my shoulder to keep me from falling forward. After 5 minutes, all was well again and we came back to the area where we had a chance to feed her some treats. I fed her pineapples. It was exciting as she reached her trunk back towards me to grab them, arrange them with her trunk and then eat them without eating leaves. All in all, this was about half an hour ride and yes it was in a tourist area, but it was still wonderful!!
We had an amazing lunch at the same hotel in town and then we headed back to our jungle hotel for an afternoon walk through our neighboring Ayurvedic plantation called 'Cinnamon Gardens'. This is where we bought our spices from. It was an eye-opening walk, guided by the owner who walked us through each and every plant in the garden, as well as different trees, shrubs and vines. We were able to eat fresh cocoa beans straight from a fleshly-cracked Coco pod. We saw figs, black peppercorns, cloves, etc. Chewing the leaves of the clove tree taste the same as the clove itself! Quite strange! We chewed the leaves from an Allspice tree, we ate fresh cardamom seeds from picking the cardamom pods. We even picked the bark from the cinnamon tree and ate it on the spot. We tried everything in the garden!
All of the plants, fruits, trees, flowers, etc are all used for medicinal purposes. He was explaining each tree and plant and what it is used for, whether it be to treat diabetes, lower cholesterol or help to re-grow lost hair. They also grow and dry coffee, eucalyptus trees, ginger, turmeric and an array of amazing flowers. At the end of it you are able to purchase ayurvedic medicines and the spices that have been harvested just in the last month or so. The tastes, sights, sounds and smells were a treat for the senses. The learning process of all the medicinal qualities was wonderful.
It's now 3 o'clock in the afternoon and the manager of a hotel wants to take us on a yet another hike across the road and up a mountain named Lakshmi. We comply, as the heat of the day is gone down and of course we want to see you as much as possible. We begin our ascent up a paved road that quickly turns to a trail and becomes more and more intense as we make our way to the top of a small mountain. There are huge rock formations, towering eucalyptus trees and very large, aged banyan trees everywhere. The terrain is covered in ferns, flowers, vines, cardamom bushes, etc. At one point, we suddenly realized we were climbing our way through a dense cardamom forest. There are strange fruits, coconuts and plants all around....Finally we reached a large stone, where our guide shows us that there is a 300 year old banyan tree at the top. The roots are streaming down all sides of the stone trying to reach the earth. It looked quite unreal, almost alien or from a movie. It was astounding and I have added it to my photo album. He then asked us if we would like to climb the vines (which are actually the roots of the banyan tree). Of course, we can barely walk up this hill much less climb the side of a rock. So he decides to show us his capability and climbs right up the roots with no problem! He wants to keep going upward, but we have to decline. It's getting late, the sun is going down and we are exhausted. I am so glad we decided to go on that hike, even being as tired as we are. It was a visual treat. We come back down to the beauty of our lodge, packed ourselves up again, had another lovely dinner and listened to the jungle as it closed for the night. Tomorrow morning we are off for another 5 hour drive to Alleppey for two days on a house boat.
Everywhere we go, we have to ask them to turn down the spice in the food. We explain that we have just come from 2 weeks of Panchakarma. We are not supposed to be eating anything spicy, exerting ourselves or being in the sun and wind. This plan does not seem to be working, as we are eating spicy food, hiking in the sun, driving and moving constantly. Next time we do this, it will be the excursion first, then Panchakarma treatment.
The moments of quiet contemplation are gone for the moment.
Good night from the jungle of Munnar.
India February 2, 2015
Off to the backwaters of Alleppey!
I woke early, as usual, took my cold shower and met my partners at the breakfast table at 7 a.m. for kashayam. The hotel manager arrives, sharp as ever, with our hot water and a smile. He has even packed up travel boxes of food to sustain us for our next five to six hour drive southeast to the coast. Just to reiterate, there is no highway, so all routes are taken via small, bumpy roads through villages....and however long they tell you the drive will be, make sure you double it :)
The roads through small towns are as interesting as ever. I notice that we must be growing accustomed to the chaotic driving since we are now carrying on a very casual conversation as we weave in and out of the tumultuous activities on the road. As we descend from the higher elevation of Munnar, we see the dense forest and landscape change over time and become much more populated. I even begin to feel more at ease since there are no more Mountain drop offs to contend with.
About halfway there, after 3 hours of driving, we decide to stop for a bathroom break.
