APTI, Day 16 – Agra, The Taj Mahal & The Red Fort

On our arrival in Agra the previous evening, we had questioned the driver about our start time the next morning.  When he responded, without a hint of irony, with “6 O’clock,” we let out a communal groan.  The flying, the driving, and the whirlwind touring had taken their toll, and the appeal of seeing the sun rise on the Taj Mahal was being trumped badly by the siren call for more sleep.  Fortunately, a representative of the tour company was also present, so we were able to negotiate a nine o’clock start.

Our day began with meeting our Agra guide and setting off for the Taj Mahal.  The guide was competent enough; his English was good, and he was knowledgeable, but we all got the impression that he was operating on auto-pilot.  As he was explaining the history behind the sites we toured, his eyes would wander off in the distance as if he weren’t really present at the moment; he certainly lacked the passion our Delhi guide had shown the day before.

Indian authorities have decided that, to protect the marble surfaces of the Taj Mahal and the tourism cash cow that it represents, no internal combustion vehicles will be allowed within one kilometer of the site.  Therefore, our driver took us to a parking lot from which were shuttled to the Taj site by electric rickshaw.  I’m not entirely convinced that, given the level of pollution in Agra as a whole, that the one kilometer restriction is going to make all that much difference, but I suppose it’s a start.  In other efforts to reduce smog and pollution, both Delhi and Agra allow only natural gas rickshaws within their city limits.   That appears to have some effect in lessening the choking black smoke at street level, at least.

We had been warned, both by our guide and others, to prepare ourselves for the gauntlet of hawkers and beggars that lined the streets on the final walk to the gates to the Taj, so we were mildly surprised that there were so few, perhaps because it was off-season and the pickings weren’t nearly so good.  Our guide’s advice to totally ignore them confirmed our earlier experiences at tourist sites.  A polite “No thank you” only encourages them to continue to pester.

Here is some advice, if you ever intend to visit the Taj Mahal:

  • Go in the off-season, as we did.  In tourist season, the daily numbers can spike to 40,000, which I would imagine, might seriously colour the experience, as it did for this blogger.  As it was, we had enough people to contend with, particularly within the confines of the mausoleum itself, but it was certainly manageable.
  • Leave your video camera in the hotel or in the car (if you have a driver to watch it).  You can only use a video camera within about ten meters of the gate; then you have to return to the gate and surrender it to a locker.  While the video camera fee is only rs 25, it still ain’t worth it.
  • Ditch everything except your digital camera.  That includes your camera case, any extra batteries, cables, cell phones, purses (other than very small ones), … you name it.  I had forgotten that my video camera case had a mini tripod in it (which I knew was a no-no), so they stripped us of everything we had and forced us to return to put it in a locker.
  • If you have a guide, make sure you ditch him for a while to wander around and establish your own timelines.  These guys aren’t interested in spending a couple hours at a site they visit every day.  For them time is money.  For you, money is time.  You didn’t get to India on cereal boxtops, so make it worth your while.
  • Start with a fresh set of batteries in your camera, because you won’t be able to replace them while you are there.  Then take tons of photos, from all angles, even though the numbing symmetry of the site almost screams for symmetrical shots.  If you want that head-on shot of the Taj, buy a book or download one from the Internet.
  • The last piece of advice applies to most tourism venues in India: take along some coin.  We grew tired of constantly being “nickled and dimed” at these places.  There were the little charges for camera access, the dude who looked after your shoes while you were inside, the old crone that who wanted to give you a monosyllabic tour of the place – each of these requested some small pittance for their services.  I certainly didn’t begrudge them the five or ten rupees (12-25 cents CDN) for their trouble, but what grew tiresome was the effort of trying to keep small change on hand, especially since most rickshaw drivers and small vendors have perfected the “no change” excuse as a way of eking out a little extra cash from each tourist transaction.

One Possible Reason for Taking a Video Camera

would be to catch the item at the beginning of this clip. Yup, that’s an oxen-drawn lawnmower; don’t see one of those every day. But remember that there are no internal combustion engines allowed with a 1 Km radius of the Taj

I won’t consume space here with the background story behind the Taj Mahal.  You can read about that here and here.

I have to preface my impressions of the Taj Mahal by saying that it was Irene’s idea to go there.  In the early planning stages, I had cast a vote for depth over breadth, sampling one area of India and doing it up right, but my dear wife had countered, with, “You can’t go to India and not see the Taj Mahal.”  So Steven and I had capitulated.

Having said that, it certainly is impressive in any number of ways.  From the main gate, some 300 meters away, it looks big enough, but as we walked toward it, we began to gain an appreciation of its true dimensions.  The plinth on which the Taj rests, which seems almost inconsequential from a distance, is almost 100 meters square and its platform raises the Taj Mahal almost seven meters above ground level.

Perhaps the best way to gain some perspective on its dimensions is to note the size of the people standing on this raised platform.

or two Arches Our guide explains the stone inlay process Another group shot to prove we were there.

