Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Hi from the middle of the Atlantic. I just finished the India travelogues so here is the last one. Enjoy!

India Travelogue #10
11/21/10 to 11/26/10
We had enjoyed the little hotel right on the waters of Allepey but it was time to head out of town in our van. Too bad three of our people were sick. First we stopped at a special Hindu temple, called Mannarsala Temple, which was the snake temple. It was made of wood and there were lots of people there. We were not allowed to take pictures inside. There were areas where people were lined up to pay money for special blessings (from 10 up to 20,001 rupees) and also an area where people put their kids on a scale and weigh them with rice, or bananas, gold or silver, and then donate that to the temple as a thank you for having the child, because this was a fertility temple. It seems amazing to us that in such a crowded country, with 1.2 billion people, and hard economic times due to too many people, they are so concerned with fertility!! But that is because there is no social security and people depend on their children to take care of them in their old age.
There were also areas where they could buy sweets to take home which were made by the priests, so the blessings could be spread around at home. And a place where they sold music, statues, etc. So it seemed like one big area of sucking money out of the faithful. Shanji told us it is the only temple where a woman is the high priestess. It is also unusual because it is made entirely of wood. We had to go barefoot, and we weren't allowed in the inner sanctum.
Next we stopped at the Krishnapuram palace, which was also made of wood and had beautifully manicured grounds. It was built for a maharaja about 250 years ago. There were a lot of collections of things in there: coins, swords, statues, etc. And it was a good example of how buildings were designed in those days to ensure nice breezes and open courtyards for resting and socializing in the court.
Kerala gets a lot more rain than the north and this is an unusual year, so it started in again. It rained pretty steadily the whole time we were driving and was raining hard by the time we reached the hotel, the Deshadan Cliff Resort in Verkala – a sister hotel to the one we stayed at in Munnar, up in the mountains. The hotel was nice with a beautiful pool right in the middle, and a nice little restaurant (open air) off to the side. The room was nice too and happily had more lights than the last 2 and also a TV with good English stations. At lunch at 3 in the restaurant, we watched the rain pour down and Shanji had arranged a birthday cake for Tom, who was 23 that day.
Verkala is a sacred town for the Hindus. It also sits on a 2 km long ragged coastline of red cliff. The shops, restaurants and hotels are all on the cliff, with lots of steps leading down to the beach area. It clearly is a place that has been adopted as a hangout for western young people who are staying around a while, and there are lots of good tourist restaurants and buying opportunities at the many stalls nearby.
Hooray – the next day was a bright, clear, sunny day. John drove us to the 2000 year old Janardhana Swamy temple where we walked around and Shanji explained more about Hinduism. This temple is on the top of a hill and as we walked up the steps we stopped at an area where a man was stationed to accept money from people as they entered, then he shot off a very loud firework which was supposed to drive away the evil spirits. Once again, we were not allowed in the inner sanctum, but there were lots of interesting areas around the main one. Then we drove to the beach area where priests were having consultations with people who had a loved one die recently, and who performed special rituals for them. To bathe in the sea here is considered holy, especially on the new moon of the Hindu calendar.
Verkala is the final resting place of the great social reformer, Sree Narayana Guru, so we went to his Ashram called the Sivagiri Mutt, took pictures of some of the people there for weddings, and also saw the guru's house and the temple built for him. Ghandi visited him once and stayed overnight so that is also a big deal for the faithful. He was in favor of treating the lower classes much better, and for fair treatment for everybody, including women.
The day was very warm and sunny so we enjoyed the fact that we had some down time by the pool.
Dinner was at 6 with the gang and we went to the Cafe Del Mar, on the cliff. The food was good, with lots of non-Indian choices that we haven't had for a while but it took a long time to arrive. We had a spinach salad and a pizza with gorgonzola, mozzarella, tomato sauce, chicken, and mushrooms. The crust was very good. As we were eating, it started pouring down rain again; this has been a very wet year!
Tuesday (11/23) we had to leave by 9 because we drove back to Kochi and it took about 5 hours.
Along the way we stopped to see two Asian elephants in a field. Elephants are still used for work here, and we have seen them carrying big loads as they walk along the roads. One of the towns had a replica of the Taj Mahal, and we had tea in a restaurant where we watched a two-foot long mud snake catch and eat a frog.
