A Travellerspoint blog

Colour in the Sand

A few days in Phalodi

sunny 34 °C

We traveled by train from Jodphur to Phalodi with Manosch, a very friendly young man who is working on his MSc in chemistry. He was surprised and delighted that we were getting off at the same stop as him – and insisted on helping us find and settle into one of the only two hotels in town. We had decided to stop in this non-tourist location because it is the railway stop closest to the winter grounds of the beautiful Demoiselle cranes. Emil was looking a little green in the face, but once we’d negotiated a fair price for the rooms, we made our way to the nearby village of Khichan where the cranes swoop in every day around 4 pm. What a sight! – 100’s of one meter tall steel blue and black birds with bright red eyes.

That night we learned why Emil was green… We had naively hoped he’d be well enough to visit Manosch’s family home by the next evening, but the poor guy was sick for several days. Kaya kindly stayed back at the hotel with him, while the rest of us traveled for about 30 minutes by jeep to get to the small village where the family lives. Were we ever in for a surprise!

We had the definite impression this was a modern Indian family: Manosch’s father works for BSNL, the Indian national telecommunications company, and his sons study in the city. The last kilometer drive to their place was over little more than a track in the sand. As we piled out of the jeep, we were warmly greeted by a beautiful swarm of smiling women wearing the colorful attire I had thought belonged to the gypsies: bright Rajastani style saris (flowing blouses over long skirts and a long transparent veil), lots of big jewelry, nose rings that looped across to connect with earrings, and huge jeweled head pieces and necklaces. They welcomed us into the central courtyard of their flat roofed adobe home, and showed us the kitchen, where they cook on a dung powered stove. They had, of course, been busy all day cooking up a sumptuous feast to feed us (while they looked on).

We enjoyed walking on the dunes – saw a few several antelope outside the compound fence. The family was proud of their small herd of cows – we later watched as the women affectionately milked and fed them, dressed in all their finery. Even though none of the women spoke a word of English, we had a great time with them. We quickly learned that Manosch, with his sparkle and outgoing nature, takes after his mom. She was full of fun, and encouraged us to take lots of photos of the women and the one man (her brother) who showed up in traditional attire. Which reminds me… it felt like the entire extended family showed up to check us out!! And watch us eat. Such is life when you get off the beaten track in India!

Posted by MogenStoft 07:45 Archived in India Tagged family_travel Comments (0)


A Place of Dreams… and Nightmares too

sunny 35 °C

At least the Taj Chain of Hotels may be feeling that it can be a bit of a nightmare. Their big conundrum can only be “what to call the Lake Palace when the lake goes dry?” Four years ago it was a Lake Palace in a dry lake and although it’s not quite dry this year, two consecutive years with very poor monsoons means water levels are low. But… the white onion domes still glow at sunrise and sunset, and it’s easy to see that Akbar was inspired by this architectural wonder when he built the Taj Mahal.

We didn’t go inside the Lake Palace – room tariffs are in the $1000s range! And anyway, this palace was constructed for summer use and summer is only just beginning here. Instead, we visited the City Palace which was built for winter use and is now a fabulous museum. It rivals Mysore Palace for its opulence and I think exceeds it for beauty or at least intrigue. It’s far older – parts of the Udaipur City Palace date back to the 1500’s when the city was first founded. The guide we hired was excellent, and we learned all sorts of fascinating details. The low doorways do not mean people were short. Rather, they are a strategic defense against enemies – when you bend your head low to enter a room, it’s easy for the guard to remove it! Uneven steps on a staircase also mean that someone trying to enter too swiftly is likely to trip and fall. Spikes placed way high on the gigantic portal doors are there to deter elephants from storming the place. And horses wearing armour that includes an elephant style trunk makes the otherwise potentially deadly elephant think the horse is a young of its own kind.

The palace was added onto by a long succession of Maharanas and there were some amazing rooms! The Maharanas bedroom was completely covered with mirrored surfaces, even the floor and ceiling. This was to help keep it cool, and also allowed the Maharana to sleep a little longer in the morning. The huge silver and gold image of the sun in the courtyard outside his room would reflect in the mirrors which allowed him to stay in bed to do his morning rites in adulation of the sun.

We were very puzzled when we found an outdoor courtyard with huge trees on the fourth floor! The explanation is that this part of the palace sits high on the hill, so it is (also) on the ground floor.

The palace also houses a large collection of miniature paintings that are extraordinary for their detail.

A third palace was constructed near Udaipur for use in the monsoon season. Not surprisingly, the Monsoon Palace sits high on a hilltop with fabulous views of the city and the hills all around, and we enjoyed watching the sunset behind some of those hills. On the way up there, we watched a mongoose for a long while, and saw a black buck (like an elk) chewing its cud.

