Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Video Clips of India

This is a clip of the Sri Meenakshi Temple complex in the city of Madurai. The tall structures are called Gopurams. They are the outermost gate to the Temple Complex.

This clip is of the nightly ceremony where the Lord Shiva is taken from his sanctum and moved to spend the night with his consort Privati.

As you drive thru the Southern Indian countryside you see where rice farmers cover the road with rice. When the cars and trucks drive over the rice they thrash rice.

Sunday, February 24, 2008


We took a taxi into town. The Sky Train connecting the Airport to downtown Bangkok is still under construction. It is not ready yet.

Bangkok is a let down after India and Mumbai. India is chaotic, dirty and slow yet colorful, aromatic and warm. The Indians we met from the poorest beggar to the shopkeepers of the finest stores all were exceptionally nice. Bangkok by comparison, is clean, modern and efficient. Yet we had constant struggles just trying to negotiate a cab ride. The drivers quote a rate, but insist on including a stop for shopping at some friend of theirs. When we say, no, take us directly to our destination they refuse to take us.

We hired a boat and motored down the Chao Phraya River . It is like Venice with many different connected waterways. The water contains fish and you see people fishing it. We also so kids swimming in it. On the sides of the canals are fabulous new apartment houses and hotels abutting poor shanties. The Buddhists call a temple a Wat. They are ornate, sometimes colorfully painted wood, sometimes covered in gold. There are many of them along the river and canals. One absolutely amazing structure is Wat Arun. It soars quite high and looks like it was ripped from Angkor Wat. You can climb about ½ way up; we didn’t, but you can see the figures of people in the picture and that can give you a sense of perspective.

I met a very friendly monkey. He was affectionate like a cat or dog except he wanted to steal my glasses. We then went to The Jim Thompson House, had lunch and looked at the textiles. I think we were shopped out because all we bought was a 5 bhat postcard!

We plan one more massage tonight for Cathy and I then a 3:30am wake up call to get to the airport for our 6:30am flight to Tokyo and then home. We went down to the bar to have a glass of wine before our massage and as luck would have it, it is National Election Primary day in Thailand and bars are closed until midnight. Dejectedly we started to leave and they told us, we could get wine via room service. I love it when the law is flexible.

I took lots of little video clips but it takes forever to upload from India to YouTube. I will create a link to them.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

From Caves to SRK

We got up and started our last day in India. Directly behind the Gate of India we caught a ferry for the 1 hour ride to Elephanta Island. On the island are ancient caves that have been dug out to create places of worship. In the large main cave there are huge magnificent carvings of the various Hindu Gods. The trip to the caves is great experience, better than we expected.

Afterwards when we returned, some more shopping then we checked out of the Taj about 4pm. The Taj Palace is an incredible place, if you go to Mumbai that is where you should stay, especially in the old wing. Our driver then took us to a very exclusive couture tailor what I ordered a custom made suit. Never have I had so many measurements taken. The suit should show up in about 6 weeks. Cathy ordered a Kurta.

We then drove to Shah Rhuh Khan’s home: Mannat in Lands End Bandra where many of the Bollywood stars live. SRK as he is known or King Khan, is the biggest movie star in the world. He is far bigger than and US Star. His movies play to huge box offices. He is great, and we have seen many of his movies. SRK didn’t invite us in. Oh well. As you can see from the picture, his home consists of an original old mansion and a recently constructed 7 story building that resembles a hotel in which he actually lives. The area of Lands End is right on the water, but highly congested. It does not have the spacious Beverly Hills Feeling with big lawns.

We had our last Indian Dinner at Taj Hotel Lands End. Indians eat late, lunch is often at 2:30 dinner 8:30 or 9:00. We tried to eat at the restaurant at the hotel and it didn’t even open till 7:30. Our driver then drove us the Bombay Airport, for the usual chaos. We had a 12:30 am flight to Bangkok which arrived at 7:00am local time. With a bottle of wine at dinner and a sleeping pill on the plane we slept most of the way.

