A Travellerspoint blog


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

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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)

Cruising the backwaters

Twenty-four hours on Kerala's scenic waterways

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When we were finally ready to leave Varkala, we took the train north to Alleppey, headquarters for boat trips along Kerala’s renowned backwaters. The backwaters are a 900-kilometre network of waterways that edge the coast and flow quite far inland as well. As in the Mekong Delta, these waterways were used as roads by villagers in the centuries before motorized transportation, and some still paddle their way (and their wares) back and forth. The most interesting canals are the palm-fringed narrow ones, where you can view shore life up close and see people going about their daily chores and business, which in this part of India usually involves the production and transportation of copra (dried coconut meat), coir (coconut fibre), cashews, and palm toddy.

Because our guidebook described an extensive backwaters tour as “one of the 10 things to do before you die,” we rented a houseboat for 24 hours for a leisurely cruise of the area near Alleppey.

These houseboats are converted rice barges, and come in all sizes, shapes and conditions. Ours was called the Angel Queen, and had two bedrooms, each with its own attached bathroom. There was a small deck area out front with a dining table and four chairs plus an area for lounging. The boat also came with three staff just for the four of us—a captain (driver), a supervisor and a cook.

The cook introduced himself and served us four tall, cold glasses of lemonade at the table before we even left the dock. The kids ran all over the boat, checking out the bedrooms and bathrooms to decide who wanted to sleep where, and eventually they settled down at the front of the boat, where they dumped out their entire bag of Lego and got busy.

Setting off from Alleppey, we cruised along Vembanad Lake—Kerala’s largest—before making our way down some of the smaller channels. This trip really was everything it had promised to be. The staff were friendly and fabulous, the scenery stunning, the food delicious—the whole experience was unforgettable.

Shortly before dinner, we pulled up to the shore so we could hop off and go for a short walk through a backwater village as the sun went down. We meandered down a path alongside the canal for maybe half an hour, taking in the beauty of the water and greenery on our left and the small houses with their yards and lines of laundry on our right. At least half a dozen children ran out asking us for pens (“One pen! One pen only! You have pens?”), but since I hadn’t anticipated this, I had nothing to offer. They didn’t seem too disappointed, though. We expected people living in the area to be more indifferent to tourists, if not openly hostile, because the houseboats are a big business in Kerala and we were certainly not the first people to get off one of them and walk around taking a nosy look at people’s lives. But instead, it was the opposite—people were friendly and curious, and when they weren’t asking for pens, they were asking where we were from and what we thought of Kerala.

Just before mooring here, we had also stopped at a small group of rustic stalls to buy fresh tiger prawns for the cook to add to our dinner. We had also arranged for a couple of cold Kingfisher beers to be put in the cooler for us before we left Alleppey. So when the sun had nearly gone down and we were starting to think about those Kingfishers, we jumped back in the boat and cruised a little further until the captain found a good anchoring spot for the night. Dinner was excellent: basmati rice, spicy shredded beets, marinated barbecued tiger prawns, a curry of prawns, a different seafood curry, a salad of shredded cabbage, coconut, mustard seed and peppercorns. For dessert, fresh pineapple sprinkled with sugar and cayenne pepper.

The only distressing moment in the entire trip came in the middle of the night. It was desperately hot outside (as it has been throughout Kerala), and we had chosen to use fans rather than the optional air-conditioning. So when I went to bed, I left our window open to the night air and turned the fan on. This was the noisiest fan I’ve ever been subjected to anywhere, ever, and only seemed to operate on one speed and volume no matter what I did with the buttons. (I found out in the morning, from the cook, that there was no problem with the fan itself—apparently all that noise is caused by the fact that the fan is powered by a generator. I didn’t fully understand the explanation, but it has something to do with a DC current and mismatched frequencies.) In any case, the noise and heat prevented me from getting much sleep, which is probably why I was already awake around 3 a.m. when I heard an alarming scratching and thumping noise coming from inside our attached bathroom.

