Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Varkala Tips


Nice beach town, accommodations and restaurants located on the cliff above the beach. If getting a rickshaw from town ask to be dropped off at the helipad, then you can walk down.

Attractions:
In town there is a nice temple.
If you walk north along the beach you will reach Black beach, that is very nice and quiet with more accommodations but the beach is mostly rocky and less swimming friendly.

Food:
Varkala Marine Palace- on the lower section of the beach, near the road going to town, really good breakfast items.

More in the Blog:
Varkala

Friday, April 24, 2009

Pictures Tamil Nadu + Mysore

Mysore/Bangalore

We boarded the fabulous Shatabdi Express train from Chennai to Mysore. It was first class all the way: comfortable AC seats, newspaper and breakfast served helped the hours pass, and before we knew it we were in Mysore. Our first stop was right outside the railway station, the Rail Museum, where we got to see the whole history of the Indian railways and lots of antique cars. From there it was on to our hotel and then a climb on to the temple on Chamundi hill. It was 1000+ steps and when we asked how long it would take to climb an Indian kid told us that "it depends on your capacity". Just under an hour later, we made it to the pretty temple and saw Mysore from above, going down by bus as the sun was setting. We were lucky to find some hotels catering to middle-class Indians, that served some north Indian food, and happy to have a break from our evening dosas we devoured some palak paneer, veg korma, raita, naan and more!
Having been getting up at 5 or 6 every morning, by 6 am we couldn't sleep anymore and started our day with an early walk through the market, as the fruit and vegetable vendors were carefully and meticulously setting up their goods in ordered piles. Then we went to the Mysore Zoo, and were almost the first ones to enter. It was a really nice zoo, with pleasant walking paths, hilarious signs warning against feeding animals etc, and some animals native to India that we had never really seen before, though somewhat sad with so many cages. By then Mysore Palace was open and we went to see the main event. The beautiful palace with it's intricate decorations of stone and metal that were made to look like wood (for fear of the palace burning down, as the previous one had), did not disappoint. That afternoon we went to the Jagmohan Palace auditorium, which houses a small art collection. The collection was nothing special, but the auditorium was in use and there was a song and dance competition that was going on, so we stayed to see some talented kids for a little while. But the crazy day of sightseeing did not stop there- we made a short stop at the Governor's House to "walk through the gardens" another LP farse, and then walked into the Indira Gandhi Rashtriya Manav Sangrahalaya, basically an anthropological museum that had an exhibit about the peoples of Himachal Pradesh. It was really well done and made us nostalgic for the north. And then it was time to shop. We were out and about with all the evening bustle until our feet couldn't support us any longer.
Our last day we spent in Bangalore; we had most of the day there as our flight was only in the evening. Seeing as it is a business town we didn't really try to sight-see and instead explored the main commercial areas. Bangalore is definitely the most modern Indian city we've seen, with women dressed in Western wear and more Pizza huts than thali places. From Bangalore's spankin' new airport it was a short flight to Mumbai and then our flight home.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Mamallapuram/Chennai

We were sad to leave Pondicherry, but our timeline didn't allow for much lingering, so the next morning we were off a couple hours north to Mamallapuram (Mahabalipuram). In Mamallapuram we arrived to see a deserted backpacker town full of Hampi-esque rock carvings and some serious sea-food. We had two days to explore the rock carvings, in particular the Shore Temple (not surprising located on the shore and nice, yet clearly weathered by the elements) and the 5 Rathas, unfinished temples. We spent most of the time walking and scooting around the eerily quiet town. At 6 am when our fan turned off and the heat was unbearable, we went to the beach just in time to see all the fishermen coming in and taking the fish out of the nets. We also had some time to explore the area, and about 2 km south of town we stumbled upon the creatively named "Fishermen Community" of cement buildings that had been built with tsunami aid money; it was quite an upgrade to the fishermen that we had seen sleeping on the beach the night before.
On the second afternoon we took an AC bus to Chennai, and thank goodness for that; the city is huge, humid and polluted. We settled into the Salvation Army Guest House (and by settled in, I mean that we put our bags down and tried not to touch anything) and went to do some exploring till it was time to sleep. With some tapioca root chips and sugar cane juice in our system, we took a short suburban train south to Marina beach. It was the first week of summer vacation and the (huge) beach was bustling with people and vendors, though the rip tides prevented much swimming. We walked around till dark and then retired to our room, restless till the break of dawn.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Pondicherry

