Feb 24, 2017

Final Truths from the Road

All good trips must come to an end, so this is my final evening of this trip and my fond farewell to India. The South of India, where I have mainly spent these weeks, has by and large been a much more relaxed experience than I was expecting. I have felt safe and looked after and people generally have been helpful and polite.

But if there seems to be too little hassle and aggrevation, a quick visit to any large big, polluted Indian city will soon set that right. Salman Rushdie has apparently said in an interview that the thing that strikes him every time he returns to his native country is, that there are just so many people in India! This is indeed true, but there are also loads of people, heat and pollution in many big South-East Asian cities I have visited. What sets Indian big cities apart and makes them especially taxing is the elbows out, push and shove mentality of both pedestrians and motorists. Another difference is the amount of filth on the streets, since people really do NOT understand garbage disposal - and what's to understand, since in many places, it doesn't seem to exist. So in India, the smaller towns and villages are definitely easier to handle. Though I am, strangely, developing a kind for fondness to Delhi.

It has been nice not to have to look at weather forecasts this past two months, since the forecast is always sunny and warm. At times sunny and hot. I've had one cloudy day with a slight drizzle in the afternoon during the whole trip. It's a miracle how any plants can survive here with so little water! I should get some of these species as my house plants.

I come back from this trip, as from all my trips, wiser than I left. Below is a near exhaustive list of things that I have learned:
1) Advertisements Painted on Walls are Usually for Underwear.
Also the image at the start of this post of a hair extension specialist confirms this. Though there are exceptions to the rule. I do like these painted wall adds!
2) Scavenger Street Cows will Eat Banana Peel with Enthusiasm.
This comes in especially handy in India, where bananas are sold everywhere and cost nothing, but most cities have absolutely no rubbish bins. I could do it the Indian way and just chuck my rubbish on the street, but it just goes against the grain. I believe the yellow tone of the cow in the image is not due to eating too many banana skins, but once again something holy and hindu.
3) With Opulence comes Obecity,
I have been travelling mainly in Southern India, which is more wealthy on the whole than the North. In the South, most people are doing relatively well and an increasing number are doing quite nicely - and this is clearly visible around the waistline. A pot-belly on men seems to be a kind of beauty standard for some (possibly in tribute to the pot bellied Ganesha?). Generally speaking, it would appear that here, as in many poorer countries, having a bit of flesh on your bones is a mark of affluence. Any Indian woman about my age who is flashing gold jewellery i.e. has some wealth, is usually quite well fleshed. Extremely thin people are not fashion models here, but extremely poor people - so that is not really the beauty ideal for most. Also the children of wealthy families are often distinctly overweight. What it boils down to - well, rather fries down to - is that people love greasy foods here! And there's enough cubes of sugar in a small cup of tea to keep your blood sugar elevated for several hours. India is still a long way from Texas, but it seems to be doing all it can to catch up!
4) Pidgeons are the Souls of Dead Buddhist Monks (according to my guide in Bhutan).
This trip got off to an auspicious start then, since on my first night of the trip in Delhi, the soul of a monk was roosting on top of my air conditionin unit and hooting all night. Blessed trip.
5) Eating by Hand is Not Really a Great Idea.
In India if you eat local, you eat by hand. By right hand that is, as the left hand is the toilet hand (no toilet paper here, just jugs of water and a left hand) and deemed too dirty to touch food. Now you try tearing a tough naan or parotta bread - or the masala dosa in the image above - my favourite breakfast/brunch in India - into suitable pieces using only your right hand and NOT using your left hand to keep the damned thing in place. It's not easy, I tell you. Even the locals seem to struggle with it. Also, most foods here consist of rice or some form or some type of flat bread and a sauce (masala) or four. These masalas tend to be runny - at times they're basically just soup. Ladling rice soaked with a runny sauce into your mouth with your fingers is messy, inefficient and it makes you look even sillier than usual when eating. Not a pretty sight. The exception to the rule is eating a small fish fried whole. It's really handy to debone the fish by hand. You can feel those little bones and pluck them out before you put fish in your mouth.
6) Palaces Look Better Lit Up.
You don't need to go to Taj Mahal to see spectacular palaces. As a totally personal preference, I didn't want to go there, since by all accounts Agra, where T.M resides, is the mother of all tourist hell holes and T.M. itself not entirely empty of tourists. However lovely a place is, the experience is largely spoilt for me if the place is hyper-touristy, with touts, aggressive sales pitches, outragious scam prices and loads of clueless and loud tour groups bumbling around. I'm just really Finnish that way.

