A Travellerspoint blog

By this Author: The Rymans

Six months in pictures, final version!

5,000 photos and six months' worth of experiences distilled into just one song

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We've been home now for longer than we were ever gone, and I've just finally managed to condense "the highlights of the highlights" of the trip into just one four-minute slide-show. It's set to the acoustic version of "You and Me" by the Dave Matthews Band. I know I've said before that one post or another would likely be my last -- but I promise this one really is! It's time to move on and start planning the next trip.

But first, here it is -- six months, one song. You can see it at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Hqb5ZXKWVz8.

Thanks for reading.

Posted by The Rymans 13:31 Archived in Canada Comments (1)

Six months in pictures

Four short, musical slide-shows of our trip

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I had originally envisioned creating a single slide show of our entire trip, but choosing only four minutes of photos from 6.5 months of travelling proved just too difficult -- although I may revisit that challenge as the one-year anniversary of our return home approaches; a little time and distance may make it easier to choose the highlights.

For now, I've divided the pictures up chronologically into four segments/songs. Enjoy!

Bali, Singapore and Malaysia: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sU5-dnQDHHQ
Northern Thailand and Laos: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WVtQSWOI9Uc
Southern Thailand and Cambodia: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lMMCm75FwB8
Vietnam and India: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5Y6J0mLlRBY

Posted by The Rymans 07:50 Archived in Canada Tagged travel family photos Comments (0)

Pies and bouquets

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One final post. This one may not interest anyone who isn't currently in--or planning to visit--Asia, because it's all about specific places and experiences we had, without a lot of detail about them. But it's a fun record that we'd like to have for ourselves, and it may make some entertaining light reading if you use your imagination. It's still a work in progress.

The best…
Coffee: German Bakery, Kovalam, India
Beach: Agonda in Goa (Mark); Perhentian Besar (everyone else)
Massages: Tamarind Village, Chiang Mai
Hotel: Tamarind Village (Patti & Chloe); Puri Alam Bali in Munduk (Ciaran)
Pool: At Laluna Hotel in Chiang Rai (Ciaran); the Padangbai dive pool (Chloe); the Tamarind Village in Chiang Mai (Patti)
Food: Cashew nut chicken all over Thailand (Chloe); thalis in Singapore’s Little India (Mark); the kids’ combo at Pepperoni’s in Hanoi (Ciaran); passionfruit ice cream in Hoi An (Patti)
Overall meal: Every dinner at Les Manguiers, Kampot, Cambodia
Runs: Long Beach on Koh Lanta (Patti); along the river in Vang Vieng, Laos (Mark, who adds that he was not attacked by even one dog on that route)
Market: the night market at Luang Prabang, Laos
Moments: First cold BeerLao after the two-day slow boat ride to Luang Prabang from Thailand; receiving Rosie’s Christmas package at the main post office in Hoi An; arriving intact at the Mumbai airport

The worst…
Bus ride: From the Vietnam-Cambodia border to Can Tho by local minibus (8 hours)
Food: Everything in Munduk, Bali, especially the breakfasts
Boat trip: The hydrofoil from Cat Ba Island to Haiphong, Vietnam, which also wins the award for most unpleasant and dangerous boat trip
Overall experience: the Vietnam border scam at Ha Tien

Miscellaneous awards
Most scenic boat trip: Slow boat from Thailand to Laos
Cutest dog: Kmao at Les Manguiers, Kampot, Cambodia
Most unusual souvenir: George the coconut
Most difficult moments: Homeschooling the kids
Single most useful toy we brought along: Close tie between Lego and Nintendo DSi
Saddest place we visited: Tuol Sleng, Cambodia’s genocide museum
Most positive and unexpected development: Ciaran's keen interest in reading
Most dangerous car ride: Taxi to the Mumbai airport
Things that make you go hmmmm: The preponderance of windowless hotel rooms in Phnom Penh, because apparently not so long ago they were hot property—no one can throw a hand grenade into your room if there’s no window
And the award for greatest patience goes to: Ciaran, for sitting through 9 hours of Hindi films during our last three days in India

More to come....someday.

Posted by The Rymans 06:38 Tagged family_travel Comments (2)

Adventures in road-schooling

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For most of our half year away, we worried intermittently about what the kids were missing while they were out of school. Sure, we were homeschooling them—but we weren’t kidding ourselves about our meager talent in that area. We were resourceful, but not creative, and we had many factors working against us: lack of routine, absence of peer pressure, insufficient consequences for bad behaviour, lack of classroom materials and supports. The kids didn’t see us as authentic authority figures when it came to their educations, and it showed in the way they responded to us as students. Ciaran in particular was often extraordinarily difficult and resistant. There were countless homeschooling sessions that left us thinking it would have been more enjoyable to spend the two hours strapped to a chair with someone poking us repeatedly in the eyeballs.

But now that we’re nearly home and able to stake stock of what they did learn, we realize that while they’ll probably catch up easily on academics, “road school” is the only place they could possibly have acquired a whole slew of abilities.

Ciaran learned how to flag down a taxi, use chopsticks, walk into a restaurant and request a table for four, order food, ask for the bill, make Vietnamese spring rolls, ride, feed, bathe and train an elephant, identify six kinds of tropical fruit trees, read chapter books in both languages, swallow pills, make new friends with the kick of a soccer ball, play about 80 new Nintendo DS games, say no to touts and hawkers, and manage without toys for six months. He also perfected his front crawl.

