Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Tamils, Tigers, & Tailors

The time has come to discuss backpacks. These bits of luggage hold our things, our important things, objects & devices thought important for the future. Sometimes we spend lots of money on them. They must squish into all kinds of tight spaces, on buses, and between people (lots of people!). We carry them on our backs, ride on the shoulders of people going places, or standing around. We love them, like our bicycles. They are our inanimate intimates.

wawawa z22

Exhibit A, above: my dearly beloved Gregory Z-22 backpack, with a structural problem. This clever bit of wire that is the frame has popped out the back -- the bit of loop poking out the bottom. Our physical posessions, like the material envelopes of our bodies, are temporary things. They pass into and out of the universe, and our grasp on any of them is tenuous, at best. But then there is REI, with its guarantees and return policies. Not, unfortunately, in the middle of Tamil Nadu, India.

I have to rave a little about this pack. It was love at first sight. I saw this pack at REI around last labor day, and seeing that my old pack was over 10 years old, with a nonfunctioning zipper -- decided it was time to commit to a new one. It is tandoori red, a perfect color to take to India. It has a really clever design with a single piece of looped wire creating this spring loaded dynamic tension that gives the pack its shape. We went for a walk around the store together, and together, decided there was no way we could part.

How cool is this pack? I walked across the street to Wildnerness Exchange, and the gearheads kids working there said something along the lines of: "Whoah, cool! Is that the new Z-22? Awesome. I didn't even know it was out yet!" Yes. That's how cool this pack is. Was.

The clever engineers, however, didn't see a problem with having the endpoints of this wire, where it seems the greatest pressure is, rubbing into the seam of two pieces of fabric, totally unreinforced. So, after less than a year of totally modest use, this happens to me, in the middle of India. One of my key pieces of travel technology, busted. I was sad. No REI for me to take this to. What to do?

But we are in Madurai, and Alex happily tells me that there are many tailors in this town who can knock out cheap copies of any shirt you have in no time, and at almost no cost. Hmm. Perhaps these tailors, with their man-powered sewing machines can outwit the smarty pants engineers at Gregory?

tamil tailor fixing my pack tailor and uncle

After carefully considering my design proposal, and rejecting it, this clever tailor explored, inverted, stretched, and played with the pack for a good ten minutes. Finally, after having reverse engineered it's clever wire construction, he spent all of two minutes applying a clever patch to the backpack that the engineers at Gregory would be wise to emulate. Basically, he figured out how to pull the wire frame out, and resew the broken seams from the inside of the pack, and reinsert the wire. So far it's holding up fine. And if anything goes wrong again -- I know how to direct anothor Indian tailor to the hack.

Cost of pack: $100. Tailor's fee: $1. Tip: $1. Having a working backpack while traveling through India: Priceless.

I'm not sure how I'll explain all this to REI, or what I'll do with the pack when I return. Surely it's a design flaw in the Z-22. Perhaps they've fixed it. Maybe we are in posession of the sole next-gen prototype. I have pictures. And stories. If anyone at Gregory wants the solution, lets have our people talk to one another. And this tailor totally gets royalties.

spaceship bar

But we are not here solely to break and repair luggage. Far from the purpose of our travels. We are here, to boldly go where no bar goer has gone before. To the stylish bar in our hotel's basement, designed to feel like the interior of a space ship. The effect works. Lightyears go by as we eat delicious masala bar snacks and consume various kinds of overpriced alcohol.

But to boldy drink where no man has gone before isn't really our game, is it? I have something to tell you. I'm not left handed either! You guessed it! We're here to see temples. Some of the finest, if not the finest, Hindu temples in South India.

it's only a model

Above, but a simple model of the temple complex we've come so far to see.

aspiring hindudes hindudes

Above, some Hindu pilgrims. Beside them, Alex and Chaim, aspiring Hindudes, sporting the sufficient but not necessary temple garb -- Dhotis. The goggles are not required whatsoever, but they can help with the sun. Little girls gawk when they see us wearing this traditional Indian clothing. People love it. We love it. Together, we're awesome. We would wear it directly upon our boxers, but we can't figure out where our money goes. That must be after the introductory how to wear a dhoti course, and we are but simple noobs.

