flora: Stylized Indian national flag (india)
Lovebirds and elephants are romantic. But it's great to discover a city with new friends.

We explored the sights, smells, touches, and tastes of Pondicherry--with other Americans! The Fulbright conference wisely gave us some free time in the evenings.  We spent some of the time with another Computer Science lecturer, Clif, and Clif's family--his wife Lane, and their two children. It was delightful to get to know them.  We had an early dinner together with them at a delicious, Italian-style wood fired pizzeria (justly recommended by their guidebook).  We tasted real cheese pizza with tangy tomato sauce and Italian spices. Lane and I commiserated with each other. Lane isn't working; she's been busy being a mom and studying a bit of programming. Their family had originally thought of applying for South Korea, but they're managing okay in Kerala. They're also in an urban area, so it's a bit more exciting there than in rural Gujarat.

Pondicherry was French colonial, unlike most of the rest of India which was British.  The street signs are still bilingual, in French and Tamil. There are little touches of France here and there, like the painted ceramic tiles giving address numbers. The people are definitely Indian though.
An antique store with a sand painting on its doorstep
We admired an elegant sand painting on a doorstep, and followed over the threshold into a lovely little antique store. Michael bought an inexpensive bell that had once hung in a temple.
We also wandered the major city park. The kids played in the playgrounds. Michael and I explored the tropical flowers in the elaborately planted flowerbeds. I picked up a fragrant white temple-flower blossom that had fallen on the sidewalk and put it in my hair temporarily until I could find some jasmine.

We strolled along the promenade, by the rocky beach on the Indian ocean. On the beach, I made out with a parrot.
Lane holding the parrot
The green "fortune-telling" lovebirds, and their handlers, cater to tourists. They normally pick out a little rolled-up scroll with the customer's future, like an interactive fortune cookie. This time, the bird's trainer invited me to let it perch on my finger. From there, the parrot clambered all over me, chirruping and squawking. It climbed all around my shoulders and head and hair, lightly nibbling and tasting me with its tongue the whole time. It probably enjoyed the dried salt from my sweaty walk on the beach. It tickled me as it nibbled its way up my neck and over my face to my mouth. And there it just stayed, chirping and lightly chewing at my lips and teeth. This lovebird was kissing me!  French kissing!  The bird was evidently enjoying it too. I couldn't stop laughing, and it wouldn't stop kissing me. So I kissed back, with my husband looking on and grinning as he snapped pictures [he hasn't uploaded his pictures of me, so here's one of Lane instead; I'll replace it when I can]. We quickly attracted a crowd. After maybe five minutes of parrot mouth-to-mouth, I coaxed it back on my fingers and handed it back to the trainer. Still laughing, we thanked him and gave him a 100-rupee note.  That was totally worth it.

Michael and I also embraced an elephant. The major Hindu temple there has its own elephant. People buy the elephant grass or a length of sugar-cane and feed it, and the elephant blesses them in return by tapping them on the head with its trunk. Lane and Clif had been the night before, and they watched our bags while we fed the elephant. It grabbed the food straight out of our hands; I don't think it actually patted our heads, but we definitely patted it. The prehensile trunk is surprisingly strong and muscular. It snatched the food before we could get many pictures. It was friendly, though, so I hugged its legs: sort of like a big, dry, rubbery tree trunk.
Women at the Puducherry fish market

On Wednesday, we toured the large fish-market and flower-market.  The fish market smells of fresh fish. Unlike Visnagar's open-air markets, the Pondicherry bazaar is indoors and open well past sunset. We ducked in between a couple shops, and found ourselves in a warren of little market-stalls underneath the buildings. The area is well-illuminated with big fluorescent lights. Our new friend, Lane, had been there the night before. She navigated us through the maze of sellers with ease, steering her children (and us) in the right direction. There were women hacking heads off fresh fish, merchants and carts with vegetable-wallahs, and smaller shops selling kids clothing or saris. There were more vendors in a single room in that market than the whole street full of vegetable-sellers in Visnagar. And that wasn't the half of it.\
Flower market
Our ultimate destination was the huge flower-market, on the other side of the bazaar.  We smelled the giant garlands of marigolds and roses before we saw them. They're used for weddings, and for decorating temples and shrines. I wanted some jasmine, the fragrant white flowers that South Indian women wear in their hair. There were numerous vendors; I bought a long strand of fresh jasmine from a woman who strung them while I watched. I clipped them to my barrette. Our friends needed to get back and put their kids to bed, so all six of us crammed into a single auto-rickshaw and held on all the way back to the hotel. I stashed my jasmine flowers in the mini-bar fridge, where they kept nice and fresh for the Thanksgiving banquet the next night. Jasmine is a wonderful smell.

