Saturday, February 25, 2012

A “Beautiful Place” in Bangalore

I have decided to devote an entire post to what was quite decidedly my favorite day in Bangalore.  That day, I hailed a rickshaw to take me to the Bangalore Center of the Schoenstatt Sisters of Mary.  Not long before I left for India, my Aunt Maureen had come to visit my family in Maryland, and had shown us slides from her own India adventures, which happened back in 1986.  She had been in Bangalore (though she also traveled all over India) and spent most of her time helping the Bangalore Schoenstatt Center establish itself.  For those who are unfamiliar with Schoenstatt, it is a Roman Catholic movement which was started in Germany by a priest named Father Joseph Kentenich.  The movement now has centers all over the world.  For more information in a very readable format, please see the Wikipedia article:

After a very long rickshaw ride, I arrived at the Schoenstatt Center on the far outskirts of the city, far away from the crowds and pollution of Bangalore proper.  Once I was dropped off at the gate, I wandered inside.  Not sure where I was supposed to go, I walked hesitantly into a large building, whose sign told me that it was the Schoenstatt Convent School.  Finding no one in the Principal’s office, I continued to wander until a middle-aged woman in a sari stopped me sharply, and asked me who I was.  I explained myself, and the woman quickly fetched the Principal, Sister Lizzie, who had actually appeared in several of my Aunt’s pictures and stories.  Sister Lizzie walked me over to the sister’s quarters, where I received a warm welcome from a group of other nuns, all of whom had known my Aunt.  Especially happy to see me was Sister Nirmala, who had known my Aunt the best, and with whom I had had all my correspondences.  But all of the sisters were incredibly welcoming, and exclaimed that I looked “just like your Auntie, but you are also looking so Indian!”  One particularly enjoyable aspect of talking to them was that, as they had trained at the Schoenstatt Center in Koblenz, Germany, all spoken fluent German, and even their English was peppered with “ach so”s and “sehr gut!”s.  Though I had eaten breakfast several hours before, they fed me some delicious upma (a South Indian savory cream of wheat type of dish), chiku (a small brown fruit) which had actually come straight from the chiku tree in their garden, and of course, chai.

Sign in English and Kannada

After breakfast, Sister Thresselita (a friend of my Aunt Maureen’s) took me on a tour of the center.  She showed me the chapel, the shrine (which looked exactly like the Schoenstatt shrine that I had seen in Koblenz, Germany), and the Christmas nativity scene.  My favorite part however, was visiting the school.  The children were tiny (I visited the pre-nursery through fourth grade classes) and so sweet and well behaved.  One thing that amused me was the universal greeting for every nun who walked into a classroom.  Whereas at the school I teach at, the children stand up and chorus “Good morning, ma’am!” technically in unison, the Schoenstatt school had taken the greeting a step further.  Every time I entered a classroom with one of the sisters, the children would stand up and say “Good morning sister, welcome to our class!  Nice to see you again!” complete with choreographed gestures.  Maybe I should introduce this at Navyug…

Inner courtyard of the Sisters' house

Me, standing in front of the tree that everyone is asked to pose before

Nativity scene

Inside the shrine

Sister Thresselita

Bags lined up outside the classroom


Hindi letters

Good morning Sister!

School logo

While I was touring around, the children filed out of their classrooms, fetched their packed lunches from their backpacks, all of which had been neatly lined up outside the classrooms, and sat down in a reserved courtyard in orderly rows to eat.  Quite a contrast from my school, where recess is an unsupervised free for all, with children tearing down the hallways and jumping out of windows.

Lunch time!

Me by the school Christmas tree

After I was able to tear myself away from the adorable but incredibly inquisitive children, Sister Thresselita and I walked back to the Sister’s quarters for lunch.  Again, I was fed a great deal of wonderful food, including vegetable curry, rice, beef (!) stew, and dal.  And then more chiku.  I was then sent off to “take rest” before drinking some chai and eating some snacks, then setting off to tour the other Schoenstatt school, about a ten minute rickshaw ride down the road.

Group picture

Tea time

The other school was a 1-12 school, but had a women’s college attached to it as well.  I was able to meet some of the college students, all of whom were very friendly, some of whom were thinking seriously about joining the convent after graduation.  There I visited many more classes, some of which were shy and reserved, others of which were excited and rowdy.  In several of the classes, at both schools, the nun taking me around introduced me as “your new English ma’am from America.  Are you ready for her to begin teaching you tomorrow?”  Sometimes, usually in the older classes, the children grinned, appreciating the joke.  In some classes however, the children just nodded solemnly, at one point prompting Sister Lizzie to turn to me, smile, and wink saying “Listen!  They actually believed me!”

