Thursday, March 06, 2003

Back in Dharchula -- safely, by the way, armed with a new Hero Swing mountain bike and a couple of packs of spaghetti for the inevitable carbo-loading that such a machine ought to inspire. But before bringing everyone fully up to date, let's linger in the warm South a while longer. Shall we?

First, let's pause to celebrate the fine time I had in Kerala, with my Old Man, stepmother Helen and C, of course. Thanks to our stay at Chilika Lake, C and I were a day late meeting my father in the old city of Cochin, a port town on the Arabian Sea. I found it a goodd omen, though, when crossing the bay from the train station in Ernakulum to the peninsula where our hotel was located, a few dolphin broke the surface of the water just ahead of the boat. A great sight! Still, we were dog tired from the overnight train ride, and evidently (judging from Dad's reaction) smelling quite rank to boot. Our short time in Chennai (Madras) must have contributed to this funk, so while we still carried the scent of jasmine in our minds, our clothes went directly to the local dhobi. Whereas most of the Indian landscape has been primarily hues of brown, Kerala was a blast of green. We found dozens of types of verdant palms and other foliage fed by the extensive system of backwaters and canals that the state uses to flush its rice fields, spice and gardens.

Interestingly, in addition to claiming India's highest per capita income, Kerala is also the one place in the country where Christians outnumber Hindus. Certainly, it's just a coincidence, but it was interesting to be able to visit churches and temples and even an old 14th Century synagogue all in the same afternoon.

Meanwhile, whether it was the tropics or something in the water, the pace in Cochin and across Kerala was quite relaxed. (This may have also had something to do with staying in high-end tourist resorts rather than the backpackers' delights we've grown accustomed to while traveling sans 'rental units.) The South Indian food was likewise a marvel, and a great change from the rice and lentils which we've grown used to -- and are back to -- eating almost all the time.

The highpoint of our Kerala stay was certainly Periyar National Park. The nature preserve located in the Western Ghats is rumored home to some 40-50 tigers, although we saw none; it's also a very popular place for watching wild elephants. We took a one-day trek/boat ride through the park, setting out on foot before the midday sun raised the mercury too much, and returning as the sun set. We saw monkeys in the trees and heard wild jungle chickens (seriously!) rustling and booming in the underbrush. There were about 8 people on our trip, and it was rewarding to be walking for a change; a nice shift as well from a couple of years ago when on an African safari we were never allowed outside the jeeps. Despite missing the tigers, being on foot led to some trouble when the elephants we had been watching during our morning walk decided that they prefered to occupy the trail between us and the park entrance while we were on our way out. The guides made a quick detour over hill and dale, and our troop obediently followed through the jungle.

Soon, we had put the dozen or so pachyderms in our proverbial rearview mirror and were safely ensconced back at the Taj Garden Retreat in Thekkady, where we did as visitors to India have done for the past couple hundred years and enjoyed a gin and tonic.

Somewhere in there, C and I also managed to kill about five days in Delhi before arriving back in Dharchula this week. Gotta run now, but I'll try to tease out the details as possible over the next couple of weeks. Stay tuned....

Sunday, March 02, 2003

Beyond Puri, we found some other swell Oriyan attractions. Just a little ways to the north, in the old town of Konrak, there was the legendary Sun Temple. Shaped like a giant chariot, the carvings along the 4-story high stone walls are tantric, which is to say highly erotic. Men and women, men and men, women and women and even small children can be found posed in all 69 positions and then some.(Ironically, stupidly, I left my camera back at the hotel.) The building, which is dedicated to the Hindu sun gods, would appear to be as concerned with nocturnal activities as it is with "daytime" behaviors. But for all the purient interest that such a work might and, let's face it, does inspire, the building was really handsomely constructed. Likewise, the relief sculpture was much more meaningful than simply a chance to examine naked people in action. Nonetheless, it was a gas to listen to the Fulbrighters debate whether the building might have actually been a grand whorehouse in its earlier incarnation rather than a great temple, though I think that dichotomy probably got left behind in south India several centuries ago.

Next stop, C and I took a day out to visit India's newest Eco Lodge, a place called the Chilika Lake Eco Camp on the largest coastal lagoon in all Asia. Yes, that would be Chilika Lake, home to dozens of bird species -- and a migratory destination for Siberian cranes and a variety of European waterfowl -- as well as rare dolphins, reportedly more than 200 species of fish, and more than 100,000 traditional fishermen. Watching the fishing boats in the early dawn light after a night in one of the resort's Swiss wall tents, along with the appearance of a small pod of playful porpoises, was certainly the highlight of our trip to the small island. We were able to throroughly unwind, as well, thanks to the fact that we were the only guests at the camp. We ate delicious curried crab and mustard-coated local fish, sipped icy Kingfishers and enjoyed what certainly must be one of the loneliest places on the Subcontinent.