Kerala

Nov. 22nd, 2009 01:28 am
flora: Photo of a baby penguin chick (Default)
Kerala is a green paradise in South India.  We flew down to Cochi (Kochin) before the fall Fulbright India conference.  More pictures are here: http://blacks.smugmug.com/India/Kerala

We'd booked a custom tour package through Ebenezer Holiday.  I would highly recommend them to anyone traveling through South India. Everything was prepaid and ready for us in advance.  The travel agent personally picked us up at the airport, with his driver. The car was clean and had working safety belts, even in the back seat--the first car in India we've seen with all seat belts working! 

The first day was sightseeing around Cochin, a port city.  The Chinese fishing nets were very interesting, and surrounded by flotsam. 
Kerala fisherman with the chinese fishing nets

We saw the seventeenth-century Dutch church. About one-third of the population of Kerala is Christian, especially Roman Catholic. Michael, dressed in his all-white kurta lungi, could even pass for a priest (one shopkeeper thought he was "a Father.")

Michael in front of the Jewish synagogue grounds in Jew-Town, Kerala

We also stopped by the local Jewish cemetery and synagogue in "Jew-Town," now an antiques district. The merchants lining the street to the synagogue were on the lookout for rich tourists.  We had to shoo them away constantly.  We decided we didn't want to go back for Shabbat services. We had a fantastic dinner at the Grand Hotel instead--delicious fish and chicken.

The next day, we traveled up to the Kerala backwaters. There are dozens of converted rice barges that now act as luxurious houseboats. We scrambled up the gangplank and spent a leisurely afternoon boating down the river, through palm tree forests and dense floating knots of water hyacinths.  We floated past muddy green fields of rice paddies, which oddly enough are lower than the water level.  Our boat pulled over to a local fisherwoman's hut, and we bought some fish and giant prawns for dinner.  We watched the birds swooping around, and the occasional boat-bus or boat-schoolbus zipping by.  The local people waved at us as they looked up from scrubbing their laundry or bathing in the river.  No nudity inhibitions there.

For the afternoon, the boat pulled over and we relaxed. We dined on succulent ginger-curried fish for lunch, served on banana leaves, of course.  There was a several-hour break for the crew's lunch break.  Michael lounged around and studied Hindi vocabulary, comfortable in his traditional South Indian blue-checked lungi. My husband is so handsome when he dresses up Indian!  I took a little nap. It was so peaceful.

There were many birds, swooping everywhere--and I mean everywhere!  The numerous crows have adapted to living with the people; they followed the women around to filch food scraps from their dishwater.  Three crows even invited themselves to our breakfast the next morning, swooping in as soon as we stood up, and grabbing the toast and eggs while they were still warm. There were plenty of semi-wild ducks and domestic chickens too.  We also saw a kingfisher perching and diving into the water, and some other seabirds that might be terns. I heard lots of frogs, too--bullfrogs, even--but I didn't see them.

Dinner was challenging.  After a picture-perfect sunset, the crew lowered the thick liners to shut the windows (never mind the wide-open doorways).  Michael noticed a little gecko snapping up clouds of flies next to the overhead lights. On closer look, he saw they were mosquitoes. Thousands of mosquitoes.  We don't want to get malaria; however, we didn't want to stink up our bedroom with curry either.  At first I tried duct-taping our mosquito netting to the boat's ceiling, but it was dusty and the tape wouldn't stick.  So I grabbed a couple of the chairs and set them up on the table, then draped our mosquito netting over them to form a canopy.  So under our improvised mosquito-tent, we ate our dinner in the main cabin of the boat.  They cooked us some delicious prawns in a curry coconut sauce.  We retired to our well-sealed bedroom.  The air conditioner drowned out the night noises, but the tightly-shut windows kept out the mosquitoes.