The obligatory shot

A notion of scale

Stone inlay detail

Proof we were there

Perhaps just as impressive as the size is the quality of the stone inlay work. I had always thought, for example that the Koranic inscriptions which grace the columns of the Taj were simply engraved in the marble. While they are certainly engraved, those engravings are then painstakingly inlaid with semi-precious stones.  The other thing that impressed me were the intricately carved jali screens which surround the cenotaphs of Mumtaz Mahal and Shah Jahan. and appear in numerous other places in the building.  Their lace-like appearance belies the fact that they are carved from a single, enormous piece of marble.  Unfortunately, since photography is not allowed in the interior of the mausoleum, I don’t have any of my own pictures of that feature, although this is a slightly less delicate example from the Red Fort.

Nevertheless, as physically impressive as the Taj Majal may be, it left me somehow vaguely unsatisfied.  When I try to get to the bottom of that sentiment, I come up with these explanations, which I understand may be inadequate for some:

  • The interior of the Taj Mahal, which houses the most impressive gemstone and inlay work is incredibly dark.  Even after my eyes adjusted to the murky light, I found it hard to make out the detail.  And, of course, this is the most congested area in the whole complex, so lingering is awkward.
  • This criticism is going to sound petty, but as a person who strives to find balance without symmetry in anything I design, I find the slavish devotion to symmetry that characterizes Mughal architecture in general, and the Taj Mahal in particular, to be mind numbing. For example, historians presume the huge “guest house” that flanks the Taj Mahal on its east side was built with only one “purpose” in mind – to serve as a mirror image, or “answer” to the identical mosque on the west.  I realize there are some religious reasons for the symmetry, but still … come on, people.
  • Despite all its physical grandeur, the Taj is, after all, a tomb.  That diminishes it somehow for me.  Temples are, or were, living places of worship; forts protected and sustained life and carved a place for themselves in history; the Taj is a grave.  No one ever lived in the Taj Mahal, no battles were ever fought there; and the course of history was never altered by its construction.
  • Call it a monument to love, if you will, but I call it a monument to megalomania and narcissism, one man’s attempt to fend off mortality by building an edifice so grand that countless generations would speak his – and his wife’s – names.  Remember, too, Mumtaz Mahal wasn’t Shah Jihan’s only wife; she was just his third, and favourite, wife.
  • Then there’s the fact that Mumtaz Mahal died while giving birth to their 14th child.  Ouch.  Maybe she did deserve a monument after all.
  • I know that I shouldn’t judge these things through the distorting lens of historical change.  These were times in which exploitation was the norm, but to occupy 20,000 workers for 22 years on such a selfish project seems a tad over the top for me.  Perhaps I should simply view it as Medieval “workfare.”

Tangential observation begins…

This isn’t the first time I’ve had this kind of reaction.  It happened last summer too, when we were touring Craigdarroch Castle in Victoria, a mansion that coal baron and statesman Robert Dunsmuir built with the fortunes he amassed through strike-breaking and otherwise exploiting his workers.  It stands atop a hill in Victoria, a kind of crown jewel in a nineteenth century mansion-building pissing contest.

When confronted with this kind of conspicuous self-aggrandizement, a very juvenile part of me wants to shout out to the world, “Stop visiting these places.  Don’t you see; that’s exactly what the narcissistic bastards wanted.”  But then that small part of me with a bit more maturity chimes in to counter that history doesn’t litter the planet with monuments to the poor and humble.  Then, I remember our perfunctory visit to Raj Ghat in Delhi, and wistfully regret that we didn’t spend more time there.

… Tangential observation ends, and we return to the topic at hand.

Don’t get me wrong,  I don’t regret visiting the Taj Mahal, but if I ever get back to India, there are at least a dozen other places I would want to see first before I would be tempted to return.

One thing that makes me reluctant to return is Agra itself, a dirty, rather backward city full of beggars, hucksters and shysters.  Nowhere on our journey smacked of “tourist trap” quite like Agra.  In the evening we tried to take a walk to get some fresh air and perhaps find a neighbourhood chai wallah.  What we got instead was an obnoxious barrage of restaurant owners, shop keepers and rickshaw drivers pestering us.  We returned to our hotel room, shellshocked.  The rickshaw drivers were definitely the worst, promising to take us on a tour “all over Agra” for twenty rupees (50 cents).  I’m not exactly sure where twenty rupees would would have taken us, but I can just about guarantee the destination wouldn’t have been pretty.  Perhaps Agra can best be summed up by an instant messaging conversation Steven had with one of his work colleagues, Sid.  When Sid found out where we were, he shot back with, “Agra! Who the f___ told you to go there, idjit?”

According to our guide, Agra has only two industries, tourism and crafts/artisanship.  For me, that essentially boils down to one industry – tourism.  In other words Agra’s only appealing assets are its monuments and historical sites; everything else is built around capitalizing on those.

From the Taj Mahal, our guide took us to an artisan shop that specialized in stone inlay work.  His intention was to give us an appreciation for the painstaking, meticulous craft that had gone into so much of the Taj Mahal.  It worked.  The workmanship of the hundreds of pieces we saw here was nothing short of stunning.  After a brief demonstration of the carving of the marble and the intricate grinding of the tiny inlay pieces, we toured the showroom for about half an hour with our jaws gaping.  In a way, we were lucky that two major impediments, price and weight, kept us from buying, or we would surely have dropped some coin here.  If anything ever drew me back to Agra, it would probably be this place, assuming we could ever find it again.  There were table tops of all sizes, plates, elephants, you name it, all decorated with the most unimaginably delicate inlay work that, for beauty, rivalled or even surpassed the Kashmiri carpets we had ogled in Kerala.  Even the smallest pieces represented hundreds of myopia-inducing hours of craftsmanship.