School bulletin board

In a classroom

After my school tour, I sat down with several of the sisters for cake and juice (I am discovering more and more that the Indian idea of “guest is God” transcends religious differences).  Around this time, the sisters brought out a few school photo albums, most of which chronicled such special events as Annual Day and Sports Day.

As I pored over the pictures, the sisters continued to explain various aspects of the school, all of which were very interesting.  For one thing, the pictures showed me that the Schoenstatt Sisters made up a relatively small percentage of the teaching faculty; the majority were “lay-teachers.”  Also interesting was the fact that the majority of the students were actually not Catholic; they were simply in the school for its good reputation and strong academics.  I suppose this is true for many Catholic schools the world over, but it was still interesting to hear.  The pictures showed me the ways in which Catholicism and India’s other religions were blended at the school: Awards and felicitation ceremonies included district officials anointing nuns’ foreheads with red tikka, and also nuns blessing their students with the sign of the cross.  It was refreshing to see this kind of acceptance of other’s religions, particularly in a country that has so often been wracked with religious violence.  It was equally refreshing to see a school that was so honest about the reality of religion.  The school served as a stark contrast to the sterility of many American institutions, which strive so hard for political correctness that religious dialogue is often shut down.  India has shown me that the rich beauty of religion, as well as the problems it creates, can live side by side.  There simply needs to be a healthy dialogue.  India as a whole has a long way to go before its many religions are at peace with one another, but I saw the Schoenstatt School as an inspiring step in the process.

My favorite series of pictures in the albums immortalized a student skit about the life of Father Joseph Kentenich.  There were scenes of Father Kentenich as a child in Germany, giving sermons, and doing time in prison.  One group of pictures made me smile, but also left me quite confused.  They depicted a scene of Father Kentenich in jail, surrounded by a group of marvelously decked out bharatanatyam (South Indian classical dance) dancers.  I seriously doubted that Father Kentenich had ever been exposed to bharatanatyam, so I asked the sisters about this picture.  At this point, they shrugged.  “They are children.  If we do not add some masala, then they will not take an interest,” they said.  Cultural fusion at its best, in my opinion.  

Soon, school ended and most of the children went home, but many stayed for after-school activities.  This was very interesting to me, as in my Government School, the gates shut at 2:30, allowing for no school-sanctioned after school activities.  The Schoenstatt school, on the other hand, was buzzing, even at 4 o’ clock.  In one room was a meeting of boy scouts, in another room were the girl scouts.  Outside, karate and bharatanatyam classes were going on.  I spent a good deal of time watching the little martial artists, but quickly ran back over to the bharatanatyam pavilion when I heard the familiar tala sounds of “tong ta tong tei ta tei” which signaled to me that the girls were  practicing the bharatanatyam exercise known as alarippu.  I have many fond memories of struggling through alarippu with my Headlong Performance Institute classmates, and this demonstration certainly brought them all back!



Karate kids

I, along with Sister Philomena (a Sister visiting from a convent in Kerala who had also known my Aunt Maureen) stayed and watched the various after school activities until the rickshaw that Sister Nirmala had called for me arrived.  I said my goodbyes seriously hoping that I would be able to return again someday.  As mentioned above, this was by far my most enjoyable day in Bangalore; many thanks to Aunt Maureen for the connection! 

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Bangalore: the Garden City

After my week in Kerala drew to a close, I boarded a train bound for Bangalore.  My class was “2s” a class that I had never traveled before.  No one I asked was able to give me an accurate description of what it would be like.  Some said that 2s was the same as “general class,” in which there are no assigned seats, and passengers are packed in like sardines.  Most had no idea. 

The reality actually turned out to be quite a bit nicer than I had been warned to expect.  I had an assigned seat, and the car seemed quite organized and peaceful, with many families on board.  The only difference between this and the “AC chair class” that I had traveled before was the lack of AC.  But, due to the pleasant breeze drifting in through the windows, I really did not miss it.  The train ride was beautiful, and I watched in awe as the lush rice paddies and banana groves of Kerala slowly turned into the hilly Western Ghats, which in turn transformed into the arid rock strewn vistas of the Deccan plateau.

The train itself created an entertaining environment as well, with all sorts of hawkers strolling up and down the aisles.  The cries of “vada vada masala vada,” “chai coffee, coffee chai,” and “games puzzles, kiddie timepass!” quickly became familiar.  My fellow passengers and I were even graced by the presence of a clapping hijra (eunach).