This is the first chance we have had to use a public restroom. This in itself, is its own adventure and out of courtesy, we much must purchase a beverage to show our appreciation. This is why you travel with your own toilet paper in your pocket. This is also my first opportunity to consume something outside of a controlled environment. I decide to take one of the wonderful hot chais that have become my favorite. It is 97 degrees outside and my chai is steaming. This tells me the water has been boiled an extremely high temperature and gives me the confidence to sip it and smile..... while all of the patrons stand around and find this group of seven Western women quite intriguing.
We board the van once again and realize the temperature is rising the closer we get to the coastline. I've also noticed along the way that the small shack-like homes have slowly changed into larger brick homes that seemed much more like a typical Chicago bungalow. It seems the level of income has also increased and the inhabitants of the community are becoming mixed between Indians and Arabic Muslims. I see quite a bit of Arabic writing on the local shop signage. The community is also becoming much more densely populated with people. There are no longer large fields of land in between residences. We are also nearing the coastline which tells me the settlers could easily come from the Middle East. I suppose the western coastline of the country must be inhabited by more of the Asian or Chinese community.
I can tell that we are very close to the coast since I start to see many rivers and streams appearing. The area is covered in palm trees. Seems this is what I would expect to see in Cambodia. We arrived at the check in and four gentlemen come to take our luggage. We need to board a small water taxi to take us to the larger house boat.
I can't seem to take enough pictures as the scene is very surreal and reminds me of something out of a movie or something I read about. We bored the water taxi and marvel at the scenery. I am sure that our luggage will fall right off the top rack they have placed it on. I wonder what will do when everything falls to the bottom of the river. The rocking of this small boat is intense. I go with the flow.
We arrived at our house boat which is quite impressive and has 4 bedrooms, a full running kitchen (staffed by 5 crew), the captain's deck and a beautiful sitting area up top, partially covered so we can cruise along comfortably in the shade. Each bedroom has its own bathroom with a big shower and all facilities are pristine. The linens and pillows blankets etc are all very comfortable and we are truly looking forward to a night's sleep on a softer surface. It is now only 12 noon and we have boarded our boat. We will stay here until tomorrow at the same time. We break away from the dock and start to cruise down the river as the crew begins to prepare lunch. After being in a bumpy van for 6 hours, we are suddenly on a very soft-cruising houseboat amongst palm trees and acres and acres of rice fields. It is a welcome change. The sky is blue, the temperature is warm, the sounds are soft and the sites are serene. We all spent about an hour in silence to transition into this environment and take a moment to appreciate once again the opportunity we have been given.
Lunch is served and it is amazing as always with different races, vegetables, curries and homemade chapati. I think all of us have taken a photograph of everything we have eaten since we arrived here. I love this food! The rest of this day is spent relaxing on the terrace taking photos, watching birds, and watching the local community go about their day. As we cruise down this river you can see families who are washing their clothes (beating them against the rocks) and tending to their laundry, taking a bath themselves, or having a leisurely walk down the river. We can also see large groups of school children on their water buses from school as they get put for the day. I got some great shots of locals waving to me from their bicycles. I can't remember ever being a place that has been so kind and welcoming.
We make a pit stop to step off the boat and have a small walk to a local catholic church. Even when you enter into Christian buildings, you are still expected to remove your shoes. I have come to love this practice. I have done it at home for many years, if not all of my life, but I love to see it done throughout India in all respective places.
The little stroll we had offered us the opportunity to see some Artisan shops up close and personal for the first time. I am amazed by the craftsmanship of everything in the windows. India contains very few mass production factories. Everything here is done by hand, & I mean everything. Close, textiles, shoes, linens, furniture, all of it done by hand. the hand carved religious Hindu Work are quite amazing. I would love to buy it all but then I remind myself that I am a minimalist and I will find exactly what I need before I leave.
Getting back on the boat has me just a bit nervous as I don't feel I can step wide enough across the water. Two gentlemen laugh and hold my hands. The crew is as warm and inviting as everyone else in this country.
We continue on our evening stroll through the backwaters. The scenes are amazing as the sun starts to set. The trees are beautiful, the birds are soaring and all is right in the world. We have some soft music playing as we laugh and speak about our experiences on this trip and life in general.
We end this day with another amazing meal, wonderful conversation and a full moon. The stars begin to show themselves and we realize we are just miles from the Aabian Sea....and that we were in the high elevation jungle this morning.