temple guard

Above, an icon at one of the gates, illustrating what happens if you are groped for multiple centuries. Things get shiny, anatomical details are weathered away, and things shrink. It also provides a hypothesis for why Tezuka drew the Indian women in Buddha the way he did. Reference material.

in the temple i was born lived a man

The temple complex is really nice. It's just really nice. It's a kind of swirling, quiet, chaos of people going places, doing things, eating, talking, touring (like us). But mostly, it's not a museum. It's a real live functioning place of worship and life. We are, as foreign tourists, but specks in a buzzing hive of activity.

madurai tower

Above, one of the temple towers. This photo just doesn't do it justice. It's covered in colorful painted stonework. It's big. It's nice.

a quiet, delicate, moment bazaar at madurai temple

Internally, the compound feels like a kind of a maze. It has an internal bazaar of sorts, and is filled with meditation spaces, and many moody spaces. The above left picture is from the daytime, while the one at right is not.

temple olpihant

Oh yeah. Like Hampi, they have elephants on site that exchange blessings for loose change. Just insert coin into slimy trunk. Elephants here have cooler makeup artists than in Hampi. I swear I saw some camels go by, too, but I didn't get any pictures.

alex chaim on da bus

So... we're having trouble with the trains. Like getting compartments on sleepers. There is unreserved second sitting, a tactile, metaphorical taste of India's multitudes -- an experience in itself, but we'll get to that later. So it looks like buses from the bottom of India to the top. Joy. Buses come with all kinds of interesting add ons, like entertainment. And people. Lots of people. I can tell you what 1 billion people feel like. But more later. The entertainment on the bus isn't exactly defeaning, but it isn't good for your ear drums, either. Like towels, earplugs are a key component in every traveler's bag. Yotam was surprised when I asked him to bring a set for himself. Maybe you want a vegetable peeler, too, he suggested. Now we know.

The buses are cultural awakenings, of sorts, for us, to Indian pop culture, movies, and music videos. Our brains, as well as our ear drums, are exploded just a little bit more, by each bus ride we take. Indian heroes have the kung fu prowess of Matrix heroes, and films in their entirety are often hyper stylized and edited like one normal minute of an MTV music video. And then the music videos. I've grabbed a random one off of youtube above for your enjoyment above, but you can surely surf for more...

We're basically at the bottom of India, and our tour finishes in the north, in Delhi. We want to go to to Rajastan before it gets to hot, and see Varanasi, the Taj Mahal, and so on before we wrap things up. So, we're basically on the wrong side of the country. Our plan is to go to Pondicherry, the old French colony, and then make our way north towards, for the Rajastan-Agra-Varanasi-Mountain portion of our trip. India is big, and this is far. And there's no direct route. So, stay tuned for awesome updates displaying just how hard core and dedicated we are to crossing India.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Bombay the Hard Way

An email from Yotam, after arriving home:

From: Yotam
To: Chaim, Alex
Date: Feb 16 (6 days ago)

OK, I made it home. Lots of Americans on the plane ride home --- where were they the whole time? OK, none were the backpacking type, so that explains that.

I didn't tell my bank I would be in India --- I don't think I have ever told them when I travel --- so they blocked my card right after I bought my flight home apparently. The day I left, I couldn't take 1000 rupees from the ATM. When I got back to New York, I couldn't buy a metrocard, so I stood outside in the 25 degree (farenheit!) weather and made the phone calls to unblock my card. That explains that.

I didn't use the 1000 rupees I got from Chaim just before I left. I took the bus from Munnar all the way to ... somewhere they told me to get off, since I told them I was going to the airport, which is a little ways north of Cochin. The bus depot where I was dropped off was 5 km from the airport. There, a very nice man from Bombay put me on the right bus and sat and chatted until it was time for his bus to leave. Had I been staying, he would have invited me to his vacation bungalow near Cochin. Another bus took me the last little bit to the airport for 7.5 rupees. I got two .25 rupee coins for change! Total trip cost from Munnar to the Cochin airport: less than 100 rupees. That explains that.

