A Tribute

There are relationships in our lives that are so asymmetrical, so imbalanced, that no matter how hard we try, we can never pay the other back, never set the scales aright. Nowhere is this more true than with our parents. So it is, that in return for years of comfort and caring, nudging and nurturing, all I have to offer up in return are these few paltry words …

A week ago this morning, that call I I had expected for some time finally came. And just as I had always imagined, it came in the middle of the night – 3:30 a.m. My sister called to say that my mom had passed away. Quietly. In her sleep.

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Wasting Water a Legal Obligation in Orange, CA

I recently came upon this article in the Los Angeles Times, which documents a court battle between a young couple and the city of Orange, CA.  The essence of the battle?  The couple have removed their water guzzling front lawn, which, apparently, contravenes a city ordinance which requires that all front yards be covered by at least 40% vegetation.

The article includes a photo of the couple’s yard, which admittedly isn’t the most attractive I’ve ever seen, but neither is it an eyesore.  They haven’t  littered it with carcasses of dead refrigerators, couches and Buicks, or with any other detritus, for that matter.  It’s clean, neat, and weed-free, albeit a bit sterile looking for my tastes.

But here’s the crux of the matter.  This is southern California.  It’s not like the area has an excess of fresh water.  Heaven knows they’ve been eyeballing Canadian rivers for some time now in anticipation of their fresh-water needs.  This is also a state which is at the forefront of environmental legislation when it comes to automotive emissions.  Now, granted, they don’t do much to actually reduce the amount people drive; they’re more inclined just to limit the emissions output of their choked freeways.

But still, one would expect that, at some point, local and state governments would be encouraged to conserve water.  Nevada knows it’s in a desert.  Why don’t Californians?  Xeriscaping anyone?

Perhaps this story hit a nerve for me because a number of years ago I wiped out my front lawn and replaced it with other forms of vegetation that didn’t require constant water and attention.  I’m biased, of course, but I think it looks better than the lawn did.  I’ve watered trees when I first planted them to get them established, and I might water them again once or twice a summer if conditions become particularly arid, but otherwise everything thrives on neglect.

This move, together with installing a front-loading wash machine and dual-flush toilets has reduced our water consumption drastically.  I know I live in a desert.  People of Orange, California, get with the program.   So do you.

Holiday Greetings 2009

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year, Everyone!

A few years ago, when I started this blog, my intention was to compose regular updates as things happened and then, at Christmas or New Years, simply send out greetings and point folks to those blog entries to let them know what had happened over the past year.  Yeah, you can see how well that has worked!

Christmas Greeting_sm.jpg

After the Dig
The Deobald Hacienda – December 23, 2009

Considering that I haven’t done an update in quite a while, here are some highlights from the past two or so years …

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Let’s Exchange Gifts

With the last shopping day before Christmas upon us, no doubt many are still out there scrambling to purchase those last presents.  At our age, though, the idea of  what constitutes a gift shifts away from the commercial, so we are proposing a different sort of gift exchange to our friends and family.

Last year I set up a recipes site so that we could have a place to store and share recipes.  We would like to invite all our friends and family to consider contributing one or more of your favourite recipes to the site.  If you are interested:

  • This link will take you directly to the account creation screen.  You just need to enter a username and a valid email address.
  • The site will email you a password which you can use to log into the site (you can change this to something more memorable later, if you like)
  • Return to the site and log in
  • Once you do that, you will see a menu option in the upper, right-hand corner to “Add a Recipe”
  • At the next screen, click on “Recipe”

If,  when you are adding a recipe, you run out of space for ingredients, just save what you have done, and then return to the recipe to edit it.  More ingredients fields will have been added.

BTW, feel free to use this site at any time to store as many recipes as you want.  I find that by putting them here at least I can find them.  No more searching through cookbooks.

Thanks for thinking of us!

In exchange we offer up some of our family favourites:

  • Carrot Ring – This one was handed down to us by Irene’s mom a number of years back, and it has become a staple whenever there’s a bird in the oven.  If you don’t have a ring mould, I’m sure you can adapt.
  • Family Waffles – I like this one for its simplicity (no beating and folding egg whites here) and the size of the batch.  If you want to feed the family waffles for Christmas breakfast, this will certainly fill the bill.
  • Kansas City Rib Rub – This summer, when pork ribs were cheap like borscht, this one saw a lot of use.  It may not be practical to do slow BBQ in this weather, but save it for when the snow disappears.

Merry Christmas to all.

APTI, Day 15 – Tour Delhi, Drive to Agra

Our schedule for this day was to tour Delhi and then drive to Agra. We me met our guide at 9:00 in the morning and began what we anticipated would be a whirlwind tour. At least this guide was enthusiastic about his job, or faked it very well. At any rate, he was knowledgeable, reasonably articulate, and ebullient, which was a pleasant improvement over our guide in Munnar.

Qutb MinarThe tour began at Q’tab Minar, the tallest brick minaret in India and site of the oldest mosque in India. Q’tab Minar was built in stages over a period of some two hundred years by various Mughal kings. Over the next two days, I was struck by the irony that, in a country with thousands of years of Hindu history, the vast majority of the historical sites we visited were remnants of the 300 years or so of the invading Mughal dynasty. The mosque at Qutb Minar is interesting in that two of its exterior walls are actually remnants of an older Hindu temple. I found it more than curious that Muslims would retain this architecture in a mosque, particularly since the Hindu pillars were absolutely covered in engravings of Hindu mythology and iconography. Yet the only disfigurement the Mughal builders had inflicted on the pillars was to chisel off the female faces. I briefly thought that these must have been a very enlightened group of Moghul leaders, but later I discovered that historians believe the Moghuls destroyed at least twenty Jain temples which had previously occupied the site, and re-used the materials to build the Minar. So much for middle ages religious tolerance.

More pillars at Quwwat ul-Islam Mosque The Iron Pillar Arch detail

Hindu pillars at
Quwwat ul-Islam Mosque

The Iron Pillar,
framed by the arches of
Quwwat ul-Islam Mosque

Arch detail

But Qutb Minar is not a single edifice, but rather the most prominent feature in and entire complex, including ruins of the oldest mosque in India, the Quwwat ul-Islam Mosque, and a 4th Century A.D. metallurgical wonder known simply as the Iron Pillar. The Iron Pillar has survived for over 16 centuries without suffering signifcant corrosion or rusting.