Chloe learned the art of poi, Balinese dancing and painting, greetings and numbers in half a dozen languages, how to write a newspaper article, how to cook a Thai meal, set up a mosquito net, bargain at markets, give a good pedicure, babysit, recognize a scam unfolding, trust her instincts, perform card tricks, and fold cloth dinner napkins about 500 different ways.

Both kids learned how to handle themselves in chaotic Asian traffic, convert eight different currencies to dollars, and play the Balinese xylophone; they learned the basic principles of Hinduism and Buddhism, the history of Angkor Wat, the harm that landmines can do, and what an ashram is; they learned how to snorkel and body board, ride a camel, and spot a good used book at 20 paces; what a tropical storm feels like, how to order Indian food, and what colonialism was.

My own list is not so impressive, but I did finally learn what a SIM card is and does. More significantly, I learned that I am not cut out for teaching, that my kids are more resilient, adaptable travelers than I am, and also that my kids are less likely to catch a stomach bug during six months of rough travel in Asia than during one winter at school in Ottawa. I also learned the importance of keeping Gravol handy on long bus rides.

Posted by The Rymans 06:34 Tagged family_travel Comments (2)

By the numbers

A frivolous look back at the past six months

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Countries visited: 8
Towns and cities visited: 45
Diseases the kids were vaccinated against: 6
Translated into number of needles required: 13 each
Flights taken: 13
Ferries taken: 6
Buses, minibuses, tuktuks and taxis: countless
Overnight trains: 3
Overnight buses: 2
Daytime trains: 5
Bamboo trains: 1
Ultralight planes: 1
Islands we stayed on: 4
Vomiting episodes: 4 (always the kids!)
Visits to doctors: 2
Visits to dentists: 1
Visits from the tooth fairy: 4
Beautiful beaches: 17
Road accidents witnessed: 2
Waterfalls trekked to: 3
Temples, forts and palaces visited: far too many, as far as the kids are concerned
Beers consumed: 720
Border scams dodged: 2
Border scams we fell for: 1
Spiders eaten: 1
Items lost along the way: at least 15
Total cost of airfare: $8,000
Total cost of everything else: $20,000
Total cost of the whole trip: About $30,000

A partial list of things I will not miss about budget travel in Asia

It struck me some time after writing this list that most of it has to do with bad, cheap hotels rather than with Asia itself, and most of what I didn't enjoy had to do with plumbing! Perhaps this list would be a little different (or just plain shorter) if we'd travelled with a bigger budget. In any event:

The viscous layer of white scum that forms on top of the floor drain after several days of showers in bathrooms where the water sprays all over the room

The filthy little rag rugs these hotels always place just outside of the bathroom door so you can get your clean, wet feet dry and dirty again after showering

The pervasive smell of untreated sewage, whether from open sewers along roadways or from poor drainage in hotel bathrooms

Air conditioning units that don’t work

Fans that make too much noise

Hotels that promise hot water but deliver only cold

Crowing roosters waking me up at 4 a.m.

Snarling dogs defecating on beaches

Stained sheets on beds

Having to wait as long as two or three hours for my morning coffee, depending on circumstances

Weak, bitter, lukewarm coffee served with Coffeemate—why even bother??

Of course, the perks FAR outweighed these negatives, but I'm hoping this list will cheer me up next November when I'm contemplating the onset of five months of winter!

Posted by The Rymans 06:28 Tagged family_travel Comments (0)

Reflections on a fabulous adventure

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No more land border crossings. No more visa applications. No more haggling over small purchases, no more scams to dodge. No more hotels to research or train tickets to book, and not very many more blog entries.

Finally, we’ve worn out two out of three of our iPods and used up nearly all of the memory on our laptop. Our whites are all gray, our ends are all bleached, our backpacks are looking weathered and the soles of our shoes are worn flat. We’ve taken all our malaria pills (just about), used up all our Band-Aids, flown our last flight and spent all our money.

We’re coming home scruffy, ill-clothed, seasoned and rejuvenated, sad that the trip is over but happy to lay eyes on the familiar modern world again and stay in one place for a while.

The trip will live on as a family legend, not just a vacation but something more on the scale of an epic accomplishment. It was by turns exhilarating, exhausting, fascinating, trying, thrilling, entertaining, frustrating, surprising and, very occasionally, death-defying. It was a wild ride, a fabulous adventure and often also a grand test of our immune systems, patience and sense of humour.

When it was good, it was the best decision we’d ever made, and when it was not, it could seem like a bizarre kind of self-imposed exile. When the kids were managing beautifully and the travelling was easy, we thought about what excellent parents we were for showing them the world and spending so much time in their company: 24/7 for 6.5 months. It was harder to be smug when they fought non-stop, resisted home-schooling, threw up on their shoes and missed their friends. And when occasionally we found ourselves in physically dangerous situations with them, we were appalled at the poor judgment that had caused us to drag them halfway around the world just so they could possibly die in a fiery bus or motorcycle crash.

It was a crazy, unforgettable experience that we’re amazed and pleased to have shared and survived, and so lucky to have enjoyed.

In the end, we visited eight countries, including more than 45 cities or towns. Between us we read more than 150 books in the 180 days we were gone. We had six months to learn what we could about each place we visited, but that time also gave us the luxury to learn about anything else that interested us, including each other. It also gave us the benefit of perspective on the lives we had left behind and would be returning to. It was half a year of new experiences, new languages, new friends and family bonding.

