Monthly Archives: December 2010

A Sampling of South India

We just got back from a month in India.  Our niece got married in Mumbai (I’ll tell you all about it later) and we decided that as long as we were going all the way to India we might as well spend some time exploring.

We’d last been in India in 1993 and that time we visited the main tourist spots in North India, so this time we decided to take a tour of South India.

It’s fairly impossible to capture the essence of the experience, but this is a quick recap of some of my impressions and experiences.

Even before we left Auckland, we got the message to expect the unexpected on this trip.   Our plane was delayed for fourteen hours.  The reason?  The runway lights at Auckland airport stopped working and no flights could take off or land. 

When we finally made it to Mumbai (formerly known as Bombay) we spent two days with my wife’s cousin and she showed us some of the Mumbai sights.  It is the most amazing place I’ve ever seen with incredible wealth (more like wretched excess) living side by side with wretched poverty.  The population is about 14 million (no one knows for sure).  The population density is 22,000 people per square kilometer.  Compare that to Auckland which has a population of 1.5 million and density of 261 people per square kilometer.  As you can imagine, it takes some getting used to.

Not only that, Mumbai is built on a peninsula and you sometimes get the sense that every possible kind of vehicle has driven onto the peninsula and is madly trying to find its way out. 

Needless to say, all of those vehicles give Mumbai its own microclimate that has to be seen (and smelled) to be believed (the picture isn’t blurry, that’s normal haze):

Cars are not the only vehicles you are likely to encounter on the street:

All of these things make Mumbai fascinating.  There is something unusual on every street corner, and most interesting are the Indians themselves.  They can be dressed in anything from western clothes to a loincloth, but everyone is colorful.  What is especially appealing is that, in spite of problems in the past and the constant threat of more trouble, religions are living peacefully side by side.  Driving down a street you can see mosques, Hindu temples and Christian churches all in the same neighbourhood.

You would think that living in Mumbai chaos would make Mumbaikers, as they call themselves, antisocial but I found everyone uniformly friendly and helpful and with a sense of humour that you probably need to survive in the city.  If you stop to ask for directions, you will immediately have a crowd gather, all of whom are anxious to help. 

Once we went into a sweet shop.  I can’t begin to describe Indian sweets—they are an acquired taste but generally very good.  We couldn’t decide what was good and the shopkeeper gave us samples of just about everything on the shelves until we could make up our minds.

Another time I was walking along and acting like a tourist (i.e., looking around and not paying attention).  I stumbled on the uneven sidewalk (more on those later) and four people on all sides of me reached out to steady me and made sure I was ok.

The abundance of human qualities in what would otherwise be a totally bewildering and disturbing environment makes the noise and crowding tolerable.

The biggest negative that I saw throughout India but especially Mumbai, however, is the disparity between rich and poor.  For example, in central Mumbai a business tycoon has erected (no pun intended) a 27 storey high rise house:

The building in the background with the balconies is reputed to be the most expensive house in the world today–worth US $1 billion.  It has more floor space than the palace of Versailles.  It is home to a family of six.  The family has a staff of 600 which means that each person in the family has 100 people looking after them.  It is truly wretched excess, especially when not too far away you see sights like this:

We left Mumbai for our trip down south.  Here is our route:

Our first stop was Bangalore, which I had heard was the Silicon Valley of India.  I’d been led to believe that the massive infusion of IT money into the area had given the city a makeover.

As with most assertions like that, this one contains both truth and falsehood.  Yes, there is a lot of IT money in Bangalore and yes, there are areas that, if you squint, could remind you of San Jose:

  But there were a few things that would have been considered out of place in San Jose:

I couldn’t quite believe that sign, but around the corner I saw the reason for it:

I was informed that some people go for a more subtle approach to discouraging this practice.  They put images of deities on their fences in the hope that people won’t pee in front of the pictures:

I’m not sure how this is related to the topic:

And here is an example of sidewalk maintenance.  Now you know why I lost my balance:

But there are breathtakingly beautiful things as well.  We went for a walk around the campus of an agricultural college and saw this huge banyan tree:

Indians seem to have the nice philosophy that if something is useful you should make use of it, rather than throw it away.  The result is that you will see amazing contrasts between high and low tech.  Like this, for example:

Or this shop:

Or this one with an interestingly diversified product line:

Just when I thought I was starting to get acclimated, we flew down to Chennai (formerly Madras).  Chennai is a town of 4.6 million on the Bay of Bengal (east coast of India).  There we had hired a car and driver who would take us on a circuitous tour over to the west coast. 

We managed to find our driver, Vilva, in the height of a truly epic downpour.  It’s a good thing we found him because his presence was Plan A.  There was no Plan B.

Vilva and I after things dried out a little

We headed to our first destination and became increasingly alarmed at the rain and, more importantly, the volume of water on the road.  There were times when the water was as high as the tops of the tires and the car was forced to inch its way along. 