From the artisan’s shop we moved on to the Red Fort, yet another legacy of the Mughal Dynasty.  Personally, although the Red Fort lacks some of the majesty and intricate architecture of the Taj Mahal, I found it more engaging in that one could imagine the Mughal kings living there, holding court, and fending off their enemies.  Our guide once again tended to sugar-coat the attending history of the place, stopping just a little shy of the full story with comments like,  Shah Jahan and his son, Aurangzeb, “didn’t get along that well.”  Considering that Aurangzeb murdered his three brothers to ensure his ascension, besieged the Red Fort and cut off its water supply until his father capitulated and conceded the throne, then confined his father to eight years of house arrest in the Red Fort until his eventual death, yeah, I guess you could say they “didn’t get along that well.”   Fortunately, we had researched the history enough to fill in some of these details, which helped to bring the Red Fort alive in our imaginations.

Exterior wall and moat Irene on Black throne of Jehangir, Taj in background, across the river View toward Musamman Burj

The exterior wall and moat

Black throne of Jehangir,
Taj in background

View toward Musamman Burj,
the tower where Shah Jahan
spent his eight years of house arrest

Although our tour guide had also wanted to take us to see an embroidery factory, the day was heating up, so we chose to finish our tour with a visit to Itmad-Ud-Daulah, sometimes referred to as The Jewel Box or The Baby Taj. Despite the diminutive moniker, the Baby Taj actually predates the Taj Mahal by a decade.  Curiously, it was commissioned by the Nur Jahan, stepmother to Shah Jahan, and aunt to Mumtaz Mahal, to house the remains of her father (Mumtaz Mahal’s paternal grandfather).  Yes, it’s incestously complicated, and the polygamy doesn’t simplify matters.

Perhaps the more modest dimensions appealed to us (It’s almost exactly half the size), or perhaps the draw was the lack of crowds, but something about this place caught us in a way that the Taj hadn’t.  After all, when a grave site has throngs of humanity crawling all over it, it loses some of its reverence.  At any rate, we were able to take our time here and, partly due to the smaller scale, appreciate some of the decoration more fully.  The only distraction was the “shoe man” who, when we opted to carry our shoes instead of checking them with him, insisted on trying to give us an impromptu and unwanted tour.  Steven and I managed to shrug him off and focus on taking pictures, but Irene, whose kinder soul shines like a beacon and pulls like a magnet for every beggar and hawker, got dragged around for a while.

The tomb, built by his daughter, Empress Nur Jahan Tomb interior, with flash Archway detail

The Baby Taj

Tomb Interior

Arch Detail

Knowing that the next day involved both the drive back to Delhi and the flight to Pune, we chose to call it a day at this point and return to our hotel and seek refuge from the heat in the swimming pool.

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.

APTI, Day 5 – A Hindu Wedding

While we were in London, Steven had received a call from his friend and colleague, Sachin inviting us to his brother’s wedding, and we had agreed to go. As it turns out, the wedding was at 7:15 in the morning. We wondered about the timing of the event, but thought perhaps the it was a judicious choice to avoid the heat of mid-day. In fact, we found out later from some of Steven’s other friends, the timing of a Hindu wedding is governed by the horoscopes of the bride and groom, and is set at a time that is deemed to be auspicious for the marriage.

Having set our alarms for 5:00 a.m. we got up and made our way to Steven’s office, where Sachin had arranged for a driver to pick us up at 6:45. The driver was a bit early, which was a good thing, since the wedding took place at a community hall far across the city. After many nervous calls from Sachin, we fortunately arrived in time for the ceremony.

Steven had attended a Jain wedding some time earlier, so he had warned us to expect having tea and coffee offered to us many times and to pace ourselves. No sooner had we arrived at the wedding than Sachin offered us tea and coffee. While we were laughing and explaining to Sachin about Steven’s warning, Sachin’s uncle came up to us and, assuming that Sachin had not yet fulfilled his duties as host, coached him, “Tea or coffee,” with attendant Hindu head-bob.

Those of you who have “endured” lengthy Roman Catholic or Greek Orthodox weddings can rest easy. You ain’t seen nothing until you’ve been to a Hindu wedding. The ceremonies had begun the night before with various rituals which Sachin explained to us.

In the morning, the rituals continued. The first part of the ceremony we witnessed involved the “revealing” of the bride to the groom. Each stood on a small platform covered in a bed of rice, while relatives held a silk screen between them.

Their faces lit up by the brilliant glare of the video camera The bride and groom are each blessed Sand painting on pavement outside the wedding hall

The groom drapes flowers over the bride

The bride and groom are blessed

Sand “painting” outside the hall

The entire ceremony is conducted in Sanskrit, which would be the direct equivalent of a western, Christian wedding being conducted in Latin. In other words, none of the participants in the ceremony understand the various incantations, although the Pandit did stop to explain the meaning of each portion to the bride and groom, but since that explanation was in Maharathi, we were pretty much left to our own interpretations of events and to Sachin’s occasional explanations. But even Sachin admitted, with some exaggeration, “I don’t know what goes on here; I only know that if I do this, I get a wife.”

