Friday, February 27, 2009

Rubber Plantation, And Now, Land of the Gods

After the kayak trip through the Kerala backwaters, I headed up into the hills with Rochi's parents to see what a rubber plantation is like. Though the word may bring images of vast land used for agriculture, the plantation is really just a few acres. The family lives near Pala, a small town near Kottayam, in a nice house with a garden. James, Rochi's father took me on a tour through the garden. He pointed out the pepper plant, a creeping vine. Its berries tasted nearly identical to the dried version we grind into our food at home, though with a fresher bite. They also had nutmeg plants, and vanilla, though not much, as the price has dropped catastrophically to a point where it's not even worth growing. I saw large, strange looking Jackfruit, which I later had the opportunity to try for the first time - It's quite good.

A short jeep drive away was the rubber plantation itself. Currently, they are "slaughtering," or clearing out a batch of old trees that are too old to produce latex, and are about to start tapping a young batch. A rubber tree takes eight years to be grown enough to be tapped, and then is viable for about 40 years. James had his worker press out a sheet of latex so I could see the process.

For lunch we ate a chicken curry from a chicken that I was about 10 seconds too late in asking to see being slaughtered. It's inspiring to eat food so close to its source, having eaten food shippped from far away to supermarkets for so long.

After two days of travel, one nearly sleepless night by bus to Bangalore, a decent night's sleep by train to Hospet, a short local bus brought me to Hampi, the epic UNESCO World Heritage Site. It was on this journey that I began to understand the backpacker scene here a bit. My upper bunk just happened to be across the metal screen from Frank, a Czech currently working in London, but here in India for a few months. Frank and I banded together to find our way to Hampi from the Hospet train station. In the process, we met four other travelers, and all ended up eating breakfast together in the Hampi Bazaar. We parted ways as I made my way to the guest house Madhu recommended me, but I've been seeing them around the village some.

The Goan Corner is a truly cool place. Run by Sharmila, a loud and friendly Indian lady, it's a great meeting point for travelers and climbers. The shady patio hosts a chilled out scene of travelers from all over the world, mostly Europe it seems, enjoying food, drinks, chess, card games and conversation. The guest house provides crash pads and shoes, and daily around sunrise and sunset, the climbers make the short walk through the paddy fields to the boulders strewn about the landscape.

Hampi is truly an unbelievable place. It simply cannot be explained by words so I'll stop soon. It seems as though some god took handfuls of 10 ton boulders and tossed them over a 30 kilometer area. Scattered through these rocks are 300 temples. A sunset view from the top of a boulder you just climbed might have the sillhouette of a monkey on the reddish orange granite, with the lights of a temple shining just beyond the rice paddies. I don't have pictures yet, but neither they nor my words will do this place justice. I'm staying here for at least a week, as it will be hard to leave the chill, quietly social vibe and excellent climbing.

Me, Jeep and rubber trees.

Tapped rubber tree.

Plantation scene.

Pressing a latex sheet.

James explains the machine.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Kerala in Photos

Let me tell you a bit about Kerala. It is a democratically elected communist state, one of two in India. According to Sean, however, their version has "none of the fundamental principals of communism." The most visible aspect of the communist government is the propaganda everywhere.

Almost every time we passed under a bridge, a jeep would be driving over with speakers blaring slogans, music and posters for the CPI(M) - Communist Party of India (Marxist). To add to the cacophony, each temple seemed to compete for who could broadcast their prayers louder. Oftentimes they also set off fireworks. Both sounds traveled forever along the flat water.

The small wooden canoes piloted with poles and the medium sized fishing boats and houseboats could hardly compete with the temples for the attention they commanded, though their site was particularly amazing during the foggy dawn. We once passed canoes full of schoolchildren crossing from school to the opposite side of the canal where their village stood. They waved excitedly, as did we.

As we traveled by taxi back to Allepey from our pullout near Kollam, we passed a huge CPI rally, filling the street and stopping traffic. It was a sea of red, with the communist hammer and sickle peppering the red flags waved by nearly everyone. Drummers played and traditional dance was performed as the parade moved down the narrow highway. After traveling through some back streets to pass the parade, I remarked on how many people were in attendance. It's no surprise, I was told, as many are paid to attend the rallies. Oh what a place this is!