The next day, we traveled up to Wayanad, Kerala.  We passed through tea plantations, and spent the night in the Green Gates Hotel.  Rather, we slept in a bamboo treehouse made into a hotel room.  Green Gates was by far the cleanest, most comfortable room out of all the hotels we have ever stayed in throughout India.  Never mind that we could see through the cracks between the floorboards to the ground far below; that treehouse was a two-story luxury hotel room, with hot water and a comfy down comforter. After a tasty dinner, we snuggled in for a comfortable night's sleep.
flora: Photo of a baby penguin chick (Default)
Camels are fun, and so are forts.

We went on a road trip to Jaisalmer Fort and Jodhpur in Rajasthan. Jaisalmer was high on our to-see list. UNESCO ranked Jaisalmer Fort as an Endangered Site due to sewage/drainage problems and changing weather patterns; one big earthquake could seriously damage this ancient fort. It's in the neighboring state of Rajasthan, but it's still pretty far from Gujarat - about a seven-hour drive for us.  We left very early, about 6:30 on Saturday morning.

Professor Hiren Patel and his family came with us.  So Hiren, his wife Chandrika, and their two children (ages 4 and 7) all piled into the SUV with us and our driver, Alkesh.  The car was big enough that it wasn't too cramped.  Chandrika and the kids stayed in the back for most of the trip and slept. Michael and I are absolutely astounded at how well-behaved their kids are. No fussing, no fighting, the whole trip. Amazing.

The domestic animals were interesting. Just outside of Visnagar, we had to wait ten minutes for hundreds of sheep to pass. The sheep are marked with dye on their wool to indicate their owners.  Then it was mainly farmers' fields, with the occasional herds of goats crossing the road. We crossed into Rajasthan and used the National Highway. After a few hours the countryside started looking more like California, with scrubby plants that looked like sagebrush. The number of goats increased, and so did the number of camels.  We occasionally see camels in Visnagar, pulling carts and so on, but they're far outnumbered by the water buffalo and cows (both ox-carts and free-range).  In Rajasthan, the camels are king.  We saw cows every now and then too, but mostly it was camels and goats.  They both like grazing on trees. Camels are natural pruners for those desert trees, and probably contribute to their umbrella shape; the leaves grow high and wide just above where a camel's long neck can reach.

The highway out to Jaisalmer is very well maintained. The road runs parallel to the India-Pakistan border, and India has a large military base there. A caravan of several dozen military trucks passed us. There's still several kilometers of desert between the road and Pakistan, so we weren't too close.

There were numerous herds of goats crossing the road. Mostly they moved out of the way in response to our horn honking. One stubborn little black goat decided to slow down, and it turned its back on us and stopped in the middle of the road. Our driver braked smoothly to a halt but the car still gave it a small push forward--kind of a nudge.  The goat glared at us and trotted away haughtily to the side of the road, and we continued.

Jaisalmer Fort was an outstanding tourist attraction. It's visible from pretty far away, a big yellow-brown fort on a hilltop near the Pakistani border. Jaisalmer is a "living fort," meaning people live in this millenia-old landmark. Jaisalmer is also a tourist attraction, though mainly for Indian pilgrim/tourists.  It's made out of carved yellow sandstone.  There are also several medieval Jain statues on display.  In terms of scale, Jaisalmer is the best historic palace/fort we'd seen yet.

Jaisalmer also has "non-veg" restaurants that serve meat. No beef of course, but they do offer chicken and lamb. Michael and I hadn't had meat in over a month, so we were very happy to eat some chicken. The Patels ate vegetarian dishes, of course. The chicken tikka was delicious, though the tandoori chicken was rolled in some kind of brown salt and it was much too salty. But it was just good to eat meat for a change. They also had some nice ginger tea and sweet milky coffee; we filled my thermos with a pot of their excellent coffee.