Though temples have far outnumbered palaces on this trip, the palace at Mysore makes up for this shortage nicely. The interior is pretty stunning (I took the OPPOrtunity to take some forbidden photos of the inner rooms). Note the total absence of the milling masses.
But the piece de resistance is the weekly lighing of the palace every Sunday evening for an hour. Wasn't it lucky I rolled into town on Sunday afternoon!
To add a strange and surreal twist to the occasion, an Indian band was playing pitchy music, that sounded like the soundtrack to a Fellini film.
7) Even a Cardboard Palace is Better than None When it Comes to Weddings.
Weddings are the biggest day in most Indian's lives. And every girl wants her dream wedding. Funds are pooled and money is saved, but it's still not always enough to rent a real palace for the occasion. Ever inventive, there is a brilliant solution to this: festival halls camouflaged as palaces! Tinsel castles in the sky.
Oh, young love. Just you and me. And your parents and mine. And a big group of leering uncles.
But it does seem to be a girl's market - at least the popular TV show the bachelorette seems to be airing here too. There are many men to choose from.

All good things come to and end, and having shared my travel wisdom and my trip with you, it's time to bid adieu. No doubt there'll be other trips to follow and more wisdom to be learned. These feet are made for walking.

Feb 20, 2017

The Most Beautiful Place in the World - Again

There is, in my opinion, no one single "Most Beautiful Place in the World", but many. And whenever I run into one, it takes my breath away.
Today I added another Most Beautiful Place in the World to my list. It is, so far, only the second agricultural entry on my list - the first being the Yuan Yang rice terraces in Yunnan province, China. The other nominees are mainly ancient structures built for the glory of deities or natural formations and landscapes. The place I saw today was nature pruned and fine tuned by man and the end result is just beautiful. May I present: The tea plantations of the Nilgiri mountains (Blue Mountains) of Tamil Nadu.
I have seen tea plantations in many countries, but never ones as visually stunning as these. The plantations were on steep slopes, so trees were dotted here and there to keep the top soil in place. These trees' limbs were pruned so that they wouldn't cast too much shadow on the tea plants below.
The tea plants were planted into more or less straight lines
or as a more loose formation, the latter of which made the texture look somewhat like the surface of a (green) brain. This may not sound good, but it looks good!
The result is a landscape, which was obviously sculpted by man for his purposes - but also looked lush, green and hilly - somewhat like the Shire, home of the hobbits, in the movie Lord of the Rings. Except with a more dramatic background of mountains.
A local bus from the town of Connor dropped me off at Delphin's nose, a touristy view point. From there I walked the 8 km to Lamb's Point, another touristy view point. In my oppinion neither of these two was much to write home about. Though they did house a very tame group of monkeys.
However the curvy mountain road between the two offered some truly stunning topography and scenery.
The bus, the only one servicing this district, ran every hour in one direction and the next hour back to Connor. The driver (in the mirror) and ticket sales person were interested in my project of walking from A to B. They passed me a total of six times coming or going, honked and waved every time and made sign gestures to ask if I wanted to get onboard. I don't think they were too impressed with my rate of progress, since I was mesmerized and constantly stopped to stare in awe - or take photos, since I was sure that every new vista was better than the one before.
Apart from my encounters with the friendly local bus, I was, once again, all on my own, with only the tea pickers to keep me company. They were very friendly - I got several invitations to share their lunch with them, which I politely declined. One the lunch offers was from Govindra in the photo below.
I couldn't, however, decline their request to take selfies with them with my camera. Much as I love my camera, it's not exactly the perfect tool for selfies, but they seemed pleased enough with the end results.
I found myself laughing aloud from joy - and a kind of disbelief: It was hard to accept that a landscape like the one I saw in front of me truly existed.
Part of the disbelief was from the improbably vivid green colour of the tea plants. Since the top leaves are routinely picked for the best quality tea, the plants are in a constant state of leaf regrowth and the top leaves are that impossibly vibrant shade of green you see in late Spring / early Summer in Finland.
Today I feel truly blessed to be where I am, humbled to be seeing what I am seeing, living the life.

