Fort Cochin

April 26 – 29, 2013

We had a great room in a little inn with reliable wifi, so while we formulated a plan for the next few weeks, I spent time trying to catch the blog up to speed. Obviously, I’m still not there. Our original idea was to go on a safari to try and see some lions or tigers, but we unsure if we would be able to handle the heat or the expense both in terms of money and time. After two days of wandering around town, drinking lots of chai tea, seeing a few local attractions and dragging our feet on making a decision we came up with a plan. Train tickets are a little tricky to get, but we were able to secure a pair to Mangalore with plans to take a bus to Madikeri.

A little goat scratching

A little goat scratching

Wall art

Wall art

Once we had a good idea of what we were doing, we booked a backwater tour, which this region is famous for. A bus picked us up early and took us to the river. We were joined by 7 other tourists, a guide and the canoe driver. It got a little awkward when a French couple insisted I seat in between them so they could have the seats along the side of the narrow canoe. They spent the entire ride speaking loudly to each other so that those of us near them could not hear the tour guide talking. At one point they said (in French) that we must be Americans, otherwise if we were Canadian we could understand that they were talking about us. Too bad they didn’t know I took French in high school and college and could understand them. Ha. Other than them, the morning was nice. We went up a small tributary of the main river, shaded by large trees and saw lots of pretty flowers, birds and snakes.

Strike a pose

Strike a pose

We stopped at the home of a woman making coconut fiber rope, called coir. The husks of coconuts are soaked in water for 6 months until they come apart easily and the fibers are twisted into individual strands, which can then be combined to make strong ropes. The coir is the primary component of certain geotextile mats used to protect slopes from erosion and to provide a stable place for plant seeds to germinate on freshly cut earth slopes. We also noticed that the ropes had been used to stitch the boards of our canoe together. In the middle of the canoe ride we were led on a tour of their land which included many spice plants. Our guide had us smell, taste and guess what were the various spices. It was interesting to see these common spices as plants not all dried out, ground up and in jars!

Woman making rope

Woman making rope

Coconut fibers

Coconut fibers

Nutmeg

Nutmeg

After the canoe trip came lunch on a small island in the middle of the river. We were served thali on a traditional banana leaf. The meal included rice, different dals, a chutney and a papadum. The best part is that thali is vegetarian! The meal ended with a vermicelli noodle pudding, which was delicious. In the afternoon we took another boat ride from the island down the river to meet back up with our bus. The river was quiet and peaceful and with full bellies, most people fell asleep, including Chandler and I.

Thali

Thali

The next day, we decided to do a little bit more sightseeing. We visited the Dutch Palace and Jew town, which is a neighborhood home to the oldest synagogue of the British Commonwealth. Unfortunately, no photographs were allowed in either building and Chandler and I are too chicken to break the rules. The Palace displayed a history of the local Maharajahs and family, a number of formal royal costumes and ornately decorated weapons. The synagogue had a brief history of the building and how Jewish people came to India escaping persecution.

Oldest synagogue

Oldest synagogue in the Commonwealth

We had a train to catch at midnight and weren’t sure when the last ferry left Fort Cochin, so we went back to Ernakulam in the early evening. We had a number of hours to kill and didn’t know what would be open late, so we headed to the movies. We were able to see Iron Man 3 in 3D for $2 each. We could not get over the price. The movie was fun and worth seeing. The crowd hollered, clapped and booed loudly throughout the entire show. We were also surprised there was an intermission, so we could get more snacks or go to the toilet without missing a thing.

It was dark when the movie let out and we still had 3 hours to kill. We went to a bakery to get dessert, but it closed the moment Chandler sat down and took out the computer. We thought we might go to a bar, but on the way there, a man tried to grab my crotch. Luckily, I noticed what he was doing and was able to block him, but this is not the first time this kind of incident has happened. At this point, I have had my rear grabbed by two or three by men in India. By the time you realize what has occurred, the attacker has already mixed in with the crowd. It is really infuriating that this kind of behavior occurs and really pissed Chandler and myself off. We decided to just go to the train station and just wait there for our train.