From Qutb Minar, we moved on to Old Delhi to view the Jama Masjid, the largest mosque in India, capable of holding 2,200 to 2,500 worshippers. The mosque, commissioned in 1656 by Shah Jahan, the builder of the Taj Mahal, is an open-air courtyard surrounded by arched colonnades and fronted by the large, domed mosque proper. Unfortunately, there was no photography allowed within the mosque, so I will have to settle for some photos stolen from the Internet for this one.

Jama Masjid All mosques include a place for worshippers to cleanse before prayer.

View from inside the mosque

All mosques include a place to wash before prayer/worship.

We didn’t have a lot of time to spend at the mosque, since we arrived within minutes of morning prayers. Perhaps that was one of the most interesting things about the mosque, that it was still an active centre of worship.

From the mosque we moved on to more Mughal architecture, this time, the Tomb of Humayun, the earliest of the Mughal garden tombs and a precursor to the Taj Mahal. As an interesting counterpoint to the Taj Mahal, Humayun’s Tomb was commissioned by a wife (Hamida Banu Begum) to commemorate a fallen husband (Humayun, the second Mughal Emperor). I say “fallen” with a touch of irony, since Humayun, who had survived losing an empire and fighting fifteen years later to regain it, succumbed to far less noble demise – a fall he suffered while carrying an armload of books down a staircase.

View of the gate from inside the tomb. View of the gate and gardens from the tomb

Tomb of Humayun

View of the gate
from inside the tomb

The garden from
atop the tomb

The rest of our Delhi tour took on a rather bizarre, frenzied pace which had us questioning our sanity a bit. We drove past The Red Fort, while being prompted by our guide to “take a picture.” We drove past the Presidential Palace, with our guide once again admonishing us to take pictures on the run. We stopped by The Raj Ghat, the cremation site of Mahatma Ghandi, where our guide offered us the choice of viewing the site from above or from ground level. We chose the top-down view, which meant that we didn’t get within fifty meters of the memorial itself.

Why the rush? Well, in fairness to our tour organizer and to our guide, we only had the morning and a bit of the afternoon for touring Delhi, so some shortcuts were inevitable. This would not be the only time that we looked at our intinerary and failed to appreciate the rigors of travel time in India. To a couple of rubes from rural Saskatchewan, the ~200 Km drive from Delhi to Agra doesn’t look that strenuous. Even allowing for some less than perfect roads, that shouldn’t translate into much more than three hours, right? Nope. Our driver informed us we were in for a five hour ride, and that left us far less time in Delhi than we had anticipated.

The road from Delhi to AgraThis time the road wasn’t the problem, at least not in the way the serpentine, gut-sloshing jaunt from Cochin to Munnar had been. The road from Delhi to Agra is a proper highway, four lanes, divided. This time the delays arose from the traffic on the highway. I’m not speaking of North American style gridlock. No, this traffic has a uniquely Indian flavour: slow-moving trucks, tractors pulling wagons, auto rickshaws loaded beyond belief with human cargo, buses loaded beyond belief with human cargo, trucks loaded beyond belief with human cargo, bicycles, pedal rickshaws, carts pushed by humans, horse carts, ox carts, camel carts, yes, and even elephants. The road to Agra was nothing short of a marvel, a place where the 21st Century and the Middle Ages roll along side by side.

That’s the thing about India; just when I would think that I was beyond surprise, India would smack me upside the head with some stunner that forced me to confess, “Didn’t see that one in the tea leaves.”

I had seen rickshaws packed pretty tightly in Pune and thought I had some sense of a rickshaw’s physical limits. I didn’t have a clue. Now, granted, the Piaggo Ape rickshaws on the road to Agra are slightly bigger than the Bajaj models more common in Pune, but that difference doesn’t begin to account for the way that the people of northern India are able to cram bodies in, on and around a single rickshaw. Remember when you’re reading this that a rickshaw isn’t much bigger than a Smart Car and only has three wheels. Here’s the basic configuration for making the most of a rickshaw’s capacity (front to back):

  • Place three to four passengers on the driver’s seat with the driver.
  • Behind the driver is a cross bar. Place a board on this crossbar and then have four passengers sit on it, facing toward the back.
  • Place four adult passengers on the regular passenger seat, facing forward. Children can form a second layer here.
  • Open the back “window” and have four passengers sit in the window with their lags dangling out the back of the rickshaw.
  • Out of space? Not yet. Allow one or two passengers to ride on the canvas top of the rickshaw.
  • Or, have them gain any purchase they can for at least one foot and have them hang on to the roof to keep from tumbling off.

If you’ve been doing the math, that’s anywhere from sixteen to twenty people. And we didn’t just see that once; we saw it over and over again, for it would appear that, in this part of the country, rickshaws are used in the same way as tempo cars are in Pune, rather like a miniature bus that picks people up as it goes along, rather than a private, taxi service.

I had marvelled at the way that people packed on to the buses in Pune, so full that people were standing on the steps of the bus, hanging partially out the door.  But, in Pune, the people were at least in the bus; on the road to Agra, they were on the bus.  We passed busload after busload, with packed interiors, and stacked exteriors, at least forty or fifty people riding on the roof of the bus. Dump truck boxes would be packed so full of people that those on the outer edge had to link their arms to form a containment barrier to prevent everyone from spilling over the edges.

I had been bemused by the heards of goats and water buffalo that wandered the streets of Pune, but that never prepared me for the travelling menagerie on the road to Agra: ancient, two-wheeled carts  pulled by bedraggled little ponies, forelorn donkeys, lumbering dejected water buffalo, and lumpy camels.  Along the Pune-Mumbai expressway signs along the shoulder warn that bicycles, pedestrians, and ox carts are forebidden.  If the Delhi-Agra expressway implemented similar policies, two thirds of its traffic would disappear.

An enormous, beautiful Hindu temple graces the shoulder of the Delhi-Agra expressway near its half-way point.  On our return trip, the road was choked with throngs of worshippers and those shopping at the neighbouring markets, all numbering in the thousands.  Inching our way past the temple probably added half an hour to our travel time.