I suppose our take on the end of the trip is best summed up by Chloe's ambivalence. “I don’t want the trip to end,” she said wistfully the other day. “But on the other hand, I’m really looking forward to going home. I guess that means I don’t want to go anywhere!”

Or maybe it’s best to end on a positive note. Ciaran, never the sentimental type, is looking at it this way. “I’m really looking forward to going home,” he said the other day with great enthusiasm. “Want to know why? It’s because of our three-storey house! We won’t all have to share a small hotel room anymore! And I won’t have to use bottled water to brush my teeth! And it’s been way too long since I ate some of Grandpa Kip’s barbecued chicken!”

Well, there you have it.

Posted by The Rymans 06:25 Archived in Canada Tagged family_travel Comments (2)

Slumming it in Mumbai

Our close-up look at how half of the city lives

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I thought I wouldn’t have time to write anything about Mumbai when I was actually in Mumbai – and I was right. But it still seemed wrong to leave the blog dangling without covering the final destination, especially when it’s such a vibrant, chaotic place where so many unusual experiences are possible.

We arrived in Mumbai about a week ago via the overnight train from Goa. We had booked first-class tickets, since there were none left in second class, so we had a four-berth, lockable compartment all to ourselves. We were feeling fortunate indeed, since when we booked the tickets, there were only three left and we were waitlisted for the fourth. Sitting pretty in first place on the waitlist, we figured we were golden; but after a full month of waiting, we were still waitlisted, and were starting to think we would have to simply board the train on the day of departure and then fork over a little baksheesh to persuade the conductor to let us keep Ciaran (who had the waitlisted ticket) in the compartment with us. But as it happened, Ciaran moved up the list to a confirmed ticket two days before the journey, so everything went smoothly.

The first-class compartment was the epitome of faded glory. Spectacularly comfortable by Indian train standards, with spacious berths, a private sink and a door that locked, it nonetheless bore the evidence of years of hard use – faded upholstery, sticky floor, dirt in every crack and crevice, sink looking a little the worse for wear, window too smudged to see much out of. We asked ourselves the question that does seem to come up so often when you travel in India: Since labour is so mind-bendingly cheap (the average wage amounts to about $3 or $4 a day), would it really kill this hotel/railway company/restaurant/bus company to just run a rag over things every so often??

The kids, however, thought our compartment was fabulous, and slept well, as they always do, arriving at Mumbai central station at 6 a.m. the next day rested and ready for adventure. We began by piling our backpacks in a heap and staking a claim to two chairs in the massive, packed, chaotic waiting lounge until the sun came up. We planned on walking to our hotel, and didn’t want to try finding it in the dark. Watching the ongoing scene unfolding all around us made the time fly by. Apparently this station serves 2.5 million people every day. It has more than 80 platforms. The sheer volume and variety of people and belongings all around us made for topnotch people watching, and I spent a good part of the hour feeling thankful that we were arriving at, rather than departing from, this station. It’s confusing enough when a station has five platforms, let alone 80. Ciaran spent the entire time with my sunhat pulled tightly down over his face to prevent friendly passersby from trying to grope his hair.

We had just three days in Mumbai. Rather than rattle on about our every move, I’ll focus on the highlight: our visit to Dharavi, Mumbai’s (and Asia’s) largest slum. I’d like to say we did this on our own and simply strolled around, but we’re just not that intrepid and, of course, we didn’t have our own wheels. We had heard about a Mumbai company, Reality Tours, that offers a so-called “slum tour.” Although that sounds obnoxiously voyeuristic, it was actually just the opposite. Reality Tours uses some of the proceeds from its tours to effect positive change in the slum, and has recently built a new kindergarten there. It also runs a community centre where English and computer skills are taught. Reality Tours says it is trying to dispel the myth that all people who live in slums are impoverished, uneducated and shockingly poor. Although this is no doubt true for many people and slums, Dharavi—a 1.75 square kilometre area that is home to a million people—is also a hive of economic activity, a place where more than 10,000 different types of products are manufactured. Nobody in it is living there for free; most pay rent in the order of 1,500 to 2,000 rupees per month ($30 to $40). We decided that after so many weeks spent on India’s beaches, a close-up look at Dharavi would be eye-opening and educational for all of us. It is estimated that 55 per cent of Mumbai’s 23 million residents live in slums, and we wanted to get away from the usual tourist traps and take a closer look at this other side of the city.

Leaving our hotel with our guide, Ganesh, we drove towards Dharavi along a route that took us past several other fascinating parts of Mumbai. First there was the red-light district, where we learned that many of the girls and women working there are sold by their parents to traffickers. The parents are typically very poor people living in villages where jobs are scarce; traffickers can persuade them to let go of their young daughters by convincing them that a good job is waiting for these girls in the big smoke. But the women become the property of their pimps, and are kept indoors nearly all of the time, in brothels, until years have gone by and they’ve earned their freedom. After that, they can stand on the street and solicit for themselves—the traffickers permit this because they know the women will rarely try to leave, said Ganesh, understanding that they would not be accepted back by their families and lacking both the skills to do other work and the self-esteem to pursue training.

As a side note, I had earlier requested that we skip this part of the tour, seeing as how it wouldn’t be appropriate for the kids—but I guess Ganesh didn’t get the memo! We let him offer all of this information without prompting him for very much more. Mark did, however, ask about the going rate for a prostitute: 150 rupees (about $3). Not much, but roughly equivalent to a full day’s pay for the average worker.

