Sunday, February 22, 2009

India: October 24 - November 30, 2008

In 1939 my father was born in Bangalore, in the Indian state of Karnataka. The following year my mother was born in Hyderabad, Andra Pradesh. They were married in 1970 and moved to the USA, spending their first three years in Pasadena, California (where my father had completed his PhD in 1968) and then settling in central New Jersey.

I had only traveled twice to India, the second time in 1984 - when I was six. Several years ago I realized that my interest in foreign travel and my failure to visit India as an adult were particularly incongruous given my heritage, and I vowed to make a proper trip when I found the opportunity to take more than a couple of weeks off from work. Last April, when I decided to take a year off work, the opportunity finally materialized.

So on October 24, around 1 AM, I arrived in Bangalore. I had come down with a cold several days before the flight, and arrived feeling pretty miserable. My uncle Rangu Kaka (Kaka = uncle) and his wife Mythili Auntie (Auntie = auntie) arrived at the airport with a car and driver to pick me up, and we made our way to their home in the Jayanagar neighborhood.

Speaking of making our way, my initial impression of driving on the left hand side of the road was that the "law" was in reality an arbitrarily-followed guideline, not a certainty. This impression would prove correct throughout my trip.

My family has three homes in Bangalore. The one in Jayanagar is shared by my aunt Koopie Atthya (Atthya = auntie), Rangu Kaka, and Mythili Auntie. The two in Chamrajpet are occupied by my uncle Guru Kaka and his wife and by my uncle Kittu Kaka: these two homes were built on the same plot of land on which my grandfather's house once stood. If it's not already obvious, I have quite a few uncles: my mother was an only child, but my father was the youngest of seven children, all male except for Koopie Atthya. (My father was actually the youngest of ten, but the first three passed away in their youth.)



I spent six days in Bangalore in the Jayanagar house. One highlight was a day trip with Rangu Kaka and Mythili Auntie to the Hindu temples at Belur and Halebid and the Jain monument at Sravana Belgola: I particularly enjoyed the villages we passed on the way, which just fascinated me. There were two young, smiling girls dressed in saris toting water vessels on their heads, a gentleman on a scooter with a huge array of pots and pans for sale tethered to the back, cows everywhere, and so on. Other events of note during my time in Bangalore were having lunch with Mythili Auntie at MTR (Mavalli Tiffin Rooms), catching up with my friend and former colleague Praveen at a slick club called Couch on MG Road, and wandering around Lal Bagh gardens with my eldest cousin Madhu. But the best experience was seeing family at a get-together Rangu Kaka had arranged at home, as well as random conversations with family members, most of whom I hadn't seen in over two decades. My aunt handed me a letter my grandfather wrote her regarding my father fifty years ago, Guru Kaka showed me some photos from their youth, and Madhu and Murali, my 64-year old eldest (twin) cousins, told me stories about growing up with my father that I'd never heard before.



From Bangalore I flew to Trivandrum in Kerala. (Incidentally, Kingfisher flights ROCK - on time, great service, and good looking stewardesses - what more could you want?) I spent a night there and then took a local bus to Neyyar Dam, where I had planned to spend the following week at the Sivananda ashram. Local buses in India are quite the experience - I'll leave it at that. Upon first arriving at the ashram I was a little thrown off by a large banner in the main hall that advised, under an innocuous "Om," that one should "chant for world peace." Luckily the world peace-y impression would turn out to be a false one, and by the end of the week I'd synthesized some thoughts that had been wandering through my head for awhile, learned the basics of yoga, and made a few good friends. Highlights of the experience included a swami who proved to be an excellent teacher, very good asana and pranayama instruction, and a pretty cool international group of people. The lowlight was definitely the rather poorly bulk-prepared sattvic food, which while perfectly nutritious left rather much to be desired in the taste and variety departments. Incidentally, one thing that puzzled me my first few nights was the bestial sounding ritual I would hear before falling asleep - the sounds turned out to be emanating from a nearby lion sanctuary - bestial indeed.