I reached Bangalore after dark, and, after some rather frustrating interactions with various rickshaw drivers, I booked a prepaid auto to my hotel where I slept off the day of travel.

I woke up bright and early the next morning, and enjoyed a breakfast of idli sambar in the hotel restaurant.  My plan for the day was to go to an internet café, finalize my plans for the next day with some friends of my Aunt Maureen, and then go on to the Botanical Gardens.  The hotel receptionist gave me some vague directions to an internet café nearby, and I set off.  Of course, I was not able to find it.  Lonely Planet  also turned out to be useless, as it stated erroneously that Bangalore, as an IT city, was bursting with internet cafes.  Obviously, this edition had come out before the advent of smart phones, for it seems that internet cafes are becoming obsolete.  Fortunately however, I eventually found the café that the hotel manager had been talking about, only to discover that it would remain closed for one more hour.  So I did what many travelers in India do when their plans have been foiled, and they need somewhere, anywhere, to pass the time.  I went to Café Coffee Day.  There, I hunkered down with a cup of tea that cost twice as much as my breakfast had cost, and read until the internet café opened.

After I had completed my internet errands, I hopped into a rickshaw and made my way towards Bangalore’s famed Lalbagh Botanical Gardens.   I had read that the gardens had been established in the Mughal style by Hyder Ali in the 18th century, but had subsequently been taken over by the British, who had adjusted it to resemble London’s Kew Gardens.  Though I generally prefer untamed nature over manicured flowerbeds, I was eager to escape Bangalore’s very urban hustle and bustle, which had been a shock after small-town Kerala.  Almost immediately after entering Lalbagh’s gates, I felt the stress and craziness of the city begin to melt away.  The sounds of cars honking, engines revving, and people shouting all faded away.  The smells of exhaust, sewage, and urine changed to those of the many flowers within the garden, and I was able to relax and stroll by beds of roses, through groves of trees, and around a large lake at the edge of the grounds.  There was even a peninsular gneiss formation—an outcropping of rock also known as Lalbagh Hill—from which one could have a spectacular view of Bangalore city on one side, and the gardens on the other.  

Typical garden scene

The famous glass house

I don't know that I've ever worshipped a Christmas tree, but it's an interesting idea...

Certainly, the trees, flowers, geological formations, lakes, and ponds were beautiful.  Equally interesting, however, were the people promenading through the garden.  I passed by school groups full of fidgety children, families, pale foreign tourists, small children pointing and snickering at the pale foreign tourists, and groups of nuns on outings.  Perhaps the most commonly recurring theme in my people-watching session though, were the many many couples.  There were elderly couples—aunties and uncles out for a bracing morning walk, as well as middle-aged couples in their tracksuits. 

Most ubiquitous though, were the young couples, desperately searching for a quiet place to canoodle.  They were everywhere; I could not escape them.  Being a person who loves to explore nooks and crannies, I found myself apologizing again and again as I awkwardly blundered into a series of tender moments.  Eventually, I resigned myself to the established paths.  I had had similar experiences in Delhi’s Lodhi Gardens, as well as in the gardens surrounding the Victoria Memorial in Kolkata, and am now realizing that this phenomenon is an interesting product of Indian culture’s struggle to reconcile its old traditions with “modern” dating practices. 

As the majority of young people live with their parents under very close surveillance until marriage, there are few acceptable places to meet members of the opposite sex.   Malls and movie theaters are too public.  Home is out of the question, as those moments of “my parents are out” or, “mom and dad are here, but they won’t bother us”—moments which happen fairly frequently in America—are extremely rare in India.  Parks and gardens seem to be some of the acceptable places for young couples to meet.  Walking down a street holding hands might be frowned upon, but the rules somehow relax when a couple enters a garden, particularly if they can find a nice tree to sit under, or hide behind.  Perhaps it is the fact that it is easier to conceal oneself (or oneself and ones partner) in a garden than in a street.  Or perhaps the idyllic setting just lends itself to romance.  I have drawn no conclusions, only theories.  As annoyed as I was at having to cramp my wandering style, I was glad for the inspiration for some cultural musings.

When I was ready for lunch, I left the gardens and made my way to the Mavalli Tiffin Rooms, a renowned Bangalore institution.  I had made the decision to lunch there after hearing Joanna and Stephanie’s glowing recommendations, as well as their warnings to “make sure you’re hungry.”  I do have bottomless pit tendencies, particularly when faced with Indian food, so I was quite excited to say the least. 