Once again thanking the universe for the opportunity to be here. It doesn't seem real quite yet. Namaskar and goodnight from a houseboat under the full moon.
India February 3, 2015
Rising early in the morning on this houseboat has been a completely different experience then any other on this trip so far. The sight of the full moon setting and the rise of today's new sun has left me speechless. The temperature is perfect, the wind is very soft and there are birds quietly calling out to each other. We rock softly on the water as the sun begins to rise. The water, palm trees, and the acres of rice fields come into view.
The water is as clear as glass in the morning sun is reflecting a beautiful orange. You can see the small insects dancing on the glass and just a short way away the morning fisherman I'm pulling in there nets. There is no sound of motor boats, the fisherman do not shout out to one another. The crew is preparing our breakfast in the kitchen but there are no banging plates. The day is starting, but with complete serenity. The reflection of the sun on the water, bouncing back up on the fisherman and their nets, is mesmerizing. I feel that this should be the scene of a book written by Hemingway, using only the words in the way he can to describe the scene.
Being a landscape photographer, this is a complete treat for me. I snap away a million photographs that I will never be able to replace. What a spectacular sight! I also managed to grab a shot of a bird lifting a snake out of the water and flying away with it! I suppose that serves a large lunch to the whole family! As I have done a thousand times on this trip, I appreciate this moment.
The other ladies start to rise and breakfast is served. We chat away about how we slept and then try to understand where on this boat the crew slept. We come to find out that they use the dining room as their bedroom when all passengers are asleep for the evening. I don't suppose it is very comfortable and contemplate how they must do this quite often. We have another pot of the finest chai tea and off we go....
After sailing one leisurely hour back to the doc and water taxi, we are fed, showered, packed and ready for our next segment! We board the water taxi and noticed there is an eagle circling above us. To my excitement, I managed to grasp two incredible photos of this majestic bird. It never dawned on me, as an American,that eagles exist elsewhere too! He was beautiful dive bombing for fish.
We arrived back at the main dock with numerous other travelers and verify all of our pieces of luggage . Seven (7) women tend to have a lot of cargo! And we all packed very light for this trip...
Our Redback Travel driver is waiting for us and helps load our items in the van. Time to head to the city of Cochin (Kochi), our last stop on this amazing journey. This time, its only 45 minutes away!
...... Now the roads are extremely congested! This is a large city with many bridges and many people. What I thought was congested before was just an introduction. There seems to be not less than 1 inch of space between all things in existence, but I'm loving every minute of it! The temperature has gone up to 97 degreses with full sun. Our hotel is located right in Fort Cochin, a small walk from the Arabian Sea. This is a large city with lots of history. Here we will get to do some sightseeing, shopping, engage in a cooking class and see a local stage performance. We will do all of this in the next 48 hours before our departure back to the United States.
We checked into a fine hotel right in the center of a shopping district. They welcomed us with a necklace of fresh flowers and a fresh coconut and straw. It is 'Hotel Arches' and is just a small walk from Fort Chochin. It is a charming hotel, with lovely rooms, cherrywood staircase and fresh flowers everywhere. The flowers were so impressive, we were debating if they were real. The sea is only a few minutes' walk from here. In Fort Chochin, they still fish the same way they have for the past thousand years. There are parks and people and vendors and shops and street food and visitors in every direction. I am actually enjoying being out on foot and getting to view some of the shops and meet people up close and personal. Everything is in very short walking distance from our hotel but yet the seven of us are very diligent in making sure we stay close to one another.
We had a small walk in a local vicinity and a quick look at all of the artists and shops and clothing shops. it is a feast for the senses! All of the colors, fabrics, clothing, and artworks are just so gorgeous. It is so hot, that stepping into an air-conditioned shop is such a repreive! We are soon gathered up and meet our guide who will take us on a walking tour of Fort Cochin. We walk over to the coast line to see the huge fishing nets that are drawn in and out of the water using large stones to counter weight the pull. There is a open market of fresh fish for at least two miles. We continued our walk to visit the first Christian church in India, built by the Portuguese. The tomb of Vasco de Gama is located within this church.