So it was, then, that 200 Km took us five hours, and we once again arrived at our destination with just enough time to squeeze in our supper meal before the hotel restaurant closed.

APTI, Day 14 – Hill Palace in Cochin, Fly to Delhi

By this time the trip had begun to take on that If-this-is-Tuesday-then-this-must-be-Delhi vibe. Even though the last couple of days had involved less of the frenetic hop-scotching from one monument to another, the rigors of traveling at least every other day, along with some persistent digestive issues that Irene and I continued to suffer from, were taking their toll. I doubt that even as an anal-retentive toddler, I ever paid such close attention to the machinations of my lower digestive tract. But with plane tickets to Delhi awaiting, we pushed on with the final leg of our loop through Kerala, returning to Cochin.

Stairs to the Hill PalaceTo our surprise, the driver informed us that we would be touring the Hill Palace, the principal palace of the Maharajas of Cochin, and since we didn’t have time to accomplish much else before catching our plane, we complied. The artifacts of the palace, now a museum, ranged from the sublime to the ridiculous. The value of the displays were marred somewhat by insufficient cataloguing and dating, but there were some impressive examples of very early Indian writing both on skins and stone and a very interesting collection of jewels and jewellery donated by the Maharajas’ families.

On the “ridiculous” end of the spectrum were some “art works” donated by the royal family to the museum. Coincidentally, I had just been listening a day earlier to a chapter in the David Sedaris audio book in which he mocked his parents’ tastes in “art.” The museum collection included such valuable masterpieces as poster prints of a number of famous western paintings, including Whistler’s Mother. To see paper posters included in an art collection seemed to have value more comical than historical.

The palace gardensThe palace itself was impressive enough in its size and in the grandeur of its gardens, although these were not kept up as well as they might have been, but it lacked some of the architectural and artistic interest of the smaller palace we had seen days earlier on our first visit to Cochin.

After feeling the pinch of eating in more expensive hotel restaurants for the past week, we had to give the driver credit once more for finding a lunch spot that was inexpensive and served good food. I hope the 3,000 rupee tip we left him to show our appreciation was sufficient. It’s hard to judge this kind of thing in India. It’s impossible to translate it into North American terms, since we would never have been able to afford touring with a personal driver in North America.

He left us at the airport and we continued our journey by catching a mid-afternoon flight to Delhi, which, unfortunately, involved a stop-over in Hyderbad. That translated into a 9:00 arrival in Delhi. Fortunately, our hotel room proved to be fairly close to the airport, so we were able to squeeze in a late supper before hitting the sack to rest up for another bout of sightseeing the next day.

APTI, Day 13 – Houseboat to Allepey

Having had a slow day on Sunday could mean only one thing for Monday, more driving. We set out fairly early in the morning toward the pick-up spot for our houseboat tour. Once again we passed hundreds of squeaky-clean little school children along the way. This was to be our last day of winding mountain roads, and while we had enjoyed the sights of the mountains, we were happy enough to put and end to the gut-twisting churns and turns that accompanied those views and panoramas.

We arrived at our houseboat around noon, and were greeted by the owner of the boat who informed us that he would be accompanying us on the way to Allepey, our destination, but would leave us at 4:00 p.m. He sort of served as tour guide along the way, but more than that he served as a major annoyance. After five or six days of rushing from place to place, we were all ready to just sit and do nothing, read a book, or catch up on some news. Alas, this was not to be. Our host insisted in engaging us in conversation and more or less chastised Steven and I for reading, “Are you studying for the exam?” No, dipwad, we’re reading; it’s something people do for recreation when they are just trying to relax.

This was a phenomenon that we encountered several times on our tour, the person who chooses to get just a bit to chummy and doesn’t seem to recognize that there’s a distinction between a service-client relationship and a friendship. This had happened with a particular waiter at the hotel restaurant in Thekkady as well, but that had been more innocent and could have been attributed to boredom, since the restaurant was quite slow in off-season,or perhaps a desire to practice his English.

This dude, though, was more intrusive. Steven had been asked a number of times about his marital status along the way, always in a good-humoured manner, but most often ending with a comment that, at twenty seven, his expiry date was coming up soon. Past thirty, and he would be like a jug of milk past its prime; he needed to move quickly. But our houseboat companion crossed those lines with a fairly big leap, inquiring about Steven’s level of alcohol consumption, and tsk-ing even at the number or teas he might drink in a day. He was also a bit too prone to share his philosophy of life with us, which, I might say, was not particularly earth-moving or deep. It was the sort of behaviour for which one could imagine a proprietor scolding an employee, but in this case, he was the proprietor. He asked for Steven’s cell phone number. He even called once after we had returned to Pune. All in all, he chewed up too much of our relaxing afternoon on the houseboat and cranked up the creepiness factor just a bit too high for all our tastes.

In my kinder moments, I choose to believe that he has very misguided notions of “making
connections” as a businessman. My darker self sees him as a pathetically lonely man who believes that harvesting cell phone numbers from clients translates somehow into having “friends” all around the world. Fortunately, Steven will turn in his cell phone when he leaves Pune at the end of this trip, so he won’t have to worry about any further contacts.

By the time we had shaken him, like persistent snot from a finger, we had completed most of the “touring” part of the houseboat trip and only puttered about the canals for another half an hour or so before mooring for the night. (Local laws forbid the houseboats from traveling during the night to allow fishermen to place their nets without fear of having them ruined.)

On the plus side, in the time that our “guide” did leave us alone we found the tour to be very relaxing. The on-board chef served up some pretty fine meals. And though our “guide” had warned us not to stay out on deck much past eight p.m. because of mosquitoes, we stayed out past nine without being bitten.

Before supper, we went for a walk out to the neighbouring rice paddies and took some shots of the Keralan sunset and watched the same enormous bats we had seen in Thekkady swoop across the twilight.

In essence the backwaters of Kerala are river deltas that have, over many years, been contained by man-made sea walls to form a series of canals, some large, others very small. Rather like a rural, tropical Venice. The backwaters form a unique ecosystem which, for part of the year, is comprised of sea water. Then as the monsoon rains swell the rivers that feed the the canals, the fresh water displaces the sea water. During this time, the fresh water can be used to irrigate the rice paddies, many of which lie a meter or two below the top of the sea wall. According to our annoying “guide” this is the only location, apart from the Netherlands, where agricultural land lies below sea level. Our guide in Cochin had previously explained to us that the changing levels of water salinity have led to the evolution of many unique species of fish and shellfish which can live in both sea water and fresh water.