We checked into the hotel. I had an early morning massage at the Hotel’s very posh health club. Off to downtown Bangkok for the day. We have a 6:00am flight to Tokyo and Home tomorrow morning.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Shopping Till You Drop

We got up and headed out. There is no way we could ever find anything so once again we got a driver. He was excellent and found the stores we wanted to go to very easily. Lots of great shopping. Bombay is a shoppers paradise. Everything is made to order. We also went to see several sites we wanted to see. The Parsi's are a religious sect and very wealthy. They are noted for their non-burial method. They place the deceased on a raised column and leave the body for vultures to eat. It is very much into recycling but different from what we experience in the West.

We drove to the famous Mosque that is in the middle of the water. You walk across a long causeway to get to the Mosque. If there is high tides the causeway is covered with water and you wade back.

At night we walked along Marine Drive and Chowpatti Beach. Many Bollywood movies have a scene shot there. No SRK. There are enormous weddings taking place along the drive. There is an area with about 5 consecutive weddings. The cost of each must be enormous. There are sound stages, lighting, food for hundreds at each event. It is amazing to see.

We went to several clothing designers. We are meeting with the master tailor tomorrow to pick out fabric and design to get some pieces made. We will be the best dressed American's in Indian drag in LA.

Mumbai is very difficult city. The traffic is unbelievable. Nothing moves. Horns honk and no one moves. God does this city needs a subway system. I can only wonder what Japanese feel in Bombay.

The city has a great energy like NYC or London, in fact, it looks like them, if they had really bad streets, sidewalks and an occasional cow. Some things are very different, however. We had drinks on the roof on the Intercontinental Hotel and then took a cab to our restaurant. We asked the cab driver how much we owed him. His response was: What ever you think the ride was worth. Try getting a response like that in NYC.

We had dinner at Trishna. Johnny Apple of the New York Times said it was one of the 10 best restaurants in the world. It was excellent. No smoking. That is a plus. We had Indian Wine, Calamari, Shrimp, Crab, and fish. It was excellent. We will eat here again.

We have a full day tomorrow and fly on to Bombay Thailand late tomorrow night. Cheap massages await me! We will miss India. There is so much to say, and we will try to sum it up in a later post.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

All Shopping no Culture

When I awoke I looked out the window at the Gate of India and the Arabian Sea and was surprised to see a sunrise over the Gate. I expected that we were looking West, but because of the weird shape of Mumbai we were actually looking East towards the sunrise.

For the first time on the trip we slept in. We got up about 8am and had breakfast and headed out. We thought we were going to do all the normal tourist things, but we quickly decided we would rather shop (what else is new?). We had the addresses and a map of the city and headed out by foot. Bombay reminds of us New York or London, if they had really bad sidewalks and streets and no subway or other decent public transportation.

We found a great jewelry store and then got completely lost trying to find any place else. The maps don’t name all of the streets, the addresses have changed and it is impossible to find anything. After awhile of fruitlessly walking around we returned to the hotel and decided to hire a car and a driver. We would show him an address of a store, he would drop us off, we would shop and then call his cell phone and he would drive up and pick us up and take us to our next stop. I could definitely get use to this! We found a great small textile store that specialized in Lucknow Chikan Embroidery. We picked our textiles and they measured us and will deliver custom Kurtas (long shirts) to us tomorrow at the hotel. Interestingly they have separate tailors for men and women.

We returned to our hotel, and unbelievably there was a message from Elizabeth Cohen who we knew from a previous trip to South East Asia. She had been reading our blog and realized she was at the same hotel as us. It turned out she was on the same floor!

I wanted to purchase some DVD’s and a CD. Our butler said "no problem, don’t look for them, he would find them and get them for you, put them in your room and add it to the bill". Life is great if you have a butler.

The day was spent shopping and driving in the ridiculous Mumbai traffic. It i s very bad. It is less fun than driving in the South of India because there are no cows, goats or Tuk-Tuks to avoid; they have all been banned from Bombay.