We wouldn't stay in a hotel that night.  While at the fort, Hiren found a good "Desert Safari Adventure" complete package deal: about $50 per couple including dinner, a night's lodging, entertainment, and transportation via camel. So we drove out to the sand dunes on the edge of the desert where the road ended, to the start of the camel trail.

Camels are too high to climb. Our camel knelt down in the sand and we climbed right on it.  I nearly fell off at the very beginning. I sat down in the saddle behind Michael, and while we were waiting for the camel-driver I took off my shoe and dumped the sand out of it. The camel stood up suddenly; I grabbed Michael with one arm and my shoe with the other, and somehow managed to not fall off (and even kept hold of the shoe!).  Michael and I rode one camel, and the Patel family rode another.  It was probably about 40 minutes, through the scrubland and into the giant desert sand dunes.

Camel riding was bumpy but easier than expected. The camel saddle was a Western-style saddle with a pommel, well padded in brightly-colored, quilted fabric. There's a little kids song, "This is the way the camel rides (bumpety, bumpety, bump!)" and it was just like that - we went up and down and up and down vertically as the camel strolled forward.  Camels have very looong legs.  Riding them makes you realize how high up they are. At least it didn't move faster than an (unsteady) trot. Our camel's handler walked on foot beside us, lightly switching the camel with a whip if it slowed down.  At the end of the ride, the camel driver asked our names. He laughed out loud when he heard Michael, and told us we must be lucky because our camel is named Michael too!  Michael Jackson!  Did we know Michael Jackson, the famous American star? Um. Michael Jackson has a completely different meaning in the USA. We didn't stick around to explain, but tipped the camel-driver 50 rupees and slipped down the sand dune toward the campground.

Our lodging for the night was a tent.  It wasn't really camping; Sweetie and I are both former scouts and we know what camping is.  These were permanent structures, cabins with cloth walls and roof and even a modern flushing toilet and sink.  We dropped our stuff in the tent and went to the campfire circle.

The dancers knew how to entertain. Several different Rajasthani women alternated, rotating in and out, in full traditional costumes with little bells jingling. The dance moves covered the full range of classical Indian and modern casbah-style dancing. The live band wore turbans, with drummers and musicians playing traditional instruments. At one point they dimmed the lights, and one woman filled a set of small scales with live coals from the campfire. She balanced the glowing coals, then danced with them, whirling the scales faster and faster over her head and around herself like a Harlem Globetrotter wields a basketball. It was just like some of the better parties at Pennsic. The audience applauded, especially the schoolchildren. 

Toward the end, one dancer came over and pulled me in to join her in dancing. She was excellent; she made eye contact and made sure I could follow her, giving me lots of cues as warning when she changed steps. I am not a dancer at all, but I managed to keep up and followed her rhythm and most of the steps. After a few minutes, the other dancers pulled in the girls from the school group, and we all did a circle dance where pairs of women join hands and whirl around. Dinner was rather anticlimatic after that.

The next morning, we stopped by a little lake in Jaisalmer. The local people feed the catfish there twice a day, and over a hundred catfish all lined up at the water's edge to get the food. There's also a nice temple there. All of us rode up and back to the lake in a pretty little camel-carriage. We left soon for the many-hours drive to Jodhpur.

Jodhpur was outstanding, with medieval palanquins and howdahs--elaborate coaches for carrying royalty, on poles by hand or mounted on elephant-back. Some were solid silver. They also had some medieval manuscripts on display, though no medieval illuminations (the artwork was lovely nineteenth-century Moghul). They had plenty of eighteenth-century spears and lances too. Jodhpur also has a collection of musical instruments and turbans, but we didn't see them on display. Unfortunately my cell phone ran out of charge just when we walked into the fort, so I didn't get any pictures in Jodhpur. I would've liked a picture of the breathtaking view of the village below the mountain; I hope Michael's pictures turn out.
flora: Photo of a baby penguin chick (Default)
We killed another giant centipede today. But the ant invasion was worse.

