C’est Vrai, C’est Pondicherry

At long last and after a brief respite, we’re back in the U.S. and in the process of planning the next trip (a cross-country drive). But before that, here’s a recap of our final, lovely and restful days in India:

After the short flight from Cochin to Chennai, and then the inevitable 3+ hour drive to Pondicherry (or Puducherry as it’s known these days), we arrived at the lovely Hotel de L’Orient (http://hotel-de-lorient.neemranahotels.com/) in the evening – leaving the pleasure of discovering the city to the morning light. After checking out our lovely room we walked the block or two to the promenade – and strolled along the Bay of Bengal, along with hundreds of residents who were enjoying the refreshing breeze.

The hotel is another Neemrana Hotel project; the “de L’Orient” was converted from an 18th century school building into a gorgeous, unique guesthouse. We had dinner in the outdoor dining room the first evening, under a shady neem tree, and enjoyed a great buffet breakfast the next morning in the loggia – so that we could have breeze from the overhead fans…it was HOT! Person after person told us that we were visiting at what is considered the end of the real tourist season (the first week in March.) Breakfast had a particularly French feel – delicious croissants, pain aux chocolate, yogurt, baguettes and Neemrana’s housemade pear, plum and mixed fruit jams, which we’d enjoyed at the other properties in Bangalore and Coonoor.

De L'Orient Key

De L’Orient Key

Lobby Figurines

Lobby Figurines

Walking in Pondicherry was a real treat – the former French colony has lovely old homes, many painted in a lemony yellow color to designate that they are still owned by the French. Our guide told us that there are 5,000 French families in Pondicherry, and it seemed like there was a Lycee Francais on every other street corner. A favorite visit was to the Sri Arulmigu Manakular Vinayagar Temple, celebrating the Hindu god Ganesha. There are 32 sculpted reliefs of Ganesha on the wall of the temple, which are incredibly detailed and colorful – http://www.manakulavinayagartemple.com/Types.htm. At the end of the day, an elephant is brought to the temple and offers blessings to those who bring appropriate offerings of grass, nuts or flowers. My handful of grass resulted in a good tap on my head from Lakshmi’s (the elephant) strong trunk.

Ganesha Temple Decor

Ganesha Temple Decor

Another incredible visit was to the Sadhana Forest (www.sadhanaforest.org) outside Pondicherry, where we visited a young relative who was starting an environmental internship. Sadhana is 70 acres of formerly arid, eroded land that is being transformed into an indigeneous tropical dry evergreen forest through the volunteer efforts of dozens of people from around the world. Over 29,000 trees have been planted over the past 10 years, watered and cared for by the volunteers. Through water management and retention efforts including building earthen dams and trenches, the organization has raised the aquifer’s level by 6 meters, and dramatically improved the water table for the rural residents. I walked around in awe – from the handbuilt bamboo and coconut palm multi-story buildings and dormitories to the communal kitchen, recycling center and solar array, the entire enterprise is an incredible, inspiring testament to what can be accomplished through devoted, passionate, hard work, and many many caring people.

Sadhana Buildings

Sadhana Buildings

From Pondicherry we went north to Mahalbalipuram (arghh, once we’d finally figured out how to say that correctly, we learned that this town is now called “Mammallapuram”), a fishing village with a quaint French flair, a nice beach with traditional fishing boats, and good restaurants. Mammallpuram is known for its shore temples and ancient outdoor sculptures carved from single enormous boulders and rock formations. Generations of stone carvers have thrived here, and as you drive the narrow streets there are dozens of small businesses with sculptures ranging from tiny, easily transported carvings to enormous sculptures that you’d need a crane to lift into your garden, assuming you’ve got both the garden and the budget to transport it there!

Mammallapuram Shoreline

Mammallapuram Shoreline

Our too short visit to Pondicherry and Mammallapuram ended with a late night dash to the Chennai airport for our long flight home. Five weeks in India were not enough, by far, and we’re already thinking about where to go when we return! The far north and the distant south. I’ll post a selection of India photos in the next blog, without the lengthy text. I hope you enjoy…Namaste.

Holy Cow...Farewell

Holy Cow…Farewell

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Kerala Idyll

The drive to the backwaters of Kerala in Kumarakom was, yes, long! But in part fascinating, as we drove through a small village celebrating a temple festival, and traffic came to a stop as two parades converged from opposite directions on the little more than one-lane road. There were a few police officers standing around waving what we’ve been calling “swagger sticks.” But the traffic didn’t seem to pay much attention at all, and it was to the peril of the parade participants and the bystanders as buses, log trucks, tuktuks and cars tried to wend their way along the route. It took us at least an hour to go about 2 miles – and that after we got out of the car and walked along the parade route. Why sit (even in the cool car) when we could experience the excitement of a village parade? We probably added an element of novelty to the festivities as well!