(The airport was nice enough. Some family I smiled at came to shake hands with me, from the grandchildren to all the surviving grandparents. I was offered a phone number so I could see them again next time I was in Kerala. Go Airways took a while to process me and give me a *printout* which let me enter the airport and go to the actual ticketing counter and get an actual ticket. Also, their flight left pretty late --- it was late arriving from Mumbai. There is 1 very expensive restaurant there with a free buffet if you have a platinum mastercard. I don't. There is no internet cafe in the airport. There is a sign, but the inside shows a gutted room. I think there is free wifi, however. Once you cross through security into the gate area there are plush-looking chairs and a kiosk selling samosas and other pastries at not-too-exorbitant prices. The "drinkable water" looked like it was filtering the water, so I drank a couple cups of it because I was *really* thirsty and no one was selling bottled water. That may not have been a great idea --- I blame my stomach grumbliness now on that.)

I bought some vacuum packed stuff (tea and cashews) in Munnar. When I got off the plane in New York, I noticed that the plastic was super- hugging the contents. Difference in air pressure. That explains that.

In fact, I still have the 1000 rupees. I had planned on changing it after I ate something in Bombay airport and crossed through to the gate area, but Bombay just about chewed me up and spit me out. I was pretty late at this point, because my connecting flight was late taking off and because we circled the airport in Mumbai for a while waiting to land, which gave me less than 2 hours before my NY flight was due to take off. I needed a little square of paper from the information booth at the domestic arrivals terminal to ride the free bus to the international terminal, but the lady wouldn't give it to me because I didn't have my ticket or an official-looking printout of my itinerary. I think I could have gotten it from her if I had been more insistent, and I *REALLY* should have, knowing what I know now.

It would have saved me a lot of grief. She told me to go take a taxi. Fine, I thought, I'm so close. I went to the taxi counter, for some reason they didn't want to give me a pre-paid ticket but told me it should cost about 100 rupees on the meter and to "walk outside and take the first left then the first right" to get to the taxis. I, umm, did that but the taxi area was unclear and someone came and agreed to do it for 100 rupees, even though he would repeat "OK, 100 bucks" every time I said "100 rupees." He walked me to a specific taxi from a row of lots of taxis and rickshaws with two different, bigger men sitting in front. I told them to use the meter, and they said OK but at a certain point along the way, the non-driving man said he was getting out of the car and I should pay him the money now, and his driver would continue the rest of the way. The situation started to look VERY dodgy and I refused, saying I wouldn't pay until I got there and he could be ride with us. Also, this ambiguity about the meter, 100 rupees, and 100 bucks, came up again. In the darkened car, the man was turning around to look at me and telling me to "calm down" at my insistence, so I declared that I was leaving the car and fumbled to open the door, whose knobs were foreign to me. "Calm down," he kept insisting, and finally, "OK, just get out," which I finally did. (The weird knob turns upwards to open the door.)

As soon as I exited, I was pounced on by three taxi drivers, who all agreed to use the meter. (In hindsight, I should have held an impromptu auction: who will drive me for 100 rupees? and let them fight for me at a pre-determined price.) I got in one guy's cab, he turned on the meter, but it was a smudged thing and the numbers were dim and etc etc. As we drove, he wanted to set a fixed price of 100 dollars. I told him I wasn't born yesterday, I know how much money that is, and insisted on 100 rupees. I informed him that I had just travelled for 5 hours all the way from Munnar to the Cochin airport on 100 rupees, so surely that was fair for this 2km. If you're not taking the magic free bus that goes on some magic exclusive route between domestic and international terminals, you have to go through city traffic which was really quite horrendous. So we had time to chat, but I was cagey about where I was from and the adrenaline was flowing because of the last taxi and because I was so late. In the end, he wanted to cut a deal for 500 rupees, then 300 rupees, but he insisted 100 was too little so he cleaned off the meter, which showed 165, but he claims it's a number you look up in a booklet based on if its day and night and the booklet showed that the number corresponded to 230 rupees. I gave him 200 rupees in the end. Also, I got out and walked a bit at the very end because traffic was just stopped, and the doors were in sight.