It was entirely my fault. I had spilled some orange juice just before leaving for Yom Kippur services. In my haste to get out the door, I wiped up most of it but I didn't thoroughly mop up everything. And I left the cup with a little bit leftover juice still sitting out, instead of putting it away in the covered garbage can. So all day long, about half of the top of our little refrigerator had sticky OJ residue and the cup was sitting right by it. Between the spill and the cup, the ants had a sweet feast.

We came home and discovered the ants. Mostly we've seen little brown ants that don't harm anything, and crawl along the walls in the closed-off rooms. The big inch-long black ants are normally only in ones or twos around the edges of the rooms; they don't bite, so we kick at them and kill a few and a few run away. But these big black ants were hordes, almost swarming. Michael and I each took our shoes and went stomping and hitting. Then we gave up and just started mopping up the ants with rags. There were so many we couldn't get rid of them entirely. They covered the base of the wall around our front doorway, for a couple inches high on each side. We closed the door and hit at them from our side until they ran away in fear to the stair hallway, and then we had a more manageable couple hundred left inside by the refrigerator.

My sweetie saw the giant centipede darting in and out from under the fridge. Based on his previous experience, he'd already sworn he would kill any he saw again. When it ran back out, he just dropped a textbook on it. Parallel computer architecture is a dense subject, and this was a formidable American hardcover we'd brought with us. The centipede never saw it coming. The tome landed on the upper half of the centipede and smushed it thoroughly. I cleaned up the mess and flushed it. This centipede was about the same size as the previous one we had seen in the apartment. We stil don't know if they're poisonous to humans.

The ants were spooky. We had cleaned up thoroughly on Monday night, but the ants were still a problem the next day too. Michael went on another whacking spree on Tuesday night, and killed several scores of them right before he went to bed. He was tired and left the dead ants all over the floor, to sweep them up in the morning (or be swept up by housekeeping). Michael noticed a couple live ants were dragging the bodies of their companions back, and thought nothing of it. But by the time the next morning dawned, the floor was completely clear. The ants had come back and removed all the bodies. And the live ants were completely gone too, not even visible in the hallway.  I've seen a few scouts since, but the numbers are back down to the previous levels. Weird.

I hope this means the end of our creepy-crawly visitors, but probably not. We have some permethrin insecticide I brought with us for dipping clothes and bedding in, and that seems to help repel them when we spray it on the doorway.

We need more geckos.
flora: Photo of a baby penguin chick (Default)
We discovered we share our apartment with other creatures.  This is in our new "living quarters", the brand-new apartment building up on the third floor of the doctors' apartments.  We've seen far fewer ants than in the guest house and it's nicer overall.
Gecko (wall-lizard) on the window-frame An upside-down gecko under the furniture. It's in the center of the picture just above the table leg.
We have lizards!  There are at least two wild geckos in our apartment.  They're smaller than my pet gecko at home, and they scurry around up and down the walls and hide behind the furniture. 

One very unwelcome visitor was the five-inch-long centipede.  It was in our bedroom.  We were going to bed, then Michael almost stepped on it with bare feet.  After quite a shock, we trapped it under a throw rug and ran for our shoes and stomped on it through the rug.  It wouldn't die easily.  That was scary; the fangs were half an inch long.  After finally seeing it dead, we flushed it. No picture, we just wanted that thing AWAY.  I feel no guilt for its death, because it's suspiciously like a similar giant centipede from my high school biology (bottled in formaldehyde) and that one was poisonous. That startled us a bit and we didn't get to sleep for quite a while.

Not in our apartment, but just outside it on the stairway is also a large hornets nest on the ceiling of the stairway outside. There are numerous giant beetles, June-like bugs and smaller bugs. We've seen a praying mantis and a katydid that could be straight from our back yard. The crickets here look just like US black field crickets, but they can actually fly a couple feet if you startle them.

We haven't seen any mosquitoes or flying insects in our apartment yet. We have an All-Out plugged in (like a Glade plug-in, but with bug repellent). The window screens are intact.  A few beetles have crawled around the floor, but that's about it.  Guess the geckos have to eat something.

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