I left the ashram after a week as planned, took a bus back to Trivandrum, and proceeded via train (unreserved sleeper class) to Kanniyakumari, the southern tip of the country. After a night and an unsatisfying overcast "sunrise" the following day, I returned to Trivandrum and caught an auto (autorickshaw) to Kovalam, where I spent two nights relaxing by the beach. There I met up with Kamini and Kim, two friends I'd gotten to know at the ashram, for the better part of one day. Kamini is from Delhi and works for the UN; Kim is from NYC and works in fashion marketing. I can STRONGLY recommend the dinner buffet we partook of at the Leela hotel - extraordinary variety and quality paired with a beautiful setting high above the shore. Incidentally, watching lighting over the Arabian sea was fantastic.



I departed Kovalam via taxi, headed back to Trivandrum, and caught a train to Alleppey, where I boarded an auto to a farming village called Chennamkary. There I stayed at Green Palms, a homestay run by a farmer of Syrian Christian descent, for two nights. Green Palms had been strongly recommended by two couples I had met at the ashram, and I was extraordinarily fortunate to have received and taken their advice. The homestay was an exceptional experience - walking, cycling, and canoeing in the backwaters community with the hosts was serene and genuine. Conversations with the villagers (usually with a host translating) and with the host family were heartwarming and illuminating. I learned a great deal about the community, from agricultural techniques to homebuilding to religion. I also spent my thirtieth birthday there - it turned out to be a visiting family's 8-year old son's birthday as well, and the hosts pulled out all the stops to celebrate. (The fact that it was my birthday came out during a conversation with a 90 year old villager during the morning walk.)



My next stop was Delhi - I took the train back to Trivandrum and caught a flight. I spent three nights in Delhi, and made a day trip to Agra to see the Taj Mahal. While in Delhi I caught up briefly with Kamini, and in Agra I ended up wandering around for a little bit with another random tourist. I then proceeded to Rajasthan, taking a 19-hour train (3 AC) to Jaisalmer for three nights, then heading to Jodhpur for two nights, and finally flying to Udaipur for three nights. In Jaisalmer I spent a night out on the Thar Desert with Sahara Travels - traveling by camel and sleeping on the sand soothed by the celestial lights and the warmth of seriously heavy blankets was a great experience. I also had an excellent meal at a small hole-in-the-wall "restaurant," the food prepared and served by a woman who appeared to be well into her eighties. In Jodhpur I stayed in Ratanada at Ratan Vilas, which I cannot recommend highly enough - affordable and atmospheric with excellent service and food. Jodhpur's Mehrangarh fort was also the most well preserved of the Rajasthani palaces I saw, and I had a good conversation with two of the scholars there. In Udaipur I sync'd up with Kim, who was also traveling through the city, and we met up for a couple of dinners. The second was arranged by the princess in an interesting turn of events. Also of note, I met and formed a friendship with a local artist my first day, and ended up having chai with him every afternoon before I left the city. Finally, two things generally struck me about the people in Rajasthan. First, the women carry brightly-colored umbrellas as sun protection; second, people in wedding processions act rather interestingly.



From Udaipur I flew to Bombay (Mumbai). I arrived on November 25th, and had luckily changed my earlier plan to stay at the Taj or the Oberoi. (The terrorist strikes occurred on the 26th.) Instead, I spent one night at the Grand in Ballard Estate and caught an early train the next day to Neral, whence I caught the narrow gauge line to the hill station of Matheran. Two weeknights in Matheran served as a superb antidote to travel - calm and picturesque. I stayed at the Verandah in the Forest hotel, which had been recommended by a couple I had met earlier in Jaisalmer - Verandah, a Neemrana heritage hotel, was a fantastic getaway - an old building (the Barr house) with twenty-foot ceilings, a beautiful dining hall, and even a proper treehouse. At the end of my stay I caught a ride to the Mumbai suburb of Juhu Beach with Siddharth, a novelist who was also at Verandah, and spent a night as a guest of the Hakims, a couple with two daughters and a dog whom I also met in Matheran and who had graciously offered me their hospitality in the wake of the attacks. On the 29th I took my leave of the Hakims, met with Anna's favorite uncle for a drink and dinner, and then headed to the airport and back home to Seattle.



