Sunday, January 6, 2013

On the other side of the world

Last year, Doug began training staff in India for a project at work.  On his first trip out there last October, he discovered that he misses me a lot when he's gone for two weeks.  Also, that they serve soup for breakfast in India.  I'm sure he learned a lot more than that, but since he's too lazy to blog about it, you only get my version of the story.
This December, Doug had his second trip to India and I got to tag along this time.  We spent almost 3 weeks there before the holidays (see this map for our travel trail).  Woohoo!  We took off at the end of the first week of December.   Doug and I and his coworkers Mike and Rob started our 28 hours airport and airplane time with a quick jump from Indy to connect with our international flight in Chicago.  Then we boarded our second flight to London.  With a few hours of sleep under our belts, we then got on our third flight to arrive in Mumbai just before 3 am local time. And then took a 100 mile car ride to Pune, another 2.5 hours.  We rolled into bed around 6 am and got a few hours of sleep, until housekeeping woke us up.

We started our first full day in India with a super tasty brunch--did you know that there's a traditional soup served for breakfast (more typically in Southern India)?  It's called sambhar and it's served with this funny little fermented cake called idli made of lentils and rice, and with coconut chutney.  The buffet at our hotel was fantastic and there were tons of other really tasty dishes, and fruits, and a lassi (yogurt drink) station.  Yum.

And then we took a walk, braving the traffic--which is indescribable.  I tried to take videos and photos, but I was too busy cringing to do it justice.  So, you should watch this instead.

We did a little walking tour of the University of Pune. Where four crazy anglos walking the streets of the University hardly drew everyone's attention at all.  :)  And I got to see my first holy cow, lounging in the middle of a cricket field.  Then we wandered a bit more, baked in the really really warm sun, and then headed back to the hotel to enjoy naps and the pool. And dinner.  It was a very exciting day.

Doug needed to work for a week in Pune, so I was able to have a few restful days. Mostly the first day I relaxed and enjoyed a massage at the spa at the hotel, and did a little clothes shopping.  And that evening we headed out to dinner with one of the local co-workers and his lovely wife--Ashwin and Sayali.  And we once again ate really tasty food! And drank lots of Kingfisher.  :)  And in one of the best bonuses of the evening, Sayali offered to take me shopping for gorgeous traditional clothes the next day.

One really nice perk for me in joining Doug for this part of the trip, was that I was able to borrow the driver while the guys worked.  After a bit of a sleep in on Tuesday morning and the delivery of a pot of fresh Assam (black) tea with steamed milk and cookies, I headed down to breakfast and decided what to do with my wide open day.  The last time that Doug was in Pune, he visited the Gandhi museum, and suggested that I might really enjoy it.  With some guidance for the concierge at the hotel, the driver attempted to find the Gandhi museum.  And failed utterly.  The driver and his dispatcher, after many phone calls and U-turns, decided that any museum was better than none. So we drove to the other side of the city to Old Pune and I got to see the Raja Dinkar Kelkar Museum instead.  An impressive collection of just about anything you can (or really can't) imagine, lovely diyas, to nut crackers, to pots (earthern/ metallic), or miniature statues of Hindu gods, ornate doors and windows from all over India, instruments, many items of daily use, and giant statues and carvings of gods and goddesses.  Amazing.

After another exhilarating ride through traffic, we picked up Sayali and headed out to the clothing shops.  So many gorgeous colors and materials.  I may have gotten a few outfits to wear for the rest of our trip, some fancy clothes, and lots of Christmas presents.  :)  We also had some tasty lunch, especially chaat and  mysore masala dosa--a fermented crepe made from rice batter and black lentils, with coconut and onion chutneys spread inside along lightly cooked filling of potatoes, fried onions and spices.  Divine.  If you haven't noticed yet, there's going to be a lot of talk of food in this post.  Sayali also treated me to Mehndi.  Gorgeous henna designs, that are traditionally used in wedding celebrations and other special occassions, and in my case, entertaining a new friend.  I got to enjoy these gorgeous tattoos for 2 weeks.