The initial morning ceremony only took about half an hour, which surprised us. After that, we were immediately ushered downstairs for breakfast, a simple rice flake dish, and more tea and coffee. That was when we learned that the ceremony was continuing upstairs. We wandered up to watch more of the rituals. In all, there were more than seven hours of ceremony over the two days. Yet this was an abbreviated ceremony, since the community hall in which it was held is nestled tightly in a suburban neighbourhood that doesn’t appreciate some of the rowdier activities in a full ceremony. These “banned” activities include having the groom ride into the ceremony on a white horse and the “Baraat,” a parade involving music and dancing.

However, the atmosphere of the ceremonies bears little resemblance to its Christian equivalent. While a certain solemnity accompanies parts of the rituals themselves, the atmosphere surrounding them is anything but solemn. People mill about and come and go as they please, chatting amongst themselves enthusiastically. Even during the initial morning ceremony, the bride’s sister fussed with the bride’s hair during the ceremony.

I had been unsure of whether to bring my camera, but I decided to bring it and follow the lead of other guest in deciding whether or not to pull it out. I needn’t have worried. Cameras were everywhere and all parts of the ceremonies were photographed. In fact, the entire function was photographed and videotaped by two gentlemen who were being anything but unobtrusive. The videographer had a huge light on top of his camera that seared the eyeballs of anyone in its path. One had to feel sympathy for the bride and groom who spent much of the day in its blinding light and withering heat. Just to give you an idea of the heat output of this monster, at one point in the ceremony the Pandit needed to pour some ghee (clarified butter) on a small bonfire as part of the ceremony. Unfortunately, the ghee had hardened. No problem. The videographer came to the rescue by focusing the blistering heat of his lamp on the ghee, which melted in seconds, and the ceremonies continued.

The photographer was even more intruding. Often, no sooner had the Pandit managed to herd participants into place when the photographer would intervene and re-position them for a better shot.

While the star of a western wedding is undoubtedly the bride, in a Hindu wedding, that honour goes to the groom. The bride may be beautiful (in this case, she could have easily served as a stand-in for actress Thandie Newton) and she may wear an equally beautiful sari, but the groom’s clothes are every bit as elegant, and far more plentiful. As we bade farewell to the couple as we were about to leave, Irene asked Amit, the groom, how many outfits he had worn that day. He confessed that the western suit he was currently wearing was his fifth set of clothes.

As elaborate and prolonged as the ceremonies were, there probably isn’t time and space here to document everything, even if I had understood it all and could remember it.  There are however, some features that may be worth noting.

Part of the initial ceremony had the entire audience (congregation?) throwing rice at the couple at various intervals.  We just followed everyone else’s lead on this.  Sachin’s uncle brought us more rice at one point and cautioned us not to throw it all at once, but to “throw it in installments.”

Sashes entwined, the bride and groom circle the bonfire.There is an extended portion of the ceremony which has the bride, groom, and pandit seated around a small bonfire and performing various rituals.  This caused each of them some discomfort from smoke drifting in their eyes, until someone figured out just which fans to turn off to allow the smoke to travel upward.  Near the end of this session, the groom leads the bride around the bonfire several times with their shawls entwined.

In western terms, the bride is “given away” quite late in the ceremony.   In this case, because the bride’s father had passed away, that function was performed by her uncle, who had travelled from Massachusetts.   Both he and his American wife were unaware that they were to be part of the ceremony or that, as the eldest uncle (and aunt), the wedding invitations had actually been sent out in their names.

And the groom offers a bribeOne interesting tradition has the bride’s brother twist the groom’s ear and admonish him to treat his sister well.  In this case, the scenario took on a certain comic element because the bride’s only brother was barely in his teens.  The picture at the right shows Amit, the groom offering the brother a bribe to stop the “torture.”

The groom walks the bride along a bed of flowers.Flowers feature almost as large as rice in a Hindu wedding.  For example all the women attending the wedding are offered garlands of jasmine flowers for their hair, giving the entire hall an intense but pleasant fragrance.  One of the prettier rituals involved the groom leading the bride along a platform strewn with flowers.

Later in the day, someone steals the grooms shoes, and he must go searching for them.  In the end, he pays a ransom to recover them.  We thought this was an interesting “tradition” but later one of Steven’s friends informed us that this wasn’t, in fact, any long-standing Hindu tradition, but something Hindu weddings had “acquired” from a very famous and popular Bollywood movie.  As if they needed more rituals!

We didn’t stay until the very end, but apparently, in the final ritual of the day the bride leaves her family and crosses over to her husband’s family.  In Indian culture, this is much more than a symbolic move. Hence, it is accompanied by much wailing and caterwauling on the part of the bride’s family.  We had been warned by Sachin and others that this might be part of the ceremony we would like to miss out on, so we did.

APTI, Day 4 – Sangam Guide Centre, the Old Fort at Pune (Shaniwar Wada)

Saturday was a day to take it easy and combat jet lag. We started the morning off by visiting the “German Bakery” for some breakfast omelets. Although its name suggests otherwise, the German Bakery is actually run by Nepalese or Sri Lankans; their nationality is a bit of a mystery. Steven’s various friends, who among them speak various Indian dialects, have been unable to identify the language spoken by the workers.

