Monday, January 26, 2009

Trip to India: Day 9: Into the Jungle

(First of all, I apologize that there was a 3 or 4 week delay in between the 8th day and the 9th day, but I am going to finish this thing if it's the last thing I do!)

Day 9:

(Cold on our way to the Periyar Preserve)

So for our last day in India, we decided to take full advantage of the fact that we were outside of a wildlife preserve and headed into the park at 6:00 in the morning. A jeep picked us up outside our hotel and we headed out towards the park entrance. The jeep was FREEEEEZING so we were all just compacted in on ourselves to keep warm.

As we made it closer to the preserve the sun was up and it was more manageable temperature-wise. Plus, we were all so excited that we were hanging out of the roof of the jeep anyways to see if we could find anything. The light was absolutely incredible as the fog started to burn off and the sun came peeking through the trees. Our driver made the first sighting of a herd of buffalo. I couldn't really see at all what he was talking about, because they were so far away, but when I finally looked at Stephen's photograph, all I saw were a few dots on the horizon. How our driver spotted that from the car I'll never know.

Tara made the next find of a nilgiri langur off the side of the road. It was so close and was just sitting there as we watched it. It was so amazing to see an actual wild animal. This thing you see in zoos and nature documentaries is just sitting there next to you, 10 feet away. Even more amazing was when we saw a langur leaping through the trees off at a distance a bit. When they're as close as the roadside one, you almost feel like it's been propped up waiting for you and gets a tip from the driver when you leave, but when you see them swinging and leaping through the trees, it's such an amazing thing to see.

We kept on driving down the mountain, deeper into the preserve, with our driver hanging out the front door of the car while steering to look for animals on the side of the road. We were all perched up on the open roof of the jeep staring intently into the trees. We saw all kinds of
eagles and parrots (bright green!) throughout the drive until we made it to the base camp-ish area. Here we had a nice meal, they put a bindi on each of our foreheads for New Years and we got with our guide to take us on the hiking trail.

(We stopped for a snack at a beautiful valley in a streambed where I painted with genuine, Periyar stream water!)

We went deep into the forest and saw evidence of elephants, deer, and bison that had passed through at some point, such as footprints or tusk marks in the sides of the mountain. We tried to be as quiet as possible (although the little screaming girl with us didn't get that memo) so as not to scare anything off. We saw a couple more langurs leaping through the trees. These ones looked humongus! It's crazy to think how many of these must actually be in this enormous preserve, and how impressive it is that we only see one or two. We didn't see anymore wildlife through the rest of the hike (although the little girl did scream out "LOOOOOK!!!!!" at one point. We all jerked around to see what she had found. "Earthworm!") but we saw some incredible views and hiked all the way to the top of a grassy hill that looked almost 360 degrees into a valley dotted with little blue flowers.

(Just look at the sinister stare on that little girl. You can tell she's up to no good.)

After a little break, we headed back down to the base camp. We had dinner (or lunch? I can't remember) before heading out in a little paddle boat into the lake. My brother and I are pretty much expert boat paddlers, so the ride was smooth and relaxing (no thanks to the two backseat drivers without the paddles in their hands...).

(Back at the base camp there was this hilarious little bird, about the size of a cotton ball, who must have been absolutely terrified, but just stayed in this screaming position for an absurdly long time)

We saw a kingfisher while we were out on the boat, but no monkeys, but when we got back to shore we saw a whole bunch of monkeys leaping around on the island we had just been near (bastards!). Again, though, it's pretty amazing to even see them off in the distance, so we watched them for a good hour or so before heading home.

On the drive back we were all hoping for that last little glimpse of a tiger riding an elephant across the road, or something like that, but no luck. We did see some gigantic squirrels, which look kind of like lemurs, and a several more langurs on the side of the road, just as close as before. Even though we didn't see a tiger, it's pretty amazing to actually be in a place where tigers are roaming freely and could pop out at any moment. Our guide, of course, had seen them many times. But the fact that there are only 28 tigers and some 60 leopards in the entire preserve makes it a pretty good bet that you're not going to see one unless it wants you to. The elephants, though...I mean, come on, those things are huge. Next time, though, I want to go on a deeper, multi-day hike so that I can get away from the touristy areas. I think that would be amazing.