We would have enjoyed spending another day on the houseboat just to veg out and tour about, just in the company of the very capable but much less loquacious members of the houseboat crew, but we had to settle for the experience as it was. We spent the night a bit over-chilled by a very noisy air conditioner powered by an equally noisy generator, but we did manage to get some sleep. This would have been less of an annoyance if we had had access to the controls of the air conditioner, but these must have been buried somewhere within the crew’s quarters, for no amount of searching or flicking of switches could turn it down or turn it off.

This bring up an interesting phenomenon of hotel power conservation. Almost all the hotels we stayed at in India, including the houseboat had “master” power switches for the rooms which were turned on by inserting the room key into a slot. In other words, when we left our hotel rooms, removing the key would turn off all electrical devices in the room, with the exception of the air conditioning. This struck us as a very sensible and practical approach to the issue of energy and cost savings. It was a pain in the ass for recharging laptop or camera batteries, but we understood and appreciated the logic, and put up with that inconvenience, trying to get all the recharging done overnight while we, and our key, were in the room.

APTI, Day 12 – Periyar

Sunday was a relatively slow day, which was just fine with us. Periyar was one of the few locations on the tour where we had no guide, so we were left with the guidance of our driver, who, although his English was sparse, had proved capable enough in the days before. Our itinerary said that we would be going on a boat tour of the tiger reserve in the morning, so we were a bit surprised when we ended up at yet another spice garden tour, this one complete with the elephant ride that we had tried to avoid the day before. For me, this was the second time that the driver’s behaviour was somewhat suspect, for we had come to gather from his familiarity with a number of folks in the town that Thekkady must be his home stomping grounds. Obviously, he knew the elephant ride people rather well, which gave me pause, as did the 350 rupee price tag for the elephant-borne version of the spice tour. Nevertheless, Irene expressed some interest in the pachyderm version, so we went with it anyway.
No sooner had we approached the beast than our “guide” commandeered my camera and proceeded to take countless photos of our little sojourn, not returning the camera until the tour was finished. It was, without a doubt, the most “touristy” moment on what was, to begin with, a rather touristy tour. I felt certain that these photos would emerge at some later date to bite me in the ass, perhaps at my retirement or my funeral. I can hear the eulogist now, “Cal was not only adventurous, but also fun-loving. Why, here he is in India riding on the back of an elephant.” This narrative would, of course, be accompanied by one of those tragic Powerpoint slide shows, the type which I have railed against in my years as a teacher, each slide with a different, senseless transition; some annoying inappropriate noise; and, alas, some spinning text.

The things I do for my wife.

The guide hi-jacked my camera Yet another Apparently not.


you’re on

Pachyderm Camera

When we had expressed some mild surprise at the change in itinerary, our driver and the person at the elephant ride counter had assured us that we would be better served by an evening boat ride in the preserve, as more animals would be out at that time than in the heat of the morning. This made some sense to us, and it also meant that we had a good portion of the day to ourselves, since out little tour on Dumbo had only taken up a half an hour of the morning. We took advantage of this time to wander deeper into the streets of Thekkady.

As we walked the streets, we encountered a new phenomenon. Young children would come up to us repeatedly, hold their hand out, and say, “one pen?” It took us a while to make out what they were saying, and then a few more moments to determine that they must have been asking for a penny. Thekkady, with its many Ayurvedic massage centres and naturopathic clinics, is a rather touristy place, so foreigners are not an uncommon sight here. We determined that this must be a sort of game among the little tykes, to approach a foreigner and ask for “one penny.” We didn’t have any Canadian coin on us to test out this theory, but from their demeanour, which was usually boisterous and cheerful, we knew that they weren’t begging, so this was the only thing that made sense. When we said we were sorry that we didn’t have anything, they would run away giggling, fired up with the adrenaline that it must have taken to muster up the courage for the initial approach. We encountered the same behaviour once or twice again as we traveled in Kerala, always with the same good-humoured tone.

Later in the afternoon, our driver drove us to the Periyar Tiger Reserve, where we were scheduled to take a wildlife sightseeing boat tour. As we lined up for the boats, we began to have some reservations about whether or not we would see – much less be able to film – anything. The boats were crowded, two-tiered affairs. Get an aisle seat on the bottom deck, which was enclosed, and you might have to be content with the oohs and aahs of the other passengers, because you certainly wouldn’t be able to see very much.

In the end, though, we were lucky enough to snag upper deck seats at the side of the boat, which provided us with the best views possible as well as the opportunity to steady our cameras on the railing of the boat. For this, my investment in a ten dollar mini-tripod proved more than worthwhile.

This is probably a good time to interject with a sidebar. Admission to most monuments and sites in India is very inexpensive, and in our case, was covered within the tour costs. However, almost all sites we visited also had a “camera” charge which was not always covered by the tour. This could be anywhere from 25 rupees for a digital still camera to as much as 300 rupees ($7.50) for a video camera. Essentially, this boils down to a “foreigner tax” since most Indian tourists cannot afford cameras. That’s all fair enough, but it was sometimes difficult to judge whether this expense was worthwhile, especially since it was not uncommon for photography to be limited to the grounds only (which was the case in several museums and palaces). A word to the wise: don’t spend the money for the video camera charge at the Taj Mahal; you only get to step about ten meters inside the main gate and then you have to return to the desk and check your video camera before proceeding to view the Taj.

Having said that, spending the money at Periyar was definitely worth it, especially since the higher zoom level on the video camera allowed opportunities for pulling in the distant animals on shore. In all, we saw wild boar, bison, various deer, otters, monkeys, cormorants, and other water birds. Alas, no tigers.

A Video Tour of Periyar Tiger Reserve

(Please keep in mind that most of this video was shot at maximum zoom from a boat that never stopped moving and turning.  And then, of course, there is the usual “youtube” degradation of quality.)

On the way back from the tiger reserve, we noticed an entire commercial district on the opposite side of our hotel which we hadn’t examined yet, so we spent a good portion of the evening exploring the shops in that part of town, then had a late supper.