After that, we were headed to the dhobi ghat, Mumbai’s giant manual laundry machine. Here, more than 2,000 workers wash more than 300,000 pieces of laundry in small, open-air cement cubicles every day. From the bridge over the ghat, we watched them beating the crap out of piece after piece of laundry while clean, wet clothes and towels dried on lines strung up all over the place. Much of Mumbai’s laundry comes here—the ghat services hotels, hospitals and residences. The minimum charge for any piece of laundry is 5 rupees, about a penny. Most of the workers also live at the ghat in small shelters near the 7,000 washing cubicles. It’s not much of a life—but the increased use of washing machines in Mumbai is actually not good news for these workers, according to Ganesh; it’s slowly putting them out of work.

After that, we drove along several blocks occupied by “pavement dwellers,” people living in permanent ramshackle tents and shelters set up on the sidewalks. This living situation is actually a step down from slum living, since the pavement dwellers have no access to city or government services like water, electricity, sanitation or medical care. I was reminded of the unfortunate characters in Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance. We also went by “Labour Junction,” a corner where hundreds of unemployed men hoping for a day’s work wait for large trucks to pull up in search of manual labour for the day. The rate of pay for 10-12 hours of hard labour—and you never know what you’ll be doing before you jump into the back of the truck—is, again, about 150 rupees.

Finally we arrived at Dharavi, where we would spend the next two or three hours wandering through labyrinthine alleys to see how and where people live and work. As expected, the homes, such as they were, were tiny, cramped and overpopulated; the section we visited had 6 toilets for 1,500 people. The slum receives running water just three hours a day, requiring residents to store it, if they can. We started with a look at some of the industries that have sprung up in the slum, from cloth dyeing to recycling to pastry-making and pottery. For the most part, everyone was very friendly; we received a lot of curious looks and a good number of smiles and waves. Ganesh seemed to be on very good terms with a number of people in different areas of the slum, and it turned out his sister teaches at one of Dharavi’s elementary schools, which we also visited.

The main thing that struck us about all the industry was the lack of protection for the workers. People were busy melting paint off of paint cans for recycling, melting aluminum and plastic products, boiling the oil from food-oil cans for reuse—all without benefit of face masks, gloves or any other kind of protection. The smoke coming from the aluminimum, plastic and paint-can recycling areas was absolutely toxic. We were standing a good 20 feet away, and found breathing difficult. I commented on the lack of masks, and Ganesh said even if someone was to provide them, the workers would refuse to use them. It’s just too hot inside where all the melting takes place (which was certainly true), and in any case, he said it is very difficult to get the workers to appreciate the hazards. “They’ll just tell you, ‘I’m only working here for five or 10 years, it doesn’t matter,’” he said.

Everywhere we walked, we were struck by the lack of beggars and hawkers. Although the slum was cramped, hot, often unsanitary and didn’t smell very good—Ciaran spent the entire morning with his shirt pulled up over his nose—we didn’t see very many people looking miserable. Ganesh seemed proud to show us around. He explained that part of the reason for Mumbai’s extensive slums is its sky-high real estate prices. Even people with regular jobs and average salaries often cannot afford to buy or rent anything very desirable, so a spot in a slum such as Dharavi is not necessarily undesirable compared to the alternatives. As a government-sanctioned slum, it is safe from any threat of demolition and receives electricity and city water.

Still, said Ganesh, disease is an intractable problem in the circumstances; typhoid, hepatitis, cholera and other illnesses are not uncommon.

It’s difficult to describe everything we saw and learned from Ganesh that morning and be concise at the same time; he was a fount of information about the history of Mumbai’s various slums, the government schemes to improve or eradicate them over the past decades, and the current conditions and statistics. One thing he mentioned that stood out concerns a current government policy whereby a slum house that has existed since before 1995 can no longer be demolished by the city unless the city replaces it with a 225-square-foot flat for the owner. But according to Ganesh, most times when this happens, the occupant will rent out the new flat and set up camp elsewhere in the slum again.

After several hours of traipsing through Dharavi, we were all ready for some hand washing and a lunch break. The afternoon was spent on more conventional sight-seeing; we took in Mahalaxmi Temple, the Haj Ali, Nehru Park, the Ghandi museum and a Jain temple before returning to the Fort area for some dinner.

Leaving Mumbai the next evening near 10 p.m. was also unforgettable. The ride to the airport took nearly two hours, and was by far the most dangerous, suicidal driving experience we enjoyed in our entire six months of travelling. The driver put all of our bags in the front passenger seat and asked the four of us to squeeze together in the back, so Ciaran rode on my lap the entire way. When he fell asleep, it became my job to stop his lolling head from being flung right off his body during the many sharp swerves, sudden stops and near misses. Our driver would hurtle at top speed down sections of highway, weaving violently in and out of lanes, leaning on the horn and aggressively cutting off rickshaws, tractor-trailers and buses when it looked like they might want to get ahead of us, only to come to a screeching, smoking stop when the traffic ahead of us slowed down suddenly—as it frequently did.

I put all thoughts of sudden death out of my mind by watching everything that went by on the side of the road, and there was no shortage of arresting sights. We sped past a funeral procession where nearly 100 men were following a flower-adorned casket borne on the shoulders of several other men—yes, on the multi-lane highway; we went by a fire in a tiny, two-storey rowhouse that was being watched by hundreds of people who spilled over onto the highway. It was interesting just to watch the various neighbourhoods fly by along the side of the road during our final two hours in Asia.