Anyhoo, we headed back down into Thekkady and then back into Cochin to catch our flight home. We got a flat on the drive back (which I still say we could have patched with some rubber from the rubber trees on the side of the road), but we got to the airport with plenty of time. We said our goodbyes and boarded the plane back to Delhi. After that it was just a simple hop skip and a jump back to New York (by way of the ever pleasant Moscow, of course).

Of course, though, once in Delhi, our hopping, skipping, and jumping, hit a few snags along the way. We got onto the plane fine and I fell asleep within seconds of sitting down. I later woke up, feeling rested and refreshed, to see everyone clearing all of their stuff out of the overhead bins and getting off of the plane. "Perfect!" I thought, "I slept through the entire 7 hour plane ride and didn't even have to listen to take off or landing!" Not so. Turns out, after asking the charming flight attendant, that we had never taken off. Actually, all she said was "Delhi." But after asking some of the other passengers, we realized that we had never actually left Delhi, we had just driven around in circles on the runway for FOUR HOURS. Apparently, the fog was too thick for any planes to take off from Delhi, but instead of telling any of us, they just drove around twiddling their thumbs. We all had to be ushered back into the airport (with a coupon for one free drink at the snack station! (Which was nowhere to be found)) and wait until the fog cleared up. Well, the fog didn't clear up for another 9 hours or so, so we spent the night in the airport, but we finally left off and managed to make our flight in Moscow (because we originally had a 12 hour layover in Moscow...*shudder*) and back to New York.

We thought our troubles were over once we got back to New York, but no no, apparently all of the bags from the transfer flights had never made it onto the flight to New York. No one knew where they were. The Aeroflot attendant told us that sometimes, they just don't put the bags onto the new plane if they're from a transfer (what?). The Russian woman (who had left Russia) in front of us in line told us that she didn't trust the Russians and that they probably had just thrown our bags out after we left. Then about an hour later, they found all of the 50 or so passenger's missing bags (what? where had they been hiding 100 bags?) and brought them out to us. No harm done, I suppose, but I think that was the end of any future relationship between Aeroflot and I.

The trip to India was an incredible experience. It was unlike any place I have ever seen, and is something that I feel like I've only just scratched the surface of. I can't wait to go back to India, and to other places I've never been, and see just how different the world can be.

PS: Tarleen (baby steps), you have no idea how hard it was for me not to put the infamous coughing picture up here.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Trip to India: Day 7/8: Road to Periyar

Day 7 Continued:

(Our goodbye to Noushad and Sayid. It looks like I have extremely long arms, and one of them is black and one is white.)

So I kinda cheated because this is actually still a continuation of Day 7 and then into Day 8. Day 8 has very few photos and drawings because we were getting Ayurvedic massages so there was a good amount of nudity that day, not suitable for blogging.

So after the elephants, we said goodbye to the Cochin area and headed up towards to Periyar National Park in the Western Ghats. The drive was a fantastic experience (Read my brother's detailed account of Indian driving: ). About 5 hours on a narrow, winding road high up into the mountains, all while listening to our drivers', Noushad and Sayid's, mix CD with Seal's "Crazy", Rockwell's "Somebody's Watching Me", "Smack dat" by Akon, some Malayalam song with the chorus "I hate you!", and of course, Barry Manilow's "Copacabana". Once the mix CD ran itself out after a few hours, Sayid sang us some traditional Malayalam songs, which were beautiful. When it came time for us to sing our "traditional" American songs my mom came up with "Silent Night" and I came up with "The Circle of Life" from the Lion King...oops!

As we drove higher into the mountains, the trees and the landscape began to change. It started to look like a real rainforest, which is something I have never seen before. Enormous banyan trees with slithering masses of roots, with a lacework of branches and vines leading up to the impossibly high canopy. It was strange, since we were so high up it was actually very cold up near Periyar. We passed through a bustling city of Thekkady which was hosting "Spicefest 2008" (which includes a ferris wheel)! Just driving through you could smell the overwhelming air of spices. After we haggled for a while to find our new hotel we settled in and then headed back into the city for dinner. Unfortunately the power had gone out, so the "suburb" area we were in was completely pitch black. We fumbled around by the light of Stephen's headlamp, through mobs of children hugging us and laughing and squealing, and finally made it to the restaurant. We took a tuk-tuk back.