Pondicherry was a French colony, and unlike Fort Cochin which didn't quite live up to its quaint reputation, the French quarter of town was very nice. We walked around throughout the morning, seeing various buildings and generally enjoying the ambiance, and stumbled upon a rally. Apparently we were there on the Tamil New Year! Political parties rallied outside the Governor's house, and while they were all worked up, the whole thing was very civilized, with the parties taking turns on the "stage".
That afternoon we took a scooter to Auroville, a hippie dippy community, with people from all over the world; it is an interesting experiment- a land that belongs to no one, where no money is used, everyone working as they are able and receiving according to their needs. The idea for the place was of the Mother, the significant other of Sri Aurobindo, and it looks very a la '70s. Planned to be a pretty big city, it hasn't quite taken off; but they did get their giant-gold-golf-ball looking meditation dome built and they have very nice gift shops. Our favorite part was that they are very open to experimentation with alternative energies and sustainable technologies. The scooter let us do a good deal of exploration, and we had a great sunset on the beach looking out at the ocean from our different ashram hotel room's balcony. We ended the night with a great live Indian music show that was going on outside to celebrate the new year!

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Trichy

With hefty ambitions for the next day, we decided to splurge on a car with driver for the first leg of our journey, down from the mountains in Munnar crossing the Western Ghats, to Dindugal in Tamil Nadu, 4 hours of beautiful, yet small and windy roads. From there it was a painless bus to get to Trichy (Tiruchirappalli) to see some classic south Indian temples. After a fabulous banana leaf thali, we headed to the Sri Ranganathaswamy Temple, which has seven gates that are beautifully adorned with sculpture and definitely overshadow the actual temple. Really cool:
View Larger Map
Trichy was super dusty and super hot, but we made one more stop at the Rock Fort temple. It was literally a huge rock with a small temple built on top, so about 500 steps later we were at the top and could see Trichy from above.
If the morning was easy, getting out of Trichy proved to be a difficult task, but we finally made it on to an express bus to Villuparum where we changed to one more bus for our final destination of the day, Pondicherry.
Almost all of the (budget) accommodation in Pondicherry is associated with the Sri Aurobindo Ashram and therefore have a 22:30 curfew which was a tad problematic with our 23:00 arrival. Luckily, one overpriced dumpy location was willing to take us in after all.

Pictures Kerala

Read about it HERE, HERE, HERE, HERE and HERE
Varkala
Black beach



church in Kollam
backwaters


prawn nets




synagogue,  Cochin

with church group

now 5 times fast

all you need
heavier than it looks

Cherai beach

cardamon, Munnar





Eravikulam national park

Monday, April 20, 2009

Munnar

Early the next morning we left for the hills. Southern India is cut by the Western Ghats. We were on the bus for about 3.5 hours and suddenly found ourselves surrounded by what looked like cracked green hills. There it was, Munnar, a small town surrounded by rolling hills of tea plantations. Our first stop was the surprisingly fabulous Tea Museum, where we learned about the history of tea development in the region (by the British) and saw how the factory processes the tea leaves into tea (crushing, tearing and curling it to make ctc tea- the one used to make "chai")! We enjoyed the cool, even chilly, evening air and got ready for the long day to come.


The next morning we took a long walk through the tea plantations. Passing by some cardamon and coffee plantation we got to a view point and then continued by some very nice resorts and then the pickers living quarters in the middle of the tea plantations before making it to a trickling waterfall, and finishing on the main road by the tea "factory outlet store". It felt like we were in Europe, totally disconnected from India, in a sea of green. Only we had a chat with one of the pickers (the tea leaves are all picked by hand) and discovered that he makes about 1500 Rupees a month (about 30 USD); still in India after all.
tea, close-up
 That afternoon we went to Eravikulam National Park to see the Nilgiri Tahr, a goat species found only in there and in Australia. Only about 1 km of walking trail is open to the public and we were shuttled from the entrance in a mini bus, but the views of the mountains were stunning and we got to see the goats just a few meters away from us. An Indian family accompanied us, and their excitement at seeing the goats was addicting!