I arrived at the Tiffin Rooms, paid my 140 rupees that would entitle me to a fourteen dish thali, and made my way to the dining area.  As the restaurant fills up quickly and every available seat is needed, single diners are generally frowned upon.  For this reason, I was seated with another single diner, a woman from Switzerland.  She was quite pleasant, and I soon learned that she came to India every year for several months at a time, just to travel around and meet up with friends.  I am still not sure how she could afford this, but it sounds like a nice life to me!  This was, however, her first time in Bangalore, and also her first time to Mavalli Tiffin Rooms.  Very soon, the food started coming…and coming…and coming.  Joanna and Stephanie had been right to warn me about the quantity.  It was delicious though, and I thoroughly enjoyed every dish.  There was uttapam, and khichdee, and curd rice, and halwa, and all different delicious dishes.  My dining partner and I exclaimed over how much there was.  When the paan came out, she firmly stated: “this is like paradise!”  After we had both eaten more than our fill, we said our goodbyes, and I headed off to Tipu Sultan’s Palace.     

Tipu Sultan was the ruler of the Kingdom of Mysore (which at that point included Bangalore) during the latter part of the 18th century.  He was very much against the British, and his mechanical toy tiger attacking a British soldier is a popular attraction in the Victoria and Albert Museum even today.  Obviously I was not able to view the original toy while in Bangalore (though I have found a picture of it for you!), but I did see a replica.  The palace itself was modest, and quite small, but beautiful in its own way.  It also housed an interesting photo gallery exhibiting pictures of Karnataka’s world heritage sites.  


It was a little bit impossible to get a picture free of people...

Addressing her subjects?

After admiring the palace, I set off for Krishna Rajendra Market, also known as City Market.  I had read that this market was the “quintessential Indian bazaar experience.”  Naturally, I have experienced enough Indian bazaars now for some of the excitement to have worn off, but I am happy to say that I am not completely jaded.  And the Krishna Rajendra Market really was something special.  The highlight for me was the underground flower market.  The underground flower market is exactly what its name suggests, but its boringly descriptive name truly does not do justice to the market itself.  As soon as I descended the steps into the market, I was assaulted by the scents of a thousand different flowers: roses, marigolds, jasmine flowers, and plenty of flora that I had never seen or heard of before.  Once inside the cavernous hall of the flower market, I could barely move due to the crowds, and several times had to leap out of the way before a blossom-bearing wheelbarrow crushed my toes.  I had been in overcrowded markets before, but for some reason, this one was special.  Perhaps because it was entirely devoted to flowers.  Perhaps because it was underground, down a dark and dirty staircase, and its magnitude and vibrancy were therefore unexpected.  Whatever the reason was, I am glad that I found it.  I took a few hurried pictures, but they, like my description, really do not do justice to this beautiful, crazy place.

Flower market

Bangalore's Jama Masjid

The next day, I visited my some friends of my Aunt Maureen’s.  This was a truly special experience, which demands its own post, so I will save that for later.  My time in Bangalore after that visit, however, was a little less exciting.  It was at this point that the loneliness of travelling by myself was really beginning to hit me.  Plans of meeting up with some friends of friends fell through, and I felt very much alone.  With almost a sense of duty, I methodically went through my guidebook’s recommendations for things to do in Bangalore.  I went to the state museum, and looked at some beautiful sculptures, paintings, and artifacts housed in extremely drab surroundings, and given very uninformative labels which did little more than describe the artifact, leaving out any mention of its history or origin (“A dancing woman with a serious expression on her face and a peculiar headdress”…etc).  In addition to my afore-mentioned woes, my camera developed some problems, adding to my stress, and, unfortunately, taking away from the quality of this blog post. 

Next door to the State Museum was the Science Museum, which was actually quite interesting to me, despite the fact that I am not what you would call a “science person.”  The museum had all the usual science museum attractions, including steam engines, hands on activities, enormous, roaring dinosaur models, space exhibits, and also some less common attractions, like a life-size replica of the Wright brothers’ plane.

Slightly macabre hands-on operating table exhibit



Most interesting to me were the exhibits on nuclear power and genetic engineering.  Not because I am a great proponent of either of these things—for almost the opposite reason, actually.  Having grown up in the liberal Washington DC metropolitan area, going to Waldorf school, and then going to Haverford College, I was exposed to only a very narrow view of such things as nuclear power and genetic engineering.  As I have never really had to worry about energy or food shortages, at least in the short term, I had always believed in a more “back to nature” approach to life.  In India however, such shortages are a part of daily life, and any technology that can do more to feed and provide power to the poor and hungry is massively appealing.  The exhibits therefore, spoke of these often demonized technologies in a very favorable light.  The museum certainly did not turn me into a proponent of genetic engineering, and I still believe very strongly that India should wake up to the environmental problems that its development is causing, but the exhibits did serve as a healthy reminder to look at both sides of all issues.