Day 8:

We moved to a new hotel in the morning called the Coffee Inn, which was beautiful and had an incredible terrace which looked out over a stretch of grassland onto a beautiful grove of bamboo. All accross the view, dragonflies danced and flitted around like a scene out of Fern Gully. After a nice breakfast in the hotel, we went off to get our massages! For an Ayurvedic massage, they give you a nude, full-body, oil massage (including the top of your head!) Some of the others were a little iffy about the massage being completely naked, but I thought it was great. It was funny, though, they tie this little paper loincloth around you at the beginning, which really just makes you feel more naked than if you didn't have it on, especially since they untie it once you're on the table. Fig leaf doesn't change the fact that you're naked!

We left the massage all greasy and oiled up (because you're not supposed to shower for at least an hour). We ended up going out for New Years that way; we were a classy bunch. We shopped around the city for a while, and then decided to head back to the hotel before going to dinner. Stephen and I thought it would be a good idea to get a few beers for the celebration, so we asked the shopkeeper where we could get some. Turns out all of the stores up their prices on New Years, except for the government sponsored Civil Service where they're bound by law not to raise their prices. The shopkeeper gave us 1200 rupees to buy him some vodka when we got there, and we found a tuk-tuk and headed off to the Civil Service. We pulled up to it and there was a line of at least 40 or 50 people all waiting outside the window. Our tuk-tuk driver assured us it wasn't a problem and grabbed us by the arm and pushed us past all of the people to the front of the line. No one said a thing. Apparently, being a white tourist is like being VIP. We got the beer and then headed back to go out to dinner.

After a greasy dinner (us, not the food), we hadn't actually drank any of the beer except for one, so we decided to hand them out to strangers on the street (since everone was drunk and shouting anyways). We gave a couple to these two guys who were so touched they took us back to their office (turns out they were border guards for the park) and assured us they could get us into the park for a cheaper rate than we were getting. We exchanged a 15 minute round of introductions and handshakes (especially from the drunk man Tom, who introduced himself and shook our hands at 4 different times during the conversation. Happy New Year, Tom!) and then headed back to the hotel.

Happy Belated New Year!

Monday, January 19, 2009

Trip to India: Day 7: Elephants

Day 7:

Finally the elephants!! When Stephen and Jasleen asked what I wanted to do in India, I didn't really have any idea, but the one thing I wanted to do was ride an elephant.

We headed up to the elephant training center higher up in the mountains where we were going to be able to wash some elephants (!!!). We parked and headed down a rocky slope to the

incredible riverside. The landscape looked like something out of National Geographic, it was so perfect. As we were all chatting and taking pictures, the family behind us started gasping and ooing and ahhing and we turned around to see the first of the elephants coming down the slope.

You don't get that many chances to be that close to an elephant in your daily life, and you forget how enormous they actually are. They move so gracefully and surely, it's an amazing sight to see. Especially the first elephant, the older female, who I developed a slight crush on. She had the most beautiful amber eyes.

She slowly slid down on her side into the shallow water and the trainers began scrubbing her skin with a halved coconut shell.

As they began to clean the female, 3 adorable babies paraded down the slope and into the water. Elephants are extremely alien creatures when you look at them for a long time. Their trunks are spotted and prehensile, like another limb. Their enormous feet bulge out from their comparatively puny ankles and on the soles of their feet are enormous craters like the surface of the moon. Their skin is so thick that when you push on it, it feels like a leathery wall. They have bizarre hair on their bodies which feels like how facial stubble might feel if you magnified it 1000 times. The babies, when wet, don't have the same majesty as the adults and look more like bizarre, leathery aliens.

Being next to these incredible animals was such a wonderful experience, and the way it was conducted was extremely Indian. Nothing like this would have been possible in the US. We had complete and total freedom with the elephants, and really no safety precautions or instructions. It was incredible.

(I love this photo because it looks like I was just out in the wilderness and happened to find this huge elephant to draw.)