The airport was a mess. A very narrows sidewalk with people and there luggage camped out there as far as I could tell. Inside, there was a gargantuan line to get your luggage security checked. Since I didn't have any checked luggage, I skipped it and got my ticket from the delta counter. I didn't change my money yet, because I wanted to get through security and only then relax. Once through security, there were no money changers. That explains that.

(Also note that rickshaws aren't allowed into Bombay and the book says they drop you off somewhere horrible-smelling on the edge of town, but they can go between airports. My ordering: Magic bus, then pre-paid, and only then the wild coyotes that drive taxis and rickshaws to the airport to prey on tourists.)


Thursday, February 14, 2008

Empire of Tea

We arrive under cover of night after 6 hours of bumpy bus riding and grinding through mountain roads, into the Western Ghats of Kerala. It is painful and hard. We're not sure it was worth it, since it's totally dark, colder, and it looks like another small Indian town. I tell everyone that in the morning that we will find out whether this place was worth it or not, once we can see our new digs: Munnar. Munnar sounds like Moon + Lunar. Everytime we see a cow Yotam says "Moo-nar".

making bread eating bread

It's only 9 or so, and the only food available, really, is the food stall for drivers. We dive in.

Above, you can see men using the four food groups -- flour, ghee, water, and heat -- to make delicious Paratha, Dosas, and Chapati. We eat beans and eggs with these breads. Quite a scene, and we're basically the only foreigners eating here, which is either foolish, adventurous, or both.

munnar morning view

We wake up and see this. We are startled.

Our accommodation, Devonshire Hills Club, is totally surreal. I feel that we've stepped into some kind of Chronicles of Narnia like place, but with the usual Indian Masala mix of chaos, dust, and roughness. Two gardeners work every morning for hours, but the carpets in the room look every day of their twenty years, without a moment's cleaning or upkeep. It's a kind of run down YMCA facility, with a staff of at least five people doting over us. We are basically the only guests, as far as we can tell. They practically plead with us to play Billiards, Ping Pong, and eat their food. Everyone wants us to play and have a good time. Breakfast is brought to our rooms, and our cook is super eager to make us breakfast and dinner. He is always disappointed when we tell him we're not eating in his Cantina. Turns out it's a sort of country club for mid level staff of the tea plantations, accountants and so on. The managers have their own club which was the British club many years ago. We're told the tea pickers have their own club, too, though I'm doubtful, since they seem to live in long houses roofed in corrugated iron.

A huge area around Munnar is covered in tea plantations. Even Tata, the Gibson-esque, Zorastrian family owned, Indian mega corportation with holdings in everything from steel, cell phones, satellite tv, cars, has a tea plantation here. We decide to trek through some emerald green hills of tea. They go on forever. Mountains and mountains of tea. Never in our lives did we imagine we would find ourselves in a place where tea occupied a good 80% of our field of view in all directions. I suppose you could put your head into a large tea leaf filled box, and achieve a higher visual density of tea, but we think our experience might be more pleasant.

yotam tea hopping

So much space, so carefully manicured -- It feels like we are in a Japanese garden, but we've been shrunk down, so we are but ants crawling through the moss of tea.

j-rock garden mountain

If you look at this picture above, it's a great example of Japanese garden rock placement -- the rock looks like a mountain in the distance, but it is simply a boulder in the middle ground. And you can see the real mountains in the background (which Japanese gardens don't often have), and how they aren't visually too far off from the rock in the middle ground.

Japanese gardens (see picture above) telescope this sort of space-object relationship, using even smaller rocks in the background of gardens as visual metaphors for large mountains, like this rock is doing here.