APTI, Day 11 – Drive to Periyar

I had been frustrated on the previous day while driving by and missing countless opportunities to take gorgeous shots of the tea plantations. When our guide finally did stop the driver so that we could take some photos, it was in the absolute worst spot for taking a picture, a low dip with a small hummock of tea trees in the background. But we did get a group photo!

So I was relieved on this day when the driver, in the absence of any annoying guide, stopped the car on two or three occasions at excellent view points. As it turns out, he had a far better concept of what makes a good landscape picture than our misguided guide would ever have. (On the previous day, the guide had asked if I wanted to take a picture of the bull elephant through the trees. Given that I could barely see him with the naked eye, and given that we were in a rocking boat which would make the use of zoom a nightmare, I declined.)

Tea Plantations Tea Plantations Stone fence posts

Tea plantations

Tea plantations

Stone fence posts

On all our trips throughout Kerala we always seemed to be traveling either just as Children were heading off to school or just as school was getting out. In rural Kerala, most children walk or ride bikes to school, so the roadways would be lined with school children, all in spotless school uniforms. For Canadians, used to seeing rag-tag random kids going off to school, the site of spit and polish left quite an impression. Obviously mothers and dads spent considerable time making sure that their young ones were properly preened before sending them out the door, or accompanying them on their way, as was quite common also. Girls with immaculate hair, often adorned with Jasmine flowers was one thing, but even the boys were all slicked and looking more like so many ring bearers going to a wedding than school boys as we would know them. Our guide in Cochin had stated that education was a very big priority in Kerala, which had a 98% literacy rate, and the roadside parades of uniformed school children seemed to bear this out. This was even more impressive, since most schooling in Kerala is handled by private religious schools, not public education, so parents are paying tuition for their little ones to attend. So it was not uncommon, in a small rural community, to see a stream of children heading in one direction in one colour of uniform being met by a stream of children heading the opposite direction in a second colour.

Before we arrived at Thekkady, our guide stopped a few times on the way to point out the various crops being grown in the area: rubber trees, coffee, and cardamom. I had never known that almost all spices, and coffee as well, are grown as understory in the forest, requiring the shade of the forest to thrive.

He also stopped at a small spice garden, an information centre of sorts, where we took a short tour to learn about the growing and processing of spices, as well as the medicinal qualities of other plants in the naturopathic system of Ayurvedic medicine, for which Kerala is famous. I was a bit put off by the place, especially since these people were obviously friends of the guide. I was pretty sure that he was getting a little kickback for bringing the white folks to the doorstep, but he had proved to be an excellent driver in all other respects, and the information on spices was valuable enough, I suppose. As for the naturopathic claims that such and such a plant oil, when rubbed on the forehead, increased memory, I took with a grain of salt. But I forget which plant it was.

The drive on this day was somewhat less gruelling than the drive to Munnar, so we arrived at our hotel by 2:00 or 2:30, in time to get a late lunch (the norm on our trip) and to fit in a swim in the evening. Our driver came back to the hotel at 4:00 to pick us up, but when we found out that it was for an elephant ride, we graciously declined and spent the rest of thea day lounging around and trying to get our digestive systems back in order.

Our hotel lacked the amazing views our digs in Munnar, but it made up for it in its basic appearance and amenities. We took advantage of the laundry service to re-charge our luggage with clean clothing. We swam in the pool. We walked to the nearby shops and bought souvenirs.

Our hotel pool Our stylists have been surprising and shocking clients for years. Jack fruit stand

Our hotel pool

Ya pays yer money
and ya takes
yer chances.

Jack fruit stand

On our arrival, I had noticed what looked like rather large, black sacks hanging from huge bamboo “trees” across the road from our hotel. Since we were on the third level of the terraced units, we had an uninterrupted view of these tree tops. At first, thought that these must be large hanging birds nests, similar to those built by baltimore orioles and other such birds. After a while, however, I noticed one or two of these hanging sacks stir and unfurl slightly. They weren’t birds’ nests; they were bats, huge frigging bats. They were so big that they bent the branches on which they were hanging. I haven’t yet been able to determine the exact species, but lying on our backs in the pool at night, Steven and I watched them fly overhead and estimated their wing span to be at least two feet, probably more.

When we had approached Munnar several days earlier we had heard horrendous screeching and squawking coming from the forest at twilight. At the time, we had assumed it was some kind of bird. After two nights and mornings spent across the road from these bats in Thekkady, though, we knew differently. As the sun sets, the bats become more restless, and the screeching begins. Then, at dawn, as they return, the tumult resumes as they jockey for prime perches within their bamboo resting place. This racket makes it considerably hard to sleep in in the morning. Later, we would encounter the same bats on the evening of our houseboat tour. Unfortunately, I was never able to get any still pictures of them. Either their perches were too far away, or the dim light made it impossible to freeze them in flight in the evening. I did, however, get some video of them in their perches in Thekkady.

Bats at Periyar

Since the land across the street was actually part of the Periyar Tiger Preserve, it wasn’t surprising to find wildlife so close. Monkeys, also wandered onto the roof our hotel. Having said that, monkeys thrive much like raccoons and skunks do Canada; they flourish in urban environments just as well as they do in the wild. We saw monkeys at the Red Fort in Agra, in the middle of a city of two million.

While filming the bats, I was distracted by these guys on the roof of our hotel.

APTI, Day 10 – Munnar, Eravikulam, Top Station

I think we realized before we even met any of our other guides, that we had been spoiled by our guide in Cochin. She had been so articulate, enthusiastic and funny that any other guides would pale by comparison.

Certainly our next guide lived up to our expectations. While he was pleasant enough, his English was probably the weakest of any of the guides we had on the trip, so the information he conveyed tended to be rather “bare-bones” and when we asked him any questions, he usually answered an entirely different one. After a while, we just stopped asking.

After a short drive, the morning started off with a bus trip up to Erivikulam National Park and Mt. Anamudi, the tallest peak is Southern India. Unfortunately, the view was obscured by clouds most of the time we were up there. This was to be expected, given that we were travelling in monsoon season, but in fact, this would be one of only two times that the weather affected our sightseeing experience.