It’s difficult to say what was best in Udaipur – all the gorgeous architecture or the labyrinthine streets brimming with shops full of beautiful hand crafted items – all the classic India souvenirs. We had a great time wondering up and down and all around, and a few vendors did manage to extract a little money from us.

One funny incident was our request for the name of a restaurant where locals eat and local food is served. (Most of the restaurants in the old part of town cater to tourists and we knew their menus weren’t quite authentic.) More than one person recommended the Natraj Hotel to us. We took an autorickshaw there and thoroughly enjoyed their thali meal. One of the many nice things about thali meals is that they involve little thought; they’re simply the “house menu” of vegetable curries, dahl, curd and sometimes sweets served in tiny bowls on a platter with rice, chapatti, pappadam and pickles. Later we learned it was Gujarti style food! So much for local - but delicious.

We did succeed in finding a truly local breakfast at a small stall just inside one of the 8 impressive city gates. The menu consisted of delicious saffron rice and a couple variations of samosa. It’s never difficult to find deep fried food here In Rajasthan!

Posted by MogenStoft 04:31 Archived in India Tagged family_travel Comments (0)

Another Rail Journey

Mumbai to Udaipur

sunny 33 °C

Although I had pledged to avoid places like Mumbai and Kolkata, we had to spend a good 3 hours there between our bus from Pen and our train to Ahmedabad. Can’t say we saw much! It is one of the only times when the sky has not been blue… but it wasn’t on account of clouds!! In case you haven’t already figured it out I’ll give you a hint: the sky was brown. Well, not completely brown, but I would hate to have to breathe that kind of air on a regular basis and I wouldn’t be surprised if there are a lot of people with lung problems.

My admittedly extremely quick impression of Mumbai is that it’s rather like other big India cities only bigger, with more tall fancy buildings and vastly larger collections of tarp homes. In fact, we can’t remember seeing any significantly sized slum in Kerala and we saw only a few in Tamil Nadu… though I think I had blinders on in Chennai – everything was so new and different, I didn’t notice a whole lot except for the extremely crazy traffic (and perhaps we weren’t on the right or should I say wrong side of town.) On the other hand, Chennai and many other cities (if not all) do look like major construction zones. There’s rubble everywhere, lots of open sewers, holes in roads and even overpasses that lead to nowhere. It feels hopeful in the sense that there are so many projects on the go, and simultaneously depressing since there are so many unfinished projects.

But back to Mumbai… One big difference between it and other Indian cities is the complete lack of auto-rickshaws in the town centre. I suspect they may have been banned because their 2-stroke engines are so polluting. Instead, the city teams with endless numbers of extremely cute little taxis (Had Christian been with us, I could have told you what make they were… but he and Kaya went in the opposite direction, to Agra and then Delhi where they are seeing Sarah off at the airport. We’re a little sorry she had to leave before us as we had a great time with her. I’ll save their story for another entry later).

Back to Mumbai… our Savarsai friend Prakash had suggested we take one of those cute little taxis from the bus stand to the railway station, but the taxi driver we spoke to was so terribly honest he gave up the gig, insisting instead that we walk because the station is so close-by. Other people we interacted with seemed warm and friendly… and I began to think I could have handled a few days there after all. But that was not to be. We had railway tickets and, to be completely honest, I could hardly wait. I love riding the train! This time we looked out at mile after mile of flat landscape, cultivated with rice, sugar cane, bananas, all sorts of vegetables, and, as we got further north millet. At least that’s what we recognized. Not too far outside Mumbai we also saw salt crystals gleaming in salt pans.

Further away, the state of Gujarat seems to be characterized by endless smokestacks towering up above towns and wide stretches of farmland. This is possibly the richest state in India, probably because of the oil and gas found there. (I’m not exactly an expert so I’m qualifying things a little with the possibly and probably.) With fuel so close at hand, why not build factories? Plastics, chemicals, cloth, cell phones and much more is produced here according to the folks I interviewed on the train, and while there may be environmental legislation, it seems likely that the rules get bent. Emil saw one canal flowing with burgundy coloured water. I could hardly stand the stench of sour gas or who knows what in at least 2 other places. It’s very scarey! Especially when you think about all the folks living in slums in most of those industrial areas.