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Paddling Kerala

Two Catholics, a Jew and a Hindu are paddling down a canal in Southern India... It sounds like the setup for a terrible joke, but that was us over the last few days. Madhu, Sean and I headed down from Bangalore to Kerala to meet Rochi, Sean's wife at her grandmother's place in Allepey. After an all night bus ride, we reached Allepey in the central part of Kerala. We ate breakfast in the beautiful house before packing up to get on the river.

We paddled on two inflatable kayaks. One was quite sturdy and up to the challenge, while the other more resembled a pool raft. We were quite a sight to the locals who stared as we paddled past and poked our inflatable boats while we stopped on the banks for chai. Little children waved and yelled "Saipei," (White foreigner, a local version of Sahib) at me as we paddled past. Tourists on houseboats stared out from the shady seats as they breezed past us and sometimes waved and smiled with amusement.

Kerala is hot and muggy, very tropical. We are heading into the summer here, so it's probably around 100F during the day. Though I was wearing a hat, the sun was strong enough to burn my sunscreened face through the reflection on the water! So I took to wearing my bandana covering my face like a bandit, and my shirt collar popped to cover my neck.

We stopped two or three times a day in small villages for chai, though very hot, the tea was invigorating and helped us paddle the 20-30 km we had to travel daily to reach Kollam on the third day. The going was tough in the heat, and the channels were sometimes so choked with Hyacinth plants that we had to wait for boats to clear a path through them before we could paddle on.

The sides of the channels were nearly always lined with small houses, whose outhouses extended out over the water. I could not stop thinking about how the people were pooping into the same water they bathed, washed their clothes, and got their food from. Madhu insisted we would treat the nature better in the US, though I couldn't get the visions of high rise hotels and jet skis out of my head.

Beyond the huts extended paddy fields, coconut plantations, or sometimes the ocean. We stepped out one day to see the sunset over the Arabian Sea. Once, we took a midday break and watched men climbing coconut trees to harvest the coconuts. They chopped them open for us to drink the water. Coconut water is such a refreshing drink on a hot day!

Rochi's family was gathered at her grandmother's place when we returned, and we spent the night there and ate excellent home cooked food. Her parents invited me to spend the night with them at their home further inland, so we dropped Rochi, Sean and Madhu off at the bus stop and continued so that I can see their rubber plantation. Later today I'll take a bus back to Bangalore, arrive tomorrow morning, and leave Madhu tomorrow evening to head to Hampi, the area famous for it's bouldering and over 300 temple ruins.

I left the camera cable in bangalore. Doh! So I have a whole bunch of pictures to catch up on which I'll post soon, probably with more description of our kayak journey. I should also be able to talk a bit about the rubber plantation.

Love you all!

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Bangalore Days

After an interesting seven hour train ride in which we passed through tiny villages, towns and farmland I am now in Bangalore. Indian trains are quite a trip. The madness begins as soon as the journey, with those who do not have unreserved seats jousting for the few unfilled reserved ones. Attendants walk up and down the aisles shouting "Dosai! Garam Chai, Garam Chai! Dosai! Coffee!," as do people selling jewelry, childrens toys, books, maps and pretty much anything you could want. Outside, shephards herd their goats and little children wave. The windows are barred, but have no glass, so a refreshing breeze blows in.

One of the assortment of folks who sat next to me in the vacant reserved seat was Avinash, a 26 year old man travelling back to Bangalore with his family after visiting an important temple between there and Chennai. Though silent at first, I engaged him and he became quite friendly. We exchanged our stories and he eventually introduced me to his father. I did not get his name 'til quite far into the conversation, and was taken by surprise, as Avinash was the name of a quite powerful character in A Fine Balance, the incredible novel I just finished about the tangled lives of some urban Indians.

Experiencing India with the guidance of a local indian is absolutely superb. I met Madhu on the platform at the station and he took me back to his family's home on his motorcycle! Riding around on a motorcycle is the best way to see India, I've decided, and it's especially enjoyable considering Madhu is a very sane driver and the streets of Bangalore are slightly more tame than those of Delhi.