However, the food at the German Bakery has some resemblance to what you might find in a bakery in North America, although, as always, with some local quirks.

After breakfast, we made our way to Steven’s office to make use of the Internet and get a few odds and ends done there. Irene wanted to visit Sangam, an International Girl Guide Centre, which happens to be just a short distance away from Steven’s office. Irene’s sister-in-law, Penny, has been to all of the other World Centres (Switzerland, the UK, and Mexico) with her three daughters, but has never made it to one in Pune, so we wanted to make a vicarious visit for her.

Pool and Palms at Sangam

Garden and Dorm Units Pool and Courtyard at Sangam

Pool & Palms at Sangam

Garden & Dorm Units


We began by walking but ended up getting a rickshaw for the last little distance. After walking around the grounds for a while and asking if the gift shop would be open, we found out that the gift shop only opened at tea time. We were just about to give up and leave, when someone noticed us and asked if we wanted a tour. We happily agreed, and ended up staying for lunch as well, which turned out to be a traditional Maharashtran meal, albeit toned down a bit for the participants, who had only just arrived the day before.

The day was fairly hot and drippy, so after lunch, we made it back to Steven’s apartment to cool down a bit with a mid-day shower.

Toward evening, when it was cooler, we made our way into an older section of Pune to visit an 18th century fort/palace. The palace and surrounding walls and battlements had been built by a rich and powerful family at the beginning of the 18th century. Unfortunately, the palace itself, a seven story complex, had burned down late in the 18th century, leaving only the stone foundations, but the walls and gates are still very much intact.

The fort gates View of the grounds from atop the gate Irene and Steven on the fort wall

The Fort gates

Garden from atop the gate

On the fort wall

While we were at the palace, we drew a certain amount of attention as the only westerners in the entire complex (and the only “tourists” sporting a camera). A pair of young teenage boys followed us around for a while, giggling to themselves, until they finally mustered up the courage to ask where we were from. Then they scooted off. Later, a young boy of five or so came up to me with a big grin and said “Hello,” obviously having been coached by his father, who was standing in the background. I extended my hand, and said, “Hello, there. How are you?” at which point his father prompted him to say, “Fine,” and he scuttled off with a grin on his face a mile wide. It was a curiously charming moment.

We rounded out the day with some more Indian food at a very nice little restaurant near Steven’s apartment and came home to get some much-needed sleep.

APTI, Day 3 – Mumbai to Pune

Somehow, I had expected Indian security to be a potential snag, but, quite to the contrary, we were ushered along and put through lineups with embarrassing expediency. I say embarrassing, because these courtesies were not extended to everyone, just to the token white folks on the flight.

Steven had warned us about the humidity we could expect at Mumbai, so while it was no surprise, it was certainly noticeable, even before we got off the plane. On the plus side, I had expected it to be much warmer, but the temperature wasn’t particularly uncomfortable.

Mumbai is a city surrounded by water on all sides – in three dimensions. It shoehorns millions of people onto a small peninsula in the ocean, situated at the mouth of a river delta. And, in monsoon season at least, it is pummelled by rain from above. Mumbai just drips. The buildings, which tend to be concrete and/or brick covered in stucco, are all festooned with vertical streaks of black mould. This has the tendency to make them look abandoned, even when they are teeming with life. In fact, new construction, not yet completed, has the look of abandoned ruins from this effect.

Everything is under construction – or reconstruction – here: roads, sidewalks, stone walls (of which there are many) and buildings. Or, perhaps, I should say apparent construction.

The roadsides are lined with building materials of all sorts, paving stones and bricks being the two most common, but there is little evidence of current human activity, only unattended, partially-finished projects by the thousands.

While Mumbai and Pune are both undergoing relative economic prosperity and building booms, there are no construction cranes here. Buildings are erected in the old-fashioned way, from the ground up. In fact, as new layers of a building are added, they are temporarily supported from the previous floor until the concrete has set. So it is quite common to see the forms of the newest floor of a building being held in place by hundreds of vertical wooden or bamboo rails until the concrete has set enough to proceed to the next floor. No continuous pours here.

We were picked up at the airport by a taxi driver that Steven had booked from North America. I admit to having been a little leery of what type of vehicle we would be traveling in for the five-hour trip to Pune, where Steven lives, but I needn’t have been concerned. The driver led us to his cab, a relatively new Toyota van with leather seats and air conditioning.

Just in case you did a double-take on the five-hour cab ride, you read correctly. In India, this is the most practical way to make the 150 km trip from Mumbai to Pune. If you ever make it to India, and you are tempted to do something like rent a car, please don’t. A western driver would turn to a gibbering mass of nerves within five minutes of trying to navigate the streets and traffic of an Indian city.

I am going to try to describe traffic in Mumbai and Pune, but I will fail – miserably. There is no way to do adequate justice with two-dimensional text to such a four-dimensional marvel. But here goes. Mumbai traffic is chaos that works, sort of. First let me lay out the underpinnings. There a no traffic signs of any kind, no street signs, almost no traffic lights, and no traffic lanes, at least none that anyone abides by. There are rare stretches of street with lines painted on them, but these are ignored with total gusto and abandon. The number of lanes is determined by the width of the vehicles occupying the road and the willingness of the drivers to jam them in as tightly as possible. There are no traffic rules, or at least none that anyone would appear to adhere to. There are, however, governing principles, which I believe can be boiled down to this: get where you’re going, as fast as you can, and try not to die in the process.