Panorama at Eravikulam

We strolled up a mountain path and took some pictures of what our guide helpfully referred to as “gots” (goats). Later, I realized that we had been taking pictures of the endangered species Nilgri Taur. This is just one example of how informative our guide was.

Sky and Mountain And one last shot of gots Mt. Anamudi

Mountain & Sky

Nilgiri Taur
AKA “got”

Very wet
Mt. Anamudi

As far as we could tell, the guide appeared to believe that his job consisted of taking us to a place, telling us its name (more or less), and then taking a group photo of us in front of the monument or vista. Boy, did he like taking group photos. Boy, are we not group photo people!

Our guide liked group photos And, of course, a group photo Did I mention our guide like to take group photos?

Can you


group photo?

When we had strolled a ways up the hill, a few drops of rain fell, and our guide began ushering us back down. For a guide, he was a most timid fellow, and we had “forgotten” to bring the umbrellas from the car, a move that flustered and amazed him. The umbrellas didn’t matter to us because we had rain coats; that’s why we left them behind, but he appeared to have no interest in getting wet. I also think he wasn’t too interested in climbing any more, although the road/trail we were walking on had a very gradual slope by any mountain standards.

From the park we headed off the “Tea Museum” a small-scale demonstration tea factory which included some exhibits and a brief one-sided video which explained the history of tea plantations in the area (fine) while extolling the virtues of the landlords over the years as environmentally conscious and concerned for their workers welfare (gimme a break).

We found this a consistent theme throughout our touring of India, the sugar-coating of history. Even our guide in Cochin, who had been quite blunt in certain matters, tried to assure us that the southern maharajahs had been quite decent people, unlike those wealth-grubbing maharajahs in the north. And our guide in Agra, actually tried to convince us that the Moghul kings of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries had ruled with justice and and a modicum of democracy. Yeah, right. That’s why Shah Jihan, who commissioned the Taj Mahal, cut off the hands of the architect who had done him the favour of designing it so that he could do no similar work for anyone else.

Tea is only grown on slopes of 30 to 45 degrees. Harvesting tea Tea plantations

Tea plantations

Harvesting tea

Tea plantations

But I’m getting ahead of myself. From the tea museum we moved on to tour a couple of small dams in the area which had been built by Canadian engineers. Our guide assured us the engineers had been “very polite.” I wanted to ask him how he knew this detail, but I was quite sure that my question would be misunderstood, which would have taken all the fun out of it, so I passed. At the larger of these dams, the guide more or less insisted that we take a boat ride, and we reluctantly agreed. For the locals, I’m sure these rides serve as quite a treat, but for a group of Canadians who have spent countless summers on or in the water, the appeal was minimal.

The boat ride redeemed itself, however, when we spotted some wild elephants grazing on the shore. The boat operator also pointed out a bull elephant farther up through the trees. While we couldn’t see him very well from the water, we were able to re-connect with him as we drove away from the dam. He was grazing about 100 m from the roadside, and I was able to get some quite decent footage of him with the video camera while Steven took stills.

Same elephants Proof we were there IMG_0301.JPG


Group photo proves
we were there

Bull elephant

We were tempted to stay watching the elephant for a long time, especially since it made our guide, Mr. Timid, absolutely squirm. Apparently, he had been attacked by a bull elephant while on his motor cycle very recently, so he was particularly averse to being in the company of the beast. While I certainly understood that these animals demand respect, this old pachyderm was paying no attention to us whatsoever, so we filmed for five or ten minutes before moving on. I was amused however, to think of the bull elephant who had developed a distaste for motorcycles and who would charge them at will.

Bull Elephant Video

Our last stop was the highlight of the day, a trip to “Top Station.” a viewpoint at 5,577 ft. that provided some spectacular views. Top Station is the highest roadway point in southern India, and, historically, had been the highest point reached by small gauge railroad and the rope trolleys that the tea plantations had used to ferry goods up and down the mountain. The road took us one or two kilometers into the neighbouring state, Tamil Nadu. The roads immediately informed us when we had crossed the border. From the well-maintained, paved Keralan road, we dropped down onto a rocky, potholed path that led us the last distance. Irene likened it to travelling from Alberta to Saskatchewan

The views from Top Station were quite stunning, and the day had cleared off so that we could see many miles into Tamil Nadu. Perhaps most impressive was the view of the highest tea plantation in India, well over 7000 ft. The only access to the tea station was a foot path that wound its way up a rocky ridge through a series of incredibly steep switchbacks. All goods traveling in an out of the tea station had to be carried over this grunty little path. By the time we arrived at Top Station, the sun was already getting low, which made for some good photographic opportunities.

Highest tea plantation in India (top right) Zoomed in image of Tamil Nadu plains Skies and mountains

Highest tea plantation
in India

View to
Tamil Nadu

Mountains & Sky

After one last group photo, and a drive back to our hotel, we bid farewell to our odd little guide and called it a day.

APTI, Day 9 – Cochin, Drive to Munnar

The Old Harbour Hotel, where we stayed in Cochin, was a gorgeous old character building, built during the Dutch period of colonization. During its two hundred year history, it has served a number of different roles, but the current owners have recently restored it and renewed it. They have done an admiral job of adding modern amenities without destroying the original character of the building. While our late arrival in the evening had given us little time to appreciate the building and the grounds, we had a bit of time in the morning to soak it up. The restaurant area boasts folding garden doors that open some twenty feet wide to the pool and garden area, sheltered by a fifty foot tall mango tree. The previous evening, during our late supper, we had heard fruit dropping from the tree, but we didn’t realize they were mangoes until the next morning.

Reception Area Garden view from the dining room Dining room from the garden

Old Harbour Hotel, reception area

Garden view from the dining room

Dining room, from the garden

By 9:30 we were packed up and ready to go. We met our guide, who turned out be one of the greatest assets of the tour, and spoiled us for guides for the rest of the trip. She spoke excellent English, knew both the history and the culture of her city, and conveyed her enthusiasm with energy and a sense of humour.

Because of its natural resources and the spice trade, Kerala has a long history of interaction with other cultures and other worlds. Long before Europeans arrived, its inhabitants had been trading with the Chinese and Arab world for centuries.

