A Travellerspoint blog

Two Towns, Two Days and a Couple of Interesting Characters

sunny 35 °C

The train to Kottayam was a pleasant 3 or so hours from central Trivandrum. Come evening our friend Hari Kumar (whom we met in Masinagudi, near Ooty) and two of his friends, Sarath and Bijou met us at our less than lovely hotel (we’ve been spoiled by the aesthetics of the SEWA home near Trivandrum!) Soon we were off to see a couple of temples – Kerala temples are typically built of wood rather than stone, with pagoda like red tile rooftops. Unfortunately for us, the rules about photography are stricter here, and we were not able to take any pictures.

Seemingly by chance, we arrived at the second temple just as the “flag” was being raised. This happens only once each year at any given temple, on the opening of that temple’s annual festival. This being India it was a crazy, noisy affair. Loud drumming, chanting and fireworks (that would never be permitted in Canada) marked the event. Puja lanterns were lit everywhere – in alcoves, standing lanterns, multi-wicked lanterns being held high by monks (and refilled with liquid oil every 10 or so minutes.) Obviously fire regulations are a little more relaxed here! The temple elephant patiently looked on, waving his ears – I’m not sure if this was in response to the cacophony or the heat. To add the craze of it all, there were nasty midges whose bites felt like match burns so we couldn’t be sure if they were insect bites, or if small sparks from the fireworks were raining down on us! Had we more time in Kottayam, we could have returned to that temple every evening for the next week or so to enjoy cultural events like Kathakali dance, music and more.

But... there are other attractions here. The next morning we took a local bus out to Kumarakom, on the backwaters. There, we hired a small boat to take us to a bird sanctuary on Paathiramanal Island in the middle of Vembanad Lake. We must have been the first visitors of the day as we scared two snakes into the bush (only saw their large tails disappearing!)

Hari’s family lives in Ettumanoor, about 12 km north of Kottayam, and we traveled there by bus that day (Jan 30). Happily, Hari had found a far nicer “tourist home” for us there. We were invited to his home for supper, and had an absolutely wonderful time with his family. His mother, Remani, speaks just enough English for small conversations, and is full of loving kindness and good humour. She is a devotee of Sai Babu (a guru from the state of Andra Pradesh who is also well known in the west) and you can really feel that she spends a lot of time in meditation and prayer. Her “cousin brother” (as close cousins are called here) who lives in the house next door is also a very spiritual person. As Remani put it, praying is his full time job. He asked me if I had any questions about my life and I was blown away by the answers, which he gave after a few minutes of silent contemplation looking into the room that serves as his shrine. He is VERY perceptive or, perhaps more correctly, psychic. It was a little unnerving but at the same time inspirational. I don’t think Hari or his siblings are able to keep any secrets from their mother… all she needs to do is ask her cousin brother!

Hari’s father has Parkinson’s disease and has been unable to work for the last 3.5 years. He gets no pension, so most fortunately they have 3 children to help them out. Remani told me that I may think she is poor, but she is very happy, with everything she needs. Fortunately, they do own their own home complete with a postage stamp garden and a gorgeous well that in recent years has played an important role provided water to many families in the neighbourhood. Apparently for the first time in 27 year old Hari’s memory, Kerala has begun to suffer from water shortages. During the dry months, there are many power cuts because of lack of water at the hydro-electric plants. Hard to believe that is possible in this place of endless backwaters and 92% humidity! On the other hand, the population density of Kerala is about 900 people per square kilometer.

Posted by MogenStoft 07:42 Archived in India Tagged family_travel Comments (0)

Daytrips from Trivandrum

sunny 33 °C

One of our days at SEWA, we happily accepted Nandu’s invitation to visit Ponmudi in the hills west of Trivandrum. En route, we stopped at a “hole in the wall” restaurant to ask them to prepare a meal for us and were delighted with yet another delicious home-cooked offering when we got back a few hours later.