When we got to Fort Cochin we stopped at a big laundry place where they wash, dry and iron the clothes, all by hand. Shaji said that there are not enough people who want to do this kind of work anymore, so it is a dying occupation. I guess they are going to have to buy washing machines.
Late afternoon, we went to a Kathakali performance. It is an ancient dance form which is mostly dependent upon facial movements to communicate thoughts and feelings and mostly only found in the Cochin area. First we watched the guys put their very elaborate makeup on, then toured a museum showing some of the outfits they wear, then there was about a 45 minute performance. First they explained the facial expressions and the hand movements, then they had a little play/dance. There were guys with drums accompanying them and also some annoying chanting which might have been an explanation of what was happening on stage, if we could have understood it. It got to be a bit tedious, but happily it didn't last that long.
11/24/10 was the last day for this tour. We did a walk around Fort Cochin which included going to a big church nearby which is the 2nd oldest cathedral in India, and on the way stumbled on a street where lots of little girls were all dressed up and lining the street waiting for a procession of important people. Then we walked to the church where Vasco da Gama was originally buried. His home while he was there was across the street. Queen Elizabeth had also visited this church, and there is a commemorative plaque. Then we walked along the riverfront to see the big Chinese fishing nets, which require about 6 guys to work them. They are mostly a tourist attraction now, although there were stalls selling fish nearby. We all took the ferry to Mattancherry area where Jew Town is. There were very nice stalls there and it was very clean. There used to be a big Jewish community (from the 1500's) which was very well accepted but when Israel was created, most of them moved there. Today there are only 6 Jewish families. Most tourists go to see the beautiful synagogue with great handmade floor tiles from China and a nice chandelier from Belgium. Next we went to the former Maharajas palace. There were some kama sutra type frescoes in the basement and there is a copy of part of it in our room at the hotel! Elaine and I walked back from Jew Town to the hotel and it was interesting walking through the industrial area and places where they sell spices.
That evening we all walked to a really nice hotel and restaurant down by the water where we had a delicious departure dinner. Elaine had a calamari dish and french fries, I had coconut chicken, and we shared an eggplant and spring onion starter with peanut sauce. The food was all good and it was a fun last evening with everyone. Once again it rained heavily while we were eating so we were glad to be inside. No wonder it is so green here!
On Nov. 25 we got up early, said goodbye to Shaji who was a great tour leader and a delightful person. He arranged for a taxi to take us to the airport, which turned out to be an hour and a half drive due to people trying to get to work. The buses were absolutely packed, and none of them have side windows, which is so surprising because they get so much rain. It was the beginning of a day and a half of travel since we had to fly to Delhi, then wait nearly 10 hours for our flight to London and subsequent flight to Barcelona.
The new Delhi terminal is very nice but the system they use is stupid. You can't get into the airport building if you don't have a ticket, and when you do, you are in the area where the check-in counters are and only a couple of small stalls selling food. You can't go through security until you check in and you can't do that until about 2 hours before your flight. So all the good stores, food court, restaurants, etc. are on the other side of the security check area, and by the time you can go there, you don't have time to use them! We wanted to have a nice dinner at the airport but couldn't get back to the restaurants because flight check in for us wasn't until nearly midnight. When we went to check in, Elaine caught her hand in the luggage cart and smashed it pretty badly, including her wedding ring. The bathroom attendant helped her get it off with soap which was good because her fingers started to swell and it would have been a disaster if her ring was still on. Once we got through security, I got her some ice at McDonalds, in the food court, and once on the plane, she iced it the whole flight. Her hand stayed swollen for many days and eventually was very colorful, but probably nothing was broken. We arrived in Barcelona the next day at about noon and took a taxi to the Holiday Inn Express, which was a wonderful place to recuperate from the rigors of travel. We slept from 3PM until the next morning! The hotel is not in a tourist area, but there is a shopping and restaurant area within a block, and a metro stop 2 blocks away in the other direction. We had 24 hour free WiFi, and the daily included breakfast was huge and delicious. We highly recommend this hotel if you need a place to stay in Barcelona.

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