Young men were carrying enormous pyramid-shaped wooden frames covered with multi-colored foil flowers – in a sort of wooden yoke across their shoulders. As the band of flutes and drums played, the men started twirling, until they got dizzy and passed the contraption to someone else.

Village Parade

Village Parade

We eventually made it to the houseboat dock, (after an amusing elephant in a truck scene and an extraordinary sighting of over 20 eagles soaring over prawn fishing boats) where many traditional boats, known as Kettuvallam, were tied up. The hand-off to our crew of two was rather lackadaisical, and they didn’t speak much English – in a way this was fine as CW and I could just chat and ponder the view instead of asking the unending questions we’ve had throughout the trip. Our 60’ long boat had an open, but covered sitting/dining area with a built in bench running along the side of the boat where I enjoyed reclining and watching the scenery pass by. We had a small bedroom with tiny combined toilet/shower area (this is typical), and there was a kitchen and crew area in the back of the boat. We were really surprised by how many houseboats there were; it felt a bit like “houseboats on parade,” as you can see in the photo.

Houseboats on Parade

Houseboats on Parade


Afternoon Banana Fritters and Coffee

Afternoon Banana Fritters and Coffee


Backwaters Houseboat

Backwaters Houseboat

A backwaters overnight trip is probably not for anyone who needs a lot of movement or exercise! We spent a couple of hours the first day, including the late lunch, cruising the smaller canals and out into Lake Vembanad. There’s not much to do but watch what’s happening on shore and on the water – and it is beautiful and fascinating – village life on the water; women doing laundry by stepping down into the water on old stone stairs, slapping the laundry rhythmically against the side of the steps; children were swimming, old men were fishing, and long dragon-prowed boats were delivering huge sacks of the rice harvested from the paddies all along the back waters. And it was hot. 35 c or 95 F, and humid – so when the boat wasn’t cruising, the air was still, warm and moist, recalling my least favorite part of living in Singapore.

Backwaters of Kerala

Backwaters of Kerala

It was disappointing, after having seen all the quiet backwaters and the still lake, to find that we were going to dock and spend the night back at the busy, noisy boat mooring area. (Nothing I’d read indicated that we wouldn’t be somewhere away from civilization for the overnight part…) There was air-conditioning in the bedroom, the sound of which helped to mute music and conversation from neighboring boats – only a foot or two away. After breakfast, we cruised again for an hour and then returned to the dock to continue our journey by car to another part of the backwaters on Lake Vembanad, near the town of Kumarakom.

At the Abad Whispering Sands, we had our first true “resort” experience in India. Our cool, large and simple room overlooked the lake, hammocks suspended under the coconut trees, and sweetly, a number of Indian honeymoon couples. But it was only the international guests who enjoyed the “yoga in the pool.”

Pool Yoga

Pool Yoga

The big adventure for this brief resort stay was a long walk along one of the tiny lanes trying to find a coffee shop, and hopping into a convenient tuktuk to ride into the town of Kumarakom, where we had our first seafood in India at the “Hotel Dubai.” Then into a local sweet shop/bakery where we found cardamom chai and a pastry to celebrate this “non-birthday” for Leap Year baby CW.

Kumarakom Canal

Kumarakom Canal

From the backwaters we drove to Cochin (Kochi), a wonderful old Kerala city that between the 16th to 19th centuries was occupied by the Portuguese, Dutch and British. We stayed at the Koder House in Fort Kochi (the old city), a 200-year old home built by an early Jewish family; various early maharajahs had been both tolerant of and welcoming to other religions, and many Jews settled in Cochin from the 1500’s on – though now, only 7 Jewish residents live in the old city. We visited the lovely and poignant Jewish Synagogue, and strolled the lanes of what is commonly known as “Jew Town.” After the creation of the state of Israel, most Cochin Jews emigrated, leaving behind lovely old homes, and a way of life that had existed in Cochin for hundreds of years.

Koder House

Koder House


Koder House Guest Room

Koder House Guest Room

Cochin is one of my favorite stops on the trip – the history, the culture, the variety of people and ways of life were dazzling. Cochin is famous for its “Chinese Fishing Nets,” of which only a dozen or so remain in the old city. By getting up early in the morning, my stroll on the seaside promenade was quiet, except for the men working the fishing nets, lowering them via lines of suspended small boulders, letting the nets rest in the water for about five minutes, and then levering the huge nets back up with their catch. Stall owners hovered nearby waiting to purchase the fresh catch – and I’m sure we ate some of it later in the day.