We had a typical Indian experience when Cathy and I decided we wanted a coffee and cookies about 3pm. We hadn’t eaten lunch. There were two adjoining stores a bakery and coffee bar. We bought some biscotti at the bakery and attempted to order coffee. The counter person said “We don’t sell coffee, you would have to get it next door". We paid for the biscotti and went next door. The same counter person from the bakery turned up and took our coffee order and acted like we were brand new customers.

We met Elizabeth later that evening and had drinks at the Taj Bar and later had dinner with her. The bar has history; it has India License No. 1, and was the first public bar in all of India.

We took a cab to a Punjabi restaurant that was completely authentic, no tourists at all. We were the only non-Indians in the restaurant. They actually have two restaurants with the same name on either side of the street. They both serve identical food. One serves alcohol the other doesn’t. We went to the wrong one first, and then crossed the street to the one we would like the best. It was cheap and good. Once again Cliff ate with his fingers.

One thing we learned on our trip to the South of India, is to always get the left over food boxed and take it with you at the end of a meal. You can then give the food to a hungry person. When we left the restaurant we only walked a few steps and there was an obviously hungry woman sitting on the street, we gave her our leftovers and took her picture. She was happy but still wanted money.

Maybe tomorrow we will see some tourists sites. On the other hand they will always be here in Mumbai and we will be returning. No SRK sightings.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

On to Mumbai

We got up early and headed out to see Sri Chamundeswari Temple, located on the top of a sacred hill looking out over Mysore. When we arrived there was a wonderful mantra being played over speakers. I bought a cd of the music and look forward to playing it. There were the usual accompaniment of postcard sellers and other hawkers. There were also lots of cows wondering around the area. Monkeys were everywhere climbing up the sides of the temple and having a great time doing monkey business.

The tower which is the first gate of a Hindu Temple is called a Gopuram. This one was magnificent. The doors of the temple were silver. To enter the Temple you walk through a narrow entrance. There were monkeys blocking our way and we could see the Indians who had come weren’t going to walk thru the doorway while the monkeys were there. They finally shooed them away and we went in to the inner sanctum. The priests blessed up and applied markings to our forehead.

We have been discussing coconuts a lot on this trip. They are a major source of food and the fiber is used to make rope etc. Coconuts are also play a role in Hindu worship with people bringing them to the priests to break them open as a sacrifice to the gods. We bought a coconut and the priest cracked it perfectly in half. We were returned the broken coconuts and offered them to the monkeys. Monkeys don’t like coconuts. Monkeys love bananas. One monkey stole the banana from us while we were trying to offer it coconut.

We left the hill and headed back to another of the Maharaja’s palaces. This is his main one. We are talking Buckingham palace size. We couldn’t take our cameras or wear our shoes inside. At the front of the palace is an open air seating gallery from which hundreds of guests would view processions of elephants at the various festivals. We then returned to his other palace at which we were staying, checked out and started our journey back to Bangalore. We really liked Mysore.

From there we went to the farmer’s market. It is on a piece of land owned by the Maharaja (it is fun to type the word), and he only allows the farmers to use it for selling there produce. It is just like the Hollywood Farmer’s Market, if the Hollywood Farmers Market had a large amount of cows walking thru it nibbling on food and pooping wherever they please.

On the journey we stopped at a sugar cane processor. This was a tiny operation but a great stop. The sugar cane is fed by hand into a weird contraption that squeezes out the juice and ejects the pulp. The juice flows thru open tubes to a giant pan looks like a paella pan but is probably about 12 feet across and about 1 foot deep. A very old lady feeds the pulp into a fire below the pan, boiling the syrup to thicken it. When it is done it is poured into molds. The finished product is called jaggery. We are going to look for it at our local Indian Market.

We then went to lunch at a dhaba vegetarian restaurant on the higway. The food tasted good. I continued to eat with my hands Indian style. I had the most expensive dish on the menu (naturally) it was called the Executive Meal. It had many different small dishes, rice, yogurt, sauces etc. It cost 40 rupees. There are 37 rupees to the dollar! Do the math.