The next day, I was on my own and decided it was way past time for me to visit some temples. I headed out to Parvati hill, high above Pune.  There's a long path, 103 stone steps  up the hill .  The steps are so wide that an elephant can easily walk up them.  Parvati hill has 5 temples on it, Devdeveshwar temple (Shiva and Parvati), Kartikeya Temple, Vishnu Temple, Vitthal Temple, and Ramana Temple.  From the walls surrounding Parvati temple, you can see the vastness of Pune.

Sayali called me the next day and we went out for a little more shopping and sightseeing.  We visited the only quiet piece of Pune that I experienced that week, the park surrounding Sarasbaug Ganpati.  We visited the temple and then took a nice rest on the quiet green lawns.  As we headed back home, we stopped at a street vendor for fresh coconut water.  Yum.

That night, the gents and I headed out with another co-worker, Sumit,  to Barbeque Nation, a fun restaurant that has a bbq grill built into every table.  Super tasty!

Which bring us to the last day in Pune.  The gents only needed to work a half day, so Doug joined me for the last outing with Sayali.  She took us to the Mandai vegetable market, where we saw all manner of fruits and veg that we couldn't quite identify! And, we finally got to see an elephant being ridden in traffic!!  We also visited a few more temples, and as we entered one, I met a lovely bride-to-be seeking blessings on her wedding. By the time we got through the line, I was invited to her wedding. And I was very sorry that we wouldn't in India to attend :)

And that night we headed back to Mumbai. We dropped Rob & Mike to head back the states and Doug and I caught a domestic flight down to southern India the next morning.  When we arrived at the Cochin airport we got to meet the driver that was going to take care of us for most of the rest of our trip.  This started our holiday in "Kerala, God Own Country".  Kerala is a tropical state that runs along the western edge of the tip of India. During the first part of our trip, we were often asked where else we'd be visiting in India.  When we told them we were going to Kerala, their response was always about how wonderful it is, how much they'd enjoyed their honeymoon there, or how much they wanted to visit there.  And they were all right. Kerala was beautiful, green, warm and welcoming.

Our first stop was in Thekkady, a town on the border of Tamil, just on the edge of the Periyar National Park.  We were met by a local guide after we checked into our hotel and he took us on a tour of spice plantation.  We got to see how pepper (did you know that green, black, white peppercorns all grow on the same vine?), coffee, ginger, cardamom, cocoa, turmeric, cloves, and cinnamon. We attended traditional Kathakai dance. And we rode an elephant!

Leech Socks!

Bright and early the next morning, we headed over to Periyar National Park for our trek along the Tiger Trail for our overnight camp. The park is protected area that covers more than 900 km2.  The area contains the Periyar River & Lake (a reservoir created in 1895), and the habitat is primarily rain forest with some grasslands.  Although we would be hiking on the Tiger Trail, the park has estimated only 53 tigers in the reserve. On the other hand, there are probably 1000 elephants...and about 4 miles into our first hike, we saw one.  Well, actually, our guide saw one in an amazing feat of amazing visual acuity.  After a long wait with us staring into the forest, the elephant finally moved a little more into the open and we saw him.  And we realized that the guide had halted our hike, because the elephant was near the trail we needed to take.  And then the elephant noticed us standing on the next rise.  And started to walk towards us.  And we promptly ran in the other direction and hid beyond the rise of the next hill.  And turned around to find that the elephant had claimed the spot we'd originally spied him as his own.  It was, exhilarating.  After a bit of a wait, the elephant got bored with his hill and wandered far enough from the trail that we could sneak past.
Standing on in a Banyan Tree

The place we were camped was a bit of a peninsula on the lake, so we got to take a bamboo raft to get there.  Our campsite was at the top of a hill.  It's a permanent camp, tents and a bamboo shelter & camp kitchen, completely surrounded by a 20 foot deep dry moat to keep the elephants out.  :)

So, you might ask what sane person sleeps in a tent in a preserve filled with wild animals. :)  I'll admit that we may not be entirely sane and we did survive. We didn't actually get to see a tiger, but we did see evidence of them in pawprints. And in our defense our little band of crazy tourists (there were just six of us) did have four guides and an armed guard with us as well.  Which brings up one of the really wonderful things about this nature reserve. The Indian Ministry of Environment uses local community in forest management.  This reserve is now guarded and protected by former poachers of the area. These local people have an amazing relationship and huge depth of knowledge about the plants and animals the reserve, and they make amazing guides for visitors.   