When I felt that I had exhausted all the “things to do” in Bangalore, had missed a bus bound for a nature reserve, had seen a truly terrible movie (it’s called Players—do not see it under any circumstances!!!) just to pass the time, had made multiple visits to the Botanical Gardens and Cubbon Park, and spent far too much time in Café Coffee Day with my books, I decided to take some group tours.  This way, I reasoned, I would at least have some company.  The first tour I took, a Karnataka State Roads and Tourism Department bus tour of the city, was okay.  Not great, just okay.  It turned out that the almost 2500 rupee fee only covered the bus transportation, and we had to pay all entrance fees to the places we visited.  The tour was very rushed.  Additionally, I had already seen most of the sites that it covered.  Also, my camera batteries died less than an hour into the five hour tour.  Still though, there was something very comforting about being herded around like a sheep, absolved of all responsibilities.  The tour brought me once again to the Botanical Gardens, the Science Museum, Cubbon Park, and Tipu Sultan’s Palace.  Still, it also took me to some places that I may not have been able to reach myself, including several temples.  The Bull Temple, named for the enormous monolithic stone bull (Shiva’s mount) was quite beautiful, as was the Dodda Ganesha Temple, which housed an equally enormous stone idol of the elephant-headed God, Ganesh.

The reason that bus tours are not ideal

High Court

Vidhana Soudha, seat of the Karnataka State Legislature

A Church

The most amazing temple of all though, was the Gavi Gangadhareshwara Temple.  This temple, dedicated to Shiva, is one of the oldest temples in Bangalore, and possesses some of the most interesting architecture.  Most significant is the fact that it is a cave temple; rather than being built up, it was carved out of a rock face.  Touring its interior was certainly an interesting experience, as I had to duck under low ceilings and find my way through winding passages.  In all the literature I had read on Bangalore, I had never heard of this temple.  I found this strange, as it was far more interesting and beautiful than many of the other better-known sights of the city.  Knowing that I would have had no idea of its existence had it not been for my otherwise mediocre bus tour, I found myself once again returning to my (for the most part) positive self.

If the KSRTC tour was mediocre, the second tour I took, run by a private company called Bangalore Walks, was phenomenal.  The company runs a variety of history and nature walks throughout the city; mine was a historical walk entitled “Victorian Bangalore.”  At first, I was a little skeptical.  The tour’s description stated that we would walk “along MG Road.”  Well, my hotel was on MG Road, so I knew it well, and there seemed to be very little history there.  The road was filled with banks, office buildings, Café Coffee Day outlets, fast food restaurants, and various other unattractive concrete blocks.  Not to mention construction debris from the brand new Bangalore metro.  Still though, I had heard only good things about this tour company, and was eager to see what history might be hidden along MG road.

The members of the tour all met bright and early (6:45 am) at the old Trinity Church, at the far end of Mahatma Gandhi Road.  After we had all assembled on the church steps, the tour guide had each member of the group introduce him or herself by stating name, country of origin (state and city if from India) and connection to Bangalore.  The group was large, so this took a long time, but the guide insisted that he asked because he was genuinely interested.  Bangalore had attracted outsiders for years, he said, many from the countries we had mentioned, and these outsiders had shaped the city’s history.  Even now, as evidenced by the diversity of our group, people were flocking from far and wide to Bangalore.  Our guide explained that he himself was a Bangalorean who had spent much of his young life traveling outside of his home city.  After returning however, he decided to make it his business to uncover his hometown’s rich history.  He wished to ensure that locals, tourists, and expats alike would understand that Bangalore’s history did not start with the IT boom.

We began our tour at the Trinity Church at the East End of MG Road.  There, our guide explained to us that the church had been built in the mid-1800s, and had been an important place of community for English military men in Bangalore.  We climbed up into the church’s tower and admired the view, and read the various plaques adorning its walls. 