When we arrived at the airport all in one piece, we were grateful for the miracle and I, for one, wondered about the general life expectancy of Mumbai cab drivers.

Posted by The Rymans 06:16 Archived in India Tagged family_travel Comments (0)

Soaking up the sun in Goa

...Where the wildlife is a real hoot

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It’s official: This trip to India, which has always been completely different from our previous visit and corresponding expectations, looks set to end that way too. We travelled directly from Cochin, Kerala to Palolem, Goa by overnight train about 12 days ago—spending five days in Palolem before moving to a quieter beach nearby called Agonda—and have discovered that the living here in Goa is almost as easy as it was in Kerala. Since our trip will end in Goa (not counting three final days in Mumbai), it seems this is as hard as it gets.

In Palolem, we stayed at a small guesthouse run by some quirky people. There was a man who sat outside all evening long whose main assignment seemed to be to electrocute flies and mosquitoes with his tennis-racket-style bug zapper. I went to sleep every night listening to the sharp buzzing sounds of flying insects being put to untimely deaths, and every morning, I picked my way carefully among the hundreds of juicy fly corpses on the ground as I left the hotel for breakfast. There were another two men who slept on a mat underneath the stairs all afternoon—all you could see were their calves and feet sticking out as you climbed to the second floor. I was never able to ascertain what their actual jobs were. Every day, the manager would ask solicitously if I’d like my room cleaned, and every day, I would say yes, I would, and could I please have some clean towels? And every day, no room cleaning would take place and no clean towels ever arrived.

The beach at Palolem was long and clean by Goan standards, although not as clean as those in Kerala or here at Agonda. Unlike in Kerala, there were no lifeguards or tourist police on duty. Unfortunately, it wasn’t hard to catch people tossing empty plastic water bottles or ice cream cone wrappers onto the sand, either—locals and tourists alike. But it was the dogs that finally turned me off of swimming. There were dozens and dozens of them roaming the beach, making little nasty deposits all over the place. The tide sweeps in and collects it. Am I going to swim in that water? I would, if I had to save a drowning child, but other than that…Everyone else seemed to think it was fine—and yes, I do understand some of the science behind how the brine of the ocean naturally breaks these things down and keeps the water safe—but it’s a mind-over-matter issue and I remain unpersuaded.

There were some excellent restaurants in Palolem, which was convenient since we celebrated my birthday there. Although in the end we decided as a family that our favourite restaurant was Magic Italy, run by an Italian chef, there was no doubt that the place to be for my birthday dinner would be Ciaran’s—spelled exactly that way, and right on the beach, perfect for the several sunset margaritas I ordered.

I’m also pleased to report that we’ve finally seen cows. We’d been regaling the kids for months with stories of how, when they got to India, they’d finally get to see cows on the loose, wandering the streets together with the motorcycles, rickshaws, taxis and food vendors, eating the garbage, making their placid way around, seemingly oblivious to trivialities like roaring traffic. But we saw no such cows across most of Kerala—not until we reached Cochin, anyway. So we’re happy to report that there are indeed cows on the loose in Palolem and Agonda. They even visit the beach from time to time. The other morning we were eating at a restaurant when a cow ambled in and started licking the tandoori counter. He was able to get at least a full minute of passionate, deeply appreciative licking in before someone noticed and ushered him out. The kids are amused by this to no end.

Agonda is about as close as I imagine India comes to an idyllic beach. The sand is wide, long and clean—much cleaner than in Palolem—and the tourists are comparatively few. The town, if you can even call it that, is quiet, with just one dirt road running through it. We’re staying in a bamboo shack right on the sand. It is pretty spectacular (the scenery, that is; the shack, not so much). We do have some strange companions, though. My immediate next-door neighbour is an older woman whom the locals call “mama” ; she has settled in here for three months, seemingly with the purpose of drinking herself into oblivion a la Leaving Las Vegas. The cabin in front of mine contains a single, older, dour English woman who is extremely and persistently vocal about what she dislikes about the place, which seems to be virtually everything. One hut down from her is a couple in their mid-twenties who fight, yelling and swearing at each other loudly, every day.

It’s not difficult to avoid these people, however, since we’re often out at the beach or in a restaurant. We met an English family on our first day—a woman travelling on her own with two kids, a boy and a girl similar in age to Chloe and Ciaran—and we often hook up with them for some beach time and dinner. Agonda is really pretty fabulous, even though there are still dogs on the beach (in smaller numbers than at Palolem, thank goodness).

There won’t be many more blog entries. There were hill stations, wildlife sanctuaries, palaces and temples we thought of travelling to see, but in the end we elected to idle our last ten days away here in Agonda. An attitude has set in that I can only describe as, “We’ve come this far, let’s not die in a fiery bus crash two weeks before we’re due home.” So we’ve eschewed the dozens of hours on rail lines and highways that it would have taken to reach the places we regretfully struck from our list—such as Ooty, Mysore and Hampi—and are spending our last days playing in the surf instead.