A little higher up, we began to see tea plantations spread out across the terrain and noticed that the tea plants are always grown under trees. This is not so much for the shade as for soil stabilization, and the oaks are put to further use, with black pepper plants climbing up the trunks. In one small area, some of the tea’s companion trees were nutmeg. And along the road side, we enjoyed seeing silk cotton trees with their pods bursting full of fluffy white fibers. I’m not sure whether or not this is woven into fabric.

To the west of Ponmudi, the Western Ghats rise higher and, along stream beds, there is gorgeous evergreen chola forest. To the east, we found it pretty interesting to look down on the Trivandrum area. The city’s population is listed at only about ½ a million but there are countless “villages” like Vilpillasala that are more or less contiguous with the city for kilometers on end (and did I mention that “villages” in India have populations in the tens of thousands??) A total guestimate on my part is that there are about 5 million folks in the Trivandrum area, yet with all the tall trees that arch high over the mainly low buildings, the sight seer could mistake Trivandrum for a very small city.

After lunch Nandu lead us on a hike in the tropical rain forest along a small river very reminiscent of the Sooke Potholes area. He was a wonderful guide, having spent lots of his free time there. True to the forest name, we were drenched with monsoon waters by the time we re-emerged. This was no problem! When the skies opened, it saved us the dilemma we were facing: we were so uncomfortably warm on that steamy trail we’d been trying to decide whether we should cool off by diving into one of the river’s pools in our cloths. We didn’t need to, and the air remained so warm that we loved being wet for the ride back to SEWA.

On our last day, we decided to visit Padmanabhapuram Palace, the former home of the Travandore Maharaja. It’s completely different than the Mysore Palace – seems far more Asian (rather than Arabic) inspired. There are all sorts of interesting details like gorgeous carved wooden pillars and walls, coloured windows made of Mica, benches that were once filled with water to provide “natural air conditioning” and more. Thankfully there were arrows pointing out the route for visitors, otherwise a person could get lost in the labyrinth of buildings and outbuildings and beyond!

A little further south we enjoyed views of the southern-most Western Ghats from our car windows, as well as the breezes blowing through the vast windmill farm on the plains. We continued right to the tip of India, where we dipped our feet in the Arabian Sea, the Indian Ocean and the Bay of Bengal. A pretty amazing little trip! We are very grateful to our taxi driver Seenu, who was extraordinarily patient with us and full of good advice and good humour along the way.

We didn't have to go more than a couple hundred meters for the last "field trip" I wanted to mention... which is rubber. All along the road where SEWA is located, we saw small plantations of rubber. The trees were tapped on a daily basis and a couple of the properties we saw presses where the rubber is flattened into sheet and "clothes lines" where the rubber sheets were hung up to dry. Down in the village centre, we came upon a shop full of the rubber sheets and one day as we walked past, a truck was being loaded with the sheets. It was on its way to Kotayam, the town where most rubber in Southern Kerala is processed. Later, when we were in Kotayam, this was confirmed: we met a man whose family owns a condom factory!

Posted by MogenStoft 07:36 Archived in India Tagged family_travel Comments (0)

Inspiration in Vilappilsala

(a small village just outside but not really separate from Trivandrum)

sunny 32 °C

We’re about 15 km southeast of downtown Trivandrum, staying at a training centre operated by S.E.W.A. (the Self-employed Women’s Association of Trivandrum.) The buildings are very beautiful – designed by an English architect, Laurie Baker, who was asked by Gandhi to use his skills to help the poor. He married a Malayalam woman (from Kerala), so much of his fine work is found here. The curved brick walls merge into the landscape – and the sloped roofs enhance the organic feel of the place. One of the walls inside our building is natural rock – or more truthfully was – but when poisonous krait snakes were continuously found emerging from the wall, the holes were sealed up with cement. Just a little too natural I guess, though our friend Nandu thinks it’s a shame as the krait is a very gentle creature.