After we were done washing we went back to the zoo area to wait in line to ride the elephant (!!!). Stephen and Jasleen weren't too enthralled with the idea of riding the elephant, but it's the one thing I needed to check off of my to-do list, so we were doing it whether they liked it or not! We climbed up a small staircase and all four of us slid gently onto the elephant. Again, you kind of forget how big elephants actually are until you're teetering up on top of one.

The ride is extremely wobbly and you feel like you're swaying dramatically from side to side (particularly my mom, who was determined to tilt herself off of the elephant (see photo)). The stubble-y hair I mentioned before turned out to be extremely painful if you're bright enough to wear shorts to ride the elephant. I probably wouldn't choose an elephant as my means of transportation for any long ventures, but I am completely satisfied that I finally got to ride it! Plus I even have a drawing from on top of the elephant, and how many people can say that!

(Not Pictured: Stephen's upper half)

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Trip to India: Day 6: The River

Day 6:

Our last real day in Cochin we decided to take one of their famed "backwater cruises" in which you get paddled into the narrow canals in the more rural areas of Cochin. Some people opt for multi-day houseboat cruises, but we just went for the single day experience.

First we met our guide, who had the most hilarious and bizarre emphasis on words when he spoke English. He spoke as if every tidbit he told us was the darkest, most mystical secret of Kerala. "Hello SIR! Listen close....can anyone!? guess this tree! in front of us!?........*imploring stare*................Nutmeg TREE!"

The trip began on a narrow canoe-like boat paddled by a lanky fellow with an enormous piece of bamboo, which he used to pull us along from the riverbottom. After the open mouth of the river we turned into the denser and narrower jungle canals. All the different plants are amazing to look at; it's like a wild botanical garden.

Our first stop was at a small cluster of houses where 3 women were spinning rope out of coconut fibers. Our guide tried to demonstrate how to weave the fibers using only your hands. He just kind of mashed his hands together and then voila! Turns out he had 3 other hidden hands twisting and braiding the fibers that we tourists just can't see. The stop here felt very strange to me, because these women are simply sitting around doing their work, and then boatloads of tourists swarm around them, pointing, staring, and snapping photos. The whole experience felt a little zoo-like, but it was neat to see, nonetheless!

(I feel like this looks like something out of Heart of Darkness)

We moved on back to the canoe and drifted down more of the winding canals. The sound of the water and the bamboo pole is so relaxing.

We came to our second destination where a family had set up and was drying coconut shells by the hundreds. There was the most adorable little boy running around so I sat down and he let me draw him. While I was drawing his father came over, so I had to draw him too. They were good sports about it, although the little boy kept asking for one of my pens. "1 pen, please!" I let him see it eventually, but then it didn't look like he was giving it back, so my brother finagled it back from him (you can see the pen in the man's hand in the picture of me crouching). While we were on the canoe another little girl shouted "1 pen, please!" to us. It was very strange.

We moved on, stopped for a coconut break where they hacked open a bunch of coconuts and we drank the milk out with a straw. Our guide was the one who had to strap his feet together with a piece of cloth and shimmy up the palm tree to get the coconuts. It was a pretty impressive feat.

After that, we grabbed a traditional Kerala lunch (which is various rices, curries, pickles, and chutneys served on a big banana leaf) and then headed onto one of the houseboats for an hour or so. The houseboat is just a bigger boat with a beautiful thatched roof overhead. We went back out to the wider part of the river, since the boat was bigger, and just kind of drifted along. Pretty much everyone on the boat just passed out, though.

(I'm pretty sure that Stephen copied this photo from my drawing. I won't hold it against him though.)

After that we went back to Cochin and had the BEST meal we had the whole time we were in India. For about 400 rupees for the four of us (about $8) we had a delicious meal with more than enough food for all of us. I got this bizarre calzone kind of thing with delicious flakey pastry-like bread on the outside and curried chicken and veggies and whatnot on the inside. It was incredible. If you are ever in Cochin, go to Dal Roti (spelling?). You won't be disappointed.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Trip to India: Day 5: The Sea

Day 5:

(Noushad and Sayid teaching my mom to write in Malayalam, the language of Kerala)

We had originally planned to go see the elephants today, but our cab drivers ended up bringing us 2 tuk-tuks instead of a cab for the 2 hour drive, so we opted to do that another day and decided to go walk around the town since we were already up so early.