Twenty-four hours of riding the rails later, we found ourselves south, in Chennai -- India's fourth largest city (you may know it as Madras) -- a breif stop before moving along to Kerala, where we met my Dad. Nearly two full days on the train in total provided us with an extensive glimpse of the Indian countryside along the Bay of Bengal. Chennai was a quick visit, however -- disembarking from the train at sunrise, taking in a quick chai, wandering the streets while the fruit vendors and flower stalls organized their offerings. As the sun rose, the air took on the unmistakeable air of sewage, broken occasionally by the sweet smell of jasmine, which South Indian women all seem to wear in their hair. Even so, the remnants of British influence can still be felt through much of old Madras, though as one of India's megacities -- like Mumbai and Delhi -- this dizzying metropolis would appear on the verge of losing its singular identity to the sweeping modernization that's coming to most of India's large cities.

Just the same, we were charmed to drink sugar cane juice and snack on fried salty bananas (plantains?) at the beach front, and take in a festival or sorts, which involved dipping goddess statues into the Indian Ocean. After a quick time out at one of the local shopping malls, and a swell thali lunch at one of Chennai's more famous eateries, we made our way back to the train station, heading out for the West Coast of India, Kerala, and my father.

With no time for details today, suffice it to say that Kerala was lovely and verdant. We gorged on seafood, saw spice gardens and got up close and personal with a herd of wild Asian elephants in Periyar National Park, located in the southwestern Ghat mountain range. Seeing my father under such circumstances was distinctly low stress, both with regard to traveling in India and with regard to lingering Oedipal anxieties -- and as I write this, we're preparing to make our way back to Uttaranchal. Hopefully, when we get there, I'll have more time to share my impressions.

Summer is starting in the South. We deplaned in Orissa, alongside a few dozen of Fulbright's finest, and were blasted on the tarmac by warm winds. This was nearly two weeks ago now, but at the time the sense that we might thaw out after our last stay in the Himalaya was a welcome change. The conference we were attending, a mid-year review for Fulbright scholars -- including C -- took place at a seaside resort outside the pilgrimage town of Puri, a small city with a huge Hindu-only Jagnath Temple and government-sanctioned bhang (ganja) shops. To paraphrase Lonely Planet: I cannot vouch for the quality.

I skipped more than one of the sessions, camping in the fine penthouse suite we had been installed in, and heading to the beach, taking time out for a solo trip to Puri myself. My trip to Puri was memorable from the getgo, thanks to a SNAFU on the public bus. I was jammed in amongst the locals, trying to make my "massive" American frame as small as possible, when the fare collector started gesturing that I should move to the front, and situate myself on the bus' giant gearbox. I had to step over a shriveled old Indian lady to reach that point, and off-balance and still trying to judge my space, I reached for what I thought was merely a visor to keep the sunlight from the drivers eyes. Boy, was grabbing that plank a mistake; it turned out to also be suspending the driver's "pooja," a triumverate of images from the Hindu tradition to which he makes offerings. I discovered this after steadying myself, because the fellow behind the wheel started yelling at me. Mortified, I turned to see a dozen brown faces frowning at me, including the fare collector.

"My bad," I told them. "Sorry." Which didn't seem to mollify anyone. "My bad," I repeated, but the driver continued to threaten me (I presume) in Oriyan, the language of Orissa, which I understand even less than Hindi. As I continued to prostrate myself on the gearbox, the fare collector started to crack a smile. "Bad," he echoed, pointing. Bad, I shrugged. Another smile. Another shrug. And, finally, the driver relented, and even cracked a smile, too. Before I reached Puri proper, we were all grinning like idiots, and when I got off the bus, men came to me and shook my hand and clapped me on the back.

I did better on my solo sojourn to the beach. Nearly empty, minus a fellow selling coral necklaces, the local fishermen were setting their nets offshore in the morning sun. The white sand and rolling waves put me in a trance, but soon I discovered the salesman had a few friends waiting for some tourist -- any tourist -- to arrive. That would have been me, and when the masseur, a stout bald man, approached with his bottle of oil and promises of a rejuvenating Aryuvedic treatment, I found it difficult to resist. He started on my legs and feet, and I soon gave myself over to this pleasure. The sun beat down, and the kinks slowly relaxed; I suddenly recognized how people lost all their possesions on visits to the beach. But I vowed to stay vigilant even as I grew more relaxed; it wasn't hard, actually, because the sort of massage I was enjoying is pretty darn vigorous, so sleeping would have been difficult.

About 40-minutes later I was a mere puddle of grease sizzling in the sun. So I did what any reasonable person would do and dove into the rolling Bay-of-Bengal surf, swimming out beyond the sandbars to catch the breakers. The water was cool, but not cold, and the waves were steep but perfect for a little body-surfing action. I kept one eye on the beach and my things, and one on the tall waves which threatened to occasionally pile-drive me into the sandy depths, and managed a couple of 60-meter rides before calling it quits.

Back at the conference, the sand in my shorts and my sunny highlights were a dead giveaway that I no longer counted amongst the scholars.