We left Savarsai at 9 am, arrived in Mumbai at 11:30 am, caught the train to Ahmedabad (in Gujarat) at 1:30 pm and arrived there by 10 pm. Our next train left an hour later and we quickly settled into our bunks and were rocked gently to sleep by the noisy, rocky rhythm of the meter gauge rail for the next 7 or 8 hours, until shortly before we arrived in Udaipur, Rajasthan. We’re excited to be here! The city is a gorgeous, hilly labyrinth of exotic white-washed havelis. More on that next entry!

Posted by MogenStoft 04:30 Archived in India Tagged family_travel Comments (0)


Another Child Haven Home

sunny 34 °C

The overnight train journey from Nileshwar (in northern Kerala) to Panvel (just south of Mumbai) was pleasant in our three tiered sleeper, though the comings and goings of other passengers made it difficult to sleep. As always, the conversations were friendly and interesting. In the morning, when I commented on how dry Maharastra State appears, the man next to me said, “Someone coming from Jaisalmer (in western Rajastan) would marvel at the greenness of Maharastra state.” Good point! But we were used to the hues of Kerala, and there’s quite a difference.

Walking from the Panvel train depot to the bus station was an eye opener and our first close-up exposure to a real slum area. Then, during the short hour from Panvel to Pen, we passed a few smaller tent cities. All of these are tiny cousins to the slums of Mumbai which we’ve recently learned are the largest in all of Asia. By contrast, we also passed several billboards advertising vacation homes, gated communities, luxury high-rises and more! Apparently, the most expensive real estate in the world is also found in Mumbai.

We’re happy not to be there and instead here, on the outskirts of a very small village, about 4 kms from the town of Pen. The heat here is much drier and the sun feels harsher. As I write (at 2:30 pm) the temperature in the shade is 37C and the humidity is a mere 15%. To Christian and I, it feels less oppressive than the 90% humidity of the south, but Kaya, Emil and Sarah say they think it’s more uncomfortable. (I suspect that’s because the air conditioning on the train got our bodies out of whack with the heat.) Nadia hasn’t told me what she thinks (in case you’re wondering!)

What brought us here was the wonderful time we had at Deenabandu and Kaliyampoondi. We wanted more of the same, and for Sarah to experience a children’s home… so what better place than Savarsai, the location of another Child Haven Home? It has only about 1/10th the number of children that Kaliyampoondi has, but we love being here just as much!

In fact, it’s a lot easier to try to get to know the names of 33 children and 6 adults (rather than 300 plus), and run activities. The children range in age from 6 to 15 except for Priya, the daughter of the home’s managers, who is only 4. We think her parents, Kavita and Prakash. do an excellent and inspiring job of running the home. The children truly respect and love them, they all help out in small ways and things seem peaceful and harmonious.

We’ve played cat’s cradle games and made god’s eyes with the kids again. We’ve done Sudoku with them, and helped them make “Fortune Tellers.” We got them to paint small cards that another volunteer will use to play “Concentration” with them. We did yoga, played lots of ball and tag, enjoyed a performance night of dance and drama, and had a giggle of a time dancing with them on our farewell evening. It’s been an action packed week, and we are so glad we came!

Prakash and Kavita are pretty weak in their English skills, but we managed to laugh a lot together – Prakash really loves to joke, and seems to understand ours. They were invited to attend an engagement party on our second day at the home and they invited us to come along. It is always so interesting and amazing to see rituals in action here. The event was taking place in the street between the groom’s extended family’s homes (and perhaps some neighbour friends’ homes too, I’m not sure). A large decorative canvas tarp provided shade. The priest was very busy co-ordinating rituals first with the groom and his parents, then with the bride and hers and other folks too… but the 150 or so people in attendance were only half attentive, they had lots to talk about amongst themselves and, at one point a motorcycle drove through! I love the casual attitude - it is such a sharp contrast to the highly ritualized event that was going on. It felt like the relaxed way people go to temples here and makes it all so much more pleasant/fun.

We made several trips into the town of Pen which I absolutely adore! Home to about 20,000 or so, Pen is pleasantly small, and very colourful with its relatively high percentage of tribal people (around 15%). They are typically very poor – some are “travelers” and many are not treated well.

We very much enjoyed meeting Raj, who is on the local Child Haven board, and runs another interesting project focused on the tribal people. It includes a great deal of advocacy work and adult education. With some education, the adults are realizing the only way out of the cycle of debt, bonded labour and near starvation is to ensure that their children become literate. To support this, Raj, his wife and their foundation, have set up a home for tribal children where the kids are able to study. There are quite a few tribes in the area, but they are targeting the group of “travelers” that is the most poverty stricken, landless and mistreated (can’t remember their name.)