Indian drivers distill driving down to its essential components: the accelerator, the horn, the brake, and the gear shift, in that order. The horn is the essential means of communication, replacing other niceties, such as signal lights. To a casual observer with imagination, the swell of traffic might resemble an immense pod of nasal whales, in constant sonic contact with one another. Unlike other cultures in which the horn carries a certain tone of aggression, in Indian traffic, it is far more nuanced. Depending on the context, the horn can be used to intone:

  • I’m here right beside you.
  • Nudge over a bit, would you? There’s room for me here.
  • I’m passing you, just to let you know.
  • Hey, slowpoke, shuffle over and let me past.

In fact, rarely does it carry the kind of angry, North American tone which would accompany a flipping of the bird to the other driver. Its established role in inter-vehicle communication, is enshrined on the back of almost all trucks and other less agile vehicles with the painted sign, “Horn OK Please.” In other words, “Honk if you want to get by me.” However, that is not to say that the horn is never used to communicate, “Get the F____ out of my way!

Horn OK Please

I need to describe one manoeuvre in a common rickshaw ride to give you a taste for the experience. When leaving the neighbourhood in which Steven lives, rickshaw drivers are forced to make a right turn and proceed head-on into oncoming traffic for several blocks before they reach a break in the median which allows them to make it to the left side of the road (the proper side for driving in India). At that point, they simply cut across three to four lanes of oncoming traffic to make it to the other side, beeping their horn the entire way across.

U-turns in the middle of busy streets without medians are another favourite stunt. Streets with no medians also increase the flexibility of traffic flow, allowing drivers to “borrow” the oncoming lanes if there is no significant traffic coming their way.

Allow me to introduce the characters in the drama that is Indian traffic.

A Mumbai RickshawThe most common is the rickshaw, the ubiquitous means of public transportation in India. Later, I will embed some pictures in this blog, but in the mean time, let me describe one for you. Take a motorcycle power train. Slap it on a tricycle frame. Adorn it with a front seat for the driver and a back seat for two or three passengers. Cover it with a canvas top, and you have it. There is also a cargo variation of the same which replaces the passenger area with a small covered box, essentially creating a little cube van. Rickshaws, and their larger cousins, the tempo car are powered by small two-stroke engines which burn a gasoline/oil mixture capable of spewing out particularly noxious fumes which, when mixed with the diesel smoke of buses, trucks and many of the cars, provides riders with more than their daily dose of harmful hydrocarbons.

In Mumbai, rickshaws are followed closely by taxis, which line the streets. All taxis in Mumbai are identical, black and yellow, a model known as the Premiere. They also all appear to be all of the same vintage, not recent.

Public transportation is rounded out by the occasional bus, packed to bursting with passengers. Trucks make up a small component of the traffic, less in the core of the city and increasingly more toward the edge.

Private transportation is limited primarily to motorcycles and the occasional car. Motorcycles and scooters are far more common in Pune than in Mumbai. While the most prevalent car is probably the home-grown Tata, there are many Japanese and Korean vehicles as well, (in decreasing order of prevalence) Suzukis, Hyundais, Toyotas, and Hondas). Completing the mix are a small number of Fords (Escorts), and a few GMs, but these are far less common. Most cars here are the size of a Honda Fit or smaller. Among the traffic of Pune or Mumbai, a Honda Accord (relatively rare) stands out as an absurdly large vehicle, so most North American cars and trucks would simply be too expensive and too awkward on Indian roads.

I say awkward because, in Indian traffic, size matters, and not in the way you might think. Motorcycles are most nimble, as they can bob and weave among lanes or create their own by ducking out into shoulder areas of the road as needed. Rickshaws are second in terms of traffic agility, mostly because of their size but also due to a sharp turning radius that allows them to pull a U-turn on a dime (in the midst of traffic) or even weave perpendicular to traffic at times.

Steven said that a colleague of his used the analogy of downhill skiing to describe Indian traffic, and that works to a degree. In skiing, you bear no responsibility for what goes on in your wake; your only concern is with avoiding downhill traffic. Indian driving shares this. And certainly the bobbing and weaving nature of a crowded ski hill holds many parallels to a crowded Indian street.

But skiing, even at breakneck speeds, doesn’t bear the inherent peril and urgency of an Indian street. A near miss that could rattle your nerves in North America and leave you shaken for hours afterwards would go completely unnoticed here. That’s because, within the next minute, you will experience ten more such near misses. When I began this paragraph, I intended to finish it by saying that even though we have experienced countless near misses, we have yet to even see an accident, but alas, on our way home in a taxi today we were part of a minor fender-bender. It was so minor that we didn’t even realize we’d been rear-ended until the driver got out of the car to accost the culprit who had hit us. Certainly, though, many vehicles bear battle scars that attest to a history of encounters that got too close, and buses in particular, probably because they spend so many years on the road, or perhaps because they are the least nimble inhabitants of the streets, look like cardboard boxes which have been waylaid by the postal service and have spent many months finding their destination; they arrive battered, softened, and crumpled in on all sides.