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A long train ride

April 23 – 25, 2013

We left the house with Hari and took an auto rickshaw to the train station, dropping Hari off at the metro station along the way after he had given the driver instructions for us. The train station was confusing because we were on the waiting list and technically didn’t have a seat assignment yet. There wasn’t any guidance as to what we should do, and the train officials were apathetic.  After asking a few people behind the window, one of them grudgingly looked up our ticket number on their computer and wrote our seat numbers and platform down for us.

When the train pulled into the station, we boarded the 3rd Tier AC Car. This meant that we would have air conditioning and be sharing our cabin with four other people. However, when we found our seats, we found that we were separated into two different cabins. There was only one other person in Chan’s cabin, so I just moved in and claimed a bunk. It was time to get cozy because we had a 48 hour train ride to Kerala.

The ride was really pleasant. We were provided clean bedding and the bunks were comfortable. We could order food from for meals from a porter who picked them up at stations we passed. Chandler hopped off at one point to get some snacks and toss some trash into the bin. We spent most of our time reading and writing a few blogs posts.

Train tracks

Train tracks

Chandler’s cabin filled up in the middle of the night and he had a hard time convincing the men to allow me to keep sleeping in my bunk. In the end, Chandler was able to get the guy to switch spots with me. During the day, the guys would all squeeze altogether to drink watered down rum and eat peanuts. I stayed on my top bunk to avoid the situation, leaving Chan as the star attraction.

Our cabin mates

Our cabin mates

From the top bunk

From the top bunk

The long train ride was nice, but we ready to get off when we finally reached town, Ernakulam. We took an auto to the main jetty to get a ferry to our final destination, Fort Cochin, an old Portuguese settlement. We spent an hour wandering around looking for an inn within our budget. We found a small bed and breakfast, (though there didn’t seem to be any breakfast) which was cheap (500 rupees), clean and had some wifi. It was so hot out, but being on the ocean, we had a nice breeze to make the heat bearable. We spent the remainder of the day eating samosas, drinking chai tea and strolling up and down the old streets.

Ferry ride to Fort Cochin

Ferry ride to Fort Cochin

Baby goat taking a snooze

Baby goat taking a snooze

Learning about Gandhi

April 21 – 22, 2013

After all the excitement of the past few days, we were all ready to just relax at Hari’s and figure out where else we should go in India. India is a huge country and trying to figure out what to see in our short time was a difficult task. Eventually, Chandler and Hari came up with a plan that took us down to the southwest state of Kerala.

Cows chilling in the road

Cows chilling in the road

We had one mission the next day, to buy our train tickets. The tickets would go on sale at 10am, so naturally at 930, the internet at Hari’s went out. The phone also stopped working so we had no way of contacting Hari to find out how to fix it. We decided to take the metro downtown to find some internet in a café or restaurant or anywhere. Once downtown, we went to McDonald’s for a delicious spicy paneer sandwich and hopefully to buy the tickets. Unfortunately, McD’s required that we have a cell phone number to obtain a password to use the internet.

We finished our lunch and were informed that there was a tourist office with free internet. We headed over to find that we had been duped and just found someone trying to hard sell us a packaged tour of western India. The moment we walked out of that tourist scam office, someone approached us to show us the “government” tourist office. We were getting feed up with people trying to “help” us at this point and headed to anther known internet spot, Starbucks. Again, we were unable to access the web, but found a very kind German girl who allowed us to use her cell phone to call Hari, who got the tickets for us.

With our only goal of the day taken care of, we were free for some sightseeing. We searched the guide book for something close and free and came upon the Gandhi Smriti Museum. This is where Gandhi spent his final days and where he was assassinated. The museum was full of artwork devoted to Gandhi’s life, photographs and quotes by Gandhi and the history of life including a detailed account of his final day. There was a display of his possessions and his bedroom was still intact. This was a very moving place and was good to get an understanding of how much Gandhi did for the country’s independence using nonviolent means.

Gandhi's possessions

Gandhi’s possessions

Gandhi's bedroom

Gandhi’s bedroom

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We spent several hours at the museum reading all the information available and left at closing time. We were planning on meeting Hari back at his place, so we jumped back on the metro. That night we had a simple, less rich meal of fried okra, dal and chapattis.