Feb 16, 2017

Men in Makeup and Fishing Tips

Kochi is the main city of Northern Kerala. It has an old town, very crumbly remains of an old fortress and a nice seaside promenade, where tourists mingle seamlessly with local fishermen. Or at least I mingled seamlessly with fisherman for three full days and a bit. As did these puppies (any excuse for cute puppy pictures):
Kochi is a town with an active harbour, much history, an on-going arts biennale and quite a few tourists. Promenading on the waterline you can watch the sun set behind passing cargo ships after which you can go to a music concert (part of the Biennale programme. Beautiful music, but the star vocalist was rather too fond of talking. So the 2,5 hour concert consisted of 1,5 hours of him going on in hindi and, alas, only 1 hour of music).
Being a very artistic type of blogger, I also took the chance to visit Kochi's famous Kathakali theatre. Also, I just like to watch men dance.
First we had the pleasure of watching boys put on makeup for an hour,
then the show began. As I am deeply indoctrinated into the secret art of Kathakali, I can reveal to you the plot: First there was this good guy (good guys always have green faces). He was looking pretty pleased with himself.
But after a bit of singing and dancing along came this black and red dude (clearly a bad guy that is) who started messing around and hitting topless assistants with vihtas (the birch twig bunches one hits oneself with in the Finnish sauna).
So anyway, the red guy was hitting away with the vihtas and it was starting to ruin the zen and mojo of the green guy. So in the end they had a bit of a dance-off and the green guy totally beat the black guy. I think the black guy died. Or at least he was weeping.
There's no denying that these dancers are dedicated to their art. They study for years to get all the hand gestures and eyeball-rolling down to pat. Also just before the performance they put an irritating substance into their eyes, so that the whites of their eyes turn blood red.

If not Kathakali dancing or being and irritating auto-ricksaw driver (could I PLEASE walk 20 meters without one of the drivers trying to persuade me to take a one hour sightseeing with wind-conditioning?), fishing seems to be quite a common occupation in this, the oldest corner of Kochi. For many a profession, for some a loved hobby and welcome source of extra proteine for the family. The mode of fishing are numerous, the humblest being a hook, some bait and fishing line held in the hand. Then come the anglers with their fancy rods. Then fishermen wading in the sea to throw nets at the waves.
The net throwing fishermen are at it until well after dark.
After this the next upgrade is rowing boats and nets, then motorboats and nets.
I haven't seen any of the more fancy, big fishing boats that I saw in the backwaters floating this way. So the biggest guns locally are these guys, Chinese fishing nets.
These ingenious contraptions were first introduced here by traders from the court of Kublai Khan. Internet tells us: "The net is used like a big ladle to scoop the fish from the water. The net is supported on a wooden frame and suspended from wood or metal poles (up to 30m high). The counterweight are massive rocks tied to the rods and it takes at least four persons to operate the strucure".
All that, and they're pretty too, especially at sunset!

With all this fishing going on, it's probably no surprise that the seafood in Kochi is glorious. The catch is sold fresh and flopping around straight from the beach.
Potential customers gather round to view the pickings.
I spent my days in Kochi very pleasantly: Mainly eating, drinking fruit juices, walking on the shore watching the fishermen and staring at the waves. And also starting, once again, to read James Joyce's Ulysses. It's a faithful travel book, which I've been carrying around since 1999 on my travels and have read, several times, until around page 250. Shame the book has over 650 pages. Why I never get past the halfway mark is a mystery to me, since Joyce's text, though demanding, is absolutely beautiful! Sitting in my favourite juice bar by the Chinese fishing nets, sipping a freshly squeezed pineapple juice (oh, heavens above, they're so good!) I read the following depiction of Stephan Dedalus (Joyce's alter ego in the book) sitting on the shore and watching and listening to the waves:

"Listen: a fourworded wavespeech: seesoo, hrss, rsseeiss, ooos. Vehement breath of waters amid seasnakes, rearing horses, rocks. In cups of rocks it slops: flop, slop, slap: bounded in barrels. And, spent, its speach ceases. It flows purling, widely flowing, floating foampool, flower unfurling."