I had read rumours of rats living on board these houseboats, and although I had no reason to think there were any on ours, it was hard to imagine what other kind of creature might be flinging itself against my bathroom door in the dead of night. Since we were out in the middle of the water, I reasoned, the only animal that could possibly be on the boat would be one that was already living on it.

I had closed and locked the bathroom door before going to bed, so there was no chance that whatever was in there could actually get into my room, unless, of course, it was big enough to break the door down—not likely. Still, it was a hair-raising sound and I sat up in bed, wide awake and then some, waiting for it to subside. And it did—but when the noise finally left my bathroom, it migrated to what sounded like the ceiling. More scrabbling, thumping and scratching from what sounded like right over my head. I still wasn’t really worried about this—there were no holes in the ceiling, after all—until it dawned on me that the window of my tiny cabin was wide open, and anything that could cling to the side of a boat could amble right through it, should it desire to. So I leapt out of bed and started flinging the windows shut, then locked every one of them. Ciaran slept right through all of this commotion, incidentally. When the room had been shut up tight, I crawled back underneath the mosquito net to sleep, but now it was so hot in there that sleep was virtually impossible. The adrenalin rush created by the rat lock-out frenzy didn’t help either, of course.

So I was a little tired the next day. If I were going to do the trip again, I would get the A/C.

I suppose there was one other disturbing development. In the morning, Mark asked the cook, half-jokingly, whether or not people often get lost overboard—expecting that the answer would be no. But the cook told us that a staff member on another houseboat had just died the night before after falling off the boat. Yikes.

Other than the invisible rat and the bad news about the lost crew member, the whole experience was fabulous. Below are some photos from the trip.


Rice field

Kids playing on the shore

The houseboat again

Chloe takes the helm

Transporting bricks

Sunset reflection

A rare, fleeting moment of cautious affection between siblings

Posted by The Rymans 09:41 Archived in India Tagged family_travel Comments (0)

Partying with the elephants

Leaving Varkala in style

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It’s been a month, and India continues to confound and defy our expectations: so far, it’s been nothing but smooth sailing and fabulous experiences. I’m way behind on blog entries, so even though we’ve come a long way from Varkala by now, I’ll start there.

Shortly before we left Varkala, the Mummy Bamboo extended family invited us to attend the final evening of the Varkala Ulsavam Elephant Festival with them. The festival is an annual event that runs for about a week, maybe longer, before it culminates in a colourful, noisy, festive procession through the town towards the main temple.

Leaving from Mummy Bamboo House, we set off down the narrow dirt path with some of the family—a few of Rani’s sisters-in-law and their kids—all of whom were dressed in what looked to be their finest saris, salwar kameez and jewellery. One of the women offered Chloe and me some vermilion powder with which to decorate our foreheads for the occasion, and we each got a generous daub of it. It was about a 15-minute walk to the temple, all down small dirt paths winding through the village to the temple. When we arrived, the first thing I noticed was the party atmosphere—plenty of loud music and decorations of all kinds in bold colors, a feast for the eyes, as well as a great variety of street foods and chai—huge, colourful piles of nuts and fried snacks. An ice cream man actually showed up. Rather than a truck, he drove a motorcycle, with the ice cream, the cones and other supplies all mounted on a rear cart (check out the photo below).

There were a few other tourists, but most attendees were festively dressed Indian families. The clanging bell from the ice cream motorcycle and the music blaring from the massive speakers all around us were nearly deafening, and poor Ciaran spent the first 20 minutes or so leaning into me with his hands pressed against his ears, hoping desperately that he wouldn’t need them to fend off the usual well-intentioned cheek pinchers who seem to be so drawn to him.