I also have to define near miss. Vehicles often drive within inches of each other. When I say inches, I don’t mean “less than a foot;” I mean within two or three inches. In fact, it isn’t uncommon for one driver to reach out and tap another vehicle as a way of communicating that he/she is getting rather close, and passengers on the backs of motorcycles will often reach out with an extended hand, as the motorcycle cuts past another vehicle, as if to physically nudge past while maintaining a modicum of space.

Motorcycles are particularly prevalent in Pune, and seem, to the visitor, to be a bold choice of transportation. Helmets are a rarity, as are mirrors. Again, what’s the point of a mirror when you are not concerned with what’s behind you? A fairly common sight is a man driving a motorcycle with a woman riding “sidesaddle” behind him. Children are often in the mix as well. Steven jokes of seeing a family of seven on a motorcycle, but our record sighting is a family of five. Scooters are popular among women, since they can drive them even in traditional dress.

I haven’t quite completed the picture of Indian streets just yet. There are still other, ambulatory players involved. Since sidewalks are the most frequent victims of re-construction, they are notoriously intermittent and unreliable. And the very moment a stretch of sidewalk is completed, it becomes prime real estate for parking motorcycles or setting up some sort of vendor stand (fruit, flowers, you name it). So, as a result, just as in small town Saskatchewan, people walk on the streets. Depending on the street, the shoulders of the road can be bustling with pedestrian and bicycle traffic.

Being a pedestrian presents its own challenges, particularly when it comes to crossing a street. If you were to try crossing the street the western way, by walking or running across in one, single pass, you would get picked off by a vehicle just as surely as a cat would catch a fat mouse. And it would be your own fault because you failed to give the drivers time to judge where you were going so they might avoid hitting you. Indeed, crossing the road as a pedestrian is probably one of the best ways to truly understand the nature and principles of Indian traffic.

The procedure goes something like this. Find a gap just large enough in the traffic to step out into it. Step far enough out so that the next motorcycle or rickshaw can zip past behind you. If you are crossing with others, walk abreast so that you present the slimmest profile to oncoming traffic and be sure to move in unison, following the lead of the person who is farthest upstream. Rickshaws and motor bikes present the best opportunity for making progress, as one or two bold steps in front of them provides enough space for them to slip behind you. If you remain still, traffic will continue to flow around you like water around a stone. You simply repeat this process enough times to reach the other side. It’s a bit like George Castanza playing Frogger across a busy New York street, but without the frantic side-to-side action. It requires some patience and steady nerves as traffic zips past you inches on either side, but many times, it is the only option to get where you are going.

The final players on the Indian streets are non-human. Throw in a smattering of dogs, donkeys, cattle, water buffalo, and goats, and the picture is complete. Dogs, donkeys, and cattle are usually random players, but water buffalo and goats are most often herded. I was amazed to watch three or four water buffalo walk placidly, single-file amid the bustling traffic of Pune, their only human guidance the re-assuring hand of the herdsman on the flank of the last buffalo in the queue.

Driving in India strikes a curious equilibrium between aggression and civility, between chaos and control. Here are a few short videos which might help to give you some idea of the nature of Indian traffic. These were taken on moderately busy streets in Pune.

I apologize for the sound. If you turn down the volume, you should be able to pick out the incessant beeping of horns just barely over the drone of traffic. Clicking on the titles will take you to Youtube, but the embedded videos are included as well.

A Small Pune Intersection

A Small Pune Street, from Above

View from Inside a cab

These aren’t my videos, but they are worth watching.

APTI, Day 2 – Heathrow & the Flight to Mumbai

Day 2 of our journey consisted of a nine-hour lay-over in Heathrow, followed by an equally long flight to Mumbai.The layover was – as with most layovers – uneventful. However, here are some observations from a first-time visitor to Heathrow:

  • Sitting for nine hours in Terminal 4 gives a person the luxury to do silly things, like time the frequency of flights out of Heathrow. The runway we observed, west of Terminal 4, sees, on average, a flight depart every 55 seconds. While I found that rather amazing, I could almost picture how planes could be queued up to take off at that frequency. What I had trouble wrapping my head around was the obvious corollary: that meant there was, on one runway or another, a plane landing every 55 seconds. I decided that if I come back in another life, I don’t want to come back as an air traffic controller in Heathrow.
  • No laptop battery is going to last through a nine-hour layover, so Steven and I were scrambling to locate power outlets in the terminal. As it turns out, these are about as easy to come by as petunias in a pig pen. The few that existed were most often gobbled up by other selfish, greedy travellers with laptops.
  • If you’re the squeamish type, skip this observation. But it has to be noted, the urinals in Heathrow are like none that I’ve seen in North America. Picture half an avocado with the pit removed and then tilted slightly and you’ve got a pretty good picture. One minus: they don’t afford a lot of privacy. One big plus: no backsplash. After a couple hundred years of peeing into porcelain, some British engineer has finally mastered the hydraulic physics needed to avoid one of life’s little unpleasantries. Kudos to him/her. I’m not sure why, but somehow I think a woman solved this one. After all, men have been content enough to pee on themselves for centuries, so why would they stop now. If you read this, and you were disgusted by it, you have no one to blame but yourself; I forewarned you.
  • For an airport that handles thousands and thousands of people a day, Heathrow is surprisingly uncrowded. Now, if they would just install a few more power outlets …
  • When I go to pay for food here, I have that moment when I think to myself, hmmmnnn, that’s a little expensive. And then I remember to convert pounds to dollars. Ouch.