We visited the home for a few hours and had a super time playing clapping games and talking with the kids. Raj’s two daughters who attend the English school in Pen came along and were able to translate for us. Three of the young women there (probably Kaya’s age) had just completed a mid-wifery certificate program. What an accomplishment! They and their parents had to stand up to criticism from other members of the tribe. Normally by 18, the girls would have been married and with children. But now, they are in the job market and one of them wants to continue her education to become a fully fledged nurse. Already they are able to earn more than their parents… and perhaps will indeed be able to break the debt cycle, and do some advocacy work for their families. Now the foundation needs to buy a building, so they do not have to move from one rental place to another. People are very prejudiced against the “travelers” and landlords evict them with the smallest of complaints.

We wished we could have returned for a second visit, but we were too busy at Child Haven!

At Savarsai, I finally left my state of denial. Thirty or so kilometers from the coast, I could no longer think that my itchy scalp was caused by swimming in salt water. When I noticed the kids at the home nitpicking one another, I began to wonder if perhaps I needed the same treatment. Jyothi, a 15 year old Child Haven resident kindly agreed to check my hair for (gasp) head lice. She found a jungle! And was busy nit-picking me when Sadanai, another board member of the local Child Haven Home dropped by for a visit. She is an elegant looking 60 something year old. If this had been Canada I would have been completed embarrassed by what was going on… but this is India and no one seemed to notice. Getting rid of lice is just an every day event. BTW, Kaya and Nadia also have minor infestations, but it seems that Sarah, Christian and Emil have somehow avoided the little darlings.

Sadanai (the board member) invited us to her home in Savarsai. On the way there, we stopped at the 2 room primary school and recognized many of the smiling faces (from Child Haven.) It was interesting to enter her home. Unlike the metal roofed rooms at Child Haven, her high-ceilinged house has ceramic tile. What a difference! No fan was necessary to stay cool. But I imagine ceramic tile is far more expensive and Prakash told us it requires far more maintenance… so I don’t think the new wing that is being planned will have ceramic tile either.

We walked into the village of Savarsai a few more times. Another slightly more fortunate tribal group lives in government supplied housing (and made the place feel very exotic!) It’s so nice that people in India really tend to stare when strangers come by… that means we can stare back, and we do!

All in all, our time at Savarsai was wonderful. The only rotten thing was yet another bout of flu not enjoyed by Kaya, Emil or Sarah.

Many tears were shed (by almost all the children and most of us too!) when we departed. That was a little hard… but we’d had a lot of fun all week and lots more just prior to our morning departure. The kids had put a note on our door:

You are no going.
From all childrens.

When I first saw Jyothi that morning, I was surprised that she had a smile on her face – I’d thought she might already be in tears as she is a very emotional girl. It turns out that it was a mischievous smile! Nadia had left her shoes in the front hall of the main building and Jyothi was very pleased to let us know that the girls had hidden Nadia’s shoes, so we wouldn’t be able to leave. We spent the morning on a playful shoe hunt and, at one point, had to rescue Emil because the boys had tied him to a pole!! Those kids, along with the ones at Deenabandu, Kaliyampoondi and the tribal home in Pen are in our hearts!!

Posted by MogenStoft 04:28 Archived in Denmark Tagged volunteer Comments (0)

Cannanoor and Nileshwar

Of Ancient Rituals, Small Factories and Quiet Backwaters

sunny 38 °C

The world capital of Theyyam is five hours north of Thrissur, on the coast of northern Kerala (You’re probably wondering what Theyyam is - I’ll tell you about it in a minute!) We arrived in Cannanoor (or Kanoor) late in the day and immediately headed to a lovely heritage hotel in the middle of nowhere. Lonely Planet (our guide book) had failed to mention that if you stay there, you pretty much need a rickshaw to get anywhere – restaurants, the beach, temples, the internet... We were far more satisfied once we moved to a more basic lodge in the centre of the city. The furnishings were far simpler but there was also a little less grime, and a far more convenient location.

Next morning we made our way to a Theyyam ritual taking place in one of the temples on the outskirts of the city. The ritual form is thought to predate Hinduism dating back at least 2000 years. There are hundreds of different Theyyam rituals that are still widely practiced in northern Kerala for house purification, the celebration of births, deaths and much more. Usually it goes on in the evening and sometimes all through the night, but the one we “caught” was a morning event. The elaborate costume of the “possessed” dancer is reminiscent of Kathakali, but the ritual itself – or at least the small bit we saw – is vastly different. The dancer/priest/god sings and dances to drumming and offers blessings to participants. At one point, there was a small procession through a corner of town as the Theyyam dancer went from house to house, getting rid of evil spirits.