We then arrived in Bangalore to some of the worst traffic yet. We arrived at the airport and said goodbye to our incredible guide: Lakuma. She made our first visit to India memorable. We would never have been able to learn so much about India and its culture without her. We then boarded a Kingfisher flight to be on our own in Mumbai (Bombay) for the next few days. The flight was great, we will try to take Kingfisher from now on while in India. The planes are new and the whole attitude is very hip.

We arrived in Mumbai and were met at the airport by a representative from the Taj Mahal Palace. It is the hotel we are staying at and it has to be among the best hotels in the world. The representative guided us to a livered chauffeur who drove us to the Hotel. We were met by a representative of the hotel who took us directly to our room. A butler them came in and took our passport numbers, credit card details and other info. The room is in the original wing of the hotel and is opulent with lots of marble etc. with out being the slightest bit tacky. It looks out on the Arabian Sea towards the west directly at the Gateway of India, the most famous landmark in India other than the Taj Mahal. We were then confronted with choices. We were given a menu of 7 different pillows to choose from. What papers did we want in the morning? The butler is available 24 hours a day for anything. We ate in the hotel at an Indian restaurant. It was delicious. After the constant early morning wake-up calls, this is the first night we haven’t requested one.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

The Police, The Goat and The Maharaja

We got up at 5:30am had breakfast and headed for the airport for our flight to Bangalore. We are now in a new state: Karnataka. You know what that means: a new language, a new alphabet, a different cuisine. Bangalore is the high-tech capital of India. It is also the call center capital of India. When you call an 800 number for some assistance, and get an Indian sounding voice on the phone, chances are you are speaking to someone in Bangalore. There is nothing we wanted to see in Bangalore. We drove from the airport towards our destination of Mysore.

Our van was soon stopped by the police and 200 rupees was extorted from the driver so that we could continue on our way. This is not uncommon in India. Everyone puts up with it.

On the way we stopped at a wholesale coconut market. With coconuts literally growing on trees and dropping on heads you wouldn’t think there would be a need for market devoted solely for coconuts. It was another hot, humid day, and all I could think of is turning the coconuts into a giant Pina Coloda.

We eventually reached Mysore. We visited Colonel Baily’s Dungeon. The local king was a warrior who fought the British and bested them in several battles. He captured Colonel Baily and his troops and held them in his dungeon until he drowned them. The dungeon is way below ground level and the roof of the dungeon held the water that would pour in and drown the troops.

When we approached the dungeon there were two goats - a mother goat and kid, both were running around like crazy making the weirdest noise. Something was obviously wrong. When we got closer to the dungeon we saw that the goat had jumped into the dry pool area and could not get out. The walls were too steep and there were no stairs. He was very frightened. He was running around trying to escape and there was no way out for the goat. Cathy suggested that I try to get him out. I was worried that if I jumped down to where the goat was I too would not be able to get out, I also didn’t know what I would do if I got down, would the goat bite? Could I catch him? I did go down, and eventually chased the goat down. I was able to grab him on either side of his chest and hoist him out to safety. I then climbed out having done my good deed for the day, to much applause.

We then visited the summer palace and grounds and then headed to Keshava Temple. Our schedule was very tight and our driver took back roads to make sure that we made it in time. The roads were predominately dirt and full of ruts. The traffic ranged from lots of large trucks to ox-carts. We drove thru the real India villages. These were predominately Muslim. The kids are terrific always smiling and waving.

The temple complex was fabulous. It is very small probably 200 feet by 100 feet. It looks like a miniature Angkor Watt. Inside there are three ancient shrines. The outside is delicately carved. It was definitely one of the highlights of the trip.

From there we headed for our hotel. We all gasped when we saw it. We are staying at a heritage Maharaja’s Palace. It still be longs to the Maharaja of Mysore. It was built in 1921 by Maharaja Krishnaraja Wadiyar Bahadur IV to house his important guests. I guess we qualified tonight. Never having slept in a palace before it seems quite nice. To add to the fun it was a full moon and I was able to get a night shot of the Palace and Moon.