Sunset over Heathrow Airport

The flight to Mumbai is thankfully far more peaceful and uneventful than the flight to London, so we won’t dwell on it other than to say that the evening meal was probably one of the best I’ve ever had on an airplane. Catering to the clientèle on the flight, which was overwhelmingly Asian, it was a vegetarian curry meal. Kudos to British Air on that front.

A Passage to India, Day 1

Getting sleep on an airplane shouldn’t be this hard. Really. It’s an eight-hour flight from Calgary to Heathrow, after all. And I’m not a particularly light sleeper. But there are impediments.

First, we have to get past the gauntlet of service with a smile. Wine we probably shouldn’t drink. Meals we don’t really need, since we ate at the airport just before we left. I know that sounds like I’m complaining about the positive, but it probably takes an hour and a half for all of this to grind its course, and when the flight doesn’t leave until 10:00 p,m. that pushes back any attempt at sleeping until close to midnight. And with an engorged stomach because of too much wine and too much food, that’s not happening immediately. (Children of children of the depression inherit at least this much from their parents: we don’t waste food or drink, especially when it’s free – or included in the price.)

My travelling partners indulge in some Gravol to help them get to sleep, but I’m more stubborn than that. No drug-induced coma for me!

So, I listen to a talking book for a while to wind down (David Sedaris’ When You Are Engulfed in Flames, if anyone is interested). At about 12:30 I make my first attempt to get to sleep. And I do. For about ten or twenty minutes.

Now, please understand, that I like children. I’ve even helped raise a couple myself, one of which I’m currently traveling with. But man, there’s nothing to rouse a person out a light sleep like a screaming toddler. I mean screaming. No hyperbole. I have foam ear plugs in and the stock airplane headphones over top of those, and still the piercing shrieks make it to my tympanic membranes. I can’t blame the child. God knows what inexplicable pressure changes her own ear drums are suffering from. Or perhaps it’s the steady, other-worldly drone and vibration of the engines and of the airplane itself. Nor can I blame the parents. Heck, I feel sorry for them; they’re doing their best to calm the little gaffer. In the end, that’s probably what keeps a person awake the most – the feeling of impotence in the face of a little person’s discomfort. There’s nothing I can do – legally at least – to quell the little spud’s fear or pain.

So I crank up the Ipod again, but this time with music. What would shield me from the screams and have a pacifying effect at the same time? I decide on The National, and immediately my thoughts turn to musical tastes. Why is it, after all, that I like these guys? I could say that it’s somehow the simple layering of a lyrical vocal track over a persistent drum beat and a simple chord progression, kind of in a 54-40 sort of way, but that could describe almost any rock song or group. Or I could argue that it’s Matt Berninger’s voice, which sort of conjures up Brad Roberts of Crash Test Dummies but with a smoother, sleep-walking I-don’t really-give-a-shit-about-what-I’m-singing-about quality, but I’m hard pressed to turn that comparison into a sell job.

Here’s a sample of The National.

But I digress.

Nevertheless, I manage to listen to most of the CD before I’m ready to give sleep another try and leave behind little baby gut-wrench. I try, and I succeed. For twenty minutes – maybe.

That’s when Bozo Bob at the adjacent window seat decides to open up his window blind and wash the cabin in a warm, sunrise glow that just screams, “Wake up, knucklehead,” right through the ol’ translucent eyelids.

A geography lesson may be necessary here for some. You see, the path of least resistance from Calgary to London takes us up in Arctic Circle territory, over Greenland and down over Scotland. And on July 2nd, we’re still pretty firmly planted in the “Land – and Time – of the Midnight Sun.” Add to that 30,000 ft. or so of altitude, and you can pretty much be guaranteed that the sun is going to shine throughout the entire trip.

But back to Bozo Bob. Why does he open the blind, you ask? Is it to admire the sunrise? To gaze at the clouds? No. Bob is working on his laptop, which for some reason, he can’t seem to do without the glory of full, blazing daylight. Part of me wants to scream, “Your screen has a backlight, assface!” while the other part of me wants to school him, none too kindly, on the advantages of being able to touch-type. You see, Bob is in his sixties, and it would appear that he is a late-comer to the whole technology thing. His efforts are accompanied with much chin-scratching and staring longingly at the screen, as if he could will it to produce loaves and fishes, or whatever the frick he’s trying to accomplish. In the end, Steven, who is closest to him, asks him if he would kindly pull down his blind. He does so, sort of. He pulls down one and leaves another open. I guess that cuts the candlepower in half, but it doesn’t exactly do the trick.

At this point, I will summarize. I do get back to sleep, but only for a few moments before little baby gut-wrench fires up again. And so on …

On the upside, I became more familiar with my Ipod, discovering trivia games and solitaire that I never knew I had before.

The long and the short of it is that when we landed in Heathrow, I had had about and hour or an hour and a half sleep, tops.

So ends the tale of Day 1. Perhaps tonight, on the way to Mumbai, the Gravol will hold more appeal.