Then, at the dawn of the 16th century, Vasco de Gama and the Portuguese arrived and colonized the area. In fact, de Gama died in Cochin, and St. Francis Church, built in 1503, the oldest Christian church in India, houses his initial burial site. His remains were later re-patriated to Portugal, but the tomb site remains in the floor of the Church, which was one of our stops.

Original burial site of Vasco da Gama Pulpit, St. Francis Church

Original tomb of
Vasco da Gama

St. Francis Church

Unlike Goa, Kerala’s neighbour state to the north, which remained under Portuguese influence for centuries, Kerala was later colonized by the Dutch, and, of course, also by the British, so the level of western influence here is much higher than in Maharashtra, where Steven lives. Keralan culture reflects this. Whereas Maharashtra is predominantly Hundu, with a smaller population of Muslims, Kerala is 60% Christian, 20% Hindu, and 20% Muslim. Christian churches, both small and elaborate, dot the landscape both in the city and the country.

In addition, according to our guide, western influence extends into the Hindu population as well, with many Hindus eating meat, including, to our surprise, beef. Elsewhere, strict Hindus would eschew all meat and fish, even eggs (because they could become chickens), although this should in no way be confused with the totally western concept of veganism, which Indian vegetarians find bizarre. Indian cooking is laced with dairy products, including butter, curd/yogourt, milk, and paneer, a cheese used much like tofu is in eastern Asian cooking. Our guide confessed to being, in her own words, “a strict non-vegetarian.”

Essentially, flying the few hundred kilometers from Pune to Cochin, two provinces to the south, equates to travelling to an entirely different country. In most ways, Kerala shares less with Maharashtra than Canada shares with the U.S. From Pune to Cochin, almost all aspects of culture – language, religion, cuisine, dress and government – undergo significant shifts.

Virtually every state in India has its own language (or more than one), not just a different dialect, but an entirely different language, with different structure, vocabulary, script and lectors. In Gujarat, they would speak Gujarati, Maharashtrans speak (not surprisingly) Maharathi, Goans converse in Konkini, Karalans speak Malayalam, and the folks in Tamil Nadu fiercely defend Tamil as the oldest surviving language in India (older than Sanskrit). (Given our own Quebec experience with Bill 101, it was amusing to hear our guide speak of a Tamil protest against a national government initiative to expand the use of Hindi within the state. The Tamils responded by removing Hindi and English from all road signs in the state.) So, five adjacent states speak five entirely different languages, not including Hindi and English, the two official languages of India. In fact, our guide suggested that it is English, not Hindi, which binds the country together.

In addition to language and religion, states also differentiate themselves by their cuisine. Most often bread accompanies meals in Maharashthra, but rice is much more prevalent in Kerala. Even breads which bear the same name from one province to another may share few physical characteristics. A Keralan paratha is a buttery, flaky pancake that tends to fall apart in the hand, while a Maharashthran paratha is much more solid concoction usually filled with potatoes or some other vegetable. Maharashthran cuisine is predominantly vegetarian with a smattering of chicken and mutton; in Kerala, fish and cocoanut dominate the menus, and one has to search for the vegetarian options.

Dress also differs, particularly among men. In urban Maharashthra, men very much stick to western dress, pants and shirts, even though traditional Maharashthran dress, the kurta worn over the salwar, would be far cooler and more comfortable. But Keralan men consistently wear the dhoti a skirt which can be worn full-length, or rolled up halfway and tucked in at the waist to become knee-length. Historically women wore these as well, and both genders went topless – not a bad idea, considering the temperature this close to the equator and the humidity living beside the ocean. Alas, the prudish, Christian Portuguese put an end to the practice among women, who now wear the more modest sari, much like Indian women from other states. Some men still choose to go shirtless, and our guide assured us that in some Keralan Hindu temples, men must remove their shirts before entering the most sacred areas.

Finally, the most immediate difference one notices, right off the plane, is that Kerala is considerably cleaner than Maharashthra and appears to suffer less from the painfully obvious differences in level of income. If Cochin has slums that rival those of Mumbai or Pune, and I’m sure it has some, we didn’t see them. No doubt the state Communist government in Kerala would like to claim some responsibility for this, but I suspect it has deeper roots in the more abundant natural resources, which allow even the poorest a means to clothe and feed themselves.

Our tour of Cochin began with a visit to both St. Francis Church and Santa Cruz Basilica, the second oldest Christian church in India, having been built only two years after St. Francis (1505). While both were built as Catholic churches by the Portuguese, the Dutch converted St. Francis to a Protestant church, and the British changed it to an Anglican church, which it remains today.

Santa Cruz Basilica, Interior Chancel, Santa Cruz Basilica Santa Cruz Basilica, Exterior

Santa Cruz Basilica

Santa Cruz Basilica

Santa Cruz Basilica

We also visited the oldest Synagogue in the Commonwealth in what Keralans refer to, without disparagement, as “Jew Town.” Jews have a long and storied history in Kerala and were originally bestowed quite remarkable rights under the Rajas, including the right to levy taxes. However, when the less open-minded Portuguese arrived on the scene, they weren’t nearly so keen on this level of power and autonomy, and the Jews had to flee their original location and seek refuge next door to the Raja’s palace in Cochin. There they lived with relatively little disturbance until the formation of Israel called many of them to return to Zion, leaving only a small contingent in Cochin. At present, only thirteen members of the synagogue remain, most of these very elderly. Many of the buildings  of Jew Town have been converted to shops which take advantage of the flow of tourists generated by the synagogue and the nearby palace, much like shellfish take advantage of food brought by the ebb and flow of the tides.

As for tides, we had the poor fortune of missing the Chinese fishing nets in action because we arrived at low tide. These nets are remarkable, odd contraptions which look, at first glance, as if they were the first attempt of a boy scout troop in learning their lashing skills. They consist of an immense wooden tripod which leans out over the waters’ surface and from which hangs a horizontal, square net. At high tide, a team of eight or so men lower the net into the water for a few minutes at a time and then raise the net to discover what, if anything, they have caught. What makes the engineering of these nets ingenious is the rather sophisticated method of counterbalance which allows so few fishermen to raise them. Large stones approximately one foot in diameter are suspended from the rear of the tripod to provide this counterbalance. As the tripod moves nearer to vertical, which reduces the amount of effort needed from the fishermen, stones begin to land on the dock, thereby reducing the force of the counterbalance. The ropes suspending the stones vary in length in such a way that the counterbalance is continually adjusted appropriately as the net is raised.

