India: Dec 26, 2005 - Jan 14, 2006
Getting There Was Not
How Aeroflot Became Aeroflop
As you would expect, a flight from the U.S. to India isn’t easy. But do yourself a favor – pay a little more and take any other airline besides Russia’s Aeroflot. We got to Moscow, and then found out there was no flight to Mumbai. It wasn’t cancelled – it didn’t exist – even though we had tickets! After a lot of hassling, Aeroflot finally sent us on a harrowing flight to Deli. Instead of a ticket from Deli to Mumbai, they gave us a hand-written note instructing Indian Airlines, to get us to Mumbai.
Life is Intense in Mumbai
The first thing you find out about Mumbai is that there is a lot of traffic and it is scary! There are traffic lanes in the streets, but no one pays any attention to them. Taxis, motorized rickshaws, trucks, and bikes all go as fast as they can. Most streets have only two lanes, but everyone drives in the middle of the street and it looks like you’re going to be run over by traffic that is coming straight at you. However, the driver just beeps his horn, and amazingly enough, just before you get into a head-on crash, the car next to you moves over, and …you’re safe!
All the vehicles here have diesel engines, and the pollution is horrible. The sun is always a red, fuzzy ball, the sky is always gray, and all you can see of the city across the Mumbai harbor are shadows of high-rise buildings. Other things a Westerner quickly finds out about include: what an eastern bathroom is, how to get along without toilet paper, hot water isn’t a necessity, and Dengue mosquitoes bite during the day, while malaria mosquitoes bite at night.
You’ve heard that millions of people in India live on less than one dollar a day, but when you experience these living conditions first-hand, it’s overwhelming. Some people live in run-down, decaying, cement buildings, and many people live in lean-twos, which are attached to the sides of buildings or fences all along the busy roads. During the day, small children play right next to the hectic streets, and at night families bring tables, pieces of wood or mats outside and sleep on the sidewalks. Many people just curl up in a blanket and sleep on the dirt or on sidewalks. It’s hard to believe that anyone lives long enough under these conditions to become an adult, but they do!
There are some positive signs though - you see kids from all different living conditions going to school in their uniforms and backpacks. We noticed people from the lean- twos brushing their teeth, and there are billboards, which urge people to quit smoking!
We've been exploring the neighborhood where we are staying in Mumbai. We now know where the bank and an Internet cafe are located and where a good restaurant is. The food is wonderful, but spicy. The tea is excellent.
Ryan is trying to learn some Hindi - the main language here. We were stopped in traffic and some kids came up and tried to sell us stuff. When they asked if we wanted to buy something, Ryan replied in Hindi, "I don't know, thank you." (He thought he was saying, no thank you) The kids and the taxi driver all laughed.
In spite of the difficult living conditions, people here are very sweet and helpful, but their English is difficult to understand; we think they must sometimes slip in some words in their own language, just to confuse us! Even though this country is so poor, there is a huge sense of community and everyone is helpful and easy going. Our taxi driver, who spent the day driving us around to see the sites, would occasionally swing by his neighborhood to check in with his wife and two small daughters.
If You Run, Don't Breathe
There is a marathon scheduled this summer in Mumbai and as we left the city to go to Kerala, we saw quite a few men running along Chowpaddy Beach, apparently in training. However, we're not sure if this is a good thing, because the pollution here is so bad. In LA terms, all days here would be rated at a high pollution alert status and people would be warned to stay inside!
Tomorrow we leave for Kochi, a city on the southwestern coast of India in the state of Kerala, where we hear that the food gets spicier and the weather gets hotter. It is one of the principal seaports in the country. We'll be there during the New Year's celebration.
Now we're in Ft. Cochin, Kerala
Ft. Cochin is a charming resort village in the town of Kochi, which was originally created by the British. The people don't seem to be as poor here, and there is money to be made from tourists! The business owners are starting to raise prices so they can pay their workers more and increase the standard of living. There are still good deals here, although we have paid as much as $30 per night each at some places. Most of the tourists we've seen are from Germany, but some are from Italy and Australia. We haven't run across any other Americans.
Up until about three hours ago we were upset because we only had a place to stay for one night and it looked as though it would be really hard to find somewhere to stay for the rest of our time here. We stopped at a little sidewalk café for tea and luckily, found an inexpensive room right there – the café was in a little hotel.