After a while, the Mummy Bamboo family indicated that we should follow them back out into the street. They were heading out to watch the procession make its way through the streets to the temple. Out on the roads, locals were lined up by the hundreds and crowding together on rooftops everywhere for the best possible view. It was a crush of people. Groups of drumming, bare-chested men, wearing dhotis and beating drums, led the way, working themselves and the crowd into a frenzied, hypnotic state with the rhythm and volume of the drumming. They were joined by other madly dancing, bare-chested festival-goers who seemed swept up by the intensity of it all.

The drummers were followed by Kathakali dancers in their wild costumes and make-up, as well as other dancers carrying giant, tree-shaped bundles of tinsel on their heads, twirling and swirling through the streets. (Kathakali is a uniquely Keralan classical form of dance-drama that presents stories derived from the Ramayana, the Mahabharata and other Hindu epics, myths and legends.) Little girls in their finest saris, wearing jasmine flowers in their hair, carried plates with flowers, candles and coconuts as offerings.

All of this was followed by the grand finale, a procession of eight massive male elephants in leg chains, fully decorated for the occasion, with gleaming, ornate faceplates covering their heads and trunks. Most were ridden bareback by men twirling red parasols.

Twisting and dodging through the packed crowd in order to stay together, we followed the procession back to the temple, where the entire array paraded across the temple grounds several more times before dispersing. The final procession of the elephants marked the grand finale, which was followed by about 20 minutes of fireworks. We were told the Kathakali dancing and party would continue until dawn, but our hot, sweaty, hungry little gang had had enough by then, especially Ciaran, so we made our way back towards the beach for a late dinner. I suspect there was maybe a little too much India in this festival for the kids’ taste (as in, too much noise and too many people, the whirl of color, sound, smells and activity just all too much), but it was really a fantastic opportunity to participate in a temple festival.

Here are just a few photos from the festival, plus a few in there of Mummy Bamboo House itself, and the beach.

The ice cream man serving up scoops:

Ciaran and Mark on the beach at Varkala

Mummy Bamboo House

Playing with the boys

The milkman arrives at Mummy Bamboo--he's filling up those cups, although it's hard to see in the photo

Little girl carrying her plate of offerings at the temple festival

Elephant dressed for the occasion

Ciaran & some boys in front of Mummy Bamboo

Boarding on the beach at Kovalam

Chloe, ready for the festival

Waiting for the train from Varkala to Alleppey

Posted by The Rymans 09:29 Archived in India Tagged family_travel Comments (1)

Leftie foote, maximum high

Lazy days in Varkala

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Well, we left Kovalam, but we didn’t get very far—just about two hours up the coast to Kovalam’s fraternal twin, Varkala.

Once again we’re practically tripping over yogis and ayurvedic doctors (some with actual credentials, others not so much) and there’s a wider, longer beach, this time backed by dramatic red cliffs. Unlike Kovalam, where restaurants, shops and hotels lined the beach, Varkala’s beach is comparatively unsullied. The restaurants, shops and hotels line the cliffs above the beach instead, in a long, curving march from south to north. It’s the same profusion of tourist-oriented restaurants, flower-power clothing, embroidered textiles and Buddha figures.

The tourists are slightly different—unlike Kovalam, this is not a package or charter-flight destination, and you have to put a little more work into getting here, so more people are independent travellers. There are a surprising number of families among them, including some with very small children. But we’re definitely outnumbered by the dreadlocked Nirvana-seeking crowd. It’s not uncommon to be walking home from dinner along the crowded, convivial cliff-side boardwalk and have to walk around a traveller sitting cross-legged smack in the middle of the sidewalk, eyes closed, deep in meditation. There are yoga classes on the beach at sunset (and long-bearded yogis in psychedelic flowing robes promoting them), and people practicing their poses or sun salutations in the sand, or meditating on the nearby rocks, every time we visit.

The beach is, again, much cleaner than I would have expected from India, and the surf is perfect for body boarding. Handily, body boards are available for rent, so we’ve developed a routine that revolves around heading to the beach late every afternoon for some wave jumping and body boarding. The kids have learned how to catch some good rides and are having a blast.