We headed down to the shore where the fishermen use enormous Chinese fishing nets. Even though it's not a great season for fishing, the men allowed us tourists onto the platforms to help pull the nets, see the fish, and make a little money in their downtime. The contraptions used to hoist the nets are ENORMOUS and beautiful, and the fishermen use them like extensions of their own bodies. Five of them pull on ropes towards the back of the platform to pull down an immense lever to pull the net out of the water. They let us have a go at it, and it's harder than it looks. Particularly because I'd imagine the 3 remaining fishermen had to do quite a lot of compensating for us during the pulling.

I slipped and fell about 3 seconds after this photo.

After breakfast, we called Noushad and Sayid again (our cab drivers) and they took us to the nearby Vipin Island to go to the beach. After a deathdefying tuk-tuk ride through the cities and backwaters on the island, we arrived at a beach resort area plopped down in the middle of miles of identical coastline where all of the beachgoers had gathered. Since we were in the water, there aren't really any drawings or photos of the beach, but trust me, it was nice. I had never been in the Arabian Sea before, but the water was absurdly warm. It felt good to be out in the sun again (although I'm sure my New York-white skin and future melanomas would disagree).

We made our way back at sunset, and ended up waiting in line to get back on the ferry to Cochin for a while, so I took out the watercolors and tried to paint on the dock. Jasleen and Stephen questioned my location choice and pointed out the swarms of mosquitoes and the dead feral dog and smelly garbage on the slope behind me, but art is made with suffering, goddammit!

So, after about 15 minutes of being mauled by the mosquitoes I fled back to the relative safety of the tuk-tuk.

Since it was Sunday (I think, or their big day might be Monday....I can't remember these things) there was a big celebration at the church when we got back to Cochin. The cathedral looked beautiful, covered with floating stars.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Trip to India: Day 4: More Cochin!

Day 4:

We started out the day in our homestay with breakfast in the little treehouse hut on the roof and then went down to talk to the people who owned the homestay for a bit. These two were by far the nicest people I have ever encountered. They were also the first people I noticed performing the Indian head bob my brother had told me about. Indian people don't nod up and down like westerners, but side to side like a bobblehead. I think that these two were just so agreeable that their heads were bobbling from side to side for 80% of the conversation. She bid us all farewell with the most genuine hand-sandwich handshake and a kiss on the cheek and we headed into town.

For our first real day in Cochin we tried to take it easy and pretty much just went shopping at all of the Kashmiri craft stores. One thing I hadn't quite experienced was how everything in India can be bargained for. Taxi rides, hotels, food, nick-knacks, opium, etc. While we were in one of the shops I decided to try my hand at bargaining for these two little painted elephants (which probably should have cost about $5 or less for both). He asked me for my price (saying he'd give me a good price) and I ran over the calculations in my head. For rupees to dollars you double something...or half something and add some zeroes....and I suavely suggested "How about 1000 rupees for both?" Jasleen and the shop keeper started to laugh because apparently that's more like $20. So, I awkwardly started looking at something completely different, hoping to divert his attention from the American patsy in his store he could swindle. I ended up buying a sandalwood lion (which smells fantastic all the time!), which he probably significantly overcharged me for, but he let me feel like I had bargained him down, so everybody won.

That night we went to a presentation of the Kerala performing art "Kathakali" in which actors don elaborate costumes and make-up and perform, silently, stories Indian epics with precise eye, facial, and hand movements combined with intricate dance and a vocal and instrumental accompaniment.

The performance began with the process of the actors putting on their make-up, which took about an hour (or at least an hour that we saw). The vivid colors are made with various stones ground up into coconut milk or water to create a paste.

Combined with the make-up are elaborate costumes with giant hoop skirts and intricate headdresses. The different costumes and make-up colors (such as the black of the demoness below) suggest different character classes (divine, demon, female...).

Prior to the performance, the female character, Minukku, (also played by a man) gave a quick tutorial for us tourists about the importance of the hand gestures (mudras), emotive expressions (rasa), and eye movements.

The information came so quickly, and with such attention to detail, that it must take a lifetime to truly be able to read a Kathakali performance is it is meant to be understood.

Afterwards we saw a presentation of traditional South Indian dances performed by a few beautiful and talented girls.