Throughout the course of the tour, I learned that Bangalore had always looked to future, seizing upon every opportunity that it could.  Before the IT boom there had been a short-lived gold rush.  Additionally, the city had been the first in South India to have electricity.  The city had experienced a number of battles, between the Indians and the British, and also the British and the French.  It had been home to a great number of ambitious high achievers, including Winston Churchill and a number of cricketers and footballers.  While on the tour, I discovered that one particularly boring looking structure that I had overlooked before was not an office building, but the headquarters of the Bible Society.  I was entreated to take a closer look at the nondescript statue in the middle of MG Road, and discovered that the statue was of Ferdinand Kittel, a German missionary who had worked hard to ensure that the Bible was translated into Kannada.  We explored various churches, and stared at the unattractive cement structures standing on the site of Winston Churchill’s residence.  The entire group was led into back alleys, behind concrete office buildings, where gorgeous colonial buildings seemed to just spring up out of nowhere, carefully concealed from the hustle and bustle of MG Road.  We also had the opportunity to watch the end of cricket practice, for some students of one of Bangalore’s elite boys’ schools—a school established in the days of the British.

I was astounded by how much history could be found on MG Road, which had seemed before to be nothing but a car filled highway lined by concrete towers.  Our guide reminded us that the city was constantly changing and developing—every year he had to modify his tour because another colonial mansion or Victorian structure had been demolished.  At one point, he said “It may sound as though I am sad or bitter about these developments, but I am not.”  He went on to explain that Bangalore has always been a city that looked towards the future, never caring much about its past.  Wryly, he quoted some Bangaloreans who liked to say that “the greatness of other cities lies in their pasts, Bangalore’s greatness lies in its future!”  It is therefore Bangalore’s personality to hurtle forward with little regard to past times.  Our guide said he did not wish to change his city, or freeze it into a past era, only to ensure that its history was not forgotten.

After the tour, the entire group was treated to a delicious South Indian breakfast at Ebony, one of Bangalore’s most stylish restaurants.  The entire rooftop was reserved for the tour group, so we could enjoy gazing out upon the city we had just learned so much about.  I ended up sitting next to an elderly couple from Manchester, England, who were very friendly.  It turns out that they had traveled all over the world, and were such globetrotters that their Manchester neighbors had told them “Just tell us when you’ll be home, not when you’re leaving.”  It also seemed as though they were rather adventurous “We’ve done it all—from five star hotels, right on down to camping.”  I only hope I can be like that when I’m their age…

After a far too short trip to Blossom, a three-storey second hand bookstore which the Fulbright Program Manager Maansi had recommended to me, I headed off to the train station, where I would once again board a train, this time headed to Hyderabad.  As most of you know, Hyderabad was where I did my semester abroad junior year, so I was especially excited to visit again.  The visit did not disappoint!  More on that later…

Saturday, February 4, 2012

God's Own Country

Kerala’s nickname for itself, which it plasters all over tourism posters is “God’s Own Country.”  And I think there are few who would disagree.  All Delhiites who heard that I would be going to Kerala, sighed enviously, and told me that I would have a wonderful time.  And the state is indeed something special.  It has the highest literacy rate in India, and some of the lowest hunger and poverty rates.  Women also enjoy a great deal more empowerment in Kerala than in many other Indian states.  Kerala possesses beaches, mountains, tea gardens, wild life reserves, and most famously, lush backwater lagoons.  I had been to Kerala once before in 2009, but was excited to return again for a longer visit. 

I felt myself relaxing and feeling happier almost as soon as I landed in the Kochi airport in Kerala.  The weather was warm and sunny, and the air felt clean and fresh.  I quickly peeled off the layers that had been so necessary in chilly Delhi, and found a cab to take me to the bus stop, where I would board the vehicle that would take me to my first destination: Munnar.

Munnar, a small town nestled among the tea plantations of the Western Ghats is described by Lonely Planet as having “a Sound-of-Music-in-India backdrop of rolling mountain scenery, craggy peaks, manicured tea estates, and crisp mountain air.” The Sound of Music reference was especially relevant for me, because in many ways, Munnar wonderfully combines more than just “a few of my favorite things.”  Hiking?  Plenty of opportunities in Munnar.  Good quality locally grown tea?  Available everywhere.  Breath-taking nature and stunning mountain scenery?  Check.  Delicious Keralan food?  Also present. 

After I checked into my hotel, the kindly and helpful hotel owner gave me several maps of the area, and talked about various tours, sights, activities and restaurants to keep in mind.  Armed with this information, I set off for a walk through the tea plantations.  At one point, I found small dirt path leading uphill into some tea fields.  Feeling adventurous, I followed the path.   Every time the path forked, I chose one of the prongs and just kept walking.  Eventually, I found myself above the tea fields, at the base of the hill’s crest.  I scrambled up the almost vertical peak as far as I could, and was quite glad I did, as I was rewarded with the most spectacular view. 