After checking in we headed into Mysore to do some shopping and have dinner.
Tomorrow we check out after our princely night and see more of Mysore. We then head to the airport to fly to Mumbai (Bombay). Did I mention that Southern India is very hot and humid?

Monday, February 18, 2008

Fishing and Dancing

We drove from our boat to the Southern Indian town of Cochin. We have crossed the Indian Sub-Continent, from the East Side and the Bay of Bengal, all the way to the West Side on the Arabian Sea. Cochin was first a Portuguese City then became a Dutch City. We are staying in the old port area. The city has 7 million inhabitants, but the old port part seems like a village. Think of an old city set like San Francisco or Seattle on a bay.

If there is word that is stronger than humid to describe the weather I would use it. I took 2 showers yesterday and would have like to have taken a third. During the day it is extremely hot and humid. At night, it is less hot and still humid. You just get used to it and the good part is your skin feels healthy from all of the sweating.

The hotel we are staying at is probably the nicest one of our trip. It is called the Brunton Boatyards and is a Heritage Hotel. That means it is an old building from the British Raj that has been updated including Air-Conditioned Rooms and spotty Internet. It sits directly on the water. We look out over the pool and outdoor restaurants. Like many of the heritage hotels, the reception area is open to the air with no walls.

We drove to area called Jew Town where as it name implies, sits a very old but still functioning Synagogue. At one time, there was a thriving Jewish community in Cochin. Jew Town now contains many jewelry and antique stores selling mainly to tourists. The majority of the stores in Jew Town are run by Muslims who have left Kashmir (the disputed area between Pakistan and India). Everyone gets along well. We went to the old Palace that has been turned into a museum where the walls are lined with extremely explicit pictures of sex. Shiva (the dancer in one incarnation, who I always thought was a woman but is in reality a man) was in the center of the picture. In the background, animals are fornicating, representing the active sex life of the gods. If our temple had more stories like this, maybe I would have gone more often.

The next morning we got up and went to see the fisherman. They have a great contraption to fish. It is a giant catapult like device called a Chinese Net. It is lowered into the water and then hoisted out with the catch. A complete fishing cycle takes about 10 minutes. It is fun to watch and Cathy and I pitched in, giving it a try.

Vasco De Gamma the Portuguese explorer lived and died in Cochin. We visited his empty grave, he has be returned to Portugal. The fishing village is very quaint and fun to walk around it. One of the joys of India is walking down the streets and just smelling the foods and incense.

Everywhere you are approached by hawkers either selling things on the street or inviting you into their store. We had no sense of being assaulted by the hoards and found it fun to haggle with them over prices. In the West we aren’t used to negotiating prices, in India it is a must. It becomes great fun. If you are ever in India I STRONGLY suggest that you only buy inexpensive things for the first few days and develop your bargaining skills. Then when you feel confident you will save lots of money on more expensive things. To me the whole exercise became a very fun game. The merchants are all into it.

We went to a luggage store to buy an additional piece of luggage. Need I say more! The humidity is something you finally give into; you will be hot and sticky no matter what.

In the evening we went to a very interesting dance performance. It is the local style of historical dance. It is called Kathakali. We went to the theater 1 ½ before the performance to watch the actors put on their makeup. There are no women in the play, men play all of the roles. It is very much like Japanese Kabuki. Very stylized.

Afterwards we went back to the hotel and had a dinner outside on the dock overlooking the bay. Tomorrow there is general strike planned by the Communist and we have a 5:00am wake up call to head for the airport to avoid it. We are flying to Bangalore then driving 4 hours to Mysore. Cochin is a very nice vacation spot. We loved it.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Life in the Backwater

We left the hilltop village of Periyar and started down the long, very windy and treacherous road towards the Back Waters of Kerala. We had no idea what the Back Waters were, but we were about to find out. On the way down the mountain we came across tea plantations. We had never seen them before. The tea leaves were being harvested and the entire hillsides for as far as you could see were a vivid green. The tea is planted in a neat pattern of rectangles and the whole terraced hillside is a delight to look at.