The day after I arrived in Bangalore, Madhu and his friends put on a bouldering festival just outside of Bangalore. About 40 people showed up to boulder and hang out. I think that's the whole climbing community here. The spot had some good boulders, but I was slowed down considerably by the heat. After bouldering and cleaning up the area a bit, someone set up a slackline and everyone started hanging out, eating bananas and watermelon, throwing frisbees and trying to balance on the slackline. When it was over, we all went to a roadside dhaba (restaurant) and ate some tasty fried stuff and really good chicken kabob.

The climbers are trying to build their community so that they can petition the government to protect the area, as the sprawl of Bangalore is threatening the area like a wildfire. Every day we ride past some spot on Madhu's bike in which he tells me three years or three months ago was all forest or farmland and is now urban sprawl. This city has grown an incredible amount recently and is bursting its land and infrastructure.

Today we drove 40 km out of the city to Ram Nagar, the nearest sport climbing area to Bangalore. It's pretty incredible. The small hill area we were at has about 25 bolted routes, mostly done by Madhu and friends, but could be developed to at least 100. In sight are other areas which could probably have hundreds more. Riding about two minutes off the freeway, we arrived in a yard with goats tied to pegs and chickens walking around. Madhu is friends with the people who own the land, and we stopped to drop our extra stuff and have a chat. We climbed three awesome routes by midday when it got too hot. One was super exposed and we could look out at the banana and coconut plantations, goat herds and thatched roof houses. Only in India. Unreal.

On the ride home, we stopped for coconut water. The guy takes a huge knife to the coconut and chops off the top, giving it to you to drink the copious water. Then you hand it back and he splits it in half and makes a chip from the side so you can scrape the jelly textured flesh from the middle. It costs 10 rupees. While riding, Madhu explained his dream to buy property just below the climbing area. He's been discussing with the landowners to try to get a small plot. This would be so wonderful for him.

One of the best parts of staying with Madhu's family is the food. We've been eating at least two meals a day at the house, enjoying wonderful food cooked by Madhu's mother and sister. Each meal is sure to have Sambar, the South Indian staple of soupy lentil curry. There will also be some chapati, dosa (like an unsweetened pancake) or rice. Often there are vegetables I've never even seen. It's guaranteed to be tasty. You almost always eat with your hands here, did I mention that before? I like eating that way, especially when you can tear a piece of chapati or dosa and scoop up curry.

Madhu is organizing a kayak trip to Kerala for us and two of his friends. Tomorrow we will take a bus down to Allepey with inflatable kayaks we borrowed from friends and paddle the backwaters for a few days.

The computer I'm on has no USB port so I can't post pictures but I have some I will add whenever I can.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Rickshaw Rides and Airplane Flies

I actually started getting around the city some yesterday. After finally finding an ATM at which the security guard did not stop me from entering, I got a good supply of rupees and was able to get out. I found a rickshaw and asked for a ride to the Red Fort - Lal Qila.

Rickshaws are scary. Super scary. Riding in a 3 wheeled scooter type vehicle with absolutely no safety measures seems like a recipe for disaster. I think my life flashed before my eyes my entire first ride. Driving in India is nothing like driving I have seen anywhere else. Yes, they have lanes painted on the streets, but they seem to mean nothing to Indian drivers. Same with traffic lights a lot of the time. Through all the chaos there does seem to be some order. Traffic generally flows well. And after a while, I came to appreciate the aggressiveness of the rickshaw drivers. Like slipping between two cars, inches away on either side just to gain a few feet while stopped at a light. Or heading full tilt into a traffic circle in which no one stops or waits and everyone is headed a different direction.

Indian roads are also a very noisy experience. Every truck has "Horn Please" painted on the back. The car horn is used for everything here. The road provides a symphony of screeching horns, "Meeeeeeep. Bleep bleep. Moooo. Baaa." and after dark, the "Use dipper at night" painted onto many of the trucks inspires a light show of drivers flashing their high beams.

Anyway, back to the Red Fort. It's a huge place, built over a long period of the history of India. There's tons of stuff built by the Mughals, and it was used as a base by the British when they ruled India. Apparently it was a huge symbol to put Indians into the Red Fort around the time of independence.