Wandering around Munnar


Before scrambling up the hill crest

Looking down

My reward for scrambling

The next day, I embarked on a hike to a viewpoint and a waterfall that my hotel owner, Satish, recommended, “if you like walking.”  He showed me the route on his hand-drawn map, and it looked easy enough to follow.  Lonely Planet recommended the same hike, with fairly good directions, up until the viewpoint.  After that, the directions simply read “continue on to the waterfalls.”  Well.  Can you guess how many forks in the road there were?  Too many.  I cannot tell you how many times I walked down the wrong road, only discovering my mistake either after carefully scrutinizing both maps Satish had given me, or asking locals, all of whom seemed shocked that I would want to walk such a long way.  Additionally, let’s just say that the “12km” distance that Satish and my guidebooks had estimated assumed that one would take rickshaws and buses from a certain point back to town.  It was a LONG day.  All who know me know that I am not one to shy away from a little walking, but this hike definitely wore me out.  Stubbornly, though, I refused to catch a bus or rickshaw, and ultimately, am glad that I took the whole journey on foot.  And to be honest, I would have missed many of the most beautiful sights had I not gotten lost several times.


Tea fields

A cow eating grass, not garbage

A Government school

Just one of the things I would not have seen had I not gotten lost

The next morning, after an enjoyable breakfast with a friendly group of older men from Kolkata, I hopped onto a bus back to Kochi.  Kochi was where I had been in 2009, so I was familiar with its layout, and it was comforting to walk around the town again, admiring the Chinese fishing nets and Portuguese and Dutch architecture.  I also happened to stumble upon a youth martial arts competition, which was certainly a walk down memory lane!  I spent the rest of the day just strolling, and people watching.

Two of Kochi's iconic cantilevered Chinese fishing nets

St. Francis Church

The Basilica

Kiddie match

Tournament poster

The next day, after my morning walk, I met up with Stephanie and Joanna who had also come to Kochi.  Stephanie and I walked together to the section of town which was once home to Fort Cochin’s Jewish population—a section of the island aptly named Jewtown.  After getting called to by countless hawkers, we made our way to the old Pardesi Synagogue.  Cameras are forbidden inside, but I was able to find a picture on the internet, and I have posted it below.  The guides explained to us that the synagogue had originally been named the “Pardesi” (foreigner) synagogue because the majority of the congregation had come from elsewhere.  The building itself appeared to reflect this fact.  There was an enormous chandelier hanging from the ceiling which had come from Belgium (upon hearing this two Belgian women who were, in my opinion, far too scantily dressed for India, whooped and cheered).  The floor was also covered in blue and white hand painted tiles from China.

Pardesi Synagogue (Photo Credit:

Stephanie and I then went to lunch at a humble looking but absolutely delicious little place called Krisha Café.  We both got thalis (a meal consisting of a sampling of several different dishes).  This restaurant seemed to specialize in the endless thali; every time we ran low on a particular item, a waiter would swoop on down and refill our plates.  Stephanie is far better at saying no (and also knowing her limits) than I am, so the waiters eventually learned to skip Stephanie’s plate and just fill mine, and my appetite soon turned into a joke among the restaurant staff.  I didn’t mind though.  It tasted great!

Soon after lunch Stephanie and I hurried back to the main drag of Kochi to meet Jo and see a Kalarippayat (traditional Keralan martial art) and a Kathakali (Keralan dance theater art traditionally performed in temples) demonstration.  The martial arts demonstration was quite impressive; nowhere near as impressive as the Kalarippayat demo I had seen my last time in Kerala, but impressive nonetheless. 

Kalarippayat, like most traditional martial arts, combines meditation and self discipline with physical training, and I would tell that the performers were very dedicated.  I was minorly irritated by the fact that, in all the partner demonstrations, the same man (who happened to be the little guy) always played the loser.  But this minor irritation did not take away from the performance too much.  I quickly got over my annoyance when, at the end of the demonstration, the emcee announced that the fighters would be happy to teach a few moves to any interested parties.  I jumped up eagerly…then realized that I was the only one who had done so.  After some encouragement from Joanna and Stephanie (who for whatever reason were happy to push me onto the stage but refused to join me) I made my way up onto the stage where one of the artists proceeded to show me some of the ways in which one could use pressure points to escape from various chokeholds.  Let me tell you, he did not pull any punches in order to go easy on the volunteer!  For all you doubters, pressure points exist, and knowledge of them can be the difference between life and death when involved in hand-to-hand combat.  Even with my prior martial arts training, I was astonished at how effective some of the simple grips and escapes were.  I will be sure to integrate them into my repertoire of moves.  After the session, I shook hands with Mansi, the martial artist who had been teaching me, and took my seat again for the Kathakali performance.