It all looks like a kind of video game level -- I want to soar through it, or roll a monkey ball down the paths. It's an extreme example of human cultivation integrating with and building upon natural beauty. The path patterns in the tea look like leaf veins -- pathways of multiple interlocking scales. My inner algorithmist perks up. The smallest pathways seem to emerge from people walking among the bushes while trying to minimize distance to all neighboring tea bush centers, and total length of paths.

tea fields forever

We climb up to a mountaintop, hill after hill, to see the next awesome view. Intermittently, in highly remote locations, we find lonely shrines. It's so lovely, Yotam considers withdrawing his PhD candidacy after gaining what he, and some readers have referred to as "perspective". He pens a faux letter to his department:

Dear New York University,

I have decided to withdraw my PhD candidacy.
Lying here on a tea-covered hill in Munnar
has given me a certain perspective unavailable
in New York. I apologize for any difficulty
my non-return may cause.

Yotam Gingold
February 12th, 2007

tea pickers residence children of tea

Above, a picture of the kind of place the tea pickers live in. If you click into flickr, you can see more detail. Many of the people we meet in Munnar are the children of tea pickers. To the right, some children of tea pickers, returning from school, we think. The girls are standing farther back, a little bit shyer than the boys.

tea explorers

This is a popular resort town with Indians. Lots of newlyweds come here. We overhear, echoing through the mountains, a kind of party from a neighboring resort complete with audience singing, games, and contests. Yotam jokes that it might be a kind of ice breaker/mixer for arranged marriages: "Hello, my name is Sandeep and I love sandcastles. My name is Ranjit and I love long distance running."

We end up, tired after many hours of hiking, at a lovely British looking house with a lovely garden, the same one visible from our room window in the morning, way up in the mountains. (See first picture in this post). A woman informs us this is the manager's bungalow, and she is his wife. Alright then. We must have hiked all afternoon to get here, she tells us. Indeed. We hike another km or so down to the main road, and catch a rick back to town.

our fearless tea driver

The next day we book a jeep to the (reputed) highest tea plantation in the world. It is Mr. Toad's Wild Tea Ride -- it is bumpy, and we climb dizzying heights. Some switch back turns are multi-point turns. Our driver can even talk on his cell phone while managing this. Indian drivers are truly incredible.

so high

We stop at this ridiculous point at the peak of the climb. It feels like we are wandering through the tip top of a cloud scraped Chinese landscape painting.

The photo below really looks like one. Click through for more pictures of this crazy castle in the sky.

india china painted mountain

Giant clouds that would normally be sailing far overhead just roll up into our feet, and float through us, and being their slow tumble down the other side of the mountain.

tea factory

We arrive at one of the highest altitude tea plantations in the world, and one which still uses traditional processing techniques. They have no computers, either, just typewriters. Why bother? This is tea we're talking about.

picking tea DSC03816

Above, a tea picker, and some machinery they use to sort tea, at one of the final stages of tea preparation. Your writer is too tired of tea and so on to narrate all 11 hundred stages of the tea processing process procedure. Rest assured that tea traditionally undergoes many stages of processing through a series of picturesque machinery before it reaches you. Click through into flickr to browse the machinery. Pretty, no?

tea drinkers assoc.

Above, Alex and Yotam, members of the tea drinking association here. Alex is wearing his usual American cowboy hat. Just as Canadian backpackers have maple leaf flags on all their stuff, American travelers should always have a cowboy hat at hand, or on head.

At the end of the day, we are exhausted, and I can't figure out why, since mostly we rode around in a jeep. I think because this was basically like riding a horse for five hours -- bumpy, and lots of core strength to balance required.

The next day we decide to see some wildlife and do a trek. Like everything on our trip, it is carefully planned in excruciating detail, at the last minute, over a late, lazy breakfast. We call ahead and are assured that we can do whatever trek we want -- just show up. Ok. After three hours of a distressingly uncomfortably and bumpy bus ride through desperately beautiful scenery, we arrive. We are tired. We see monkeys, which never ever get old. We are told that it is not, in fact, possible, that all the guides are gone, and we're about 20km from anywhere we want to be. And we just missed the last bus back in the opposite direction by 5 minutes. The next will be in three hours. Fine, we'll trek out alone! Oh no, sir, it is dangerous and not allowed. Guides are required. There are leopards, elephants, monkeys, and so on around. Fine, fine.