The Taj Mahal

April 20, 2013

Pooja’s Dad had arranged for a car to pick us bright and early so we could get a good start to Agra. We had about a 4 hour drive and during that time we become completely convinced we did not want to bicycle in India. The traffic was crazier than anything we had ever seen, I was surprised we made it to Agra and back alive. Drivers swerved around each other, braking suddenly and horns blaring the entire time. Although the lanes were marked the traffic just used space as it was available, burgeoning into massive jams near traffic lights, which surprising broke up smoothly as everyone jockeyed forward when the lights changed. We actually saw a horse get hit by a guy and the front of his car including his windshield was destroyed. He continued driving. The shoulder was not safe from traffic either.

Once we became comfortable that our driver wasn’t going to kill us, we learned not to pay attention to what was happening on the road. Instead, we chatted with Hari and listened to music. We stopped for a delicious lunch of onion and cheese stuffed paranthas and chole batera with salty lassis. The driver had a lot of local knowledge and we about to point out interesting buildings along the way and give us a bit of history. Apparently, he took Steve Jobs to see the Taj Mahal in the 1970s.

Our first stop in Agra was the Taj Mahal. Hari had never been to see it either, so he was excited to visit as well. After buying tickets, we had to walk to the entrance and go through security which included the standard metal detector (which always went off) and pat down. We saw this sort of security everywhere people congregated in India, tourist attractions, malls, the metro even had soldiers behind sandbag bunkers with weapons pointed and ready.  Now, we were in the outer courtyard of the Taj Mahal. There are three gates surrounding the Taj which were made of red stone and quite beautiful.

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Gate to the Taj

Gate details

Gate details

We quickly passed through one of the gate to get to the main event: The Taj Mahal. She was just as incredibly amazing as you would imagine, even more imposing than in photographs. The vista from the main gate is positioned so that the backdrop to the Taj is only the sky behind it, making it seem bold and well defined. Unfortunately the building has yellowed a little due to pollution, but this didn’t detract from the beauty, it fact it looked quite good for such an old building. The Taj was built in the 1630s by Shah Jahan. When emperor’s wife died, he vowed to build her the most beautiful mausoleum. I would say that he succeeded.

The Taj Mahal

The Taj Mahal

Entrance to see the tombs

Entrance to see the tombs

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Worth the price of admission

Photos were not allowed inside, but it was underwhelming and kind of disappointing. The two tombs were inside, surrounded by an ornately carved limestone fence, making them hard to see. The room was very small, poorly lit and not well ventilated, so it was really hot and we were eager to be back outside after a few minutes. The acoustics were pretty interesting though, all the blended conversations bounced around and sounded like the droning of bees, which was complimented by lots of honeycomb carved decorations on the windows. We all agreed that the inside was a bit of a letdown, especially after visiting Akshardham (awesome Hindu temple in Delhi) a few days earlier.

Our next stop was the Agra fort, also built in 1565 with some additions by Emperor Shah Jahan. This was evident in some of the marble work and the use of the same red stone as the gates of the Taj. We opted out of having a guide, so we weren’t exactly sure what we were looking at most of the time. The fort was interesting but paled in comparison to what we had just seen. We left without exploring everything to start the long drive back to Delhi.

Hari's door

Hari’s door

We made one last stop of the way home, another beautiful temple. This was another beautiful Hindi temple but we were allowed to take pictures inside. The temple was constructed out of white marble, with the interior similar in detail to Akshardham. This temple didn’t have a relaxing and serene feeling as Akshardham, but this might be due to the number of people or the color changing lights inside. It felt more like a party for Lord Krishna and Lord Rama.

Amazing detail

Amazing detail

Lord Krishna and his wife

Lord Krishna and his wife

After our temple visit, it was finally time to go back to Hari’s apartment. We didn’t get back until midnight and all of us crashed into bed.

Farms, temples and henna

April 19, 2013

We were fortunate to experience the last day of the Navraatre festival the next morning. Navraatre is dedicated to the goddess Durga. On the last day of the festival, local girls are worshipped as if they were the goddess. The children are brought into the house, have their feet washed and then offered money, food and presents like lunchboxes or pencils. The girls were all very cute and more than willing to pose for the camera.