We made it to the hotel and drove through an impromptu lake to the reception area.  While we were checking in a guest came down to ask us if we had heard a weather report.  She explained that they had arrived in the hotel the day before and since then the water had “continuously risen.”

This was a little bit alarming because the island around the check in desk wasn’t very big. 

As if nothing were amiss we were checked in and the man was summoned to take our bags to our room.  A barefoot guy wearing shorts showed up and picked up our luggage and bade us follow him as he waded into the lake in the direction of a two story building.  Unaware of any feasible alternative, we waded in after him.

Fortunately, our room was upstairs but in our current frame of mind, which was that we would probably be there for the next forty days and nights, it looked rather grim. 

Late in the afternoon the rain stopped and we decided to go out.  Ominously, the water which had previously been up to the first step of the staircase leading to our room was now up to the second step.  It may have stopped raining but the water was still rising.

We waded to the lobby and met with Vilva who took us to the beach front temples.  They were truly impressive, although access was limited because of the rain. 

The next morning the water level had dropped significantly and the even better news was that the clouds were breaking up and the sun was peeking through.  We drove out to our next destination—Pondicherry.  The farther we went the less evidence of flooding we saw but we did learn that 180 people had been killed in flooding in the area over the past couple of days.   It sort of put my worries about snakes and mosquitoes into perspective.

Pondicherry is also on the Bay of Bengal and over the years had been controlled by the French, the Portuguese and the British.  The French influence is still very prevalent and there are streets with Indo-French names:

Another interesting site near Pondicherry is Auroville, an international community devoted to self-sustainability and spiritual growth.  Unfortunately we could only spend a few hours there but it is a fascinating and uplifting place.  Here is the main meditation hall:

The first part of the trip involved visits to lots of temples and several Christian churches.  The temples are fascinating because they are about as old as the cathedrals in Europe and equally impressive from an engineering/human effort perspective.  They are also currently in use and you can see many different worship activities.

The problem with temples is that you aren’t allowed to wear shoes in them.  It wouldn’t be too bad if you just had to slip off your shoes at the door and walk in.  But that’s not the way it works.  You drop your shoes at a central place, get a ticket, and then walk barefoot over up to half a block of Indian sidewalk.  If anyone were watching me they would have thought I was approaching the temple with great humility because my eyes were on the ground, watching every step and navigating around all sorts of interesting objects.  Thanks, in part to some of the residents:

All of our accommodations were excellent–if they hadn’t been, this post would have been twice as long.  I only saw one cockroach on the whole trip.  And one place even had a Rubik’s Cube in the bathroom to pass the time.

The hotels all provided us with a local newspaper in the morning and I made it a point to read them.  Most of the paper consists of news about the latest government corruption scandals and Bollywood gossip, but there are also lots of interesting highlights. 

There doesn’t seem to be a lot of crime, but most of the crime is referred to as “dacoity” which is perpetrated by “dacoits.”  I learned that dacoits are armed gangs who roam the countryside committing robbery.  Some of them have a Robin Hood sort of mystique but fortunately we didn’t encounter any.

There are regular reports of spectacular accidental deaths because of building or bridge collapses or other accidents.  Almost every other day someone is electrocuted, which when you see the infrastructure, comes as no surprise:

Moving on to a more pleasant topic, this might be a good time to talk a little bit about south Indian food.  We made it a point to go to local restaurants for lunch and dinner.  Most people in south India are vegetarians and in many places instead of a plate you get a banana leaf.  The waiters (all men) come out with pots of different kinds of food and you indicate which ones you want.  They serve you the ones you want directly on the banana leaf.  The locals mix everything up into a sort of paste and eat with their fingers.  Most restaurants we visited had a wash basin near the door so you can wash your hands before you leave.  Here is Vilva showing us how it’s done:

The food is very good.  There will be rice and several different sauces and dishes, all heavily spiced.  Sometimes instead of on a banana leaf it is served in separate containers, called a thale:

Each day we drove for about 4 hours, visiting interesting sites along the way and then stopping in a town for the night.  Sometimes the drive was more interesting than the tourist sites because you never knew what you might see. 

I’m not sure what these people do:

And I’m not sure what this company tag line exactly means:

Yes, even in India:

And every hut in this village had a satellite dish:

And sometimes I thought that this sign said it all:

I’ve mentioned the fun of driving in Mumbai.  I could write pages about the adventure of driving in rural India.  People don’t pay much attention to lanes.  This isn’t too much of a problem except on the freeways.  It is somewhat disconcerting to be driving in the passing lane and suddenly see an ox cart or something larger coming toward you.  I mentioned this phenomenon to Vilva, the driver and his comment was “Yeah.  That’s a problem here.”