It took me a few days, but eventually I noticed an odd thing about Varkala’s beach—there seems to be some informal segregation going on. One half of the beach is dominated by bikini-clad foreigners, while the other is almost exclusively Indian, where you see women fully clad in saris or salwar kameez splashing around in the shallows. The foreigner side does still suffer from the usual gaggles of Indian men wearing business clothes who stroll the beach slowly just to gawk openly at all the flesh on display. And as for the Indian side, I tried jogging through it the other day, barefoot and wearing a one-piece bathing suit and sarong, and was accosted by an outraged-looking Indian man who stepped in front of me and started barking something about the absurdity of me running while clad only in a bathing suit—through his section of the beach, he probably should have added for clarity, since there certainly are foreigners who run through the tourist stretch wearing much less than that.

We’re staying at a small, family-run hotel called Mummy Bamboo House. The online reviews I read about this place all raved about a woman named Rani and her amazing cooking. We assumed she was the owner, but it turns out the eight-room guesthouse is owned by her husband and his mother. Rani does most of the chatting, managing and cooking, and is more or less the face of the hotel. She has two children, a daughter aged 13 and a son who seems to be eight or nine. Rani is a warm, effusive woman without whom this guesthouse would be lacking its key attraction, since the rooms are nothing special. Mummy, on the other hand, is a force to be reckoned with. Mummy spends her days stalking the premises, sari-clad but barefoot, steel-gray hair tied up in a tight bun, eyebrows drawn low over her eyes, looking simultaneously purposeful, suspicious and displeased. She wears a permanent scowl and has the sort of general bearing that would make you not want to cross her.

We’ve taken two neighbouring rooms on the second floor, and from the small balconies that overlook the front yard, we’re free to watch the entire family’s comings and goings. Mummy, Rani and her husband, Sudhanan, along with their two children and a large assortment of extended family members, live in a small, one-storey, thatch-roofed hut next to the hotel, without running water or apparent electricity. It’s fascinating to watch the family go about its daily business, whether heading off to drive rickshaws or taxis each morning, hanging out laundry, heading off to school in uniforms or even just wandering around brushing their teeth, spitting into plants and bushes. It’s as though they built the hotel smack in the middle of what must have recently been their backyard, and now they conduct their personal and family business and chores under the watch of any and all interested guests. I might guess that this could be the source of some of Mummy’s unidentified angst, except that she seems to take considerable pleasure in snatching and counting up the money whenever someone checks out.

Miraculously, out of the tiny, dark and waterless little kitchen come some pretty incredible meals. Breakfast and lunch are available here, and we’ve tried both. Breakfast consists of chai (tea)—the best we’ve ever tasted—and what Rani calls banana pancakes – they’re actually more like thick chapattis folded in half over sliced banana and grated coconut with lots of syrup. Those things stick with you all day. Lunch is a banana-leaf thali, basically rice with an assortment of sauces and side dishes. The plate is a fresh banana leaf, and you eat with your hands. We were prepared to love it, based on what we’d read about Rani’s cooking (and because we generally like thalis), but she must have watered down the spice content for the kids. I found it all a bit too heavily reliant on coconut and not particularly spicy. It was still a novel experience to be eating banana leaf thalis with our hands on a rickety table in a parking lot with Rani fussing over us, though.

Ciaran, for his part, remains unamused about Rani’s determination to see him eat heartily. He isn’t a fan of her pancakes or her thalis, and although he’s old enough to know he shouldn’t do something rotten like say, “Yuck!” out loud, he frowns and picks at his food and eats lightly and reluctantly. The last time we had lunch here, Rani actually tried to feed him personally, so concerned was she that he wasn’t eating enough. He was still chewing a previous mouthful when she tried to shove another forkful of rice and sauce into his mouth, doting-Indian-mama style, smiling broadly all the while. He gently pushed her hand away and made a very subtle displeased face. Ciaran is really tired of being pinched, tousled, grabbed, kissed and otherwise manhandled by people. He’s been pretty patient up to now, but it’s starting to wear a little thin.