Nilgiri Tahr goat

Cochin (2)

Cherai Beach
By our second day in Cochin we had already seen the "sights", so we headed to the local Cherai beach for a relaxing afternoon. Just a couple hundred meters away from the backwaters, the beach is "Indian" so bathing in Western beach attire was not appropriate and we spent the day mostly in the one restaurant that was on the beach, playing scrabble and the such. That evening, we went to the "mandatory" tourist attraction- seeing a Kathakali show. Basically, it is a performance of a Hindu story that is told through the body language and costumes of the performers with music accompaniment. To say we were minimally intrigued might be an overstatement.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Cochin

with Chinese fish nets

The next day we were off to Cochin. Cochin is a big city divided over a couple peninsulas and islands, with most of the tourist attractions in Fort Cochin. Upon arrival on the morning train we headed to the Fort for a day of sightseeing. Our first priority was to go to "Jew Town" hoping to come accross a second seder. Instead we heard the sad story of the Jewish community there. The synagogue was closed for Passoever, there's no rabbi and the man that's in charge is old and has been sick for several months, and there aren't enough people (men) left for a minyan. So a seder was certainly not happening. After a wonderful Kerala thali (big brown boiled rice with various veg and sauces) we continued sightseeing at the Dutch Palace. There were some really intricate murals depicting the Ramayana, beautiful but not so well kept. Walking back through the wholesale zone, Michael joined in in unloading some rice and back in the Fort area we saw the "Chinese" fisherman fishing. Basically a contraption with a huge net that they let drop into the water for 2 minutes and then have to pull all the way up. They were not too successful but it was fun to "help" them lift the net. We then made a quick stop a the St.Francis church where Vasco de Gama was buried for a while and then to the highlight of our evening, the Santa Cruz basilica. A very beautiful building that we saw exploding with people for Maudy Thursday services, and that we would consequently go back and see a few more times on Good Friday.
Santa Cruz Basilica, Fort Kochi

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Kollam

backwaters
It was just another short train ride and we arrived in Kollam, a small and unremarkable Indian city. After a long search we found some good accommodation and freshened up, and had some time to walk about town. Our best discovery was jack-fruit, aka dorian, fried in coconut oil is absolutely delicious. Before our tour of the backwaters we stopped by the local church and it was pretty amazing to see the people praying as if they were in a Hindu temple, while a priest was hearing confessions and another leading a service in the background. In the backwaters we took a canoe on a village boat tour. A series of lakes and canals connecting villages, just back from the coast. The canoe took us around and we saw the various plantations- coconut, tapioca and prawn cultivation pools as well as houses. Our best stop was for some fresh coconut milk and meat right off the tree. That evening we had our private Seder in the hotel restaurant. We ordered some "papad" maza, eggs, veg, etc. to approximate the blessings and did a reading of the Hagada followed by a great Indian meal!

Jackfruit Tree

Return to India (Varkala)

leaving Mumbai
It's like we never left. The flight to India on Royal Jordanian was surprisingly pleasant, the flight from Tel Aviv to Amman, was stunning, really low over the mountains. Once we arrived in Mumbai we transferred to the domestic terminal and promptly found a corner to sleep for a few hours until our flight midday. After a breakfast we took our flight to Trivandrum, on the southern tip of India and Kerala and immediately took a short train to Varkala, our first destination. Needless to say, after all that we needed some R&R and Varkala was the perfect beach destination to do just that. There is a big cliff, under which there is a very nice beach. It was hot but breezy, and the sea looked as if it went on forever in all directions. We took some long walks up the beach, visited the local temple that was celebrating a festival, and after another night in Varkala with an amazing nighttime lightning storm it was on to Kollam.

landing in Trivandrum