Countries Visited

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Map Legend: 28%, 75 of 263 Territories

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Indian Summer: The Deep South

Technically, it was still winter as we traveled through southern India, but it sure felt like summer to us. Long gone were the nights of bundling up in a hat and a fleece on the train, and suddenly air-conditioned rooms started to cost twice as much as non-AC ones. But, there were sights to see, yoga classes to try, and lots of tasty new Indian dishes to eat, so we pressed on toward the southern tip of the subcontinent.

My(god, I'm)sore!
From Hampi, it just took a bus, a rickshaw, a train, and another bus to get to our next: Mysore! Our main reason for heading there was for me to take some ashtanga yoga classes, which had been recommended by my teacher from way back at the yoga retreat we visited in Mozambique...but he had also promised that we'd find great food there, and that Mysore was "the cleanest city in India." Luckily, it didn't disappoint.

OK, yoga first: I took evening classes for four days with Sheshadri and his son at the Patanjala Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga Shala. The first class was really challenging, since I hadn't done any yoga in a while, and I was really nervous since it's mostly yoga teachers who come and study at this place (often for months at a time). Luckily, though, the evening class also had some nonpros, including our new friends Amanda and Rich, who have traveled all over the world by VW and bicycle and even published a book about it! (You can find their website and info about their book at

I don't have any pictures from class, sadly, but if you want any more details, you're welcome to contact me. At 500 rupees per class (about $11 US--definitely foreigner pricing) it wasn't a cheap few days, but it was totally worth it. With each class, I found all the crazy new poses a little easier to accomplish, and by the last class, I'd even done my very first ever headstand (OK, a wall helped me out, but there was no one there holding my feet!). Sadly, Andy did not elect to take classes, but he was sweet enough to escort me to the studio every day (which was a little out of town center), pick me up after class, and even try a couple of the poses I tried to teach him (not the headstand).

Of course, as soon as I'd really started improving, it was time to move on. I'm trying to keep up a bit of a practice on my own, though...well, when I have lots of spare time and floor space, which is maybe once a week.

But there is more to Mysore than yoga! For instance, the maharaja's palace is the number one tourist attraction and is pretty impressive. Unfortunately, they won't let you take photos of the inside, which is incredibly lavish, but here's the outside. Definitely drop in if you're in town. (Foreigners pay about 10 times the local price, but that does include a good "free" audio tour.)The palace is guarded by some fierce-looking tiger statues...quite a bit fiercer than the napping actual tiger we saw in the north of India. Mysore also has a large and fairly impressive zoo, which we visited hoping to get a glimpse of animals we weren't going to have a chance to search for in the wild. The zoo is full of great warning signs like this one, which you don't need to be able to read the local language to understand...
Fun Indian animals at the zoo included gharials, rare croc-like reptiles with skinny jaws......and the sloth bear, which has sloth-like little claws! And is really cute. Apparently, there used to be a lot of trained sloth bears performing at roadsides, but the government has cracked down on that.
I'm not sure if this pink pelican is from India originally, but he was funky-looking.
The also funky-lookin' painted stork is definitely a subcontinental bird.
What else to do in Mysore? How about wander through the market? OK! Lots of flowers for sale. Many essential oils and perfumes are made in this part of India.
Incense is also made here, and this young man was nice enough to give us a demonstration, even though we swore up and down that we weren't planning to buy anything (and we didn't). We hadn't realized that incense sticks are produced by hand...but then again, I don't think either of us have ever burned a stick of incense in our lives, so forgive us for never having thought about it before.Another fun sight in the market was these little pyramids of colored powder, used to make the forehead dot known as the bindi. Many men, women, and children wear bindis in India, and apparently the colors you choose to wear can have different meanings!

Kerala: State of Sweat

After Mysore, we headed south and west toward the coastal state of Kerala. Kerala is lush and jungly and really, really humid. We were sweaty pretty much nonstop for five days.

Our first stop was the city of Kochi, which had a long history of trade with foreigners...and even used to have a Jewish quarter!Not too many Jews left, though.

Actually, Kerala has quite a lot of Christians, so we saw a lot of churches, as well as the slightly shocking presence of both pork and beef on many menus! (Since Muslims don't eat pork and Hindus don't eat beef, many restaurants elsewhere in the country just don't serve either.)

Kochi also has some huge fishing nets that were apparently introduced by Chinese traders many centuries ago. They take four adults to operate. Don't ask me how they operate, I don't really understand.
Many people who had traveled in Kerala told us that the highlight of their trip was an overnight houseboat ride through the "backwaters." The backwaters are a network of rivers, canals, and lakes that connect many small villages in the area. So, we hired us a one-bedroom houseboat, complete with captain and cook (but not Captain Cook) and took to the waters!

What does a Keralan houseboat look like, you ask? This:
Frontal shot. You can see that we had a little upper deck as well as the shadier lower one. Further back was our bedroom (complete with lights and fan) and bathroom (with working shower and toilet). It costs a little over $100 US to rent one of these for an overnight, including two delicious Keralan meals and a so-so breakfast. Much more luxurious (and expensive) boats with AC exist, but this one worked just fine for us.

What do you do on a houseboat? Not much. You read a little, you nap a little. Mostly, you sit back in your wicker deck chair and enjoy the lovely views.
You can also take pictures of your spouse against a background of blue sky and green rice paddy. You may also take pictures of your spouse at your final destination in Kerala, the beach town of Varkala.
That seems to be our only picture from Varkala, which was actually really touristy (many, many more foreigners than Indians) and had the most crowded beach we'd been to in a long time. It wasn't awful, but it was definitely the only place we visited in India that I felt could have been found anywhere in the world. Places like Agra and Udaipur and Hampi are touristy, too, but you never forget that you're in India when you're there.

Our final, 16-hour, train ride--and the only ride we took in India where I really wished we'd been able to get berths in an AC class (they were sold out)--brought us to Chennai, on the east coast of India in the state of Tamil Nandu. It's India's fourth-biggest city, and would be our last stop in India before flying to Sri Lanka.

I would have liked to explore a bit, but we didn't. After a whole month of perfectly good health in India, I had finally succumbed to some sort of stomach bug that took away my appetite and made me feel like crud. So we spent our only day in Chennai holed up in an AC hotel room, watching sat TV, waiting for my Cipro to start working. Luckily, it kicked in just in time for the huge breakfast buffet served in our hotel lobby the next morning (idli! sambar! cornflakes!), and I am all fixed now.
I took a surreptitious snap on the train to the airport of the women's-only section of the train. I've seen these elsewhere in India and in a few other countries, too (in Egypt the Cairo subway has a women's car, as does the Alexandria tram--which is funny because the tram is only two cars long). Basically, it's an area where women can be safe from groping hands and other such harassment--which is, sadly, tends to be quite necessary in some cities. Men of the world, I would really like to see such cars become obsolete in my lifetime, so let's up the respect a notch, OK?
And that's India! Overall, we had an excellent, and certainly an eye-opening, experience. In addition to all the sights and great food, we often enjoyed chatting with Indians (overnight trains are a great place to make new friends)--asking them our questions and hearing their questions for us about life in America and our impressions of their country. It's far from perfect: The smog, litter, traffic, and huge gap between rich and poor are impossible to ignore. But it's a fascinating mix of religions, languages, landscapes, and tastes. And it's huge, truly a continent in a country--we're already plotting all of the new places we'd like to visit on our next trip there.

See ya next time, India.

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