We then went to a tea processing plant. This plant was more than 100 years old, two stories tall and quite large. It was so noisy it was impossible to hear. The machinery, that looked like it was designed in Victorian England, was totally Rube Goldberg. Unfortunately they wouldn’t let us take pictures. Suffice to say damp green tea leaves go in one end and various grades of very dark tea come out the other. One interesting thing happened when our guide was from Tamil Nadu attempted to ask a question of one of the workers. They were unable to communicate. Each state has it its own language and Kerala’s is different from Tamil Nadu. Even the writing is different. She was finally able to communicate in English with someone else. English is the only common language in India and only the educated speak it.

Kerala, the richest state in India, is governed by the Communist Party. Everywhere re you see red flags with the Hammer and Sickle. An election is coming up and is banners everywhere. We will see if the Communist stay in power. The state is divided roughly 1/3 Hindu, 1/3 Muslim, 1/3 Christian. It was where the Portuguese and the Dutch ruled, bringing Christianity to the people.

We finally arrived at the Back Waters of Kerala. It is composed of a gigantic lake and a series of canals running off it. All the water is fresh water. The canals are named like streets and are lined with small houses. There are 1.2 million people that live in the Back Waters. They appear to be very poor and unbelievably nice. Think of Venice if it was set in the tropics surrounded by rice patties.

We are on one of many house boats that are on the lake. It was very hot and humid. We were drenched with sweat. We have a crew of 3 preparing breakfast, lunch and dinner. The boats all have a very tropical feeling to them. We cruised around then went to stall and bought giant shrimp for dinner.

We then took a long canoe ride (we were just sitting there others paddled) and we went down the canals to see how the people live here. There are all kinds of tropical fruit growing and one old man picked some fruit and threw it to us from the shore. The houses have no running water. In front of each house is a small landing. The people wash their clothes and dishes in the canal water from the landing. They also get into the river and bath. Interestingly they don’t take their clothes off when they bath. The Indians are very modest.

Since everyone is so accommodating, Cliff asked if he could get a massage. Low and behold, the house boat docked in front of a Ayurvedic massage place. These people take their massage seriously. Chalk up one more massage for Cliff. On the boat, dinner was starting to be prepared. Cliff and Cathy went to the galley and watched them cook dinner. It was extremely hot in the galley. Most of the men in the South wear a sarong like piece of clothing (as do all of the Hindu Priests we saw). Cliff took to the local sartorial style. Not having a sarong to wear the crew fashioned one for him out of a tablecloth. The men are constantly changing the sarong shape sometime wearing it long and other times wearing it hiked up as shorts. We had a very special treat because we arrived during harvest festival. A boat decorated with flaming torches, dancers, singers and drummers floated by. They would occasionally shoot off fireworks. You could hear people on the shore applauding and clapping. The dinner was great and we watched a Bollywood movie we brought from LA on the boat’s entertainment system before retiring to our bedroom on the boat.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Spice Plantations and Village Life

We had breakfast in the hotel and checked out from the Taj. The hotel, which is situated upon a hill overlooking the city, was built in the period of the Raj and had that very old English feeling. We drove southwest through plantation country leaving the South Indian State of Tamil Nadu and headed for Kerala. Kerala is one of the richest states in India.

On the way we stopped at a brick factory. I expected it to be a show and tell but it was really interesting. The bricks are made by hand from mud, two by two. They are then stacked and the fired with wood. Much of India was built with these bricks, created by the basic elements of earth, water and fire.

Few thoughts we have about India. To understand India, you need to attempt to get a smattering of understanding of Hinduism and the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. As a westerner you will never understand them completely, but you can get a sense of the mythology that underlies India. You also need to understand the importance of the family. It is much stronger than in the West. In traditional Indian families the son never moves out of his parents’ house. His marriage is arranged by his parents and those of the prospective bride, and once married, his wife will move into his parents’ home. We are very lucky to have a guide that shares her family life with us. Thirdly, the village is at the heart of Indian life. There are hundreds of thousands of villages filled with people living a dirt poor existence, yet they appear to have great communal feelings. We have found the Indians to be extremely courteous and helpful.