Chinese fishing nets Chinese fishing nets Fish monger touts his wares

fishing nets

fishing nets

Fish vendor

After visiting the fishing nets, we strolled through the fish market, where we saw some amazing seafood, including tiger prawns the size of small rock lobsters. Later, at one of the restaurants we ate at, I decided to sample some of these. Four of them filled a plate and made for a perfectly adequate meal. We also stopped and watched a small fish auction. The fisherman dumped a small batch of fish on a tarp on the ground, and the auctioneer made short work of selling them to one of the local vendors. Irene remarked that all auctioneers sound the same, no matter what language they speak.

Our final stop was the Maharaja’s palace, modest by “Maharajan” standards, but nevertheless impressive for some of its ornate woodword and intricate murals, which depicted stories and characters from Hindu mythology. It had been built by the Portuguese and presented to the Raja as penance for some massive European blunder, I believe the destruction and/or desecration of a prominent Hindu temple.

Before we left Cochin, we stopped at a couple of craft shops, where we got to ogle over Kashmiri carpets and fine silks. We did manage to do some buying for ourselves and for souvenirs for folks back home, but we wished we had more time to spend in Cochin to see the sites and explore the shops.

Unfortunately, our itinerary called upon us to begin the 130 km drive from Cochin to Munnar, which our driver warned us could take up to five hours. How can 130 km take over four hours? Well, for starters Cochin lies on the sea and Munnar is perched 6000 ft above sea level. The roads are the second factor. The surfaces of roads in Kerala are generally in quite good condition, but in 130 km I seriously doubt that there was more than one or two stretches of straight road that exceeded 100 meters. The road hugs the mountain side. Irene claims never to have experienced motion sickness in her life, but she confesses knowing now what it feels like. The trip warrants preventative gravol.

By the time we arrived at our Hotel, we all needed an hour or two for our stomachs to settle before we could eat. While not the fanciest of the hotels we stayed at, the Copper Castle provided us with the best views of the trip. From its perch on the side of the mountain, we could see up and down the valley we had ascended to get here, which made the trip worthwhile.

One last view from our balcony in Munnar View from our hotel balcony

View from
our balcony

View from
our balcony

A Picture We Missed Taking

While in “Jewtown” in Cochin we missed the opportunity to take a picture of a rather remarkable juxtaposition. Two windows, side by side, one with the Star of David, and the other with a swastika. Sacrilege, you say? Not exactly. Within Hindu and Jain cultures, the swastika is a centuries-old symbol of good luck. The Jews of Cochin would recognize this, of course, and take no offence where none was intended. Among Hindus, however, there is certainly resentment for Hitler’s having usurped and sullied an icon that Indians have employed as a positive symbol since neolithic times.

APTI, Day 8 – On Diet and Digestion

In the middle of the night last night, I momentarily entertained the smug thought that my digestive system had survived pretty well so far on the trip, and that, actually, I had probably been more regular here than in Canada. Big mistake. Not five minutes later Fate decided to bitch-slap my hubris with an intestinal tornado that had me out of commission for the better part of eighteen hours. I won’t go into all the gruesome details, but suffice to say, it had both Irene (who had a milder bout) and I re-tracing our gastronomical steps from the day before. Two potential culprits emerged: a single boiled peanut we had sampled at the hill station the day before, and some fresh cabbage salad on a veggie platter we had shared in the evening.

The irony of the situation is that on that particular day we had eaten at quite “posh” westernized restaurants for lunch and supper, and our only breakfast had been some granola bars we had brought from Canada.

On the upside, we didn’t have a lot of touring planned for the day, which was good, because I wasn’t going anywhere in my condition. On the downside, we had two flights in the afternoon and evening to take us from Pune to Chennai, and from Chennai to Cochin, where we were to begin our Kerala tour.

This may be a good time to review safe eating and drinking practices for anyone considering a trip to India:

  • Don’t drink the water – ever. Order bottled water or some other drink that comes from a sealed container. We recommend fresh lime soda, sweetened.
  • Remember to use bottled water when brushing your teeth.
  • Don’t order drinks with ice.
  • Don’t eat fruit that cannot be peeled.
  • Don’t eat salads or other foods that have not been cooked. In good restaurants, fruit such as mangoes are usually safe.
  • Lassi is a great drink made of curd/yogourt, but remember that most milk in India is unpasteurized, so order it in better restaurants only.
  • Wash your hands a lot.
  • When choosing restaurants, you don’t need to stick to up-scale, westernized restaurants. Doing so limits your chances of experiencing the true local cuisine. However, try to determine the popularity of the venue among locals to gauge the quality of the establishment.

Finally, expect to get sick. When you do fall prey to intestinal gremlins:

  • Let it run its course as much as possible to allow your body to purge the offending little critters before indulging in show-stoppers like Gravol or Imodium.
  • Keep drinking water to fend off dehydration, despite the fact that you won’t feel like drinking (or living).
  • The next one I found almost impossible – try to avoid all the incredibly inviting spicy Indian dishes in favour of the bland, something like plain rice or curd rice.
  • Lastly, avoid the urge to fart.

The previous day had been spent largely in preparing for the flights that would carry us to Cochin (Steven and Irene) and in frequent trips to the toilet (me).

That brings up an interesting sidebar. In India, a toilet is a toilet; it’s not a washroom, rest room, powder room, or any other euphemism; it’s just a toilet. Sometimes they may be labelled “Gents” and “Ladies,” but they are still referred to as the toilet. Ask for a washroom, and you may find yourself directed to a washroom, which will contain only sinks for washing. You have to love the clarity and honesty of the use of the language. I will need to discuss more about Indian toilets later, because it’s a necessary discussion, but for the time being, back to the topic at hand.

The afternoon and evening of the previous day had been entirely consumed in airports and airplanes. Unfortunately, we had to fly from Pune to Chennai and then on from Chennai to Cochin. The trip was uncomfortable (for me) but uneventful. We arrived at our hotel around 9:00 p.m. just in time to check in and catch the restaurant before it closed.