Next door to us, there is another cluster of Laurie Baker buildings. They were the eminent architect’s last project prior to his death about 5 years ago, and they are very beautiful! The buildings are a retreat centre where arts courses for children have been run but which will soon be used for a Laurie Baker College of Architecture. As well, there is a forest that Nandu was involved in restoring with all sorts of indigenous plants. We enjoyed visiting the owner, Keith (who is originally from Karnataka but lived in Canada for about 15 years). He described Laurie’s process of getting to know his clients and how, at 87 years old, Laurie still climbed up to the rafters to help the builders follow his vision of creating undulating curves on the roof.

Here at SEWA, the auditorium where training courses take place is an airy circular room – no courses have been run while we’ve been here. We enjoyed a tour of the paper-making facilities –SEWA works to get contracts to provide handmade paper gift bags and file folders to conferences. As well, they sell gift cards and other items made from their paper – we spent a morning helping make some. Most of the paper is made from a combination of cotton rag and recycled fine papers, but they are also experimenting with banana leaf and other plant materials. There is an organic garden here – Nadia helped water the plants one morning but since Pradeep who was with her doesn’t know the English name for many vegetables, we only know for certain that they grow tapioca, ginger, pineapples and black pepper here. There are also coconut, banana, papaya, jackfruit and cashew trees on the property. All rather exotic to us!

There is a small biogas plant here, and SEWA has been involved in installing similar plants in people’s homes. They are currently refining a model where the methane produced can be directly piped into the kitchen (rather than into tire tubes where, with another model, it is first stored.) Christian’s been happy to learn how biogas plants are constructed here – he has plans to try to install one in our home. The plants here process only vegetable waste – at Deenabandhu we were told that it would be very taboo to try to use human waste. Childhaven seems to have overcome the taboo (perhaps children are more open-minded than adults!) as their biogas plant processes waste from the dorm toilets.

Unfortunately, though we’ve been here 8 days, we missed meeting the very dynamic director of this place. Guess we’ll have to come back! On top of setting up and running this place, she has been instrumental in keeping a nuclear power plant out of Kerala, in the restoration of mangrove swamps and much else.

On the other hand, we’ve been very happy to make the acquaintance of Vinod, an ayurvedic doctor who works out of the centre. Ayurvedic medicine dates back a couple thousand of years, using a combination of massage, herbal remedies and I’m not sure what else. We wish we had an ailment he could have helped us with so we could have learned more (just kidding! We’re very grateful for our health!) Vinod is the resident doctor for SEWA members, and has many other clientele, including visiting Europeans. While we’ve been here, there have also been 6 patients from France staying here (got to practice my rather rusty French on them!!) It’s a good thing for the centre – the more people who stay here, the more work there is for the women. Except for Pradeep, all the employees here are women who have had difficulties at home – most likely trouble with drunken husbands.

We’ve been told that alcoholism is rampant in Kerala – a huge number of men end their days with the bottle and perhaps a little wife beating thrown in for good measure. Toddy or palm wine is the traditional drink, but apparently these days ethanol is often added to the mix, which of course makes drinking far more dangerous. Nandu thinks the alcoholism rate has a lot to do with the free education system - people are very frustrated. Bus conductors are often university grads unable to find work in their field. Even many day labourers are well educated. An education system that focused more on nutrition, sanitation, traditional arts and healing might make a happier population. But what a difficult question that is! But the problem is likely more complex than a faulty education system – the mass media portrays images of lifestyles few can attain… and television is every where. In Tamil Nadu we were told that gifts of televisions have often been given during election campaigns. And thus even those in palm huts have a blue glow emanating from the cracks in the thatch, depicting glamorous otherworldly lives. On the other hand, we have very rarely seen any drunken behaviour and perhaps I’m completely naive, but in Tamil Nadu I marveled at how little alcohol abuse there seems to be there.