He does love Rani’s chai, though, and will drink three or more cups if we don’t stop him. For that matter, Ciaran has turned out to be the most adventurous eater among us, and we are constantly having to talk him down from trying to order what we deem to be the riskiest items on the menu. Basically, if it’s likely to have meat, fish, fresh fruits and veggies or mayonnaise in it—or best of all, all of the above—he’s probably going to want to order it. Then he’s miffed when we tell him we’d rather he didn’t. We’re most comfortable sticking to a vegetarian diet here in India, but the kids can only eat so much dhal and spinach. The upside is that we’ll be bringing home two kids who will eat just about anything Canada can dish out. Whereas at home, both would often complain when I made than eat sauce on their pasta—they preferred it entirely plain, with butter—now they’re just thrilled if they can order the spinach and mushroom lasagne (with béchamel, no less) instead of dhal and rice.

In an effort to get our curry-and-chapati-stuffed bodies moving, Mark and I are taking advantage of the natural and local resources. Mark has taken to running along the beach most mornings, and I’ve signed up for a few yoga classes here and there. Today we bought a yoga mat, so I guess all we need next are the dreadlocks (don’t worry).

The first yoga class I took was quite an experience. It was conducted by a yogi on the rooftop of a nearby guesthouse. The yogi, a potbellied, moustached little man, was unexpectedly bossy right from the start. Noticing the water bottle and sarong I’d brought to the class, he introduced himself by ordering me to place them both off to one side, and he was quite precise about where he wanted them. There was only one other student in the class, a woman who was evidently abundantly experienced. When the yogi asked if I’d done yoga before, I said yes. He seemed to take this as a sign that I would need no pointers or demonstrations whatsoever. He introduced each pose briskly by its Sanskrit name as a sort of command, without offering the English translation, and since he wasn’t doing the poses along with us, I had to look at the woman next to me for clues as to what I should be doing with my limbs. But it was hard not to develop a conciliatory fondness for the guy when he started telling us what to do with our feet. “Leftie foote up now, maximum high,” he would say, and then, “rightie foote next, also maximum high.”

Despite his peremptory approach, it was still a thoroughly enjoyable experience. I could hear the surf crashing and see palm trees swaying above me in a blue sky. It was really pretty sweet.

As for the kids’ recreation, they’re exercising their usual creativity. Ciaran has been collecting empty water bottles, and he uses them as bowling pins; the ball is a baby coconut he found on the ground. Sometimes he varies the game by hitting the coconut with a hockey ministick instead of rolling it by hand. The same tools can be used for a game of baseball, with palm trees representing the bases. Rani’s kids and their cousins were home these past two days because it was the weekend, so we brought out the Lego and all of the kids spent hours building with it.

Other than that, both Chloe and Ciaran are reading up a storm. It’s gotten to the point where they can barely be bothered to look up from their books long enough to read the menu and order food, which is actually a bit irritating. Chloe, of course, was like this before we left. In Ciaran’s case, we feel we’ve driven him to it by depriving him of friends, toys and all the regular diversions of his Canadian home and neighbourhood. We counter any guilt we may feel about this by reminding ourselves that he’ll be seeing all his friends again soon enough, and now he’ll always have reading (not to mention Asia).

So we’re really not sure why we should leave Varkala. The big family joke is that we should just stay here until February 24, then fly to Mumbai, visit for one day, and head home. Of course, we won’t really do that. There are at least three or four more destinations in Kerala that are on the agenda, and Goa after that, and possibly one or two other places in between. But it’s going to be hard to tear ourselves away from here.

Posted by The Rymans 20:51 Archived in India Tagged family_travel Comments (4)

Will the real India please stand up?