With the trip nearing an end, there are hundreds of things that I will miss—too many to start listing just now. Among them would be the dozens of funny moments we experience every day, many of them having to do with animals. For example, just now as I was about to take a sip of my coffee, a large black pig covered in slick dark mud came barrelling into the restaurant full-tilt, and was chased out by the resident dogs. Only in India…

We have just a few more days here in Agonda before we head to Panjim and Old Goa for two days. We’ll then spend a night on a sleeper train travelling to Mumbai, and spend three days there before boarding our flight home to Canada. It’s unlikely that I’ll have time to add another update here about Mumbai until I’m home, and even then I may never get around to it, although I do eventually hope to post some sort of closing account of the best and worst moments of the trip and what we all got out of it. I hope the blog has been fun to read! Now, off to hit the beach one or two last times…

Posted by The Rymans 21:51 Archived in India Tagged family_travel Comments (3)

Chilling out in Cochin

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Leaving the ashram: The 20-minute taxi ride to the train station at Karunagapally, near the ashram, was the usual terrifying adrenalin rush at breakneck speed around blind curves. The train ride itself was almost uneventful; at least, it would have been if not for a family that tried to board our coach a couple of stops after us. There were at least three adults and a handful of children, with an incredible number of unwieldy pieces of luggage, and the train had pulled into the station in such a way that they were positioned at the wrong spot on the platform for their coach. The trains here stop at small stations for a minute or so at most, so you really have to be organized to avoid disaster—usually, the stationmaster will post information about how far your assigned coach is from the engine, and you’re supposed to wait near that.

This family ended up having to run their bags the lengths of 11 cars down the platform, then try to heft them all into the compartment. The train began to pull away before all of the family members and their bags had made it onto the train, so two women came rushing towards me yelling urgently, “Pull the chain! Pull the chain!”. If you pull the chain, it stops the train, but if you misuse it (i.e., if there is no true emergency), you are liable to be fined up to 1,000 rupees or, according to the warning sign near the chain, receive a term in jail. Several Indian passengers near me completely disregarded her command to pull the chain, but somebody somewhere else must have acceded, because the train did stop. It had been stopped for about five minutes—and the family finally had all their bags on board—when several police officers boarded our car to make a report. The family was scolded and fined 1,500 rupees, and they spent the remainder of the two-hour ride chattering about it angrily and loudly. However, when it was time to disembark, they were a well-oiled machine: they had all of their bags ready and waiting at the door a good 10 minutes ahead of time.

We’ve now settled into a homestay in Fort Cochin, three hours up the coast. Cochin is a beautiful, peaceful heritage town, and we’ll be here for several more days before we head to Goa on an overnight train. The big excitement for today was when Ciaran and Mark were invited to have a go at helping some fishermen raise a massive, cantilevered Chinese fishing net out of the ocean to check on the catch. The shore near Cochin is peppered with these traditional, photogenic nets that are still raised and lowered with a combination of counterweights and muscle power. This evening we watched Kathakali dancing, and tomorrow, Chloe will take a two-hour art class from a local painter. Our homestay is run by the genial, affable Harry John, a retired banker who first opened up his large home to travellers seven years ago. He cooked dinner for us tonight, a fabulous array of Keralan specialties including spicy red snapper, basmati rice with cashews, pineapples and cranberries, and a sweet curry of pineapples and dates.

There are also loads of excellent restaurants around Cochin, and we tried one of them on our first night here. The food was just okay, but the music was a bit of a shocker. After the religious fervour of the ashram—with its no-alcohol policy and compulsory sevas and being surrounded by people who are devoting their lives to the pursuit of inner peace—you can imagine how jarring it was to find ourselves sitting on a patio in Cochin later the same evening, eating our curries and hoping the kids couldn’t hear the rap lyrics blaring from the sidewalk speakers: “Do you know how it feels to fuck on cocaine?” a stoned-sounding, female voice intoned repeatedly. What??

The really strange thing is that this restaurant, like most in Cochin, doesn’t even serve booze—not even beer. You can get beer in this town, all right—it’s not illegal—but you have to go to smoky, seedy places that are designated as bars and serve very little food, or to high-end places with expensive wine lists where the beer costs twice as much as it should. If you want to eat at an ordinary little midrange restaurant, you’re stuck with water, juice or lassis. We’re not sure why this is, but we suppose that many smaller restaurants just don’t want to pay for a liquor license. In any event, it was very bizarre to arrive fresh from the ashram’s atmosphere of purity, in a country where it’s considered disrespectful for women to wear skirts any higher than ankle length or show a little shoulder, and find ourselves in a dry restaurant listening to x-rated lyrics at top volume. But then I guess that’s India—always another surprise around the corner.

Posted by The Rymans 21:04 Archived in India Tagged family_travel Comments (1)


Our encounter with inner peace

sunny 35 °C
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After we’d explored the backwaters, we took a five-hour boat trip to the Matha Amrithanandamayi Ashram. Amrithanandamayi is one of India’s few female gurus, and she goes by the name Amma (Mother). She’s known as the “hugging saint” because of her unique manner of giving darshan (blessings): she hugs people, often thousands of them in hugging marathons that can last as long as 16 or 20 hours. We knew a little about Amma before we left Canada, since friends of ours have followed her teachings and received her hugs, so we were very curious to find out more; and the ashram was right on our path along the coast—so we couldn’t pass up the chance to visit.

Arriving was a disorienting experience. Situated on a peninsula with the ocean on one side and backwaters on the other, the ashram is a massive complex that houses some 2,000 permanent residents—monks, nuns, students, Indian families, and westerners—in more than 20 buildings. It also welcomes casual visitors like us who are there mainly out of curiosity. We were essentially well-intentioned voyeurs, so we appreciated the ashram’s open attitude. Because of its size and the number of western residents, we were able to blend in fairly seamlessly and have a good look around.