The guide also made special arrangements for us to visit a local Hindu temple. Normally if you are not a practicing Hindu you are not allowed to enter, but he pulled some strings. We humbly admired the impressive paintings and flowers within. We also went into a major market called 'Jew Town' which, by the way, is not considered derogatory here. We visited one of the first Jewish synagogues built in India as well. The sights, sounds, smells and colors are incredible and my camera is clicking away. We notice that there are still not many Westerners as tourists. We are very much the minority. One thing that does stick out - a couple of girls traveling with backpacks through a crowded street - Girls with blonde hair, wearing very short shorts and low cut, spaghetti-strap tops with cleavage showing. Not sure where they are from, but my guess is the States. It becomes very apparent how a person can put themselves in danger if they don't know any better. I realize many say that a woman does not ask to be assaulted by the clothes that she wears. In the same respect, you must - especially as a woman- understand your surroundings and what is and isn't considered a good idea. If you are going to travel to other countries, it is best to understand the culture and adhere to it. It is not being oppressed to do so. It is being a human being with common sense in another country.
Back to my train of thought..... After our guide left us we had free time to spend the rest of the afternoon shopping. We visited many different shops and discovered that the Kashmiran people predominantly own the businesses in this area. Kashmir is quite far away in the north in the country from here. It reminds me how much I love the name-- I always said if I had a son, I would name him Kashmir....and its one of my favorite Led Zeppelin tunes.....ANYWAY, The Kashmirians are light skinned, blue eyed people who are stunning to look at, whether male or female. We went to buy saffron from one specific place and the owner would not discuss negotiating prices until we set and drink saffron tea with him. Even the shopping here has been an amazing experience. One of the shop owners has even made me a customized sapphire ring. he will have it ready for me tomorrow morning. He is making it exactly as the Vedic astrologer has instructed!
Now we gather together again to prepare for our cooking class with Leelu. She is a short walk down the street and we are very excited, notebooks in hand. She conducts cooking classes out of her home which is also a homestay - a place that you can rent a room for very little. Her home is inviting and covered in photos and religious artifacts. The set up is wonderful and makes for a lovely evening sitting around the kitchen island, learning different nutritional facts, spices to be used and the secrets of South Indian cooking. We stayed there for dinner and enjoy what we prepared together. With smiles and goodbyes, we head back to the hotel late in the evening.
Again, we collapse onto our comfy beds and can't believe we were on a serene houseboat this morning. This level of activity is extremely far away from what we should be doing immediately following a Panchakarma. I am so excited that I will get my first super-hot shower in 4 days! No cold water tionight!
Nighty-Night from the world of Kashmirian Tea
India February 4/5, 2014
I slept like a stone. I think we are moving a bit fast. I am not worried, as tonight we will be back to the airport with plenty of hours on a plane to rest once again.
We have breakfast and chai on the rooftop of this hotel. The air is warm, but the rooftop is cool and quiet and seems far away from the hustle and bustle of the street. There are birds singing and flowers everywhere. They are serving an American-style breakfast, which none of us really want. Butternut bread? Yuk! They smile when we request traditional foods instead....and then all is right in the world.
Today we spend walking and comparing prices on what we will actually buy and take home with us. I am very fond of the many brass Buddha staues, but have yet to purchase one, as the prices continue to change. A cruise ship docked in the harbor today and there seems to be a flood of every more people in the street. I joke with the shop owners and ask if all the prces have gone up since the boat docked. They laugh.
My custom made ring should be ready this evening. The jeweler is from Kashmir and has offered to deliver it to my hotel. It is made for my left-hand pnky finger and the stone must be set to be able to touch my skin. I am so impressed with the haste at which he is putting it together.
We fund some tiffins, wooden elephants, many mala beads, pasminas, etc....and I picked out a marvelous hand-carved hookha and finalized the brass Buddha...This adds to my suitcase of spices and medicine from Vaidygrama. That should do it. Now to re-pack it all. The kaysayam definately looks like something illegal, so all documents are kept close at hand.
Our last tourist piece of the trip is the stage performance of the Kathakali.
It is very vibrant! Kathakali is one of the most complex and highly stylized Indian art forms. It is basically a dance drama, noted for its heavy and attractive make up, elaborate costumes, detailed body movements, synchronized eye-hand movements, and thematic presentation of stories. It was quite fun and entertaining!
After the show, we finished our last minute shopping and I went back to the Orane shop to retrieve my handmade ring. It is beautiful!