It’s safe to say that you never know what you will encounter—from virtually impassable roads to modern wide open highways:

It is also always worth reading road signs as you are driving along.  For example, I saw “Christ’s Institute of Computer Application” (complete with a picture of Jesus).  There was also the “AVS Hospital for Bone and Brain,” and the “Test Tube Baby Clinic.”   I also saw a church called “Our Lady of Good Health.”  There are also interesting highway signs such as “Accident Prone Area.  Go Slow.” “Bridge Being Rehabilitated” and, ominously, “Weak Bridge.  Go Slow.” 

And this one:

But don’t ask me about this one:

The second part of our trip focused more on nature than temples and churches.  We visited two “hill stations.”  These are developed areas which because of their elevation are much cooler and therefore ideal vacation spots.  To get to them you have to drive for several hours up very steep, curving narrow roads, but the reward is beautiful scenery.

There was one unfortunate occurrence during our visit to the hill stations.  One evening we had a late lunch / early dinner at a Chinese/Indian fusion place.  I can’t be positive, but I think it was a huge mistake to eat there.

It was about 4pm.  There were no customers in the restaurant and they had to turn on the lights.  There were nine guys standing around watching a cricket match on TV.  During our stay there, they alternated their concentration between us and the TV.  The menu was titled “Chines” and had such delicacies as “Hot and Chower Soup,” “Extra Some Sweetts,” and the compelling “Chili Gob.”

We ordered a variety of dishes and I couldn’t tell if it was good or bad because I wasn’t sure what Indian Chinese food should taste like!

That night my wife and I started complaining of stomach problems.  Her’s stabilized after an antacid tablet. 

Mine got worse.

I’ve had this problem in Mexico, China and Laos, so I knew pretty much what I was in for.  But I have to tell you.  The Indian version is much worse. 

I was convinced that my body wanted to get rid of everything I’d ever eaten and maybe my entire digestive tract as well.  Normally, one trip to the bathroom for each end resolves things.  Not in this case.  It went on all night long.

Needless to say, I was worried about the next day’s drive.  Rest stops on Indian roads are basically nonexistent and at the rate I was going I would need one about every 2 miles.  To show what a sense of humour the person who arranges for these things has, when I staggered down to reception to get ready to leave, Vilva had some wonderful news for us.

That day we were supposed to drive three hours and we would be crossing from the Indian state of Tamil Nadu into Kerala.  Unlike in the US where you can drive from one state to another with no trouble, in India, commercial vehicles (like ours) need a permit.  Unfortunately, Vilva informed us, there was no permit office on our planned route.  We would have to take a detour which would result in the day’s driving being seven hours rather than three.

Oh, goody.

I popped a couple of pills my doctor had prescribed and hoped for the best.

I actually slept most of the way and had no trouble.  We stopped to visit a spice plantation in the afternoon and they had a much needed facility. 

Even in my condition, I found the spice plantation fascinating.  The guide took us through what looked like a forest and periodically would reach out and grab a leaf or seed pod and ask us to identify it.  We saw pepper, vanilla, clove, nutmeg, cardamom, cinnamon and several other spices and herbs.  They even had rubber trees and gave a demo of how rubber is made.  And we even saw a snake in the wild, fortunately moving in the opposite direction. 

This is how pepper looks before it gets to the store:

We made it through the check points and crossed into Kerala.   From what I could tell, Kerala seemed slightly more affluent (and cleaner) than some of the other places we had been.  Kerala also prides itself on its Communist state government and there are signs everywhere:

We had started on the east coast of south India and now were almost on the west coast where big lakes and rivers join up to the Arabian Sea.  The highlight of a visit to Kerala is supposed to be a night on a houseboat exploring the backwaters.  We had a boat to ourselves with James, the captain and Bijou, the cook.

It was interesting to see peaceful glimpses of life along the river and canals:

In addition there were also some interesting contrasts.  Usually you can’t get away from McDonalds and Coca Cola signs, but in India, this one is everywhere:

After we docked the next morning we drove to Kochi, the last stop on the trip and a very interesting place.  Kochi has a population of about 600,000 and historically was the capital of the Indian spice trade (we kept it going by purchasing lots of spices).  Over the years it has been controlled by various colonial powers including the Dutch, the Portuguese (Vasco da Gama was originally buried there) and the English. 

There was a large Jewish population in Kochi and one of the main tourist attractions is the Paradesi Synagogue which was built in 1568.  It is located in an area called “Jewtown”

The other tourist must see in Kochi is the Chinese fishing nets:

I’m not positive, but I think the fishermen make more money from tourists wanting to have their picture taken raising and lowering the nets than they do from fishing.  We were content to take pictures from afar.

We then drove to the airport, said our goodbyes to Vilva and flew back to Mumbai in time for wedding preparations. 

I’ve long since forgotten the funny smells and my indigestion.  What is left is the beautiful sights we saw and the smiles of the wonderful people we met: