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.

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