I can’t say whether or not the ashram met our expectations, since we had none to begin with. I certainly had not expected to see so many people dressed from head to toe in white, but that’s what most permanent residents seem to wear, whether in the form of a sari, salwar kameez or simply a tunic over loose pants, usually with a scarf or shawl as well. Upon entering the ashram grounds, we were immediately struck by the tranquillity of the atmosphere and the friendliness of the residents. Standing there looking confused with all of our backpacks and daypacks, we were spotted right away by a woman who asked if we had just arrived, and pointed us helpfully in the right direction. In fact, everyone who helped us with the complicated arrival processes struck me as eerily serene, disarmingly beatific in their bearings and facial expressions, an effect that was no doubt heightened by all the flowing white cotton.

Checking in, we were given several bits of paper to keep track of: passes that would let us in and out of our assigned building; slips of paper that we were to present to the seva desk by the next day so we could be assigned a volunteer activity (seva translates as selfless service, and every visitor or resident is expected to put in an hour or two each day); and four tokens that we would need to present if we hoped to receive Amma’s darshan (i.e., the famous hug) that evening.

On our way back to Building B, which would be our home for the next several days, we had to stop off at the accommodation office to pick up pillows, sheets and pillow cases for our stay. We then lumbered over to the elevator area carrying not just our backpacks and daypacks and two bags of food, but also four vinyl-encased pillows, four pillow cases and eight single sheets.

There were two tiny elevators for the 11-storey Building B, each of which could accommodate a maximum of five people. Piling in with all of our gear, we found that no more than two of us could fit in, so we took separate elevators. Eventually, we met at our room, an odd little place with a tiny, unequipped kitchen and attached bathroom. It was spotless, but very basic, as expected. There was no mirror anywhere in the room, no hot water, and no sink in the bathroom. There was one single bed, and three gym mats for the rest of us to sleep on. (Or should I say, the rest of them to sleep on, since I was generously offered the bed.)

Three meals a day are included in the exceedingly reasonable 150-rupee daily accommodation fee (so yes, that’s about $4 a day for the room plus all three meals, per person—and half that for kids). The food situation, however, took a bit of getting used to. Of course when you’re feeding 2,000 people three meals a day, you’re going to cook in volume and serve from massive pots to people lining up with plates, so it was a bit—okay, a lot—like eating at a soup kitchen. The food was surprisingly good, but it took a bit of work to get comfortable with the plate and utensil situation: the idea is that when you’re finished eating, you rinse off your metal plate at a large nearby communal sink, then put it back in a bin of other recently used and rinsed plates. The next people to come along simply take a rinsed plate, dry it off with an end of their shawl or other bit of clothing, and use it for their meal. The same goes for cups and the very scarce utensils. The water is cold and often no soap is involved. Those of you who know me well can probably imagine how excited I was about the prospect of eating three meals a day like this.

We followed this protocol for our first dinner and breakfast the following day—eating curry and rice with our fingers, local style, since we couldn’t find utensils at all, clean or otherwise—and then we realized that we could pop into the small convenience store and buy a few things that would make us all a lot more comfortable: a small bottle of dish soap and our own metal cups and spoons. These we carried with us to all meals. We soon discovered that many longer-term residents do the same thing with plates as well, but we didn’t spring for those.

The kids were ecstatic when we finally found, after much searching, the Western canteen, where for extra money it was possible to buy many of their favourite foods, from pizza to pasta to veggie burgers, French fries and lemonade as well as lots of baked treats. I’d like to say we only ate there once and mostly enjoyed the authentic ashram experience at the large dining hall where the food was free, but I’d be lying—after we found the Western canteen, as well as the separate Indian masala dosa stand, we usually ate at one or the other, paying for our meals.

We had been a bit worried about what on earth the kids were going to do in an ashram all day, but we needn’t have been—there was no shortage of activities. It took us half a day just to get ourselves sorted out and get the lay of the land, and after that we discovered a children’s library (with games and movies), a flea market, an Ayurvedic clinic, a juice stall, an information centre with books and DVDs for sale, a small internet room and the notice board advertising dozens of other programs and activities, from yoga classes to meditation sessions and even music lessons. There was also a pool, but I wasn’t tempted to swim since women are required to borrow and don some sort of full-length swimming gown.

The highlight for most residents, while we were there, was simply the presence of Amma. Amma tours widely and has devotees around the world, so is often not at the ashram at all. But she was there during our visit, so it was a busy and exciting time. We had arrived on a Saturday, and she had been giving darshan all day long, and would continue to do so all the next day. It was really a wonder to witness her apparently limitless energy as she went on hugging people hour after hour after hour. We were told she has in the past gone for as long as 20 hours without even breaking to eat or use the bathroom. The line-up of people waiting for hugs continued all day and evening all weekend.

While we are not devotees of Amma ourselves, and had read very little of her teachings before we arrived, we could certainly not leave the ashram without having experienced the famous hug, so we got in line as well. We had heard reports of people being moved and changed by these hugs, having life-altering experiences and epiphanies and so on. I don’t know what we were expecting, but truthfully, none of us felt anything resembling a spark. We got in line just an hour or two after our arrival, so we hadn’t even really unpacked or settled in; we were hungry, hot, sweaty, and tired after our long boat trip, and still a bit disoriented, and Mark and I were both a bit worried that the kids would go to pieces being made to wait in a long line-up in that condition. So it’s possible that we just brought too much baggage from the day to the experience, but I have to say it was not magical.