While we’ve been here, the annual Nishagandhi Festival that celebrates classical music and dance has been on, and entrance is free! I’ve been thrilled to sample some Kathakali and the even older Kottayatam – two forms of storytelling through dance. Prior to performing, the dancers spend hours doing their intricate make-up, and they are very open about it. Two evenings Emil and I spent a good half hour back stage watching the process of preparation, where pigment is ground and mixed with water or egg white before being applied to the face. Everyone else was too shy, or perhaps too busy talking to young men who were also partaking in the festival. :D

The dance itself is extremely slow paced. For the most part, subtle face and hand gestures tell the story… but every now and then the story takes off with the appearance of a demon. The second evening I learned before the performance that the story they were performing was the portion of the Ramayana where Ravana first tries to seduce Sita in his garden and Hanuman eventually rescues her. Knowing the story made it far more enjoyable! Other audience members seemed to catch all sorts of humor and some sang along with the songs. Obviously, it’s an art form a person grows to appreciate as they understand it better.

Christian and the children preferred some of the other offerings: classical Indian dance, tribal dances and music, ghazals and other music performances and perhaps best of all some contemporary dance that draws on classical dance, yoga and kalarippayat (a Keralan martial art).

We all enjoyed the opportunity to see a local Kalarippayat group. The students who ranged in age from about 7 – 22 did a demonstration for us in the front yard of the master’s home (right here in the village of Vilpillasala). It’s very dramatic! Cartwheels, flips, flexible swords, big knives, short and long wooden batons are some of the arsenal. I couldn’t help but gasp several times through-out. It was extra amazing to see them leaping and flipping on the hard bare ground, and not seeming to notice when they stepped on a stray rock. I can’t imagine kalarippayat classes in Canada! First of all, it would be done on mats… and secondly, they’d probably have to use rubber knives and foam sticks. I don’t know what we’d use for the scary coils of steels that formed the flexible swords. Apparently Kalarippayat originated in the royal courts as a sort of ritualized warfare where the fighters rarely got hurt, but the winners might be rewarded with tracts of land. Despite its dangers, it was great to see a skilled group of children and young adults who are developing great pride in their culture.

Posted by MogenStoft 07:32 Archived in India Tagged educational Comments (1)

Kicking Back on Kovalam Beach

and fishing too!

30 °C

Our friend Nandu who lives in Trivandrum thought we should begin our time in Kerala at the ocean, at Kovalam Beach 16 km south of Trivandrum. He booked us into a small hotel that is built in traditional Kerala design, with an inner courtyard, tiled pagoda style roof and lots of nice wood. It was a block to the ocean, whose sandy beaches most definitely tempted us. So much so, that Kaya, Nadia and Emil all got sunburns in between being tossed by the waves.

On Monday evening, Kaya and I took a rickshaw to the Trivandrum airport. It was my easiest childbirth experience and… the child is already 18! Sarah was more exhausted than I – she’d spent almost a day in transit prior to her rebirth… but she recovered quickly and seems to be coping well with her new “siblings” and even her “parents” (we do promise to return her to you Janet and Steve!) She was quick to learn from her siblings’ mistake - after noticing their lobster-like appearance she decided to use gobs of sunscreen during the remainder of our time in Kovalam.

Here we discovered the joys of boogie-boards which we were able to rent on the beach, and of fruit salads of mango, banana, watermelon, jack-fruit, papaya and freshly grated coconut. Yum! As always, people were very friendly, though many of them were also trying hard to sell us one thing or another. The place seemed to us to be overrun by bikini clad tourists but apparently tourism is dramatically down this year, and many of the people who make their living from tourists are feeling the pinch. Our hotel manager told us that whereas last year they had over 2300 visitors during the tourist season (Dec 1 to March 1), this year they have only been full 2 nights, and that they’ve only had about 15 nights with guests so far – while we were there, we had the place to ourselves. Is it the Mumbai attack, strife in Sri Lanka, the economic downtown or (most likely) all three?

Local fishermen continue to use the beach for their traditional fishery. Some of them use raft like boats – three or four slightly shaped logs tied together. Often a single man goes out on one of these and dives off it in search of lobsters, mussels and other crustaceans.