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Arriving in Trivandrum and finding our way to the Kovalam guesthouse we'd booked was a piece of cake. No touts were standing in the road "to divert us" after all, as we'd been warned; there was just the one requisite wannabe-tout/guide who insisted on walking in front of us all the way through the labyrinth of paths that led from the main road to our guest house. Ostensibly, he was helping us find our way here. Of course, this was not a free service. He was a little bit drunk, and we cheerfully gave him about 30 rupees (75 cents) when we reached our destination. He made sure we knew that his services had been worth far more than that. We agreed to disagree.

We've been here a week now. Our original plan was to stay four nights, but it stretched into five, then six, and so on. We seem to be stuck here. It's hard to get motivated to move on when we're enjoying the place so much. But the thought keeps nagging at me: This is not difficult enough. This is not the India I remember!

You can't throw a stone here without hitting a pleasant yoga centre or ayurvedic clinic. The hawkers are gentle and give up easily, so that their sales pitches seem more helpful than irritating. There are boxes for garbage along the seafront, and people are actually using them. The water is clear and clean. There are no roads, only slim paths through coconut groves, so there is no motorized traffic whatsoever and no air or noise pollution. There are Indian men actually swimming and playing on the beach in bathing suits instead of arriving the way I remember them best from Diu twelve years ago -- then, they were fully clad in business attire, right down to their black socks and leather loafers, wandering the beaches in groups with the sole and obvious purpose of unabashedly ogling bikini-clad foreigners. Today, three young Keralan guys joined Chloe, Mark and Ciaran in an informal soccer match on the sand, then handed out fruit and cookies to share.

Every so often, Mark raises an eyebrow at me and asks, in mock suspicion, whether I've actually brought him to India or have instead orchestrated a massive hoax and taken us all somewhere else instead. In a sense, I suppose I have brought us all somewhere else. Not only are we in the south instead of the north, but in 12 years, a lot has changed. Coincidentally, I've had to do some reading about India's economic development for a banking client this week, and have discovered that while there were just 3 shopping malls in India as recently as 2001, today there are more than 350. The Indian middle class is reportedly 330 million strong. (In a country with a population of 1.2 billion, that still leaves an enormous number of poor people, but still.) These are just a couple of the many interesting figures I came across, and maybe they explain some of our experiences here so far. Or, more likely, maybe it's just that Kovalam, which is accustomed to receiving charter flights from the UK, has adapted itself to suit western tastes. Maybe, as a resort area, Kovalam is a slightly artificial enclave.

In any case, the food here is excellent. Although we eat mainly Indian food for lunches and dinners, we've become loyal devotees of a nearby place called the German Bakery for breakfasts. The baked goods are actually nothing to write home about, but this place has the best coffee I've ever tasted anywhere in my entire life. It also has an amusing menu. There are half a dozen "set menu" breakfasts, such as the American (mostly eggs and bacon--yes, bacon, what's with that??) or the British (throw in some beans). Well, I noticed this morning that the French breakfast was something a little different. The French breakfast consists of a croissant, cafe au lait, and a cigarette. I have to wonder how that cigarette is served. On a plate?

Of course, some things really don't change, and I wasn't surprised to pick up the morning paper (another thing I love about India: a free press and daily newspapers, many of them in English) and read that the state of Kerala is rolling out plans to reduce the number of traffic accidents and fatalities. Currently, there are some 3,500 fatalities and 15,000 "grievous accidents" every year on the main state highways. That's 10 deaths every day, just in this one small state. That's why we plan to travel by train as much as possible.

Our next destination is Varkala, another beach town about an hour north of here that sounds even more relaxed than this place. I'm still skeptical. I'm not sure how that's possible. I guess we'll see.

By the way, for anyone sending us email and wondering about a reply: it would seem that the days of free in-room wifi have ground to a halt with our arrival in India. There are internet cafes around, and we'll use them, but I think our days of checking email almost daily are over for a while.

Posted by The Rymans 08:37 Archived in India Tagged family_travel Comments (0)

We love our India....We love our India...

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View Get Out The Map on The Rymans's travel map.