It was still fascinating as an experience, though. It was a “sitting” line-up, so every so often, everyone would get up, move down six chairs, and sit again until the next movement. We did the sitting-and-moving thing for about an hour before we got close enough to actually see people getting their hugs. Eventually, when we’d left all the chairs behind and were maybe four or five people from the front, we were handled—and I do mean handled—by a large assortment of Amma’s helpers. I was pushed not-so-gently to the ground and asked to kneel, and then had to scoot forward on my knees as the line progressed slowly towards Amma. There was a second line of kneeling people coming from the opposite direction, and there were helpers all around, so even as I reached the very end of my line, I was crowded in among what seemed like dozens of other bodies pushing and jostling. I found myself being propelled forward on my knees until I reached Amma myself, and received one final shove forward as if to prevent the person from the other line getting ahead of me. The hug itself seemed somewhat perfunctory and brief; as soon as it was over, I was hurriedly ushered away and out of the crowd.

Each of the four of us had a similarly underwhelming experience. It wasn’t disappointing so much as it was simply baffling—we thought we were being open-minded, but we failed to understand what all the fuss was about. Lest I sound too critical, I should add that I suppose some of the experience of the hug depends on what you bring to it yourself, and at the time, I was not predisposed to a spiritual encounter. Of course, I never do seem to be predisposed to spiritual encounters—it’s apparently just not in my constitution—but especially not when I’m hot, sweaty, dirty, hungry, tired, confused, and worried that the kids will start thrashing each other any moment as a result of being all those things themselves as well.

We hadn’t expected the ashram to be particularly kid-friendly, so we were pleasantly surprised to see so many families—both Indian and western—roaming around. At one point after dinner on our second evening, a girl named Shivay (whose name I am probably misspelling) approached Chloe and asked if she spoke English. It turned out Shivay was Canadian, from Victoria, and also turning 10 shortly. The two of them hit it off immediately. Shivay, we later discovered, has been living with her mother at the ashram for nearly a year and a half. She knew most of the other resident children quite well—there are several families who’ve been there for several months, all of them home-schooling their kids—so in no time at all, both of our kids had a gaggle of playmates to join, and all of them headed out to a field adjoining the western café for a game of hide-and-seek. Mark and I pulled up a few plastic chairs at the edge of the field to warn off any snarling dogs (of which there are many) and enjoy watching the kids sprint and leap around and make up games. It was really rewarding to watch them running at top speed among the palm trees and dirt piles under the light of a full moon with their new friends after nearly a month without running into any playmates. Of course, we let them stay up far too late.

The next morning we approached the seva desk to see what our volunteer assignment would be, and it was…..(drumroll)….sweeping and mopping the dining area. So we spent nearly two hours doing that in the afternoon, and were just congratulating ourselves on a job well done when we were approached and asked to help load a pick-up truck with thousands of copies of a monthly pamphlet published by Amma. We joined a line of maybe two dozen people who were passing tied bundles of the pamphlet from the top of the steps of the temple building all the way down the steps to the waiting truck. It took maybe half an hour to finish this second seva, and then we were off to a group meditation on the beach nearby. This was followed by 90 minutes of singing bhajans (devotional hymns) in the main hall, with the singing and music led by Amma and virtually all of the ashram’s residents and visitors in attendance.

All of the canteens were closed during both meditation and bhajans, meaning it was not possible to get food from 5 to 8 p.m. I think I might have enjoyed those bhajans a little more had I not (once again) been hot, sweaty and dirty from the afternoon’s sevas—the hot, humid climate here is killing me—and hungry myself, and worried that the kids would also spontaneously combust from a combination of sleep deprivation and hunger.

When the bhajans seemed to be finished, the kids scuttled out of the main hall and made a beeline for the western café, thinking they could avoid a huge dinner line-up this way. I was trying to follow them, but got blocked by some very serious white-clad residents whose job it was to make sure nobody left the main hall until Amma herself had left the stage and walked through the gate. So both Mark and I were forcibly trapped in the hall while the kids were running around near the field with notoriously rabid dogs. I thought briefly of disobediently leaping over the metal gates to find them, but it seemed a bit dramatic and I figured that the kids would be savvy enough by now to avoid angry dogs. We did find them later, safe and sound, but that part of the experience certainly sapped some of the enchantment from my overall impression. It took Amma a good 15 minutes to actually leave the stage, and we were barred from finding the children that entire time.

We ate a quick dinner, hustled the kids into bed, and woke them up the next morning at 6 to catch an early train. Of course, while we’d had no problems with the dodgy elevator during our stay, it chose the morning of our departure to act up. As soon as the kids and I got inside and pressed the button for the ground floor—leaving Mark to catch the next one, since we couldn’t all squeeze in with our bags—the power went out. Every light in the elevator went off, and the doors remained nearly closed, just about an inch apart. We were not moving and no button we pressed responded. Mark began trying to pry the doors open from his side while I tackled my side, imagining, as I worked, all the possible worst-case scenarios: we could be trapped in there for hours. We could miss our train. What if the whole contraption just inexplicably plunged 11 storeys to the ground? Mark was just instructing me to try to close the doors all the way in order to make them open again when suddenly the power went back on and we were back in business. I wasn’t having any of it, though. I hustled the kids out of the elevator and we walked all the way down all 11 storeys with all of our bags.

We have no photos of the ashram, since photography and video are banned. But here’s a photo of Chloe in her salwar kameez.


Posted by The Rymans 21:01 Archived in India Tagged family_travel Comments (1)

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