We stopped in a small village to view an amazing statue of Durga, who is the goddess of the village. It was at least 3 stories tall and extremely well maintained. We saw something that I have always read about, but never seen, women in the river beating clothes on the rocks to wash them.

We then started up a very tall mountain road. One and half lanes and you had to pull over to let another car pass. It was very steep and very windy. At the top was a plateau, marking the state boundary between Tamil Nadu and Kerala. Unlike America, it was almost like going through passport control. A barrier blocked the road, and our driver had to get out and show papers. Only then was the barrier raised and we were permitted to proceed. At the top of the mountain is Periyar, an ecologically conscious village which is the center of Ayurvedic massage, a healing massage using oils that are specially chosen to alleviate various aliments. There must be 50 of these massage places in this very small village.

Upon arrival we had lunch then we went to Spice Plantation. This area of India is a major spice producing area. It was amazing to see plants that produce the spices and herbs we buy in jars at the supermarket. We saw and smelled vanilla, peppercorns, cardamom, nutmeg, lemon grass, allspice, etc. all growing in its natural habitat. Cathy is standing next to a Jackfruit tree. This area also has rubber plantations, and we were given a demonstration on the process of making rubber—from the gathering of sap from the trees to the finished product.

We then went to a giant rainforest that contains a large lake. It is a major ecological preserve. We took a 90 minute boat trip and saw real wild, not tame, elephants that live as nature intended them to live, black monkeys bigger than the other monkeys we had previously seen and lots of interesting birds.

We then went for a massage, followed by dinner at the hotel. We check out tomorrow for a full day and night on a boat cruising the backwaters. I didn’t expect to have interent at The Spice Village where we are staying, but I can’t believe there will be any way to blog tomorrow! More in two days

Thursday, February 14, 2008

A Day in Madurai

We started out from our hotel and went to the caves to view some ancient places of worship. In true India fashion, the guard who was supposed to open the site wasn’t there, so we couldn’t get in. We decided to come back later in the day. The short drive was not a complete waste because we spend a long time watching the wild monkeys in the vicinity. The monkeys are continually playing with each other, climbing trees or swinging from a branch.

We then drove thru the unbelievable traffic to the main temple to take a more detailed view. One room in the temple is called the Hall of 1000 pillars. We didn’t count them but there sure were a lot.

Cathy and Cliff were blessed by a Temple Elephant. You put a 10 rupee coin at the of the Elephant’s trunk who then takes the coin to the Mahout and places his trunk on your head as in a traditional Indian blessing.

We took a human powered rickshaw thru the market. The rickshaws dropped us off in front of the remains of a palace. It is enormous with very high roofs and incredible columns.

We then returned to the caves which seem very prehistoric. You can only imagine the rites they had there. It is like seeing something out of the stone age.

After returning to our hotel, we went back to the temple complex where Cliff bought a shirt. Or rather Cliff picked out material, was measured and told to return in an hour for a custom made shirt. Amazing!

Cathy found a lovely Ganesh necklace.

We returned to the hotel and packed. I doubt we will have internet service for the next few days, so you might not hear from us for at least 4 days. We are headed for a wildlife sanctuary called Periyar, then on to a 2 day boat trip up the backwaters of Kerala.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Custom Clothes and Sleeping with the Gods

We left the hotel in Chettinad and headed towards Madurai. In the morning we went to a weaving gallery. We spent quite a bit of time there looking at textiles. They are all cotton. They are woven in homes by 57 different families. We all purchased textiles. To give you an idea of the costs of things in India, the fabric I picked out was enough to make a man’s kurta – 2 ½ yards of material. It cost me $ 6.00. Later on in the day we went to a tailor. He took all of my custom measurements and is charging me $8.00 to make a custom shirt for me - which he will deliver to the hotel tomorrow.