Twelve years ago when we had reached the end of our four-month stint in the sub-continent, we couldn’t wait to leave. At the time, a popular song (which had blasted from the speakers of every bus we took over the four months we spent) featured the lines, “I love my India! I love my India!” and it echoed in our heads as we set forth towards the airport on our way to Thailand – only we were singing, gleefully, “We’re leaving India! We’re leaving India!” It had been a love-hate affair. In a year of travelling through a dozen countries, a third of them in Africa, no place had been as trying, difficult, exasperating or memorable as India.

And then a strange thing happened. Over the next half dozen years, we started to miss the place. It turned out that although later on in that year of travel we visited places that should have been equally fascinating—including three countries in southeast Asia and four in Africa—most of the stories we found ourselves recalling and recounting were about things that had happened to us in India. We had seen only the north of the country during that trip, and as the years went by I knew that some day, we were going to have to do it to ourselves again: we were going to have to go back to India and see the south.

But this time, with kids in tow and some experience behind us, we approached the arrival differently.

Twelve years ago, we flew into Delhi, got a taxi to drop us at the railway station near Old Delhi’s Paharganj district, where most of the cheap backpacker hotels were, and went into the bazaar on foot from there. We were fresh from Canada, pasty white, with clean, new backpacks, carrying our Lonely Planet guidebook. We drew touts like ants to a puddle of honey, and once they were stuck to us, they were equally difficult to remove. We were assaulted by a storm of sights, sounds and smells, and found ourselves accosted by what seemed like dozens of beggars--some missing digits or limbs, sometimes propelling themselves on carts, some of them scruffy, barefoot children with their hands outstretched. We were unprepared for the open manholes, the mazes of narrow, busy, unmarked streets, the sweltering heat, the choking pollution, the combined smells of sewage, sweat, cooking and incense, the noise and chaos and crushing press of humanity.

Although our arrival in Delhi still makes for a good story all these years later, we didn’t feel inclined to repeat it or subject the kids to it. Instead, this time we pre-booked a four-star airport hotel located about a 15-minute drive from the Chennai airport, and had the hotel send a driver to pick us up. So when we’d cleared immigration and customs and wandered outside near midnight into the thicket of people waiting and waving, there was a friendly man in a white uniform holding up a bright white and yellow sign that said: “LEMON TREE HOTEL, Mr. Patti Ryan.”

I wished I’d taken a photo of that, but as soon as I thought of opening my bag to grab the camera, the man had disappeared into the crowd to go get the car, and the opportunity was lost. Mr. Patti Ryan, because in India, the assumption is that a man would have been making all the arrangements by email. That would have irritated me a dozen years ago, but now I just find it humorous.

The ride to the hotel was completely uneventful, and the hotel itself may just be the second-nicest of our entire trip so far. There is a TV that receives 257 channels, so the kids woke up and immediately turned on Cartoon Network. There’s a swimming pool. It would take me a week to work my way through all the free toiletries in the bathroom—there’s even a loofah. From our ninth-storey room, we can see much of the city laid out before us.

We’re not going to explore it, though. We decided some time ago that we were probably trying to cover too much ground by travelling from Chennai down to the southernmost tip of the country at Trivandrum and then all the way back up the west coast to Mumbai in just seven weeks, so we booked a flight from Chennai to Trivandrum. We’ll be on it this afternoon—so actually, we’ve managed to put off our full immersion into India by about 24 hours. The hotel we chose near Trivandrum, at Kovalam beach, is closer to $10 a night, has no air-conditioning, and doesn’t offer an airport pickup. We’ll grab a prepaid taxi from the airport, but our directions from the hotel tell us to get out at a particular temple and walk from there, since there is no proper road, and to “be cautious of the brokers who stand in the road to divert you.” In other words, dodge the touts.

But hey, we’re old hands at that now. After all, we’ve just spent a month in Vietnam. India: Bring it on!

Posted by The Rymans 20:40 Archived in India Tagged family_travel Comments (2)

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