Most of the boats are much larger, beautifully curved craft; the slats of wood are sewn together with what looks like coconut rope. They’re a little reminiscent of the shape of the Viking longboat. A crew of 6 to 8 men set the net by rowing in a big circle off-shore. They then row line from one end of the net into shore, and row back out to gather in the second line. On shore, ten to fifteen men work together on each line to haul the net back in. It is mesmerizing to watch – the men chant as they slowly work the line, pulling and moving inland. Once reaching the coil of rope, the fisherman walks back out into the ocean to be the “front” man on the line. In this way, there is a constant rotation of men, and everyone except the man who is actually coiling the rope gets a short break from pulling every few minutes. After staring entranced during a couple of the pulls, I couldn’t resist the invitation to join the crew for another pull. For maximum pleasure, I placed myself in front of the man who lead the chanting. After a short while, Christian also joined in… but I guess the kids were too shy (or lazy?) Next day, I could definitely feel that I had used several of my back and shoulder muscles.

When the net is close to shore, some of the men dive into the water and splash and shout to herd the fish into the net. Most of the catches seemed pretty meager, but apparently one that I helped pull for a short time had an excellent haul. I was told that the fishermen wanted to reward me with a fish, but I didn’t go down to collect for two reasons. 1. I didn’t know how I’d cook the fish and 2. I really didn’t think I deserved it.

Though we didn’t eat “my” fish, we did eat several delicious variations on fish curry in Kovalam. We also had our first taste of boiled banana, iddyapam (fresh rice noodles), pootu (a steamed rice meal and coconut dish) and other scrumptious offerings. We enjoyed several glasses of lassi and fresh juice – these have been available almost everywhere, but we haven’t always felt confident that they are safe to drink.

Most mornings Christian and I got up early to walk (it is way to hot here to walk very far any time after about 9 am.) One morning, from the next cove south, we “discovered” a gorgeous castle poking through the early morning mist – with its many narrow turrets, it looked like something from 1001 Nights.

We walked south for about kilometer and when we got closer, reality met romance. The “castle” was one of about three mosques towering over a mish-mash of tiny concrete and/or brick homes, many of them with palm-thatched roofs. There was a big pier and dozens of fishing boats were pulled up on shore. People were busy repairing nets or pulling in boats or sleeping outside (a common sight in India). It was a bit of a shock to see the poverty of the community - such a stark contrast to the decadence of Kovalam Beach… and to the beauty and size of the mosques in the village itself. Yet another example of the endless contrasts of India.

Posted by MogenStoft 20:07 Archived in India Tagged family_travel Comments (0)

A Memorable Day in Chennai

sunny 26 °C

In December at Childhaven, I was thrilled to walk hand in hand with 87 year old Mr. V. Kalyanam during the parade. This month we were delighted to accept his invitation to visit him at his home in Chennai. He lives in a flat next door to his daughter and family, on the second floor of a small apartment building. On the grounds outside, there are hundreds of potted plants all maintained by Kalyanam. He claims it is his secret to staying so youthful and vigorous.

First off, we went to a restaurant for lunch. After typical South Indian main courses, he was pleased to introduce to a very unusual Rajastani style sweet made with potatoes, chick peas and deep fried pastry in a yogurt and fruit sauce. Not sure I’ll be able to replicate that one!

Back at his apartment, we saw photos, old letters and newspaper clippings about Gandhi. There is a delightful photo of Kalyanam as a young man, standing with Gandhi. He was also feeling very pleased because an article he had written is going to appear in the next day’s newspaper (in Tamil). The editor told him he risks having stones thrown at his windows – apparently it is a scathing attack on today’s politicians.

Kalyanam showed us the flat (two floors up) where he thought we’d stay for at least one week. It’s true, one afternoon was hardly enough… but we had to take a raincheque since south Kerala is calling!

Posted by MogenStoft 02:43 Archived in India Tagged educational Comments (1)

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