So, we hitchhike back with a middle aged Indian couple from Tamil Nadu, and head back up the mountain to another trekking outpost, perhaps where we should have stopped. We pass it, believing our driver had proper instructions, and not realizing that we should stop. 4km later: "Where do you want to be dropped off?" Some discussion ensues, and we get out, realize we've overshot by 4km, and we start trekking back. It is getting late, and we are hot, hungry, and tired. All of a sudden a giant open transport truck comes rushing towards us. Thinking fast, we flag it down, and hop onto the back, and hold on for our lives.

holding on for life

Pictured Above: Alex casually holds on to a giant truck so that he doesn't meet death or serious injury. At this point I realize: every trip should have a wild ride in an open air earth shaking multi-ton cargo truck. I mean, really. In Cambodia a few years ago, we biked from Siem Reap to Bantay Srei, which was really friggin far, and then hitchhiked, bikes and all, in a similar truck all the way home, since we were too pooped to do anything but breathe. Once the adrenalin goes, though, you have the energy to hold on, since your comfort, if not your life, seems to be at stake. This part of our trek made up for the other bad bits, and proved our adventuresome souls to all concerned.

trekkers yeah

The trek afterwards was quite nice, though not as adventurous as getting to the trek. The lesson in all this is that the real trek is getting to where you want and executing plans. Actually following someone else's program -- easy.

We see footprints of leopards, guar, and so on. Some days elephants block the road for hours. Other days, like ours, we see very little. But the views are lovely, and the people are really sweet.

yotam cleaning face

Sadly, we say goodbye to Yotam at this point. His journey with us has come to an end, and he must, in fact, go back to NYU to complete his PhD. All of here at Phases Crossed, and our readers, too, we think, will miss you. Have a great trip back!

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

God's Own Country

I self-assemble my waking self up in the trees. Birds do their morning chatter. Calling and responding. "Koi-fee, koi-fyee!" Other strange, almost English sounding birdsong prop me up, out of sleep. It's not comfortable sleeping up here, in trees and darkness. Light? The breeze is strong, and cool. My body isn't quite comfortable, since you kind of have to curl up oddly up here. Alex and Yotam are sleeping nearby.

alex reading

Oh, wait, hold on. We've just woken up in normal sleeper class after a long train ride south from Goa. Right. Those birds are food vendors, and it's dark and windy because it is dark, and the mechanical fans are going strong. Normal sleeper has no AC or sheets or pillows. Whatever. We're hard core, and have places to be.

cochin train station (i think)

We have traveled to God's Own Country. That's what Kerala, the name of India's south-west most state, means. It is nice. Pretty nice. Pretty really realy nice.

kerala socialist poster 2

This is a socialist wonderland! People here are more educated and wealthier, judging by the advertisements around. Look at this poster! It makes me happy in many many ways. Marx, Lenin, the hammer and sickle -- they are all common icons here. I am most pleased knowing that somewhere in the world this graphic design style is still employed without irony. Awesome. Kerala is in fact officially a democratic socialist state. Later we meet a Keralan family. The dad tells us that they have the highest literacy of any Indian state. When he was 15 (20 years ago), through a government organized program, he taught older people how to read and write, which was very hard.

puppies nibbling

We stop first in Fort Cochin, an ancient trading port. Finding a place to stay was easy. If the neighbor is a nice German lady with cute puppies -- it's a done deal.

chinese fishing nets of cochi

You can see here some ancient Kochi Chinese fishing net contraptions. One day, we were minding our own business, and admiring these nets alongside a field trip of young Keralan school children, when all of a sudden the fisherman beckoned to us. Who us? Yes, indeed. They needed our strength!

helping fish

Not wanting to let these young children down, or our working comrades, for that matter, we naturally joined in and lent our muscle. We of course contributed what we could to the work, and were paid what we needed, which turned out to be a negative quantity of Rupees.