We found a great bookstore in the main part of the town and it had lots of material about India. We discovered an interesting book on pranayama - which is a type of yogic breath awareness and regulation exercise designed to help you control your vital energy. We learned that we could take a yoga class and get ayurvedic massages and other treatments here. (Ayurveda is the ancient Hindu science of health and medicine.)
We also explored Indian clothing shops, looked at local handicrafts and found more internet cafes.
Ft. Cochin Restaurants:
Some are clean. Some aren't.
We've had pretty good luck finding restaurants that have great food. One of our favorites is an expensive place that has all kinds of delicacies. One time we were there after a day spent in the really hot sun. We didn't see any beer on the menu, but Ryan asked if they had some. They smiled, and said, "Yes, we have Kingfisher beer. However, we don't have permission to sell it, so you must order the "special tea." which we did and it was wonderful. It came in a teapot and was served in teacups. Special Tea became one of our favorite items!
Another favorite place in Ft. Cochin is the Tea Spot. It is beautifully decorated, has a display of unusual teapots, and a variety of books about tea. They have a wide selection of teas, all locally grown, and the chef makes delicately flavored and carefully prepared foods. We love the manager. He is a tall, quiet-spoken man, who is driven to give you the most perfect meal. While he tries hard, he is so stressed out that nothing quite meets his standards. The waiters very slowly and carefully set each item from the serving tray to the table; then forget to give you silverware. Or they bring the tea, but forget the teacups! Meanwhile, the manager runs after them frantically trying to correct their mistakes.
We stopped at another restaurant for lunch. It had tables with umbrellas and looked calm and quiet. The menu also looked good and the waiter looked like he understood what we wanted to eat, so all seemed well. We used hand sanitizer to clean our hands and we were just relaxing, waiting for our food to come, when we noticed our waiter rooting around in the dirty dishes pan. He pulled out three dishes and went over to the outdoor sink with only one faucet - which means there was only cold water available! He rinsed the dishes under the running water then dried them off (more or less) with a dirty dishcloth. Shortly thereafter, our meals came. They were served on slightly damp dishes!
New Year’s Eve at the Beach
Today is New Year's Eve. We decided to go to Cheari Beach, which involved a short ferry ride to an island, followed by a long bus ride, complete with wild Indian music. The town was very crowded with people, but not many were on the beach. We looked up the road to see ten elephants coming down the path. Later we found out they were there for a New Year’s festival. Although we’ve only been gone from home for a week, watching those elephants come down the street, it seems like a year. India has wiped out all our memories of Colorado.
A River Trip Through the Backwaters
We just returned from a backwater boat trip. The backwaters are a series of lagoons and inter-connecting lakes that weave through Kerala. We left one afternoon, stayed overnight, and then returned the next day at noon.
The backwater boats are beautifully designed and were originally used to transfer goods among villages before roads connected them. Now, the boats have been refurbished and are used to transfer tourists. Our boat had a thatched roof with a covered living area that had no sides, so you could see what was going on around you.
It was so peaceful and so green along the river! The boat had a quiet motor and it didn't go too fast, so the whole trip was very soothing and peaceful. We had three crewmen who took good care of us. They were very nice and fun, and were great cooks! We ate freshly caught fish with other tasty unknown food, and it was all served on banana leafs in the traditional way.
The local people travel around the river in canoes or on large flat-bottom boats that they move by poling along the bottom of the river. We think they must have to constantly dredge the canals to keep the waterways open.
Visiting A Spice Farm
During the trip, we mostly cruised down the river, relaxing and eating, but we did make a few stops. We stopped at a spice farm and the owner, who was the captain’s friend, invited us in to talk. He was a retired teacher. He grew all kinds of trees on his land.
After a snack of fresh cucumbers and little bananas (they are so sweet - they have a stronger banana flavor than ones we are used to at home), we walked through his yard and saw a pepper vine growing around a mango tree. We also saw cinnamon, cardamom, coco, and other types of spice trees.
He also had a few rubber trees. When they tap the rubber trees, a white sticky substance drips out. They collect it in a pan, and then hang the resulting square of rubber out to dry on a clothesline. The dried squares are then sold to companies who use them to make a variety of products.