We had a new traffic obstruction today peacock crossing the road. We then went on a tour of a local mansion. The very rich family had built it 120 years ago, and has recently donated it as a museum. It was very interesting to Cathy and me, because we have read many books set in such homes and have seen them in Indian Cinema, now we got to see it in person.

We then went to a tile factory. It is very primitive; all the tiles are created and decorated one by one. The craftsman sits near colored cement and has a tile size mold. He places a clear sheet of glass at the bottom of the mold. He then places a metal design mode in it or work free hand depending on the design. He pours very thick colored cement on the tile, then either leaves the color as is or stirs is to make a design. He then covers that with sand then fills the mode with cement. He flips the mold over removes it and voila there is a perfectly created tile! The amazing thing is that the resultant tiles look like marble. It was interesting and I will never look at a tile floor in the same way again!

On the drive back to the hotel for lunch we came across a spot where a stretch where the entire road was covered with rice that was being thrashed by hand and by the weight of the cars driving over the rice. We stopped the car got out and took pictures and movies. The drive back was typically harrowing. You see almost no private cars in the countryside.

We are still struck by how many obviously poor villages we drive through yet EVERY woman without exception is dressed in a clean Sari or other uniquely Indian clothing. You would never see a woman in Levi’s or any other western apparel, ever! There is no sign of American culture here. No Starbucks (sorry Jill), no McDonalds or KFC, no American obvious influence. I am sure it will be different in Bombay. The controlled chaos of driving in the city combined with the hoards of people on the streets is simply not able to be captured by word, or photo. You have to be in India to appreciate it.

At our hotel we had an excellent lunch served Southern Indian style on a banana leaf. I had awakened in the morning with what is jokingly called: Delhi Belly. I seriously wondered if I would be able to join the group. We had some extremely strong prescription antibiotics I took them at 7am and by 8:30 or so I decided I could risk going out. The pills did their trick and the day proceeded without difficulty. I have no idea why I got sick, I had been careful. Oh well!

On the way our guide began to explain to us about the other sacred Hindu legend the Mahabharata. This legends, characters and Gods of the Ramayana and Mahabharata are so deep and complex I know we are only scratching the service. However the more you know about them the more the sculptures, literature, paintings, dance and temples are understandable. They are a unifying force for understanding India. Because there are long drives between cities and temples (long in time to drive through the crazy traffic, not in distances) we have plenty of time for our traveling lectures provided by our guide on India. We are a happy captivated audience.

After lunch we checked out of the hotel and continued our drive. We had peacock sightings and vulture sightings and monkeys crossing the street in front of our van. Once again it was hot and humid. We arrived at our destination The Taj hotel in Madurai about 6pm and had a quick check-in and headed out for the evening. We had another amazing drive through the packed city as we drove to a private demonstration of Southern Indian dance performed by a very talented interpreter of the dances to the gods. When the dance demonstration was over the tailors appeared and took all our vital measurements for the clothes they are making from the textilea we purchased in the morning. It will all be delivered to us tomorrow.

We then went to the main temple for another amazing ceremony. Inside the inner sanctum of the temple the The Lord Shiva is taken out of its resting place and transported on a palanquin accompanied by loud music, fire, incense and smoke to join his consort, the goddess Parvatti to spend the night with her. We followed the bearers thr9ugh the halls of the ancient temple to a spot where they rested the palanquin and then the faithful marched around the god and after his feet are washed he is taken to spend the night with Parvatti. The faithful follow the idol into the inner sanctum - non-Hindus are not allowed in. We then walked through the temple complex to find our van. One of the women got lost in the streets. The various guides know each other and one came to our rescue. He hopped on his motorcycle and started driving back and forth down the old narrow streets. Some how she was found and soon appeared, this middle aged zaftig Jewish woman riding side-saddle on the back of a motorcycle. Maybe the Gods do look after us. We then drove back to the hotel for a 10pm dinner outdoors overlooking the city. What will tomorrow bring?