Escaping a wrist lock (Photo Credit: Joanna Stack)

Choke hold (Photo Credit: Joanna Stack)

I had seen Kathakali once before at this same venue, but was looking forward to another performance.  I wish I could better explain kathakali for the benefit of my readers who may not be familiar with it, but the truth is that it is so unlike any other art form, that it is extremely difficult to describe.  Kathakali involves elaborate (and often huge and bulky) costumes, and a great amount of makeup, which takes up to an hour to apply.  In fact, the audience was encouraged to show up early to watch the makeup application process, which was a show in itself!  The makeup is still made in the traditional way, from various stones and seeds that have been ground up and mixed with coconut oil.  Each color has significance: green is used for noble or heroic characters; red for villains or demons, black for villagers, and yellow for women, holy men, or other gentle characters. The costumes also looked as though a great deal of care had been put into them.  The performance itself consisted of actors moving to the beats and melodies established by the singers and drummers.  The gestures, as the introduction to the performance had explained, were highly stylized, with each movement  having its own specific meaning.  The story of our show had to do with the killing of a demon by a hero in the Mahabharata.  The performance was long, but definitely entertaining and very interesting.  Again, the theater was too dark for me to take pictures, but I have taken some from the internet, just to give those who are unfamiliar with kathakali a better idea of what I am trying to describe.

Typical kathakali makeup.  Photo Credit:

Typical Kathakali dress. Photo Credit:

The next day, I set off for Kottayam, a smaller city a two hour bus ride away from Kochi, to visit Indu, a friend from my Hyderabad days.  Kottayam, as Indu had explained to me beforehand, is not usually a tourist destination, a fact that made me even more excited to visit.  I spent the next two days relaxing in Indu’s house with her family, and eating some of the best Keralan food I have ever tasted.  It was very nice re-meeting Indu’s parents and sister (we had met once before in Hyderabad) and I have to say I learned a lot from talking to them.  In particular I learned a great deal about Kerala—it’s status as a haven for India’s religious minorities, its cuisine, its universities, and its rivalry with neighboring Tamil Nadu, a rivalry that I had known little about.  Another nice little surprise was the room attached to my guest room.  When I first arrived, the door was slightly ajar, and I could see rows and rows of bookshelves.  Not wanting to pry, I contained my curiosity.  Later however, Indu’s father, who happens to be an English professor, mentioned casually “There is a small library upstairs by your room.  Please feel free to take a look.”  And so I did.  A house with a library? What could be better?  The library was very organized--there was even a catalog!  I enjoyed browsing the titles, many of which I had heard of, but never actually read.  So much to read, so little time...

The library
I spent a very cozy, low-key New Year’s Eve with Indu and her sister, curled up in front of the T.V., upon which several channels were broadcasting entertainment awards ceremonies.  From what I could gather, awards ceremonies seem to be the ball-drop equivalent in India.  I had a nice time watching the ceremonies, during which the likes of Salman Khan and Dhanush danced and sang (or lip-synced) to thunderous applause.  Indu and her sister, Meera, apologized to me several times that I was not back in Kochi enjoying the celebrations there, but I have to say, I was very happy to be spending New Year’s Eve in a home, with family as that is how I usually ring in the new year.  And anyway, I heard that Kochi celebrates New Year’s Eve by burning an effigy of Santa, to signify the end of the Christmas season.  I love Christmas, so I think that would just depress me.  I must say, I am quite satisfied with the way in which I started 2012.

The family Christmas tree

From right to left, Indu, her sister, and her mother

That is not to say, however, that my New Years' was devoid of raucous celebrations.  The next day I was back in Kochi in time to see the famous Kochi New Year’s Day parade.  It involved an elephant, kathakali dancers, bhangra dancers, people dressed as heroes from the Hindu epics, Priests, Nuns, and lots and lots of drag queens.  An unending line of drag queens.  Naturally, the crowds were huge, but, with the help of some teenagers, I managed to climb to the top of the wall surrounding the basilica, and got a great view!


An elephant.  Seems to be a necessity for parades in India

Kathakali dancers

Drummers and dancers

More drums

Can you spot the drag queen?
The next day, January 2nd, I headed off to the Ernakulum train station to catch my Bangalore bound train.  Next post: my adventures in the Silicone Valley of India.