Tiger Print!


Elephants on our trail yet again

Mama and baby!
Sunset over the Tiger Reserve

Wild Boar!
Elephant Bones!

There were many other wild critters we did get to see--bisonwild boarsambar deerNilgiri langur, maccaques, a porcupine, a monitor, kingfishers, cormorants, and a bear (very far in the distance).  The most amazing part of the entire awe-filled adventure was the elephants.  We saw quite a lot of them, and the most fantastic of all of the encounters happened at dusk as we came back from our evening hike.  As we came back to the raft to get back to our campsite, we could see that there was an elephant and her baby near the trail we needed to use to get up to our camp.  We slowly paddled toward our landing site and waited as the elephants ate and moved far enough around the hill so we could land the raft, crouch, and run up the hill.  The guides that were up at the camp pulled us across the log bridge as fast as they could--since the elephants were just a few dozen feet away.  Amazing.

The next day as we hiked back out, we did get to see that tigers were definitely around even though we didn't see them.  There was a fresh tiger kill, a bison that was taken down that night before--impressive, since bison can get up to 2000 lbs.

After a night back at our hotel with a very welcome shower, we took spent one more morning in the nature reserve before we left this part of Kerala.  We took another hike and a bamboo raft trip on Periyar Lake.  It was a great time to see lots of birds and critters that were less likely to run away as we silently floated by on our raft.  And, as we hiked back out, we finally got to see a GIANT SQUIRREL!  :)

We headed toward Munnar for the next few days of our trip.  Munnar is a hill station in the Western Ghats, a mountain range that runs along the western side of India.  This part of India that has the countries highest tea plantations.  It is the greenest part of Kerala, with waterfalls and mountains, and I couldn't help but think that we were in the middle of Hobbiton. We visited the Tea Museum at the Kanan Devan Hills Plantation.  It was incredibly interesting to see the history of tea in Indian and how it is harvested and processed.  We also got to visit several projects supported by the tea industry, that trains and employs young people with diabilities to make hand-made paper products and textiles.  We couldn't help but buy some beautiful paper made with elephant poop!

Munnar is also close to Eravikulam National Park and after the tea plantations we headed there to for a hike.       After taking a bus up a winding switchback filled road, we took a walk up a paved interpretive path and became superstars as tourists from other parts of India made us pose for pictures with them.  :)  The hike got much less paparazzi-filled, as we'd paid a little extra to hike further into the interior of the park.  We took a slow, steep walk up the side of a mountain (ok, just a really big hill) and got a bird's eye view of the hills and valleys around Munnar.

We also got to see the elusive Nilgiri Tahr, wild mountain goats.  There's one herd that is used to the visitors on the trail, so we got to see them up close and personal.

Doug and I left the mountains and we headed toward Allepey to spend the night on the backwaters in a houseboat. We floated along the bigger channels, at tasty traditional Kerala foods, freshwater prawns, and saw a little bit of life lived along the water.

Our last night in India was spent in Cochin, where Doug finally got to see a fort.  We saw the first catholic church in India, Jew Street and Paradesi Synagogue, the Kochi Maharaja's palace, and the Chinese fishing nets still in use. 

And the next morning we started our very long journey home.  A 16 mile drive to the Cochin airport took almost 2.5 hours.  We took a short flight back to Mumbai and decided to take our last adventure in India during our long layover by taking a ride to dinner in an autorick.  Which was awesome in every possible way.  Doug got his yayas out by being able to haggle the price of the ride--I haggled much better on the way back from dinner.  

I miss the signs in India so much!
And then we managed to get all of our luggage to the right place and checked in for our flights home.  And the flights were blissfully uneventful and weirdly quiet. I would gladly recommend British Airways just for their in-flight movie choices, if for nothing else.  And we arrived in Chicago 34 hours after leaving our hotel in Cochin.  Whew.

And the next day was Christmas Eve and we spent the rest of the holiday with my family in Chicago.  Which was loud and lovely.  Oh yeah, and I turned 40.  Yikes!  And we finally flew the rest of the way home in Indianapolis a few days later and we slept, a lot.  It was lovely to be home after an amazing adventure.

This post was plenty long enough with quite a few photos, but if you are interested in seeing more, they can be found here.

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