The goddess

The goddesses

Our next stop was to visit the farm that belonged to a man that worked with Pooja’s dad. The farm was an hour outside of Delhi, so we had a nice time chatting with Ekta about what she is studying, life in Delhi and various other things about Indian culture. We visited a small Sikh temple before arriving at the farm. The farmer showed us his wheat fields and explained that he had just had a harvest and that in a few days he would be planting another crop. His entire family came out to greet us and show us around their house. We meet their three cows and two buffalos. We were served an amazing lunch with hardy glasses of buttermilk. The farmer’s mother offered to accompany us back to the US to cook for us. We immediately agreed to take her home with us, but she might have thought we were joking.

Baby cow

Nice necklace

Wheat fields

Wheat fields

Chandler, Grannie and I

Chandler, Grannie and I

After a round of photos with the family, we drove back to the city where Ekta took us to the ISKCON temple or The International Society for Krishna Consciousness. This temple focused on the teachings of Lord Krishna. We toured through a number of displays that explained the basics of the Hindu religion and the highlights of Krishna’s teachings.

Our last stop of the day was downtown Delhi so I could get henna on my hands. This is something I would never do in the states, but when in Rome… There were many designs to choose from, but I just allowed Ekta to do all the talking and decision making. The woman doing the henna did a good job and I have to let the henna dry for half an hour. Good thing I didn’t need to use the bathroom during that time. When we got back to the house, Pooja’s mom made a lemon-sugar mixture to help bring out the color even more. We had another superb meal with Jalebis for dessert and when to bed super excited for the next day.

Henna!

Henna!

Jalebi baby

Jalebi baby

Hello Delhi

April 17 – 18, 2013

We arrived at the Delhi airport tired but excited for a new country. We got through customs and picked up our boxes with no problems. As we wheeled the cart with our boxes stacked up high, we went outside to look for Hari. Hari is the brother of Venky and Pooja, some friends from the US. We had never met Hari before so we were not exactly sure who we were looking for. Luckily, we immediately saw someone who was looking at us like he knew us, it must be Hari! We all shook hands and he led us over to a taxi to take us to his apartment. After an hour of chatting and a snack, it was time for bed as Hari had a big day planned for us.

The next couple of days were a whirlwind of activity. Hari took the 17th off from work to show around a few temples and to take us to some amazing restaurants. After not eating very well in China, India was like a vegetarian’s heaven! The first temple we visited was a Hindu temple, Birla Mandir. The best part of having Hari was that he was able to explain the significance behind everything we were seeing. Neither Chandler nor I were very familiar with the Hindu religion and Hari was able to answer all of our questions. We feel like we have a much better understanding now of what we are seeing.

Hari at the end of the dosa

Hari at the end of the dosa

Birla Mandir

Birla Mandir

We then visited a Sihk temple. Again, Hari was able to explain some of the differences between the two religions and the importance of the items on display. The last temple was our favorite, Akshardham. This ended up being the most beautiful temple we saw in all of India. Every surface, inside and out, was carved in intricate designs. The craftsmanship was just unbelievable. Unfortunately, photos were not allowed inside, so here is a link to the website: Akshardham. This temple had a number of exhibits dedicated to Indian culture and Swaminarayan, the inspiration behind the temple, including a movie and boat ride. The best display was the light and sound fountain show at the end, which was an amazing display of huge jets of water illuminated by colored lights all coordinated with a booming soundtrack of classical Indian music. We made one last stop to see the India gate before heading home and collapsing into bed.

Gurudwara Bangla Sahib

Gurudwara Bangla Sahib

Akshardham

Akshardham

India Gate

India Gate

Hari had to go to work the next day, so he dropped us off at the mall while we waited for the Kingdom of Dreams to open at noon. We spent a little bit of time in a bookstore, but mostly in the food court eating chaat, which are Indian snacks. Chan’s favorite is papri chaat, which is a dish of little crispy wafers covered in chickpeas, yogurt, chilies and tamarind chutney. We ate until bursting. We even went to the McDonald’s because they have an amazing vegetarian menu and don’t serve any beef.

Chaat

Chaat

At noon we went to the Kingdom of Dreams, which showcased food and handicrafts from the different Indian states. There were also dance and puppet shows from the various regions. Around 6, we met Hari at the Metro station to go to Pooja’s parents. Pooja’s parents were great. We spend the evening chatting and getting to know them. Her mother made us an amazing dinner and her father arranged for us to visit a village outside of Delhi with Pooja’s cousin, Ekta, as a guide for the next day.

Dancing girl with pots on her head

Dancing girl with pots on her head

Camel

Camel