Cochin still has the same problems with trash that all of India seems to have. It is hard to explain the enormity of Trash here, so big, it is capitalized. It is everywhere. Cochin has these open gutters that don't contain sewage as much as this Grey Goo filled with trash. To touch it means certain death preceded by extreme pain and excommunication. Amputation is an option. Also, Cochin has so many mosquitoes. I was almost eaten alive while using the internet one night, leading to a shorter, less sophisticated, Phases Crossed of two issues ago... Luckily we have survived to tell the tale.

cochin synagogue

Cochin has a picturesque Synagogue that's a few hundred years old. The Cochin Jews, thank you very much. We smuggled out some photographs, although photography is forbidden. Inside, a series of paintings explains the history of the synagogue in comic book form, telling how Jews arrived after being expelled from ancient Israel by the Romans. We're not sure if this is exactly true, but you can read the Wikipedia article linked to above for yourself and find out the truth. This synagogue doesn't seem to be used anymore, but is closed for the holidays. It's lovely, no? The floor tiles are all hand painted pieces from China. You must cover your legs, and dress modestly to enter. Curiously, head covering is not required, but shoes must come off, like all holy Indian places, Hindu or Muslim.

jew town sign

We hear about 13 Jews live here now, but it was clearly once a thriving Jewish community. They have a Jewish cemetery, and the place is named Jew Town. The shops here are clearly catering to a more moneyed kind of traveler than simple backpackers, and they have many nice things from all over India in them, but few topical Jewish items.


We see a Kathakali performance. And some fighting. And other stuff. Wild wild wild. This form of dance performance / story telling goes on for 8 hours at a stretch. Luckily they do it for only 20 minutes or so for tourists, which is certainly long enough for us. It's really interesting -- like Chinese brush painting, there's an entire iconic language of eye and body movement and sound effects that communicate specific emotions and actions.

cooking demo

We take the Lonely Planet recommended cooking class, Cook & Eat. We have a great time. You want to be my friend, no? I make you Kerala food. Show you tasty time.

kerala wok

See this pan? It's derived from the Chinese Wok many years ago, and has been adopted into Keralan culture on its own terms. The class is 500 instead of the book's quoted 400 Rupees. While we aren't promised hands on cooking, after re-reading the print, we were expecting it, especially after having such a good time at Ban Thai in Chiang-Mai, Thailand, which felt like you were on a well oiled cooking show. Sushi chefs apparently watch master chefs make Sushi for years before touching any materials, and then they are magically experts. So primates learn, apparently. True for me and cooking, I know. I love to watch people who are better cooks than me work. I learn so much. Apparently, though, our guest house would have gladly let us watch them make dinner, for much cheaper, presumably, so perhaps this was not optimal, but it was fun. We also met some nice Brits.

friendly mob & yotam

It's not uncommon to find yourself in the thick of friendly Indian mobs. These things happen if you are a foreigner quite often. If you have a camera, and are willing to use it, you can achieve near rockstar status in under twenty seconds.


Kerala is famous for its backwaters, a huge network of freshwater waterways, populated with entire villages, fisherman, churches, temples, schools, etc... A tourist highlight is hiring a converted rice barge / houseboat for a day and night.


We travel down to Allepy, pictured above, to enter the Venice of India. A houseboat is expensive -- 4500-6500 Rupees and up, if you want multiple rooms, decks, bar, etc... That's a boat load of money for India, so everybody is involved in this business. Every man, rickshaw driver, hotel operator, dog, child, and cow in Allepy has a boat they want to book you on. The problem here is getting what you want. The Lonely Planet has some advice that is basically useless, if not harmful, in value. They tell you to see the boat beforehand, since they vary in quality. Where? How? They are all gone for 22 hours, cruising around... All booking seems to happen downtown, where there are no boats. Get an eco friendly boat. Get a manually punted boat. They don't exist, as far as we can tell. And nobody comes to Allepy, the center of houseboat action, to do anything else, so all tourists split as soon as they finish their cruise. So there's no good gossip or tips anywhere. The majority of the tourists, by the way, are Indians from India. Everybody will tell you what you want to hear in order to get the commission, too, from the first moment you discuss a boat, to the final moment you board. Basically, the tourists have no leverage here.