Now if that isn't the most beautiful description of the seawaves breaking on and then retreating from the shore, I don't know what is!

In words less poetic but as sincere I said my fond farewell to the sea in Kochi, since this was the last time I will see the sea on this trip. Now I have moved back inland, and taken to the mountains. After freezing my socks off in Darjeeling, I am a bit worried what my current hill station, Ooty, has in store tonight. I'm already acclimatized to 35 degrees. Ye gods, how will I survive when I get back to Finland? Just have to sit in the sauna a lot, I suppose. With vihtas.

Feb 15, 2017

Holy Cows and Eephant Kisses

I talked in an earlier entry about things specific to India. I omitted to mention two very important items: cows and elephants.
Everyone knows that cows are considered holy by the hindus and therefore not to be tampered with.
Stories of cows in the road causing traffic jams, since no-one would go and shoo them away, belong, however, to the past. I have seen a lady selling corn cobs giving a greedy cow a right hiding with a twig for trying to sneak off with one of her produce. And buses honking to high heaven and practically nudging cows with their bumpers to clear the road.

Most cows are dairy cattle, but a few, apparently, are free roaming wild cows. These lofty animals can be seen in all kinds of unlikely settings, such as hanging out at the beach (all that grazing potential),
in the main streets of vast cities,
and just generally wandering around and eating all sorts of non-green stuff, that one would think doesn't go far in filling a hungry stomach. Let alone two. For example, I once saw a calf chewing a poster off a wall.
Yet, even though some specimens have their ribcage showing, cows do have an elevated position compared to most animals. They are certainly a recurring theme in temples, where the cow statues, nandi, are extremely common and worshipped.
In temple ceremonies, golden or silver effigies of cows are carried around and worshipped with great pomp and circumstance.
There are also special religious rituals held, where cows are blessed. During these rituals the horns of the cows are painted with different colours. After all, it's India: Any excuse to make a bit of a splash with colours!
When staying in Mahabalipuram, my friend and I woke up with the early birds one day to catch a ride to a nearby village and attend their weekly cow market. What a weird and wonderful atmosphere that place had! Firstly the place itsels - in a forest of old trees with massive aerial roots groping down towards the ground.
Then the cows themselves - all possible shapes and colours - a diversity that one would never see back home. Some seemed more related to water buffalo than cows,
other shaggy, small and hairy cows seemed somewhat related to guinea pigs.
The most majestic horns where borne proudly by cows (buffalo?) used to pull carts. These animals are valued and expensive - selling at around 3.000 euros per head.
Business was brisk. Deals were strck and cows were loaded onto itty-bitty trucks, which frankly didn't seem quite up to the job at times.
Yes, our bowine friends. What could possibly be holier?
Elephants of course! The living incarnations of Ganesha.
Elephants now. Hands up, how many of you thought elephants were a uniformly grey colour? Well, I'm not sure if that's the colour of the African Elephant, but it certainly was the colour of the elephants in black and white Tarzan movies, which were so important as a reference to all things exotic in my formative years. But Indian elephants are grey - and pink! They boast a glorious splatter of pink freckles, which are unique to each elephant. Some have pink ears, some pink trunks, some have lovely dotted patterns in pink here and there.
These elephants are just gorgeous - and very friendly. They also eat all the time - so they need to work for their keep. Elephants tend to be either government elephants or private elephants helping out in all sorts of tasks from clearing forests and road work to rescue work. I remember a touching video I saw in the tsunami memorial in Banda Aceh in Sumatra. It was made to honour the many elephants who had a crucial role in clearing the wreckage and trying to find survivors in the rubble right after the tsunami. Anyway, back to India. A few of the bigger temples also have temple elephants. These elephants participate in ceremonies in the temple.
But their main job is to be the mother Amman-type hug therapists of the animal world. For a pittance (5-10 rupias - so around 10 cents), a sacred temple elephant will bless you. First you gently offer the note to the elephant, who daintily picks it out of your hand with its trunk (no such thing as a free hug). She/he then passes the note on to her/his handler, after which, glory of glories, a springy, rubbery and slighly moist trunk will descent gently on your head and bless you!!
Elephant kisses! I tell you this could be the new rage in animal therapy. You just feel sooo good after that moist and gentle pat on the head from a kindly grey - and pink - giant.