I'll end this report with a number of disorganized thoughts about the trip.

First, I was surprised that I had genuine, meaningful interactions with people nearly everywhere I traveled. I had expected to feel like a western tourist and did not. It was rather amusing to observe people try to grasp that I was south Indian, born in the US to emigrant parents, and touring through the country. It was also interesting to find that Samvid really is an unusual name - Dwarakanath was much more effective for the purpose of making reservations.

Second, I found I missed very little while traveling. I would have loved to share some experiences with Anna and have some in depth discussions with my parents, and every so often I would have liked to have my guitar, iPod, or a book off my shelf, but that was about the extent of my unfulfilled material desires. I thought that was pretty revealing, especially since I was traveling with a thirty-five liter bag.

Third, I was fascinated by the visible effects of a large unskilled labor pool on the economy. In Kerala a dozen men will work for two hours pulling in a single fishing net, and in Agra I saw women cutting the lawn outside the Taj Mahal by hand with scythes. Yet in areas, such as parts of Kerala, where education is strong, the tide is changing, and in those areas harvesting machines are making their entrance as the availability of agricultural labor declines.

Lastly, I should mention some of the issues in India. There are serious problems with governance, sustainability, and education. I witnessed two instances of police bribery, and was shocked to find hate crimes by groups such as the Bajrang Dal widely ignored by the government out of political expediency and lack of accountability. Pollution resulting from recent economic growth coupled with two-stroke transport in Bangalore was bad enough to result in my inability to walk around without coughing, and over-development of tourism has adversely affected the Keralan backwaters, the Thar desert near Jaisalmer, and the beaches and waters around Kanniyakumari. Education is poor in most of India - in Rajasthan it is common for school-aged children to be illiterate and working in restaurants, and extremist teaching in Muslim madrasas and Hindutva shakhas and akhadas perpetuates the religious tensions that have long existed in the country. It will probably take education and inspiration of the masses to bring about change in India, the largest democracy in the world.

For photos, visit my Picasa page.

5 comments:

Laurel said...

Hey, thanks for writing this up. I love reading different experiences people have had in similar situations.

I look up to people who can have meaningful conversations while travelling... what I miss most on a long trip is having conversations that don't have to do with buying stuff.

Martin said...

Visit to the 5star hotels in Hyderabad might not be all that pleasant anymore with stringent and high end security measures making way in the wake of the Mumbai terror attacks. The business and budget hotels in Hyderabad are also much in demand owing to the massive growth and development in the city. In the last couple of years Hyderabad has seen a considerable increase in the number of business travelers. But as far as the guests to the 5stars are concerned, they are facing difficulties owing to the beefed up security measures. Visitors are going through security measures right till the entry of the hotels to the extent of having sniffer dogs sneaking into their cars after entry inside the hotel gates. The security measures have in some way or other come in the way of the affable and warm hospitality that the guests experienced prior to the attacks. The hotel owners maintain that however much security is hiked up hotels would always remain vulnerable to attacks.

Erin said...

Hi! I’m the Community Manager of Ruba.com. We’re building a website to highlight some of the most interesting places travelers around the world have discovered. We’ve read hundreds of blogs about India, and we think that yours is awesome! We’d love to highlight excerpts from blogs like yours (assuming it’s OK with you of course) and to discuss other ways of tapping into your expertise if you are interested. I’m at erin@ruba.com.
Thanks! :)

Simon Redding said...

Hi there,

I've been trying to contact Green Palms to take my family there. It sounds wonderfully unspoilt & serene from your description. I can't find any contact details for them though - do you have any?

Thanks
Simon

Sam Dwarakanath said...

Simon,

http://ultimatefunclub.blogspot.com/2009/04/south-india-kerala-green-palm-homes.html

Have a wonderful trip.

Best,
Sam