Making Twine from Coconuts
Later we stopped at a cottage industry that makes twine. The entire operation is a family business. Here's how twine is made: Coconuts are opened and the nuts are removed. Then the husks are gathered on boats by the men, who take them to places on the river, where they are soaked in the water for six months! The men bring the soaked coconuts back to the women, who remove the fibers from the husks. The women then use spinning wheels to spin the fibers into string - just like cotton is spun into string. They weave the strings together to form a very strong twine that has many uses. Our boat was held together with such twine.
Curious Visitors from the West
We seem to be a local attraction here. We don't really understand why, because there are lots of other white tourists and a lot of them are dressed in Western style clothing. We finally decided that Kelly’s eye brow piercing was the reason we were getting all the attention.
When we were at the beach, a family walked by us. There were two girls about 11 and 9 and a little boy of about 5. They came up to us, and the girls asked our names. We told them and asked their names; the oldest girl told answered, said, "Glad to meet you!" and then shook each of our hands; the next girl did the same, but the boy was too shy, so the older sister took his hand and shook with it. Then they all laughed like crazy and ran away. We waved at them and then at their parents, who waved back.
So some of our exchanges are like that and some are not. Often, men or boys come up to us and say "Hi." This sometimes means "Hi," sometimes it means, "give me money," and sometimes it's just the beginning of a long story to get us to do something we don't want to do. So depending on our mood or how they look at us, we're friendly or not.
Return to Mumbai
We left Ft. Cochin, and flew back to Mumbai. Mumbai is just as Mumbai as ever. The traffic is so crazy and so dangerous. They drive on the left side of the road (and the steering wheel is on the right side of the car).
We had planned to hire a car for the six-hour drive north to Ahmednager, but decided we couldn't face being on a highway for that long. Luckily, Ryan found out there was an overnight train, so we decided to take that. We booked first class tickets for an air-conditioned sleeper compartment, that cost $20 total for all of us. But, the train didn't leave until 11:30 pm that night, so we had another wonderful day in hot, crowed, polluted and crazy Mumbai.
A Chilly Train Ride to Ahmednagar
Finally it was time to board the train. The good news was we had the compartment to ourselves. The bad news - well, we thought the bad news was that the air conditioning was only a ceiling fan. But that wasn't really the bad news. The bad news was we didn't need air-conditioning because air came through the floor and windows and by the time we were a few hours outside of Mumbai, it was COLD! We wore every piece of clothing we had and we shivered though a sleepless night. It was a long 12 hours. (There are actually wonderful trains that go all over India - we just didn’t happen to be on one!)
We arrived in Ahmednagar early this morning. Our accommodations here are like heaven compared to some of the previous places we have stayed. It is not luxurious by any means – we can only bath every other day with a half a bucket of hot water, but and we don't have to worry about the quality of the food or whether the dishes are clean. We have netting to protect us from the mosquitoes at night and clean bathrooms. The temperature is pleasantly cool in the evening and mornings and warm midday.
The Ahmednagar Bazaar
Going to the bazaar is like taking a trip into the past. You take rickshaws (diesel powered, three-passenger golf cart-like vehicles), into the main part of the bazaar. Then you walk through narrow, curving streets along with many other people, cows, goats, chickens, and motor scooters. The women wear saris and the men wear traditional clothes. The bazaar is dense with people everywhere, selling all types of things - some inside fancy stores, some just on the street corner. You can buy material and take it to a tailor on the street, who will make you an outfit in a day. We loved the silver market and the bangle market. In the silver market, the shop owner weighs the jewelry to determine how much to charge. The bangle market has thousands of different colored bracelets in thousands of different styles.
In the bazaar, you can get many other things like sandal wood soap and all kinds of ayurvedic creams. Statues of Shiva, Buddha and other religious relics are sold everywhere. There are also interesting bags, drums, clothes, sandals, spices, teas and nuts... all kinds of stuff.
We like Ahmednagar and we have met some really interesting people. With only a few days left, we are still trying to absorb as much of India as possible and relax at the same time.
We plan to rent a car (that comes with a driver, thank goodness!) for the six-hour trip back to Mumbai. We will stop off at a five-star hotel near the airport to wait for our middle-of-the-night flight back. Apparently this hotel caters to business people, who sometimes stay there, but often just camp there while waiting for a flight. You can buy time at their gym, get a hot shower, dine at their buffet, and hang out in their lively bar. So we plan to do that.
This trip has been amazing. Life here seems so hard – just getting food is a major effort for so many – but there’s something beguiling and mysterious about it. When you’re not watching, India captures your soul and changes you in ways you don’t even know.