Cochin Fishing Nets

Cochin Fishing Nets

We reluctantly left Cochin and flew across southern India to Chennai, driving south to the old French colony (until the 1960’s) of Pondicherry (Puducherry, these days.) This was a real treat, and more about that soon. As I write, we are sitting in a small rooftop restaurant in Mamallapuram, south of Chennai, preparing for our midnight drive to the airport for a 4am flight to London and home, so this blog will be posted after return and a day or two of jet lag. Namaste, and wishing you safe travels and to journeywise.

JourneyWise Note:

Other than the real “cold,” we haven’t been sick or had digestive problems…Here are some of the precautions we’ve taken: (some may seem silly, but hey, it’s worked!)

Teeth: NEVER used anything but bottled water, to wet the brush, rinse the mouth, clean the toothbrush…

Eyes: I wear contact lenses so, after cleaning lenses with solution, ALWAYS rinsed with bottled water, and after removing from case, I rinsed the case with bottled, NOT tap, water.

Drinking: ALWAYS drank bottled water, not even the purified and filtered water offered at some hotels and restaurants. We did often have masala chai and coffee from stalls, and were pretty sure the water was safely boiled…and we carried personal water bottles everywhere and refilled them from the large bottles of water we bought to keep in the car.

Cleanliness: Even though I’m not a fan of using antiseptic lotions and wipes at home, they were always by my side in India. I had a small generic bottle of antiseptic spray that I used on my hands frequently, and antiseptic wipes that I’d use to clean my face, neck and arms after any hot, sweaty activity – which was pretty much everything we did except in the highlands. Otherwise, we either did small bits of laundry in the hotel sink or had pieces sent out – laundry prices were incredibly cheap (10 rupees for undergarments, 20 for a shirt. 100 rupees approx. $1.60) And, we were a little dirty and a little smelly some of the time!

Periyar and Beyond

Periyar Entrance

Periyar Entrance

We had a long, meandering and beautiful drive through the hills heading south to reach Periyar Tiger Reserve, located in the Cardamom Hills and Western Ghat mountains on the Kerala/Tamil Nadu border. We’d eagerly anticipated this couple of days in the wilderness and had booked one of the Gavi Eco-tents (www.periyartigerreserve.net/cottage-tent.html) to sleep in. Almost nothing about our two days at Periyar disappointed!

The first view of the tent was just as expected – a large one room tent on a platform and suspended beneath a palm-leaf covered roof. There was a separate, private bath/shower room behind the tent, accessed through the screen door at the rear of the tent. The tent and bath area were basic, and just what we’d anticipated, although the view down to the lake was even nicer than we’d hoped for. There was electricity in the tent, though the 5 minute, unlit walk to the outdoor restaurant was quite dark in the evening (glad we brought small flashlights on the trip), and perfect for star-gazing. The deep, amazingly dark evening sky and brilliant, countless stars were spectacular.

Gavi Tent Periyar

Gavi Tent Periyar

Inside the Tent

Inside the Tent

Periyar is what I’d describe as a “forest-jungle” and many areas are quite densely forested, making it a challenge for wildlife viewing from the back of a jeep. There aren’t the “big five” to see as we’d looked for in South Africa, but we did see the fabulous Malabar Giant Squirrel, Nilgiri Langurs, Gaur (a large, endangered Indian bison), Sambar (an Indian deer, of which we saw many) and many birds. Elephants were evidently close by as the fresh dung and HUGE elephant tracks we saw in the river bank proved, and the elusive tiger was not to be seen. Our guide, who has worked in the park for 14 years, said he’d only glimpsed the tiger twice in that entire time. There are currently 46 tigers roaming the 357 sq. mile park.

We had a great 3+ hour hike with Narayan, our guide, who was in flipflops, and I don’t know how he negotiated the steep hillsides; I was very happy to have my hiking poles with me, and sturdy boots. He took us a bit off the beaten track once he realized how enthusiastic we were about the park – we hiked along the nearly dry Pamba River to one of the waterfalls, and along a tiny track where a couple of tribal families lived in makeshift tents with no running water or other facilities. They survive by harvesting wild crops and making the incense used in Hindu temples – by harvesting the bark from a particular tree and processing it into a sticky, aromatic resin.

Tribal Smile

Tribal Smile

Vista with Red Trees

Vista with Red Trees

Two jeep safaris allowed us to go much deeper into the park – and again, not much wildlife, but the scenery was spectacular, including the bright red, new leaves of one which our guide referred to as “Mora” or “Moro” – but my online research hasn’t confirmed the name or type of tree – any ideas?

Many visitors come only for a day visit, but we’d stay overnight again – the quiet night, glorious stars overhead, and thrill of knowing that we were inside a tent protected by electric fencing to keep the elephants outside the perimeter were all a real treat.

Periyar Sunset Shades

Periyar Sunset Shades

After two nights at Periyar, we loaded up the car again and headed for the Kerala backwaters for a night on a houseboat… our Kerala adventures next!