I was well harassed by a guy who wanted to take me on a bicycle rickshaw tour of the Old City, claiming I would get pickpocketed, not be able to see anything, blah blah blah. After forcefully rejecting him over and over and over as I walked into the Old City, I turned down onto a bazaar. The street was narrow and lined with market stalls as far as the eye could see. At first it was jewelry stores, then textiles, then food. The market ended at a large mosque, then continued onto the other side. Just as I was entering the muslim market that continued down, the afternoon prayers began to be called from the mosque. It felt more like how I'd expect one of the middle eastern countries to be. The bazaar continued for kilometers, it seemed, but I exited to take a rickshaw back to my hotel.

Later, I met Solon at his house, a room with family friends in a very nice Delhi neighborhood. We went to dinner at a pretty high end place, with two of Solon's friends who are here to study joining us. One of the girls had gone to Berkeley High at the same time I did. It was really nice to spend some time with people from home, though I didn't really know any of them, after my shocking entry into India.

Today I flew South to Chennai. I woke up at 4:30 AM to get to the airport for my 7:15 flight. It was delayed 4 hours because the airport was too foggy. Ouch. The airport is a bit out of town and I took the regional train into town for 6 rupees, a pittance compared to the 240 it would have cost in a rickshaw. The train had sweet uncovered doors that provided a nice breeze to ward of the 32 degree celsius heat and a great view of the passing city. On the train I met three local guys who were studying engineering and had a nice chat with them about my travels.

Tomorrow I head to Bangalore, probably by train to go stay with Madhu, my instructor from my NOLS course! It will be awesome to see him again and stay with an Indian family.

(All photos from the Red Fort. Hope they turned out OK, they look terrible on this computer screen.)

Thursday, February 12, 2009

It Begins

I’m here in Delhi now, and it’s just as scary, dirty, crazy and exciting as I expected. I am staying in Paharganj, the “backpacker’s ghetto.”. My room is on the third floor of “Ajay Guest House” which is in a little alley just off the main bazaar. The bazaar is a dirt street - muddy at the moment because it rained the night I got here - packed full of street vendors selling snacks and stores with textiles and the “STD” international calling centers.

Walking down the street I am constantly assaulted by the “Hello sir,” of touts who inevitably want to bring me into their shop or sell me a tour of some part of the country. They ask where I am from, “Aaaah I have friends from (Texas, New York, any US State), Very nice people. How long have you been in India?” “One week,” I lie, trying not to sound like such a newbie to Indian travel, though it probably hardly makes a difference. The conversation continues with them asking where I am traveling, and typically a disapproval of me going South. They would prefer I traveled to Kashmir where they can set me up with a very nice travel package.

I ate dinner last night at a “pure veg” restaurant that I was brought to by one of the touts, though I don’t think he was making money bringing me to the restaurant, it seemed he was more interested in sweet talking me into whatever scam or business he was running. The food was excellent though, a chunky mixed vegetable curry with paneer cheese, a saucy curry, rice, roti (naan) and the yogurty raita; All for 35 rupees (about 75 cents). Of course when the tout tried to bring me into his office I firmly refused and kept walking down the bazaar.

Sleep is quite elusive right now, as night and day are completely switched from home. It is perpetually noisy, though that doesn’t keep me up. Waking up feeling it impossible to sleep at 2 AM is rough, though I think I’ve totally at least 6 hours of sleep both nights I’ve been here.

Tonight I am supposed to meet Solon, a guy who used to work at camp and is now living in Delhi. I don’t know him, but we have many mutual friends from camp. He is interested in doing some trekking, so hopefully I will meet him again in April to go into the Himalayas.

My flight to Chennai leaves tomorrow at 7:30 AM so I’m going to have to take a hectic, predawn Taxi to the airport.

Sunday, February 8, 2009


With just a couple days to go before I head off on the 24 hour journey to India, I am finalizing preparations. I've got the clothes, the money belt, the backpack. A toothbrush, soap and bug repellent. I just need to fill the prescriptions for the bazillion medications the doctors have recommended I bring. I pore over the forums at the Lonely Planet Thorn Tree looking for every last tip and piece of advice to help make the transition smoother. A couple weeks from now I will be a traveler. A real traveler. No longer a tourist, I hope.