As always, there was a bit of a carnival atmosphere: cotton candy, ice cream and plastic trinkets were sold just outside the small temple. People hung out chatting, and when the dancer entered the temple area, those who so desired went up to receive blessings.

Christian and the kids got bored before I did, and walked to the nearby beach. When I left, I was lured into a home based factory producing tapioca chips. Everything was done by hand. One young man sat on the floor peeling tapioca root, the next man was on a small stool grating it. A third stood over a wood stove, expertly frying and draining the chips. In the inner room, a 4th man (more a boy) bagged the chips by the handful and a 5th boy skillfully used a candle to melt a thin line of plastic on each bag to seal it. A 6th man, the owner of the operation, was absent – he’d gone into town to sell the chips, carrying them piled up and almost overflowing on his motorbike. It was fascinating to see this family business – our first and only view of child labour in Kerala. It’s so hard to know what to think after what we’ve heard about the frustrations of the educated. This place felt very happy and harmonious. But of course I hope the children have at least learned to read and do basic math, so that they can’t get too exploited.

Another day we hired a couple of auto rickshaws to take us to a village south of town to tour a handloom factory. Kaya and I had already toured a much smaller one – but we enjoyed the clickety-clack of the looms once again, and it was interesting to see the special looms that are used to make toweling. This factory seemed to be more focused on producing things for the modern home and the overseas market than the one we’d happened upon near Kochi. At that one, all the cloth was either for traditional women’s saris or men’s lungis.

Christian, Emil and I proceeded from the factory to yet another gorgeous beach and enjoyed a warm swim. It is so amazing to be almost too hot when swimming in the ocean! The girls preferred to return to town to walk around in the bazaar area. Kanoor is pretty non-touristy and has a very pleasant feel. Not that we aren’t tourists, it’s just that the tourist hot-spots have so many aggressive sales men that it gets a little tiresome repeating, “No, I do not want to come into your shop. No, I do not want to buy that (incredibly beautiful but overpriced) trinket.”

Kerala is famous for its houseboat trips and after rejecting the many offers in Allepey, we decided to arrange one here. We traveled by train for about an hour to get to Nileshwar, and found a little piece of heaven. The backwater here is a river rather than canals, and there are only 4 houseboats on the river. Our overnight moorage was at the dock where we cast off, so it didn’t feel like as much of an adventure as it might have, but we enjoyed the serenity of the place. Best of all was floating on the water, looking at birds and watching all the boat men. Most were fishermen, raking clams off the bottom. Others ferried sand from the spit to an inland point from where it will be transported by truck to construction projects all over Kerala.

We made a few stops, one for a swim in the brackish river water. Christian and Emil dove down and picked clams for our supper off the muddy river bed. Later, we walked into a village where we fed monkeys (okay, we know it’s a bad idea, but what do you do when the whole village is excited you’re there to feed the monkeys??) We wished we could have communicated that one day the monkeys are likely take over the place and become terrible pests, but there was no point; no one that we saw spoke English well enough. We stopped to visit another coir factory – and were interested to find this one was completely different than the one in Allepey where mats were hand-woven. This place had a series of chopping/sieving machines to process the coconut fiber and make rope. The waste is carefully gathered – not only does it look like peat moss; it acts like it, making a wonderful garden compost/mulch. Our final stop was to walk across the small island separating the river from the ocean to watch the sun sink into the Arabian Sea. A perfect end to a lovely day!

After breakfast next morning and a short circle trip on the river our time on the boat was over. We were reluctant to leave the area! We stored our bags in the tourist office and off we went to explore the village across the river on foot. Our perambulations lead us past many friendly people, a boat repair workshop and another coir processing “plant” (consisting of two men and a few hand tools.) As always there was a beautiful temple, and on the road all sorts of Communist party signs. Have I mentioned Kerala was the first place to democratically elect a communist government sometime in the 70’s (I think)? It is in power today and apparently not so much for “the people” as it used to be, but obviously still popular here and in many other parts of the state.

We whiled away the afternoon with a trip to the gorgeously situated Bekel Fort. Not much is left there except the wall… but the dramatic views of the ocean and craggy coastline more than made up for that. Even Christian was content after a sea eagle kindly made an appearance.

Finally, at 8:30 pm, our train pulled into the station and we waved a fond farewell to Kerala. I felt a little sad… we have absolutely relished spending time in South India! And, we’d heard so many stories about North India being a far harsher place, especially in terms of the people…we weren’t quite sure what to expect. Since I’ve taken so long to post this blog, you’ll be able to hear our experience very soon!!

Posted by MogenStoft 04:26 Archived in India Tagged family_travel Comments (0)

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