We have 2 hours to pack, shower and leave at midnight. It took 1 1/2 hr to get to the airport, but I was quite happy we made that drive in the middle of the night. The roads were completely and eerily desolate. No people, no horns blowing, no motorbikes to compete with. In the quietness, we all shared our stories of the wonderful things we found in the shops and how hard it will be to emerge in the frigid air of Chicago. For the first time, we drove on what seemed to be a highway. I was a glad for the light of the full moon since there are no streetlights anywhere....only at some small side road crossings. Even at night, on the side of the highway, the cows and goats roam or sleep.
I did see one lone tuk tuk buzzing along the road somewhere on our way. It reminded me of the song, "Midnight Train to Georgia".....but instead...."Midnight Tuk Tuk to Kochi" came to my mind. I crack myself up.
Kochi airport is a huge difference from Chennai. We were expecting to wait for our plane in a dark, dirty, hot place with no AC...like our arrival into India. Not the case! Kochi airport looks like O'Hare. Our guide explained it is because it is privately owned. 80% of the airport is owned by private investors that fly back and forth to the Middle East. Can you say 'Money'? Our guide explained that many Indians also go the the Arab countries to work in IT. They make enough money to support their entire family and extended families.
We go through the anticipated, yet excruciating process of security. My back is about to give out, since I have decided to trek across the planet for the next 30 hours with that large, 35 pound brass statue of Buddha in my backpack....and then there's my camera equipment, a new hookah, etc. etc. While changing planes in Qatar, we must pass 3-4 different security checkpoints to board a plane to the US. I have to empty the backpack and re-pack it at each stage. Anyone who thinks security is lacking to reach the US is sadly mistaken.
The Qatar airport has the most diverse group of travelers I have ever seen. There are also men's prayer rooms next to the bathrooms. There are signs that point in the direction of Mecca. We are just a hundred miles from Saudi Arabia. The cities of Abu Dhabi, Dubai and Bagdad are easily drivable from here. I got a couple of shots of the city of Doa from the air. Wow.
The airport consists of:
Chinese woman dressed like schoolgirls with sterile masks over their faces
Men in long cotton gowns from the northern countries of Africa
Arab men dressed in the sheik-style of long white fabric with their heads covered Indian Seiks or Jains with large turbans
Stylish younger Arab boys with flipped - up collars on soccer polos
Woman in full black burkas pushing strollers
African woman wearing the most beautifully colored fabrics and amazing jewelry
All the woman smell of the most expensive perfume ------ and then theres us, a group of American woman wearing gym shoes and hauling backpacks, carrying brass buddhas. Barbara happens to have a large wooden elephant in her backpack. I told her 'So much for having a monkey on your back'....I think I am getting delirious.
2 hours on the flight and tummy happy with tea and food.
Only nly 12 more hours to go.
Flight displays continue to show direction of Mecca and a gentleman pulled out a small carpet to pray in the back of the plane.
There are more crying children on this flight than I have ever experienced. No one seems annoyed by it, as they are all aware that that is what babies do. Seems only we Americans get irritated by it. Another item to ponder. This trip has been filled with 100s of these moments.
I am watching a 20 year old, 6 foot Saudi guy with his huge hands and feet attempt to get comfortable in his trendy jeans and denim jacket. Later, I see him resting his large head on the shoulder of his frail and small mother so he can sleep. No one replaces mom, no matter how big you are.
We are now an hour and a half away from the 14 degrees of Chicago.
What I have experienced on this trip will take some time to absorb.
I have hundreds of pictures of the angelic faces, caring doctors and knowledgeable guides I have met along the way and the mesmerizing places we have been able to witness. There are an equal number of powerful images of a congested humanity in struggle. It confirms just how fortunate we all are. I even have sweet thoughts on the ceremonies of fire and flowers.
I have learned a whole new way of healing. I have learned and added form of critical thinking and I return home with a more solidified conviction in the power of herbal medicine.
The 6 additional woman on this trip have revealed their inner nature of beauty and friendship. We have learned many things on an individual level, but some things all together. We have sat in morning prayer/meditation everyday, we have been tired, we have laughed and we have been wow'd. I know we will carry home these memories imprinted in our minds. Thank you to Barbara, Jamie, Tresa, Christine, Marcia and Ethylene for an amazing journey.
Back to reality. A little toast with my Chai.
Ching Ching and Namaskar Friends.
Thank you for reading and sharing this amazing experience with me.
Karla A. Cain
Sattvic Sage Ayurveda