Perhaps we can share what little information we had. What we can tell you, is that we had a good time, and booked a one room boat through the DTPC downtown, paid 500 in advance, 2000 on boarding, and 2000 when finishing, and got it in writing. Forget about getting an eco boat, or a punted boat. We don't know how to do it, and went crazy trying. There is a main jetty downtown with about 60 boats in it between 9:30 and 11 am, so perhaps if you get into town early enough, you can shop the boats, and book for the next day. We heard about the Jetty, but never found it ourselves. We did definitely see a ton of boats from behind when boating from Allepy to Kottayam, so it does exist. Also, it is possible to split your payment like we did with the DTPC, but you need to get it in writing.

alla board

So, we board our boat, and the scene that we see before us is unreal. We feel as if we've stepped into a Miyazaki film, or a Star Wars movie. If a giant land walking octopus, piloted by a man in a loincloth with a spear, pursuing a Wumpus, crashed through the scene in front of us, nobody would have blinked. After reorienting ourselves to this alternate reality we had booked ourself into, this friendly but curt gangster boss feeling dude gets in the boat, and asks us to complete payment. We insist we agreed to pay half up front. He says no. We show him the receipt from the DTPC and he agrees. He promises us Appam, which we love, for breakfast, as do the DTPC, but the cook, who we love, along with the crew, explain they aren't equipped for it. No matter.

cook resting motorman & cook's ass't

Our crew is lovely. We have our own cook (above, caught during a break), pilot/captain, and motor operator/cook's assistant (also above, at right).

backwater walk


We have a great time. This whole world appears to be cobbled together from a collection of 2d spaces, like a platform game -- long strips of land separating waterways and rice fields. An entire alternate dimension within the parallel universe of India, filled with waterways, goats, villages, churches, people, canoes, fisherman, draw bridges...

draw bridge

house boat

This is a magic. Who thought such a place could exist.

alex boat doodle

The barge boats are fascinating in design. Here is a quick sketch from Alex Rosmarin. The shapes remind me of soap bubble like shapes -- materials searching for their optimal physical form under the pressure of outside forces.

It'd be fun to push and pull, interactively, on these materials and see what kinds of shape you'd get with optimizing bamboo forms.

yotam in smaller boat

At lunch, Yotam and I get in a smaller boat for a manually powered spin, muscled by a local man.

palm toddy tapper

We dock for the night, and see a man tapping a palm tree for a liquid that he will later turn in Toddy -- palm beer -- a Keralan speciality. We are still trying to acquire some.

us & sunset boat sunset

More magic.

alex houseboat breakfast

Despite the aggravation of arranging the boat, we had a super time, and highly recommend the trip. Above you can see just how happy Alex is with his breakfast. Perhaps it will be easier to book from Qullum, which is farther south, and less busy. The backwaters are huge, and there are many entry points.

ferry to kotayyam

Finally, we take the water bus, or ferry, from Aleppy to Kotayyam, to head into the mountains, where things are guaranteed to be a bit less sticky, more cool, and certainly more tea-ful & mountainous. Stay tuned for an even more other wordly adventures.

We wish to alert our visually curious readers to Yotam's photos, which are now all online. This is a slight temporal irresponsibility on our part, since at this point in our adventure, as narrated, he is still with us. In real-time NYC, though, he dropped his and my pix onto the internets. Our readers must, by this point, be skilled in untangling the various temporal threads of our blog, so no matter. He has, in careful consideration of everyone's time, thoughtfully put his favorite ones here. For the idle or retired, every single one of his 900 some photos can be viewed here, at your leirure. Perhaps our next issue will be illustrated, in part, with Yotam's pictures. For some reason flickr, even when I'm logged in, won't let me grab the embedding URL's for his pix. So maybe who knows who is doing what wrong maybe. Or something like an English sentence.